The case of Coren v Seede focuses on a single charge of defamation. In November 1608, John Coren, vicar of Box, Wiltshire, submitted a bill of complaint to the High Court of Star Chamber. Coren alleged that John Seede and his son Edward, of Claverton, Somerset, had produced a libelous letter and a vulgar poem, both of which implied that Coren had had an adulterous relationship with Philippa Bewshin, wife of John Bewshin, the vicar of Claverton. These charges had already been heard by the High Commission Court for Causes Ecclesiastical in May 1607, which decided in Coren’s favour and ordered the Seedes to pay the court costs. The Seedes, however, secured a ‘prohibition’, a superior court order preventing the parties from proceeding with the suit; perhaps that suspension of the case in the church courts led to its consideration by the Court of Star Chamber.
Although John Coren is the sole plaintiff named in the bill of complaint of 1608, John Bewshin and his wife are necessarily involved in the suit as subjects of the alleged slander. For that reason Coren begins his complaint by affirming that all three of them had good reputations, he and Bewshin being well-established ministers and all of them being honest, virtuous, morally upright, and well-respected people. This claim seems fair with respect to the Bewshins at that time, though John Bewshin would later be removed from this position as master of St. John’s Hospital because “during the 20 years in charge he had not once visited the alms people in his care” (Pitt, 89). The case of John Coren was more problematic (see Further Readings). By 1608, he had already been at odds in public with parishioners for bad debts (reportedly going about with an armed guard to avoid being presented with more writs), for his insufficiency as a preaching minister, for papist practices in administering the sacraments, and for being “a drunkerd … with a greate cowes bellie & … a Judas face.”1 He was so notoriously litigious over the years that Walter Bushnell, his curate and successor as vicar of Box, said that Mr. Coren knew the Acts of Parliament better than the Acts of the Apostles (Ibberson).
In the bill of complaint, Coren argues nonetheless that his good name and those of the Bewshins were damaged by a letter sent to Mrs. Coren and a poem, “Good Mistress Turd,” that John and Edward Seede allegedly wrote, copied, dispersed, explicated, paraphrased, and “iestinglie and mockinglye” read aloud on numerous occasions during the summer and fall of 1606.
The letter to Mrs. Coren advised her to look to her husband, whose extended stays with the Bewshins allowed him to escape from her chiding and enjoy the comforts of an adulterous affair with Mrs. Bewshin, who, as the letter says, would satisfy “his desire … in what he will” (mb 28). The letter warns that this situation, because it has already become the subject of salacious rumours in the parish, will damage his good name and her wealth if she allows it to continue. This kind of libel was dangerous, as Coren notes near the end of the bill of complaint, because it could stir up jealousy and sow discord between husband and wife. In this case it certainly did: Lewis Jones, parson of nearby Bathampton, testified that because of the dissension between Coren and his wife, he (Coren) had to leave his home and stayed several nights with Jones.
The libelous verse, “Good Mistress Turd,” was a bolder, nastier piece in its denigration of some woman. The rhyme, which reduces a woman to her foul smell and curses her for spreading venereal disease, does not name any particular woman. Coren argued in the bill of complaint, however, that when the Seedes expounded the meaning of the rhyme, they made it clear that it referred to Philippa Bewshin. Some copies of this libel end with the subscription “I. Co.” obviously a thinly disguised reference to Coren. This extends the ridicule to him, for as author/narrator he is the man suffering as a result of intercourse with Mrs. Bewshin and cursing her for the painful consequences. The bill of complaint makes no mention of the performance of this rhyme except for some recitations of it, but the depositions of some family and friends include evidence that Edward Seede danced and sang “Good Mistress Turd.” Indeed, his sister Margaret deposed that she had seen her brother, in the presence of their cousin Edward Champneys and others, take off all his clothes and dance naked when he sang the song. The depositions also suggest that there was more to the song than the lines copied into the evidence. Answering Interrogatory 27, Sara Poppelye, sister of Philippa Bewshin, indicated that in the “odious ryminge lybell mention was made of Mistres parson and many vyle scurrilous termes of Surgery and diseases” (mb 13). In that time and place, “Mistres parson” was obviously Mrs. Bewshin.
In two respects John and Edward Seede’s answer to the bill of complaint resembles that of many other cases of this kind. The answer begins with a familiar assertion that the allegations are invalid, uncertain, or insufficient in law, so that the case should be dismissed as malicious prosecution designed to inflict needless legal costs on the defendants. Similarly at the end, the answer includes the standard denials of the specific allegations made by the plaintiff, an assurance that the defendants will prove their points, and an appeal that the case be thrown out. In the central part the answer to John Coren’s complaint, John and Edward Seede address themselves to the two allegedly libellous works unique to this case, the letter to Mrs. Coren and the rhyme/song “Good Mistress Turd.” First John Seede explains that the letter to Mrs. Coren came about not from any malicious effort on his part to damage the reputations of John Coren or Mrs. Bewshin. On the contrary, he was, he claims, simply responding to their earnest entreaty to find out what their neighbours thought of them. Far from being a libel, the letter, was simply “a frendlie admonicion” (mb 24). After John Seede’s account of the letter, Edward Seede addresses himself to “Good Mistress Turd.” He claims that during a festive get-together with old friends in October 1606, they recited verses and sang songs like “Good Mistress Turd,” but not that specific piece. As the party continued, they also danced the Irish dance and the dance of the Jew of Malta, which seem to have been jigs, given the dancing, the tunes that accompanied them, and their satirical edge. Edward Seede argues that all the verses and songs were old, familiar pieces that he and his friends had shared long before he knew John Coren or Mr. Bewshin and his wife.
Family, friends, and neighbours respond to the plaintiff’s and the defendants’ interrogatories. Their testimony supplements, confirms, complicates, and sometimes contradicts the accounts of the events given by the plaintiff, the defendants, and other deponents, with the result that the truth of the matter remains elusive. The depositions do, however, document the complexity of social interactions by which people communicated with one another at that time. They also provide a forum for the women involved in the case to clarify in their own words what they did and, to some degree, what they experienced. Finally, the depositions suggest how important it was that the case against the Seedes, before being taken up by the Court of Star Chamber, had been heard by the High Commission Court for Causes Ecclesiastical in May 1607. The trial in the church court caused John and Edward Seede some anxiety, for both of them tried to make deals to exculpate themselves before it took place. Edward Seede, in return for having the charges against him withdrawn, offered to transfer all the blame to his father; Edward’s proposal came with the assurance that he would to satisfy Mr. Coren and Mrs. Bewshin “with purse and tongue” (mb 4). John Seede made a similar proposal to escape the charges, but his came with a threat: if Coren and the Bewshins would not settle their differences with him and accept his offer to transfer all the guilt to his son, he would, as Sara Poppelye deposed, “make Clauerton too hott for her said sister Mris Bewshin” and he warned “that he had gathered such matters for the highe Comission Court against her said sister and the Complainant Mr Coryn as shold Ruinate them bothe” (mb 12). Several witnesses testified that John Seede seemed to be pursuing that very course of action in the weeks leading up to the trial, by aggressively attempting to uncover stories damaging to the reputation of Mrs. Bewshin as a way of countering the charges against himself and his son.
In the following transcription, italics within words mark the extension of abbreviations. A horizontal line (|) indicates the end of a membrane, and ellipsis the omitted signatures of two or three of the court officials who heard the testimony (viz. William Meredith, Nicholas Dimerie, and Benjamin Russell). Material in square brackets and paragraph breaks are editorial.
1We are grateful to Steven Hobbs for sharing his transcription of the document quoted here: “John Coren v John Symons and Christopher Butler,” Wiltshire Record Office, Quarter Sessions Great Rolls, D1/42/22B, ff. 8v-13v (27 September, 12 October, 1603).
Fox, Adam. “Ballads, Libels and Popular Ridicule in Jacobean England.” Past and Present 145 (November, 1994), p. 69.
Gale, Janet. “Marsh Family in Box in Late Tudor and Stuart Periods,” Box People and Places (July, 2016): http://www.boxpeopleandplaces.co.uk/marsh-family.html.
Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on Manuscripts in Various Collections, Vol, I: Berwick upon Tweed … Wiltshire and Worcester. General Books, 2012. Pp. 71-72.
Hobbs, S. “Record Office News,” Wiltshire Family History Society (October, 2004), p. 276.
————- “Nauticalia,” Wiltshire Record Society, The Recorder, 4 (2005), p. 1.
Ibberson, David. ” Walter Bushnell, vicar of Box 1644-1655 and 1660-1666: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again,” Box People and Places (July, 2015): http://www.boxpeopleandplaces.co.uk/walter-bushnell.html.
Ingram, Martin. Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640. Cambridge University Press, 1987. Pp. 110-111.
McGee, C. E. “Pocky Queans and Hornèd Knaves: Gender Stereotypes in Libellous Poems,” in M.E. Lamb and K. Bamford, eds. Oral Traditions in Early Modern Literary Text. Ashgate, 2008. Pp. 139-41.
Pitt, Catherine. “Taking Up Alms,” The Bath Magazine 207 (December, 2019). Pp. 88-89. Thompson, Anne. Parish Clergy Wives in Elizabethan England. Brill, 2019. Pp. 235-40, 256.