Despite the rigid once-you’re-married-it’s-for-life nature of medieval Catholic marriage, in practice people practised some DIY when it came to marriage dissolution. The case had two alleged self-divorces. It is a bit complicated, but here’s a guess at the back-story. Around 1469 or 1470, John Hill of Hadley, Middlesex, married a woman named Elizabeth Leg. They lived together for a few years and had at least two children. Something went wrong (maybe because it emerged she’d been married before?) and the marriage fell apart; subsequent developments suggest that Elizabeth must have moved away, possibly to Salisbury, likely her place of origin before marrying Hill. Fast forward to around 1484, when John Hill married again, this time to a woman named Emma Wright. They solemnized their marriage “in the face of the church,” as the expression went – before the whole congregation of the parish – without anyone apparently raising the question of what had happened to his first wife. Then in 1488 Elizabeth Leg alias Hill evidently showed up in Hadley, disrupting the marriage between John and Emma. John then took an offensive stance: he undertook a divorce (or annulment) suit against Elizabeth, alleging that before she had married him c1469, she had in 1466 married a man named Nicholas Sager of Salisbury in Fleet Street in London. He produced two witnesses who claimed to have witnessed that earlier marriage; Elizabeth Leg in turn produced two witnesses who testified to the bigamousness of John Hill’s second marriage. Leg’s case, though, did not answer the allegations of her earlier marriage: so simply on the basis of this testimony she would not have won the suit, though the judge might have been suspicious of this conveniently-remembered long-ago marriage to Sager.
LMA, MSS DL/C/A/001/MS09065B, fol. 16v; and DL/C/A/001/MS09065, fols. 47r-48v
Administration of case and Statement of John Hill, plaintiff, 19 Nov. 1488
[………] and Elizabeth Leg [……..] of Hadley [Middlesex], formerly of the city of Salisbury
John Hill of Hadley near Barnet [Middlesex] constitutes [as his representatives or lawyers in court] Evlyn, Ridon, Reed, Bell, Trap, Coke, Chaunt and Middelton and especially in the cause of divorce that John intends to bring against Elizabeth. And then John alleged that Elizabeth, before marriage was contracted and solemnized between him and her, had contracted with Nicholas Sager of Salisbury, and because of this he seeks divorce and that marriage be enforced between Elizabeth and Nicholas. And then the judge committed the cause to Master Thomas Widington doctor of decrees with the power of making sentence and giving judgement. Present James Mamsell and Richard Hokill witnesses etc.
Testimony of John Hunt, witness for the plaintiffs, 25 Nov. 1488
In the cause committed on behalf of John Hill and Emma Wright, on their submission against Elizabeth Leg alias Hill
John Hunt of the parish of St. Dunstan in the West, London, where he has lived for fifty years, sixty-three years old, as he says. Inducted as a witness, he says that he has known Elizabeth Leg for twenty-four years, Nicholas Sager for twenty-three years and more, and the other persons named in the submission he does not know. To the first part of the submission, he says that on the first Sunday of Lent twenty-two years ago [about Feb. 1466], in the afternoon as he recalls, he was in the dwelling-house of John Leper at the sign of the Three Pipes in Fleet Street, in the hall of the house, together with Elizabeth Leg, Nicholas Sager, William White, brewer, and Christian, the landlady of the house, now dead. Then and there after they had discussed for some time contracting marriage, at length Nicholas took Elizabeth by her right hand and said to her, “I Nicholas Sager take thee, Elizabeth Leg, to my wife, as long as my life lasteth, and thereto I plight you my troth.” and then Elizabeth said to Nicholas, “I Elizabeth take thee Nicholas Sager to my husband as long as my life lasteth, till death us depart, and thereto I plight thee my troth.” And they unclasped their hands and Nicholas immediately then and there gave Elizabeth a silver gemew. He knows nothing concerning solemnization and cohabitation and the other things brought forward in the part, as he says. And to the second part of the libel, he says that the things he said above are true, and he knows nothing concerning the fame.
Testimony of William White, witness for the plaintiffs, 25 Nov. 1488
William White, brewer, of the parish of St. Helen Bishopsgate, where he has lived for twelve years, illiterate, of free condition, sixty-four years old, as he says. Inducted as a witness etc., he says that he has known Elizabeth Leg for twenty-three years and Nicholas Sager for the same time. Questioned further about and on the contents in the submission, this witness agrees with John Hunt examined above, with this change, that he says that the contract was begun and made in a certain lower parlour near the hall of the house, and with this exception, that Christian Leper the landlady was not present at the contract, as far as he recalls, and with this addition, that he says that after the contract public voice and fame circulated in the parish, as he says.
Testimony of Roger Wright, witness for the defendant (or plaintiff of counter-suit), 4 Dec. 1488
On behalf of Leg on the libel against Hill and Wright
4 December, in my, Spencer’s, house
Roger Wright of Hadley [Middlesex], where he has lived for twenty years, illiterate, of free condition, forty years old and more, as he says. Inducted as a witness etc., he says that he has known Elizabeth Leg for seventeen or eighteen years, John Hill for nineteen, and Emma Wright for six years. To the first and second articles, he says that about eighteen or nineteen years ago, around the feast of the Purification [about 2 Feb. 1469 or 1470] as he recalls, which time he cannot further specify, he was present in the chapel at Barnet together with Richard Law, John, Elizabeth, and many others of both sexes, where and when a certain chaplain whose name he does not know solemnized marriage between Elizabeth and John following the custom of the church, but concerning the words of marriage spoken between them he does not know. But he says that he was present at the nuptial mass and also on that day he feasted with them as he believes. And he says that afterwards John Hill and Elizabeth for a year and more lived in the town of Barnet as husband and wife according to this witness’s knowledge. To the third article, he says as he said above. And he says that he believes that that they had a child. To the fourth article, he says that about four years ago, John and Emma Wright contracted marriage in the face of the church of Hadley, before Sir Thomas, chaplain, curate of the church, by these words, John saying to her, “I take thee to my wife, and thereto I plight thee my troth,” and she responding, “I take thee John to my husband, and thereto I plight thee my troth.” Other words usually spoken in the solemnization of marriage were spoken between them in the hearing and knowledge of this witness. Sir Thomas solemnized this marriage and celebrated the nuptial mass, at which this witness was present. And he says that since the solemnization, John and Emma have lived together as man and wife for three years and more. And he says that Elizabeth is still living as he believes, because he saw her safe and sound within the last three weeks. To the fifth article, he says that the things he said above are true, and that public voice and fame circulated and circulate both at Barnet and at Hadley concerning them, as he says.
Testimony of Richard Law, witness for the defendant (or plaintiff of counter-suit), 4 Dec. 1488
Richard Law of Hadley near Barnet, where he has lived for thirty years, illiterate, of free condition, fifty-three years old or thereabouts, as he says. Inducted as a witness etc., he says that he has known Elizabeth Leg for twenty years, John Hill for twenty years and more, and Emma Wright for five or six years. To the first, second, and third articles, he says that he heard banns proclaimed between John and Elizabeth in the church of Hadley eighteen or nineteen years ago, and he believes that the marriage was solemnized between them in the chapel of Barnet, but whether he was present at the solemnization or not this witness does not know. But he says that John and Elizabeth lived together as man and wife in the parish for five or six years, and procreated between them two or three children, for whom one, named Richard, this witness afterwards stood as godfather. And otherwise he knows nothing concerning their contents. To the fourth and fifth articles, he agrees with Roger Wright examined above.
 MS: trium tibearum. This does not necessarily mean a tavern or alehouse: residential houses also had names.
 A double ring (OED, s.v. gemew, 3).
 MS: in facie ecclesie