‘He moved his backside and body as mankind do when in copulation with womankind’ Bestiality in eighteenth-century Wales

**Content warning: this post contains details of a sexual nature which some readers may find offensive or upsetting**

In keeping with last week’s raunchy theme, I thought I’d write about a court case relating to a far more extreme form of sexually deviance. I bring to you the tale of John Hughes, a farm labourer in Denbighshire in the eighteenth century, who was allegedly caught ‘in the act’, as it were, with one of his father’s cows.

The account, as recalled by neighbour Morris Edwards, a farmer, was recorded in a pre-trial witness deposition and can be found in the Court of Great Sessions gaol files held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Here’s a Full Transcription of Morris’s witness statement.

On a June morning in 1772, Morris visited his neighbour David Hughes (the accused’s father) to see if one of his sheep had strayed into David’s flock. As Morris searched the neighbourhood for his missing sheep, he spied John herding three cows through his father’s field.

And that’s when things start to get a bit strange. Morris claimed he saw John chase after two of the cows, but neither would cooperate. The third cow, a medium sized red brindle cow, proved more docile, and John was able to get her into position. Morris said he then saw John drop his breeches, wrap his arms around the hindquarters of the cow and, move ‘his backside and body as mankind do when in copulation with womankind’ for about a quarter of an hour or so. All this time the cow apparently stood there still, with her head hung low.

When he was finished, John pulled up his trousers, and that was that. Crucially, Morris testified that he didn’t actually see John penetrate the cow. Morris never confronted John, and only confessed what he saw to a neighbour several months later in the autumn of that year. He was formally examined by a justice of the peace two years later. However, John wasn’t indicted for the crime of bestiality, and the case was dropped.

Morris’s testimony is interesting for a number of reasons, and not only because it appears to capture what was intended to be a private, deviant sexual act. However, it is possible that John Hughes never actually engaged in a sex act with this poor cow. Morris may have spun this rather salacious story to tarnish the reputation of his neighbour, who he believed stole one of his sheep. John wasn’t tried for the crime, which was likely due to a lack of evidence. Proof of penetration would have been required as evidence that, ‘the detestable crime of bestiality with a cow’ actually took place, but Morris said outright that he did not actually see Morris penetrate the cow. Despite the fact that this case never made it to trial, John’s neighbours undoubtedly knew about the accusations, and the stigma of this alleged event would have hung over John’s head for some time.

Another interesting feature of this, and most bestiality trials from Wales in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, are the profiles of the accused and their victims. In total, between 1730 and 1830, twenty-one men were accused of bestiality across Wales. These included servants, yeoman, labourers, mariners, farmers and an earthenware seller named William Shakespeare (I’m not making this up). So, all were from relatively lower down the socioeconomic ladder. Only one man – and eighteen-year-old servant – was actually convicted of the crime, but the reasons for this aren’t clear.

In addition, in all but two cases, the sex of the animal is given, and in all of these the animals are female. So, despite the fact that these men were allegedly engaging in sexual activity with animals, they still opted for the ‘appropriate’ sex (by eighteenth century standards, that is).

The last observation from all of these records challenges a long-standing derogatory assumption about Welshmen. Out of twenty-one alleged instances of bestiality in Wales, not a single case involved a sheep.



Wait, that’s not a prayer! When parish records turn raunchy

Anyone who’s spent countless hours researching in the archives knows the feeling of elation that comes over you when you find that proverbial needle in the haystack. Whether it’s a letter, a diary, a parish register entry, or a court deposition, locating those bits of evidence that fill gaps in your research makes all the dusty, eye straining, physically uncomfortable effort worthwhile.

This post isn’t about that. This post is about those times you come across seemingly out of place random miscellany that reminds you that the past isn’t really all that foreign after all. When you’ve spent several days searching and photographing the same sorts of material – some of which can be quite grim – over and over these little gems can bring some much needed comic relief. Especially when the file you’re digging through looks like this.

Meifod WTF (2)

Meifod parish records, held by Powys Archives Office (photo: Angela Muir)

These are some of the parish documents dating from the middle of the eighteenth century for the parish of Meifod, formerly in the county of Montgomeryshire, now held by Powys Archives Office. Tucked away in one of these folders was a small, modern envelope with, ‘’PRAYERS’ CAREFUL! LOOSE PAPERS’ written on it in felt marker. Inside that envelope was this acrostic little gem:


Powys Archives Office M/EP/41/O/RT/1 (photo: Angela Muir)

A knight delights in deeds of armes,

Perhaps a Lady loves sweet musicks charms

Ritch men in store of wealth delighted be

Infants love dangling on their mothers knee

Coy maids love something, nothing I’ll express

Know the first letters of these lines and guess



Yes, dear readers, this is a raunchy, eighteenth-century riddle about a penis carefully filed away in church records. The identity of the writer, and how and why this little scrap ended up tucked away with prayers for ailing parishioners is a mystery. The idea that this could have been a cheeky parishioner sneaking a bit of smutty poetry into the prayer box to shock an unpopular and over-serious church official is both amusing and appealing, but that’s speculative at best.

Regardless of this bawdy little poem’s provenance, it is clear that having a dirty mind is not a modern invention.


Do you have your own archival randoms? Please share in the comments.


The Will of Frances Hughes, a 17th Century Welsh Midwife


The Last Will and Testament of Frances Hughes of Haverfordwest, Midwife
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

Frances Hughes was a midwife and widow who died in Haverfordwest in 1700. The only clues we have of her existence are found in her will, which was drafted on 26 April of that year. She died just a few days later.

We know nothing of her age at the time of her death, the details of her former occupation or that of her late husband (or husbands), but her will does provide some fascinating evidence about her circumstances at the time of her death, and offers a few tantalising clues about what appears to have been a long and perhaps eventful life.

At the time of her death she lived in a five room house consisting of two bed chambers, a garret, a small parlour and a kitchen. This in itself suggests she must have had some degree of wealth during her life as this was a substantial size house for the time, even in a market town such as Haverfordwest. Throughout Wales in the early modern period most homes were small and sparsely furnished, with single-room dwellings and small cottages being common. Frances, or at least her late husband, was likely one of the more well-off members of the town.

Despite the size of her home the moveable possessions recorded in her probate inventory were valued at the modest sum of £12. To put this in perspective, a study of fifty-six spinster wills from the Diocese of St David’s between 1700 and 1715 revealed a range of inventory values from as little as 2d to as much as £322, with many under £20, and eighteen with £10 or less.* A large portion of these women were rural householders able to maintain themselves through subsistence farming, however most lived in much smaller houses.  It would appear that Frances had a substantial house with a modest but comfortable level of wealth. She was essentially house rich but cash poor(ish) in an early modern sense.

At the time of her death Frances was likely quite old, which is made brutally evident by the repeated and somewhat bleak use of the adjective ‘old’ before virtually every item in the probate inventory drawn up following her death. Her inventory consisted primarily of domestic goods, including three bedsteads, featherbeds, tables, chairs, a chest of drawers, a rug, linens, clothing and a parcel of old wool, as well as kitchen goods such as pewter dishes and plates, brass pots and pans, a cauldron, spits and a dripping pan, billows and skillet.

She’s was far from wealthy when she died, but it doesn’t appear as though she was suffering in abject poverty either. That she possessed a range of household goods suggests she was living in her own home and was able to support herself at the time of her death, although the pattern of bequests in her will does suggest one of her children may have been caring for her.

Bequest to Gwillum Sons

Bequest to Frances Hughes’s Sons
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

In her will Frances listed six surviving children from at least two different marriages, all of whom had different levels of independence. She left one shilling to a son named John Roberts, who was a millwright; ‘seventeen or eighteen shillings’ to her son Joseph Gwillum, a farmer, to buy a ring; forty shillings to her son Thomas Gwillum, who had no occupation given; one shilling and some clothes to her daughter Sibley Davies of Sutton; one shilling to her son Richard Gwillum, a smith. The rest of her estate and clothing was left  her daughter Ann Bowen and granddaughter Mary Bowen. Ann was also made executrix of the will.

This discrepancy in bequest is not necessarily indicative of favouritism, but is likely a reflection of her children’s own level of independence. John Roberts and Richard Gwillum, the two children who were left the least, were both in occupations in which they could conceivably sustain themselves more readily. Given their professions of millwright and smith they were probably in better financial positions than her other children. Likewise her son Joseph Gwillum, who was a farmer, was bequeathed less than his brother Thomas, who appears to have had no notable occupation, and therefore may have been in worse financial circumstances.  Her daughter Sibley was likely married and living in a more stable, sustainable circumstances resulting in her smaller bequest as well.

Bequest to Ann Bowen

Bequest to Ann and Mary Bowen
National Library of Wales SD/1700/56

This leaves Ann Bowen and her daughter Mary Bowen who inherited the majority of Frances’s possessions. Although we can’t know for certain it is possible that Ann and Mary were living with Frances in a reciprocal relationship with Ann providing care for ageing her mother and Frances providing a home for her daughter and granddaughter. It is quite possible that Ann was herself a widow who would have been in a much more precarious financial situation than her siblings, thus warranting her receipt of the lion’s share of her mother’s possessions. Furthermore, that Frances appointed Ann to be her executrix suggests that Ann had a clearer understanding of her mother’s wishes, which would be the case were they living in the same house.

Another interesting clue about Frances’s life comes from the differences in surnames of her sons. These suggest she had been married and widowed at least twice if not three times. John Roberts was probably her eldest surviving child from her first marriage, with the remaining three Gwillum sons from her second. But Frances herself was neither a Roberts nor a Gwillum at the time of her death – she was a Hughes. The husband who predeceased her was not mentioned in her will, but it is possible that she had been married and widowed a third time.

And what of her own profession of midwife? Unfortunately there is very little we can glean about that from this document. We only know she was a midwife because the appraisers listed her as such. We know very little about the practice of midwifery in early modern Wales in general, although documents such as applications for licenses to practice midwifery do exists, but have yet to be studied in detail. Much more is known about midwifery in England during this time.

What is apparent is that Frances Hughes had at least some level of modest prosperity during her life, and given her dwelling at the time of her death her last husband had a degree of wealth and standing. That her appraisers saw fit to list her own profession suggests it held some significance, and as such she was likely a respected member of the community. At present this document stands very much in isolation and cannot be seen as evidence of a norm, but in these regards it would appear that Frances Hughes did fit the mould of an early modern British midwife. It is also clear that much more research is needed.


*This post is very much indebted to Lesley Davidson and her chapter ‘Spinsters were Doing it for Themselves: Independence and the Single Woman in Early Eighteenth-Century Rural Wales’ in Michael Roberts and Simone Clarke, eds., Women and Gender in Early Modern Wales (Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2000), pp. 186-209.

Illegitimacy and the Medieval Laws of Hywel Dda

In my last post I introduce the argument that I put forward in my forthcoming article in Welsh History Review, which is that certain regions of Wales experienced significantly higher levels of illegitimacy in the early modern period in comparison to England, which can be attributed in part to premarital courtship rituals and differing marital customs. Since there was no room for it in the article I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss some possible origins for these different attitudes and practices in Wales, which were rooted in medieval laws.

Geoffrey Quaife has noted that in the seventeenth-century Somerset women pregnant with illegitimate children were frequently sent or escorted by their families across the Severn to deliver their children in Wales. Once they arrived, their reception was based on their apparent ability to support the child, or their intention to return home or remain, settle and potentially become a burden on the parish in which they gave birth. Wales was undoubtedly appealing to many from England desirous of anonymity and set on avoiding stigmatization at home, could the appeal have also been because of differing attitudes towards illegitimacy in Wales?

The simple fact that illegitimate children were recorded in Welsh parish registers suggests that illegitimacy was of some concern locally and therefore was not entirely condoned, but if illegitimacy was a more common occurrence it could possibly have been more accepted socially, even if not administratively.

If we look far enough back into the history of Wales, evidence of differing attitudes towards illegitimacy does exist. Until the Acts of Union in the early sixteenth-century Wales enjoyed its own legal system based on the medieval laws of Hywel Dda, and illegitimacy featured prominently in them. If you’re curious a manuscript of the Laws in Latin can be viewed online courtesy of the National Library of Wales.

Photo Credit: National Library of Wales

Photo Credit: National Library of Wales

Concerns about illegitimacy in England were based at least as much on economic anxieties as morality, due to the potential financial burden posed by illegitimate children. The laws of Hywel Dda likewise had provisions for children born out of wedlock that demonstrate economic concern:

if it happens that a person makes pregnant a woman of bush and brake, it is right for him to maintain the child for the law says that though she may lose the man it is not right for her to suffer want from him or because of him though she gets no benefit and therefore it is right for the man to rear the child.

The wording here is interesting, as it suggests a concern not only for the maintenance of a child, but also the welfare of the mother, as it was deemed unfair for her to suffer the financial burden of supporting an illegitimate child alone. Through maintaining an illegitimate child a father was in essence acknowledging the child as his own, effectively legitimizing his or her status.

The maintenance of illegitimate children was only one of the economic concerns surrounding illegitimacy addressed in the laws. Of far more concern were issues of inheritance. Under English common law, an illegitimate son would not automatically inherit property.  In church courts as early as the fourteenth century illegitimate children had no rights to inheritance at all.

In Wales, prior to the 1530s, the rights of inheritance for illegitimate sons were dramatically different. A father need only acknowledge a son as his own and the child would receive the same rights as a son born out of wedlock. According to the laws an illegitimate son who had been accepted by the father had equal rights to inheritance as an innate bonheddig, or son whose ancestry was known, however an illegitimate son who had been rejected by his father had no claim to patrilineal inheritance whatsoever.

Acceptance of an illegitimate son could occur in one of two ways. If a father provided for the rearing of his son for a year and a day without rejecting him, or if he accepted a son laid to him by the mother in a laying ceremony, the son officially became legitimate. To lay a son to a man the mother would bring the child to a church and swear to the identity of the father at the altar. As it was a form of oath, a woman could only lay a child once and only to one man. If the father accepted the son he was irrevocably and legitimately his. If a father denied his son he was forever illegitimate.

If an alleged father was deceased, a chief and six other members of his family could accept or deny a son in a similar laying ceremony, or if there was no chief twenty-one men of the father’s kindred could made the decision, the end result of which was permanent. If there was no unanimous consensus amongst the kindred, then the son was to be accepted as legitimate because of the possibility that those denying him did so for their own gain by preventing another person from inheriting a share of property that would otherwise go to them.

Most of the laws refer specifically to the rules of affiliation and inheritance for sons. Illegitimate daughters are mentioned in the laws with regard to inheritance, but only to state that a brother could deny his sister under certain circumstances. For instance, a son could not deny a daughter if there was evidence that his motives were based purely on greed and not actual affiliation.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the laws of women, but these pertain mostly to her marital rights, property and sarhaed or galanas, which were forms of compensation payable according to her status or the status of her husband in the event that she was the victim of insult, dishonour or crime. This includes her agweddi, which was a woman’s share of matrimonial property, and her amobr, which was a fee payable to a woman’s chief or kin made by a man upon the loss of her virginity, either within or outside of wedlock.

By 1700 the laws of Hywel Dda had officially been out of use for nearly 200 years, making it seem unlikely that any trace of them would remain in Welsh social life and customs. However, if we consider that it took the majority of the Welsh population roughly the same length of time to embrace the Protestant Reformation, it is possible that some of these traditions and attitudes might have lingered on well past the Acts of Union.

The consensus amongst historians is that much of Wales retained many of its pre-Reformation traditions until the rise of Non-Conformity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is attributed to the general appeal of, and familiarity with, older customs and rituals, and an inability to relate to anglicized scriptures and rituals.

It could therefore be argued that many Welsh communities were slow to let go of other rituals and values as well. This is by no means clear evidence of specific attitudes towards illegitimacy in Wales in the early modern period, and it is by no means proof of the holdover of medieval values. It does however suggest that there may be a historical precedent for different attitudes towards legitimacy in Wales, which may help explain attitudes in later centuries.

Further Reading

Dafydd Jenkins, ed., The Law of Hywel Dda: Law Texts of Medieval Wales (Llandysul, Gomer Press, 1986).

Alan Macfarlane, ‘Illegitimacy and illegitimates in English history’, in Laslett, Oosterveen, and Smith, eds. Bastardy and Its Comparative History [1] Laslett, Bastardy and its Comparative History.

G. R. Quaife, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasant and Illicit Sex in Early Seventeenth -century England (London: Croom Helm, 1979).

Glanmor Williams, Recovery Reorientation and Reformation Wales c.1415-1642 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

Spurious rumours about illegitimacy in Wales

In my last post I discussed the case of Mary Morgan and the ways in which the community of Presteigne has remembered her. Anyone curious about Mary will not be at a loss to find websites conveying various versions of her story, many of which are based on myth and conspiracy theories and not evidence. Such are they perils of the internet. Unfortunately information leaflets available at the Judges Lodgings Museum are also, at least in part, informed more by myth and assumption than by evidence.

Those who know me can attest to the fact that it doesn’t take much more than a misinformed assumption passed off as ‘fact’ to wind me up, so this post is dedicated to my travel companion who patiently tolerated my post-visit, fallacious leaflet-invoked rant.

The author of said booklet, which I can only imagine has captivated many a wide-eyed schoolchild over the years, correctly made the connection between illegitimacy and infanticide. The author in question also correctly stated that illegitimacy in Wales in earlier centuries was relatively high, but then went so far as to say that mothers of illegitimate children were given a preferential place on the marriage market. Yup. That’s right. Women with illegitimate children were MORE favourable than women who had not bore children out of wedlock. My reaction to this can only be described as ‘gobsmacked’.

Now, in all fairness this was not an academic publication, so some unsubstantiated erroneous statements are to be expected, and perhaps even forgiven given that it has served as a convenient segue from my last post to the current one.

I can only assume that the anonymous author’s assumption is based on a combination of a misunderstanding of the concept of ‘bridal pregnancy’ and the ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’. I feel confident in addressing this misunderstanding because to my knowledge I am one of only a small handful of academics (if I may use that term) to carry out a study of illegitimacy in early modern Wales.

Using parish reconstitution techniques several historians have been able to demonstrate that it was not uncommon for brides to arrive at the altar with a bun in the oven. This can be deduced by comparing the date of marriage to the date of the birth or baptism of the couple’s first child. If the birth occurs less than 8 months after marriage (making room for some degree of survivable prematurity) then it was likely the child was conceived prior to marriage. In many instances a birth occurred well under 6 months, making it clear that the couple had engaged in premarital sex. It has been argued that this was typically the result of marriage being more of a process than a single event, with coitus permitted after a certain level of commitment was made, but before the final vows.

A misunderstanding of this phenomena is the closest I can get to an explanation for the leaflet writer’s misguided statement: If in some communities under certain circumstances engaging in prenuptial sexual activity was permissible, and perhaps even encouraged as a form of fertility testing, then maybe an illegitimate child in any context could be an attractive asset, right?

*Face palm*

Needless to say, this is a pretty big and ridiculous leap.

Furthermore, a study of premarital conception is dependent on the bride/mother and groom/father being clearly identifiable in parish records. Anyone familiar with Welsh records will immediately recognise the problem of this approach for Wales – the limited pool of Welsh patronymics makes parish reconstitution a virtually insurmountable challenge. The ancient tradition of using a father’s first name as a surname has led to a large number of individuals bearing the exact same name, making identification in records problematic.

The author does appear to be correct in stating that illegitimacy in Wales was high, as was reported in the infamous Report of Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales in 1847. Research conducted within the past 10 years supports the argument that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some areas of Wales did experience significantly higher rates of illegitimacy – sometimes as high as three to four times the average in England.

The Blue Books assumed that the reason for increased illegitimacy in Wales lay in the endemic immorality of the Welsh people.  Fortunately that argument has fallen out of fashion, and has been replaced by a call for research into Welsh courtship and marriage customs as a means of understanding why Wales experienced higher rates of illegitimacy. This is a call I’ve attempted to answer in a very small degree in my forthcoming article in Welsh History Review ‘Illegitimacy in Eighteenth Century Wales’.

Welsh History Review

The main sources for information about illegitimacy in early modern Britain are parish baptism registers. At no point were parish officials ever ordered to record illegitimate children, but most do so. The reasons for this were the potential economic impact an illegitimate child could have on the parish – a fatherless child was at risk becoming a burden on the parish. Therefore it was in parish officials’ best interest to list fathers of illegitimate children whenever possible so fathers and not the parish could be held accountable for the child’s maintenance. English records from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries suggest that many fathers fled, or out of shame were not named by mothers, as fathers appear in most records less than 50% of the time, and in some areas less than 7%.

What’s immediately striking about Welsh records is the sheer number of fathers of illegitimate children who are identified in registers. For example, in the parish of St. Peter’s in Carmarthen between the years 1700 and 1800 67% of entries for illegitimate children list a father or indicate the identity of the father was known. During the same period in the parish of Hawarden in Flintshire the rate of identifiable paternity is as high as 72%.

This analysis can be taken a step further by looking at the ways in which fathers are identified, which allows for a cautious distinction to be made between relationships that may have been more permissible in the eyes of the community and illicit relations that were not acceptable. Once such a distinction has been made the rates of illegitimacy resulting from illicit encounters drops significantly, which makes ‘illegitimacy’ in Wales that much more intriguing. Terms such as ‘legitimate’ are ‘illegitimate’ are loaded terms that reflect the values of individuals and communities. To understand what is and is not deemed ‘legitimate’ is to understand what is at the core of a community’s values. Therefore, to understand how and why illegitimacy in Wales was unique is to more thoroughly understand the rich social and cultural landscape of early modern Wales.

My purpose here has not been to summarise or repeat the substance of my article, and I would encourage anyone interested to read and comment on it once it has been published. My purpose has instead been to demonstrate that misconceptions about Wales and the Welsh that are based on pernicious conclusions drawn well over a century ago persist and are perpetuated, perhaps most harmfully, in places dedicated to revealing the lives of every day Welsh men and women from the past. This demonstrates how deeply embedded these myths are, and how important it is to dispel them by continuing to chisel away the fiction from the fact.

*Steps down from soap box*

Further Reading

Richard Adair, Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

Anna Brueton, ‘Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in a Rural Community: the Upper Tywi Valley, 1760-1860’ (MA Dissertation, Trinity University College, 2007).

P. E. H. Hair, ‘Bridal Pregnancy in Earlier Rural England Further Examined’ Population Studies, 24( 1970), pp. 59-70.

Martin Ingram , Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Peter Laslett , Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations: Essays in Historical Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen, Richard Michael Smith, eds., Bastardy and Its Comparative History (London: E. Arnold, 1980).

Alysa Levene, Thomas Nutt, and Samantha Williams, eds., Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Belinda Meteyard, ‘Illegitimacy and Marriage in Eighteenth-Century England’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 10(1980), pp. 479-489.

Angela Muir, ‘Illegitimacy in Eighteenth Century Wales’, Welsh History Review 26(2013), pp. 351-388

Stephen Parker, Informal Marriage, Cohabitation and the Law, 1750-1989 (London: Macmillan, 1990).

Catrin Stevens, Welsh Courting Customs (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1993).

Mary, Mary quite contrary

I was excited to learn about a forthcoming book about Infanticide in Britain by Professor Anne-Marie Kilday, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. On the eve of its publication I decided to write a post about a noteworthy case of infanticide in early nineteenth-century Wales.

One of the most famous, or infamous, historical figures associated with the Mid-Wales border town of Presteigne is Mary Morgan, who in 1805 at the age of seventeen was convicted and executed for the murder of her illegitimate child.

Although Mary’s case took place in the early nineteenth century her story reads like a typical case study of infanticide in early modern Britain: She was a young, unmarried domestic servant who fell pregnant and, in an act of apparent desperation, killed her newborn child in an attempt to avoid poverty and the shame of bearing a child born as a result of an illicit sexual encounter. Mary apparently confessed her crime to a fellow servant who had grown suspicious and questioned her. Her infant’s body was discovered hidden in bed clothes with a deep, almost severing cut to the neck. These circumstances are repeated again and again in court records across Britain from the seventeenth century onwards.

Mary was then tried, convicted, condemned, and unlike the vast majority of other women convicted of the same crime, her sentence was carried out. This may be one reason why Mary’s case has generated so much local interest, but what also makes her story interesting is that we have evidence of two opposing contemporary attitudes towards her crime. On the one hand we have the Judge’s lengthy, sanctimonious Verdict, and on the other we have two empathetically moralising memorials to her in the local church yard.

Mary Morgan Stone 01 Mary Morgan Stone 02

To make sense of this it would be useful to first understand infanticide in early modern England and Wales. In modern, developed nations infanticide is typically associated with the unbalanced mental state of a woman suffering from a temporary loss of sanity shortly after given birth. Although this must have been a contributing factor in some cases of infanticide in early modern Britain the overwhelming majority of cases in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the result of all too common socio-economic circumstances. Ultimately these led some women to the extreme measure of killing or abandoning their new born child.

As in Mary Morgan’s case, most of the evidence we have of infanticide is from trial records, which in many cases tell us the name, age and occupation of the accused. In Wales, as in England, available evidence indicates that the majority of women brought before the courts on charges of infanticide were young, unmarried domestic servants. Domestic service was the single largest employer of unmarried women at this time, and the nature of their living conditions and working environment created ample opportunities for both promiscuity and exploitation. It was not uncommon for female servants to share living quarters with male servants or male members of the household. The identity of the father of Mary’s child is not known, but he was likely someone she either worked with or for. Bearing an illegitimate child could be economically catastrophic for a domestic servant, as she likely would be dismissed and have difficulty securing future employment. Faced with the prospect of a lifetime of poverty some women in Mary’s situation chose to do the unthinkable.

Infanticide as a specific crime first appeared in legislation in Britain in the 1624 ‘Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children’, which specifically applied to the murder of illegitimate children whose death was concealed by the mother. What’s key here is that this law did not apply to children born in lawful marriage, and evidence of concealment rather than evidence of murder was what was required to pass a guilty verdict. As a result, common defences arguments included that the mother was in fact married, or that the mother had disclosed her pregnancy to others or had made preparations for providing for the child, such as acquiring infant clothing and bed linens.

Under the 1624 legislation the sentence for all guilty verdicts was death by hanging. In the decades after the Act sentences were carried out with relative frequency, but by the eighteenth century the frequency dropped, and continued to drop further. Towards the turn of the nineteenth century Wales and the north of England saw a 95% acquittal rate despite solid evidence against the accused. These changes can be attributed, at least in part, to changing attitudes towards women. More puritanical views of women as dangerous temptresses shifted to a more romanticised view of women as hapless victims, and conviction rates reflected this. The Act was increasingly seen as disproportionately harsh, and judges and juries grew increasingly reluctant to condemn young women to death.

The Act was repealed in 1803 for the very reason that law makers believed too many women were getting away with murder. Under the new legislation proof of the murder rather than concealment was required for a conviction, which carried a sentence of death. If a woman was acquitted of murder she could still be convicted of concealment, which carried a sentence of two years in prison.

Mary Morgan’s case was tried not long after the passing of 1803 Act, and the judge presiding, Lord Justice Hardinges, came down on her with the full weight of the law. His verdict emphasizes that her infant’s death was quite a violent one, and Justice Hardings shows her no mercy. Hardings clearly did not see Mary as a victim – she was a wilful agent who, according to him, acted on her passions with no consideration of the consequences.

But Mary was, and still is, remembered in a decidedly more commiserative way by the community. Following Mary’s execution the judge ordered her to be cut down and her body sent to the surgeons for dissection. We have no record of whether this part of his verdict was ever carried out, and we are unsure of her final resting place. The community has, quite poignantly, erected two memorials to her in the church graveyard, one of which is a gravestone bearing the inscription,

In Memory of
Mary Morgan who suffer’d April 13 1805
Aged 17 Years

He that is without sin among you
Let him first cast a stone at her…

The use of the word ‘suffered’, and the reference to John 8:7 strongly indicated that Mary’s crime, although tragic, was not seen as reprehensible.  Intriguingly, a single word on the headstone appears to have been carved away and replaced with the word ‘suffered’.

Another Stone remembers Mary not as a murder of children, but as a beautiful young woman bestowed with a good disposition, but lack of Christian knowledge, who was made a victim by sin and who only realised the gravity of her offence through the, “eloquent and humane exertions of her benevolent Judge.” There is clearly a moralising tone, but it is not disparaging. Mary is used as a tragic character in a cautionary tale.

To this day these stones are maintained and restored on a regular basis, with replicas made to replace the originals when they are taken away for conservation work. Tucked away in the local church yard these could hardly be considered a tourist trap.

So why has the community gone to such lengths to commemorate a convicted child killer? Did Mary’s own youth make her deserving of mercy? Did the community have greater compassion towards her plight because they possessed a deeper understanding of her circumstances? Was there a sense of communal guilt? With the evidence we have it is impossible to say. What is evident is that the values and attitudes of the local judiciary and the community were in opposition over the sentence, which is also reflected in the changes to legislation made in 1803. Law makers changed legislation to ensure more women were convicted and punished for committing infanticide because sympathetic judges and juries were using loopholes to acquit, and unfortunately for Mary, these loopholes were closed by time she killed her newborn, illegitimate child.

Various local conspiracy theories abound, some of which are even presented in information leaflets in the Judge’s Lodgings Museum in Presteigne, none of which are supported by evidence. Frustratingly, some of these accounts go so far as to make sweeping statements about the prevalence, acceptance and even the encouragement of illegitimacy in Wales at that time, which again is backed up by nothing. I will address these sweeping assumptions and present some real evidence about illegitimacy in eighteenth-century Wales in my next post, so please, stay tuned!

Further Reading:

Jill Barber, ‘’Stolen Goods’: The Sexual Harassment of Female Servants in West Wales during the Nineteenth-century’, Rural History Rural History, 4 (1993), pp. 123-136.

Russell Davies, Hope and Heartbreak : A Social History of Wales and the Welsh, 1776-1871 (Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2005).

J.R. Dickinson and J.A. Sharpe, ‘Infanticide in Early Modern England: the Court of Great Sessions at Chester 1650-1800’, in Mark Jackson, ed., Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment 1550-2000 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

Laura Gowing, ‘Secret Births and Infanticide in Seventeenth-Century England’ Past and Present 156 (1997), pp. 87-115.

Sharon Howard, ‘Echos of History’  http://earlymodernnotes.wordpress.com/2005/01/10/miscarriage/

Mark Jackson, ‘Infant deaths: The Statues of 1624 and Medical Evidence at Coroners’ Inquests’, in Catherine Crawford and  Michael Crawford eds., Legal Medicine in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Mark Jackson, New-Born Child Murder: Women, Illegitimacy and the Courts in Eighteenth-Century England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

R. W. Malcolmson, ‘Infanticide in the Eighteenth-century’, in J. S. Cockburn, ed., Crime in England, 1550-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

Allyson N. May, ‘She at First Denied It: Infanticide Trials at the Old Bailey’, in Women and History, Valerie Frith, ed. (Toronto: Coach House, 1995).

Nick Woodward, ‘Infanticide in Wales, 1730-1830’, Welsh History Review, 23 (2007), pp. 94-125.

Keith Wrightson, ‘Infanticide in earlier seventeenth-century England’, Local Population Studies, 15 (1975), pp. 10-22.