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Abduction: An Alternative Form of Courtship?

by Julia Pope, M.A.
Presented at the International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo. MI, May 2003

 Some time between 1457 and 1460, two young sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret Wakehurst, were allegedly abducted.[1]  The legal battle that followed would hound them and their families for decades.  By incorporating the ample resources of legal records, we can reach a greater understanding of problems traditionally viewed solely through the lens of social history.  Pieced together as much as possible from the surviving documents, the story of the Wakehurst heiresses, though exceptional, can shed light not only on the ambiguous nature of the crime of abduction, but also on more general questions of courtship, marriage, and the value of female consent.

Medieval English lawmakers considered abduction a serious problem.  No fewer than eight statutes on the subject can be found on the books between 1275 and 1487.  I will only mention the two with most bearing on the Wakehurst case.  The Statute of Westminster II of 1285 made abduction a felony.  If the female victim did not consent, or consented after the fact, the punishment remained the same.  If, however, she had consented in advance, under this law no crime had been committed.  Second is the statute of 6 Richard II (1382), which gave a woman’s next of kin the right to prosecute her abductor even if she consented to the abduction.  It also debarred an abductor from inheriting property by marrying his victim.

These statutes comprise the legal frame of reference for the Wakehurst case.  They did not bear on it directly, however, because it was largely fought in the court of Chancery.  In the late medieval period, Chancery functioned (among other things) as a court of equity - a last resort for people who could not get justice through normal channels.[2]  Chancellors were meant to supplement the common law, but were not strictly bound by it; instead, their rulings were supposed to be based on ‘conscience’.[3]  In petitioning the Chancellor, a plaintiff was seeking remedy for an offense that either was not adequately covered by existing statute law, or for which they would be unable to obtain justice in the regular court system for some reason.  The work of Cameron, Ives, and Post has demonstrated that the common law courts were not a popular option for resolving abduction disputes, leaving Chancery as a prime alternative venue.

Scholarship on medieval abduction has tended to focus on two distinct but related aspects of the crime.  First, much ink has been devoted to the confusion surrounding the Latin term raptus, meaning “carrying off, abduction, rape, or plunder.” The preferred English translation is “ravish,” since it incorporates a similar ambiguity regarding of sexual contact.  This terminological conflation of what we consider two separate crimes, kidnapping and rape, has proven problematic for historians attempting to tease out the medieval concept of abduction.  In my research, however, this debate is of secondary importance.  The documents I have examined were written in the vernacular, and therefore rely on less ambiguous terminology, such as “carried away”.

Second, scholars have debated the amount of female agency involved in abduction.  Some, drawing on the work of Susan Brownmiller, have argued that abduction was fundamentally considered a property crime against men, and that female agency was unimportant.  However, this claim is based largely on an examination of statute law, not case evidence.  Arguing against the ‘property crime’ theory is Garthine Walker, who has contended that it was not the victims themselves who were seen as property, but rather the lands and wealth that would be transferred through them, a crucial distinction to bear in mind.  Others, drawing more on literary than historical records, have seen abduction as a romantic crime, and suggest that many (perhaps even most) so-called abductions were actually concealed elopements, which assumes the consent of both parties.  More recently, Emma Hawkes has taken a different position, arguing that though some abductions were consensual, many were not, and that a woman’s consent or lack thereof was of fundamental importance in determining the outcome of a legal case.

I have examined some fifty cases of abduction presented to Chancery between 1389 and 1515.  My research has shown that many abduction cases in Chancery records were heavily connected with wardship, money, and marriage. Although Ives argued that “abduction for gain is almost unknown”[4] in the fifteenth century, it would be more accurate to say that abduction for ransom was not common (out of fifty cases I examined, only four followed such a pattern).  If we consider the potential wealth that a valuable wardship or the marriage of an heiress could bring, many abductions could be called ‘abductions for gain’ (at least eighteen out of fifty, in my sample group).  The Wakehurst case is one such.  Because of the unusual amount of detail we have regarding this particular abduction incident, we can use it to examine some of the surrounding issues, particularly the role courtship may have played in abduction.

I will turn now to the facts of the case itself.  Richard Wakehurst the Elder, who had been a member of Parliament and Justice of the Peace, died in 1455.  In his will he named Thomas Hoo and William Gaynesford as the supervisors who would ensure that the executors fulfilled their duties properly.[5]  His only son, Richard the Younger, had predeceased him.  Thus, Richard the Elder’s only heirs were his two granddaughters Margaret and Elizabeth, the children of his son Richard and daughter-in-law Agnes Gaynesford (a sister of William and John).  Although their ages are not certain, they were still unmarried at the time of their grandfather’s death.  They were probably quite young, most likely in their early teens.  Their wardship apparently fell to their grandmother Elizabeth’s relatives.

Not long afterwards, a petition was sent to the chancellor by the girls’ grandmother Elizabeth, who was writing along with Thomas Etchingham, Thomas Hoo, and John and William Gaynesford, esqs.[6] This petition stated that her granddaughters had been placed under the care of Sir John Culpepper.  Incidentally, in a detail apparently not mentioned in Elizabeth’s original petition, Sir John had, some time previously, married Agnes Gaynesford, the girls’ widowed mother.[7]  Their joint tomb remains in the Lady Chapel at Goudherst, Kent, and it indicates that together they had six children.[8]  Culpepper had, the petitioners claimed, “promysed on the faithe and trouthe of his bodye and as he was a gentylman” that no harm would come to the girls.  The plaintiffs made serious accusations against John, along with his brothers Richard and Nicholas Culpepper and their brother-in-law Alexander Clifford, claiming that they “with force and armes, riotously agense the Kinges peas, arayed in the manner of warre…toke and caried away” the girls to Clifford’s home in Bobbing, Kent.  At the time of their abduction, we learn, Margaret and Elizabeth made “grete and pittious lamentacion and weping.”  Elizabeth and her co-petitioners ended by claiming that the two young women were still being detained against their wills in London at the home of one John Gibson.

The various families involved here, all members of the local gentry, were heavily connected through several marriages.[9]  There is strong evidence that Etchingham and Hoo (whose father was married to a woman named Elizabeth Etchingham) were relatives of the girls’ grandmother Elizabeth (whose maiden name was also Etchingham), although the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear.[10]  The Gaynesford family was doubly married into the Wakehurst family, and thus could also be expected to have a strong interest in the matters at issue.

No further evidence is forthcoming from this basic text, which follows many of the standard conventions of the genre, but other documents can fill in some of the surrounding story.  The two young co-heiresses, Margaret and Elizabeth, married their alleged abductors not long after the incident, though the exact date of their weddings is not certain.  Margaret was married to Richard, and Elizabeth to Nicholas.  In marrying this way, the couples violated a number of the traditions and standards surrounding marriage at this time, to say the least.  First, they were within the prohibited degrees of affinity by medieval standards, the Culpeppers being the girls’ step-uncles by reason of Sir John and Agnes’s marriage.  That this relationship was uncomfortably close to home would have been abundantly clear to everyone involved.  Secondly, the process by which the marriages were conducted was well outside the norm.  Abduction, even if Margaret and Elizabeth were willing victims, was not a socially acceptable substitute for courtship, wherein gaining the consent of family and friends was an important step.  Finally, the couples apparently married in London, when they should have married within their home parish, with the banns read in advance.  Presumably the flight to London was necessary because of the two factors mentioned earlier – the overly close bond between the couples, and the opposition of at least some of their family members to the match.

In situations such as this, where the legal and moral grounds for marriage were somewhat dubious, the most likely course of action would have been for the couples to marry quickly, and before a priest, though preferably one who would not ask too many questions.  London, even then the anonymous metropolis, would have been the easiest place for them to locate such a priest.  The authority provided by a solemnized ceremony would have considerably outweighed the secrecy of a clandestine marriage, if the couples expected the marriages to be challenged in the ecclesiastical court system.  Perhaps the journey to Bobbing, Kent, to Alexander Clifford’s home (which would have taken them considerably out of their way) was undertaken in order to obtain Clifford’s help and/or advice in these matters.  Unfortunately, the identity of the John Gibson they are said to have stayed with in London is unknown, but he could also have aided them in the process of getting married.

The main opponents to the young couples was the girls’ grandmother Elizabeth Wakehurst, and to a lesser extent her relatives, the Etchingham and Hoo families. Elizabeth’s precise reasons for objecting to the marriages are not immediately evident from the documents available, but several possibilities spring to mind.  First and foremost, she probably thought that the Culpeppers were too closely related to her granddaughters.  She may have considered the men to be poor matches for her wealthy heiress granddaughters because Nicholas and Richard were younger sons and thus were not likely to inherit a great deal of wealth or property in their own rights – in short, she probably thought Margaret and Elizabeth could do better, given their considerable inheritance.  Finally, and most tentatively, she may have objected to the Culpepper brothers themselves on some more personal grounds.  The Culpepper family may have been social climbers with a penchant for marrying heiresses (their grandfather and great-grandfather had both definitely married women much wealthier than themselves), and it is not too far-fetched to imagine Elizabeth Wakehurst considered them presumptuous upstarts.

Her decision to resort to Chancery for remedy is not unusual, judging by the number of cases I have examined from that venue.  Although verdicts have not survived, the tactic of petitioning the Chancellor in an attempt to forestall an undesirable union and protect family property was evidently unsuccessful in this case.  We are forced to wonder how much truth there is in the original petition, given that it was designed to sway the Chancellor’s opinion into line with Elizabeth Wakehurst’s own.  But if Elizabeth Wakehurst’s petition had not presented her granddaughters’ departure as a case of abduction, complete with heart-wrenching descriptions of their “grete and pittious lamentacion and weping,” her case would more than likely have been hastily dismissed, as voluntary elopement was not criminal.  The petition seems not to have raised the question of the violation of wardship.  Evidently Elizabeth (or more likely, her lawyers) did not consider this strategy to be the most effective means of achieving her goal – not primarily the return of the girls (which the Chancellor would have had few means of effecting), but safe-guarding the family property from their new husbands.  This petition was thus a legal manoeuvre of some skill, and, although the chancellor’s ruling is not known, the care and thought that went into the preparation of the argument were evidently considerable.

Subsequently, Elizabeth and her family set about blocking as much of the girls’ inheritance as they could.  Even twenty years later, the two couples were still engaged in legal disputes with their grandmother’s relatives over various manors and pieces of property that were originally part of the Wakehurst women’s inheritance from their father and grandfather.[11] Although her attempt to disinherit completely the two couples eventually failed, Elizabeth Wakehurst probably managed to make things very unpleasant for them while she lived with her numerous petitions to Chancery and, no doubt, by other means as well.

One question arises here: given that the marriages were well within the forbidden degrees of affinity, why did Elizabeth not attempt to have them dissolved?  Surprisingly, as far as can be determined, she made no mention whatsoever in her various petitions to Chancery of the girls’ mother being remarried to Sir John Culpepper.  There is no evidence that she brought the case before the ecclesiastical courts of London or elsewhere in the province of Canterbury, though the survival of such records from this period is chancy at best.  Searching further afield, there is no sign that the couples were granted a dispensation to marry by papal authorities, nor that any (possibly lost) local ecclesiastical verdict was appealed to Rome, although there are many other surviving appeals for dispensations on grounds of affinity.  We are left to wonder, then, how much the question of affinity bears on this case.  While Helmholz would have us believe that people in medieval England rarely violated the bonds of consanguinity if they were aware of them, perhaps we can tentatively say that in this case, ties of affinity (ties of marriage, not of blood) were not seen as a major obstacle to marriage, at least by the couples themselves.

While Elizabeth Wakehurst and her relatives were the main antagonists to the young couples, Richard, Margaret, Nicholas, and Elizabeth also seem to have had a considerable support network.  The girls’ mother Agnes and her second husband Sir John must have permitted the marriages to go ahead, or at least done nothing to hinder them.  Certainly grandmother Elizabeth considered Sir John equally as culpable as his younger brothers, though it seems unlikely he actually accompanied them on their abduction journey.  Brother-in-law Alexander Clifford probably also provided support, along with a place to lay low for a time.  The mysterious John Gibson in London presumably also assisted them in some capacity, whether in finding a priest who was amenable to solemnizing a more-than-slightly-questionable marriage, or simply providing lodgings in the city.  Traditional courtship involved gaining the consent of family and friends, and it seems the couples had managed this, to a certain extent.

The consent of the Wakehurst girls themselves must also have been secured – the question being, was it before or after they were carried away?  Certainly the men who were said to have abducted them were no strangers to Margaret and Elizabeth, though they were likely a good deal older than their step-nieces.  It would not have been unusual for unmarried younger brothers of a well-off family to spend at least some of their time at their family estate.  If there was an abduction, I suspect it was a carefully orchestrated act, planned in advance due to some previously-expressed opposition from the girls’ grandmother and guardians towards a proposed match.  Or, more likely, there was never a violent abduction as described in the petition.  Perhaps there was merely a calm journey to the house of another relative, and the description provided in the petition is pure legal rhetoric intended to sway the Chancellor with a sense of the horrors of the alleged crime.  It is worth noting that the girls were taken from the home of John Culpepper, and that it is unlikely Elizabeth Wakehurst or any of her associates actually witnessed it.

After the death of grandmother Elizabeth in 1464, the couples returned to Wakehurst Place and seem to have lived in comparative peace, aside from occasional legal wrangling with the Etchinghams and Hoos over the ownership of several manors.  Richard Culpepper died in 1516, and his wife Margaret had predeceased him; they left no children.[12]  Sir Nicholas Culpepper, who had been knighted in 1465, died in 1509, and his wife Elizabeth outlived both him and his brother Richard.  Burke’s states that Nicholas and Elizabeth had five surviving sons, Richard, Edward, Thomas, George, and another Richard,[13] but their funeral brass in Ardingly Church, Sussex, shows a remarkable ten sons and eight daughters. It has been colourfully described as “so crowded as to look like a poster warning against rush hour travel.” [14]  In all likelihood many of these children died young or at least predeceased their parents.

Of the four main players in this little drama, only Richard’s will survives.  He had evidently done quite well for himself, for it details property in Kent, seven separate named locations in Sussex, and land in Surrey.  He named his sister-in-law Elizabeth as a co-executrix of his will, along with some of her sons, which suggests the two couples remained unusually close.  Richard also requested that the churchwardens at Ardingly keep an obit, praying for him, Margaret his wife, his parents Walter and Agnes Culpepper, Richard Wakehurst the elder (his wife’s grandfather), and Richard Wakehurst the younger and his wife Agnes (his wife’s parents).  Although we should not read too much into such a request, it seems irresistibly telling that he did not request prayers for Richard the elder’s wife Elizabeth, who had caused him so much trouble.

Although this case is complicated, and almost certainly some of the details, such as the exact role of the girls’ mother Agnes, are likely to remain obscure, it nevertheless presents a much fuller story than many of the other petitions I have examined.  We can see that what was originally presented to Chancery as a violent abduction incident could eventually form the basis of an enduring marriage, or two enduring marriages in this case.  It is not necessary to make recourse to Stockholm syndrome to explain this outcome – it is much more likely that these were in face consensual marriages that were only presented as abductions.

A brief summary of my findings demonstrates that the Wakehurst case was exceptional in some ways, but quite conventional in others.  Perhaps because of the nature of the legal forum to which they were being directed, most Chancery petitions do not depict abduction primarily as a violent, or even a sexual, crime.  Instead the focus is on rightful guardianship of wards, distribution of inheritance, and control of property and marriage.  Like the vast majority of the petitions I have examined, this case shows young women being abducted by adult men who were interested in their property. 

The first exceptional aspect of the case is that we know the outcome.  In only two other cases I examined was I able to determine the eventual result of the alleged abduction (one resulted in marriage, the other did not).  And secondly, there is considerable (if circumstantial) evidence that the alleged abduction was actually no such thing.  The apparent complicity of the girls’ step-father (and possibly of their mother as well, given her absence from the legal wrangling), as well as various other relatives, and the likelihood that the consent of the girls themselves would have been needed, suggest that the description of the girls being carried off kicking and screaming by armed men is pure legal fiction.  While in most petitions we are left to wonder at the veracity of the claims made by the aggrieved parties, in this case I believe that much of the incident described by Elizabeth Wakehurst did not take place as claimed, but was instead an attempt to “spin” the story to suit her own purposes.

I would suggest that instead, what we see here are the traces of a partially successful courtship.  I say “partially successful” because it seems clear that the Culpepper men did manage to gain the consent of both the Wakehurst girls and at least some of their relatives, probably through entirely ordinary ways.  Where they failed was in gaining the consent of Elizabeth Wakehurst and her family, who were most likely among the girls’ guardians, and this is where the case took a dramatic turn away from the norm.  Instead of a conventional wedding, the couples resorted to what amounted to an elopement, and what was subsequently depicted by angry relatives as an abduction.  We cannot know now just how they arrived at this decision, but considering the amount of legal and financial trouble it caused them, it cannot have been lightly taken.  To marry without the full support of family and community was a difficult choice, but one which was ultimately successful for the Culpeppers and their brides; despite the clear opposition they faced, there is no evidence of any legal challenge to the validity of their marriages – despite the fact that any such challenge would have had several grounds on which to stand (affinity, force, or marriage outside their home parish).  Ultimately, however, there was little an irate family could do to end a marriage that was consensual on the part of both partners - as long as the Wakehurst girls consented before their abduction and not afterwards, no crime had been committed, and the main ramifications would have been financial and social in nature.

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[1] PRO C1/26/304, 1457-60.

[2] Although Haskett debates whether the use of the term ‘equity’ in a strict legal sense (meaning the provision of a remedy that was outside the law, but fulfilled the intention of the law) is truly applicable to the late medieval court, I will use it here for the sake of clarity, with the understanding that some believe it may not be the proper technical term.  Haskett, 266-68.

[3] Haskett, 253.

[4] Ives, “Inception and Operation,” 26.

[5] PRO, PCC Prob. 11/4, 24rv.

[6] All of these men were relatives of the family and had been feofees of Richard Wakehurst; in all probability one or more of these writers may also have held the girls’ wardship.

[7] This detail seems not to be present in the petition, although the damage makes it uncertain.  It is, however, included in Richard Wakehurst’s entry in The History of Parliament, 732.

[9] I have compiled a family tree of the known members of the families involved in this case, which is included as Figure 1.  Members of each family whose exact relationship is unknown have not been included on this chart.

[12] John Burke, Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies of England, Ireland, and Scotland, 2nd ed.  (London: John Russell Smith, 1844), 145.

[13] Burke, Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies, 145.

[14] http://gen.culpepper.com/places/intl-eng/wakehurst2.htm [June 13, 2002].  Photographs reproduced by permission of Warren Culpepper.


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