Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Abducting the Medieval Heiress

by | August 14, 2013 | 12 comments

In the fourteenth century, Ralph de Stafford, 1st Earl Stafford, abducted Margaret de Audley, the heiress of Gloucester and forced her to marry him. She was worth a lot of money.

Abduction was a serious problem in the Middle Ages. There were several statutes on the books, making abduction a felony as well as giving standing to relatives to sue the abductor.

The heiress of Gloucester’s parents sued and lost. 

The Knight Errant, by Mallais -- critics said she was so lifelike she was a woman of loose morals. She must have consented, they said.

The Knight Errant, by Mallais — critics thought the female in distress so lifelike, so clearly a woman of loose morals, that she must have consented to being tied to a tree.

How can this be?

It begins with a foundational tenet of the law governing the relationship between man and women–that a female is presumed to have consented to being carried off. This is based upon the religious precept that Eve was the seductress,, the “sexualized temptress.” Woman might seek to become pure, but her default position is always predisposed to sex.

In the application of the law, she must overcome the presumption of having consented to the relationship with the alleged abductor. Worse, if she becomes pregnant, she is subject to the medieval notion provided by medicine:  “two seeds” are necessary for conception of a child. If pregnancy is the result of rape, then the woman is presumed to have consented, having contributed her “seed.”

It also helped that Ralph de Stafford was politically connected, having been a close supporter of Edward III.

Almost one hundred years later, the two heiresses to the Wakehurst fortune were abducted.

Margaret and Elizabeth Wakehurst had been sent by their grandmother to live with her deceased son’s widow, Agnes. She and her new husband, Sir John Culpepper, would look after the two girls, who were unmarried and thought to be in their early teens.

As they were heiresses to the great fortune of Richard Wakehurst the Elder, Sir John had “promysed on the faithe and trouthe  of his bodye and as he was a gentylman” that no harm would come to the girls.  

The old lady would soon have reason to regret sending her granddaughters to him.

(The grandmother) made serious accusations against John, along with his brothers Richard and Nicholas Culpepper and their brother-in-law Alexander Clifford, claiming that they “with force and armes, riotously agense the Kinges peas, arayed in the manner of warre…toke and caried away” the girls to Clifford’s home in Bobbing, Kent.  At the time of their abduction, we learn, Margaret and Elizabeth made “grete and pittious lamentacion and weping.” — Abduction–An Alternative Form of Courtship? by Julia Pope, M.A.

To add insult to injury, it seems the Margaret and Elizabeth were hauled away to London and confined at the home of one John Gibson. From there they were forced to marry the Culpepper boys. Ms. Pope explains a number of reasons for this–that the marriages were within the prohibited degrees of affinity (by reason of Agnes’ marriage to Sir John), that there was no time or inclination for banns to be read in the parish where the girls were living with Sir John and that a priest willing to overlook these niceties of ecclesiastical law could probably be found in London, where Gibson graciously offered them shelter.

The case serves as a window into the medieval view of abduction. The grandmother’s lawyers went to considerable effort to present the marriages as having been forced through violence. Consent was never secured, it was alleged, at least before they were carried off.

The initial ruling of the court was unclear. By this time the girls had married the Culpepper brothers (the exact date is uncertain). Nevertheless, the grandmother fought on. Her real goal, to block the new husbands’ access to the heiresses’ properties, now came to the forefront. In all likelihood the Culpepper brothers had little prospects of inheriting property on their own and the family had been known to be social climbers.

The case dragged on for twenty years. In its aftermath, Richard and Margaret died without having children. Nicholas and Elizabeth, on the other hand, had five surviving sons. Their funeral brass in Ardingly Church, Sussex shows ten sons and eight daughters. It has been described as resembling a “poster warning against rush hour traffic.” See them here.





  1. Ally Broadfield

    Oh my! Rush hour traffic. Sadly, this post brought to mind some things said by some contemporary congressmen.

  2. Margaret Breashears

    Very interesting, but not surprising. Women were considered and treated as chattels from ancient times onward. Justification was always biblical.

  3. Ella Quinn

    Interesting post. I wonder how often this was done. One of my heroes, Robert Beaumont, laments that carrying a woman off was no longer allowed.

    • Angelyn

      He should just do it anyway–those are my favorite kinds of heroes. I’m in the minority on that one.

  4. marylou anderson

    Thanks for the information on the Middle Ages. Not my time period, but interesting all the same.
    Isn’t it amazing how some things have not changed in those hundreds of years: It’s still about WHO you know and NOT about WHAT you know.

    • Angelyn

      Who you are really does count–consenting or not!! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Joy Smid

    Very interesting article. Lots of material for writers of medieval romance. Loved the church in Sussex. I must go there, as my ancestors came from the area.

    • Angelyn

      You have to ask the priest in a nearby church for the key to get in to this one. Those funeral brass fittings are some of the most intricate in England. Reflecting the wealth of the tomb’s occupants.

  6. Lori

    Great post. I’ve had a plot idea bouncing around in my head for years centering on heiress abduction, but wasn’t sure when or where it could take place. You’ve given me a great place to start researching. Thanks!

  7. Nancy

    It continued in Ireland at least to the 18th century.
    There is a book In Pursuit of the Heiress
    The matter of abduction, seduction, and clandestine marriages lead to the Harwicke Marriage act 1753 to take effect 1754.
    Even in the 19th century, some JP’s and magistrates refused indct a man for rape if the waomn became pregannt.
    I can’t think of much worse than having to marry one’s rapist/

  8. Barb Bettis

    Loved the information, Angela. Wasn’t there, also, at some point the ruling that a woman couldn’t be married if she were unwilling? Of course, there were lots of ways to get around that. The attitude on pregnancy and rape I also have always found interesting. As you say, the woman must provide seed. As I saw it described once, if the man found pleasure in the release of his seed, the thinking was, the woman must surely also find pleasure in the release of her seed; thus no rape, because she enjoyed it. I didn’t research that further, so I’m not sure that’s an accurate interpretation of the way of thinking. But it seems likely, because–as you also point out–the church didn’t have a high opinion of women in the middle ages LOL.

    Nice post

  9. Angelyn

    thanks for retweeting, Ally!



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