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The Collation

The book thief

page of Elizabeth Parris's deposition
page of Elizabeth Parris's deposition

Response of James Tabor, public notary, July 10, 1604, in Henry Cotton vs. William Windle. Cambridge University Archives, Comm.Ct.II.11, fol. 57v.

Today’s post is about a woman, Margaret Cotton, who allegedly stole a book in 1602. The book might have been a Bible, or it might have been Girolamo Ruscelli’s Secrets of Alexis, or it might have been a cheap sixpence pamphlet.

A quick introduction to the characters and narrative of this small drama: Margaret Cotton lived on Market Hill in Cambridge, with her husband, Henry, a pewterer. The Swetsons, Dorcas and John (an apothecary) were their neighbors. Dorcas’s brother Ralph Hyde, a draper, lived nearby. Margaret allegedly stole a book from Hyde’s house, which she vehemently denied. Hyde came to her house with the constable to search for it. Either he or the constable forcefully grabbed the keys from her girdle and unlocked her cabinet, where Hyde found the said book.

The dispute over the book wasn’t litigated until Margaret Cotton erupted at Dorcas Swetson while gathered with other women in a room where their neighbor, Elizabeth Parris, was in labor. As they assisted Elizabeth and gossiped, something triggered Margaret to tell Dorcas that she was a “girl” who should not be sitting in a better pew than Margaret’s at Great St. Mary’s church, also on Market Hill. Dorcas retorted that Margaret should actually be sitting behind the door of the church because: 1) she stole a book from Dorcas’s brother Ralph Hyde and denied it, and 2) her maid had confessed to Dorcas that Margaret had engaged in other small purloinings.

page of Elizabeth Parris's deposition

The first leaf of Elizabeth Parris’s deposition, where she describes the pew and book kerfuffles. Comm.Ct.II.10, fol. 69v.

Margaret retorted by suing Dorcas for defamation. Dorcas then convinced her brother Ralph Hyde to sue Margaret Cotton in revenge, also for defamation. He provoked Margaret into calling him a blood sucker and a man slayer, among other insults, by accusing her (in front of others) of accusing him of being cuckolded by his wife, which she vehemently denied. In the same breath as calling him a blood sucker, Margaret counter-accused that he had ruined her reputation by bringing a constable into her house to search for a “six pence book” that he had lost.

The purloined book is described in both of these cases, Margaret Cotton vs. Dorcas Swetson, and Ralph Hyde vs. Margaret Cotton, as well as in a third case, Henry Cotton vs. William Windle, in which Cotton alleges that Windle boxed or pinched one of the Cottons’ sons, John, in the ears (Windle countered that he only did so after John had shot clay pellets through a reed into the face of Windle’s young daughter).

The respondents to last week’s Crocodile post correctly worked out that the handwriting challenge was a response to an interrogatory, or a written question asked by one party to another party’s witnesses, usually in an attempt to discredit their testimony.1 In Cotton vs. Windle, Cotton’s lawyer asked Windle’s witnesses whether they heard Ralph Hyde, or his wife, or anyone else (naming them), say that:

Margaret Cotton, wife of the said Henry Cotton, did steal a book or carried home a book from the said Hyde’s house to her the said Margarett Cotton’s house, and whether they, he, or she, that said so, did say that that booke was a bible And where he heard it, & when, & in whose presence. (CUA, VCCt.III.12, fol. 167; this and the following transcriptions have been modernized for readability, but I am happy to provide semi-diplomatic transcriptions upon request.)

In his response to this set of questions on July 10, 1604, James Tabor, a notary public who had been intimately involved in all of the Cotton cases (as the registrary, or principal recorder for the Commissary court), for over two years, replied (this is the snippet from last week’s Crocodile):

To the second interrogatory he says and answers that he well remembreth that about a year & a half or 2 years last past, he this deponent hath heard of Hyde or his wife, or John Swetson or his wife, but this deponent sayeth that he doth not remember of which of them nor in what place he heard it, that the said Margaret Cotton did steal a book (as this deponent thinketh Alexis Secrets) from the sayd Hyde’s, and otherwise he knows nothing. (Comm.Ct.II.11, fol. 57)

Elizabeth Parris, who was having a baby while Dorcas and Margaret sparred in her room, recounted Dorcas Swetson’s words to Margaret after the pew insult, in answer to an interrogatory in July 1602:

I would be loath also to be detected as you have been for a book which was taken out of my brother Hyde’s house, which you utterly did deny & forswear before him and the Constable till he took the keys from your girdle by force & looked in a cupboard and there found it. & this she knoweth was spoken in this deponent’s house in her Chamber (about the time articulated) where this deponent then lay in childbed in the presence of Jane Loveday this deponent’s sister, Susan Harrison the wife of North Harrison of Cambridge aforesaid public notary, & of the said Margaret Cotton & Dorcas Swettson who came thither to visit her. (Comm.Ct.II.10, fol. 70, with another version at VCCt.I.75, item 8, leaf 1).

A few months later, in October 1602, Elizabeth Parris answered questions relating to the nature of the accusation and its impact on Margaret Cotton’s “name, fame, and reputation”:

She thinketh the said Swetson by charging her, Cotton, with the said Book, did accuse the said Cotton of theft or at least with concealing the theft of the said book … She thinketh verily that the credit, name, fame, & reputation of the said Cotton is much impaired since the said words were spoken by the said Dorcas Swetson against her Cotton. (Comm.Ct.II.11, fols. 1-2)

She signs her name in a neat Italic hand:

Signature of Elizabeth Paris at the end of her deposition, Comm.Ct.II.11, fol. 2.

Joan King, age 24, wife of Edward King, sadler, who was present in Elizabeth’s birthing chamber at the time, agreed with Elizabeth that Cotton’s reputation was impaired. Susan Harrison, age 21, wife of North Harrison, scribe, another eyewitness to the spat, disagreed with Joan, arguing that Cotton’s reputation was tarnished before “the said pretended words were spoke against her by Swetson” (Comm.Ct.II.11, fol. 5v). Mary Curtis, age 28, wife of Luke Curtis, chandler, and Alice Smith, age 26, wife of Samuel Smith, chandler, neither of whom were in the room but had heard about the book theft from Dorcas Swetson at a different time, concurred, saying that it was Cotton’s maid’s words about petty theft that first brought her name, fame, and reputation into question.

The title or content of the book was clearly not of great importance in the interrogatories and depositions  of the witnesses from 1602—those questions concerned the act of stealing a book and the denial thereof, rather than the book itself—although there was some debate over whether or not the book was a Bible, as apparent in some of the questions presented by Margaret Cotton in Hyde’s suit against her, that the respondents had to deny or affirm:

That the said Ralph Hyde or his wife or John Swetson or his wife have said … that the said Margaret Cotton did steal a book or carry home a book from the said Hyde’s house to the said Margaret Cotton’s house, and that that book was a bible.

That the said Ralph Hyde & his wife or one of them have reported that the book that was found by the Constable in the house of the said Cotton was a bible, whereas in truth there was no bible found there by the Constable.

That the said Ralph Hyde did come into the house of the said Henry Cotton to search the same house for a book without a Constable. And he came into the same house before the Constable, and the Constable followed after him into the same house about half a quarter of an hour or some longer or shorter time after the said Hyde. (Comm.Ct.III.9, item 111, fols. 1-2v)

In Margaret Cotton’s personal response to Hyde’s suit, she recounted what she said to Hyde after he accused her of spreading rumors about his wife cuckolding him:

Thou hast brought my name in question, and searched my house for a book of vid; & by searching of my house thou hast taken away my good name. And he that taketh away his neighbor’s good name by the word of god is a blood sucker, and a man slayer, And thou art a great church goer, but by thy doings thou showest thyself to be an hypocrite. (Comm.Ct.II.11, fols. 26v-27v)

A book of six pence; that is, a pamphlet, a sermon, a playbook, a disposable item. This is a far cry from a Bible, which would have cost multiple shillings. Margaret’s reference to sixpenny books indicates that she could tell an expensive book from a cheap book, and that cheap books shouldn’t be used to ruin someone’s reputation. 


Regardless of the title of the book or its worth, for Margaret to be accused of stealing a book and locking it in her private cabinet implied that everyone assumed that she could read. But could she read? Here’s how she signed her deposition, with a mark:

The mark of Margaret Cotton. CUA, Comm.Ct.II.11, fol. 27v.

One could argue that Margaret’s mark somewhat resembles part of a majuscule M, rather than a simple X, and that therefore she is approximating the first letter of her name.2 The woman who accused her of book theft, Dorcas, also signs her deposition with a mark, in the form of a more simple X.

The mark of Dorcas Swetson, CUA, Comm.Ct.II.10, fol. 68v.

It is possible that although neither of them knew how to write, they could read. Among their peers in the community, some of the female witnesses did sign with their names: Alice Smith (age 26), married to a chandler, Elizabeth Paris (age 23), the woman in childbed, married to a draper, and Joan Fylo (aged 60), wife of a draper (and also the Cottons’s landlords). Margaret and Dorcas were surrounded by women who could read and write.

It is possible that she stole a Bible. After all, in her testimony, she paraphrases a sermon about theft that she recently heard at Great St Mary’s Church, the parish church on the west side of Market Hill where the Cottons and Swetsons lived, worked, and traded in their respective pewterer’s and apothecary shops. Her deposition records:

I remember that Mr Nelson said in a Sermon which he made in Great St. Mary’s, not long since, that he that taketh away his neighbor’s good name is a robber, and he that robbeth his neighbor of his goods may restore them again, but he that taketh away his neighbor’s good name can never restore that again. He is a robber that so doeth. Bear witness then, quod the said Raphe Hyde, she calls me robber. And that then she said to him, the said Raphe Hyde, thus or the like in effect: viz: Christ said to his disciples, beware of them that go in sheep’s clothing, for inwardly they be ravening wolves, and you shall know them by their fruits. And this is thy fruit, said she to the said Raphe Hyde. (Comm.Ct.II.11, fols. 26v-27v)

It is equally likely that she would be interested in The secrets of the reuerend Maister Alexis of Piemont, containing excellent remedies against diuerse diseases, wounds, and other accidents, with the maner to make distillations, parefumes, confitures, dyings, colours, fusions, and meltings (London, 1595). The secrets of Alexis was the most widely printed book of secrets in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and the 1595 edition might have been the one referred to by James Tabor in his response.3 It was originally published in Italian under the pseudonym Alessio in 1555, and had a wide circulation in Italy and France, as well as England.

Margaret may have heard other people talk about its useful recipes for curing worms in children, stomach upset, burns, or hemorrhoids, or she might have been intrigued by the more mysterious directions, such as “To make a candle of ice to burne” or “To dye haire into a greene colour” or “To make that no Dogge shall barke at you.” Perhaps she was referring to this book, rather than to a pamphlet, when she complained that her name was tarnished over a six penny book. Among the lists of books owned by university men in the Vice-Chancellor’s Court probate inventories are three different copies of the English translation, priced at eight pence in 1560/61, six pence in 1561, and two shillings in 1589.4 Maybe she took the book so that her husband could read it to her, or with her. Why would James Tabor, who had been privy to all of the depositions about whether or not the book was a Bible in 1602, remember two years later that it was in fact the Secrets of Alexis?

ownership mark of Mary Man in a copy of Ruscelli

In 1671, Mary Man signs her name to the 1568 edition of the Secrets of Alexis. Folger STC 297 copy 2. Click image to zoom.

An annotated page of

An annotated page from a 1558 copy of the Secrets of Alexis. Folger STC 293 copy 2, leaf M4 verso.

More plausibly, however, her signatory mark indicates that she did not know how to read, which means that two women were the key players in a court case about a missing book that neither of them could read. The other items Margaret was accused of stealing, neglecting to return, destroying, or having others steal on her behalf, all had obvious practical functions associated with running a household: chickens, butter clothing, oatmeal, salt, Dorcas Swetson’s apron (which she allegedly cut up into little pieces), Dorcas Swetson’s pewter fruit dish (which she allegedly threw into her husband’s melting pit), and John Swetson’s hippocras bag. The book is different. Did Margaret steal Ralph Hyde’s book (and, allegedly, a pair of his gloves) out of pure malice and revenge, in the same way that she allegedly destroyed Hyde’s sister’s (Dorcas Swetson’s) apron and fruit dish?

Hyde’s alleged behavior inside the Cottons’s house, and his alleged repudiation of Henry Cotton’s wealth, would be enough to cause any reasonable person to snap:

That the said Hyde after that he had been in the said Cotton’s house to search his house with a Constable did give out speeches abroad … that is reported that Henry Cotton is rich but I do not believe it, for when I searched his Chests & his Cupboard & his Chambers I did see no likelihood that he should be rich for I did see no money there…. It is no marvel that she (meaning the said Margaret Cotton) made such choice that we should not search the Cupboard there was such great substance in it. But I did see no money in it, but there were gloves in it that were or are mine, but how he or they came by them, the Devil and his or their conscience knoweth, But I am sure that mine they are, or mine they were, meaning by the said speeches that the said Henry Cotton or his wife had gotten the said gloves unlawfully. (Comm.Ct.III.9, 111, fols. 1-2v)

Like most court cases, there is so much that is unsaid, irrelevant to the decision of the judge but simmering just underneath the formulaic questions and answers. It is hard to know where this story begins or ends. The records of the Commissary Court shine a spotlight on triggers, breaking points, moments where the tension and stress of everyday life burst the seams of civility. The normal hierarchies are disrupted, someone loses their temper, tongues wag, assumptions are made, motives presumed. As the work of Laura Gowing, Alexandra Shepard, David Pennington, and others have shown, thousands of middling husbands and wives used the courts in an attempt to restore honor and dignity (and thus economic security) to their families. 

I’ve only touched upon the very beginning of this tangled conflict, which spanned the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King James I/VI, the Gunpowder Plot, various outbreaks of plague, and the everyday labor of providing pewter and medicine to members of the university and the town. Behind all of the vitriol between these two families living in a tight-knit and closely-housed community on Market Hill was a deeper layer of wounds, challenges, sadness, bitterness, and shame. Their initial disagreement about pew hierarchies and book theft was only the preamble to an avalanche of other suits, culminating in a 1611 perjury case in Star Chamber against the Swetsons for accusing Margaret Cotton of the death of their infant son through witchcraft.

To be continued…

  1. Often interrogatories don’t survive, but in this case they made their way to the exhibita files of the Vice Chancellor’s Court of the University of Cambridge, even though they were administered in the lower university court, the Commissary Court. For more on the jurisdiction and activities of the university courts, see Jacqueline Cox, “Trials and tribulations: the Cambridge University Courts, 1540-1660,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society XV.4 (2015), pp. 595-623, and Alexandra Shepherd, “Litigation and locality: the Cambridge university courts, 1560-1640,” Urban History 31.1 (May 2004), pp. 5-28. I am grateful to assistant archivist Sally Kent and Jacky Cox, Keeper of the University Archives, for pointing me to the Commissary Court and helping me navigate the Court papers.
  2. For more on literacy and signing with a mark, see Eleanor Hubbard, “Reading, Writing, and Initialing: Female Literacy in Early Modern London,” Journal of British Studies 54 (2015): 553-577, doi:10.1017/jbr.2051.61.
  3. The Wellcome Library’s digitized copy of the 1615 edition is available here:
  4. See Elisabeth Leedham-Green, Books in Cambridge Inventories: Book-Lists from Vice-Chancellor’s Court Probate Inventories in the Tudor and Stuart Periods, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).


Great article, Heather! It’s lovely when dry legal documents come alive like this.

I have a couple of silly follow-up questions, though: 1. would the theft of a Bible potentially have been regarded as worse than the theft of another book of similar value, because of the moral implications? If so, it might explain why the defence seems to have spent so much effort on trying to discredit the claim that Margaret stole a *Bible* (as opposed to using the more obvious strategy of trying to discredit the claim that she stole a *book*). 2. Assuming Margaret was guilty as charged, is it possible that she could have been illiterate but nevertheless able to identify a Bible as a Bible (and that she might consequently have chosen to nick it out of malice, as opposed to just grabbing any old book)?

Elisabeth Chaghafi — December 10, 2021