In 1676, after around sixteen years of unhappy marriage, Grace Allenson sued her husband Charles for separation on the grounds of cruelty. Grace Allenson's Libel alleged that throughout their married life he had verbally abused her, cursing her, threatening her, and calling her 'filthy and opprobrious names'. More serious still was his physical abuse. As is typical of other cruelty separations from this period, the violence Grace described was constant and life threatening. She enumerated the occasions when he beat her black with bruises, kicked her from one chamber to another, and threw her headlong down the stairs at their home in Peasholme Green, York. Like wife beaters of any period, Charles also attacked his wife when she was pregnant. Grace concluded her Libel by accusing Charles of turning her out of their home and refusing to support her and their children. Indeed, this was perhaps the final spur for Grace to seek legal intervention and the restoration of her husband's financial maintenance. After all, she would receive a sympathetic hearing given the firmly held conviction that men were financially responsible for their families.
Charles, a substantial vintner bearing the title of 'Esquire', had the means to mount a defence against Grace’s case. Charles Allenson's Personal Response attacked her on several fronts. It claimed that the two were not married in Church and that Grace had left him in the past. He denied abusing her, and explained that she had to leave their house because it was claimed in satisfaction of a debt. Charles also declared that he had already spent a great deal on supporting and educating their seven children, and that his financial affairs were precarious since he was weak and sickly. More specifically, he set out to counter Grace's image of herself as a model wife by describing her as disobedient, aggressive, and violent. He claimed that she was 'usually p[ro]vokeing and disobligeing', used 'uncivill and provokeing speeches and language to him' when they were at dinner together with their children, that she had scratched him so that he was forced to wear patches to disguise the marks, spit in his face, thrown knives and candlesticks at him, and threatened to poison him. He concluded that she had taken several items of valuable property from their home, including silver, jewellery, and bed linen.
Grace now produced her Personal Response to Charles's Allegation, in which she rejected his claims of poor financial and physical health and denied that she had attacked or provoked him. She admitted that she had taken the goods itemised, but explained that some were her own goods before marriage, others were her clothes, and the rest was linen for the child she bore. Grace's sense of ownership and right to these goods offers a surprising insight into contemporary understandings of possessions during marriage. After all, women lost ownership of their personal property at marriage under the common law doctrine of coverture. Yet, as Grace's response to Charles's accusation of conveying away his goods reveals, married women continued to feel a sense of ownership over property that they had brought to marriage, especially that which they wore or regularly used.
The court questioned witnesses as part of the process of determining whether Grace's plea for separation could be granted. Twenty-seven witnesses were seen, answering questions based upon Grace's Libel and Charles's Interrogatories, which were a list of questions that he specified for certain witnesses. Several were former domestic servants to the Allensons, and they portrayed Grace as a virtuous wife and mother, the victim of Charles's irrational fury. Frances Turner, of Skewsby, a 28-year old spinster, for example, recalled that Grace was 'very submissive, dutifull and respective' to her husband and 'like a good wife she constantly endeavoured to please him, and studied to avoid all occasions that might give him offence or provoke him to anger'. In her opinion, Charles made Grace's life such a 'torment' that she 'wonders that she was able to endure all she didd'. Some servants even went beyond the original accusations and remembered additional instances of Charles's cruelty. Margaret Green, 24, who had been their household servant until the previous Martinmas, listed his impossible demands and his abuse of his household authority. She recalled that when Grace was once ill, Charles had taken the bedstaff [a wooden stave used to support the bed hangings] and made a great noise with it to disturb her. Only Margaret Redmaine, a friend of the couple, offered a less critical view of Charles. She said that she hadn't seen any violence and that Grace did 'give bad language and tart replyes' to her husband, and would call him rogue when he called her quean. The rector Lucas Mawburne, 38, astutely recognised the awful paradox for beaten wives. He observed that if Grace had not been an 'obedient wife and submitted and complyed with all his ill humours' he would have done her some mischief. Of course he still did, despite her compliance.
In the event the case was decided in favour of Grace:; the court delivered sentence in favour of her separation in December 1676 and her proctor presented a bill for her expenses to be paid: it was usual for the party which lost the case to pay expenses of both sides.
Joanne Bailey, Oxford Brookes University