What was the legal solution when two widows presented identical claims to a large portion of land and a property? And, what if both of their claims were supported by the wills of their deceased husbands?
The Court of Exchequer is most commonly known as a financial department of medieval and early modern English government. Yet, it also heard equity cases across the early modern period. Despite being a smaller alternative to the Court of Chancery, it drew a wide range of cases and, like Chancery, was often used strategically to counter-sue. Whilst Exchequer court records have been referenced in research that considers equity courts and women’s experience of the law, few histories are available that consider the equity side of the Exchequer specifically and none offer a focused exploration of women’s use of the court.
In 1659 Isabel Parkinson filed a suit in Exchequer against her mother-in-law Frances Parkinson, in retaliation to a suit in the Court of Common Pleas. The dispute centred on three large portions of land spread across parts of Lancashire in Fairsnape, Bleasdale and Blindhurst as well as a property in Heysham. Frances’ husband, Robert Parkinson, had died eighteen years earlier and, in lieu of Frances’ dower, had left her the land and property in Heysham to be used for the remainder of her life. Their son, George Parkinson (who died two years before the suit was taken to Exchequer) left his wife Isabel the same land and property in his will, in lieu of her dower.
Taking the accounts of Isabel and Frances together, an interesting story is revealed. Following Robert’s death in 1641, Frances moved into the property in Heysham, which his will stated was for her use until she died. Isabel argued that Frances had accepted this land and property as her dower in full, which Frances denied. In February 1651, Frances leased the same land and property to Robert Lords and William Clifton, taking a yearly rent of £20. It was during this time that George Parkinson, Frances’ son and the executor of his father’s will, married Isabel. In 1656 George sold his inherited land and property in Bleasdale to Thomas Blackburne, Isabel’s father. Whilst Isabel stated that her mother-in-law agreed to this sale, Frances denied this. She laid claim to the lands and took out two writs of dower against Isabel and her father at the Assizes in 1658.
Frances’ Answer and corresponding depositions largely focus on the dishonesty of Isabel’s claims and the deceitful practice of her son George. According to Frances and a number of witnesses, George had visited Frances at her property in Goosnargh a month before his death and asked to borrow her lease to the property and the lands in Heysham. Frances had agreed to this and George had assured her that he would return the lease within the week. Witnesses confirmed that he did not return it, and when Frances demanded that he do, he told her that:
‘it was then in his trunk at home safely locked up and that he had then forgot it but the next time he came he would bring it her or send it within a week’s time…about a fortnight after the said George Parkinson died’.
Whilst Isabel claimed that Frances was aware and supportive of all decisions made regarding the inherited land and property of Robert Parkinson, the main focus of her claim was on the character and behaviour of her mother-in-law, specifically in regard to her use of the land and property left to her. Whilst one witness recalled Frances saying that the collection of the rent was all she had, Isabel and many more witnesses recounted how she had greedily claimed that she would take as much as she could:
‘it was true she had enjoyed or taken the said profits of the said tenement since her husband’s death and that she intended to have it during the continuance of the lease if so long she lived but although she had received the profits of that she would have more if she could get it’.
Ultimately, the court gave credence to Isabel’s account of a greedy widow who had incurred large legal fees for both parties across numerous jurisdictions, laid claim to land and property that she had no right to, as well as unfairly and in an unequitable manner, enjoyed the profits, rent and use of the land and property in Heysham. Frances was ordered to pay £179 and 1 shilling to Isabel for damages and anguish, or to repay the profits that she had taken from Heysham since she had started taking rent in 1651.
This case is not only a testament to the richness of Exchequer court narratives, but more broadly it is indicative of the value of exploring the voices behind litigation. Narratives such as these reveal the multifaceted nature of litigation, as well the strategies employed by a combination of women and their legal counsel to fight for their rights in English equity law.
 The National Archives (TNA) E134/1659/Mich33: Depositions for the defendant, Jane Sager wife of Robert Sager of Goosnargh, aged 30.
 TNA E134/1659/Mich33: Depositions for the plaintiff, Thomas Mather of Warring, yeoman aged 27.
 TNA E126/8: Lancashire, 16th July 1659, Isabel Parkinson v Frances Parkinson.