Lichfield. A Wednesday night in Lichfield, 2 weeks before Christmas in 1598. Geoffrey Hurleston, a proctor in the Consistory Court of Lichfield, was enjoying a quiet drink with friends at the sign of the Talbott when he was recognised by Grace Spooner of Tamworth. She approached and, after establishing that he was acting as proctor for Ellen Allen alias Freeman in a marriage contract case in the church courts, said that Ellen was ‘a whore, an arrant whore and a common strumpytt and whore and not worthie to be talked of’. Geoffrey tried to get her to stop making such slanderous statements and warned her that there were plenty of witnesses but she apparently replied that ‘she cared not and bad him call to witness whom he would and that that she had sayd she would stand to‘.
Geoffrey took her at her word as his client, Ellen, heard of the slanderous words spoken about her and brought a defamation case against Grace, which she won. But why did Grace feel the need to say such things to Geoffrey in the first place? We know that Geoffrey Hurleston was acting as proctor for Ellen in a church court case. Proctors were officials who were able to act as a counsel for their client, similar to a solicitor.
Ellen Allen alias Freeman was appearing in the courts at the time as a defendant in a case brought by John Turner of Tamworth who claimed that he and Ellen had been contracted to marry, had exchanged vows and gifts, and had consummated the marriage; claims which Ellen refuted. Six witnesses from Tamworth appeared in this case: Elizabeth Lysatt , aged 14; Anne Gosse, aged 24; John Moumford, aged 69; John Dooley, aged 30; Frances Waldron, age 21; and Margaret Turner, aged 20, sister of John. Grace was therefore not actively involved in the case.
John’s accusation that Ellen had broken her betrothal despite consummating the marriage would undoubtedly have brought Ellen’s reputation into question. There were ways for contracts to marry in the future to cease to be binding such as by mutual consent, but consummation would make the marriage legally binding. Famous cases such as those of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard highlight the problems that could arise from pre-contracts. Grace’s outburst gives the impression that the case had attracted public attention and strong opinions in Tamworth. Ellen was ultimately absolved of the charges but we cannot know how her reputation was affected in the long term.
Apart from the issue of pre-contract this case is also highlights the fascinating incidental information that the cause papers can bring to light as well as the differing statements presented by witnesses. For the defamation case there are four witnesses: Alice who is the wife of Geoffrey Hurleston; Christopher Hill alias Johnson and his wife Anne; and Margery Pickard.
It is in Christopher Hill’s house that the defamatory words are spoken. Whilst Christopher and his wife both refer to it as just their house in their respective statements, Margery Pickard provides some additional information. She states that the house is known as ‘the sign of the Talbott‘. We don’t know from the witness statements whether this was an alehouse or a tavern but it gives us a brilliant glimpse of Elizabethan Lichfield. John Shaw’s ‘The Old Pubs of Lichfield’ notes a coaching inn, the ‘Talbot’, which was built in 1760 on the corner of Bird Street and Bore Street (and later became Jones’ Motor Garage) and I wonder if this was related in anyway to our Elizabethan sign of the Talbott?
As to the differing statements, Alice Hurleston’s statement is the most succinct while Margery Pickard’s offers the most information. Margery’s statement also presents the events slightly differently to those of the others as while the Hill’s say that it was Geoffrey who urged Grace not to speak such defamatory words, Margery claims that ‘one standing by [Grace] sayd unto her fye fye saye not soe’.
Thanks to the numerous witness statements against her, Grace was found guilty of slander. As part of her sentence she was ordered to pay costs which amounted to £3 13s 10d (about 73 days wage for a skilled tradesman). I wonder what happened to her after the case?