Ellen Mortemer c. William Chowe

Ellen Mortemer of Bermondsey sued William Chowe in 1492; all we have of the case is Chowe’s response to her submission, which we can infer involved a claim that the two of them had contracted marriage three or four years before. Chowe admitted that she and he had made conditional vows of marriage: as long as neither had already contracted with someone else, then they agreed to be betrothed. Chowe, however, said that on another occasion (presumably later), Ellen Mortemer admitted before “many trustworthy men” that she had, in fact, previously contracted with Robert Bancroft. If true, that made any promise that she made to Chowe null.

An interesting aspect of this examination is the way it was laid out on the page, suggesting that some revision had to be made after the initial writing up of the deposition, when somebody realized that a legal necessity had been omitted. The discussions at the beginning of Chowe’s examination emphasized the discussions he had with Ellen’s father, rather than with Ellen herself. After some discussion, Mortymer ended by saying, “I might find in my heart that ye shall have her to your wife.” Chowe responded with his own consent, with the proviso that she had made no previous contract. The response of Ellen herself was quite literally marginalized in the deposition; the scribe noted her presence at this discussion in the main body of the text, but her own words of consent to the marriage (without which there was legally no marriage) were squeezed into the margin as a later addition. “Whoops,” someone said. Sometimes, of course, errors and omissions were nothing but simple mistakes, but other times they were Freudian slips: in a social sense, for some couples it was really the agreement between the father and the aspirant son-in-law that was the “real” bargain, but the canon law of marriage put the significance on the woman’s consent, not her father’s, so someone had to go back and add that in.

LMA, MS DL/C/A/001/MS09065, fols. 114v-115r

Response of William Chowe, 17 Oct. 1492

Responses personally made by William Chowe, 16 October in the year of the Lord aforesaid, before Master Hugh Payntewyn, in his house, in the presence of Richard Wood.

William Chowe, sworn and examined on the positions etc. To the first position, he says that on the day of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist [24 Jun.], three or four years ago, after noon of that day, this witness went to the dwelling house of a certain Mortemer, the father of Ellen Mortemer, then living in a certain house next to the gate of St. Saviour in Bermondsey [Surrey],[1] in the diocese of Winchester. There and then Ellen’s father asked this witness with what intention he had come to his house, for good or for ill. This witness responded, “I have come to your house out of love for Ellen, your daughter,” adding these words in English or others similar in effect, “If it please you and her together, to have her to my wife.” And he said to this witness, “then ye be welcome, and if it so be that ye be a clear man and a free man, that is to say that ye be bond to no man nor woman, I may find in my heart that ye shall have her to your wife.” This witness responded to him, “And if Ellen your daughter likewise be a clear woman and a free from any man, and specially from Robert Bancroft, I might find in my heart to have her to my wife, and if she be not, I will never have to do with her.” And these words were spoken in the presence of Ellen Mortemer, who at that time spoke these words, “and if so be it ye be clear, I may find in my heart to have you to my husband.”[2] And to its other contents he responds negatively. To the second and third positions, he says as he said above, and he says that on several occasions this witness lent Ellen money which added up to the sum of 4 s. 6 d., and that he believes that he drank ale with Ellen twice in her father’s dwelling house and not more often. And to their other contents he responds negatively. To the fourth position, he says that what he said above to be true is true, and that he does not believe the fame.

Further at the petition of this witness the judge ordered it to be recorded in the register that on a certain day around three years ago, which day he cannot otherwise specify, Ellen Mortemer, in the presence of many trustworthy men, told this witness that on a certain day around the feast of the Epiphany [6 Jan.] four years ago now, Ellen and Robert Bancroft contracted marriage together and that she intended to be joined in marriage with Robert, as Ellen at that time asserted.

[1] A Cluniac priory. A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 2 (1967), pp. 64-77.

[2] “who at that time … husband”: this phrase inserted from the margin.

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