Subjects: Defamatory words

By the early sixteenth century the church courts began to see a limitation on their jurisdiction over defamation as the common lawyers increasingly challenged their right to hear matters relating to accusations of secular crimes such as theft. As the church courts could not impose any financial penalty, litigants who had the option might well choose temporal over ecclesiastical courts. Despite this, the number of suits for defamation brought before the church courts increased considerably during the sixteenth century. Accusations of sexual impropriety remained the preserve of the ecclesiastical courts as it was considered that they concerned spiritual welfare.


Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 295-299.

Accusation of papistry

As the reign of Queen Elizabeth progressed papistry was increasingly identified with disloyalty and consequently left those found guilty open to punishments of varying severity.

EDC 5/1591/2 – Andrew Brednam M.A., vicar of St John’s in Chester contra Henry Aneon, senior

Criminal behaviour

Such accusations are unlikely to be brought before the consistory court unless the offence was once which could be punished by the church.

EDC 5/4/1 – Pernell Danyell contra Joan Walton. The plaintiff had been accused of committing incest with her brother as well as fornication with others.


EDC 5/1/11 – Francis Holford contra Phillip Holford. The plaintiff had been called ‘bastard’ by his uncle which, if true,  could have adversely affected his right to inherit property from his grandmother.


EDC 5/1/6 – John Minshull and Sir Gilbert Lightfoot, chaplain, contra Alice Scariot. The plaintiffs in this unusual defamation cause claimed that Alice had defamed them by saying that they had bribed her to defame Agnes, wife of Edmund Kinsey’.

Sexual slander

The importance of reputation is illustrated by many causes of this type. Plaintiffs might bring a suit because if they did not the rumours might be thought to be true, resulting in damage to reputation which might affect a litigant’s marriage prospects or relationship with their spouse, as well as their standing in the community.

It was often mentioned in libels in causes of this kind that prior to the alleged defamation the plaintiff was considered to be a person of ‘honest conversation’. In this context ‘conversation’ refers to way of life or behaviour, rather than talk or discussion.

EDC 5/1/7 – Agnes Rosbothom contra Robert Haryson
EDC 5/17/4 – Isabelle Holden contra Roger Rishton
EDC 5/1560/2 – Joan Fitton, wife of Robert Fitton, contra Ralph Leche
EDC 5/1566/9 – Ellen [Helen] Smith contra Katherine Moseley
EDC 5 /1575/1 – Jane Shepherd contra Francis Sefton and Margaret Sefton
EDC 5/1575/2 – Ellen Bamvile contra Rose Smith
EDC 5/1575/4 – Urian Bowdon contra William Charlton and Ellen Lether
EDC 5/1580/10 – Anne Jackson contra Anne Jones, wife of Thomas Jones
EDC 5/1580/11 – Jane Chetam, wife of Henry Chetam, contra Richard Hall, clerk. Hall referred to Jane Chetam’s husband as ‘cuckold’ thereby branding her an adultress.
EDC 5/1580/12 – Ralph Shalcrosse contra Robert Ridinges