Feminist Legal Studies

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 307–328 | Cite as

In the Name of the Father: The Elizabethan Response to Recusancy by Married Catholic Women, 1559–1586



The extraction of a pecuniary penalty for the recusancy of married women was a heavily contested issue in the Parliament of Elizabeth. Under the rules of coverture, married women controlled no property. It was thus ineffective to fine them, for they were unable to pay the penalty. As a result, the government attempted to hold husbands responsible for the penalties of their wives through the use of recognizances under the auspices of the Commissions for Causes Ecclesiastical, a prerogative court. Research into the York Commission’s use of recognizances indicated that it had indeed been possible legitimately and legally to obtain a pecuniary penalty for the recusancy of a married woman by the 1570s. This was generally believed to have been legally impossible until they became obtainable by statute in 1593. Detailed examination of the records of the Commission indicates clearly that the depiction in the scholarly literature of the levying of these penalties as somehow improper or even illegal is erroneous. These forfeitures might have seemed irregular, but were indeed legitimate and obtained by proper and legal means in the context of contemporary standards of authority and control, both governmental and familial. This study demonstrates how respect for the standards of coverture, patriarchy, and marital obligations incorporated in the use of the recognizance provided a highly effective and legal means to penalise and correct both recusant wives and their husbands.


Catholic recusancy coverture early modern England husbands and wives patriarchy punishment law and governance legality recognizances 


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The author would like to thank the Andrew C. Duncan Trust of the Catholic Record Society and the Department of History/Peter Fraser Fund and Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie University for travel funding in support of this project.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université Robert SchumanStrasbourgFrance

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