English Aristocratic Women and Legal Agency in the Seventeenth Century

Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:50 AM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Lindsay Moore, Boston University
English Aristocratic Women and Legal Agency in the Seventeenth Century 

Lindsay Moore

In the seventeenth century, English law was fraught with restrictions that limited the legal activities of women. The common law doctrine of coverture stipulated that a married woman had no legal identity separate from that of her husband, and barred her from entering or defending cases in her own name. Women of the aristocracy were just as subject to these legal restrictions as women in lower social spheres. However, the tendency of scholars to focus on the disadvantages women faced according to the letter of the law has obscured the reality of women’s actions in prosecuting and defending their legal rights to property.

This paper examines the litigious women of the English aristocracy who were frequently involved in legal disputes over land and money. The wide range of sources available for aristocratic women, including book inventories, correspondence, and litigation documents, provide a uniquely detailed glimpse into the legal activities of women.  Although these women were named as co-litigants with their husbands, they were often centrally involved in the administration and proceedings of their cases, especially when it concerned land or money they had brought into their marriages. They gave instructions to lawyers and legal agents, went to London to follow their cases in person, and ultilized legal devices to maintain control over their own property during marriage. As literate members of the elite, they also were familiar with the most important legal treatises of the day, and often displayed a remarkable depth of knowledge about the complicated workings of English property law. Focusing on the legal agency of these women calls into question how pervasive coverture really was in the early modern period, and reveals that women could be tenacious defenders of property they considered rightfully theirs.