By Sara M. Butler
Canadian Journal of History, Vol.39:2 (2004)
Introduction: By the time Isabel Grene of Yorkshire’s bill of complaint reached the ears of the chancellor’s officials in the later years of the fifteenth century, she had found herself in a position seemingly without remedy by normal procedures of the common law. Adopting the humble tone required of a bill in Chancery, she wrote:
Mekely besechith your pour Oratrice Isabell Grene Wedewe. Where as one Robert Daweson hath taken divers accions of dette and trespas ayenst yor said Oratrice at Kyngeston uppon Hull in which accions the said Robert at all suche tymes when xii men shuld appere he fallith nonnsued and so wrongfully vexeth and troubleth dayly your said Oratrice at her grete costes it is so graceous lord that the said Robert hathe long tyme proposid to marye with your said Oratrice be cause of certayn godes and lyvelode that she hath of her owne and she therto in no wise woll assent nowe late hath taken a newe accion of trespas zyenst her afore the shiref of the said toun and proposeth to have her condempned in the same ayenst all right and gode conscience.
Robert’s choice of victims underscores the vulnerability of propertied women in late medieval England. Without a husband or other male relatives to protect her, Isabel was an ideal target. The appearance of similar cases in the records of Chancery suggests that this may have been a familiar ploy for young men wishing to get ahead in the world. For example, Joan Halstead of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, found herself in the same situation. Unable to take no for an answer, John Morley initiated several false actions of debt and trespass against her. Faced with a prison sentence for offences she had not committed, Joan turned to the chancellor for help. Before marrying her current husband, Agnes wife of Robert Raphaels underwent similar trauma at the hands of Hugh Oversall of Kingston upon Hull. Hugh spotted the opportunity for profit after Agnes’s first husband died and she came into her dower rights. “[C]raftely and disceytfully” he laboured for her hand in marriage, “which she utterly denyed and refused.” Incensed by her rejection and determined to find “sucor and advantage” he cautioned Agnes that unless “she would gyff hym large money att hys pleasour” he would force her into marriage by falsely claiming she had handfasted (that is, exchanged marriage vows) with him. Agnes reported that she was “in such fere and dreade that she, to be in rest and without trowble and have a release of hym, suffred hym to take of her a last of mutton talowe which as then was worthe xii li of Englisshe money,” even though she had not exchanged vows with him. Only after she later married Robert Raphaels did she work up the courage to take action against the thieving mariner.