Bawdy Courts News


Dilapidations – the vicarage of Melbourne

Faculties aren’t the only papers to be found within the Church Court records that can provide us with an insight into buildings owned by the Church. Dilapidation cases can provide some fascinating information about not just the vicarages and rectories but the people who occupied them, such as this case from 1620 concerning the vicarage of Melbourne.

View across Melbourne Pool to the parish church

The libel in the case details the vicarage and its outbuildings: a vicarage house with a hall, four parlours, four chambers and a kitchen; a barn of 3 bays; a stable with a dove house over it; and a cottage with 2 low rooms and 2 chambers. All, or most, of this was encompassed by a stone wall.

‘… The said house consisted of an hall, foure parlors or large rooms foure Chambers & a kitchin. And there were belonging & apperteyninge to the said vicarage house, One barne of three bayes, One Stable with a dovehouse over yt, And one Cottage house havinge two Lowe rooms & two Chambers & all or moste parte of the said buyldinges were compassed with a stone wall…

The libel then goes on to detail why the case is appearing before the church courts: the previous incumbent of Melbourne, Richard Ward, had neglected the vicarage and allowed it to fall into disrepair. Under ecclesiastical law, an incumbent was classed as tenant for life of his benefice and so was responsible for ensuring that the it did not fall into disrepair. When he left the benefice it was his responsibility to make sure that the buildings, lands and other things associated with it were in good order when they were passed on to his successor. If he didn’t, a dilapidation case could be brought against him to compel him to pay for repairs.

‘…were duringe the time that the said Richard Warde was vicar of the vicarage of Melborne aforesaid & thorow his falt & negligence so ruynated, dilapidated, & out of repaire that at the time the said Richard Warde dyd resigne & leave his said vicarage, the said house & premises could not neither yet can be decentlie & sufficiently repayred amended & sett in good repaire, with a lesse summe of money or Charge then xiij li vj s viij d [£13 6s 8d]…

The cost of the repairs are listed in the libel: £13 6s 6d to repair the vicarage house; £26 13s 4d for the barn; £5 to repair the stable and dove house; £13 3s 4d for the cottage; and 50s for the stone wall. Over £60 in total which is about £7,900 in today’s money!

However it is not Richard Ward who is being brought asked to pay for the repairs, but his widow Elizabeth. Richard died in 1617 and hadn’t left a will (died intestate). Elizabeth had been granted administration of his estate and so in the court’s eyes she was responsible for paying the expenses. She disputes the libel’s description of the buildings, claiming that the vicarage house only had 1 parlour and that there was only 1 stone wall next to the street but as there is no sentence with the case papers we don’t know if she had to pay all or any of the repair costs.

B/C/5/1620 Personal response of Elizabeth Ward
‘…that there was a vicarage house consistaine of an hall one parlour & one buttery above the dores; one kitchen & two litle rooms wherin were laid coles & milke was set… the dores, one barne one house with a chamber over it which had dove holes & one cottage house & one stone wall next unto the streete…’

We can however consider whether she would have been able to pay for the repairs thanks to the inventory of Richard’s goods which was drawn up by Elizabeth as part of her administration of his estate (wills and administrations for the Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry can be viewed online through FindMyPast). Richard’s inventory is very detailed and helps us to learn more about his life.

Firstly we learn that has the ‘late vicar of Duffield’. A quick search on the online Clergy of the Church of England Database shows us that he had been the vicar of Duffield and Melbourne at the same time and as he was buried in Duffield we can presume that he resigned from his post in Melbourne to live in Duffield. The inventory lists his numerous household goods as well as his animals and crops, showing that he practised farming. It also lists his ‘yew bow with some arrows’ and ‘halfe the furniture for a souldiar’.

B/C/11 Inventory of Richard Ward 1618

The value of his goods add up to £94, plenty of money to pay for the repairs, but the second page of the inventory lists the debts owed by Richard. These add up to £51 which meant that Elizabeth would not have had enough money left over from the estate to pay the dilapidation fees (it is interesting to note that the first name on the list of creditors is Sir Francis Needham who lived just opposite the church at the former rectory in Melbourne which became Melbourne Hall).

B/C/11 Inventory of Richard Ward 1618

The grant of administration at the bottom of the list of creditors notes that Richard and Elizabeth had two sons, Robert and John, who were minors when Richard died.

Does anyone know anything more about the vicarage at Melbourne? The current vicarage was built in 1843 but do you know if any of the buildings or structures mentioned in this case survive?


Not worth the fight – costs and confession

*Please be aware that we are quoting texts from original sources, some of which contain slang and swearing.  We have not taken this out as we want to be true to the original source.  If you are offended by foul language do not read this post.*

Even though sentences passed by the church courts focused on spiritual correction rather than physical or financial punishment, being found guilty could be an expensive affair. This was because part of the sentence was usually a requirement to pay the costs associated with bringing the case to court. These costs could become very large, especially if the case dragged on or numerous witnesses were called, and could put a huge financial burden on those who were required to pay them (such as in the case of Grace Spooner of Tamworth who was sentenced to pay £3 13s and 10d in 1598, which was about 73 days wage for a skilled tradesman). For those who couldn’t or didn’t pay the court costs the punishment could increase further, with excommunication or even imprisonment used to enforce payment.

Example of Bill of Costs from 1741 Immorality case B/C/5/1741/177

It’s therefore not surprising that some people sought to avoid these costs by either settling the matter before it got to the courts or, as in the case we’re looking at today, quickly confessing to the offence to evade rising charges. In his confession submitted to the court, John Martyn of Cubley makes it very clear why he is not contesting the accusation of defamation brought against him by his neighbour Thomas Jackson:

B/C/5/1618/5 Confession of John Martin

Whereas Thomas Jackson hath called me John Martyn of the parish of Cubley in a cause of slander or diffamation in to this Courte.

For the avoyding of expences, and further troubles, and inconveniences that may hereater arise betwixt us, being neighbours, and for my parte loving frendes, I do confesse being urged, angred and provoked by the sayd Thomas, in the height of my heate, anger & Choller, that I did in Januarie last past in the said parish of Cubley say as followeth or words to like effecte viz thou meaning the said Thomas Jackson didst eyther beget a b*stard or els didst father another mans child.

The confession seems to have done the trick as there are no additional papers corresponding to the case apart from the initial libel and so it appears that the dispute was settled and the case in the courts abandoned.

It is worth noting though that the confession is not exactly heartfelt, as John clearly puts the blame on Thomas for provoking him into making such a statement. The slanderous statement that he confesses to is also a rather sanitised version of what Thomas accused him of saying: ‘thou arte an Whore Master knave for thou hast f**ked an whore and gott a b*stard by her‘! However, Thomas was probably most concerned with clearing himself of the accusation of fathering an illegitimate child (and the repercussions this could have had on him) than fussing over the exact wording.


Cross-dressing, slander and reputation: the Curate of Gnosall

Cases concerning the alleged misbehaviour of clergymen are a frequent occurrence in the Church Court papers, whether it be a curate being brought before the courts to answer for his drunken outbursts or a minister looking to defend his reputation from attack. The case we’re looking at for this post is from the latter category, where the curate of Gnosall is bringing a case against a woman who he claimed had slandered his good name by making comments about his sexual reputation.

The case claims that whilst walking back home from the Newport Fair just before Michaelmas in 1600, Katherine Walter of Haughton fell into conversation with some parishioners from Gnosall and began talking to them about their curate, Richard Felton. She allegedly said ‘she was sorye that women were soe scant in Gnosall that the sayd Sir Richard should take men in womens steede‘ (or words to that effect).

This initial accusation could have had serious implications for Richard as the Buggery Act of 1533 had made sex between men a capital offence which came under the jurisdiction of the civil courts. The reason that this case appears before the ecclesiastical court rather than the civil court is that it transpires that Katherine was actually referring to Richard being the subject of ‘trick’ played against him by Richard Barnett’s maid (who is not named in the case) whom he had propositioned:

B/C/5/1600/7 Deposition of Emma Needham

… why then sayd she that mayd Sir Richard had bargayned with to meete him at A cote to be naught with him And that the mayde disguised A boye that dwelled with her master and putt him into her clothes and sent him to the Cote in her steede and sent two yonge men with the boye to be his ayde…

Many of the witnesses claim that Katherine had told them that the maid had not willingly entered into the bargain with Richard and so had informed her master (or dame) who had helped her to send a boy in her place:

B/C/5/1600/7 Deposition of Edward Cowper

… have ye not heard that Barnnetts mayde could not goe in qwyett for him, but waxing wearye and not knowing how to rid her hands of him told her dame or her master, he doth not well remember whether, And that thereuppon uppon advise of her dame or her master or both the sayd mayde had agreed with the said Mr Felton and appoynted to meete him at A cote or barne…

The witnesses then claim that Katherine said that Richard, thinking it was the maid who was waiting for him in the cote at night, ‘ketched at the boye‘ in the dark who then cried out, which caused all to flee the scene.

Why Katherine would make such a claim about Richard is not known. None of the witnesses refer to any disagreement or argument between the two and all agree that Katherine initiated the conversation about him.

One the people Katherine was talking to was Edward Cowper who was the curate of the nearby parish of Adbaston (and had previously been curate of Katherine’s parish of Haughton). His deposition goes into more detail than the other witnesses as he recalls a conversation that took place immediately after Katherine’s alleged slanderous statement which none of the other witnesses mention (even though he claims they took part in it). Edward says that Emma Needham challenged Katherine’s statement by saying that she took Richard to be ‘an honest man‘, to which Katherine replied ‘I doe not saye this is true for I did not see yt but I have heard soe much’. Emma continued to challenge Katherine by asking why Katherine, who did not live in the parish, had heard so much whilst Emma, who did live there, had heard nothing. Edward then claims that another fellow witness, Margaret Welchman of Gnosall, admits (with a curious bread analogy) that she had already heard the gossip about Richard:

B/C/5/1600/7 Deposition of Edward Cowper

… whereuppon Margarett Welchman an other of his fellowittnesses sayd In faythe yea, yt is in too manye mouthes for that for if a stryke of wheate weare baked in pennye Loaves yt would not stoppe all theire mouthes that have talked of this matter, naye sayd Katherine Walter if A bushell of wheate weare baked in Cakes I thinke it would not stoppe all theire mouthes…

Edward is clearly trying to put across the idea that Katherine had not made up the slanderous gossip about Richard but was merely repeating what was already common knowledge. In her personal answers, Katherine says very little and does not deny the accusations, but instead says that whilst she thinks Richard is ‘reverently thought of’ in regards to how he carries out his duties as a curate she will not comment on his ‘fame, opinion or conversation’ and instead refers him to ‘the report of his neighbours & parishioners and to the voyce of the cuntry’.

B/C/5/1600/7 Personal response of Katherine Walter

By implying that Katherine was only repeating what she had already heard and was not the original source of the gossip was Edward merely trying to support his former parishioner or was he having a dig at his fellow clergyman? Whilst all the witnesses say that Katherine claimed that Richard had ‘ketched’ or put his hands upon the boy whilst thinking he was the maid, Edward’s statement is the only one to say that Richard had also ‘kyssed’ the boy. Or perhaps Edward was just trying to help out Sir Richard by ensuring that everyone who was involved in the gossip was held to account?

Unfortunately for us there is no sentence contained in the case papers so we do not know if Katherine was found guilty of slandering Richard, and even if there had been we would not know if the events that she talked about had really happened. Does anyone know anything more about Richard Felton?


The Bawdy Courts Project During Lockdown – Laura’s Story

Laura is an Archive Assistant and is normally based at Staffordshire Record Office. During lockdown she has been working on projects from home including the Bawdy Courts Project and so we asked her to share her experience of working on the Testamentary Cases Card Index…

One of my current working from home projects is typing up the Testamentary Cases Card Index for the Bawdy Court Project. At present I’m enjoying deciphering the different writing and style of the cards, which were written by a group of volunteers at Lichfield Record Office many years ago.

The index cards relate to bundles of court case papers that might include a libel (accusation), witness depositions, probate accounts and inventories, and sometimes a copy of the will, and are all to do with disputes (usually among families) relating to wills and estates, it’s explained much more eloquently below,

Testamentary (or probate) cases: this jurisdiction represented a considerable proportion of the activity of the courts.  The courts heard cases about disputed probates; case papers can include inventories and, less frequently, wills.  The most common complaint of plaintiffs is against executors for ‘substraction’ or non-payment of a legacy. Executors/administrators also brought cases against a defendant who had failed to hand over goods/money of the deceased so that the estate could be settled. There are many probate accounts submitted to the court by executors or administrator in evidence but often without any other case papers. Probate jurisdiction was transferred to civil courts on 12 January 1858.

The earliest example I’ve come across so far is a case from 1588 and involved a dispute over the will of William Brett, senior, of Gnosall and includes cases that go right up to when Probate jurisdiction was transferred to civil courts on 12 January 1858.

I have also learnt several new terms, for example, a nuncupative will is a will dictated when a person was close to death, a woman in labour may have such a document created. Several of the cards mention an Administratrix or Executrix, the feminine Latin word for an Administrator or Executor. I’ve also been surprised by the number of people that had aliases, they are usually a variation on a theme of the name given, but on occasions they are completely different, leading me to speculate wildly about why someone would go by such different monikers.

There is a case that has left me a touch confused. The index card relates to papers in the case of John Bates, a shoemaker from Smallthorne. It states that the bundle includes “1837 instructions for limited fees of Administration re residue of 500 year term”, my question, what on earth requires a 500 year term? Probate in this case was granted on 25 Jan 1816, which makes me assume this term could potentially run until 2316 if it was unresolved.

The answer…after consulting my (much more) learned colleagues, I have discovered is that the ‘residue of a term of 500 years’ is a common legal term, often referring to the term of a mortgage! I thought my mortgage was more than long term enough at 30 years. Rebecca has very kindly furnished me with a useful link for further reading on the subject;

and also introduced me to these gems;

Assignment of the residue of a term of 500 years and release of the equity of redemption …..

Assignment of the residue of a term of five hundred years in trust to attend the inheritance …..

While it does not sound like the most interesting of projects, I have an affinity with and nostalgia for card indexes and am learning a lot about local practices and what we, at Staffordshire Record Office, hold.

You can search for cases from the Bawdy Courts through our online catalogue:

You can search and view the wills and letters of administration from the Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry through FindMyPast: Discover how to search these records by watching the videos below:


Proving a marriage – Elizabeth Sachaverell and Edward Bowne

In our previous post we started to look at a marriage case from 1552 where Edward Bowne was asking the church courts to prove that he was married to Elizabeth Sachaverell of Darley Abbey, a notion that Elizabeth absolutely refuted. Elizabeth claimed that her relationship with Edward, which she said revolved around sorting out the affairs of her late husband, had been misconstrued and we will now be looking at the statements of the ten witnesses that appeared before the courts to support Edward’s claims.

Unfortunately for Elizabeth the first witness to appear before the court, Anthony Bate, recounts how he witnessed a handfasting ceremony between Edward and her:

B/C/5/1552/1 Deposition of Anthony Bate

… bytwyxt Mydsomer & Lammas iij [3] yeris past fully in her chamber at derleagh (Wher the Abbey was) this despondent first being send for by her to bringinge with hym A prist to mary them came to this Elizbaeth & found ther with he Edward Bowne & henry Crythe & shewed he was comen acordingly to the Request, And she Answered Nay we be not determyned nowe to mary & for consideration I stey hit at this tyme Which is I wold he should not be troubled for any of my busynes but that I may make clere my maters bytwyxt other & me but he & I be handfast together & so shall hit Apere now before you, & said I have given hym all my landes & goodes as his owne & promise hym before you by my feth [faith] and trouthe to take hym to my husband & mary hym and No other & then Answerd Bowne to hyr & by my feth I wyll have you to my wyff to mary you & no other…

He describes how (according to him) Elizabeth had asked him to bring a priest to her house to marry her and Edward. When Anthony and the priest arrived Elizabeth said that they had decided not to marry until she had sorted our her affairs but she did then, before Anthony and other witnesses, join hands with Edward and pledged to marry him.

Anthony’s statement shows that Elizabeth seemed to draw a distinction between marriage and handfasting, viewing handfasting as a promise to marry in the future. Promises to marry in the future – Sponsalia de futuro – could cease to be binding if both parties agreed to it but consummation resulted in the marriage becoming binding. While Anthony is the only witness to claim to have seen this promise actually be made the others make it clear that they think the union was consummated and that Elizabeth and Edward lived together as man and wife.

Credit: The month August and the sign of Virgo, represented by harvest time and the disciples of Christ plucking of ears of corn on the Sabbath. Engraving by A. Collaert after H. Bol, 1585. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The time of year that these events unfolded is an important part of the case. Anthony claimed that the marriage contract was entered into sometime between Midsummer and Lammas (Loaf Mass Day). Lammas marked the annual wheat harvest and was the first harvest festival of the year. Some of the witnesses to the case were working at Elizabeth’s house during the busy harvest time. John Burgon and Thomas Goodynough were employed at Darley during harvest time and Stephen Mader was a ploughman there. They all agree that they took Elizabeth and Edward to be husband and wife, with Edward taking charge of the servants and other affairs whilst also sitting at the table to eat together. This fits in with Elizabeth’s claim that she allowed Edward to do this due to him having letters ad collingenda to administer her late husband’s estate, but the witnesses go further to claim that they saw Edward and Elizabeth together in bed together on numerous occasions:

B/C/5/1552/1 Deposition of Stephen Mader

… And for the tyme of his dwelling ther this Edward & Elizabeth to this deponents thynking were man & wyff for he commanded & dyd all & she nevyr found fawt & they lay to gether in on bed and this deponent when he had mater & werk to doe came in to the chamber and saw thm lyeing to gether diverse tymes & John Newton was in this house the same tyme Edward Bought & sold all necessaryes for the house and sometime he were of hyr jewells as chenes & she of hys as ringes…

The workers’ depositions highlight how physical privacy could be hard to achieve in a time which had different attitudes to the concept of private life. Their depositions also detail how they saw Edward and Elizabeth exchanging and wearing each others jewels which would have been a clear sign to them that they were in a relationship.

If, as the witnesses say, the couple were living as man and wife it leads us to question why the case was brought to court. If they were trying to avoid charges of fornication surely Elizabeth would not deny that she had contracted to marry Edward? We get an insight to the answer to this question from some of the witnesses.

Antony Bate, who witnessed the handfasting ceremony, claimed that a few weeks after the ceremony she confessed to him that she wished she had never been handfast to him:

B/C/5/1552/1 Deposition of Anthony Bate

… About viij wekes after hit chanced that this Elizabeth & this deponent were walkyng to gether in the parke at derlegh wher she weping said to this deponent I had beter then xx li I had nevyr ben handfast to hym, but yet she gave this deponent a Ring of gold to bring this bowne to London, who after the deliverance theroff brought hyr A nother from hym…

Despite her unhappiness with the relationship, Antony claims that she still asked him to a take a ring to Edward while he was in London. Another witness, William Fyrdern, a gentleman from Wilnecote, also attests to this strained relationship. He recounts how on one occasion she spoke of what little thanks she had for marrying Edward, who we assume is a ‘younger brother‘:

B/C/5/1552/1 Deposition of William Fyrdern

… Mr Grey said mastres bowne it is great Joy of you for you mary younger brether honest men & prefere them well & she Answered & said So I have & I have had small thank for my doyng nor scant good wyll of them or ther Freindes…

and yet on another occasion she apparently told William how Edward had given her more preferment in goods than any of her husbands (suggesting that she had been married more than once already):

B/C/5/1552/1 Deposition on William Fyrdern

… the said Elizabeth shewyd this deponent vj or vij horsys & said low what master bowne hath and I have had more preferment in goodes by hym then Any husband that evyr I hadd

The statements show that even from the start Elizabeth had reservations about her relationship with Edward and it did not run smoothly. We can not be sure whether he took advantage of his position in her household, as Elizabeth claimed, or she regretted her decision and wanted to escape a bad match, but we do know that the courts ruled in Edward’s favour and the marriage was ruled valid.

This ruling would have had a profound impact on both their lives as, unless Elizabeth contested the ruling in the Court of Arches, they would be bound together for life. Even if they were able to secure a separation of bed and board they would not be able to marry someone else whilst the other lived. If Elizabeth or Edward abandoned the marital home the other could seek a decree of restitution of conjugal rights from the church courts, compelling the person to return on pain of excommunication.

I wonder how their relationship panned out after the case was concluded? If you can find out anything more about the lives of Edward or Elizabeth we would love to hear from you.

Further reading:

Public, Private, and the Household in Early Seventeenth England‘, by Erica Longfellow

The Power of Gifts – Gift Exchange in Early Modern England‘, by Felicity Heal


A question of marriage – Elizabeth Sachaverell and Edward Bowne

Matrimonial cases were one of the significant types of cases that were brought before the Church Courts. Until the 19th century the ecclesiastical courts had the power to not only grant married couples separations but also to compel couples to live together as husband and wife. One way in which they did this was by judging whether or not a marriage contract had been legally entered into.

The case we are looking at today was brought to the court by Edward Bowne who claimed that he had entered into a marriage contract with Elizabeth Sachaverell of Darley Abbey in Derbyshire and that they had cohabited. He is asking the court to confirm that they were married and that the marriage was valid – something which Elizabeth denies.

The court case takes place in 1552, during the brief reign of Edward VI. Elizabeth is a widow and in her personal response she speaks of how Edward first came to her house when his life was in danger from the law…


‘…. that she nevyr lay or was in bed with hym as his wyff nor never had carnall knolege with hym but he hath come from his chamber & leppid upon the bedd when she was in hit & she in hast & feare leppyd out. & sometyme he hath wallowed hym uppon her bed when she was gon & been ther….

… And to the using at the table she was content bycause that he before at his first comyng was in danger of lyff by the lawes and kneld downe afore hyr requiring her to save his lyff & kneld afore hir fokes also…

… and bycause he hadd a letter ad colligend of hyr late husband Mr Sacheverell goodes in his name & hur son John Poley & Amer Camden in that behalff, she suffered hym to have a rewll in hir house when hir said son was in the north in the Kinges Service’

A letter ad collingenda was a grant of administration to enable someone to deal with property from an estate that ‘might be endangered by delay’, for instance perishable goods or livestock, so that the estate would not suffer from their loss. Elizabeth is saying that she only allowed Edward to ‘have a rule in her house’ in order to see that her late husband’s estate was properly taken care of.

What is clear from this answer to the first article in the case is that Elizabeth’s defence is not that she and Edward did not live together, neither did she deny that he had rule of her house, similar to a husband, but that her actions have been misconstrued. Her defence is that she was helping to protect Edward, after he begged her for aid, and that their relationship was only about ensuring the proper care of her late husband’s estate whilst her son was away fighting, although Edward began to take advantage of this by trying to get in to bed with her.

This theme of her being misunderstood continues in her subsequent answers. The giving and receiving of gifts was often seen as important part of proving courtship and Elizabeth is keen to prove that, although rings and money did pass between their hands, she and Edward did not exchange gifts in a romantic manner…

… saying at his first coming he gave hir a cupp of soylid parcell gylt to the event that she wold be so good to hym to suffer hym in hir howse tyll he might Recover his good name. And as to the other she saith that she hath iij Rynges with stones of his & also iij or iiij Ryalls which she toke out of his cofer when he was in danger of hangyng which she nevyr had…

… nor toke upon the condition in that Article but she wyll kepe them tyll she be payd of hir owne godes which he hath for besides many other thynges he toke xv Ryalls of hirs out of A purse when he paid hir servants wages

She also states that although she allowed Edward to graze his animals on her land this was only a financial transaction…

… he said his brother ought her money & he could not have hyt but he must take catell for hyt & so had as she Remembreth, he had xviij or xix best a mare iij rydinge horses & a felye & desyred hyr to have grasse for his money & she so let hym have grasses at N[u]neyton at horston fyld

A person’s reputation and how their actions were perceived was often a key part of church court cases. Where concrete evidence, such as a marriage register entry or witnesses to the marriage, was unavailable the court officials had to base their judgements on circumstantial evidence and the credibility of witnesses. If Edward could produce enough witnesses who said that they thought Edward and Elizabeth were married and who witnessed them living together in the manner of a husband and wife it would be difficult for Elizabeth to prove otherwise. Next week we’ll be having a look at just what Edward’s witnesses had to say about the matter.

Further reading:

‘Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640’, by Martin Ingram

‘Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the making of marriage in Tudor England’, by Diana O’Hara

Uncategorized, Volunteering

Parish Clerk Wages – the limits of the courts’ jurisdiction

by Karen and Patrick

In 1780 the Consistory Court was asked to order a parishioner to pay outstanding wages due to the Parish Clerk.  The small village of Yoxall was the setting for this case which was taken to the Court by William Merry and which was contested by a yeoman farmer called Henry Chell who employed a solicitor to represent him.


St Peter’s Church sits at the centre of the village closely surrounded by small hamlets including Hadley End – the home of the defendant – Henry Chell.  Yoxall was a farming community, with only about 750 people spread across the hamlets.  Even today it is a small village and the hamlets are still evident.  Hadley End lies at the northwest side of Yoxall with good flat farm land – where Henry Chell, who is recorded in the Court papers as a ‘yeoman’ – in its strict meaning this would indicate that Henry Chell owned the land he farmed although this can’t be assumed.  In social status a yeoman ranked above a husbandman (generally a tenant farmer) but below the landed gentry.

From ‘Map of Staffordshire’ by William Yates, 1775

When William Merry took his case to the Consistory Court he had already been Parish Clerk for 25 years – presumably having been paid without any problem until that date.  He’d been nominated and appointed by the Consistory Court in 1755.  Henry Chell was a younger man, about 41 years old at the time of the court case, married with 3 young children. Parish Clerks had a range of responsibilities – including reading scriptures, leading the congregation in singing and with prayer responses, ringing the church bells and digging graves.  The other work they carried out was to maintain the church registers which recorded baptisms, marriages and burials.  The church laws dictated that Parish Clerks:

…be chosen by the Minister.  No Parish Clerk upon any vacation shall by chosen… but by the Parson or Vicar; or… by the Minister of that place for the time being… And the said Clerk shall be of twenty years of age at the least, and known to the said Parson, Vicar or Minister, to be of honest conversation, and sufficient for his reading, writing, and also for his competent skill in singing…

WSL SV-XII.152 (45/10193)

William Merry was a local man, baptised in St Peter’s Church in 1717, the son of Francis Merry, a master carpenter and joiner, and it is possible that William – who would not of course, have been a full time employee of the church – also followed his father’s trade although we haven’t been able to find any evidence to confirm this.

Yoxall Parish Register SRO D730/1/1a

Henry Chell, was also a local man, born in 1739 and married to Mary Smith of Hamstall Ridware.  He was also buried in St Peter’s Churchyard, in 1814, aged 75.

An article by Mark Pearsell on the National Archives website (‘The parish: administration and records‘) contains much useful information about the roles of parish officials.  In small rural communities all administration was conducted by officers chosen from the local community.  The principal officers were the churchwardens, of whom there were at least two.  They were chosen by the parish priest with the consent of the parish meeting or vestry (all the householders or rate payers of the parish) but it also became usual for the priest to appoint a parish clerk to whom a salary would be paid.

The churchwardens were responsible for the maintenance of the church and kept the parish accounts.  They could also refer to the ecclesiastical courts any transgressions of church law, particularly relating to morality, and they were responsible for witnessing the making of entries by the priest in the register of births marriages and deaths and for making sure that the entries were copied and sent to the bishop every year.  Churchwardens’ accounts include details of expenditure on repair of the church and of payments to the parish clerk, sexton, bell ringer and other officials.   If the churchwardens were semiliterate or even illiterate they might pay the parish clerk to write up the accounts for them.    Appointed by the parish priest and acting as his clerk and as clerk to the parish meeting William Merry would also have assisted at church services and led the responses to prayers.  In some parishes the Parish Clerk might also act as sexton – digging graves and maintaining the churchyard – we don’t know whether this was one of William Merry’s roles although Staffordshire does hold the Churchwardens Accounts covering the period of William Merry’s tenure and it would be fascinating to check what payments he received and whether the churchwardens always agreed on his fees!   In some parishes, the Parish Clerk might even, prior to the Parochial Registers Act of 1812, make entries in the parish registers although this was really the duty of the priest. 

In our case the court papers contain only a limited amount of information and there are a number of unanswered questions.  William Merry’s complaint was that he hadn’t been paid, and as payment of his wages was the responsibility of the churchwardens we must assume that Henry Chell was one of them.  But why was he the only defendant when there were usually at least two churchwardens? Was payment of wages his particular responsibility and what was the reason for them being withheld?  As William Merry had already served as parish clerk for 25 years we must assume that he performed his job well but perhaps there had been some disagreement between him and Henry Chell .

Henry Chell neither admitted nor denied that the wages had not been paid.  The sole defence put forward by his solicitor – Mr Jackson – was that the Consistory Court had no jurisdiction in the matter – “because the said Parish Clerk of Yoxall is a temporal man or officer and fees wages or salary being merely temporal his client …. is not liable or compellable by this Court to answer the contents of the said original citation extracted against him in this pretended cause”.


We do not know if the Court agreed with Mr Jackson’s submission.  As we’ve seen in our studies of some of the Bawdy Courts cases,  the ecclesiastical courts exercised a wide- ranging jurisdiction including probate, matrimonial, defamation, tithe and faculty cases.  Anne Tarver’s study of  The Lichfield and Coventry Consistory Court over the period 1680 – 1830 concluded that ‘the Lichfield courts represented a source of arbitration for intractable disputes of predominately rural origin.  Causes arose from within the community rather than being imposed externally by the church authorities and formed a channel for public censure of those who offended against local mores, regardless of sex or social standing’.    She added that ‘these courts could harm neither purse nor person’ which does seem to support Henry Chell’s argument that the payment of wages was not something that could come with the jurisdiction of a church court.  For example, although the court dealt with many cases relating to disputes over tithes it could not enforce actual payment.   

Although we don’t have more information at this stage about the Court’s decision we do know that William Merry continued in his post as Parish Clerk which suggests that some agreement (or money!) was found.  Indeed, William served for another 24 years until his death in 1808 when the burial register records that he had served as Parish Clerk for 49 years.  There are records of parish clerks serving for as long as 60 years so it certainly seems to have been a job for life.  William reached the remarkable age of 91 and was buried in St Peter’s Churchyard, but as late as 1801 when he was 83 years old he was still attending weddings and other services, as this page from St Peter’s Church Register of marriages illustrates. 

Yoxall Marriage Register SRO D730/1/6

His knowledge of Yoxall’s community must have been vast, he certainly would have known far more about local families than the many curates and rectors who officiated at services. 

Yoxall Burial Register SRO D730/1/1b

Karen and Patrick are volunteers with the Bawdy Courts of Lichfield project and are part of the volunteer group that meets on Tuesday afternoons at the Lichfield History Access Point. If you are interested in volunteering please get in touch:

You can search Staffordshire Parish Clerk nominations here:


Research, Uncategorized

A 17th Century Incest Case

Sarah is a mature student in her second year of studying history at Keele University. As part of her studies Sarah researched a 17th century incest case from Salt in Staffordshire. The following blog post is adapted from her essay.

The Consistory Courts contain a wide variety of cases that are a wonderful way of informing people about important aspects of life in society. This case is no exception. In 1682 a case was brought before the court due to an accusation of incest. In this period, it was classed as an ecclesiastical crime of immorality and was tried in the church courts. Incest had a wide definition in this period (for example sexual relations with someone related by marriage was classed as incest, even though there was no blood relationship). There are many cases in the Bawdy Court papers about men and women accused of sleeping with their deceased partner’s brother or sister. However, some cases do involve incest as contemporary society defines it and the case we are focusing on involves the distressing accusation of incest between siblings and abuse.

The 94 pages of documents incorporate the entirety of the case. The main participants within the case files are listed below:

Defendant: George Fox. Brother of Mary Yates and Son of William and Dorothy Fox

Plaintiff: Mary Yates alias Fox. Sister of George, daughter of William and Dorothy Fox

Witnesses for George Fox: William Fox: Father of Defendant and Plaintiff, Dorothy Fox: Mother of Defendant and Plaintiff; Arthur Fox: Uncle of Defendant and Plaintiff; Dr Benjamin Thornbury; John Sylvester: Yeoman; George Ward: Yeoman; Abigail Rawlinson: wife of Thomas Rawlinson; Elizabeth Page.

Witnesses against George Fox: Thomas Yates: Husband of Mary Yates alias Fox; William Milward (Millward) Esq: Man accused by William and Dorothy Fox of being the father of the child in question; Maria Boulton: Wife of Jacob Boulton; Sarah Holford: Wife of John Holford; Dorothea Bradshaw; John Wedgwood: Justice of the Peace; Walter Bagot: Justice of the Peace.

The first papers in this case are the witness testimonies for George Fox and informs the reader of what the parents of George and Mary stated to be true.


In November 1682, William Fox and his wife, Dorothy, allowed Mary to stay with them at their home in Salt as they suspected that she was pregnant. ‘Mary did acknowledge and confess to them that she was with child and that William Milward Esq (then of the borough and county of Stafford) was the father thereof.’ William claims that Mary confessed that Milward had had the ‘carnal knowledge of her body at the house of one Thomas Hammersley, situated in the borough of Stafford’. William then claims that Mary confirmed that William was the father. William states that people had seen them acting with affection in both public and private.

William made the decision to take Mary to Ireland until the child is born. The child was born at the house of one Thomas Rawlinson, situated in Dublin.  This was a very drastic measure. Did going such a long distance to hide the fact that Mary was pregnant mean that there was more to this case than met the eye? After returning from Ireland Mary married Thomas Yates. Thomas and Mary later came to stay in the house of her parents, William Fox and Dorothy, and stayed from Christmas until Easter. On Easter Monday William dismissed Thomas and Mary from his home due to their alleged misbehaviour. Mary left the house and went to London where she met with her uncle, Mr M Ward. Mr Ward informed Mary that her father had told him that she had requested 50 acres in land and an allowance of £10 per annum towards her maintenance from her parents and that, ‘William and Dorothy did refuse to give them any money in hand or to allow them [Mary and Thomas] any yearly income’. This information shows us that the family was quite well endowed; not only because their daughter expected a dowry from her parents to maintain her status within marriage, but also due to the amount of travel that occurred within the family.

George Fox claims that William Fox has an estate of inheritance of the yearly value of about £100. William and Dorothy only had George and Mary as children, so after the death of both parents, the money would go to George and any children that he may have. If George did not produce any heirs, then the money would go to Mary Yates alias Fox and her children. 

George claims that this is the reason that Mary declared that George Fox, her brother, was the father of her child and not the previously stated William Milward. George claims that Mary made this claim out of malice and revenge to William and Dorothy, as this accusation would create a negative reputation for the family name, and this would have a huge impact on William, Dorothy and George. George claims that Mary is making this accusation as it would have an impact on George getting married in the future and prevent him from producing heirs.

B/C/5/1685/256-269 Examination and Confession of Mary Yates

… whereupon finding her self to bee with Child shee acquainted him therwith who persuaded her to report herself to bee begotton with Child by William Millard Esquire which att first shee did, and one Saturday after shee had acquainted her said Brother with her condition… as hee and shee returned a foot from Stafford homewards hee endeavored to taker her out of the way and did fall upon her and beat her in Soe much that shee did Crie out saying though you have Ruined mee yett pray doe not Murther mee or words to that Effect…

In Mary’s statement it shows that in June, she went to visit the Justices of the Peace, John Wedgwood and Sir Walter Bagot, and offered to make an oath before them that George had ravished her and claims that he would have murdered her. Mary made the oath that George was ‘the father of the bastard child of which she was so delivered’. George claims that this has become public knowledge and that it has sullied his reputation within the borough of Stafford and in the village of Salt.

George utterly denies that he has carnal knowledge of the body of his sister, Mary Yates alias Fox, and vows to take an oath to declare this. He then asks the court to administer this oath to him. George informs the court again that from the beginning of her pregnancy, and up until her visit to London, Mary was continuing to claim that William Milward was indeed the father of her child and that he had carnal knowledge of her body. George claims that Mary stated that it was only William Milward that had carnal knowledge of her body and no other. He states that even in the throes of labour she continued to state this fact; this would be an important fact as at the time it was believed that women could not lie when they were in the throes of labour due to the extreme pain and the strong chance that they would not survive childbirth. Midwives testimonies were often used in court cases due to this belief.

B/C/5/1685/256-269 Examination and Confession of Mary Yates

And the Examinant farther saith that although she did by the instigation of her said Brother say that William Millward Esquire was Father of her said Child shee doth declare upon this her Oath that hee never had any thinge to doe with her nor that shee have him any notice therof nor doth know that hee ever heard any thinge of her beeing with Child or that shee had any thinge from him towards her mantaineance or her Childs…

George and his witnesses, Doctor Benjamin Thornbury and Arthur Fox, gentlemen, ask the court that he be found not guilty in the case of incest against his sister, Mary Yates alias Fox.

The many cross examinations of witnesses within this file demonstrate that it was often one person’s word against another in cases such as incest, as there is no conclusive evidence mentioned within the case files.

The court sentence went against George and upheld Mary’s version of events. George was found guilty of the crime of incest and was ordered to pay legal costs amounting to ten pounds, eleven shillings and fifteen pence. This would roughly amount to the yearly wage of a labourer in 1682[1], so this was quite an immense sum.

I found the verdict of this case to be a surprise; George had men of high esteem as his witnesses, whereas Mary ‘only’ had the “wives of” men of high esteem as her witnesses. Also, the plaintiff is accused of being a liar by her own parents, and they claimed that the other man had confessed that he believed that he was the father of the child. In 1682 the courts could only rely upon witness testimonies. Was the fact that her father took her to Ireland to have the child an indication that he thought there was much more to hide than an illegitimate child? However, if this case occurred today then paternity could easily be verified through DNA.

The guilty verdict would have ruined George’s reputation, but he was not imprisoned. Church courts could only punish by ordering public penance, and excommunication for those who refused. However, this case could have ended in a much greater sentence for George. 32 years earlier when the Puritans gained power in England, they altered some of the laws. Within a year they had put the ‘Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication’ of 1650 into effect and this act deemed that incest went against God and it became a crime of felony which would be punished by death. This act was lifted in 1660 when the power of the monarchy was restored.[2]

Sarah volunteers for the Bawdy Courts of Lichfield project at Keele University Library Special Collections and Archives, with Rebecca. Sarah hopes that through volunteering with cataloguing and transcribing the texts of the past, she can use this information to create blog posts, which can bring the past to life and make history easily accessible to anyone with an interest.

Further reading:

Speaking relatively: a history of incest and the family in eighteenth-century England‘ by Seth J. Denbo

[1] ‘Currency Converter: 1270-2017’, The National Archives (Accessed 20th April 2020)

[2] “May 1650: An Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication.,” in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1911), 387-389. British History Online, (Accessed 30th April 2020)

Research, Uncategorized

The inventory of Henry Fogg, an apothecary from Leek

Dr Alannah Tomkins has recently written a blog post about ‘Staffordshire’s eighteen-century medical men, great and small‘ where she discusses various Staffordshire doctors and apothecaries including Henry Fogg of Leek.

The Apothecary by Pietro Longhi / Public domain

Henry Fogg practised as an apothecary in Leek in the first half of the 18th century and after he died in 1750 an inventory of his estate was drawn up and presented to the court by his executor Samuel Bradley. His inventory is particularly detailed and thus a brilliant source for historians researching the lives of medical practitioners in this period. Dr Joan Lane and Dr Anne Tarver wrote an article about the valuable information that could be gleaned from this inventory which you can read here:

The inventory of Henry’s estate details his personal belongings (including all the goods from his shop) and who they were sold to after his death:


It also individually lists the books that he owned:


At the time of his death Henry Fogg was owed money for his services from a very large number of people and these debts are individually listed. £43 2s 2 1/2d was recovered from 152 people:


However a large number of debts due to him were considered irrecoverable and these are also listed:


This document shows how inventories can be an invaluable resource for researching individuals, trades and local history. It also shows how they can help you to flesh out your family tree as over 300 people are listed in this inventory – can you spot any ancestors?


Testamentary Troubles – A nuncupative will, cousin marriage and a family fallout

The case that we’ve been looking at this week is a brilliant demonstration of how looking at the church court records in conjunction with other records can greatly expand your understanding of a case and how the church court records can really help to flesh out your family tree.

The two documents when looked at in isolation leave us with many questions. The first is a church court case from 1694 centered around the validity of a nuncupative will. Sarah, a student at Keele University and volunteer with the project, has transcribed the only document that had survived from the case; a single deposition. The second is the nuncupative will of Hannah Hilman.

B/C/11 Will of Hannah Hilman, 1694

Hannah’s will is found filed in the records of the consistory court wills (B/C/11) and can be viewed online through FindMyPast. Looking at the will in isolation, as many of us would do when researching our family tree online, it looks like a straight forward nuncupative will. Nuncupative wills are when a will is given orally in front of witnesses and then later written down. They were usually made when a person had become gravely ill and had not had the time to draft a written will. Although written wills were preferred by the court, nuncupative wills are by no means rare, although by their nature and the fact that the testator did not sign them meant they were much more open to dispute.

Hannah’s will is very straightforward, she leaves her money to John Nicholls (a relation we assume as they live at the same place, Swindon Lodge in Wombourne) while asking him to give her mother ‘the use of the money dureing her life’. John is granted the administration of her estate, which amounts to £11 (about £1150 in todays money).

B/C/11/1695 Inventory of Hannah Hilman

When we’re just looking at the probate documents the whole affair seems very straightforward with no hint of strife or dispute. The case that appears in the church courts paints a very different picture.

The only document that has survived is John Nicoll’s responses to questions (interrogatories) put forward by Rose Dudley, and from these we can start to piece together some parts of the case. John claims that Hannah had told him about a time when she had become gravely ill whilst she was staying at the house of William Cox at Christmas. She told him that:


…when she was soe extreamly ill that she was speechless her Mother & other Relations made a Will as & for her will by which they had divided her Moneys & what Goods & things she had & ordered that her Cloaths should be Sold to Bury her…

Hannah recovered from this illness and John claims that she told him that once she was better she threw the letter into a fire and burnt it. Although we don’t have any other documents relating to the case to tell us what the allegations were, this mention of a will that had supposedly been destroyed suggests that the case revolves around the existence of more than one will.

John then goes on to explain how Hannah had come to live with him at Swindon Lodge from the previous Easter up until her death. John and Hannah’s relationship now becomes clear as he explains that despite the fact that they were first cousins they had been engaged to be married.

‘… this Respondent & the said Hannah were sisters Children notwithstanding which they were engaged to marry each other & had done soe he believes had the said Hannah lived

He alleges that when Hannah became gravely ill with her final illness he ‘desired the said Hannah to declare before the company then present (amongst which was her mother Rose Dudley) whoe should what goods & estates she had’. In the presence of her mother Rose and two others, Mary Mathews and Ann Shakspeare, she the apparently said that she wanted to give all that she had to John so long as he paid her mother ‘the hire or Interest of the money she had dureing her life’ which he said he promised to do.

John clearly feels that this declaration, made a day or two before her death, was Hannah’s final will but the possibility of Hannah’s first will surviving, despite it’s apparent burning, rears its head. He says that when Hannah arrived at his house the previous Easter she…


… brought with her to this respondents house a Box & a Trunk which this respondent opened after her death to have the things in there apprized (or rather he believes one of them might be opened just upon her death by her Mother & people about her to take out some clean Cloaths to dress her Corps with) But this respondent saw not nor heard of any writeing like a will in either of them only two Bonds were found for some Moneys she had out…

This statement helps us to guess some more details about the case. Despite saying he knew of no other written will he does admit that Hannah’s mother did go through her trunk after her death before John had had a chance to. We can therefore guess that Rose Dudley, Hannah’s mother, had produced this first will to the court and had pretended that she was legally the executor of Hannah’s estate. As Rose is referred to as the ‘pretended executor’ in the surviving court paper we can assume that John brought a case against Rose, claiming that she was wrongfully acting as executor and that he should be given the right of administration instead.

As none of the other papers have survived we don’t know Rose’s side of the story or any other aspects of he case, such as whether John claimed that Rose had produced a forged will. The survival of Hannah’s nuncupative will and the grant of administration to John does let us know that John must have won the case and that John was bound to pay Rose interest from Hannah’s estate for the rest of her life but it doesn’t tell us about the state of their relationship. We’ve come across cases where betrothed couples make promises to leave legacies in wills in case they die before the marriage can take place (to make the contract more binding?). The fact that John admits that it was on his urging that Hannah made her nuncupative will leaves us to question whether he was looking after her interests (in making sure that her wishes were expressed and followed) or his own. What do you think?

Further reading

‘Women and Wills in Early Modern England: The community of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1537-1649’ by Stephanie Appleton

‘Devising, Dying and Dispute: Probate litigation in Early Modern England’ by Lloyd Bonfield

Wills and letters of administration are available to search and view online through FindMyPast:

Discover how to search these records: