I recently came across an astonishing pair of documents in the National Archives.
The documents are ‘depositions’, witness statements, collected for a trial at the Yorkshire Assizes – the local court which dealt with serious crimes – from 1656.
They relate to an alleged case of bestiality. William Clarke, labourer, it was alleged, had been caught buggering a horse, somewhere in a field near Easby (not far from Richmond).
Bestiality, you see, was a serious crime. Under Henry VIII’s 1533 ‘Act for the Punishment of the vice of Buggerie’, it was a capital offence, without ‘benefit of clergy’. This was very bad news. Benefit of Clergy was an old medieval compromise between church and state. It allowed those convicted of certain hanging offences to get off more lightly by proving clerical status (they did this by proving they could read). Non-clergiable offences, then, were the most severe.
So William Clarke was in trouble, and one of the two depositions is his explanation of the incident. In it, he admits having a close look at the horse’s bum. But he denies anything more sinister.
‘on Saturday last about the houre of tenne of the clocke at night he was in a close called the Burrow Greens belonginge to the Lord Eure at Easby, and that he was lookinge at the thighs of a mare behinde to see whether the oxe had hiped or goared her behinde or noe, for as his Maisters draught was goinge downe hill that same day in the afternoone he saw one of the oxen hipe at the said mare which was then in the draught, but denies that he comitted buggerie with the said Mare’.
This is, of course, striking enough. But even more so is the other statement. This time, it came from John Tweedale, who recalls his making a strange discovery out in the fields, one evening in June.
‘on Saturday last as he was goinge to looke to some horses belonginge to the Lord Eure that pastured in my Lords ground at Easby for feare they should gett into the corne he saw William Clarke of the same towne Labourer about the houre of tenne of the clocke at night, standinge very neare a mare and cominge nearer unto him perceived him (to the best of his judgement) comittinge buggerie with the said mare beinge William Ripleyes, he saith the mare is of a chestnutt coulour, and that this fact was comitted in a place called Burrow Greens belonginge to the Lord Eure, when this informer came first up to and spoke with the said William Clarke and asked him what he was doinge for he had a wife of his owne, the said William Clarke prayed him for Gods sake to keep his counsell and he would not stay two dayes in England’.
As sordid as all this was (and we don’t know what eventually happened to William), it’s the dialogue recalled by Tweedale which I find most amazing. ‘What are you doing?’, he asked of Clarke, ‘You have a wife of your own’.
I don’t think Tweedale is worried about her hurt feelings. No. The astonishing thing about this is the implication that, had Clarke not been married, buggering a horse would’ve been more understandable. Not good by any means, but, you know, men will be men.
For me, it brings to mind one of the salient facts about England in the period: the relatively late age that people married.
For the average age at marriage was around 27 for men, and about 25 for women. It’s normally thought that this came from a widely-held belief that one should have a house to move in to before one tied the knot. Couples thus had to save up before they could marry.
But it had at least one major implication.
In a world where sexuality was tightly controlled by a strict moral code, by the prying of neighbours, and ultimately by the church courts, it meant that young people went through about ten years of sexual maturity before they were allowed to act on it.
Naturally, the question of how people dealt with this frustration has been seen vigorous debate amongst historians, and scholars have been on hand to tease out some intriguing ideas and shoot off some potent theories.
But here’s the rub: we don’t really know how people coped.
Perhaps, though, William Clarke the words of John Tweedale give us a clue. Perhaps they suggest a certain tolerance of (ahem) non-standard sexual behaviour. Perhaps, in that grey area between the letter of the law and the tolerance of local people, there was a certain indulgence of the follies of youth, however weird.
Or perhaps there was just literally bugger-all for young people to do back then.