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Wretched Whores or Virtuous Victims: Women, ‘Bastardy’ and Court Records 1630-1660, by Erin Newman

Women who produced ‘bastard’ children during the Civil War and Interregnum period were often depicted, within both court and popular literature, as ‘lewd women’ in opposition to patriarchally-defined models of the ‘chaste maid’ or legitimate wife. Yet in certain circumstances, these women could be presented as pitiful victims of unfortunate circumstance. Case studies from Quarter Session (local court) records between 1630 and 1660 in Derbyshire can help us to determine to what extent these women presented a challenge to contemporary gender ideals.  

Although a father was inevitably involved, contemporaries believed for the most part that although ‘the sin of either party is alike…more inconveniences may follow upon the woman’s default than upon the man’s: [as] a worse disturbance of the family, more mistaking of [legitimacy].’[1] The fear was that women who had illegitimate children undermined the ideal patriarchal nuclear family. They also challenged key religious teachings on sexual chastity and were exemplars of the dangers of wantonness for a woman’s societal worth.

Seventeenth century attitudes towards women who undermined their femininity through ‘bawdy’ behaviour are apparent within court records. Unmarried pregnant women embodied the term ‘whore’, not necessarily by being paid for sexual acts, but through acts of sexually wanton or lascivious behaviour that had tangible physical results. For instance, Elizabeth Green, a spinster of the High Peak area of Derbyshire was indicted on three separate occasions for having bastard children. In 1630 she had ‘two bastards fathered of the same and sundry persons’ whom she declared was one Anthony Bradshaw. However, the local villagers raised a petition to the court ‘to humbly testify that [he] hath a wife of his own and in good amity with her and a very good standing amongst us, [they did] not imagine him to such afflictions’.[2]

26 years later she was again at court for bastardy, and five potential fathers were identified. Two of the potential fathers had paid maintenance to Greene’s father and brother, having declared the child theirs, and another two of the suspected fathers (a father and son) shared the name Bradshaw (as in the 1630 case). Seven different witnesses identified different fathers, but they all stated, ‘Elizabeth did not confess fathering the said child on any particular man.’[3] Whether accusations of fatherhood were levelled at the Bradshaw family as an act of vengeance, or she had a number of illegitimate children by different men, Elizabeth was clearly an active participant in illicit sexual behavior. She embodied the term ‘whore’ through her continued sexual engagements outside of wedlock producing bastard children, despite being known to the court for her previous wanton behaviour. This positioned her as a threat to the community because she knowingly challenged seventeenth century gender norms.

            However, other women were depicted as victims of knavish rogues who pressed their advances and then abandoned the woman with a child. The case of Ellen Stoppard is a good example as it illustrates a difference in tone within her confession. Ellen told how she had a child of fourteen days old that she had baptized but left upon a shopfront on 3 April 1651 and awaited in a lane nearby. She then went back for the child but saw the child had been found and taken away. She further confessed that ‘a soldier who called himself Rolfe Johnson is the father thereof who overtook thy examinate near her house in Belper ward as she was going to Derby and who forced her to his designe.’[4]

Significantly as the victim of an assault, Stoppard was allowed her own voice, and therefore some influence over the representation of her crime. Greene, who refused to name her sexual liaisons, was mainly represented through the voices of others who could influence her reception by society. It is significant that Ellen focused on her role as a mother within her confession to appeal to gendered norms and stress she had fulfilled her Christian duty to baptize her child. Furthermore, Ellen’s actions showed that although she did not feel she could look after the child, she did what she could to ensure that the child was cared for. The confession created sympathy within the court records for Ellen as a victim of this bastardy case – rather than presenting her as a woman of ill-repute.

            There is a rich body of Quarter Sessions records along with popular ballads and conduct literature which show that unmarried mothers were not universally cast as ‘wretched whores.’ Although there is often no direct language within the court records of a woman being outlined as a ‘whore’, it is the absence of the mother’s voice, with her story being mediated through others, such as in the case of Elizabeth Green, that the notion of the mother as illicit is apparent. With a social insistence that women remain chaste and virtuous, it is inevitable they would be represented in such a way. One the other hand, in the right circumstances these women could also be portrayed as ‘virtuous victim’, such as in the case of Ellen Stoppard as she was a victim of sexual assault. However, this is not always clearly documented in the court records and makes this case an anomaly in that aspect. In this way, court records testify to the varied and sometimes contradictory representation of mothers of bastard children.

Erin Newman is a second year PhD student in History at Nottingham Trent University with interests in sex, violence, and the criminal underworld during the seventeenth century. These were 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 within the History Department. Her PhD thesis centred on Gender and Criminality in the East Midlands during the Civil War and Interregnum period.


[1] William Gouge, ‘Of common-mutual duties betwixt Man and Wife: Section 7 Of the Difference of Adultery in a man, and in a wife’ Of Domestic Duty, (London:1622) e-book loc. 3789.

[2] ‘Petition by the Villagers of Bowden Chappell against Elizabeth Green’ Derbyshire, (1630), Derbyshire Record Office (DRO) – Quarter Session Papers (QSP) – Q/SB/2/21a.

[3]‘Examination of Elizabeth Green of Combs in Bowden Chapel and others concerning the father of her child’ Derbyshire, 11th August 1656, DRO – QSP – Q/SB/2/226 and ‘Examination of Ellen Cowper, widow, and Ann Kelsall and Elizabeth Bramwall touching the reputed father of the child of Elizabeth Green’ Derbyshire, 29th September 1656, DRO – QSP – Q/SB/2/225.

[4] ‘Examination of Elizabeth Green of Combs in Bowden Chappell and others concerning the father of her child’ Derbyshire, 8th April 1651, DRO – QSP – Q/SB/2/186.

Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:York_Minster_-_Whore_of_Babylon.jpg