‘Unmanly Indignities’: Adultery, Evidence and Judgement in Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness

  • Subha Mukherji
Part of the Language, Discourse, Society book series (LDS)


In August 1596, the Vice Chancellor’s room at Queens’ College, Cambridge, took on the unexpected character of a ‘bawdy court’.1 Bridget, wife of John Edmunds, a Cambridge University employee, was brought to the Vice Chancellor’s court on a charge of adultery with William Covile of Queens’ College. Over the next month, neighbours, colleagues and household servants deposed; after a brief period of protesting innocence, Bridget confessed and turned witness for the prosecution along with her husband; John sued for a judicial separation.


Private Space Court Record Judicial Separation Public Penance Legal Space 
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  1. 1.
    Cambridge University Library, V.C. Court I. 3, 109v. Sexual litigation in post-Reformation England usually came under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts, which, for this association, were also known as ‘bawdy courts’. On the function of church courts in early modern England, see R. Houlbrooke, Church Courts and the People during the English Reformation 1520–1570 (Oxford University Press, 1979); M. Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570–1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1987). V.C. Court III. 5, item 63 provides the circumstances of the Edmunds case being tried there instead. I am grateful to Elisabeth Leedham-Green for drawing my attention to this set of records.Google Scholar
  2. 10.
    All references are to T. Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 2nd edition, ed. B. Scobie (A. & C. Black, 1991).Google Scholar
  3. 13.
    On the need to extend gentlemanly civility beyond wealth and heredity to include certain cultural values and sensibilities, see A. Bryson, ‘The Rhetoric of Status: Gesture, Demeanour and the Image of the Gentleman in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England’, in L. Gent and N. Llewellyn (eds), Renaissance Bodies: the Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540–1660 (Reaktion, 1990), and A. Bryson, From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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    On spatial hierarchy in the early modern English house, developing from the increasing differentiation of domestic spaces, see L.C. Orlin, ‘“The Causes and Reasons of All Artificial Things” in the Elizabethan Domestic Environment’, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 7 (1994), 19–75.Google Scholar
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    A. Day, English Secretorie, or, Methode of writing epistles and letters (R. Jones, 1592), Book II, 109. For a related argument to mine, see A. Stewart, ‘The Early Modern Closet Discovered’, Representations 50 (Spring 1995), 76–100, though his primary focus is not on the surveillance of the feminine.Google Scholar
  6. 17.
    Advice tracts for the landed classes throughout the first half of the seventeenth century abounded in instructions to maintain privacy as part of a proper maintenance of position, authority and domestic order. The advice of Richard, Earl of Charlbury, to his son to ‘withdraw [himself] into [his] closett or some private part of [his] chamber’ is given in this overall context (Huntington Library; Ellesmere Papers, EL 34/b/2 16, 165). See L. Pollock’s brief survey of the informal circulation of such literature among elite circles: ‘Living on the Stage of the World: the Concept of Privacy in Early Modern England’, in A. Wilson (ed.), Rethinking Social History: English Society 1570–1920 and its Interpretation (Manchester University Press, 1993), 78–96.Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    I use ‘oeconomy’ to denote the complex structure of household governance, including financial relations, marital interaction, spatial organization and the supervision of servants. For the early modern deployment of this concept and its derivation from Aristotle and Xenophon, see L. Hutson, The Usurers Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (Routledge, 1994), 30–41, and Orlin, ‘“The Causes and Reasons”’, 11–12.Google Scholar
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  10. 25.
    Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 65, n. 18; R.W. Van Fossen’s edition (Manchester University Press, 1961), repr. 1970, 72, n. 18; A. Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage, 1574–1642 (Cambridge University Press, 1980), 222. Van Fossen assumes that Cripplegate had a reputation for creaking loudly when opened (72, n. 18).Google Scholar
  11. 28.
    See, for example, Orlin, ‘“The Causes and Reasons”’, 185. For older, classic statements of this position, see L. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), and P. Aries and G. Duby (eds), A History of Private Life, 5 vols (Belknap, 1987–91), vol. 3. Jurgens Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Polity, 1992) and N. Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford University Press, 1986) share Stone’s developmental chronology. For a critique, see C. Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (MIT Press, 1992). On the historiography of gender roles and separate spheres, and the need for a more nuanced approach to what ‘privacy’ or ‘publicity’ meant to historical subjects, see Amanda Vickery, ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’, The Historical Journal (1993) 384–414; see also her The Gentlemans Daughter: Womens Lives in Georgian England (Yale University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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    See G.F. Reynolds, Staging ofElizabethan Plays at the Red Bull Theatre, 1605–1625 (Oxford University Press, 1940), 65–70, and Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage, 171, 175.Google Scholar
  13. 31.
    J. Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), in D.M. Wolfe (ed.), Complete Prose of John Milton (Yale, 1953–82), vol. II (1959), ed. E. Sirluck, 337. It is in connection with the difficulties of proving adultery, much discussed in the wake of the severe penal act of 1650, that Milton regrets the undignified means of investigation necessitated by the stringent evidentiary requirements of the act. (Cf. Ibid., 347, on the ‘uncomely exigencies’ that Henry VIII was reduced to, and the ‘obscene evidence’ required, to prove that Anne of Cleves had been ‘carnally known by Prince Arthur’) On the Act of 1650, and the proposals for amending it so as to admit ‘reasonable presumption’ rather than certain evidence as a ground for conviction, see K. Thomas, ‘Puritans and Adultery: the Act of 1650 Reconsidered’, in D. Pennington and K. Thomas (eds), Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth-Century History Presented to Christopher Hill (Oxford University Press, 1978), 278–80. Note that Milton argues for the jurisdiction of divorce as being rightfully a ‘domestic prerogative’, and most properly belonging to the husband, in The Doctrine and Discipline ofDivorce, ch. XXI: see Complete Prose, vol. II, 343–4. This is suggestive of the thin borderline between the Reformation notion of companionate marriage and the dubious private justice that Heywood brings into scrutiny.Google Scholar
  14. 32.
    See F.G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Morals and the Church Courts (Essex Record Office, 1973), 281–91; Houlbrooke, Church Courts and the People, 46, 70; H. Hall, ‘Some Elizabethan Penances in the Diocese of Ely’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, third series, 1 (1907) 263–77.Google Scholar
  15. 34.
    Thomas, ‘Puritans and Adultery’, 269; and P.D.L. Avis, ‘Moses and the Magistrate: a Study in the Rise of Protestant Legalism’, Journal ofEcclesiastical History 26 (1972), 149–72. For Heywood’s list of harsh penalties in ancient civilizations, see The Generall History of Women (W.H., 1657), 605–6.Google Scholar
  16. 35.
    Thomas, ‘Puritans and Adultery’, 265–6. See also R.B. Bond, ‘“Dark Deeds Darkly Answered”: Thomas Becon’s Homily against Whoredom and Adultery, its Context, and its Affiliations with Three Shakespearean Plays’, Sixteenth Century Journal 16 (1985), 191–200 on the disparity between the lurid visualizations of punishment in homilies against adultery (such as Thomas Becon’s, 1547) and the relatively moderate and non-violent penitentiary procedure (penance in a sheet) in early modem England.Google Scholar
  17. 36.
    W. Painter, The Palace of Pleasure: Elizabethan Versions of Italian and French Novels … Done Into English by William Painter, ed. J. Jacobs, 3 vols (Dover, 1966), vol. 1, Novella 43.Google Scholar
  18. 37.
    Popular compendia of stories of passion and violence translated from Italian tales, such as J. Reynolds’s The Triumphs of Gods Revenge (1621) are full of hideously appropriate penalties for offenders. These fed into the existent literary stereotype of Italy, vociferously reiterated by the likes of Roger Ascham and Fynes Moryson; see Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, xix; Moryson, Shakespeares Europe, introd. C. Hughes (Sherratt & Hughes, 1903), 160. Cf. the related, and equally sensationalist, genre of Protestant judgement books, for example, Thomas Beard’s The Theatre of Gods judgements (A. Islip, 1597). Interestingly, Italian tales seem to have determined perceptions of social and amorous behaviour in the Edmunds case. One of the grounds on which Bridget objects to George Mountain as a witness is that ‘[he] read lectures to [her] of bawdry <viz: the pallace of pleasure as she termeth it’ (Cambridge University Library, V.C. Court III.5, item 69). Whether this was Pettie’s Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure (1576), or Painter’s collection, these amorous stories come up, and are disputed, in the trial. Mountain protests that he read out ‘Bocchas in Frenche’, where ‘there was noe bawdry at all’ — referring, presumably, to the Decameron, of which several pre-1596 French editions were available in the Cambridge libraries. Bridget, however, persists ‘that she meanethe … an englishe booke … the Palace of pleasure’ (Ibid., I. 3, 117).Google Scholar
  19. 40.
    See L. Dibdin and C. Healy, English Church Law and Divorce (1912); Houlbrooke, Church Courts and the People, 67–75; Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage, 171–8; and J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 3rd edition (Butterworths, 1990), 559–64.Google Scholar
  20. 41.
    See N. Llewellyn, ‘The Royal Body: Monuments to the Dead, For the Living’, in L. Gent and N. Llewellyn (eds), Renaissance Bodies; the Art ofDeath: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual c.1500-c.1800 (1991); and ‘Honour in Life, Death and in the Memory: Funeral Monuments in Early Modern England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6 (1996), 179–200.Google Scholar
  21. 42.
    Revealingly, Heywood’s company paid out less for the play itself than for Anne’s dress -‘vellvet & satten for the womon gowne of blacke vellvet’: see W.W. Greg (ed.), Henslowes Diary, 2 vols (Bullen, 1904–8), vol. 1, 119°-120°.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

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  • Subha Mukherji

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