Two Widows in the Court of Exchequer: Isabel Parkinson v Frances Parkinson

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.

Parkinson of Fairsnape crest. Gules on a cheveron between three ostrich feathers argent as many mullets sable
Parkinson of Fairsnape crest. Source:

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’.[1]

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’.[2]

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.[3]

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.

By Alice Whiteoak: PhD Student at the University of Hull and member of the Gender Place and Memory Research Cluster. You can follow her on twitter here and read more about her research here.

[1] The National Archives (TNA) E134/1659/Mich33: Depositions for the defendant, Jane Sager wife of Robert Sager of Goosnargh, aged 30.

[2] TNA E134/1659/Mich33: Depositions for the plaintiff, Thomas Mather of Warring, yeoman aged 27.

[3] TNA E126/8: Lancashire, 16th July 1659, Isabel Parkinson v Frances Parkinson.


Estate management during the Civil Wars: the case of Margaret Roper

The Gender Place and Memory research cluster hosts a team of researchers whose ongoing work is establishing how significant women were as managers of households and estates. From litigating for property and overseeing inheritance, to handling accounts and collecting household objects, women could play an integral role in the development and maintenance of property and land. What happened, however, when that estate was thrown into chaos by the events of the Civil Wars? This blog will explore the case of one woman, Margaret Roper, to see how she managed her estate during this turbulent period.

Section of an order from the Kent Sequestration Committee (TNA, SP 28/210/142)

The Ropers of Kent (descendants of Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret Roper) were known to be recusants and, as such, they were presented to the Quarter Sessions for not attending their local church during the 1630s.[1] In 1641, with divisions between Parliament and King growing, Parliament passed an Ordinance requiring the houses of recusants to be searched for arms. As a result of this search ‘several Chests or Trunks of the Length of a Musket, of a very great Weight, wherein it is conceived, are Arms and Ammunition’ were found in the house of Anthony Roper, Margaret Roper’s husband.[2] His lands were confiscated by Parliament, according to their policy of sequestering the estates of their enemies, and when he died the following year his widow Margaret was unable to access any part of his estate.

The confiscation of the Roper estate meant that local Parliamentary sequestration committeemen became responsible for collecting the rents from tenants and disbursing any money on estate repairs. So, not only was Margaret unable to collect the profits from the lands but the management of them was placed in the hands of local agents. This was bad news for Margaret’s estate. One of her tenants, John Menvill, asked the local sequestration committeeman if he could be abated his rents ‘owing to the barrenness of them’.[3] The account books of the sequestration committee show that her estate went from receiving 308li from tenants in 1646 to 119li in 1649 (from, roughly, £23,000 to £9,000 in modern money).[4] Furthermore, Margaret’s own house had fallen into disrepair and she needed 20li to repair it.[5]

The Roper Gate
Plaque that marks the location of The Roper Gate in St Dunstan’s Canterbury, Kent: the only remaining section of the Roper family house

Despite what her estate suffered as a consequence of the wars, Margaret was proactive in trying to achieve the best for herself and her family’s property. She joined numerous other widows in petitioning the central Parliamentary Committee to ask to pay a fine to regain her lands (although unfortunately that petition does not survive).[6] Furthermore, while Parliamentary agents should have been receiving the profits from Margaret’s property, they discovered in 1647 that she had been collecting rents from the entire estate.[7] Additionally, Margaret succeeded in obtaining money to repair her home in St Dunstan’s Canterbury, after her cousin Henry Roper wrote personally to a local Parliamentary agent to ask him to intervene on Margaret’s behalf.[8]

Margaret utilised her family connections, and even disregarded the confiscation order on her estates for a time, in order to maintain her estates during the Civil Wars. There is little doubt that the 1640s and 1650s were a challenging time for landowners. In addition to sequestration, the billeting of soldiers on people’s property and the plunder enacted by roaming armies all took their toll on civilians who managed land. Nevertheless, during this turbulent and chaotic period women remained vital as managers and defenders of estates for themselves and for future generations.

Post by Hannah Worthen, PDRA for the Gender Place and Memory research cluster. Follow her on twitter here and read more about her research here.

All images are author’s own

[1] Kent History and Library Centre, Presentment Roll, Q/SRp/1/m.1v.

[2] ‘House of Commons Journal Volume 2: 12 January 1642’, in Journal of the House of Commons: Volume 2, 1640-1643 (London, 1802), pp. 371-375.

[3] The National Archives (TNA), SP 28/210/160.

[4] TNA, SP 28/210/3; SP 28/210/12. Conversion made using The National Archive’s Currency Converter:

[5] TNA, SP 28/210/161.

[6] TNA, SP 23/3, p. 110.

[7] TNA, SP 28/210/159.

[8] TNA, SP 28/210/161, 162.


Pre-marital contracts: A study through history

Most people are familiar with the concept of a pre-nuptial agreement. The media is rife with salacious stories of celebrities whose marriage breakdowns are eased by the existence of a pre-nuptial agreement, and those who are drawn in to lengthy and costly proceedings over the lack of one. High profile cases, such as the 2016 divorces of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, spark debate and breed speculation whether a breakdown of marriage is anticipated by entering in to such agreements. Either way, these agreements appear relevant only to the rich and famous.

stormm blog
Married To An Old Maid — A Rake’s Progress series, by William Hogarth

It may perhaps be surprising therefore for readers to learn that marriage settlements (or a pre-nuptial agreement in modern parlance) were used far more widely in the early modern period than they are today, nor were they something only used by the wealthy. Planning for life beyond a parties’ marriage was not an uncommon feature of marriage preparation and negotiation in the early modern period. Families often wished to protect their daughter’s property from being absorbed into their son-in-law’s family. Many were concerned to ensure that their daughter’s husbands could not ‘kiss or kick’ from her property which would have reverted to her (and thus her natal family) upon her husband’s death.[1]

As such, many families began from the mid seventeenth century onwards to use trusts in order to secure a wife’s separate property. This usually gave her access to income but also protected the realty and personal capital from harm; most importantly, such trusts could be (and were) enforced through the law of equity.

One example of how trusts functioned is demonstrated through the life of a widow named Catherine Langwith. Catherine sought to protect her assets when embarking on her marriage to her second husband, the Reverend Robert Younge in 1782. In the settlement, Catherine secured £20 per annum for her own separate use. During their short and difficult marriage, Younge attempted to assign some marital property away, but was rebuffed by lawyers, who advised him that without her agreement, or a court order, he could not dispose of property against which Catherine’s separate estate was secured.[2] After four years of marriage, the parties entered in to a separation agreement, once more protecting Catherine’s assets from her husband. Catherine continued to demonstrate financial shrewdness when she corresponded with her cousin after the death of her estranged husband, determining that she would seek to recover all she could, ruminating that “we had better take the very Best Counsil opinion upon it.”[3]

The existence and implementation of marriage settlements has bred debate amongst historians, particularly as to whether they benefited women. Scholars such as Lloyd Bonfield and Amy Louise Erickson argued that settlements represented a shift towards greater equality[4] and gave women ‘more power over property than previously allowed.’[5] By contrast, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall suggested that trusts removed women’s independent economic agency over their estates and subsequently female access to the marketplace.[6]

It is these and other debates which inform my doctoral research. Over the next few years of my PhD research, I will be exploring women’s agency within early modern pre-marriage agreements, focusing in particular on the question of whether women had greater autonomy over their property than the letter of the law suggests. As is clear from the case of Catherine Langwith, even though trusts may have been set up to protect against overbearing husbands, many women were pro-active in using settlements for their own ends. Catherine would have been secure in the knowledge that such settlements were enforceable in equity. Today, a pre-nuptial agreement is only one factor that English courts will take in to account when deciding a disputed case. One reason given for this is that women may be pressurised into accepting an arrangement that is not in her best interests. As with Catherine Langwith, many eighteenth-century women were using legal devices with aplomb; perhaps the courts of today could reflect on these advantages.

In other words, examining the marriage settlements of the past may inform how we view pre-marriage arrangements of the future. In realising the extent to which pre-marriage settlements were used by a broad range of people in the early modern period, it may allow us to re-evaluate the benefit of using them now. This may also lead us to accept them as a feature of our everyday lives, rather than leaving us to uncomfortably peer and wonder at the private lives of the rich and famous.

Stormm Buxton-Hill, PhD Candidate, University of Hull

Image: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

[1] Courtney Stanhope Kenny, The History of the Law of England as to the Effects of Marriage on Property and on the Wife’s Legal Capacity (London: Reeves and Turner, 1879), p.204.

[2] UDDDU/21/25

[3] UDDDU/20/9

[4] Lloyd Bonfield, Marriage settlements, 1660-1740 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 120

[5] Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1995), p.19;

[6] Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 209-11