The Law as a Weapon in Marital Disputes: Evidence from the Late Medieval Court of Chancery, 1424–1529
By Sara Butler
Journal of British Studies, Vol. 43 (2004)
Introduction: When Isabelle, widow of Richard Vergeons, commissioned the writing of a bill of complaint to Chancery at the end of the fifteenth century, she was clearly at the end of her tether. Six months before the writing of the petition, the wife of Thomas Hyll, a wire monger of London, approached the petitioner’s husband, begging for ‘‘secour and saufgarde of her lyf.’’ She was driven to this request only after ‘‘dyvers variantes and discordes betwene her and the seid Thomas her husbond and for grette fere and inpartye that the seid Thomas put to her of her lyf.’’ When Richard happened upon her she was being chased by Thomas, who was wielding a dagger. Seeing ‘‘the ungoodly and hasty disposition of the seid Thomas and the greate fere of his seid wife,’’ Richard decided to take matters into his own hands. He received Thomas’s wife into his home and then confronted Thomas about his actions, hoping to reason with him and convince him to treat his wife appropriately. This soon proved to be a fatal error.
According to the plaintiff, “Richard entreted and desyred the seid Thomas to take his seid wif to hym ageyn and to gyde her and chastice her under a due maner and not to draw his dager to her and the seid Thomas annswered yf he myght mete wit his seid wyf he wold utterly slee her andthe seid Richard seyng his ungodly disposicion kept her in his hous tyll anone after by the false and myschevous labour & procurement of the seid Thomas the seid Richard then husbond unto your seid oratrice was slayn at his owne dore in London.” Richard’s death only strengthened Isabelle’s conviction to shelter Thomas’s wife from her brutish husband. Isabelle locked her home and refused to allow Thomas near his wife, but he was not so easily dissuaded. Thomas made repeated threats on Isabelle’s life and then quite shrewdly turned to the courts to continue his assault. He sued a plea of trespass against Isabelle and arranged with the sheriff of London to hold an inquest into the action. Fearing imprisonment or worse, the newly widowed Isabelle threw herself on the mercy of the chancellor.