Posted by 13 March, 2017

Charlotte Garside draws on a fascinating familial dispute to examine how notions of secrecy could be central to litigation in the court of Chancery, examining the role that women played in this secrecy even when they were not litigants themselves.


The Court of Chancery was the major court of equity law in late seventeenth-century England. Originating as an extension of the King's conscience, this court operated outside of the binds of common law to provide justice based on what was deemed just and fair. The Lord Chancellor ruled over the court, making decrees and orders on the cases brought before him based on 'equity and good conscience'. Cases would begin with the plaintiff entering a bill of complaint in vernacular English. If cases proceeded past this initial stage, defendants would enter an answer to the original bill of complaint. Continuing cases would then go to deposition stage, where a list of questions, or interrogatories, would be compiled on behalf of either the plaintiff or defendant, and put to a series of relevant witnesses. These witnesses, or deponents, would respond to the questions they could answer, their answers being known as depositions.[1] Depositions as well as relevant documentation and writings served as the evidence to any given suit brought before the Lord Chancellor, either proving or refuting the validity of the plaintiff's original complaint.


Litigants in the Chancery often sought to discover the secrets of their legal opponents, discovering, or forcing the discovery of, evidence that was being kept 'secret' from them in the form of documentation or witnesses. Women were often integral to the concealing or exposure of secrecy in the Court of Chancery, even in those cases that on the surface appear to be based in conflict between men. A key example of this is the case Bethell v. Robinson, with all connected cases and documentation.[2] Not only does this case highlight the significance of secrets in the early modern Chancery, it also demonstrates the fundamental role played by women in the practice of secrecy and deception.


This case, originating in the 1690s, follows a drawn out legal battle surrounding the evocative conflict arising from the will of the then deceased John Lillie. A bill entered into the Chancery by Hugh Bethell and John Robinson claimed that these orators were named in the will of the late Lillie as the rightful inheritors of his property (which comprised of shares in Hull Waterhouse, some land, as well as a house in Hull). They insisted that in his will Lillie clearly stipulated that Hugh Bethell and John Robinson were to take control of all the property he possessed at the time of his death and sell it. The money arising from the sale of this property was to be used to settle all of his debts in full, and any surplus money was to be given to his only child, heir and executrix (female executor) Ruth Robinson (n Lillie). It was Ruth and her husband Charles (brother of orator John Robinson) who were named as the defendants to this case.


In the bill, Hugh Bethell and John Robinson claimed that Charles Robinson, on the day of the funeral of John Lillie, approached his brother John asking to see the will of his then deceased father-in-law. John stated he consented to this, giving Charles the will, believing 'hee the said Charles Robinson would have returned the said will to your orator John Robinson'. Charles, however, did not return the will. On the contrary, Charles 'put the said will in his pocket and tooke the same away and now conceals the same and refuses to deliver' it back to John. The orators to this bill therefore claimed that Charles was keeping the will, and consequently the contents thereof, physically secret from those who had duties to conduct on the basis of it namely settling Lillie's debts.


The issue of secrecy continued further, when the orators Hugh and John claimed that Charles forced his way into the property of the deceased John Lillie; he 'secretly caused the locks and doors of diverse rooms where diverse household goods and amongst them the deeds and evidences to bee broken open and tooke and carryed away and secret[e]s the same and refuses to discover to your orators the contents of any such deeds or evidences'. Not only, then, was Charles keeping further important documentation secret from Hugh and John, but what he was in possession of was 'surreptitiously gained'.


Charles, of course, completely denied acting in a secretive manner. He claimed that Lillie's widow (his mother-in-law and step-mother to Ruth) Ann Lillie had left her late husband's rooms 'unhansomly carelessly and in an ill condition', and that the rooms therefore had to be entered.[3] Charles then proceeded to shift the blame to his wife Ruth, declaring that 'his wife (though very unwillingly) was forced to change the doors of the said Rooms to be opened but did not doe the same secretly'. Charles clearly wanted to refute the charge of secretive behaviour.


Original orators Hugh Bethell and John Robinson were not the only people to accuse Charles of secretive behaviour. Following the bill of complaint, depositions were taken in 1695. Among the deponents was a woman from Hull, Barbara Winspear, who claimed that she and Charles both illicitly entered the office of a Mr Bewley 'having occasion to search for some writings', and claimed that Charles 'finding a writing ... tooke and putt it into his pockett and said that it related to his business'.[4]


Moreover, it was not just Charles Robinson accused of acting in a secretive manner. Charles and Ruth together entered a bill of complaint of their own into the Chancery later, claiming (amongst other things) that Hugh Bethell was hiding John Lillie's widow, Ann, in order to keep them from recovering costs from her 'Bethell has conveyed the said Ann Lilly to some remote place or secret[e]s her in his own house'.[5] People as well as documents would be kept physically secret in order to disrupt the actions of others.


The deception involved in this case contravened directly with the idea of fairness and justice that Chancery was perceived to uphold, as well as the culture of trust that underpinned relationships. Indeed, a fundamental element of this whole dispute stems from the fact that John Robinson trusted his brother to return John Lillie's will to his possession, and Charles' betrayal of that trust. These litigants were relying on Chancery, and the Lord Chancellor, to unpick the tangled web of secrets and lies that they had created and reach a legal solution. Not an easy task, as evidenced by all of the subsequent associated litigation. These litigants continued to be locked in battle at law for many years. Switching alliances, failed mediations, and constant deception resulted in a case reduced to arguing over who should cover legal fees.


Bethell v. Robinson demonstrates how the disputes that would arise from, as well as the tactical use of, secrecy over the course of everyday life could lead to, impact upon and frustrate causes brought before the Court of Chancery. It also highlights the pivotal role of women as the instigators and, notably the discoverers of secrecy and deception. Charles was able to contest the charge of secretive behaviour by shifting blame on to his wife, Ruth. Barbara Winspear revealed further underhanded actions of Charles as a witness. Ann Lillie was physically secreted in some unknown place in order to prevent Charles and Ruth from recovering legal costs. Women could, and did, play a significant role in these secretive practices, and there was also value in their testimony when it came to revealing these deceptive and unlawful secretive acts, even when they were not litigants themselves.



Prior to her PhD, Charlotte studied for a BA in History and MA in Historical Research (funded by the AHRC) at the University of Hull, focusing on early modern women's history. Since 2014 she has been an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD candidate at the University of Hull and the National Archives, researching women's legal history. Her particular research interests focus on the role and experience of women in the late seventeenth-century English Court of Chancery.


Charlotte is on Twitter @CG_Academic

[1] It should be noted that cases could expand beyond the original bill of complaint and answer. A plaintiff could choose to respond to the answer put before the Chancery by the defendant(s), by entering a replication. The defendant(s) could answer a replication with a rejoinder. Original bills of complaint could also be brought back into the Chancery, should the lead plaintiff die, in the name of his/her heir, by entering a bill of revivor. We often find widows entering bills of revivor into the Chancery, picking up unresolved cases originally initiated by their late husbands. For more information on Chancery procedure, have a look at the guide produced by The National Archives [http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-...].

[2] Bethell v. Robinson, The National Archives (TNA) C5/280/12 (4 July 1692), Original Bill of Complaint.

[3] Bethell v. Robinson, TNA C5/280/12 (4 July 1692), The Severall Answers of Charles Robinson and Ruth his wife defendants.

[4] Bethell v. Robinson, TNA C22/510/18, Depositions taken in the country on behalf of Hugh Bethell against Charles Robinson (31 October 1695).

[5] Robinson v. Bethell, TNA C5/134/55 (1698), Original Bill of Complaint.

Leave a Comment

Fields with * are required


Please complete the above sum.