The jurisdiction of church courts used to cover many aspects of human activity. They heard causes, the church court term for cases, on such matters as marriage, defamation and probate. As part of their activity, the courts collected witness statements, or depositions. Often recording the words of witnesses verbatim, depositions offer a fascinating insight into language and human activity. The salacious nature of many of them, has earned the court the moniker of ‘bawdy courts’.
The Norfolk Record Office has an ongoing programme to improve access to the archive of the Norwich Consistory Court, the main church court for Norfolk. During the Covid lockdowns, archivists at the NRO started cataloguing some of the depositions. Together with work done by students at the University of East Anglia, this information has been added to the NRO’s catalogue. In doing so, we get a glimpse into eighteenth century life not offered by any other document.
Adultery in the Depositions
In the eighteenth century, the Church objected to people having sex outside of marriage. There are causes for both adultery and fornication within the Court’s archive. This difference being adultery means at least one of the parties is married to someone else. A good example of an adultery cause, and the focus of this blog, relates to a William Primrose and dates from the early eighteenth century.
There are several witness statements in the archives (NRO, DN/DEP 56/60/92-6), which document William Primrose’s alleged adultery with Elizabeth Townsend, wife of John Townsend. All three parties lived in Southrepps.
It is John’s own account which offers the most detail. Firstly, he recounts how his suspicions were raised. He states how he was ‘going from home, pretty early, for Caston Market’ and having ‘forgot to take … some money … [he] returned home, where, going into the kitchen … called to her for the key of his drawers where his money was kept, upon which … William Primrose came down from his wife’s bedchamber and told [him] that he went … [there to ask her if he] should kill anything that morning for … dinner’. A short while later, Elizabeth Townsend ‘came down with her close [clothes] loose about her, just out of bed’.
The second incident to cause suspicion with John, happened about a week later, when he and ‘William Primrose, being at the … Feathers, a publick inn in North Walsham … where they usually …[left] their horses, agreed to go home together after they had dispatched about half an hour’s business’. Upon doing what he wanted to do, Townsend recalls returning to the Feathers, to be told by ‘the ostler … Primrose took his horse and went home as soon as Townsend had left [to do his jobs]’. Upon hearing this John ‘made haste home and when he was [in his] yard in the dusk of the evening, he espied a man go out of his house and run past [William Primrose’s] house door which stands in the same yard’. Having caught up with the man, Townsend discovers it is William Primrose, and that he had been ‘alone with his wife’.
A Trap is Set
John Townsend’s deposition then recounts how he acted upon his suspicions.
On the 28August 1710, John Townsend told his wife, that he was going to ‘see her mother at Swanton Novers … and that he would be back at home sometime the next day, and accordingly, he took [his] horse and went from home, but returned privately the same night and got in at his butchers shop window (which was generally left open when there was no meat in it) into a low room, that opened into his shop and into [the] yard, where sheltering himself all night, in the morning about five … he heard somebody knock at the outward door of his dwelling house … upon which [John Townsend] saw [William Primrose] and then, whilst his wife was arising and coming down [the] stairs to unlock the door, he conveyed himself over an oven into a closet that opens into his kitchen, where through the key hole he saw his wife and [William] Primrose together’.
Caught in the Act
After recounting an interruption by a Simon Ives who wanted to buy some tobacco (Elizabeth Townsend ‘did and does keep a little shop and sells grocery and other small wares’), John Townsend goes into graphic detail of William Primrose and Elizabeth’s ‘foul sin of adultery’. At which point, John, rushes out of his closet with William Primrose having ‘his breeches about his heels being surprised upon his knees entreated and beseeched John Townsend (who threatened him very severely) to spare him and he would be a friend to him as long as he lived and he gave [John Townsend] a note for fifty pounds to make himself easy and after he had pretty well corrected him and a great deal of bustle and noise let him goe.’
What Happened Next
At the time of writing, we don’t know the outcome of the cause, except that several other witness statements corroborated John Townsend’s story. We don’t know if he kept the £50, which today equates to almost £5,700. As well as providing a rather salacious story of infidelity, the deposition gives us more mundane but still useful information, some of which is new, some of which confirms other sources about family and local history. There is confirmation that Elizabeth’s nephew was William Priest, he was staying with John and Elizabeth when the alleged infidelity was uncovered and provided a witness statement. We know Elizabeth’s mother was alive in 1710. We know who the village’s butcher was and where people got their groceries from.
There are scraps of information within the NRO’s holdings about the fates of William, John and Elizabeth. A William Primrose of Trunch (an adjacent parish to Southrepps) married an Ann Worts of Mundesley, in Mundesley on 7 November 1727 (NRO, PD 433/1). An Elizabeth Townsend was buried on 8 June 1713 in Southrepps (NRO, PD 468/2) and a widower by the name of John Townsend, of Southrepps, married a Mary Roach, widow, of Horstead on 24 February 1714 (NRO, PD 597/1). She was buried a year later, on 6 February 1715 (NRO Bishop Transcripts). Intriguingly, in Mary’s will, which was proved in the Norwich Consistory Court in the same year (NRO NCC Melcior 151), there was mention of a payment to John of £50! A John Townsend was buried at Horstead on 9 May 1724 (NRO Bishop Transcripts).
More Stories to Uncover
There are dozens of boxes of depositions, each containing several hundred entries. The NRO is working with its partner charity, the Norfolk Archives and Heritage Development Foundation (NORAH), to conserve and catalogue the archive of the Norwich Consistory Court. Without detailed cataloguing, finding entries relevant to someone’s local or family history is only possible for those with a lot of research time available to them. If you would like to support this work, donations can be made to NORAH online.