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This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.

Two militant women - (a medieval parochial dispute).

John Chandler was elected Dean of Salisbury in 1404 and Robert Hallum became his bishop in 1407. Chandler’s earlier years had included service as a royal clerk, and in 1402 he had been appointed treasurer of the household of Princess Blanche, the daughter of King Henry IV. This was followed by several appointments which involved the royal family. We are told that the Dean ‘was able and conscientious, but did not risk offending the great or members of the court’, whereas Bishop Hallum provoked the court by sequestering Upavon church [1].

Such differences of approach, deriving from differences of temperament and background, may provide a clue to the origin of disputes which developed between these two dignitaries of the cathedral and diocese of Salisbury. Although the bishop was the official in charge of the diocese and the dean the head of the cathedral their relationship was bedevilled by the existence of ‘peculiars’ or areas not under the jurisdiction of the bishop. In addition to the Dean of Salisbury’s traditional jurisdiction in the cathedral close, there came under his authority also a vast number of prebends and individual parishes scattered throughout the diocese, which were his ‘peculiars’.

It was the dean’s exclusive right to visit these peculiars and to hold his court there, but Bishop Hallum intervened in the dean’s jurisdiction on several occasions [2]. Two such occasions related to matters which occurred in the Dean’s peculiar of Hungerford. Both followed disputes which came to light during the Dean’s triennial Visitations in 1405 and 1409. At the centre of the disputes was the vicar, Robert Napper, and two militant women parishioners, Gillian Farman and Margery Coterell.

The first incident involved Gillian (in Latin Juliana) Farman solely. She belonged to a one-time powerful family of local landowners, of whom Ellis (d. 1350?) was perhaps best known as a turbulent spirit and adherent of Sir Robert de Hungerford [3]. The Hungerford family and its adherents dominated local politics throughout the lifetime of Sir Robert. Even after his death in 1354 without heir and the consequent removal of the family seat to Farleigh Hungerford in Wiltshire, the home of his brother Thomas, the influence of the Hungerford family in Hungerford remained considerable [4]. A chantry in the parish church there formed a memorial to Sir Robert, and the family retained locally, along with its many possessions elsewhere, the manor of Hungerford Engleford.

At the Dean’s Visitation in 1405 Gillian Farman was presented as having assaulted one Alice Saucer (or Sawser) in church on Lady Day 1405. Having admitted the offence, she had been summoned to do penance in the cathedral at Salisbury, but failed to attend, was found to be contumacious and was excommunicated. So much trouble had she caused in the parish church that one of the leading parishioners, William Ferror, smashed her pew seat in church, presumably to prevent her further attendance and the disruption which her presence caused. However, in so doing Ferror put himself in a position where he too was presented to the church authorities. He asserted in his defence that the seat was near to the entrance to the church and obstructed the parishioners attending service; and, being fixed to the ground, it could only be removed by being broken up. The removal of the seat, he claimed, had taken place with the consent of the vicar and the parishioners. Accordingly, the case against him was dismissed [5].

What lay behind Gillian’s attack on Alice Saucer seems to have had to do with Alice ’s projected marriage with William Roper, for when a mandate instructing the vicar to solemnise the marriage was produced by Master William Hildeslee, Gillian snatched it from him and tore it to pieces. This, however, was not the only offence alleged against Gillian. Her name appears yet again among the presentations at the Visitation as one on a remarkably long list of those alleged to have committed adultery, in her case with prominent townsman John Smyth [6].

Smyth was said to have committed adultery not only with Gillian, but also with the wife of Simon Dyer; with Agnes and Emma, servants of John Dighton; with the wife of William Frensman, and with Magota, a servant of William Hopgrass. Smyth denied all charges and was purged with the court’s indulgence. A similar set of adultery charges against William Ferror (brought presumably at the instance of the pro-Farman faction) was also dismissed. Certainly one obtains the impression of two warring camps, and a situtation in which a morals charge might be one way of carrying on the warfare. Dyer and Dighton were substantial house-holders [7]. Dighton was one of the parish iurati or senior representatives, both in 1406 and 1409, as was Dyer in 1409, and John Smyth [8]. William Hopgrass was lord of the manor of Charlton (nowadays Charnham Street), a client of and local agent for the Hungerford family.

That more was at stake than a matter of morals is suggested by the report of the Dean’s next Visitation in 1409. Here Margery Coterell and Gillian were reported to have taken a chalice, a missal, a set of vestments, three altar cloths, a superaltar, 16 sheep, and 10 marks provided for St. Katherine’s light. Removal from the church of the chalice, missal, vestments, altarcloths and the superaltar suggests an attempt designed to make it impossible for the vicar to say mass.

Why should the two women wish to do this? One reason might be that enthusiasm for Lollardry, long since abandoned by those nearer to the court and the central establishment, was still to be found in the provinces and notably, as later developments were to show, in this region. The removal of 10 marks provided for the  maintenance of St. Katherine’s votive light would thus seem in keeping with this view. As for the sixteen sheep, an oddly secular-seeming item amongst the rest, these were likely to have been grazing in the churchyard according to custom, and to represent a portion of the ‘small’ tithes which accrued to the vicar. If so, the action of removing or releasing the sheep would also correspond with Lollard objection to tithes.

Nor were they the only ones to take church property, for William Goldyng, himself a cleric, was reported as having withheld a missal belonging to the light. Perhaps this was one that Gillian and Margery had overlooked! At any rate the objective must have been the same, to make it impossible for a mass to be said by the vicar.

Feelings in the parish must have run high, for the presentations made at the Dean’s Visitation flew fast and furious around the heads of the two women and those supporting them. Adding to the intensity and local scandal was the fact that the parties involved were not ignorant parishioners, but leading townsmen, property owners and parish officials. What bond, ideological or personal, may have united the townsfolk for or against two determined women and to bring so many accusations against them?

Gillian Farman is said to have assaulted chaplain William Pye; and it was alleged further that neither she nor Margery Coterell had attended church for five years; and that they ate flesh on Easter Day and did not receive the Eucharist. The Coterell family, perhaps because there may have been more of them, seemed in particular trouble. Magota Coterell was presented as not having attended church for seven years. The name Magota is a variant of Margery, so it is possible that the entry is basically a repetition of the previous charge, perhaps emanating from a second source. This, however, is speculation. What is a fact and, as we may see later, an important one is that Agnes Coterell was accused of committing adultery with William Roper [9]. It was Roper’s intended ‘marriage’ three years or so previously that had been the cause of Gillian Farman’s violent action in tearing up the mandate instructing the vicar to solemnise the marriage.

These further offences of Gillian and Margery resulted in the intervention of Bishop Hallum. On 4 December 1409 he called upon the secular authorities, in this case the Sheriff of Wiltshire, to arrest the two contumacious women, following what is known as their ‘greater’ excommunication. After they had spent more than 40 days in this state, the bishop obtained their submission and, having done so, absolved them. He notified the Sheriff of this on 2 June 1410 [10].

In these local disturbances may one perhaps see a reflection of national trends? This was the high noon of Lollardry, subsequent to the emergence of Wycliffe but before the defeat and execution of Sir John Oldcastle. In this national picture the role once played by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as patron and protector of Wycliffe should not be overlooked, since its effects, once set in train, are likely by a process of slow osmosis to have continued even after Gaunt’s death. The manor of Hungerford belonged to the Duchy of Lancaster, whose agents in the area were the Hungerford family.

Their loyalty to the Lancastrian cause was famous. The Hungerford family itself had equally devoted local clients in the Farman, Hopgrass, Golding and Coterell families. Transmission of Lollard attitudes to church reform in the 1380’s downwards from Duchy officials to local Duchy adherents was inevitable. And this element of national politics, laced with innovatory theological ideas and mingled as it no doubt was with local interests and personal rivalries, might well have lingered on to produce parochial dissension.

The second instance of intervention by the Bishop in a case within the Dean’s jurisdiction is closely connected with the events related above. The connecting figure is William Roper. Prior to 1405, when William Roper and Alice Saucer were about to solemnize their marriage, William had been married to a lady named Agnes but claimed to have been granted a divorce by an official of the Dean of Salisbury [11]. Nevertheless, as we have seen, due to Gillian Farman‘s bold intervention William’s intended ceremony with Alice did not take place.

In May 1408 William was summoned to appear before the bishop’s Commissary at the instance of Alice, who sought restoration (or affirmation) of her conjugal status. The case is an interesting one, not least because of the light it sheds on the contemporary custom of marriage contract. When asked by the Commissary if Agnes was his wife, William replied ‘No’, because of a pre-contract he had made with Alice Saucer. Two days later, however, before the Bishop himself, Roper admitted that he had legally married Agnes.

Helplessly tangled both in the facts of the case and in the court procedures, Roper now said that he had not made a pre-contract with Alice; but he had, reluctantly and under pressure of certain people, gone through the divorce with Agnes. A former servant of William deposed that he was not present when William contracted to marry Agnes, although he had been present at the later solemnization, and knew that Agnes had been in William’s house continually for two years. He was not present at the alleged pre - contract between William and Alice, although once in Lent, he heard him say, ‘Do not worry, Alice, I will always love you and never send you away’. Unfortunately, from Alice ’s point of view, the deponent went on to state that William had not accompanied the promise with an oath.

When the bishop assigned the parties a day on which to produce the divorce process, William failed to do so, and Alice did not attend the court. Quick to see her opportunity, Agnes demanded that Alice should be excommunicated for her absence, and this was so decreed [12].

Nevertheless the vicar of Hungerford (Robert Napper) failed to issue a certificate of her excommunication and was accordingly reported to the bishop. He was said also to have failed to issue the summons ordered by the bishop for William Roper and Alice Saucer to appear before him in the then unfinished case begun at the instance of Agnes.

Napper himself was now summoned to appear before the bishop’s court, but he likewise failed to attend and was excommunicated. We are told that the vicar appealed to the archbishop’s court of audience where the case proceeded to several legal actions. In the end the vicar was not able to prove his case and the bishop then confirmed his excommunication. A fortnight later Napper appeared before the bishop to seek pardon. After making the recalcitrant vicar swear to obey the laws of the church, the bishop absolved him [13].

At one level, this case may have been, beneath its surface, a contest between the Dean, supporting the vicar of a parish which was in his peculiar jurisdiction, and an interventionist Bishop. The final result may have involved some sort of settlement between these two powerful parties, the bishop’s absolution of Napper being recorded as having been at the instance of the Dean [14].

It is striking that the clash between Bishop and Dean seems to have parallelled the clash already suggested between reforming and conservative forces (pro-Lollard and anti-Lollard) at a local level. It seems clear that Napper was shielding Roper and that the Farman- Coterells were incited by, or using, the affair to cause the vicar difficulties.

Amid the theological implications and the local politics and the passions aroused, there run through the presentments a series of moral allegations which involve the major participants in the drama.

Reference has already been made to the allegations of adultery in 1405/6 involving Gillian Farman and John Smyth on the one part and William Ferror on the other. In 1409 there were more. The most interesting is that of William Roper, who was presented for committing adultery with Agnes Coterell. (The use of the present tense in the presentment of this offence suggests that this was not a one-off, but a continuing, affair). For a man already in trouble with ‘two’ wives this might seem particularly reckless.

However, it should be remembered that many of the instances brought forward at the 1409 Visitation had commenced well before that date. Thus, if the ‘divorce’ of William from Agnes, supposedly granted by the Dean’s official, had not yet been invalidated or was still believed to be invalid by one faction of local opinion William might be considered as still married. Whatever the situation may have been, we know in fact that Agnes came back to live with William. One possibility might be (although Agnes was a common and popular name) that Agnes Coterell (maiden name) and Agnes Roper (married name) were one and the same person. Until William’s divorce of Alice had been invalidated, Agnes would be correctly referred to by her maiden name and not entitled to William’s surname. On this hypothesis William and Agnes, in re-uniting prematurely, might be considered as having committed adultery.

Support for the conjecture that before marriage Agnes Roper may have been Agnes Coterell may be provided by a crown quit rental of Hungerford burgages c.1470. The rental records for each burgage note any significant change of burgage holder and thus may take the record of holders back several generations, in some cases into the previous century. One of the houses in this rental is described as ‘late Agnes Roper, previously Thomas Coterell [15]’. The house was one of several which the rental shows Thomas Coterell had owned in Hungerford, and its descent from Thomas to Agnes may well have been by inheritance or as part of a marriage settlement. If correct, this conjecture has the benefit of showing an additional motivation for the actions of Gillian Farman and Margery Coterell.

In the event William Roper and Agnes Coterell were cited to appear before the ecclesiastical court, but did not come; their case was suspended and we hear no more of it.

In the subsequent Visitation of 1412 there are many complaints concerning the vicar, Robert Napper, some of which seem to have been initiated by William Goldyng, a chaplain originally appointed by John of Gaunt [16]. But the real surprise is a fornication charge involving chaplain William Goldyng and Alice Saucer. Both the use of Alice ’s maiden name and the charge of fornication, rather than adultery, show that she had lost her claim to be William Roper’s wife.


1 T.C.B. Timmins, The Register of John Chandler, 1404-1417, p.xiii, Wilts. Record Society, vol. 39, Devizes, 1984
2 ibid. p.xiv
3 Victoria County History Berks. iv 190,191
4 Dictionary of National Biography see entry concerning Sir Thomas Hungerford
5 Wilts. R.O.: Register of Dean Chandler D5. f.35
6 ibid. f.35v
7 P.R.O.: DL43/1/4
8 Wilts. R.O.: D5 f.105
9 ibid. f. 133
10 P.R.O.: C85/148/22
11 Register of Bishop Hallum, ed. Joyce M.Horn, Canterbury /York series p.213.
12 ibid. p.214-215
13 ibid p.215
14 ibid
15 P.R.O.: DL43/1/4
16 see N.Hidden: The Priory of St. John in Hungerford, Wilts. Arch. & Nat.Hist. Mag. vol 83, 1990

See also:

- Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford