This article is part of a series on Risk and Uncertainty. Articles in this series aim to explore how ordinary people understood and coped with risk and uncertainty in times of personal crisis and in everyday life, helping to illuminate our own experiences of navigating an increasingly uncertain world. You can read an introduction to the series here.
Content warning: This post discusses violence against women.
Domestic violence is, sadly, an experience shared by modern and medieval women alike. Throughout history, women leaving abusive partners have encountered many risks that, in some respects, remain ahistorical: they may have escaped a violent home but they immediately faced the problems of how and where to find a new home that is safe and how to support themselves (and any children) without their partner’s income.
In England today, domestic abuse is one of the main triggers for homelessness amongst women, in part because of the financial barriers women face in leaving a couple household to live alone, particularly if that entails becoming a lone parent. In late medieval London, similar economic challenges combined with institutional and legal barriers and a highly patriarchal society impacted on women’s ability to leave an abusive marriage. The result was that women leaving violent husbands in late medieval London often found the best option was to move to the city’s suburbs and hinterland to forge a new life for themselves.
For a woman to leave a violent husband in late medieval England was legally and socially challenging. Divorce in the modern sense was not possible under the canon law of the medieval church, which governed the issue: a marriage could only be annulled completely in the eyes of the church in very limited cases such as impotence or incest. Separation was only permitted in limited circumstances, usually of excessive cruelty or adultery. If granted a ‘separation from bed and board’, a wife had the right to live separately from her estranged husband, but neither partner was free to remarry. For many ordinary women a church court case for separation would have entailed impossible legal expenses.
Wives who were subject to abuse could bring suits to a church court where they had to prove their husbands had been excessively violent towards them. While today a wide range of behaviours within a relationship are recognised as abusive, including psychological and financial abuse, it was only physical abuse that was recognised as grounds for separation in medieval church courts. Even then, physical punishment was recognised as a legitimate means of a husband controlling the behaviour of his spouse up to a point, so a wife needed to prove her husband’s actions went beyond ‘legitimate’ chastisement and involved unnecessary cruelty.
Other aspects of the medieval legal system also made it difficult for concerned friends or relatives to assist a woman who wished to leave her husband. The common law, which governed cases heard in the royal courts including suits relating to the transfer of property, often worked on the assumption that women belonged to their husbands. People who took in another man’s wife were subject to suits of trespass by the husband and could even be accused of abduction and ravishment. As a result, there were not only high legal and financial barriers to marital separation for women but an abusive husband also had the ability to pursue his wife and any family and friends who helped her through the courts.
But the barriers were not just legal. There were strong cultural anxieties in late medieval English society about ‘ungoverned’ women living independently without the oversight of a husband or father. And while women worked in all kinds of trades and crafts, there were formal barriers in the way of their becoming citizens or participating in London’s guilds unless they did so as widows continuing a deceased husband’s business.
A woman who left her husband thus faced social stigma and opposition from the courts and from various medieval institutions. They faced a precarious condition of marginality, where their financial and social resources might not be enough to enable them to support themselves independently.
The records of the London consistory court contain legal cases about abusive marriages which allow us to understand how women went about escaping violent husbands during the late medieval period. In 1519, Joan Wood apparently took the opportunity of being briefly separated from her husband to approach a parish beadle (a local officer who kept the peace) in a neighbourhood just north of London Bridge. She told the beadle ‘yonder is my husband in the church and I dare not go home for he will kill me’. She asked the beadle to escort her to her daughter’s house in the village of Bermondsey across the Thames to the south-east of London. The beadle, Thomas West, agreed to help but the two were intercepted by Joan’s violent husband as they set off. Her husband brandished a knife, but West successfully disarmed him and subsequently brought the knife into court as evidence when he was a witness in Joan’s legal suit for separation.
In Joan Wood’s case, she relied on a local officer to help her. For other women, it was their friends, family and neighbours who might be called on to offer protection from a violent husband. In 1513, Joan Foster sought to protect her sister Helen from a violent husband by asking her husband’s employer John Parish to intervene. She came to Parish’s house and implored him ‘Master Parish, speak to your servant yonder Richard Browne for he will kill my sister his wife yonder’.
However, men could also be cited in local neighbourhood courts called wardmotes for failure to chasten their scolding wives. This is a stark reminder of the fact that patriarchy was an explicit expectation of medieval society. A man’s proper position was thought to be as head of his household and by showing proper government of his wife, children and servants he demonstrated his fitness to hold responsibility in wider society.
It is perhaps for this reason that seeking assistance from immediate neighbours does not appear as commonly in church court cases for separation as we might expect. When John Wright beat and stripped his wife Elizabeth to her petticoat in a neighbourhood alehouse in 1521 the proprietor, whose wife had been Elizabeth’s friend since childhood, told John to ‘take her [Elizabeth] and get out of my house’. To intervene and challenge John would have been to challenge a neighbour in how he ran his family, an integral part of his masculinity, as well as to risk a legal suit of trespass.
As a result, women often sought to escape their abusive marriages by informally abandoning their husbands and moving to new neighbourhoods. Agnes Corbe suffered terrible violence at the hands of her second husband John, much of which was witnessed by her servants. By the time her suit for separation from John was heard at London’s consistory court in February 1516, she had already moved from her former home in the parish of St Nicholas Shambles in the west of the city to St Giles Cripplegate, about half a mile away in the north. One of her servants, a young woman, had even moved with her. Since both John Corbe and Agnes’s deceased first husband were butchers, it’s likely Agnes would have spent many years assisting in that trade and could perhaps support herself and her servant in her new household with her skills. In medieval England, women often assisted in the trades of their husbands and some were even formally apprenticed and recognised as skilled workers. With artisan skills and trade connections, they could perhaps overcome the economic barriers to leaving an abusive marriage.
For many women, moving neighbourhood was about avoiding discovery, as well as overcoming the social stigma of living as a separated wife. It is notable that in many cases, like that of Joan Wood who wanted to go to her daughter’s house in a nearby village, the areas outside London’s walls and in its immediate hinterland offered some opportunity of escape. Elizabeth Spenser, who also suffered cruel treatment at the hands of her husband Edmund, appears to have moved in the opposite direction in the late 1520s from an extramural parish into the city centre. The two witnesses in the separation case she brought against her husband recalled their separate dwelling places – Edmund at St Clement without the Bars to the west of the city and Elizabeth in the eastern city centre. Moving a few parishes distance or beyond the walls could remove women from the immediate social circle of their husband and form an attempt to evade discovery. Rents in areas around the city but outside its walls were cheaper and would offer a more affordable place to live but with the economic opportunities and social networks of the city still close at hand.
Additional protection could be sought in the walled precinct of a religious house. In 1463, Eleanor Browning fled to the house of the sisters in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, just to the west of London, when escaping from her husband who was chasing her with a knife. The hospital sisters admitted her and closed the door against Alexander, an action which, in the judgement of a brother of the hospital, saved her life. Most medieval women like Eleanor ultimately relied on the intervention of family or members of the community when fleeing an abusive husband, a decision that, for many, meant forging an uncertain living on the fringes of urban law and society.
Women leaving abusive husbands in late medieval London experienced some of the harshest forms of risk and marginalisation. They faced daunting economic and social risks trying to find a safe place to call home. In doing so, they drew on their social networks, trade skills and topographic knowledge of the city to navigate a period of extreme precarity.
Modern society places fewer formal barriers in the way of domestic abuse survivors, and refuges offer dedicated safe spaces for women who need to leave their homes which were simply not available to medieval women. But in the era of social media and instant communication, it is perhaps harder than ever for women to evade the attention of abusive ex-partners in the way that someone in late medieval London could expect to by moving away. Moreover, high rents and unequal economic opportunities still make it financially difficult for survivors to afford their own home, even in spite of the modern welfare system which disproportionately penalises lone parents including women escaping domestic violence. Like their medieval forebears, modern women leaving abusive partners have to use all their strength and resources to find and keep a new safe home in a society which is often against them.
Charlotte Berry is a social historian, who specialises in late medieval and early modern urban society, marginality and immigration. Her book The Margins of Late Medieval London 1430-1540 was published in 2022 in the Royal Historical Society’s New Historical Perspectives series by University of London Press.