The Jury of Matrons

Published 27th June 2016

The first female jurors sat at the Bristol Quarter Sessions in 1920. These women were the first to step into a traditionally male role in the justice system. But there was in fact already a specifically female role in English common law, though it had become obsolete by the twentieth century, if not before. The Jury of Matrons was used from the 13th century when a woman involved in a legal dispute claimed she was pregnant.

A jury of matrons would be called for a number of reasons. If a widow claimed to be pregnant with her late husband’s child, a civil jury of matrons would be summoned by a writ de ventre inspiciendo ‘to inspect the belly’. They would either confirm or deny her pregnancy, which would affect the passage of property to the man’s brother or father. It was also used in criminal juries of matrons if a woman was sentenced to death. If a convicted woman were ‘quick with child’ they would be afforded a temporary stay of execution until after birth. This was based on the medieval assumption that an unborn child is not alive until the ‘quickening’: when the movement of the foetus could be felt.

The Jury of Matrons was used to determine pregnancy primarily because it was thought ‘foolish and indelicate’ to ask men to examine the body of a female litigant or prisoner. With the developments in medical expertise in the nineteenth century, doctors increasingly displaced matrons as the authoritative voice on pregnancy. The eventual Criminal Code introduced in 1879 provided for the abolition of jury of matrons, substituting instead the use of a medical practitioner to examine a woman.

There are two known cases in the twentieth century of using a jury of matrons. Ada Annie Williams was convicted at the Central Criminal Court in 1913 for the murder of her young son, but was reprieved until delivery due to her pregnancy. Her case had created something of a sensation in the press and for the public, and a Jury of Matrons was convened to examine her, delivering a verdict that she was indeed pregnant. She gave birth to a boy in Holloway Prison and was discharged on license in 1921. In 1917, a woman named Stevens was convicted of infanticide and sentenced to death but claimed pregnancy. A jury of matrons was impanelled to hear medical evidence and then a verdict was given that the prisoner was pregnant. This led to a respite in the death sentence.

The use of Juries of Matrons came under contemporary criticism for alleged collusion between the matrons and the women pleading their belly. The evidence for this is limited, and instead demonstrates the anxieties about women working together to subvert the legal system. The Jury of Matrons demonstrates that the earlier English legal system used traditional assumed gender roles in such a way that women had a specific role in common law.

Sources:
James Oldham, Trial by Jury: The Seventh Amendment and Anglo-American Special Juries’
Jan Bondeson, Murder Houses of South London

Pregnant and condemned: Pleading the belly and the jury of matrons