Petit Treason in Eighteenth Century England: Women's Inequality before the Law
Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 3(2), 1989
23 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2016
Date Written: November 1, 2016
This article examines the English law of petit treason (murder of a husband by his wife or a master by a servant or a religious superior by a religious inferior) and its implications for married women charged with murdering their husbands. From 1351 – 1828, a woman accused of killing her husband was liable to be indicted not for willful murder but for the aggravated offence of petit treason and, until 1790, she faced public execution by burning if convicted. Relying on eighteenth century legal treatises, reported cases, press accounts of women’s trials, and secondary sources, the author discusses the cases of several women tried for petit treason. The general legal position of married women in eighteenth century England is also examined, and it is argued that the law of petit treason was a logical extension and consistent expression of women’s unequal position in marriage and subordinate status more generally. With the elimination of the aggravated penalty of burning at the stake, and the ultimate repeal of petit treason altogether, married women who killed their husbands achieved a measure of formal equality previously denied them. However, the author argues the significance of petit treason cannot be explained adequately by a trans-historical concept of patriarchy or male dominance. Analysis of both the form of law, and the form of patriarchal relations enforced and reinforced, is identified as of paramount importance.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation