The project to catalogue documents in the archive of the Court of Arches which are missing from the index published in 1965 has continued to make rapid progress. 200 documents have now been catalogued, representing 71 membranes and 248 paper leaves. They range in date from 1662 to 1734.
The documents reflect the range of the Court’s concerns (marriage, divorce, wills and legacies, defamation, clergy morals and conduct, dilapidations etc). Accusations, defences and eye-witness testimony provide rich and vivid glimpses into forgotten lives. Amongst the newly catalogued documents we find Thomas Hewetson , who, leaving a large brood of children and a wife crying on the quayside, sailed in 1688 to the Caribbean where he was licensed as a privateer. With his 50 gun flagship The Lion, and 350 lusty men on board, Hewetson joined with Captain Kidd to sack the French island of Marie Galante, and to prey on French shipping. On Barbados he acquired a feisty mistress, Butler Chamberlaine, whom he married bigamously and who sailed with him, pausing only at New York to deliver their child. The divorce suit brought by Hewetson’s abandoned wife may have ended the affair, but Butler Chamberlaine continued her remarkable life by marrying a British spy.
No less remarkable is the new documentation on Sarah Fyge Egerton, a noted poet and champion of women’s rights. In petitioning in 1703 for a divorce, Sarah related her appalling treatment at the hand of her husband Thomas, the rector of Adstock, Bucks. The abuse was not only verbal (he called her ‘cheating jade, strumpett, sow, bitch, damned devil, damned jade, damned bitch, damned toad’ and threatened to send her to Bridewell or a madhouse), but also physical. Thomas is said to have punched and kicked her, to have dragged her out of the kitchen to put her under the pump, to have dragged her out of bed and torn off her clothes and so frightened her that she fell into fits.
Human frailty was daily laid bare in the Court proceedings. Two cases brought in 1699 and 1700 by Godfrey Lee, a proctor in the Court of Arches, against his wife Mary and her lover Charles Garrett, a fellow proctor, brought to light reports of ‘a frolique’ involving cross-dressing and the singing of ‘obscene and smutty songs’ in the garden of Lee’s house at Streatham. Perhaps Doctors’ Commons was inured to such tales; the careers of Lee and Garrett were unaffected and both rose to be senior proctors in the Court.
The project focuses on class E: libels, articles, allegations and interrogatories. These documents often set out the core points at issue in each case and in many instances the newly catalogued documents are crucial to understanding the case as a whole.