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Gender and Assault in Nottinghamshire in 1630

Erin Newman | Nottingham Trent University

In the Spring of 1630, a man named William Hardwick assaulted a constable in Nottingham. Although no specific motivation was outlined in the court records, it is likely that Hardwick’s act of violence was because he was defending his honour over a warrant actioned against him – a socially acceptable use of violence. In such instances, men were expected to defend their honour, as well as their families’, when it was deemed to be challenged either verbally or physically. Should there be a slight to their name or business, it would not be unexpected for their response to turn physical.

Examining seventeenth-century gendered ideals and expectations provides an insight into what drove these violent actions, which were committed by both sexes. Although gender stereotypes have more often associated men with violent acts, there were situations where women’s violence could be deemed acceptable, particularly in times of war when there were already various challenges to societal norms or when they felt their household was in danger. These situations could be an acceptable use of violence as both sexes would be adhering to gendered ideals but still challenging societal expectations by undermining the law.

Image 1 - Henry Thomas Alken – Pencil Sketch - Three Men in Seventeenth Century Dress in Street Sword Fight.
Henry Thomas Alken – Pencil Sketch - Three Men in Seventeenth Century Dress in Street Sword Fight.

Interestingly, for the year 1630, all recorded cases of assault - the crime of trying or threatening to hurt someone physically - concerned attacks on a constable; and were particularly associated with the remit of the constable’s responsibility to the Court. During the seventeenth century, the constable’s role was obligatory and without remuneration. To be a constable, you had to be a householder, which meant this was usually a role for the wealthier community members. Elements of their role included executing court warrants, upholding the morals of their neighbourhood, and collecting taxes. It could therefore be a contentious and risky role to hold amongst their fellow parishioners. This likely exacerbated the case of William Hardwick, who, as a fellow parishioner of the constable, could not separate the man from the office. The constable’s role was an extension of the court within the parish; thus, while these instances of assault were an attack on the individual, they might also represent a challenge to the judicial authority.

The case studies in this article are from the Nottinghamshire Quarter Session records, which for seventeenth-century Nottinghamshire was something of a peripatetic court that dealt with minor felonies.[i] Only one woman was charged with the crime of assault here in 1630. The same gender trend can be seen in all crimes that include an element of violence, be it a violent disturbance or physical violence (Abuse, Affray, Assault, Beating, Disorder, Rioting, Rescue – forcibly freeing another from arrest or imprisonment - or any combination of the above). For instance, 127 violent crimes were recorded, and irrespective of the outcome, a significantly higher proportion of men were involved in committing violent crimes than women – 90% of those involved in these violent crimes were men.

Erin Newman – Bar Graph - Proportion of male/female offenders for individual violent crimes in 1630 Nottinghamshire.
Proportion of male/female offenders for individual violent crimes in 1630 Nottinghamshire. (By the Author).

For each type of violent crime, men were consistently the higher proportion of offenders, as indicated within the graph. This shows that men were recorded in court minutes (or papers) more often than women for violent offences and suggests that women were less criminally violent than men as there were a significantly smaller proportion of women at court for these crimes. It may be the case that fewer women committed these crimes, but these statistics could equally suggest that there was a reluctance to charge women with violent crimes due to their sex.

These assumptions regarding the criminality of each sex are intrinsically linked to seventeenth-century gender ideals. Women were expected to be pious, silent, and obedient to the patriarchal figure of the house. They were situated within and were largely in charge of the domestic sphere. Therefore, women’s violence was largely determined as a dysfunction – a challenge to the norms of what was acceptable female behaviour both in and out of the household, undermining the ideal of the virtuous, silent, feminine being. Although aggression was still considered a vice in terms of loss of self-control, male violence was legitimated in certain circumstances.

For the case involving the only female offender, Elizabeth Briggs of Gringley-on-the-Hill, more detail is given within the Quarter Sessions Minute Book: Elizabeth was indicted for contempt for assaulting a man named John Crosse and abusing the constable with ‘scandalous words’. The use of scandalous words is often associated with women. For instance, the crime of scolding, generally understood as a public nuisance through the use of violent or quarrelsome language, had a greater association with women than men. Thus, it is key to note here that Elizabeth enforces these stereotypes of women’s use of verbal violence but also undermines them by enacting physical violence through her assault. Elizabeth is also listed as a wife; this provides insight as to the motivation for the crime. For instance, should her husband encourage her violence in a criminal act, it would be expected, as the dutiful wife, that she obey his directives. But Elizabeth could also have been enacting her role as protector of domestic relations and supporting her husband. For instance, if she felt that her husband was in need of assistance, particularly if there was contention around the warrant or the way it was being executed, then as part of her duties to her husband, she could participate in the assault. Women’s violence could certainly be seen as acceptable if she were deemed to be protecting what she had rights to.

Unknown – Ballad - A Bloody Battle for the Breeches, or, The Woman's Malice Abated- Being a Full and True Account of a Desperate Battle Between Peter Painter and Dorothy Bold-Face His Wife.
Unknown – Ballad - A Bloody Battle for the Breeches, or, The Woman's Malice Abated- Being a Full and True Account of a Desperate Battle Between Peter Painter and Dorothy Bold-Face His Wife.

In 1643 Lady Brilliana Harley armed and defended her home, Brampton Bryan Castle in Herefordshire, during the absence of her husband and sons, and she refused to surrender the castle to Royalist’s hands. This created a unique circumstance where a wife could undermine the idealised expectations of non-violence but still uphold what it meant to be a wife in supporting her husband. Such women, like Elizabeth and Brilliana, were feared within their parishes because of their transgressive behaviour; if they could undermine the ideal of passive femininity by adopting more masculine traits, such as violence, then there were concerns over how this could affect idealised notions of marriage, gender, and the parish itself.

Also listed within this Quarter Session for assault on the constable is James Briggs. He was also from Gringley-on-the-Hill, and although not specifically outlined within the records, James and Elizabeth were likely husband and wife. It is crucial to note here the difference in the punishment outcomes for these cases. James was committed - although there is no indication of whether this was to a House of Correction or Gaol or how long the sentence was. This suggests seventeenth-century beliefs that men were more criminally culpable. However, it is also possible that as husbands were seen as responsible for their wives, the husband received a greater punishment, not only for his own actions but for failing to control his wife, no matter her motivations. James Briggs was also charged with affray, another crime of violence and disorder, in October of the same year; thus he was a persistent offender of such crimes, which may also account for his committal.

For Elizabeth, a warrant for her good behaviour was renewed at the court. This could be indicative of women receiving lesser punishments as they were deemed less criminally culpable. If it was felt that a wife was encouraged or forced into her criminality by her husband, then she may be looked upon favourably and receive a lesser punishment, in this instance, a warrant of good behaviour or to keep the peace – a punishment in aid of maintaining the parish morality. Still, Elizabeth’s contempt and scandalous words suggest that she employed her own agency in the assault she committed.

Examining the crime of assault in Nottinghamshire in 1630 shows how various aspects of gendered ideals can either be supported or challenged by a person’s criminal actions. It also provides insight into perceived gendered notions about certain crimes and punishments. Both men and women could challenge and adhere to seventeenth-century gender expectations such as self-control, passivity and obedience whilst undermining the legal authority within the parish.


[i] Crimes which did not require punishment by death.

Primary Sources:

  • William Hardwick of Nuthall – Listing’ Nottingham, (5th April 1630) – Nottinghamshire Archives – Quarter Sessions Minute Book Transcripts – C/QSM 1/74/1

  • Elizabeth Briggs of Gringley-on-the-Hill – Warrant’ Nottingham, (January 1630) – Nottinghamshire Archives – Quarter Sessions Minute Book Transcripts – C/QSM 1/74/1

  • James Briggs of Gringley-on-the-Hill – Listing’ Nottingham, (January 1630) – Nottinghamshire Archives – Quarter Sessions Minute Book Transcripts – C/QSM 1/74/1

Further Reading:

  • Patricia Crawford and Sarah Mendelson, Women in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

  • Alexandra Shepard, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

  • Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

  • James A. Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England 1550-1750, Second edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2014).

  • Ann Hughes, Gender and the English Revolution, (Oxon: Routledge, 2012).

Erin is a third-year PhD student at Nottingham Trent University, her interests are in naughtiness, violence, and the criminal underworld during the seventeenth century. This was established through her BA in English and History and a Masters in Historical Studies from the University of Lincoln, where she currently holds an Associate Lecturer position. She is also Seminar Co-convenor and member of the Steering Committee for the Women’s History Network. Her PhD thesis centres on Gender and Criminality in the East Midlands during the Civil War and Interregnum period.

Twitter: @Erin_History


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