Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2013
In early 1629 Elizabeth Sanderson sued Alice Wilkinson for defamation in the church courts. Both women ran alehouses in Stonegate, York, with their respective husbands (William Wilkinson and Ralph Sanderson). Elizabeth Sanderson's main witness was her cousin, Anthony Carthorne. He deposed that in August 1628, Alice Wilkinson had sent for him at her alehouse, ostensibly about money he owed her but really to challenge him over her husband's recent arrest ‘at the suit of Ralph Sanderson’. Thomas Prainge, a shoemaker then ‘drinking two pots of ale’, described how Alice Wilkinson told Carthorne ‘you have now gotten your desire, for you have gotten my husband laid in the low gaol’. When Carthorne ‘answered and swore that he did not know of the arrest’, Alice retorted that ‘your drunken wey-necked Jade your cousin [Elizabeth Sanderson] hath caused it to be done, her neighbours take notice of her drunkenness’. It was these menacing words, spoken in anger before witnesses, which gave Elizabeth Sanderson the chance to initiate legal proceedings against Alice Wilkinson.
That Sanderson decided to act on the opportunity is unsurprising. Thanks in large part to Keith Wrightson and other practitioners of the ‘new social history’ it has long been appreciated that one striking – indeed defining – characteristic of early modern England was the increasing willingness of ordinary men and women to appropriate legal institutions to resolve interpersonal conflict. In this respect Ralph and Elizabeth Sanderson were archetypal. Nor is it unexpected that it was an attack on Elizabeth's public reputation which precipitated the suit.