Saturday, March 31, 2018

Abduction and Rape in Late Medieval Ireland, England and Scotland

Happy Women's History Month (with 10 minutes to go!)

The events over the last few weeks in Belfast have compelled me to write a blog post about rape that I have had in the back of my mind for several months. The original impetus for writing something on this topic came from a blog post by The Public Medievalist, which can be found here: https://www.publicmedievalist.com/got-rape-and-middle-ages/ Parts of this post have aged pretty badly since it was written in 2015, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. I found the following paragraph, using the Matt-Damon-not-all-men argument, particularly disconcerting:
Not all medieval men were Ramsay Bolton—though it seems as though their society encouraged them to behave more like Ramsay than like Tyrion. Many of the social norms described above are abhorrent. But it is important not to ignore medieval men’s basic humanity when trying to recuperate the basic humanity of medieval women.
Ramsay Bolton

Ramsay Bolton is a particularly violent character on Game of Thrones, a fictional television show, and while his behaviour may not be considered normal, there is certainly plenty of evidence for gender violence in non-fictional medieval sources. I am at a loss as to why violence against women cannot be discussed without making it some sort of attack on “medieval men’s basic humanity”! No one is arguing that all medieval men were potential rapists. Notwithstanding, rape was more prevalent than the author of the post is willing to admit. One of the main problems of the post was that he focused on rape within marriage, for which there is very little evidence, since it wasn’t illegal to “rape” your spouse up to the very recent past (which he does acknowledge). Of course, men did rape their wives and other family members, but, generally, these incidents were not reported in the sources. Women were dependent on their kinsmen for food and shelter, therefore reporting these rapes and other violent acts had the potential of making them destitute. There is certainly plenty of evidence of men having sexual relationships with their servants and we must ask ourselves how much choice did these women have? Were these consensual relationships? It is impossible to tell in most cases. Unfortunately, most examples of sexual violence that appear in the sources are rapes that were committed by strangers or casual acquaintances, therefore there is a large hole in our knowledge about rape in the medieval period.

This blog will focus on abduction and rape in late medieval Ireland, with a few examples drawn from England and Scotland. References to rape in the sources can be quite problematic because Raptus, for example, could mean either rape or abduction, or both, particularly from the end of the thirteenth century onwards, when the first and second Statutes of Westminster (1275 and 1285) combined these two different offenses into one under common law. Both of these statutes were enforced in Ireland in 1285. The legal historian J.P. Post argued that these offenses were combined so that courts could punish abductions that were consensual. This might suggest that the courts were more concerned about opportunistic men abducting women for material gain or social advancement, than they were about violence against women.

Lucretia's rape by Sextus Tarquinius, and her suicide - Anonymous, from an illuminated mid-sixteenth century manuscript, southern Germany (perhaps Tübingen)

A statute from Richard II’s reign further shifted the onus for pursuing rapists and abductors onto the family of the victim rather than the woman herself. This is perhaps another indication that there was more concern about the financial and material loss suffered by the woman’s relatives, than her own personal well-being. In Scotland, there really isn’t any statutes comparable to those enforced in England and Ireland. There is one statute from 1318 stating that if anyone in the army commit rape that he should be indicted before the justiciar.

I will treat abductions separately from rape because not all abductions involved rape. Moreover, in many cases they weren’t even violent events, where the woman was carried away unwillingly. Some women co-operated in their abductions, and it would perhaps be more accurate to call these examples elopements rather than abductions. Therefore, when I was looking at the sources I tried to separate those that I felt were not violent in nature. Cases, for example, like that of Isolda le Hore from county Wexford. In 1312, Roger, Stephen, Geoffrey and Nicholas Furlong were accused of abducting her against her will, but Isolda had gone with Roger of her own free will and became his mistress. In West Derbyshire in 1292, Laurence of Binnington was accused of ravishing Joan Gam and abducting her against her will, it was later established that she had gone willingly with him.

Occasionally, even though the abductions were not planned in advance or agreed to by the women involved, they sometimes led to happy unions. Like the case in 1288, when William Douglas (ancestor of the earls of Douglas), abducted the widow Eleanor de Lovaine, daughter in law of the earl of Derby, from Faside Castle in East Lothian. They were married shortly afterwards, and Douglas paid Edward I £100 fine for the marriage in February 1290. Eleanor also paid the same fine of £100, not knowing that her husband had already paid it, so she seemed pretty keen to keep him! Later that year when Douglas was imprisoned by the English king, Eleanor posted bail for him, which she probably wouldn’t have done had she been forced into the marriage.

BL Royal 20 C VI Lancelot du Lac


Women sometimes either went along with their abductions, or made the best of the situation afterwards like Eleanor Douglas, or even arranged them to get away from husbands who were violent, cruel, or who they simply did not get on with. A famous example from Ireland is that of Derbforgaill, daughter of Murchad Ua Maeleachlainn, king of Meath, and wife of Tigernán Ua Ruairc, king of Bréifne, who was abducted by Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster in 1152. Derbforgaill appears to have been a willing accomplice in her own abduction and the fact that she took her cattle and chattels with her suggest it was well-organised. Derbforgaill may have been unhappy with her husband, or her paternal Meath family may have been trying to forge an alliance with Leinster, we don’t really know why she decided to go with Diarmait. Diarmait’s reasons are much more clear, since Ua Ruairc (Derbforgaill’s husband) had tried conquer Leinster twenty years earlier. Most people agree that it wasn’t a love match because Diarmait was in his 60s at this point and – to quote the historian F.J. Byrne, Derbforgaill “may have been fair, but was certainly forty.”

Michael Prestwich reveals a similar ageist attitude towards the abduction of the wealthy heiress, Alice, Countess of Lincoln, who had previously been married to Thomas, earl of Lancaster. In 1336 Alice was abducted by Hugh de Frenes from Bolingbroke Castle and then was apparently raped. Prestwich concludes that Frenes was more interested in her vast estates because Alice was in her mid-fifties at the time of her abduction. This was the second time in her life that Alice had been abducted. While she was still married to the earl of Lancaster in 1317, she was abducted by the household knights of John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, a nephew by marriage of King Edward II. The motive for this abduction was to humiliate the earl of Lancaster, who had an antagonistic relationship with the earl of Surrey – so Surrey may have had similar motives to Diarmait Mac Murchada. Alice, like Derbforgaill, may have been a willing participant in her abduction. Lancaster appears to have neglected her and had several mistresses – and even though he was concerned about her property, there’s no evidence that he ever tried to get her back.

These two abductions are separated by more than a century and a half but do share many similarities. In both cases the abductor’s aim was to humiliate the victim’s husband or they were acts of revenge for perceived wrongs originally done to the abductor by the husband. They may have also given these women the opportunity to get away from husbands that, for whatever reason, they did not want to be with.

In many cases, women who were abducted were of higher social status than their abductors. In fact, this appears to have been the case with Alice of Lincoln and her second husband Sir Ebolo Lestrange, though there is no evidence he abducted her, and it appears to have been a love-match. Being of high social status may have increased the potential for violence for these woman. It was not enough to abduct them, if men wanted to marry these women the relationship had to be consummated, and many women must have been raped.

In 1299 when Johanna de Clare, countess of Fife, was travelling to England, she was captured by Herbert de Morham between Stirling and Edinburgh. She was taken by force and imprisoned by Herbert, who also seized the property she had with her, which was valued at £2000. As well as being the widow of the earl of Fife, Johanna was also the daughter of Gilbert de Clare, seventh earl of Gloucester. Had Herbert been successful, this marriage would have transformed him from a rather obscure figure, to one of the wealthiest men in Scotland. Unfortunately, things did not end well for Herbert, who was hanged in London in 1306, along with the earl of Atholl.

Johanna of Fife’s case reveals that wealthy heiresses were abducted for their inheritance. Women of the gentry and merchant class, who had property, were also attractive targets for opportunistic poorer men. For example, in York in 1411, Agnes, the widow of wealthy brewer Hugh Grantham, married draper John Thornton. Afterwards, she was taken to ecclesiastical court by John Dale, who claimed he had previously contracted marriage with Agnes. Agnes confirmed that she had agreed to marry Dale, but that she had been forced to do so because he had abducted her, and threatened to rape her. Unlike Thornton, Dale was not a wealthy man and his motivations appear to have been for material gain because the court records reveal that Agnes was “a woman of great age”. It is likely that Agnes married John Thornton to protect herself from the unwelcome attentions of opportunists like Dale.
As we can see from these abduction cases, rape, or the threat of rape, was a factor in some of them and not in others. Now, I am going to specifically look at rape. Technically, rape was one of the few crimes that women could prosecute independently of their kinsmen according to Bracton. But the truth, however, was that women appeared in a wide range of medieval court records, particularly records dealing with land disputes. Women are often named in these documents along with their husbands.

From my examination of the court records convictions for rape in Ireland appears to have been relatively rare, and this seems to tally with research done on rape in medieval England. In many cases women withdrew their accusations, and the sources hint that, at least on some occasions, this was because both parties had decided to settle outside court.

As well as these cases that were obviously consensual, there are also cases where women withdrew their accusations, not because they weren’t raped or abducted, but because they had decided to settle out of court. In one case in Blackburn in Lancashire in 1292 where Amaria daughter of William de Hoderforthwro withdraw charges of rape that she made against Henry son of Henry of Cunliffe, the court decided to press ahead anyway, and the jury found him guilty. Henry was fined one mark for the rape, and his victim Amaria was fined 10 shillings for withdrawing the claim. There are other examples of women claiming rape and then withdrawing. It is possible that this was because they had not been raped in the first place, but it is also possible that rapist and victim had come to some sort of settlement outside the court.
The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11 fol. 10v Book 1


Unfortunately, in most cases what sort of settlement both parties reached is not made explicit in the sources, but one case from Ireland in 1310 does offer some clues. Richard Tyrel of Castleknock pled guilty to the rape of Eva, daughter of William, whose full surname does not survive in the source, but it is probably London. This is a particularly unpleasant case because Eva was eleven years old at the time of the rape. Richard Tyrel was pardoned on the condition that he provide Eva with a husband when she came of age. It is possible that in other rape cases, parties came to a similar settlement.

Richard Tyrel was forced to pay a large fine to the crown, and he had several pledges who promised he would pay this fine, which suggests Eva was not only a virgin, but was also of high social status. Why would Richard rape Eva? It is possible that he raped her because of who she was. Around the time Richard raped Eva, his cousin Thomas Tyrel was accused of being an accomplice in the murder of John de Bonevill. John was married to Matilda, the widow of Thomas de London, who may have been Eva’s grandfather. Bonevill was a close associate of John fitz Thomas, future earl of Kildare and the Tyrells were associates of Arnold le Poer, who had been acquitted of murdering John de Boneville, even though he probably did kill him. As illustrated above, women were abducted to humiliate their families, Eva may have been raped for the same reason, which is quite disturbing considering her age.

Obviously, not all accusations of rape were true and women who made accusations against men and were either proved to be liars, or who did not pursue their cases, could be punished by the courts. For example, in Londale Lancashire in 1292 when Edusa of Hale accused Simon son of William of Allerton of rape, the courts ordered her arrest when she did not come to court to sue her appeal. In the same year, also in Lancashire, Godith, daughter of Richard of Wray accused Henry of Winmarleigh of raping her when she was a virgin, but he was able to prove that three years earlier Godith had a child and obviously wasn’t a virgin.

Glanvill, who wrote Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England in the twelfth century, advised that women who were raped had to show the injuries inflicted on her, particularly any bleeding, or ripped clothes. Glanvill may have been referring to the torn hymen, indicating that the woman was a virgin when she was raped. Loss of virginity could potentially reduce a woman’s marriage prospects; therefore, some may have wanted to publicise the fact that her virginity had been taken unwillingly. Women did report bleeding in the court records, but the women could not have been always virgins, since some of them were married at the time of their attack. Does this suggest that sometimes the attacks were so violent that they drew blood, or was the language used by clerks who recorded these cases so formulaic that they automatically added in these details?

Some sources can be problematic, and they don’t really give a clear indication as to if women were engaging in sexual activities because they wanted to, or because they were forced to. In Ireland there are quite a few examples of women having relationships with outlaws and members of criminal gangs. In many cases it is difficult to establish how much choice women had in these relationships. Henry Tyrel, cousin of Richard who I have already mentioned, was an outlaw accused of committing adultery with Arnald Penrys’ wife, and bringing her with him when he travelled around the country. The court record does not reveal her name, or if she was his willing companion. In 1311 when Wasmayr Okenwan was accused of receiving a group of outlaws into him home, he claimed that they were sleeping with his wife and daughter and he did not do anything because he feared they would kill him. Again, the names of the women are not recorded. In the same year in Waterford Adam Osmer was accused of receiving a group of robbers led by Robert le Poer. Robert had taken Adam’s daughter as his mistress and visited Adam’s house against his will to talk to her. Adam claimed to be too afraid of Robert to stop him. And yet again, his daughter is not named in the sources. There is no indication in any of these women wanted to be with these men, or if, like their fathers and husbands, they were afraid of them.

What punishment could rapists and abductors expect to receive? According to Bracton, in his On the Laws and Customs of England, written in the mid-thirteenth century, anyone who raped a virgin should have their eyes put out and they should also “lose as well the testicles which excited his hot lust.” Rather bizarrely, if the rapist was accompanied by a horse or dog during the rape it too would be castrated. If he had a hawk it would lose its beak, claws and tail.

In reality, the worst punishment most rapists faced was a fine. Anyone who was executed usually committed several other types of crime as well, especially robbery, therefore it can’t be said they were executed because they were rapists. Their punishment was probably closely linked to their social status, and the social status of the victim. I have noticed some cases where the perpetrator is dead before the case comes to court, and it may be that the victim’s friends and family dealt with the matter themselves.


#IBelieveHer