‘Romeo and Juliet of Stonegate’: a medieval marriage in crisis
By Frederik Pederson
Borthwick Papers No.86 (1995)
Introduction: When a dispute is brought before a court, the litigants must present their case in a way that makes it possible to argue the case within the framework of the law. This often means that a case which is seemingly about one thing really is about something entirely different. It is rare for the historian to be able to show how a dispute is transformed when it is argued in the courts. However, a number of the cause papers preserved in the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in York can be used for this purpose. In this paper, the longest surviving fourteenth-century cause paper in York will be analysed to show how a dispute, which was really about the rights over land which a woman brought into her marriage, was mutated into a case concerning the legality of her marriage because the woman wished to preserve control over the lands she inherited on her father’s death.
Fourteenth-century York was the second-largest city in England with more than 10,000 inhabitants. The port of Hull, which functioned as the international sea port for the citizens of York, was a major focal point in the overseas trade in cloth—often conducted by international merchants from the Hanseatic League —and York was surrounded by some of the best land for sheep-raising which produced wool, the quality of which was well-known throughout Europe. The city was also a major administrative centre. Although York’s political influence was waning in the later part of the century, the early fourteenth century found the city’s influence growing. Of seventy-two parliamentary assemblies summoned between 1300 and 1337 fifteen were held in York, making the city the second most important venue for parliamentary assemblies, only surpassed by Westminster.
Matching its parliamentary influence, the city was home to the archdiocese of York. The Church in York rivaled Canterbury for importance and within the hierarchy of the church the city was the administrative centre of the north of England. To the laity one of the most important administrative units in the diocese must have been the Curia Eboracensis—the archbishop’s courts. These courts claimed the right to hear all litigation which pertained to the cure of souls from all over the northern province. Among the cases they were called upon to hear most frequently were disputes over marriage. Although the courts had grown over the centuries from the archbishop’s personal dispensation of justice to his subjects and had probably functioned for a long time, it was not until 1311 that archbishop William Greenfield gave them their first statutes outlining the number and duties of the personnel and settling a uniform system of costs for litigation at the courts. The sources show that even at the earliest period from which documentation survives, the courts had become a well-known feature of city life and an integrated part of the laity’s system of dispute settlement.
The Borthwick Institute of Historical Research houses the archiepiscopal archives of the Northern Province of the English Church. In its archives is an unusually full series of files containing all known documents of cases heard by the archbishop’s court from about 1300. The York cause papers, as these documents have come to be known, were produced in the courts of the archbishop of York, whose jurisdiction covered most of northern England from north of the dioceses of Lincoln and Chester to the Scottish border. 256 cause paper files, containing around 800 documents of varying lengths, survive from the fourteenth century. These documents cover all aspects of court business, from procedural documents presented to the courts by the litigants—such as libels, positions and interrogatories—to documents produced by the court itself—such letters and transcripts of earlier cases from officers appointed by the court to investigate the facts of a case in the field and the sentences of the court. What sets the York files apart from most other ecclesiastical archives in England is that they include a large number of depositions heard by the court. Among the 256 fourteenth-century cause paper files are eighty-eight files documenting litigation over marriages. These eighty-eight matrimonial cases contain the depositions of more than 580 people. The depositions are an unusually vivid collection of narratives told to the court by the witnesses as recorded by the court scribes. Among them we find descriptions of marriage negotiations, nocturnal fights over women, leisure activities, daily work and events that occurred in the markets or in the courts. They contain stories of domestic happiness and of relationships that went sour; stories about the daily existence of paupers and rich men alike. Not only do they provide the historian with a rich mine of anthropological detail, they also allow the facts of the case be weighed and the application of the canon law of marriage in the diocese of York be discussed.
See also this interview we did with Frederik Pederson on another case from 14th century England