Petit Treason in Eighteenth Century England: Women's Inequality before the Law

Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 3(2), 1989

Osgoode Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16/2017

23 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2016

See all articles by Shelley A. M. Gavigan

Shelley A. M. Gavigan

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: November 1, 2016

Abstract

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

Gavigan, Shelley A. M., Petit Treason in Eighteenth Century England: Women's Inequality before the Law (November 1, 2016). Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 3(2), 1989; Osgoode Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16/2017. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2862616 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2862616

Shelley A. M. Gavigan (Contact Author)

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3
Canada
416.736.5558 (Phone)
416.7365736 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.osgoode.yorku.ca/faculty/Gavigan_Shelley_A_M.html

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