Women, gender and non-lethal violence in Quarter Sessions petitioning narratives

Cleaned-up and slightly extended version of a paper presented at the conference Gender and Violence in the Early Modern World (University of Cambridge, 23 November 2019).


In 1594 Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife petitioned Cheshire Quarter Sessions, setting out the many abuses and outrages perpetrated against them by Anne Lingard.1

She had had unjust warrants against them, claiming to be afraid of “bodily harm”. This was “greatly astonishing” to the petitioners, who were “well known never to have disturbed her majesties peace” or threatened Anne herself.

Anne had come to Allys’s house early one morning and sneakily “convaye[d] her selffe into the house to doe some outrage upon” Allys, and finding her alone,

did assault and treade her the sayd Allys (beinge an aged woman) under feete and would her have murdred or otherwayes fouly intreated yf she hadd not bine prevented by [Margery] whoe hearinge the crye came imediatly…

This was “a matter soe shamfull and unnaturall, as the lyke by anie woman hath seeldome bine offred in anie [christian?] cuntrey or towne”. Further, Anne was a frequent disturber of the peace, causing many “unseemly” brawls and affrays, and upsetting the “best sort” of the town’s inhabitants.

As a result, Allys could “not be at peace within her owne house” and was “much affrayd” of further attacks; and so they prayed both to be released from Anne’s warrants against them and for the authorities to take action against Anne.

Some elements of the case are really unusual: the language – “shamfull and unnaturall… the lyke by anie woman hath seeldome bine offred” – as well as their demand for the magistrates to “brydle the outragousnesse of the sayd Anne Lingard”. There’s nothing quite like this in any of the other petitions.

Nonetheless it reflects a number of common themes in petition narratives by victims of violence:

  • a background context which includes malice and vexatious litigation, disordered behaviour (versus the quiet law-abiding victim);
  • at least one central, murderous, assault on weak, defenceless victims;
  • fear of further attacks and therefore the urgent importance of bringing the offender under control.

It’s no longer unusual to do as Natalie Davis did in 1987 and focus on the “fictional” qualities of early modern petitions, their “forming, shaping, and molding” and “the crafting of a narrative”. But the analysis of narrative and rhetorical strategies has been much more often applied to pleas for pardon in cases of homicide, or other  types of petition for clemency, than to petitions about non-lethal violence, or from those looking to have an offender disciplined.2

This doesn’t mean the narratives are completely different; the same themes may be used whether endeavouring to play down guilt or to pin it down, to avoid or enforce punishment. Nonetheless, exactly how they are used for prosecution rather than defence seems to be in need of closer attention.

The petitions

Nearly all the petitions I’m using here have been collected and published at BHO by The Power of Petitioning project, which aims to examine petitioning systematically at all levels of English government across the 17th century and, for QS petitions, the 18th century. The  complete POP QS corpus contains 1407 petitions from Cheshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Westminster. I’ve also added a small number of Denbighshire QS petitions taken from a sample covering 1660-1730.

I use some basic quantification in order to point to what seem to be significant patterns, but the numbers should be treated with caution. Unlike many documents in court archives, the content of (most) petitions didn’t have to conform to legal definitions or official requirements. (Even if there were some conventions.) They can often be quite difficult to interpret or categorise, so any attempts at counting represent interpretations and choices that another reader might not necessarily agree with.

Moreover, I’m using a broad definition of “violence”. Physical violence often isn’t that easily separated from other abuses in petitions. I have assaults and violent threats; but also riot and attacks on property which included abusive behaviour towards persons; abusive scolding and cursing; both public and domestic violence. Some petitions might not cite specific attacks at all but refer to murderous conspiracies or more generalised abuse and intimidation. And as a result, I’m often lumping very different things together under the same heading.

Taking those caveats into account, I found 49 relevant petions with at least one woman among the accused:

  • 27 female only
  • 22 mixed gender (14 consisted of/included a husband and wife)

Most petitions are from accusers rather than the accused (only 10 “defensive” petitions, though these may well involve an effort to turn the tables on their accusers with counter-accusations of violence, so that they end up using the same narratives as “accusatory” petitions).

Most female-only accused had also attacked their own sex only:

  • 19 female
  • 6 male
  • 2 unknown

To enable some comparisons, I also identified 36 Cheshire petitions about violence with male-only accused. The gender of their victims was more varied, though still primarily weighted towards other men:

  • 20 male only
  • 10 female only
  • 3 mixed gender
  • 3 unknown

The victims of the mixed-gender accused looked rather more like the male profile:

  • 14 male
  • 5 female
  • 3 mixed

In the Cheshire petitions, female accused were involved in about a quarter of all petitions about violence, but it’s evident from even an initial survey that there’s considerable variation among counties – both in terms of the proportion of petitions that concern violence and the proportion of those that involve women. Westminster and Cheshire produced far more of the latter, certainly, than any of the other counties. (I won’t say any more at this stage about geographical variation; the differences clearly need more investigation, but I’ll need to identify the male petitions across the whole corpus before I can do that.)


Few of the petitions merely describe a violent incident. They usually begin by shaping the context, the background to the event. This includes the prior relationships between petitioners and accused, often described in terms of the malice of the accused. Secondly, they frequently make reference to reputation. And they follow up with what comes after the event: the consequences of violence

Reputation and malice

At least 27 petitions mentioned bad reputation. There are some general references to bad reputation (eg “ill repute”, “bad carriage”), but I think it’s often used in a much more specific way to frame the accused as someone liable to violence: “disordered”, quarrelsome, given to stirring up trouble among neighbours, drunkenness.

Mentions of good reputation are positive versions of the same themes; a key term is “peaceable”. Peter and Ellen Woodstock had always “demean[ed] themselves honestlie and loveingly amongst their neighbours”.3  But these are less common; I think it’s possible that a petitioner’s good name was more likely to be evidenced by supporters’ signatures and certificates than claims within the narrative itself.

Elizabeth Grymes was described as a “scould” who had been often “convicted for her adulterous life and lewd conversation”, though the language mostly isn’t so obviously gendered. But what is really striking (and unexpected) is that the majority of these references to bad reputation are actually about men (with undifferentiated mixed groups in second place) – so much so that even when the accused is a woman, it may be a man’s reputation that’s invoked.

Peter Lloyd’s complaint about being publicly cursed by the wife of Edward Jones referred only to Edward’s reputation (“lewd behaviour”). Randle Tomson emphasised that Andrew Hollinshed was “a very contentious and troblesome person”, “a person of evill behavyour”, but the only assault Randle described was by Andrew’s wife Ann.4

24 petitions mention malice and malitiousness. Merridee Bailey has highlighted the “mutually reinforcing” uses of malice in Chancery petitions to encompass “action, character, emotion, and true disposition”, and I think it’s similarly employed in QS petitions.5 Malice can be generalised or specific animosity towards a petitioner. In the latter case it often relates to the immediate motive for the violence, with frequent references to property disputes, debts, or previous prosecution by the petitioner.

In the QS petitions I think it’s more likely to be used of women than men (though not as skewed as reputation). For example, Margaret Hobson had “a malicious and envyous mynd to[wards] your petitioner”. Winifrid Harris had previously had Jane Hewet bound to the peace;

Nevertheles [she] ever since hath and still doth most malitiously and causlesly persecute your petitioner with most cruell raylinges and threatening speeches…, And in pursuance of her malitious intencions shee doth dayly incite and hire boyes to abuse your petitioner in evill wordes and to throwe stones att her as shee walketh in the streetes….6

Additionally, 16 petitions mention vexatious use of the law. This may have more than one use: it’s further evidence of the malicious mind, but it can also help to undermine any legal actions they might have taken against the petitioner.


Here there are three strands, which are often closely related: emotions, particularly fear; material losses; and physical trauma. Unsurprisingly, victims stress the impacts, while accused play them down. John Thomas petitioned for the release of his wife Catherine who had been accused of causing the death Jane ferch John ap Howell following a quarrel; he claimed that Jane hadn’t died until several weeks after the quarrel “dureing which time shee might dye of another accedentall decease”.

Fear is mentioned in 21 petitions (11 by women, 10 by men). Margaret Bennett was “in bodily feare to be mischeifed by [James Wright and his wife], so that she feareth to goe out of dores”. Elizabeth Floud had made Anne Coles “fearfull of her life of her”.

Material losses are presented as a direct result of fear; the petitioner is afraid to leave their home to work, or has had to flee from it. It’s possible that male victims dwell on financial losses to business, while women are more likely to emphasise impediments to their day-to-day work activities, like Ann ap Thomas, a maid servant who complained that two women had beaten and continued to threaten her “soe that shee cannot goe aboute her mistress buisines for them in quiett but is in dayly danger and feare of her life”.7

The trauma of physical injuries and their consequences (14 petitions) are often vividly and movingly described. Katherine Gryme detailed how Jane Parker, after a barrage of verbal abuse,

takinge a firebrand out of the fire, suddenly cast the same at [Katherine’s] face… Which by fatall and unfortunate accident happened utterly to extingush and put out one of [her] eyes … whereby she hath not onely endured most extreame and greivous paine … but alsoe hath spent and bestowed all the meanes she had for recoverie of her sight, which by that fatall blowe ys utterly lost, to her greate impoverishinge and undoeinge…8

Mothers and wives

I want to finish by tracing themes in some particularly female contexts in the petitions: pregnancy, motherhood and marriage.

There are clear parallels here with strategies in petitions from war widows following the Civil Wars. Eg, Geoffrey Hudson noted widows’ emphasis on their children in petitions for military relief. Amanda Capern has recently explored the language of maternity in Chancery lawsuits and “how these informed a maternal language in equity, translating into particular rhetorical strategies available to maternal plaintiffs and defendants”.9 Jennine Hurl-Eamon has usefully discussed how pregnant women prosecuting assault in Westminster could use their status to “increase their appearance of vulnerability before the court and command its sympathy.”.10

In petitions, pregnancy can be invoked by accused as well as victims; John Thomas petitioned on behalf of his wife Catherine John David to be released from gaol on bail because she was “bigg with child”. (This may also be used by or for women imprisoned for other causes.). This may echo “pleading the belly”, the process by which women convicted of felonies could attempt to avoid (or at least delay) execution if they could satisfy a jury of matrons that they were pregnant.11

But more frequent in petitions about violence, and more evocative, are victims’ narratives of pregnancy: Margret Davies petitioned that Anne Paine and Margret Latham

violently did beate and misuse [her] to the danger of [her] life, beinge a weake woman and with child soe that [she] was after two dayes in stronge labour and in great danger of life.12

Bridget Buttler was “beaten kicked and abused” by two men, “soe that shee miscarryed of a child, and is at the present soe dangerous ill, soe that shee doth altogeather dispaire both of health and life”.13

The significance of motherhood unsurprisingly went beyond pregnancy and birth. There are plenty of brief mentions of children, as dependents and sometimes vulnerable targets, by both male and female petitioners. Mothers, however, are likely to tell more resonant, emotional stories involving their children. So eg Jane Leech told of how Thomas Sandy “doth haunt and lurke aboutes the peticioners howse puttinge her and her children in great dread and feare… [and] threateneth to kill the peticioners sonne Henry Leech”.14

In defensive narratives, children can appear as agents in disputes as well as victims: Cassander Godwin claimed that she

was bound over to this quarter sessions by Mistress Lucie for striking her child (as shee alleaged) whereas in truth your peticioner did not strike her child but Mistris Lucies child strook your peticioners child and threw him downe and broke his knee that the child lay lame.15

And women’s narratives tell of threats and harms to their families and marriages in ways that I haven’t seen from male petitioners. Wynifride Morgan complained of being “violentlie and fiercely” assaulted by Elizabeth Grymes and of her “scandalous and infamous reportes and speches” which had harmed Winifred and her husband’s reputation. And now as a result Wynifride’s husband,

to whome she hath borne many children… and with whome she hath ever contynued in mutuall love befitting the holye state of matrymony, hath conceaved displeasure against [her] soe that she hath noe peace in her house or joy of her lif husband children or estate.16

Ellen Robinson detailed a long-running, terrifying campaign by Raphe Nixon, Margarett his wife and their confederates. The Nixons had driven Ellen’s husband to his death and the family to financial ruin with a series of malicious law suits. but Not content with that, they had endeavoured to make the widow and her family homeless, assaulted her daughter, had them put in the stocks. Finally, armed with an unjustly obtained arrest warrant, they had entered her house in the early hours of the morning “in most vyolent and ryotious manner”, beaten Ellen, knocked her down, and drawn blood so her life was endangered,

which cruell dealeing of theires did so much affright [Ellen’s] doughter, that shee then fled away for saffegard of her lyffe, and was never heard of what was become of her to this day.17


There is now a growing body of studies of early modern European women’s non-lethal violence: eg Jennine Hurl-Eamon on Westminster, Garthine Walker on Cheshire, Elizabeth Ewan on Scotland, and Manon van der Heijden on Holland.18 I think petitions can complement primarily quantitative research with important perspectives on attitudes to “everyday” violence and gender – particularly its emotional aspects; but they also challenge us to think carefully about how women and men used the law.

As Shannon McSheffrey puts it: “These documents were written precisely because they were meant to do something”.19 One of the reasons Natalie Davis chose pardon letters for analysis was because they were “relatively uninterrupted narrative[s]”; the space to go beyond a particular event or legally defined offence, and ask magistrates to assess a situation and relationships as a whole, was also one of the great advantages for the petitioner. But it sets traps for the unwary historian.

So I’ll finish with a postscript to the story of Anne Lingard. In 1599 (5 years after the petition with which I began), Anne and her husband Rauffe petitioned the Cheshire JPs to complain that she had recently been maliciously prosecuted as a “brawler and chider” by “some that envy and maligne” her, whereas in fact

as is well knowen to all her neighbours… [she] is a woman of good name and fame, and hath alwaies hitherto demesned and behaved herself amongst her neighbours, in peaceable and quiet manner and never gave occasion of offence to any.20

Anne was familiar with the courts: a cursory online search shows that she had successfully sued another woman for defamation in 1589, and was one of the defendants in a 1599 Star Chamber case.21 So I doubt that she was quite as peaceable as she wanted to appear; but litigiousness was hardly unusual among early modern middling sorts, and the very existence of her petition is a reminder not to take these records at face value – especially when their whole purpose was to tell emotive stories to persuade an audience.


1 Cheshire Archives and Library Services, QJF 24/1/25 [1594]. All the English petitions referenced here can be found at British History Online.

2 Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1988). See also, for example: Quentin Verreycken, ‘“En Nous Humblement Requerant”: Crime Narrations and Rhetorical Strategies in Late Medieval Pardon Letters’, Open Library of Humanities 5 (2019); Hannah Worthen, ‘Supplicants and Guardians: The Petitions of Royalist Widows during the Civil Wars and Interregnum, 1642–1660’, Women’s History Review (2016), 1–13; Alison Thorne, ‘Women’s Petitionary Letters and Early Seventeenth-Century Treason Trials’, Women’s Writing, 13 (2006), 23–43.

3 London Metropolitan Archives, MJ/SR/0972/17 [1645]

4 LMA WJ/SR/NS/019/16; National Library of Wales, Chirk Castle B26/c.18 [1670]; CALS QJF 47/3/71 [1618]

5 Merridee L. Bailey, ‘“Most Hevynesse and Sorowe”: The Presence of Emotions in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Court of Chancery’, Law and History Review, 37 (2019), 1–28 (at p. 18).

6 CALS QJF 46/4/91 [1618]; LMA WJ/SR/NS/002B/016 [1620]

7 NLW CC B38/d.6 [1682]; LMA WJ/SP/1640/06/001 [1640]; LMA WJ/SR/NS/018/2 [1627]; LMA WJ/SR/NS/002B/001 [1620].

8 LMA WJ/SR/NS/002B/001 [1620]; Staffordshire Record Office, Q/SR/191/26 [1629]

9 Worthen, ‘Supplicants and Guardians’; Geoffrey L Hudson, ‘Negotiating for Blood Money: War Widows and the Courts in Seventeenth-Century England’, in Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England, ed. Jenny Kermode and Garthine Walker (1994), 146–69; Amanda L. Capern, ‘Maternity and Justice in the Early Modern English Court of Chancery’ in Journal of British Studies, lviii (2019), 701–716.

10 Jennine Hurl, ‘“She Being Bigg with Child Is Likely to Miscarry”: Pregnant Victims Prosecuting Assault in Westminster, 1685–1720’, London Journal 24 (1999), 18–33.

11 NLW CC B38/d.6 [1682]. Eg of a female prisoner petitioning for relief because of pregnancy: Derbyshire Record Office Q/SB/2/329. On ‘pleading the belly’: J. Oldham, ‘On Pleading the Belly: A History of the Jury of Matrons’, Criminal Justice History, 6 (1985), 1–64; T. R Forbes, ‘A Jury of Matrons’ (1988); Sara M. Butler, ‘More than Mothers: Juries of Matrons and Pleas of the Belly in Medieval England’, Law and History Review, 37 (2019), 353–96.

12 SRO Q/SR/307/43 [1659]

13 LMA WJ/SR/NS/002B/012 [n.d., 1620-1640]

14 Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service, Ref.110 BA1/1/33/87 [1620]

15 LMA WJ/SR/NS/019/20-20a [1625]

16 LMA WJ/SR/NS/019/16 [1625]

17 CALS QJF 47/3/76 [1618]

18 Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Gender and Petty Violence; Elizabeth Ewan, ‘Disorderly Damsels? Women and Interpersonal Violence in Pre-Reformation Scotland’, Scottish Historical Review 89 (2010), 153–71; Elizabeth Ewan, ‘Impatient Griseldas: Women and the Perpetration of Violence in Sixteenth-Century Glasgow’, Florilegium, (2011), 149–68; Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (2003), chapter 3; Manon van der Heijden, ‘Women, Violence and Urban Justice in Holland c. 1600-1838’, Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies 17 (2013), 71–100. Also see Catherine Horler-Underwood, ‘Aspects of Female Criminality in Wales, c.1730-1830: Evidence from the Court of Great Session’ (PhD thesis, Cardiff University, 2014).

19 Shannon McSheffrey, ‘Detective Fiction in the Archives: Court Records and the Uses of Law in Late Medieval England’, History Workshop Journal 65 (2008), 65–78.

20 CALS QJF 29/2/36 [1599].

21 CALS EDC 5/1589/26; Helen Goode (ed), Star Chamber Project (WAALT), Oldfield v Mainwaring et al (TNA STAC 5/O8/40).


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