The role of women in the Court of Orphans in early modern London, 1660-1720

November 17, 2022 | Blog
Home > The role of women in the Court of Orphans in early modern London, 1660-1720

By Jessica Ayres (University of York)


This blog is based upon a grant awarded by the Economic History Society through its Initiatives & Conference Fund. The ‘London and Londoners, 1500-1720’ conference was held at the University of York from 8-9 September 2022.


The Court of Orphans was a customary law court in the City of London which functioned to protect the underage orphans of the City’s freemen after they died. Presided over in the Guildhall by the Court of Aldermen—the City’s governing body—it was responsible for ensuring that all orphans were appointed a guardian, suitably looked after, and had their inheritance safeguarded during their minority; see figure 1. As many freemen left widows as executors of their estates and guardians of their children, women were an essential part of the Court of Orphans’ administrative process, regularly appearing in its records.


Figure 1.   The administrative process of an estate through the Court of Orphans

Source: Ayres, J., ‘Women in London’s Court of Orphans, 1660-1720’, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of York, 2022.


Charles Carlton’s monograph traces the Court’s medieval origins through to its eighteenth-century decline, but his broad chronological overview and methodological focus on the Court’s institutional process, rather than on those engaging with it, means he overlooks the role that women played in the Court’s procedures. My research highlights the varying financial and administrative responsibilities that widows and other women had in London’s Court of Orphans, and asserts that they were just as present in the Court as men, between the years 1660 and 1720.


Quantifying women’s activity in the Court of Orphans

 The Court’s day-to-day business—along with others matters of City governance—was recorded in the repertories of the Court of Aldermen. Each repertory chronicles one mayoral year, with the mayor and aldermen meeting every few days. By noting each orphan entry in six different repertories from the middle year of six consecutive decades, it is possible to see how many of these entries were recorded under a woman’s name. From this evidence, the percentage of business brought to the Guildhall by women can be calculated. These data show that, on average, almost as many women as men were responsible for bringing business to the Court of Orphans, and, in at least three years, they came to the Guildhall for orphan matters more than men did; see table 1.


Table 1.   Number and percentage of orphan entries recorded under a woman’s name in the six repertories

What roles did women have in the Court of Orphans?

Orphan business can be broken down into 11 categories: 3 involve entering into a recognizance to meet various obligations (with a further category noting recognizances that were unspecified); 3 more involve seeking the Court’s permission either for an orphan to marry, enter into an apprenticeship, or change their guardian; another relates to matters of estate administration; a further category notes women who came to support the satisfaction (payment) of an orphan’s inheritance; another notes receipts and payments from and to the City’s chamberlain; and, lastly, various miscellaneous reasons, e.g. a summons to appear before the aldermen.


Figure 2.   Number of women’s entries by category in repertories 70, 80, 90, 99, 109, and 119

Sources: LMA, COL/CA/01/01/074, 084, 094, 103, 113, 123.


As indicated in figure 2, the most common category of orphan business for which the repertories show women coming to the Guildhall was entering into a recognizance. This obligated them to either bring documents or money to the Court or else made them liable for inheritances they held. Women also regularly came to the Court to support an orphan’s satisfaction, often bringing the orphan with them, and standing as a witness for their having reached the age of majority. These obligations made them responsible not only for orphans and their wellbeing, but also for estates, inheritances, and making sure the City’s customs were abided by.


Case study

 When the merchant George Hodilow died in 1669, his widow Abigail was left as administrator of his estate and as guardian to their infant son. When she came to the Court of Orphans in October 1672 to exhibit her husband’s inventory, she entered into a bond to either return and deposit her son’s inheritance in the City’s chamber, or with guarantors to support a recognizance.A few months prior, in June 1672, she brought a complaint to Chancery, in her capacity as George’s administrator, to prevent being liable for a £50 debt he owed. She returned to the Guildhall in July the following year with her father and two other men as guarantors, allowing her to keep and use her son’s portion during his minority.

Abigail died in 1675, leaving her son’s £151 inheritance among her debts, and his guardianship to once again be overseen by the Court of Orphans. Abigail had legal and financial responsibilities as administrator, guardian, and recognitor to her husband, her son and the Court itself. Her use of orphan court credit, through her son’s borrowed inheritance, allowed her access to capital she needed as she fought off her husband’s creditors in Chancery, and shows ways women engaged with and used the Court’s mechanisms.

As scholarship on the Court of Orphans has often overlooked the role of women, by re-examining a range of records, we can see that, in most instances, women were coming to the Court of Orphans just as much as men were. They brought inventories, entered into bonds, sought permission for marriages or apprenticeships and deposited or collected money. These varying activities also highlight the network of interacting financial and administrative obligations women had to their husbands, their wards, and to the Court itself. Cases, such as that of Abigail Hodilow, allow us to see how women used the opportunities provided by the Court beyond its structures.


To contact the author:



Carlton, C., The court of orphans (Leicester, 1974).

London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), COL/CA/01/01/081, fol. 274b-275.

LMA, CLA/002/05/08, fol. 275b.

LMA, CLA/002/02/01/1293.

The National Archives, C 5/60/27.