The tiny hamlet of Checkley clusters around its unusually large and impressive medieval church. The church, augmented with the public house and cottages, all appear to form an alliance which presents the modern visitor with a picture of a bygone way of life. Even in the 21st century the hamlet appears as a harmonious community nestling peacefully in its rural hinterland. The treble bell in the church tower has engraved upon it ‘Peace and Good Neighbourhood 1761.’ The following year, however, this ‘good neighbourhood’ was temporarily broken when one of its inhabitants accused an individual from nearby Cheadle of committing incest with his own mother, a resident of Checkley.
This was considered a moral offence, without the criminal element associated with it today, and as such was subjected to the jurisdiction of the church courts rather than their secular counterpart. These operated a parallel system of governance to that of the manorial court regulating the behaviour of individuals within a community and providing an alternative system of social control. Although no doubt daunting for those summoned to them, these courts had no authority to impose either physical punishments or monetary fines. However, the defeated party would be ordered to perform a penance, as well as being responsible for payment of the legal fees. There would also be the element of public humiliation which could last a considerable time in a small gossip-happy community.
Although the purported crime was one of incest the actual case – or to use the correct terminology ‘cause’ – was that of defamation of character, or slander. This was a serious allegation during the 18th century when a tarnished reputation would have serious implications affecting the creditworthiness of an individual, both financially and socially.
For a deformation cause to be brought before the church courts it was required to satisfy three elements. Firstly the accused was generally of good character; secondly the defamatory words were spoken in a public place where they were overheard; and thirdly the defamatory words spoken resulted in a loss of this good character and reputation. The greater number of individuals that witnessed the event, such as if it occurred in a crowded alehouse or a busy market place, the more serious the incident became.
The cause of William Green of Cheadle against husbandman John Sale of Checkley began on January 6th 1762 with the issue of a citation. This was the initial summons, issued by the registrar, and delivered to the defendant by the apparator, William Shelson of Uttoxeter. This gave notice requiring the presence of the defendant (John Sale) to appear in the Cathedral Church court at Lichfield on January 19th to hear the cause brought against him by the plaintiff (William Green). It is interesting to note that at this point the defendant would have had the opportunity to resolve the issue (as many did), by making an apology for the defamatory words spoken. In this instance, however, this did not occur.
The citation was followed by the (undated) libel, which listed the ‘facts’ of the cause given as numbered articles, stating the legal justification for the cause and details of the accusations. The first article justified the cause in the context of ecclesiastical law: ‘That all persons whatsoever who shall utter, publish, assert or report any scandalous or defamatory words to the hurt or diminution of the good name, fame and reputation of any person contrary to the ecclesiastical laws of this realm are and ought to be admonished and compelled to retract the same and to be Canonically corrected and punished.’
The second article described the words spoken and in what context: ‘John Sale in the months of October, November and December in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and sixty one, and particularly on Wednesday the eighteenth day of November, being in the kitchen of the dwelling house of Serjant, known by the sign of the Wheatsheaf in Uttoxeter, did defame the said William Green and said William Green had committed the crime of incest with his own mother or words to the like effect, signifying William Green’s guilt of the said crime with Elizabeth Green, widow, his said mother.’
The allegation had implications for both William and his mother, although Elizabeth herself had no part in the proceedings. William was already married and according to the witness depositions the allegation had already caused problems between William and his wife. His mother, being a widow, this defamation would have had damaging consequences for Elizabeth should she have wanted to remarry, or in obtaining credit in the future if required. With this in mind it is interesting to speculate what influence, if any, Elizabeth had on her son in bringing the cause against John Sale.
The location of the offence, the Wheatsheaf, still exists although it ceased trading as a public house in 2006. The building, dating from the early 18th century, stands in Bridge Street just below the church. The weekly market in Uttoxeter during this period was held on Wednesdays, and the position of the public house close to the market probably meant that it was at its busiest at the time of the offence. The fact that there appear to have been several taunts by Sale over a three-month period suggests that these were not merely ‘heated words’ after too much alcohol. It also suggests that the two men were regularly in each other’s company. Additionally, it is also possible that the cause might have been part of a larger quarrel between William and Sale.
The depositions, or witness statements, were recorded on April 2nd and issued by the deputy registrar. Despite the incident occurring at a public house only two witnesses were called to provide depositions on behalf of the plaintiff, while there was none for the defendant. The first examined was Thomas Evans, a cutler from Cheadle, aged about fifty-eight. Evans stated that: ‘being in company with Thomas Smith his fellow witness, the said William Green the plaintif and the said John Sale the Defendant, and also of Mr William Harrison, Henry Hancock, Mr Sillito of Uttoxeter and several other persons in the Kitchen of the Dwelling house of Mr Serjant situate in Uttoxeter commonly known by the sign of the Wheatsheaf, on Wednesday the eighteenth day of November last past he heard the said John Sale the Defendant speak the Defamatory words following to and of the said William Green the plaintif, they the said plaintif and Defendant having been talking to each other in a brawling and chiding noisey manner, Thou f***** thy own mother, thereby meaning that he the said William Green had committed the crime of incest with his own mother Elizabeth Green, who is now living and lives in the parish of Checkley.’
Who Mr William Harrison and Mr Sillito were is unknown, but Henry Hancock was one of the churchwardens at Checkley the previous year. The tenor bell in the church tower is inscribed ‘Henry Hancock and Thomas Tilsley, churchwardens, 1761.’
Evans concluded his deposition with: ‘the Good Name and reputation of the said plaintif is greatly hurt amongst his Neighbours and Acquaintances and has caused Quarrels between the said William Green and his wife and also great uneasiness in his family.’
The second witness was Thomas Smith, a husbandman over the age of nineteen, also from Cheadle. His testimony was almost identical to that given by Evans. The two witnesses were also questioned by the opposing party, known as the Interrogations. These were held on the following day (April 3rd) and consisted of questions such as whether the witnesses were being paid to give evidence against Sale, had they been told to say anything, and had the witnesses collaborated with each other.
Sale appears to have made no attempt to prove his original claim of incest between William and Elizabeth Green. This would have been difficult without the aid of evidence or a number of reliable witnesses. Indeed, William managed to counteract the implication by Sale of sexual misbehaviour, using it to claim his own injured dignity.
Both William and Sale enlisted the assistance of proctors, and the cause was finally settled and read in court on June 22nd. The judge, Thomas White, expressed the following verdict: ‘that the said John Sale did publickly, maliciously in an angry, reproachful and invidious manner, defame the said William Green and maliciously say, publish, and report several scandalous reproachful and defamatory words in the said Libel mentioned lending to the Infamy, Hurt, and Diminution of the estate, good Name, Fame and Reputation of the said William Green. Wherefore we do pronounce, decree and Declare that the said John Sale ought to be Duly and canonically corrected and punished according to the Law in that behalf provided for his so great Excess and Rashness in the premisses, and to be forced and compelled to reclaim such Defamatory words and to the restitution of the good name Fame and Reputation of the said William Green and desist from such Defamatory words for the future; – and we Do also pronounce, decree and declare the said John Sale to be injoined and compelled to perform a salutary and suitable penance, according to his Demerits for his Excess aforesaid, And we do also pronounce, decree and declare that the said John Sale we do condemn him in Lawful Costs and Do hereby reserve the Taxation of the same.’
Sale was ordered to perform was a ‘suitable penance’ which was likely to have been a public apology. Had the cause had been reversed – with Sale successfully prosecuting William, the penance for those found guilty of illicit sexual activity took the form of a public recant undertaken during servicetime on three consecutive Sundays, sometimes in three different churches. The guilty individual was usually dressed in a white sheet and held a wand in their hand. In front of the congregation a confession such as the following was read aloud: “Not having the fear of God before mine eyes but being led by the instigation of the Devil and my own carnal concupiscence I have committed the grievous sin of incest with [the other named person] to the dishonour of Almighty God, the breach of his most sacred laws, the scandal and evil example of others, and to the danger of my own soul without unfeigned repentance, I do humbly acknowledge and am heartily sorry for this heinous offence. I ask God pardon and forgiveness for the same in Jesus Christ, and pray him to give me his grace, not only to enable me to avoid all such sin and wickedness but also to live soberly, righteously and Godly all the days of my life, and to that end I desire all you that are here present to join with me in saying the Lord’s Prayer.”
The apology would have taken place before the vicar and churchwardens, as well as William if he chose to be present. The phrase ‘desist from such Defamatory words for the future’ may be translated into the modern idiom of ‘forever hold your peace.’
The ‘lawful costs’ that Sale was ordered to pay would have been unknown at the time of the sentence. These were detailed on the bill of costs issued on July 6th. This carefully itemised all the legal actions taken and the documents produced. The total amounted to £7-11-10, taxed at £7, to be paid to William or his proctor within twenty-eight days.