Patriarchy, Civic Identity, and the Widow of Doncaster

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


The business of the Church courts was adversarial. The parties contesting an action necessarily told contradictory stories that were retold through the words of their witnesses. This is amply demonstrated in the disputed marriage case from 1391 between the widow Alice Brathwell of Doncaster and William Dowson of North Cave, a village some twenty-five miles to the northeast across the River Ouse in the East Riding of Yorkshire.1 As always in matrimonial cases, the central point of contention related to consent. Witnesses for Dowson attempted to show that Alice had by words of present consent agreed to marry Dowson and hence was lawfully married. Following the contract, the couple had allegedly drank together in a tavern run by her neighbor Thomas Taverner. Alice, through her witnesses, claimed that she had merely agreed to think about his proposal. Although at first a guest in her house, her witnesses explained that Dowson was confronted by a group of burgesses who told him he must lodge elsewhere precisely because he was not in fact Alice’s husband. Alice herself appears to have wanted to marry one William Roger of the nearby town of Pontefract.


Fifteenth Century Fourteenth Century Alternative Narrative Civic Identity Dramatis Persona 
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  1. 2.
    It had a recorded tax population of 800 in the 1377 poll tax returns. Using a multiplier of 1.65 to allow for persons below taxation age (fourteen years), clergy (taxed separately), the exempt poor, and the like, this would yield a total population of 1,320. Using like poll tax evidence, and allowing for London, Chester and Durham that are not recorded, it would appear that Doncaster was probably about the fiftieth biggest town in the realm and the fifth largest in the county: The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381, ed. Fenwick, 3:269; Alan Dyer, Decline and Growth in English Towns 1400–1640 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), appendix 1, pp. 56–7.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For this and the discussion that follows see P.J.P. Goldberg, “From Conquest to Corporation,” in Doncaster: A Borough and its Charters ed. B.J. Barber (Doncaster: The Waterdale Press, 1994), pp. 47–65, 116–21.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    D.A.L. Morgan, “The Individual Style of the English Gentleman,” in Gentry and Lesser Nobility in late Medieval Europe, ed. M.C.E. Jones (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), pp. 15–35.Google Scholar
  4. 17.
    An Episcopal Court Book for the Diocese of Lincoln 1514–1520, ed. Margaret Bowker, Lincoln Record Society 61 (1967), p. 53; The Black Book of Winchester, ed. W.H.B. Bird (Winchester: The Wikeham Press, 1925), pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
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  6. 23.
    This is discussed at length in Sarah Rees Jones, “Household, Work and the Problem of Mobile Labour: The Regulation of Labour in Medieval English Towns,” in The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth-Century England, ed. James Bothwell, P.J.P. Goldberg, and W. M. Ormrod (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2000), pp. 133–153.Google Scholar
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    Philippa Maddern, “Order and Disorder,” in Medieval Norwich, ed. C. Rawcliffe and R. Wilson (London: Hambledon, 2004), pp. 189–212, esp. pp. 189–91.Google Scholar
  8. 25.
    Chaucer describes a merchant dressed in motley and an account roll dated 1394–95 includes motley “for summer garments for esquires.” Wellto-do male dress c. 1400 seems to have been characterized by the brevity of the gown or doublet: Middle English Dictionary, see under mōtlē (n.), (a); Margaret Scott, A Visual History of Costume: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (London: Batsford, 1986), plates 43 and 46, pp. 52–4.Google Scholar

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© Jeremy Goldberg 2008

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  • Jeremy Goldberg

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