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Pheasant v Pheasant (1704–5)

Pheasant v Pheasant is nothing to do with the Game Laws, but the abbreviated title of a complicated lawsuit about a disputed marriage which sounds more like the plot of a novel. Two prominent women writers gave evidence on opposite sides, and at least one of them was lying. The central figure was the deceased Peter Pheasant (1675-1703).

On one side of the case were his brothers: William, a Turkey merchant who had to come home from Smyrna, and Mansell, a Cambridge-educated lawyer.

On the other side was a woman identified either as 'Mary Pheasant, widow', or 'Mary Thompson falsely calling herself Pheasant', depending on which side you believe. Dr David Noy attempts to unravel the mystery using the records of the Consistory Court of London records part of the Diocese of London archive at London Metropolitan Archives.

The court

The London Consistory Court was a church court presided over by a representative of the Bishop of London. Its jurisdiction included the marriages and morality of Londoners. It sat in the building known as Doctors’ Commons, a name sometimes applied to the court itself. The records held by LMA which have been used here are:

  • Act Book, January 1702/3 - September 1705 (DL/C/0040) which provides the outline of how the case proceeded, mainly in Latin
  • Allegations, Libels and Sentence Book, December 1704 – March 1706/7 (DL/C/0151) which contains the statements made by the parties and the interrogatories (a list of over a hundred questions) to be put to witnesses, mainly in English
  • Depositions Book, December 1702 – January 1705/6 (DL/C/0248) which records the witnesses’ answers; the voluminous evidence is all in English

This has been supplemented by material from the National Archives and the Norris Museum, St Ives, Cambridgeshire.

The people

Peter Pheasant was the eldest son of a family of Huntingdonshire gentry who also owned property in London and Somerset. He and his brothers were brought up by their grandparents after their parents died. He went to Cambridge University, then came to London.

When he was twenty-one, he took over the management of his inheritance, which should have produced him an income of at least £1,000 a year. One of the witnesses said he “was a very pretty young gentleman both as to his person & conditions, & was descended of a very good family, & had suitable education, & in every thing was a person very agreeable”.

On the other hand, according to his brothers, he was addicted to gambling “and being but very young and haveing not seen much of the world...was easily circumvented and imposed upon”. He kept three horses at Newmarket and a coach and several servants in London. He mortgaged his property and failed to keep up the interest payments. When he died of smallpox at his London lodgings on 11 July 1703 his personal estate was insufficient to clear his debts.

Mary Thompson was born around 1680, probably the daughter of Edward Thompson of St Martin in the Fields, mariner, who made his will in 1696 (LMA, DL/AM/PW/1701/078), and his wife, also Mary. By 1704 she lived with her widowed mother in Golden Square. She met Peter Pheasant in 1698 (no-one explains how) and began a stormy relationship which lasted until early 1703, when he abandoned her and "took away her jewells". They had four children, but when Mansell Pheasant wrote to William (then sailing to Turkey) to inform him of Peter’s death in 1703, he made the chilling comment that “her last son dyed last week to my great satisfaction, for now there is not one living”.

Mary Thomson letter, written to Peter Pheasant in 1703
Letter written by Mary to Peter in January 1703, shortly before he ended their relationship. It was exhibited in court but does not show whether they were married or not, although Mary’s financial dependence is clear. Ref: DL/C/0151

Around April 1703, Mary petitioned for restitution of conjugal rights, which is what people did when their spouses deserted them. At the time of his death Peter was under sentence of excommunication for failing to respond. Peter’s will, made shortly before he died, did not even mention her. Mary contested it, unsuccessfully. Her final hope was that, if she could prove that she had really been married to Peter, she would be entitled to dower: the income from a third of his estate for the rest of her life. In October 1704 she began the legal process by petitioning the Bishop of London, initiating the Consistory Court case. William and Mansell Pheasant were equally keen to prove that there had been no marriage.

Delarivier Manley (c1670–1724; her name is usually written as Della Riviere in the court records) was a poet, novelist, playwright and eventually a Tory propagandist. She was a close friend of Mary Thompson and admitted that Mary promised to pay her £100 a year if she won her case. This was either money which Mary already owed her or Manley’s reward for arranging a fraudulent entry in a marriage register. Manley’s involvement in the case was known from a brief reference in a publication of 1787, but it was previously thought, even by her biographer, that no documentation had survived.

Sarah Fyge Egerton (1668–1723) was the author of a feminist poem, The Female Advocate, and a collection of verse, Poems on Several Occasions. In 1704 she was the wife of Thomas Egerton, rector of Adstock, Buckinghamshire. She was a friend and collaborator of Manley, through whom she knew Mary. Manley wanted her to witness a document confirming her agreement with Mary about the £100. It must therefore have come as a nasty shock when Egerton gave evidence on the other side. She reported Manley’s private conversations, on which the Pheasants’ lawyers based some of their interrogatories. She said in her deposition that Mary did not behave like a married woman, asserted that Manley had told her about seeing a marriage register with blank spaces, and claimed that Manley was “the manager of this cause”.

The signatures of Manley and Egerton after their depositions. Ref: DL/C/0248
The signatures of Manley and Egerton after their depositions. Ref: DL/C/0248

Manley later complained that Egerton caused her side’s case to be lost 'by adding a great deal of false to the true'. Neither woman’s deposition fills the reader with much confidence. Egerton gave her address as 'the parish of St Botolph without Bishopsgate London where she has lived for the space of 2 years or thereabouts previously of Adstock, Bucks'. In fact, she had lived at Adstock since her marriage in 1701 and Manley stayed with her there earlier in 1704, but she needed a London address because she had also been using the London church courts to try to obtain a legal separation from her husband. Manley said that she was the wife of John Manley and was maintained by her husband, but in reality, she made a living by writing for the theatre and had never been legally married to her cousin John Manley, who already had another wife.

The alleged wedding

The register of St Botolph Aldersgate (LMA, P69/BOT1/A/001/MS03854/002) contains this entry:

Peter Phesant & Mary Thompson both of the parish of St Martins in ye Fields married by a stranger the 12th day of January 1698.

The year is Old Style and would be 1699 in modern reckoning. Normally, as Manley told Egerton, “a register was the best proofe in the world & if a register was once rejected there would be noe certainty in any record”. In this case, however, there was room for doubt. The writing of the entry is nothing like that of any others on the page. The Pheasants claimed that it was forged in 1703 using a blank space at the foot of the page, something which Manley realised was possible when she happened to see the register while attending another wedding at the church. The parish clerk was, according to them, a disreputable man who would allow such a thing. 

Part of the register of St Botolph Aldersgate, showing the Pheasant entry in 1698
Part of the register of St Botolph Aldersgate, showing the Pheasant entry, 1698. Ref: P69/BOT1/A/001/MS03854/002

Mary Thompson’s version of events depended on the evidence of Edmund Smith. Smith was a long-term resident of the Fleet Prison, and Manley would have known him through her being (until 1702) the lover of the prison’s governor John Tilly. Of course, these things were not mentioned in their depositions, and she claimed that she only met Smith in late 1704. Smith’s story was that he met a man in the Wonder Tavern who wanted to arrange a private wedding for a young gentleman. Smith knew the woman who kept the keys of St Botolph Aldersgate. In return for a guinea for her and five guineas for himself, he agreed to go to the church with a parson, Dr Clewer. They met Peter and Mary, who arrived together in a coach. The marriage ceremony was performed, and Clewer started to make an entry in the register but Peter “sayd that he beleived he could write faster & desired...Dr Clewer to tell him what he should write”.

Clewer was a real person (see Inside Croydon article): he was Vicar of Croydon until 1684 when he was removed for a variety of offences. He was later involved in the forced marriage of an abducted heiress and knew Smith from their being in the Fleet together. He died conveniently in 1703 so was not available to give evidence. Nor was the woman with the keys, also deceased. Instead the Pheasants concentrated on discrediting Smith: witnesses claimed that he was a thief, forger, and former pirate in the West Indies.

The other crucial issue in the case was whether Peter had treated Mary as his wife. Mary’s strongest point was that the curate of St Martin in the Fields baptised her children as legitimate and recorded them as such in the parish register. Peter was present at the private ceremonies, and the curate assumed that he was married to Mary. Clearly the baptising was not done with punch rather than water as the Pheasants tried at one point to suggest. A servant and Manley also attested that Peter and Mary lived together as man and wife, and Manley always referred to Mary as Mrs Pheasant. On the other side, the Pheasants had several witnesses who claimed that they heard Peter make comments like “she was his whore &...he would keepe any whore he had a minde to”. Mary’s mother was reported to have come to Peter’s lodgings several times lamenting that he had ruined her daughter and saying that if he would give her some money her father would send her overseas or find her a husband. Mrs Thompson did not give evidence in the case.

The outcome

Pheasant v Pheasant was a very unusual case, and both parties’ arguments had significant loopholes. Despite Manley blaming Egerton for her side losing, that does not seem to be what really happened. The last relevant Consistory Court entries are dated to May 1705, then the case apparently stopped. The explanation emerges from some separate documents. A lawyer’s bill presented to William Pheasant includes fees from 1705 for 'drawing the release of dower from Mrs Pheasant', 'attending her attorney & her therewith' and 'attending...the partys on sealing it'. In another case from 1708 involving Peter’s creditors, William Pheasant recorded payments he had made out of his brother’s estate including £107 10s. to Mary Thompson 'in discharge of her pretence to dower and all her claims and demands out of the said reall estate'.

Mary Thompson was bought off quite cheaply if that was all she received, but the weaknesses of her case and the insolvency of Peter’s estate must have made it an acceptable deal. In 1706 under the name Mary Pheasant she was co-defendant in a Chancery case brought by Tilly against his former lover Manley, who by then was in prison because of a debt to a wine-merchant. On 13 May 1711 Mary Pheasant, widow, married Henry Bridge, bachelor, at St John, Hackney (LMA, P79/JN1/024). If this was the same woman, she had not been quite as ruined by her relationship with Peter Pheasant as she and her mother feared.

The author

David Noy (d.noy@btinternet.com) is a retired lecturer in Classics and an Honorary Research Associate of the Open University. He is working on a biography of Sarah Fyge Egerton and hopes that someone can help him locate the letters which she as 'Clarinda' wrote to the object of her unrequited affections 'Alexis', last heard of in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1781.