Abduction and women’s agency: Elizabeth Venour, warden of the Fleet Prison

This one is a doozy. In 1461, Elizabeth Venour’s husband William died. William had held, through Elizabeth’s inheritance, a lucrative gig as warden of the Fleet Prison for debtors, just west of London.

On her husband’s death, Elizabeth retained the wardenship (and acted in that capacity – an unusually public role for a woman) and the properties that went with it. But William Babington, a relative, also claimed the office and challenged her for it.

This controversy was roiling when a dramatic event intervened: one day in 1462 as Elizabeth was crossing Chelsea Heath, she was abducted by a large party of armed men led by one Robert Worth, gentleman of London.

Some of his accomplices were arrested but Worth himself fled to Westminster sanctuary, taking Elizabeth with him. They married soon after in the sanctuary and lived there together for a while. So – as people asked then, and historians ask now – was this really a forced abduction or ravishment (as it was then termed)? Or had Elizabeth Venour gone willingly with Robert Worth – was this, in other words, a staged abduction? Connectedly, did Elizabeth consent to the subsequent marriage, or was she forced, making the marriage invalid?

The evidence is unclear. On the one hand, she apparently stayed voluntarily with him in the sanctuary for some time following the marriage, refusing relatives’ attempts to persuade her to leave. And she became pregnant.

On the other hand, when informed that continuing to acknowledge the marriage meant losing her estates and offices to her rival Babington, she had the marriage annulled. Babington sued her, forcing her to argue the whole episode had been against her will, as any consent on her part meant her property was forfeit according to an abduction statute.

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The main focus of concern in the statute (6 Ric 2 stat 1 c6) was property; if the woman agreed to marry the abductor, she lost her property. This was meant to discourage abductors, who were thought to be stealing inheritances as much as women by abducting propertied women.

Though early 20th century historians who wrote on this case assumed Venour was actually coerced by Worth the whole time, or had come to love her abductor afterwards, recent scholarship by Caroline Dunn and others on abduction in England supports the interpretation that Elizabeth was complicit all along.

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My guess is that Elizabeth Venour had a long-range plan after the abduction itself didn’t work (a miscalculation? Worth’s plan rather than hers in the first place?). She would repudiate the marriage; get the wardenship securely in her hands; then circle back and pick up the marriage again.

Whether or not it was her plan, that was how it ended: Venour and Babington settled out of court that she would hold the wardenship for life. Then the annulment was reversed, and the marriage to Robert Worth was back on, and she and Worth apparently managed the Fleet prison together.

NB: this isn’t a tale that shows that “patriarchy isn’t so bad because women can still get what they want” story: Venour couldn’t hold the wardenship and property that went with it without a man to help her. Maybe it was a “love story,” but most obviously it is a story of how women had to work within the structures of patriarchy (staging abduction, marrying man who could act as her proxy) to be able to take up an inheritance a male heir might have been able to step into unproblematically. End of sermon.

See Justice Tyrwhit‘s blog post for details on the lawsuit; and for other refs, C. H. Williams, “A Fifteenth-Century Lawsuit,” The Law Quarterly Review 40 (1924), & M. Bassett, “The Fleet Prison in the Middle Ages,” U of Toronto Law Journal 5 (1944).

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