These days, paternity can be easily ascertained using DNA testing. Four hundred years ago, the question was far more complex, often pitting the word of a woman against a man. As the care of an illegitimate child usually fell to the parish, it was important to establish, if possible, who the most likely father was and to make them support their offspring. In search of the truth, the whole community could get involved. Everyone seemed to have some insight or evidence to offer and hearsay or the good "reputation" of those concerned was considered crucial. This could open the wounds of old grievances and scandals. The case of Mary Graunte, a spinster of Colchester, provides a really good example of the way illegitimacy cases were conducted.
The Easter Chelmsford Court Sessions of 1601 heard tell of a child born to spinster Mary Graunte, who she claimed had been fathered by a Thomas Carter of White Colne. The complicated twists and turns, rumour, reported conversations, multiple witnesses and mixing of the claims of paternity, loans and debts, illustrates the very public dimension of pregnancy and the roles of those involved. Justices Sir Roger Harlakinden and Thomas Waldegrave led the examinations, starting with evidence concerning Carter. Apparently, Mary had already been examined by a panel of matrons, upon her pregnancy becoming public. This was common practice, although not fool-proof, as ascertaining that conception had taken place was not an exact science. She must have undergone an intrusive physical inspection, when quite advanced in her pregnancy, as if the stigma of illegitimate conception had made her an open target for all other sorts of invasion and losses of dignity.
At that stage, Mary had refused to name the father, although she claimed he had agreed to pay her maintenance so long as she concealed his identity. He had told her that if she were to name him, he would give her nothing “but grow to utter defiance and dislike of her.” However, the minister of East Colne, a Mr Adams, then got involved, as men of the cloth frequently did in such cases, either for good or bad. Adams tried to persuade her to confess, upon which she gave him a clue in a description of Carter’s mother, whom Adams had buried a few years before. She then described Carter to him as having been a “serving man and park-keeper and a butler and had but one eye;” which left Adams in little doubt about who she meant, as all the “circumstances of the description do fitly fall out.” Adams must have communicated these findings, as Mary was then re-examined and admitted Carter was the father and told the story of their courtship. In less than romantic terms, she described how he had had “the use of her” twice around Lent and a third time after Easter last, after which the acquaintance had developed in the household of Carter’s uncle, where Thomas was living at the time and Mary was an accustomed visitor. So far it seemed a fairly straightforward case with Carter as the child’s father.
The Justices then called upon the women who had attended Mary during her lying-in, her midwives and assistants, or "gossips." They may have been her friends; some were certainly her relations. In the court records, these women defined by their marital status and given a social identity by men, as whose instruments they appear to be here: the widow Margaret Pullen; Barbara Prentice, wife of John; Florence Ford, wife of William; Joan Carter, wife of Robert, uncle of the accused; Jane Saunderson, wife of Thomas and the widow Margery Edwards. Ordinarily, female evidence in the law courts was received with suspicion and subject to social standing: Swinburne claimed their inadmissibility because of “inconstancie and frailty” at the end of the Tudor period. However, when it came to cases of paternity, a reversal of the norm saw midwives at the centre of bastardy suits; male reluctance to condemn based on the world of females alone, would have also affected the parity of justice meted out. Mary’s case was typical. These women gave their oaths that whilst she was in “the extremity of her pain and travail” they had charged Mary to betray the father or else they would not help her, which seems a remarkably unsympathetic threat if they would have carried it through. In response, she called out the name of Thomas Carter, which she repeated during and after her delivery. Carter’s aunt Joan then added for good measure that Mary owed her 3s and a bed sheet lent to her a fortnight before her labour.
Mary’s own mother was then called for questioning; one widow Margaret Claypoole of Earls Colne. She described how Thomas Carter had repeatedly denied paternity and that her daughter knew she would receive no money from him if she were to accuse him. A Margery Tailor, wife of William, then told the court how she had been with Mary during her lying-in, when the new mother had “made great mone, (moan)” saying that she would now get no relief from Carter, having confessed his identity and “cried woe to the bones of him”, wishing they had never met. She told Margery that if Carter had kept promise with her, she would never had betrayed him though she be “racked to death” and could have had a child by him long before this, if she had consented.
Carter himself was then pulled in for questioning. He appears to have had some influence over the process, drawing in a staggering number of witnesses in an attempt to identify other potential fathers and exonerate himself. At his suggestion, Mary was asked about a statement she made that the father of her child visited her on foot rather than horseback. She had claimed he need not ride, living so nearby that she saw him out walking every day. This was corroborated by a John Warde, who had heard her say so, although this does not seem to have assisted Carter’s case in any way. Then Carter suggested Mary be examined regarding a plea she made for help to one Robert Reade, claiming she would otherwise receive nothing from her child’s father: Reade, present at the examination, denied this upon oath, as did John Dikes and his wife Margaret, whom she had also supplicated. In Mary’s favour, a Thomas Healy swore he had heard the conversation take place at “Old Reade’s,” so somebody was not telling the truth. A widow Agnes Kinge then claimed that one Thomas Allen knew the identity of Mary’s child’s father; Allen and Helen his wife denied this and a subsequent charge of offering Mary ten pounds in support. A Robert Rooke then deposed that Agnes Kinge believed Allen to be the child’s father and that she had gone to him when she was called for her initial examination and a Mary Sparrowe stated how Mary had received other money from Allen. Apparently one Frances Gergrave had been the go-between but Allen stated he had only paid her for her spinning work. Allen also said Mary Sparrow had stolen herrings from him and that he had also lent her money, so she had cause to speak against him. Sparrow confessed that Carter had tried to bribe her to say something good about him. The cast list grew longer and the plot thickened.
Carter seemed desperate to clear his name, which is neither indicator of guilt or innocence. As the father of an illegitimate child, he may have been willing to try anything to avoid responsibility, especially if it caused him trouble with his family and/or employer. Equally, as an innocent man, he would not wish to have his name tainted by someone else's scandal, perhaps affecting his social standing, business and even future marital prospects. Keen to defend himself, he went on to claim that a Thomas Turner would wager 40s that Carter had been wronged and that an unknown man had ridden with Mary on horseback behind Turner and lain with her at Carter’s house. However, Turner denied this when before the court. Was it a bribe ? Turner’s brother, one Clement, then described how when Turner returned home from the sea, Mary fell to her knees before him saying that if he had been gone she would have “raised town and country after you;” also that Allen told him he had lain with Mary at the house of Nicholas Grigges of Donyland, when they had pretended to be man and wife. Grigges claimed Mary had lain with a man he did not know in a trundle bed beside the very bed where he slept that night with his wife ! Such beds were often stored and used in close proximity by masters and servants. If anyone knew what had happened, it would have been the Griggeses!
The outcome of this complex case is unclear but the numbers of people involved and the surfacing of many accusations of bribery, secrecy, theft and false confessions is indicative of a small, close community, ready to side against each other. Sadly, little mention is made of the child in all this legislation. Many children did not survive beyond their first year, given the dangers of illness and disease. Its probable fate, as with so many illegitimate children of the era was to be raised by the parish and placed at an early age in service or an apprenticeship. The fates of Mary and Carter are unknown.