Brewing Trouble: the Devout Widow’S Tale

  • Jeremy Goldberg
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Early in 1411 a matrimonial cause was heard in the Court of York between John Dale, otherwise John del Dale, on the one hand and Agnes Grantham and John Thornton on the other.1 All the parties were resident in York. Agnes was a very eligible widow. Her husband, the mason Hugh de Grantham, had died in March of the previous year leaving a net estate, less property, worth just short of £;150.2 Agnes, who is described unflatteringly as “a woman of great age,” herself managed a significant brewing business.3 John Thornton, otherwise John de Thorneton, was a well-to-do draper who had served as chamberlain earlier in his career.4 He enjoyed a long-standing business partnership with William Pountfret, his next door neighbor in Coppergate; Pountfret in his testimony claimed to have known John Thornton for some forty years, that is to say his entire adult life.5


Poor Neighbor Forced Marriage Actual Rape Attempted Rape Parish Church 
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  1. 1.
    Unless otherwise stated, all references and quotations in this chapter are derived from this case, which is BI, CP.F.36. The case is briefly, but somewhat inaccurately, discussed in S.M. Butler, “‘I will Never Consent to be Wedded with you’: Coerced Marriage in the Courts of Medieval England,” Canadian Journal of History 39 (2004): 247–70.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Probate Inventories of the York Diocese, ed. P.M. Stell and Louise Hampson (York: privately printed, 1998), pp. 61–8; YML, Dean and Chapter probate register 1, L2(4), fol. 154v. Both, the date of making and of probate fall in March. It is very likely that the William Smyth who testified on Agnes’s behalf can be identified with the man of the same name who was paid 5s. 4d. out of Hugh’s estate.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    He was admitted to the franchise in 1368 and was chamberlain in 1381–82. This would suggest that he was in his early sixties by 1411: Register of the Freemen, ed. Collins, pp. 63, 78. It is tempting to speculate that his office-holding career, begun in the very year of major civic disturbances in York, was consequently short-lived, though in fact more ambitious men tended to hold office as chamberlain somewhat sooner. For a discussion of the events in York in 1380–81 see R.B. Dobson, “The Risings in York, Beverley and Scarborough, 1380–1381,” in The English Rising of 1381, ed. R.H. Hilton and T.H. Aston (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 112–42, esp. pp. 118–24 [112–42].Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    D.M. Smith, The Court of York, 1400–1499: A Handlist of the Cause Papers and an Index to the Archiepiscopal Court Books, Borthwick Texts and Calendars 29 (2003), pp. 13–14.Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    These settlements were all within the Liberty of St Peter. It is tempting to conclude that, as discussed in the first part of this book, the Liberty played a role in shaping patterns of migration. In the particular case of Hugh Grantham, it may be that the lure of employment on York Minster, whose eastern parts were being rebuilt from the 1360s, drew the young man to the city and the parish of St Michael le Belfrey: J.H. Harvey, “Architectural History from 1291 to 1558,” in A History of York Minster, ed. G.E. Aylmer and Reginald Cant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 163 [149–92].Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    Neither Catton’s will nor the associated inventory adds very much to our understanding of the case. He was clearly a weaver of some means possessing net assets, including two looms and various lengths of cloth, valued at some £30. He was a member of both the St Mary’s guild of weavers and the fraternity of the Holy Trinity in Fossgate: Probate Inventories, ed. Stell and Hampson, pp. 68–72; YML, Dean and Chapter probate register 1, L2(4), fol. 164.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley (Kalamazoo: The Medieval Institute, 1996), book 1, 11. 204–12.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    P.H. Cullum, “‘And Hir Name was Charite’: Charitable Giving by and for Women in Late Medieval Yorkshire,” in Woman is a Worthy Wight: Women in English Society c. 1200–1500, ed. P.J.P. Goldberg (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1992), pp. 196–7 [182–211].Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    The career of William Feryby, a royal clerk and master 1409–15, is somewhat obscure. He had previously been archdeacon of the East Riding 1393–1409 and chancellor to Henry, Prince of Wales in 1403: B. Jones, Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1300–1500, vol. VI: Northern Province (London: The Athlone Press, 1963), p. 22; J.L. Grassi, “Royal Clerks from the Archdiocese of York in the Fourteenth Century,” Northern History 5 (1970): 26, 30 [12–33]; Patricia Helena Cullum, “Hospitals and Charitable Provision in Medieval Yorkshire, 936–1547” unpublished University of York D.Phil. thesis (1989), pp. 149, 153.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    “et puis la dite Geffrei la prist afforce en counter son gre et la getta de sur un chival drere Iohnan de Causton’ et ele chey a terre et rescust si graunt damage de son corps qele ne pout travailler ne aler deuz semeignes apres; et puis le ditz Geffrei et Iohan lamenerunt tanqe a un bois qest apel Boxted’ Park’ et parceqe ele cria et fist noise ils la treyerunt en bossouns et rounces et estoperunt le bouche la dite Alice dun gaunt et de chaperoun le dite Alice et si vilement la leiderunt tanque ele devynt tut sanglent et prie remedye”: Proceedings before the Justices of the Peace in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries Edward III to Richard III, ed. Bertha H. Putnam (London: The Ames Foundation, 1938), no. 68, p. 344. I am grateful to Nicola McDonald for helping me with the French.Google Scholar
  11. 25.
    For an invaluable exploration of the cultural significance of forest, see Corinne Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden (Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 1993), esp. pp. 133, 135, 184–5 (abduction) and 132, 163 (rape).Google Scholar
  12. 26.
    Sir Degaré is found in four late medieval manuscripts of which one is late fourteenth century and two fifteenth century. Corinne Saunders argues that in romance literature it is the threat of rape rather than actual rape that prevails: “Sir Degaré,” in The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: The Medieval Institute, 1995), pp. 89–144; Corinne Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2001), pp. 187, 213–18.Google Scholar
  13. 30.
    Sylvia Landsberg, The Medieval Garden (London: British Museum Press, 1996), pp. 49–50. See also Derek Pearsall, “Gardens as Symbol and Setting in Late Medieval Poetry,” in Medieval Gardens, ed. Elizabeth B. MacDougall (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1986), pp. 245, 250 [237–51].Google Scholar
  14. 33.
    Sarah Rees Jones, “Historical Introduction,” in Medieval Urbanism in Coppergate: Refining a Townscape, ed. R.A. Hall and K. Hunter-Mann,, The Archaeology of York, 10, 6 (York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002), pp. 693, 696 [684–98]. The extant property (no. 151) is discussed in Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England), An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of York: vol. V, The Central Area (London: H.M.S.O., 1981), p. 128. The two bays to the north can only be surmised from the evidence of the numbering of the extant timber framing. The space is currently occupied by the much more recent, but now defunct White Swan hotel and much structural change has occurred, including the curtailment of the eastern part of the parish church, as a consequence of the construction of Piccadilly shortly before the First World War.Google Scholar
  15. 37.
    Cf. P.H. Cullum, “For Pore People Harberles: What was the Function of the Maisondieu?” in Trade, Devotion and Governance in Fifteenth Century England, ed. Dorothy J. Clayton, Richard G. Davies, and Peter McNiven (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994), pp. 36–54.Google Scholar
  16. 38.
    Rees Jones, “Historical Introduction,” pp. 693, 696. A deed recorded in the cartulary of the Vicars Choral of the Minster records that John de Thornton, citizen and draper, owned the property to the west and that there was reserved to him and his heirs “free supply of all rain water and egress from John’s house”: Charters of the Vicars Choral of York Minster, City of York and its Suburbs to 1546, ed. Nigel Tringham, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record ser. 148 (1993), no. 577, p. 313.Google Scholar
  17. 43.
    For a discussion of the notion of the chaste marriage see Diane Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), especially pp. 195–265. See note 3 above.Google Scholar

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© Jeremy Goldberg 2008

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  • Jeremy Goldberg

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