crime, death penalty, general

capitally convicted & ‘pleading the belly’ before the jury of matrons

Naomi Clifford


L0038225 Stages in pregnancy as represented by the growth of the womb

Talking about the female jury today.

Above image shows:

Stages in pregnancy as represented by the growth of the womb from Nouvelles démonstrations d’accouchements. Jacques-Pierre Maygrier (1822) Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

As a woman in Australia I’m grateful we don’t face the possibility of being capitally convicted i.e. face the death penalty once convicted of a certain offence. Once in Australia women did.

And once in Australia we had juries of matrons, yes, venerable matrons.In 1789 Australia, Ann Davis faced an indictment in the name of “our Sovereign Lord George the Third” for break, enter and theft.

After being found guilty she tried unsuccessfully to assert the defence of viable pregnancy or to ‘plead the belly’ before a jury of matrons.

“On her condemnation she pleaded pregnancy and a jury of venerable matrons was empanelled on the spot, to examine and pronounce her state, which the forewoman, a grave personage between 60 and 70 years old, did, by this short address to the court: ‘Gentlemen! She is as much with child as I am.”



The sentence of death was accordingly confirmed.

It’s been a long journey for women in the law & the legal profession especially as jurors.

Generally, we understand it to be in the 1920s that women started serving on trial juries. But is that correct? I wonder if the real first all female jury was the jury of matrons?


Used from the 13th century, this jury was a group of women impaneled to judge capitally convicted females, women facing the death penalty, who claimed they were pregnant & “quick” with child or carrying a viable foetus.


Pleading the Belly: How Angela Barnett Avoided 18th-Century Death Sentence


Image: The trial of Elizabeth Canning for perjury (1754). Women only took part in the legal process as defendants, prosecutors, witnesses or observers (you can see some in the gallery), and became decision-makers only by being empanelled on a jury of matrons.


Who were the women on a jury of matrons? They were twelve married women with experience of child-bearing who were in court at the time. Typically after a jury of matrons was convened, the under-sheriff of the court identified candidates and they were then called to be empanelled. Sometimes women were reluctant to serve, perhaps because they knew the prisoner and wished not to be involved in her fate, or because they feared her. This is the case in 1809 at the murder trial of Mary Bateman, the so-called Yorkshire Witch. As Mary pleaded her belly the women in the court stood up to leave and Justice Le Blanc had to order the court doors to be locked.2

The forematron was appointed and sworn by the clerk of the court, followed by the other members. There would have been occasions where there were not enough women in the court building, so it is feasible that some jury members might have been passers-by or even women living nearby and fetched by the bailiff. The prisoner and the jury were then taken off to a private locked room. The bailiff was sworn to keep them ‘without meat, drink or fire, candlelight excepted. You will suffer no person but the prisoner to speak to them; neither shall you speak to them yourself, unless it be to ask them if they are agreed on their verdict, without leave of the court.’3

The origins of the jury of matrons lie in a 13th-century property dispute. In 1220 Peter Constable of Melton alleged that Muriel, the widow of his brother William, was falsely claiming to be pregnant by her husband. This was a crucial to his fortunes. A baby would inherit the estate. If there was no baby, Peter was the heir. Muriel went through two examinations by juries of matrons and stuck to her story – until 48 weeks after her last ‘meeting’ with her husband, at which she dropped her claim and admitted that she had never been pregnant. She may have planned to borrow another woman’s baby to act the part of her own but was foiled when the court granted Peter the right to keep her in custody under the watch of four London matrons.

More: “Is she or isn’t she?” How an age-old plea of pregnancy saved women from execution


1804: The fate of Anne Hurle, after her capital conviction for creative fraud

Anne Hurle, on being asked why sentence of death should not be pronounced against her, said, that she thought she was with child. This, however, was not asserted with sufficient confidence to occasion any enquiry. Sarah Fisher, another of the prisoners, alleged with confidence, that she was with child; this occasioned the calling of a Jury of Matrons, who, after retiring to another apartment, declared, on oath, that she was not quick with child. She was accordingly taken back to prison, to suffer the punishment to which she had been sentenced.”1


The trial of M D'Eon by a jury of matrons

The trial of M DEon by a jury of matrons


Before women were permitted, from 1920 onwards, to serve on the grand and trial juries which were responsible for the final determination of a person’s guilt or liability, they had occasionally been empanelled on “juries of matrons”. The most common reason for such a jury to be put together was if, on being convicted of a crime which carried the death penalty, a woman pleaded that she was pregnant. Unwilling to take two lives for a single person’s crime, the law then needed to know whether the woman was “quick” with child (whether she really was pregnant and, as a proxy for viability, whether the foetus had started to move – if the answer to either of these questions was “no”, the woman’s pregnancy plea would fail). ….

A Jury of Matrons – Medical History


And see Rex v Peggy and non Christian women on the Jury of Matrons

This extraordinary case (Rex v. Peggy) involved a court debate over whether non-Christian women could serve on a jury of matrons (used in deciding whether a convicted woman was pregnant or not). The fact that the court ruled non-Christian women ineligible was even more fascinating, suggesting that the practice of using Hindu and Muslim women on juries of matrons had been an accepted practice earlier.



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