Insufficient witness in family court

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From the conversion of the English in the seventh century until the mid-19th century, family law was administered mainly by the ecclesiastical courts.

Northumberland was part of the diocese of Durham. People in Morpeth and elsewhere in the county had their cases dealt with at Durham. The proceedings were most likely held in the bishop's hall at Durham Castle.

Depositions are statements made on oath. The surviving depositions from 1311 to the reign of Elizabeth I were published in 1845 by the Surtees Society of Durham. The heading at the top of each entry identifies the case concerned, but we know nothing more about it except what we can pick up from the depositions themselves.

Our first case is that of Alice Richerdson against her husband John, in 1573. He was seeking a separation or a divorce, and it is clear that they were a Morpeth couple. The depositions are about a journeyman shoemaker called John Bell, who had evidently been called by the husband as a witness in the main case.

In the first deposition, ‘michery’, according to OED, meant ‘pilfering, thievishness, cheating, deception’, while ‘articulate’ meant ‘as previously recorded’. The Latin at the end means ‘the mark (X) of Thomas Hardy’. It is fairly obvious that the witnesses either couldn’t write, or were unused to it.

“Thomas Hardie, of Morpeith, shomaker, aged about 40 years.

"The said Aleis is and haith bein an honest woman; saing also he belyveth hir husband haith no just cause to be sondered from hir.

“He saith that John Bell, articulate, as this examinate belyveth, is no sufficient wytnes; for that bytwixt Christenmas and Easter last the said Bell dwelte with this deponent att Morpeith as his hyred man and for that he was suspecte of michery, and untreweth concerninge a shirt of one Thomas Somer, therfor the Alderman and his fellowes, of the occupacion of shomakers ther, put the said Bell from this examinate’s service, unto such tyme as he brought them a certificat from Newcastell concerninge the said shirt, which to this day the said Bell haith nott doon. — Signum + Thomae Hardie.”

Next came the owner of the missing shirt. A groat was worth fourpence. To ‘turn a riddle’ meant to solve a riddle or mystery.

“Thomas Somer, of Morpeith, showmaker, servaunt to Robert Turner, of Felton.

“He saith that the said Bell and this examinate was fellowes, and dwelt at Morpeith with the said Thomas Hardye ... bytwixt Christenmas and Easter last, in which tyme this deponent had his shirt goon, and made moch to doo for yt.

"And the said Bell moved this examinate to make no wonder for yt, and saide for a grote of this deponent’s pursse he shuld cause the said shirt to come againe, saying that he, the said Bell, reportyed that ther was a wyff in Newcastell, his cosinge, that culde torne the ryddle, &c.

"And within thre days next after this examinate found his said shirt that was a laking.

“And then the said Bell demandyd 4d. ... and this deponent wold nott agree to gyve the said Bell any thing unless he wold tell hym who had his said shirt he lacked.

“And upon this examinate’s talk, and the said Bell’s, there was such a romer in Morpeith that the Alderman and his fellowes of their ocupacion sent for (them) and in th’end they dischardged the said Bell frome workinge in that town to he had brought them a certificat frome the said wyffe of Newcastell that she could tell of things that weir stolne.

“And for that the said Bell dyd not so within 20 daies next after, as he was apointed, nor at all to this day wold cleir hym selff, therfor this deponent belyvith the said Bell to be no honest man, nor any sufficient wyttnes.”

The third witness knew him of old. A traverse is a formal denial in law.

“George Hopper, of Gatished, glover, aged 36 years.

“He saith that the said Bell is a great lyer, and taintyd of his tounge, denying his owne words byfore honest wyttnes, viz., Mr Hodgson, the parson of Gatished, one John Beke, and other; reportinge one tyme that this examinate wold have gyven hym, the said Bell, 20s. and a brodcloth remnant, at another 40s., to take ship and be noo wyttnes in the travers, and that one Francis Dixson and William Dixson shuld pay the said money, and that this examinate shuld be bound to see yt paid. — Signum + Georgii Hopper.”

Bell’s effrontery in trying to get money out of people is breathtaking. When he offered to “take ship and be no witness in the traverse” it meant that, if suitably bribed, he would go somewhere outwith the jurisdiction so as not to be a witness to somebody’s denial, but whose, and about what, we do not know.

So much of what we know about times past comes to us in disputes. Each party has to set out his or her case, and in so doing reveals things about everyday life that would not normally be written down.

Most striking is that, despite clearly not believing a word Bell said, the Alderman of the shoemakers' company took seriously Bell’s assertion that a certain “wife of Newcastle... could tell of things that were stolen".

Another is that the family and the business were inseparable from each other.

The term ‘family business’ did not exist — it was the only kind of business there was. Hence the earliest example of it in OED is not until 1784, over 200 years later.

Thomas Hardy was a master shoemaker. Bell and Somer worked for him for about four months. His shop, which in those days meant his workshop, would have been at the street front. By and large, the back parts of the premises, and the upstairs if it had them, were for domestic use.

As ‘hired men’, Somer and Bell didn’t live out, but were actually part of the family, and the same was true of Master Hardy’s apprentices, if any.

They would all have sat at the same table to eat. Mistress Hardy and her daughters or maidservants would have fed them and washed their clothes, including Thomas Somer’s famous shirt.