On Sunday 3rd April 2016, the preparation of Sunday dinners in kitchens up and down the land were brought to a standstill as a storyline two years in the making, that of the abusive relationship between Helen Archer and Rob Titchener on Radio Four bastion The Archers, came to its dramatic climax. At the time of writing, the repellent Rob is fighting for his life in hospital while Helen, heavily pregnant, has been charged with attempted murder for stabbing him three times in a violent reaction to Rob’s sustained campaign of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
In the days that followed last Sunday’s episode, the British public have demonstrated a surge of sympathy for women in Helen’s situation: a Just Giving page set up in Helen’s name has so far raised nearly £111,000. Not since the controversial real-life case of Sara Thornton in the 1990s has the question of if and when women (and men) are justified in killing their abusive spouses so absorbed the public consciousness.
These are not modern questions. Over 400 years ago, Britain was gripped by a case that brought similar issues to the fore at a time of deep political turbulence.
In January 1688, a grisly discovery was made in four public toilets in London: a collection of human body parts. The dismembered corpse was quickly identified as Denis Aubry, a French man who lived among the community of Huguenot and Catholic French immigrants in London (Denis’ own faith is unclear). Almost immediately, Denis’ wife Marie confessed to the crime, which was then termed ‘petty treason’ which carried the sentence of death by burning. 1
While particularly violent, this was not an unheard of crime in late seventeenth-century England. But the Aubry case excited a previously unprecedented public interest which played out across newspapers, pamphlets and songs sung on street corners.
The central factor behind this interest seems to have been Marie’s claims that she killed Denis as a response to a relentless campaign of intense physical, sexual and mental abuse. On the night of the murder, Marie stated, Denis had come in drunk and performed a brutal rape upon her while promising that he would continue to ruin her both financially and physically until she died. Faced with certain extinction, Marie waited until Denis was asleep and then strangled him using his own garter and disposed of his body across the city.
She was not the first woman to have made such claims. Allegations of abuse feature in many trials of husband killers in the late seventeenth century. Yet, in her case, these allegations appeared to have been believed. In the surge of print material that emerged following the crime’s discovery and Marie’s execution, a central emphasis was put upon Marie’s suffering, illustrated with dramatic descriptions of the final rape: ‘the blood started out her mouth… [he] acted such a violence upon her Body in despite of all the Opposition that she could make, as forc’d from her a great deal of blood’. 2
Why, in the patriarchal world of late seventeenth-century England, did this particular crime receive such a sympathetic reaction?
Perhaps it was because Marie had already pleaded guilty. This meant that there was no trial, no question that she would be acquitted. Marie could be pitied, because she was going to die, and the sympathetic reaction of the press never went so far as to claim she should be let off.
But there was another reason why, at this moment in particular, the London public were ready to listen to justifications for husband murder. In January 1688, the James II had announced that his wife, Mary of Modena, was expecting a child. If the baby was a boy, his succession would be secured, and with it the future of Catholic monarchy in Protestant England.
James was an unpopular king, seen as tyrannical, profligate, oppressive and closely connected to the absolutist king of France, Louis XIV. At a time of increasing censorship, commentators may therefore have had ulterior motives for exploring reasons why a woman would choose to react violently to a French husband-tyrant who spent all her money, forced her from her Huguenot faith and caused her emotional and physical pain. 3
Whatever the political undertones, however, the Aubry case brought to light a domestic situation which was almost never reported, though often experienced by seventeenth-century Londoners. Such sympathy was short-lived, however, and women who killed their allegedly abusive husbands in the more politically stable years of the eighteenth century received no such understanding by the press or courts. It wouldn’t be until the 1990s and 2000s that ‘battered wife’ defence pleas regularly held traction in homicide trials. 4
The writers of The Archers have once again brought the spotlight onto the dynamics of abusive relationships and their often violent repercussions. Over the next few months, the British public will be given an insight into the ways in which the modern justice system deals with such cases and the difficult questions that they continue to raise concerning guilt, mental health and criminal responsibility in the modern era.
Dr Anna Jenkin completed a PhD at Sheffield University last year in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French and British History, funded by the AHRC and an Entente Cordiale fellowship at Paris IV Sorbonne. You can find her on twitter at @acjenkin.
Image: Catherine Hayes being burnt for the murder of her husband, Wellcome [Wikicommons].
- ’Petty treason’ was so-called because husbands were supposed to be the kings of the household, so murder of a husband was seen as a miniature form of treason against the crown. ↩
- R. L’Estrange, A Hellish Murder Committed by a French Midwife on the Body of her Husband, Jan 27 1688 and Pleaded Guilty (London, 1688).[\ref] Even more striking was the use that commentators made of first-person narrative (despite the fact that Marie spoke no English) in describing Marie’s rational reasoning that murder was her only option and that ‘I have no way in the world to deliver myself but by beginning with him’. 5G. Croom, A Warning Piece to all Husbands and Wives (London, 1688). ↩
- Scholars often assert that Aubry was Catholic, due to her characterisation in one late source as ‘the Popish mdiwife’. Her midwifery licence, held in the Guildhall Library in London, however, shows that she was a Huguenot when she arrived in London in 1680. It may well be that she had to convert to Catholicism when she married Denis. Guildhall Library Ms 10, 116/11 Midwifery licence of Mary Desermo. ↩
- See, for example, R vs Aluwahlia and R vs Thornton. ↩