Married Women, Crime, and Questions of Liability in England, 1640-1760
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Upon marriage, women in early modern England became subject to the common law doctrine of coverture. Coverture had a number of consequences, all of which stemmed from a married woman’s lack of independent legal identity. These consequences largely manifested themselves in a married woman’s complete lack of property rights, but the lack of an independent legal identity created complications for assigning criminal responsibility to married women in the early modern criminal justice system. Coverture largely manifested itself in the criminal law through the defence of marital coercion, which held that a married woman who committed a crime – with the exceptions of murder and treason – was assumed to be acting under her husband’s coercion and was therefore not liable for her actions. This study examines the perceptions, treatment, and experiences of married women in the northern assize circuit and London between 1640 and 1760, with particular attention to the defence of marital coercion. This thesis discovered that the household ideal, not the defence of marital coercion, was the most important factor in determining the perceptions, treatment, and experiences of married women with the criminal justice system. People in early modern England did not see coverture as the loss of rights, but rather the means through which to create a unified household. The household ideal manifested itself in various ways, including understandings of women’s household role, the tendency of people to treat husband and wife as a criminal unit rather than two separate individuals, the “suitability” of victims in murder trials, and the unique treatment of married women in the execution pamphlets. The married women of this study were subject to the common law doctrine of coverture. While they did not feel its effects in their daily lives, their lack of an independent legal identity created complications in the criminal justice system. Above all, married women were both criminals and wives. Criminal actions may have removed these women from their husbands’ cover, but their experiences with the criminal law were still shaped by coverture and the corresponding household ideal.