Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
A Woman and a Maid in a Courtyard (1660), by Pieter de Hooch. (Public Domain) ;

'In No Wise Consenting': Sexual Violence and Female Servants in Early Modern England

I love silly and sugary period dramas; the lavish settings, the often-anachronistic costumes, the questionable accents, and the implausibly perfect teeth. Yet this kind of media seems to rely more and more on rape and sexual assault in general to compose their narratives.

Even Downton Abbey was not immune, to fans’ shock a decade ago. One argument in favour of including rape is how common this experience was in the past (and, sadly, still is today). That is particularly true for women working in domestic service, such as the maid Anna Bates in Downton Abbey.

At the same time, there is an inherent laziness in using this trope; these scenes are often criticised as being too sensational, gratuitous, unrelated or irrelevant to the plot. In period dramas, sometimes sexual violence seems to be depicted just to set the ‘historical’ tone and to remind us of women’s oppression (not that we have forgotten), just like the anachronistic tightly laced corsets. Luckily, these narratives are increasingly questioned, as in the case of the incredible new book by Katherine Byrne and Julie Anne Taddeo, Rape in Period Drama Television: Consent, Myth, and Fantasy – which I urge you to read.

To balance contemporary depictions of rape in fictional narratives, it is helpful to read about real women of the past. Female bodies (alongside many other ‘unruly’ or ‘non-conforming’ bodies) have long been objectified and brutalised. Yet concepts such as ‘rape’ were – and are – more fluid and variable than we might expect. Rape can be as narrowly defined as the non-consensual penetration of a vagina by a penis or as broadly understood as involving the penetration of other orifices, such as the mouth or anus, including by an object. The definition of ‘rape’ changes over time; it varies according to culture. So, what can these tales tell us of notions such as consent and resistance? How did these women frame the violence they endured?

Imagine a seventeenth-century woman, working as a servant in England. Downton Abbey’s Anna Bates, but three centuries earlier. There are virtually no labour laws, no regulations, no protection. Patriarchy is alive and well: women were considered unreliable witnesses, few cases of rape were reported (naturally), women were often blamed, the stigma could not be underestimated, the victim’s reputation was dissected, and the conviction rate was depressingly low. Rape was still a crime largely framed as an attack against virginity and property – against another man’s ‘goods’.

Imagine how vulnerable she would be to violence, mistreatment, and sexual assault. How powerless she would feel. Unsurprisingly, few women were willing to talk about sexual assault, especially since many of the victims were single, domestic servants. Undoubtedly, we will never have a complete picture of what life was like for them in early modern England; historical sources tend to be left by white, wealthy, and educated men. Yet some voices can be recovered, telling stories of resistance and survival.

Joan Brown, a 40-year-old servant in Somerset, is one of them. After having been attacked multiple times in the house where she worked, she testified in 1601 against Thomas Hellyer. As Joan was fetching water, Thomas:

…took away the tankard from her, and thrust her by violence into the entry of the said house, and closing the door thereof with his heels, he by main force threw her down upon the ground, lay down upon her, and told her that he would occupy her, and earnestly entreated her so to do, and finding her in no wise consenting to his lascivious and filthy lust, he took up her clothes near as high as her girdle not withstanding [sic] any resistance she could make, which she did with all the strength she had.– Joan Brown, servant in Somerset - Consistory Court of Bath and Wells Deposition Book, Somerset Archives, D/D/cd34 (1601/2)

According to her account, Joan resisted and fought Hellyer for around an hour. Seeing that she would not consent to his ‘devilish purpose’, he left her. Yet a week later, he attempted to rape her once more. Again, Hellyer told Joan he would ‘occupy her’, which she ‘utterly refused’. She asked him to leave and let her ‘go about her master’s business’. He overpowered her and threw her on the bed, where she continued to resist ‘for the more part of an hour’. He managed to pin her arms down over her head,

forcibly striving, and wrestling with her to have the carnal knowledge of her body: but in the end departed without his purpose as aforesaid.– Consistory Court of Bath and Wells Deposition Book, Somerset Archives, D/D/cd34 (1601/2)

Once more, Joan prevailed, even though a third attack would happen soon, in which Hellyer bragged about having raped another servant, Mary, whom he impregnated. To make matters even more complicated, it was widely believed that for conception to happen, both parties needed to orgasm, which blurred the line where consent was concerned; pregnancy was routinely used to prove that rape had not happened in the first place.

His experience with Mary was the reason why Hellyer had assumed that Joan would ‘acquiesce’ to his advances, indicating how vulnerable servant women were to this kind of violence. Of course, expressions such as ‘acquiesce’ and ‘consent’ were ambiguous and people used them in different ways. In Joan’s testimony, it is implied that ‘acquiescing’ would equate to stopping physically resisting and fighting during rape and submitting, highlighting the misleading dichotomy between male agency and female passivity. It is by no means what we would consider ‘consenting’ to sex today.

The relationship between masters and servants was based on economic exploitation and power, but it was also routinely described at the time as being founded on trust. Unfortunately, however, accounts of abuse are not rare. Rape as the forcible penetration of the body was commonly addressed at assize courts of the time, even though it was (as it still is today) difficult to prove. Especially if it happened in a private household involving servants. From the tiny minority of cases in which charges were brought, a small number of men were convicted. (Again, sadly, it is impossible not to think of how this is still true today.)

Joan’s account is long and full of details. Tellingly, Hellyer was prosecuted for illicit sex (fornication) with unmarried women, not rape. As Laura Gowing wrote, cases like this involved ‘a culture of service and the prerogatives that masters assumed’. And, although her testimony allows us a glimpse into Joan’s plight, we must keep in mind that this is a transcription, a mediated and possibly modified version of what she said in court. Still, her anger is palatable; at her attacker, but also, at her condition as a female servant working in a household, with limited agency, whose body was not her own, but rather ‘common property’ to those around her, who might touch her without her agreement.

Unfortunately, it is not clear what was the outcome of Hellyer’s prosecution. Joan’s testimony focused on self-defence even more than it did on the violence perpetrated against her. Rape (especially if it resulted in pregnancy) could potentially ruin her; she might be dismissed from service and not find a new position. So, it would make sense that Joan would choose to highlight her ‘good character’ and chastity in her testimony, as well as her resistance to her attacker.

If, like me, you enjoy watching Downton Abbey or Poldark from time to time, that’s ok. But remember that, behind the liberal and questionable use of rape in historical narratives, there are real historical women, who bravely resisted, testified, confronted their attackers, and survived. Not to mention those who were not so lucky; those who never testified, who were shamed or ruined, or those whose stories were lost.

A Woman and a Maid in a Courtyard (1660), by Pieter de Hooch.
A Woman and a Maid in a Courtyard (1660), by Pieter de Hooch.

Further reading

Katherine Byrne and Julie Anne Taddeo, Rape in Period Drama Television: Consent, Myth, and Fantasy (Lexington: Lexington Books, 2022).

Joanna Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present (London: Virago, 2007).

Patricia Crawford and Laura Gowing (eds.), Women’s Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England (New York and London: Routledge, 2000).

Laura Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2003).

About the author

Dr Julia Martins is a historian of gender and medicine. She recently finished her PhD at King's College London, in which she researched the translations of early modern texts about the female body and reproduction and changing attitudes towards the body.

Julia is a member of the Feminist Perspectives Editorial Collective and hosts the online feminist book club My Body, My Book Club, which focuses on bodily autonomy and intersectional activism through literature.

You can sign up for her newsletter on the history of the body here. Julia is Brazilian and lives in Hertfordshire with her family, including a sleepy cat called Pancake.

Her social media handles are:

  • Twitter: @Julia_GMartins
  • Instagram: @juliamartinshistory
  • TikTok: @juliamartinshistory

In this story

Latest news