14 March 2023
A deathbed confession
One of the more unusual documents digitised as part of the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is Add Ch 67394, a sworn testimony by four men that they had been told the deathbed confession of a woman called Alice of Hulton. It is the missing piece in a 600-year-old case involving an affair, a divorce, and a lovechild.
Declaration by Brother John Bradfield, Robert of Hebton, William Brechton of Ekygan and John Fogg of Bradshaw, regarding the deathbed confession of Alice of Hulton, 20 December 1447: Add Ch 67394
Alice of Hulton had been the lover of Robert of Pilkington, lord of Rivington in Lancashire. A soldier who fought in France in the Hundred Years War, Robert had testified in the famous Scrope v Grosvenor case in the Court of Chivalry in 1386. But he had his own legal problems to worry about.
Robert had married a different Alice, Alice of Astley, in 1379, but this was annulled in July that same year, as Alice of Astley was distantly related to Alice of Hulton, with whom he had had a relationship in 1367. He then married Katherine de Aynesworth in 1383 and they had seven children together. Despite this seemingly stable marriage, Robert spent the 1390s transferring his estates to various trustees, both within and without his family, seemingly to protect them from an unknown rival claimant. The reason for this takes us back to Alice of Hulton.
As it turned out, Robert’s second wife, Katherine, was also a cousin of Alice of Hulton, requiring him to secure a dispensation from the Pope in 1403 to confirm the validity of his marriage. On top of this, Alice of Hulton and Robert of Pilkington had a daughter, Imania, born out of wedlock in the late 1360s. Robert married Imania off to Roger of Bolton in 1385, seemingly forgetting about her until she and Roger had a son in the 1390s, also named Robert. Pilkington’s legal manoeuvres in the 1390s were his attempts to stop Imania’s son, his grandson, from having any claim on his lands. With the papal dispensation confirming his marriage in 1403, Pilkington died that year probably safe in the knowledge that his family’s estates were now secure.
Family tree of Alice of Hulton and Alice of Astley, from John Pilkington, The History of the Pilkington Family and its Branches from 1066 to 1600 (Liverpool, 1912), p. 221
So why was Alice of Hulton's testimony important in 1447, 44 years after Pilkington's death? That's because two years previously, in 1445, Imania's son, Robert son of Roger of Bolton, appeared in court to try and claim Rivington as the son and heir of Imania, over Pilkington's children by Katherine.
The case must still have been live in 1447, when these four men put their seals to this certificate. In it, they say that, while Alice of Hulton lay dying, William of Lener had heard a Richard French of Bolton proclaim that the divorce between Pilkington and Alice of Astley had been done under a false pretext, implying that Richard believed Pilkington and Alice of Hulton had not slept together. Lener said that Alice of Hulton swore that this was a lie, and that 'she would swear before almighty God at the day of doom that she had known part of the body of the said Robert in fleshly deed of sin'.
Despite Alice’s deathbed confession recorded in this document, her grandson Robert was unsuccessful in securing part of the estates of his grandfather, Robert of Pilkington. Rivington remained in the Pilkington family until it was sold in 1605. This small document is part of a fascinating story of the complexities of medieval marriage and inheritance, and preserves one woman’s attempt to tell her own story about her relationship with a powerful local lord.
We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for funding our Medieval and Renaissance Women project.
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