The Bradshaws and the death of John Bell

In the spring of 1519, one John Bell was found dead at Westminster. A married couple – Robert and Joan Bradshaw – were accused in his death. The inquest jurors stated that Robert Bradshaw, yeoman of Westminster, attacked Bell between 9 and 10 pm with a sword, giving Bell a mortal wound from which he died five days later. Joan Bradshaw, Robert’s wife, was feloniously present there at the time of the felony, “helping, procuring, abetting, and comforting” Robert in his commission of the homicide – making her an accessory to homicide, also a capital offence.

The couple immediately fled to sanctuary at nearby Westminster Abbey. They were never brought to trial: Robert was outlawed in 1521, and Joan was “waived,” the women’s equivalent of outlawry, in 1523.


This is a relatively ordinary homicide, with a few unusual twists. Regular readers of these posts will have noticed that women show up very rarely as seekers: I have found only eleven women who took sanctuary for felony or treason between the 1380s and 1540s, of whom Joan was one.

One reason women sanctuary seekers were rare is that they were a small minority of accused felons: they were likely accused infrequently because (a) men really did commit more felonies; and (b) the structures of accusation and prosecution simply assumed that violence was gendered male.

We see one of the curious aspects of this structural gendering of the criminal law in the different terms for men and women being put outside the law: a man was an “outlaw” while a woman was a “waif” (an outcast from society). Though the practical effects were the same, I wonder why another term was thought necessary. I’m not sure if anyone has worked on the terminology of “waiving.” To me it sounds as if women could not be designated “out of the law” because they were never really quite “in” it.

TNA, KB 9/970, m. 10; TNA, KB 29/151, m. 1d. Top image Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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