Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th-century pirates

The eighteenth century was, as any landlubber knows, the Golden Age of swashbuckling Pirates-of-the-Caribbean style piracy. Eighteenth-century pirates (as opposed to their unglamorous modern counterparts) have acquired their own roguish mystique. What is less commonly known is that women, too, had their place in eighteenth-century piracy. I remember, when I was small, being entranced by their stories in my Ladybird Book about Pirates. In a society which gave women very limited choices, there must have been a certain attraction for some young women in the thought of cutting off their hair, donning men’s breeches and running away to sea in search of adventure and fortune.

Would-be female sailors and pirates would have to be a lot more convincing than Keira Knightley, who looks…just like a woman

Two of the most famous female pirates, who became notorious in their lifetimes, were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. The primary account we have of their lives comes from Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, which is a highly entertaining read, even if we must doubt its reliability. Johnson begins his account of the two women with a bold assertion as to the truth of his narrative, which suggests how unusual Read and Bonny would have been thought at the time:

The odd Incidents of their rambling Lives are such, that some may be tempted to think the whole Story no better than a Novel or Romance; but since it is supported by many thousand Witnesses, I mean the People of Jamaica, who were present at their Tryals, and heard the Story of their Lives, upon the first discovery of their Sex; the Truth of it can be no more contested, than that there were such Men in the World, as Roberts and Black-beard, who were Pyrates.

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Each woman led a highly unconventional life, beginning with an unorthodox upbringing. Mary Read was born the illegitimate daughter of a sea captain’s widow, some time around 1691. Mary’s life posing as a man began early, when her mother started dressing her as a boy after the death of her (legitimate) older brother, Mark. This deception was necessary in order to continue receiving financial support from Mark’s paternal grandmother, and it does seem to have fooled the lady in question, as she gave Mary’s mother a crown a week for the child’s maintenance.

When Mary was thirteen years old, the grandmother passed away, and with her the financial assistance. Mary was obliged to find a job to support herself, and began working life by waiting on a French lady as a foot-boy. However, she soon grew bored of the life of a domestic servant and, still dressed as a man, ran away to join a man-of-war. She then escaped to Flanders and joined the British Army, fighting against the French during either the Nine Years’ War or the War of Spanish Succession. Although she ‘behaved herself with a great deal of Bravery’, she was unable to get a commission as they were generally bought and sold; promotion in the British Army depended more on connections and money than merit. Mary went on to fall in love with a Flemish soldier, and revealed her true gender to him, upon which:

…he was much surprised at what he found out, and not a little pleased…that he should have a Mistress solely to himself, which is an unusual Thing in a Camp…so that he thought of nothing but gratifying his Passions with very little Ceremony; but he found himself strangely mistaken, for she proved very reserved and modest, and resisted all his Temptations, and at the same Time was so obliging and insinuating in her Carriage, that she quite changed his Purpose, so far from thinking of making her his Mistress, he now courted her for a Wife. This was the utmost Wish of her Heart, in short, they exchanged Promises, and when the Campaign was over…they bought Woman’s Apparel for her…and were publickly married.

Mary quit the army, and the couple scraped together the funds to buy a public house near Breda Castle in the Netherlands, named ‘De drie hoefijzers’ (‘The Three Horseshoes’). We know little about Mary’s life as a tavern landlady, but the premature death of her husband along with a decline in her business led her to again assume men’s apparel and enlist as a foot soldier in Holland. There was, however, little chance of either adventure or advancement during peacetime, so she quit and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies, in search of her fortune. Unfortunately for Mary (though fortunately for her posthumous reputation), the ship she was on was boarded by pirates, who forced her to join their crew. Evidently she grew somewhat accustomed to the pirate life, as in 1720 she joined the crew of notorious pirate John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, which is where her story joins that of Anne Bonny.

Mary Read, from 'A History of the Pyrates'
Mary Read, from ‘A History of the Pyrates’
Mary Read reveals her sex to a vanquished enemy (1846)
Mary Read reveals her sex to a vanquished enemy (1846)











Anne Bonny was born the illegitimate daughter of an Irish lawyer, William Cormac, and his servant Mary Brennan. The affair estranged Cormac from his wife, who went off in high dudgeon to live with her mother-in-law. Cormac grew very fond of his little Anne and wished her to live with him, but as it was common knowledge that he had an illegitimate daughter, he decided to start dressing Anne as a boy, pretending that it was a relation’s child whom he was breeding up to be his clerk. Cormac’s wife grew suspicious, though, and found out through the enquiries of a friend that the ‘boy’ was in fact the illegitimate offspring of Cormac and his maid, with whom he was still involved. Upon the discovery, she immediately withdrew the annual allowance which she had thus far been giving her husband

In response, Cormac started publicly cohabiting with the maid. This caused a great scandal among his neighbours and led to the decline of his legal practice, eventually driving him to emigrate to the Carolinas with Mary and Anne. After a rough start in the colonies, Cormac turned merchant and became a well-to-do plantation owner near Charleston. Now raised as a woman, Anne had striking red hair and a fiery temper to match; it was later put about by her detractors that she killed a servant maid with a knife when she flew into a rage, and also that when a young man attempted to rape her, she beat him up so badly that ‘he lay ill of it a considerable Time’.

Given her now considerable dowry, Anne’s father expected her to make a good match, but she disobliged him by marrying an impecunious sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny who was ‘not worth a groat’. Bonny had probably hoped to inherit the plantation by marrying Anne, but was disappointed in his expectation when Anne’s father disowned her. The couple decided to try their luck in the Bahamas, moving to Nassau, which was a well-known sanctuary for English pirates. Disenchanted with her marriage, Anne began mingling in the local taverns, where she met and became romantically involved with the pirate captain John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham. He induced her to run away and take up the pirate life with him.

John "Calico Jack" Rackham
John “Calico Jack” Rackham

It is at this point that Mary Read enters the story. She joined forces with Anne and Rackham, possibly when stealing a ship from Nassau harbour. The three of them, along with a pirate crew, spent the next few years sailing around Jamaica, capturing ships and gaining much treasure thereby. From now on, the fates of Anne and Mary were to remain intertwined. Both took part in combat alongside the men, and the accounts of their exploits present them as highly competent and respected by their shipmates. It was said of them that ‘in Times of Action, no Person[s]…were more resolute, or ready to Board or undertake any Thing that was hazardous’. Their true gender was known only to each other and John Rackham. Johnson gives the following account of the discovery of Mary’s true gender:

[Mary’s] Sex was not so much as suspected by any Person on Board, till Anne Bonny, who was not altogether so reserved in point of Chastity, took a particular liking to her; in short, Anne Bonny took her for a handsome young Fellow, and for some Reasons best known to herself, first [revealed] her Sex to Mary Read; Mary Read…being very sensible of her own Incapacity that Way, was forced to come to a right Understanding with her, and so to the great Disappointment of Anne Bonny, she let her know she was a Woman also; but this Intimacy so disturb’d Captain Rack[h]am, who was the Lover and Gallant of Anne Bonny, that he grew furiously jealous, so that he told Anne Bonny, he would cut her new Lover’s Throat, therefore, to quiet him, she let him into the Secret also.

One unlucky day in October 1720, Rackham’s ship was attacked by a Captain Jonathan Barnet, who had obtained a license from the Governor of Jamaica to hunt and capture pirates. The ship was quickly disabled by a volley of fire and boarded by Barnet’s men. It seems that it was left to Anne, Mary and one other crew member to put up a fight; apparently the rest of the pirates were incapacitated by a heavy rum-drinking session, and in no state to resist capture. When Read demanded that her crewmates to come up and fight like men, and received no response, she allegedly fired into the hold in anger, killing one of the men.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Anne Bonny and Mary Read

It was of course only a matter of time before Barnet’s crew eventually overcame the women. Rackham surrendered, and he and his crew were brought to trial in Spanish Town, Jamaica, where they were sentenced to hang for acts of piracy. According to Johnson, Anne’s last words to Rackham were, ‘had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog’.

Mary and and Anne managed to delay their executions by ‘pleading the belly’; this was an English legal custom that allowed pregnant convicts to give birth before being executed. Mary, however, died of a violent fever while in prison, and as there is no record of the burial of her baby, she probably died while pregnant. There is no historical record either of Bonny’s release or execution, which has fed speculation that she escaped in some way. Whether she died in prison, under the hangman’s noose, or much later, what we can say for certain is that Anne Bonny and Mary Read lived extraordinary lives for women of their time.

Further reading

This was possibly the hardest blog post I’ve ever written in terms of gathering reliable information. Even discounting the obviously suspicious sites (,, such usually reliable sources as Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Smithsonian Magazine have wildly differing accounts of the two women’s lives.

In the end, I decided to go back to the original source we have about them, namely Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. It very likely lacks reliability in itself, and so anything written about Read and Bonny should probably taken with a tablespoonful of salt, but it’s probably preferable to a version of the story which has been filtered through hundreds of websites.

So, you can find A General History of the Pyrates here at Project Gutenberg.

Blood feud in early medieval Francia

Francia was the largest and most sophisticated kingdom in early medieval Europe, lasting from the 5th to 9th centuries. At it greatest extent, Francia was twice as large as modern France, stretching from the Pyrenees to Bavaria, from Rome to Saxony. It was huge and unwieldy. Given this, how was a Frankish king supposed to maintain law and order? It seems almost an impossible task. This was a time when horse and rider was the fastest method of communication, and local lords were not always willing to tolerate royal control. As the king could not possibly micro-manage everything, Frankish law and order depended upon complicated local systems of justice which interpreted and enacted the major bodies of centrally composed law codes, with more or less success.

Blood-feud – or the threat of it – was an integral part of maintaining law and order in early medieval Francia. Frankish law presents blood feud as a legitimate way of redressing wrongs; families were allowed to violently avenge insults and injuries perpetrated on a kin member. The mentality behind this sort of retribution is very much of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” variety. Law codes make it clear that no-one was to interfere in blood vengeance; there is a clause in Lex Salica which forbade killing any man ‘whom his enemies have left mutilated [at a crossroads]’, and any violation of this law incurred the not inconsiderable fine of 100 solidi.

Clearly, vengeance killing was seen as a potent form of justice and a means of recovering a family’s honour, but the fact that it was codified in law seems rather an attempt to regulate killing than to encourage it at all costs. It may be that the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ was designed to act as a brake upon lethal crime. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill has argued that the kings of the “Barbarian West” sanctioned blood feud in their law codes as a means of preserving peace in their realms for want of anything better.

Frankish territories from 481 to 814
Frankish territories from 481 to 814

However, this is not exactly what we think of as ‘blood feud’ today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a feud as “a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families or communities, characterised by murderous assaults in revenge for previous injuries”. Blood-feud as defined in Frankish law, however, was a specific remedy used to avenge one deed. There is no indication that, after the vengeance had been carried out, the family and friends of the victim had any right to continue committing acts of violence against the offender.

The historian David Halsall has attempted to pin down the exact nature of Frankish blood feud as opposed to ‘true’ blood feud, by differentiating between tactical violence and strategic violence. Tactical violence, he maintains, aims directly at the resolution of a dispute, whereas the latter aims not at terminating the dispute directly, but rather at drawing attention to it. Blood vengeance as defined in Frankish law would appear to fit the former definition, whereas the latter approach (strategic violence) seems better suited to the modern understanding of ‘true feud’. I’m not sure how helpful the terms ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ are – they are linguistically interchangeable – but Halsall’s differentiation is nonetheless quite useful.

In a further departure from the classic definition of blood feud, it is clear from Frankish law codes that killing the offender was not supposed to be a measure of first resort. The Lex Salica, a major body of Frankish law, clearly stipulated that the punishment for homicide should be compensation first and foremost; only after a lengthy process of ritual and court appearances should the murderer be killed as compensation, and that only if he could not pay the fine. In 6th century Francia, vengeance could not be exacted until the local count or judge had found in favour of the wronged party. For instance, in the famous feud of Sichar and Chramnesind (585-87), Chramnesind forfeited half of the compensation otherwise due to him, for attacking Sichar’s household contrary to the findings of the tribunal.

In a tight-knit community it may have been more sensible to settle for compensation, since although a dead body restored honour and justice for the victim’s kin, it could not buy seed and livestock like monetary compensation (weregild) could. It would, however, be misleading to suggest that all families of the victim were more eager for money than vengeance. Stephen White, who studied violence in the Touraine around 1100, found that aggrieved parties delayed or rejected compromise and compensation for quite lengthy periods. This allowed them to make the most of their opponent’s contrition, and capitalise upon the community’s awareness that they had suffered a wrong and had the right to avenge it.

King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction
King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction

The blood vengeance in early medieval Francia which most closely paralleled the modern definition of blood feud was waged by the Merovingian royal family. Since the king was above the law, and given that the Merovingians often feuded with dynasties in other countries where the same law codes did not apply, one cannot say that Merovingian vengeance attacks were part of a progression of penalties as outlined in the Frankish law codes. Rather, they fit the pattern of classic blood feud in that they often involved a lasting state of hostility between families or family members. Halsall’s argument seems apt here: he observes that a ‘true feud’ is very difficult to terminate, and almost never ended through violence, because the feuding groups are perpetually in a state of  debtor and creditor; every time the debt of blood is paid off on one side, the roles and relationships are reversed, and it keeps on going.

The Merovingians were very into blood feud even by the standards of medieval royal dynasties. They tended to attack opponents in order to avenge insults to their kin. Such feuds could stretch out over generations. Gregory of Tours records Queen Chrotechildis, a Burgundian by birth, urging her sons to avenge the deaths of her parents on the murderer’s sons (her nephews Sigismund and Godomar). It seems that in royal circles, not engaging in blood feud to avenge a kinsman’s death was seen as positively shameful. The mid-9th century Gesta Dagoberti recounts how, supposedly, the sons of Sadregisil did not manage to obtain their heritage because they had not avenged their father’s murder.

Sometimes avenging an injured family member was linked with ideological considerations. For instance, King Childebert invaded Spain in 531 after hearing from his sister Chrotilda that her husband, Amalric of the Visigoths, was grossly mistreating her due to her Catholic faith (Amalaric was an Arian). Childebert defeated the Visigoth army and Amalaric was assassinated after fleeing to Barcelona. Unfortunately, Chrotilda herself never made it back to Paris, dying of an unknown cause en route, but the victory presumably enhanced Childebert’s reputation. Ideological concerns aside, the Merovingians also used blood feud for less exalted ends. One such case developed in the aftermath of a lurid royal scandal involving King Chilperic I (c.539-584). Chilperic murdered his wife, Galswintha, on the instigation of his mistress Fredegund, apparently strangling her in bed. Chilperic’s brothers saw their chance and decided to ‘avenge’ Galswintha by killing Chilperic. This, of course, left the throne open to them, and had the added bonus of being able to steal Galswintha’s dowry  in the process.

Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha. 14th century
Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha. 14th century
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha










We start to see an end to vengeance killing as an official form of justice under Charlemagne, who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. He opposed blood feud as part of his campaign against any violence not committed by royal consent. His Capitulare Missorum Generale attempted to ban all blood vengeance. Any attempt to settle a dispute had to be conducted through the medium of Charlemagne’s own officers. A murderer had to agree to pay compensation and the victim’s relatives had to accept it, once paid. Anyone taking vengeance of their own would be punished. It’s impossible to know how strictly these laws were followed; Francia was a huge realm and royal powers to enforce such regulations were limited. At any rate, perhaps it is not too much to see Charlemagne’s laws against blood feud as the beginning of the medieval expansion of more centralised royal justice. It was, however, not until the Holy Roman Empire’s Reichstag in 1495 that the right of waging feuds was totally abolished, with the Imperial Reform proclaiming an “eternal public peace”.


  • Fischer Drew, Katherine (ed.). Lex Salica, 1991, University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Halsall, Guy. ‘Reflections of Early Medieval Violence: The Example of the “Blood-Feud” Memoria y Civilización 2 (1999), pp. 7-29


The 14th-century Mafia? Folville, Coterel & Co

In August 1328, a priest in Derbyshire was beaten up and his church robbed by a gang of armed thugs. Perhaps that sounds familiar; after all, it fits well into the popular view of medieval lawlessness, vigilante justice and endemic violence. However, this particular incident wasn’t random violence perpetrated by drunken idiots; it was a calculated act carried out by an organised criminal gang. What’s more, the criminal gang had been paid to do it by another priest. The gang’s client, one Master Robert Bernard, had until recently been the incumbent of the parish of Bakewell in Derbyshire, but had been expelled from Bakewell after embezzling church funds and failing to pay the stipulated sums to the poor on Founder Days. As he’d arrived to say Mass on Christmas Day in 1327, his parishioners, instead of wishing him a merry Christmas and showering him with Yuletide gifts, had stripped him of his eucharistic vestments and sent him packing. Angry, humiliated and jealous of his successor, Bernard paid the criminal gang to beat up the new priest, Walter Can. They dutifully did this and then stole 10 shillings from the church funds for good measure.

The disputed parish of Bakewell, Derbyshire. ~ Copyright Rob Bendall
The disputed parish of Bakewell, Derbyshire. ~ Copyright Rob Bendall
This case is the first reference to the Coterel gang, a notorious family-run outfit which terrorised the Peak District in the early 14th century. The annals of this period are stuffed with references to large-scale criminal gangs which engaged in robbery, pillaging, abduction and murder among other crimes. In the absence of an effective police force, they terrorised the length and breadth of their counties, sometimes for decades without ever being apprehended. As with the Italian-American mafiosi in The Godfather, they were organised in tightly knit family units, with husband and wife, brother and sister working together. Contrary to what one might expect, they were not necessarily beggars thieving in order to scrape together a living. Some of the robber bands, including the Coterel gang, came from small landowning families with ties to the church.

Clergy and churches do feature frequently in these gangs’ exploits. Take an incident in 1340, when another gang of armed men invaded the church at Teigh, Rutland, this time murdering the priest, dragging him out into the churchyard and beheading him. The difference is that the rector of Teigh was actually a member of the notorious Folville gang, and the armed men were law enforcement officers of a sort, headed by a local Justice of the Peace. The Folvilles were roughly contemporary to the Coterel gang, and they terrorised Leicestershire, where they were landowners of some prominence. There were seven brothers and only John, the eldest, who inherited the family estates, was never implicated in a crime. Eustace, the second oldest brother, was the leader, and Richard Folville was a cleric; evidently his vocation did not deter him from violent crime!

Teigh church, where Richard Folville was murdered
Teigh church, where Richard Folville was murdered

The Teigh case shows that like the Coterels, the Folvilles could be hired if offered enough money. In 1331 their services were engaged by a canon of Sempringham Priory and the cellarer of Haverholm Abbey. These two clergymen, who had previously sheltered the Folvilles from the law, paid them £20 to destroy a water mill belonging to a rival. Sure enough, the mill was soon a smoking ruin. The Folvilles’ services were not limited to sabotage; in 1326 they set upon and murdered Sir Roger Bellere with the aid of two local landowners.

The murder shocked contemporaries because of Bellere’s standing; he was a Baron of the Exchequer and owned nine manors. The Folvilles didn’t turn up to their trial, instead vanishing into the wilds (probably Wales or France), and were promptly declared outlaws. Evidently their new status didn’t deter them, since within a few years petitions were being sent to the Sheriff of Nottingham complaining that two of the Folville brothers were roaming abroad again at the head of a robber band, waylaying, stealing from and even murdering travellers. In the period 1327-1330, Eustace was either directly accused of, or mentioned in connection with, three robberies, four murders, and a rape, which is almost certainly an underestimate.

Robbers kill a passer-by. 15th century
Robbers kill a passer-by. 15th century

Every now and again, the brothers were forced to rehabilitate themselves as the net of justice closed in. The best way to do this was by enlisting as soldiers. They joined Roger Mortimer’s army in putting down the rebellion of the Earl of Lancaster in late 1328. However, old habits die hard. When quartered with the army in Leicester under Mortimer’s protection, they looted the people of Leicester to the tune of £200 worth of goods.

When they weren’t working for the king in the hope of a pardon, 14th century criminal gangs sometimes worked together on the most ambitious projects, as with the abduction of  Sir Richard de Willoughby (the future Chief Justice of the King’s Bench) in January 1332. Multiple gangs were involved, including the Coterel gang, the Folville brothers, the Bradburn gang and the aptly named Savage Company, led by Roger Savage. Even those who were supposed to be on the side of law enforcement did not scruple at getting involved; also present were Sir Robert de Vere (the constable of Rockingham Castle) and Sir Robert Tuchet (the former constable of Melbourne Castle).The gangs avoided capture by smuggling Willoughby from one wood to another. He was ransomed for 1300 marks before 24 hours had passed – perhaps they ought to have asked for more…

So what happened to the Folville brothers? They certainly weren’t all brought to justice. Eustace’s fortunes actually took a turn for the better. After Willougby’s kidnapping, service with Edward III’s army in Scotland and Flanders appears to have gained him a full pardon. Eustace died peacefully in 1346, a councillor at Crowland Abbey, never having stood trial for any of the charges lodged against him. As for Richard Folville – the beheaded rector – he was the only Folville brother to suffer from official retribution. In a final twist of irony, the men who executed him were ordered by Pope Clement VI to undergo a penance for killing a priest, which involved being whipped at each of the main churches in the area.

King Edward III, who gave Eustace Folville a full pardon
King Edward III, who gave Eustace Folville a full pardon

One obvious question to ask is why they, and other gangs such as the Coterels, managed to stay at large for so long – and in some cases, for the rest of their life – when they were well-known offenders. Part of the answer is that Justices of the Peace and other law enforcement officers were highly dependent on local information and assistance in their operations. Given the powerful hold which the Folvilles held on Leicestershire, it’s not surprising that many people wouldn’t inform on them for fear of retribution.

Others may even have approved of what the Folvilles were doing. The official commissions against them feature many complaints along the lines of ‘in all these things they are aided and abetted by local people, who incite them to their evil deeds and shield them after they are done’. While these complaints might seem to excuse the commissions’ own failures, there is probably some truth to them. For example, when they were almost caught whilst hiding out with the Coterels in the Peak District, they escaped because a local informer tipped them off.

Their two main targets, Bellere and Willoughby, were after all corrupt and unpopular figures. Bellere used his office to seize land and siphon money to his patrons. The presence of two other Leicestershire landowners at the murder suggests a conspiracy aided by the Folvilles, rather than a lone crime by the latter. Willoughby was no more popular. In 1340 he was trapped by a second gang in Thurcaston Castle. He was later imprisoned by Edward III on charges of corruption (‘selling the laws like cattle’), indicted by several juries across the country, and forced to pay 1200 marks for the king’s pardon (which is ironic, considering that the Folvilles managed to get 1300 marks out of him!). Eustace Folville and his brothers may have been seen as the honest, tough opponents of these figures, even if the restoration of justice was not exactly their primary motive.

The Folvilles were enshrined in the popular memory as outlaw-heroes just a few generations after their death, with tales of their deeds appearing in medieval ballads alongside songs of Robin Hood. William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman (1377) refers to ‘Folvyles Law’, portraying them not as immoral lawbreakers, but rather as agents of an unofficial law, outside human legislation and less susceptible to abuse. This is the kind of legend which has grown up around figures such as Robin Hood. Once stripped of his Merry Men, gaudy green outfit and philanthropism (the latter was a nineteenth century invention), was Robin Hood so very different from the Folvilles?
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne having jolly larks (1912)
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne having jolly larks (1912)

Sex, the law and the press in Georgian London

The Prince Regent dancing with another man's wife at his debauched birthday party
The Prince Regent dancing with another man’s wife at his debauched birthday party

A taste for salacious gossip, particularly that of a sexual nature, is nothing new. It’s a stereotype, but probably a true one, that Georgian London was a bawdy place and had no shortage of scandal to go round. The spreading of scandalous stories was helped by the 18th century explosion in the newspaper trade, particularly in London. In 1770, London had 5 daily papers; by the 1780s it had 9 dailies, 8 tri-weeklies and 9 weeklies. Aside from political and financial news, a large part of what was driving that growth was the reportage of scandal, whether sexual or otherwise. Given all this, it’s not surprising that legal cases concerning rape, sodomy, bestiality and adultery were eagerly followed and commented upon in the papers. Entrepreneurial businessmen would print cheap mass-produced pamphlets with an account of everything which had happened in a trial, although their reliability is doubtful; sometimes the note-taker in court would get bored or confused and left out bits and misreported others.

One of the more curious Old Bailey cases depicted in Garrow’s Law is that of the prostitute Susannah Hill, who was prosecuted in 1791 by William Garrow on the charge of hanging a man named Frantisek Kotzwara. On 2nd February of 1791, Kotzwara, a Czech musician and small-time composer, visited Hill in her lodgings in Vine Street (an alley in Westminster, now more famous for its place on the London Monopoly board). After dinner, he gave her two shillings and asked her to castrate him. Hill refused, but not wanting to lose Kotzwara’s custom, she agreed to his next odd proposition. He tied a noose around his neck which was attached to the doorknob, and they had sex. After the deed was done, Kotzwara was found dead.

It’s one of the first recorded cases of erotic asphyxiation. (Interestingly, Victorian men who also got aroused by the sensation of being partially hanged could visit ‘Hanged Mens’ Clubs’, in which death by asphyxiation was more of an unfortunate side effect than a planned event). In the subsequent murder trial at the Old Bailey, the jury acquitted Hill because it seemed to have been an accident, at least on her part. Someone – probably the judge – requested that the court records of the trial be destroyed in order to avoid scandal and a slew of copycat cases. It’s very likely that a copy got out anyway, since a pamphlet published in 1797, Modern Propensities; or, An Essay on the Art of Strangling, featured a detailed summary of the trial along with Hill’s memoirs. The front cover illustration of Hill and Kotzwara looking rather jolly, shown below along with the title page, is so prominent that it’s obvious that this pseudo-scientific pamphlet relied very heavily on the scandalous in order to sell.

Modern Propensities

Modern Propensities Title Page











One perennially bestselling source of sexual scandal is of course adultery. It’s a theme which runs throughout Garrow’s Law and indeed throughout the Georgian press. Then as now, the general public would shake their heads in outrage at the news of some extramarital affair and were only too quick to swallow whatever the media told them. In many cases no doubt the Georgian readers did hold genuine moral beliefs against adultery. Yet these stories wouldn’t have sold as half as well as they did if there wasn’t a keen interest in sexual scandal, hiding behind all the public prurience.

From a modern perspective we might assume that when a husband initiated adultery proceedings, it would be against his wife. That wasn’t the case in Georgian England, where the injured husband would bring an action against his wife’s supposed lover. The lover hadn’t committed a criminal offence as such, but if found guilty of adultery (‘criminal conversation’ as it was euphemistically known) he would have to pay the husband compensation, the idea being that he’d damaged the other man’s property (his wife). Because of this, adultery trials took place in the civil courts, particularly in the Court of the King’s Bench.

Westminster Hall, where the Court of the King's Bench oversaw criminal conversation suits
Westminster Hall, where the Court of the King’s Bench oversaw criminal conversation suits

The criminal conversation trial between William Garrow and Sir Arthur Hill shown in Garrow’s Law never actually occurred in real life, but the show’s writers based it on an actual trial which is interesting for its rather extraordinary outcome. Sir Richard Worsley (1751-1805) was a politician and antiquarian who married 17-year-old Seymour Dorothy Fleming in 1775. Although she brought the considerable sum of £70,000 into the marriage, they were badly suited and the marriage soon fell apart. Lady Worsley was rumoured to have had 27 lovers. She had a child by Maurice George Bisset, an officer of the Hampshire militia and a friend of Sir Richard’s, with whom she then ran off in November 1781. Although Sir Richard had previously acknowledged the child as his own in order to avoid scandal, after their elopement he was out for revenge, and in 1782 he brought a criminal conversation case against Bisset for £20,000. At first the case looked like a strong one. Lady Worsley’s past history of adultery would tell against her, and there was fairly sound evidence to show that she had lain with Bisset. But as the trial unfolded, shocking revelations brought the prosecution into doubt.

Various witnesses described how Sir Richard didn’t seem to care about Lady Worsleys’ adultery and even encouraged it. The counsel for the prosecution revealed that when various ladies from their neighborhood had warned Sir Richard that he ought to keep his wife in check, he replied that ‘Lady Worsley liked it, and he chose to…oblige her’. Following this, Lord Deerhurst gave evidence that Sir Richard had told him ‘that many young Men had tried her…and that I had his permission to try my chance with her’.The case was ultimately undone by the revelation that Sir Richard had actually displayed his wife naked to Bisset at the bath-house at Maidstone, shouting ‘Seymour! Seymour! Bisset is looking at you’. Being convinced of the adultery, the jury found for Sir Richard, but obviously they weren’t very impressed with him since they only awarded him 1 shilling in damages. The sensational trial found its way into the press, and you could buy a printed transcription for (ironically) one shilling. Sir Richard Worsley was ever after laughed at as a cuckold.
Sir Richard Worsley
Sir Richard Worsley
Lady Worsley
Lady Worsley

Further Reading

Criminal (in)justice in 18th-century England

A trial at the Old Bailey, c.1808
A trial at the Old Bailey, c.1808

This the first of three posts which will look at the history behind the TV series Garrow’s Law. Garrow’s Law is an immensely entertaining series based on the life of the barrister William Garrow (1760-1840). It has its historical inaccuracies – for one thing, quite a few of the cases attributed to Garrow were not his in real life. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating portrait of the criminal justice system in the later 18th century, and Garrow is an interesting figure worth our attention. Particularly in his early years of criminal practice at the Old Bailey (the central criminal court in London), Garrow fought hard for justice for all, in a justice system plagued with corruption and inequality.

Criminal (in)justice in 18th century England
Because the popular representation of the 18th century is intimately bound up with the Enlightenment, many people today tend to think of it as a time when society was inexorably moving into the light of a golden rational future and climbing out of the dark, superstitious seventeenth century/medieval era/Dark Ages/whichever awful, patently irrational period you care to name. However, looking at the criminal justice system, many of the features which we take for granted were actually formalised under the philanthropic, reformingpioneering awful, stuffy, prudish Victorians. The Georgians were not particularly enlightened in their treatment of criminals; 18th century England was a terrible place in which to be accused of a crime. If you were accused of a felony (murder, rape, arson or theft) you were not allowed defense counsel in court until 1730 and were very unlikely to have it even after then, and if you were found guilty, your offence was likely to be severe whatever your crime.

This is because the 18th century witnessed the enormous expansion of the so-called ‘Bloody Code’. In 1688 there were 50 offences which carried the death penalty; by 1800 there were 200 offences punishable by hanging. Perhaps inevitably, the majority of these were what we would see as minor offences. People were hanged for offences ranging from perjury, to ‘impersonating another to receive a seaman’s wage’, to destroying silk on a loom, to the theft of sheep and cattle. That not all of those people convicted of capital offences were actually hanged does not change the fact that there was a widespread  culture of capital punishment. In London, the executions at Tyburn were public spectacles which could draw crowds of thousands.

A gallows ticket to see the execution of the infamous thieftaker and criminal gang leader, Jonathan Wild, in 1725
A gallows ticket to see the execution of the infamous thieftaker and criminal gang leader, Jonathan Wild, in 1725
A hanging at Tyburn, London
A hanging at Tyburn, London


If you were convicted of a felony in 1700, your trial might go something like this:

If you can afford it, you are allowed to ask for a lawyer’s advice on points of law relating to your case. However, you’re not allowed to have a lawyer to represent you in the courtroom, although the prosecutor is. You enter the courtroom in the knowledge that you are presumed guilty until proven otherwise, so the jury are already biased against you. Your trial is very brief; most trials are only 30 minutes long (that includes the jury’s deliberation). You are expected to make your own defense, the idea being that ‘it requires no manner of Skill to make a plain and honest Defence’; if you’re truly not guilty, your countenance will clearly radiate innocence.  But you might be too intimidated, too illiterate, or just too drunk to say anything, let alone formulate such a defense as will convince the jury to acquit. The courtroom is dominated by the judge, who interrogates your witnesses. The entire system is skewed towards the prosecution. If  the jury finds you guilty of a felony, you will very likely face hanging or transportation. Age, disability and gender are no barriers – children can be, and are, sentenced to death for stealing food. When the judge sentences you to hang, he says that you will ‘be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead’, adding ‘the Lord have mercy on your soul’.

Aside from the lack of adequate representation, there were other major problems within the criminal justice system. Perjury was rife, not because people were inherently untruthful, but because the whole system was set up in a way which (unintentionally) encouraged it. The government offered rewards for successful criminal convictions. A certain profession of men called ‘thief-takers’, whose heyday was from the 1720s to the 1750s, took advantage of these. Private citizens would go to a thieftaker and ask them to apprehend a criminal, and the thieftaker would be paid with a share of the reward money. The problem was that often, in their desperation for money, they would apprehend just about anyone and thus profit from the conviction of innocent men and women.

All of these problems with the criminal justice system – the Bloody Code, the difficulty of defense representation, perjury, and dishonest thieftakers – are covered in Garrow’s Law. The next post will look at how William Garrow attempted to address these issues, often successfully.

William Garrow, a legal pioneer

In the 18th and 19th centuries, criminal barristers were viewed by many people with suspicion and even hostility. A cartoon from around 1800 portrays a barrister saving a clearly guilty thief whilst trampling on the figure of Justice. In a way, it’s not so different from the dislike which criminal barristers arouse in some people today. But William Garrow (1760-1840) was unusual. He was part of the first generation of ‘Old Bailey barristers’ and through his eloquence and devastating effectiveness, he gained a reputation as an excellent criminal defense barrister and was propelled into the public eye, helping to reform the criminal justice system as he went along.

William Garrow
William Garrow

William Garrow and his indecent behaviour
Garrow was called to the Bar in 1783 and spent the first decade of his career at the Old Bailey. His immense rhetorical talents gained him widespread personal fame; he was known for his impassioned speeches which could move juries to tears, and for his aggressive cross-examination of witnesses. An article from 1832 recounts how ‘he seemed every now and then to destroy, almost to annihilate, an adverse witness’. Even when it might have been more useful to take a milder approach, Garrow ‘could not resist the temptation of making a great impression on the jury and bystanders’. Garrow’s aggressive courtroom style could, however, get him into trouble with the judge, as this rather humorous altercation between him and Mr Justice Heath demonstrates:

Heath    You must not interrupt your objection is premature.
Garrow  My Lord I was not objecting I was going on with my Examination & your Lordship did me the honour to Interrupt me.
Heath    You will examine your Witness with some degree of decency your Conduct & behaviour are very improper what you do here is by permission of the Court in a Criminal Case.
Garrow  My Lord I Object to the Witness being examined & I take the liberty to state my objection to the Court.
Heath    You must examine your witness
Garrow  I have a right to my Objection.
Heath    If you do not examine your witness you shall sit down
Garrow  My Lord I shall not sit down.
Heath    Then I shall Commit you
Garrow  So your Lordship may
Heath    Then I certainly will commit you
Garrow  There is a point of Law to be argued
Heath    There is no point of Law and if there was you are to be assigned to the Court but you are to behave with Decency
Garrow  So I do my Lord I have not been used to be interrupted I am here to argue points of Law for the prisoner.
Heath    You have no right till you are Assigned
Garrow  If you tell me so my Lord I sit down
Heath    I tell you so.
Garrow  I sit down.

‘The honourable business of thief-taking’
Garrow had a particular hatred for thieftakers (men who would arrest supposed criminals in order to get a share of the government reward for successful conviction), believing them to be dishonest rascals. Consequently, whenever he was defending and they appeared as witnesses for the prosecution, he would show no mercy in his cross-examinations. In one such case, Garrow was defending two men against the accusation of breaking and entering. The thieftaker involved in the case, Joseph Levy, untruthfully said that one of the men had confessed his guilt on their way to the magistrate’s office. This is part of Garrow’s cross examination of Levy, in which Levy gave as good as he got:

Q [Garrow] Now, Master Levy, otherwise Joe the Barber [his underworld name], how long have you been in this honourable business of thief-taking?
A [Levy] I cannot rightly tell you.
Q Now guess a little, ever since you was convicted and pardoned, ha! Speak man, how long have you been a thief-taker?
Longer than you have been a Counsellor.
. . . . .
Q How many trials did you appear upon last Sessions?
Never a one, only one
What, there was no blood money last Sessions?
If there were no thieves, how would you get a brief?

This dialogue is reproduced almost in its entirety in 0:00 – 1:00 in this video (from ‘Garrow’s Law’, Season 1, Episode 1)

Jonathan Wild, notorious thief-taker and criminal gang leader.
Jonathan Wild, notorious thief-taker and criminal gang leader.

‘He that speaketh lies, shall perish’
As I mentioned in my last post, perjury was widespread in Georgian England, due in large part to the government rewards on offer for successful criminal convictions. In the following case, the prosecutor, Mr Grove, had accused Mr Wingrove (Garrow’s client) of highway robbery. Grove maintained that the defendant had robbed the two men who eventually apprehended him. In fact, they were just smugglers going about their  business, and hadn’t made any charge about being robbed when they were in front of the examining justice the morning afterwards. This exchange shows Garrow’s stubborn determination to force answers from reluctant witnesses, along with his capacity for sarcasm and repartee:

Q [Garrow] Who are these two men, let us hear a little about them?
A [Grove] They are not here…
What business are they, are they not a sort of moon light men [smugglers]?
It was not moon-light
Are they not a couple of smugglers?
They may as far as I know.
So they told you they had been robbed?
A Yes.
Did they give any charge against Mr Wingrove?
A I do not know what you mean by charges
Q I believe you are pretty well used to charges; did these two smugglers of yours give any charge against this prisoner?
A They are no smugglers of mine.
Q They are friends of yours?
A They are no friends of mine.
They, these two fellows, did they make any charge against Mr Wingrove for robbing them?
Yes, they did make a charge
Do not shuffle, Mr Grove
I do not know what you say.
I will make you know directly; upon your oath, did not these two men attend the next day at Mr Taylor’s [justice of the peace] house and say that Wingrove was not one of the men who robbed them?

In the end, Garrow got Grove to admit that they had made no such charge. There was a strong suspicion among the jury that Grove had prosecuted only in order to get a reward, so they acquitted Wingrove.

Smuggling was a flourishing trade in 18th century England
Smuggling was a flourishing trade in Georgian England

Garrow’s legacy
William Garrow might not have been the saint he is portrayed as in Garrow’s Law, but he was an immensely talented advocate who did significant work towards reforming the criminal justice system. Through pushing the boundaries of what he was allowed to do in court, he played an important role in the rise of advocacy from the 1780s onwards, which allowed both parties to have a voice in court. He also formulated today’s view that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. This is why William Garrow should be remembered by anyone who values the British justice system for the right to representation and the presumption of innocence.