Sex, Whipping and Pottage in Stepney

One day, probably in 1618, William Wilton returned to his house in Artillery Lane, Spitalfields to find a piece of paper under his door.

It was folded, ‘in manner and fashion of a letter’, and addressed ‘To his friend William Wilton give thee’. Unfolding it, William found it contained a verse.

William Wilton in the Ear, I thee round.
Take heed of underground,
for thou hast many a scorn,
with searching grafts and stocks,
they keep thy head from knocks,
with grafting on a horn.

Now, East London has always had an ear for the poetic. When Shakespeare moved to the capital in Elizabeth’s reign, he quickly ended up living in Shoreditch. Even today, the area boasts such brilliant poetic inventions as £3 bowls of cereal and the use of the phrase ‘pop-up’ to mean ‘new’.

But this was not a nice poem. It was mockery. The reference to the horn was at the nub: the poem was saying he was cuckolded.

For a 17th century husband this was a serious matter – it showed he could not control his wife. She was making a mockery, not only of him, but also of the institution of marriage itself.

In fact, given the link many political thinkers made between the patriarchal family and the patriarchal state, a man who allowed himself to be cuckolded was a threat to the political order. And so, the cuckold was mercilessly mocked. Most notoriously, he was supposed to grow horns that others could see but he couldn’t, hence the tradition in England of sticking two fingers up behind peoples’ heads when they’re looking away.

The Cuckold
The Cuckold

But the other clue to the poem’s meaning  was in the reference to the ‘underground’. This was a pun, albeit a bad one.

In a later legal appeal, William explained what it meant. This was, he said, ‘a scurrilous allusion unto one John Moule, taxing him of incontinency’ (with William’s wife). This was so, ‘by the word (underground)’. For, he helpfully explained, ‘that the vermin (called a Mole) for the most part liveth underground’.

So the poem alleged that William’s wife (who was called Alice), was sleeping with a neighbour, John Moule.

But this was not all.

On reading the verse, William made enquiries. Who had written it? Who’d thrown it through his door? Quickly he honed in on one woman, Joan Gisby, and confronted her. Joan was unrepentant. Yes, she’d ‘made and contrived the same (libel) and caused the same to be written’, and cast into the house. Worse, she offered to ‘publish and sing’ the verse, calling Alice ‘whore’, and ‘using many other most despiteful, reproachful and scandalous words’.

In fact, Joan and a group of her ‘confederates’, ‘did write and make sundry copies’ of the verse, and proceeded to ‘scatter and publish the same in diverse and sundry places and at many conventicles and meetings’ across the city of London and county of Middlesex. And they ‘did often sing and cause the same to be sung in divers Inns, taverns and alehouses to the great reproach, shame and infamy’ of William and his wife.

But even this was not enough for Gisby and co., so they wrote another ditty.

Willy told his wife, a Buck’s head he had bought,
To hang his hat upon, and home it brought.
To whom his wife replied, what needeth all this care,
I hope sweet heart, your head your hat can bear,
In marriage doth the woman promise make,
To serve her husband during term of life,
Whence comes it then that man doeth mistake,
In loving his neighbour to love his neighbour’s wife,
But Willy thou shalt nothing loose,
Thy wife and boy doth wear new clothes,
And in his house thou mayst be bold,
If thou wilt suffer his wife to scold.

Again, it was ‘read, recited, sung and divulged’ in diverse taverns.

Although the poetry is pretty terrible, it does – again – speak to several concerns of the day. The scolded (henpecked) husband, the exhortation to love one’s neighbour (in this case taken rather too far), the fragility of the promises of marriage. It also, incidentally, shows that people might use a buck’s head for a hatstand.

London's north-east suburbs in the late 17th century, by Wenceslas Hollar. Artillery Lane runs between Spitalfields and Bishopsgate Street
London’s north-east suburbs in the late 17th century, by Wenceslas Hollar. Artillery Lane runs between Spitalfields and Bishopsgate Street

But essentially, again, it’s about the mockery of cuckoldry. The weak husband, the dangerous shrew. It was the kind of thing that people saw as immensely dangerous to society, and to the ‘neighbourhood’.


Naturally, William responded in that classic 17th century way. He lawyered up.

We know of his humiliation because he complained about it to the court of Star Chamber, one of the key royal courts of the day. Its procedure involved a plaintiff writing a ‘Bill of Complaint’, in English. This was then met by an ‘Answer’ by the defendants. If the case continued, there was a ‘Replication’ by the plaintiff, a ‘Rejoinder’ by the defendant, before witnesses were then called to answer a series of ‘interrogatories’. In many cases, including this one, the interrogatories and witness depositions do not survive. Usually this seems to mean that the case either collapsed or was settled out of court.

A Hen-pecked Husband
A Hen-pecked Husband

The Answer of the defendants, Joan Gisby and a series of others, gives the context. And it seems that William and (especially) Alice, had been living a really quite unusual life.

William had lived in Stepney for five years, and in that time his wife had been accused of sleeping with a married glover called Martin. This Martin was supposed to have forsaken his wife, his family, and his trade (again tapping into fears about the consequences of adultery) to sleep with Alice. In fact, he sometimes lodged for five or six days at the Wiltons’ house, ‘wherein was only one bed’.

The relationship ended, but when one John Moule took in a servant (also called John), he was ‘often seen and known to use uncivil immodest and unhonest familiarity with the said Alice’, and ‘did often resort to her house at all hours in the night’.

This got the attention of a group of Stepney parishioners (the area was in the large parish of St Dunstan, Stepney), who had – they said – been enjoined by the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench himself, to take special care of the government of Artillery Lane and Spitalfields.

It had been, they said, a ‘place of resort and a receptacle of dishonest and disordered persons’, but through their work they had reduced it ‘unto a more civil order and government’.

So Moule’s house was purged. The servant John was sent away, as were two maidservants.

The Church of St Dunstan, Stepney in the 18th century
The Church of St Dunstan, Stepney in the 18th century

But this only left space for Alice, who quickly seems to have started an affair with the master of the house. Despite repeated warnings in ‘public and private’, there were ‘many times’ that ‘many uncivil dishonest and unchaste familiarity hath been seen and known betwixt them’. At some point the admonitions turned violent, and one of the group of parishioners seems to have felt compelled to get John bound over to keep the peace. He was also arraigned at the secular courts for ‘drunkenness and barratry’, and the church court for incontinency (sexual, that is).

John was almost certainly an older man (his wife was in her 80s), probably much wealthier than William Wilton, and it seems at this point he decided to mend his ways, expressing his ‘sorrow’ for his offence and his willingness to reform – a good result all round.
But he and Alice were soon cavorting again, and this time William lost his rag. Tracking her down, he gave her ‘many vows and threats’, that if she didn’t come back, ‘he would forsake her and fly out of the kingdom’.

‘Go to the Gallows!’, she retorted. ‘Doest thou think that I will forsake my friend that maintaineth me and my children to keep thee company’.

This was a direct assault on William’s masculinity. Moule had usurped him as a lover and as a patriarch. Indeed, John and Alice then renewed their affections with such ‘impudency and audacity that the children of the said Alice had their meat, apparel and maintenance at the house and from the hand or allowance of the said John Moule’. It later emerged that John had even entered into a financial contract to provide for Alice if he remarried after his own wife (also called Alice) died.


Artillery Lane today
Artillery Lane today

The cuckold, the wayward wife, the sleazy, wealthy man, the outraged parishioners (the reference to ‘conventicles’ might hint that they were puritans). These are all part of the fragile gender and social order of Jacobean London, particularly its poor suburbs – receptacles of vice as they supposedly were. The use of folk justice, the victim’s recourse to the law, the image of the cuckold, the use of ‘whore’ as an insult to a woman, the unmanning of the poor patriarch.

It’s a vivid social drama – straight, you might say, out of one of Shakespeare’s plays, only this time completely real.

But it all took a very dark twist at the end.

On 2nd August 1618, John Moule went to hear divine service. He and all his family went to church. Except his wife.

Alice Moule stayed at home, where she made a pottage. In it, she added some of the most commonly available poison in the 17th century household: rat’s bane. John, the Wiltons, and the two Wilton children, were invited for dinner, ate the pottage, ‘and all were poisoned therewith’. They would all have died, it was reported, ‘but for a present prevention thereof’, whatever this means.

Clearly things had gone too far. The authorities swooped. Arrests were made, and John Moule, Alice Moule, and Alice Wilton were all committed to prison.

This is the last we hear of the Moules. Alice Moule was clearly in serious trouble, but she was also old and may have died in gaol awaiting trial. I’ve not been able to find any reference to an indictment.

Alice Wilton was sent to the New Bridewell, a recently opened ‘House of Correction’ in Clerkenwell. Here she was given a quite horrifically savage punishment. On account of her ‘dishonesty and unchastity at home and for her impudency and audacity’ before the Lord Chief Justice, she was put to hard labour, and whipped.

According to her husband, the beadle of the New Bridewell, a man called Benjamin Garford, had her whipped and tormented ‘in most cruel and bloody manner’. Then, ‘in braving, scoffing and deriding manner, calling her Minion’, Garford told her ‘they had provided her a red waistcoat, striped with red silk laces, meaning her extreme and bloody whipping and torment aforesaid’.

This was the Stuart state, with violence and with mockery, reaping the blood of one who had crossed it, and who had offended the morals of the community.


It was a nasty conclusion to a strange story. But it was not quite the end.

The parish registers of Stepney survive, and we can see that William and Alice were reconciled. Perhaps the fact William went to law to get his wife out of the New Bridewell helped. They had a series of children in the 1620s, during which time William was referred to as a ‘gardener’ of Spitalfields. In September 1638, Edward Seare, a servant died at their house – a sad occurrence, for servants were usually young, but it suggests that they had achieved at least a modestly respectable standing.

For society could be brutal. But it was, usually, eventually, forgiving.

(The original lawsuit is in the National Archives, Kew: STAC 8/296/20)

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