Joan Austy c. William Codding

This case involves a complicated love quadrangle and allegations of poisoning in Whitechapel on the east end of London. We have in the Consistory records only the February 1487 examination of the defendant, William Codding, perhaps some months into the case (other records do not survive). Joan Austy had sued him, alleging that they had contracted marriage, after he solemnized marriage with another woman, also named Joan. The dispute between Codding and Austy must have become heated as Codding admitted that about a month before this appearance in the Consistory he had had Austy arrested for threatening to poison his wife.

Other records give us some backstory: Codding had also appeared in a lower-level church court, the Commissary court,1 in relation to these same issues: Codding (whose parish was there given as St Mary Matfelon, or Whitechapel) and Austy had had a sexual relationship that produced two children while she was still married to a previous husband. Though the Commissary records indicate that the two of them had then contracted marriage following her husband’s death, there were a hurdle to completing this marriage: a quirk of medieval marriage law made it unlawful to marry someone with whom one had committed adultery during a previous marriage. This was technically known as the “impediment of crime”: the rationale was to remove a motive for spousal murder. Though it seems that this impediment was not enforced often,2 it may have been raised in this case, or perhaps Codding was just looking for an excuse. In any case Codding then dropped Austy for another woman: his marriage to the second Joan in September 1486 took place very soon after the two of them were given public penance for their adultery. That left Austy in a difficult position with no husband and two children: who knows whether she really did try to poison the new wife of William Codding but, even if she had, that would not have solved her problem. The terms of this examination – especially the positive statement that the second Joan is “now [Codding’s] wife” – suggest that by the time of this examination Joan’s suit in the Consistory had already been lost.

1See LMA, DL/C/B/043/MS09064/002, fols. 151v, 152v.

2See Helmholz, Marriage Litigation, 94-98.

LMA, MS DL/C/A/001/MS09065, fol. 14v

Testimony of William Codding, Defendant, 1487-02-23

Summary: Admits that Joan Austy prosecuted him in the Consistory court because he had arranged the solemnization of marriage between himself and another woman named Joan, and that since 29 September 1486, he and the other Joan had been husband and wife. Admits to having procured about January 1487 a royal writ to arrest Joan Austy for trespass because she previously threatened to poison his wife.

William Codding sworn etc. concerning the interrogatories etc. To the first, second, and third interrogatories, he admits that Joan Austy prosecuted him in the Consistory of London because he procured the solemnization of marriage between himself and Joan, now this witness’s wife, from the last feast of St. Michael [1], and that he was cited and on a Wednesday within the last month, which day he cannot further specify, he was examined. To the fourth interrogatory, he says that about a month ago this witness acquired a royal writ from the lord kings exchequer to arrest Joan on an action of trespass because she had previously threatened to poison his wife, and no one counselled him to do this. On the fifth interrogatory, he says that on Wednesday around a fortnight after the citation on the same day […], Joan was arrested by virtue of the writ at the instance of this witness and no one counselled him about doing this, as he says. To the sixth interrogatory, he responds negatively to all its contents.

[1] 29 Sept.

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