Teaching Module

Age of Consent Laws

The Trial of Stephen Arrowsmith (1678) [Trial Record]


The Proceedings of the Old Bailey includes accounts of trials at London's most important court. These were published at the end of each session in an inexpensive form for a popular, rather than a legal, audience. They provide a reliable, although incomplete, account of events and do not record everything that was said. For example, statements by witnesses were frequently summarized or omitted, and little of what lawyers did was recorded. This trial highlights several aspects common in age of consent prosecutions into the 20th century, most notably defense attacks on the character of the defendant, in this case a girl and her family, and the unwillingness of jurors to enforce the law. It was unusual in this period, and subsequently, for a judge to insist, as the one in this trial did, that the law be enforced.

[Unmarked text and images of the original available online.]


"Stephen Arrowsmith, Sexual Offenses: Rape, 11th December 1678," Old Bailey Proceedings Online, http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/oldbailey/html_units/1670s/t16781211e-2.html (accessed November 26, 2007). Annotated by Stephen Robertson.

Primary Source Text

The third they were charged with, was Stephen Arrowsmith for the Rape committed on Elizabeth Hopkins. . . .

The Girl that was ravished, being between 8 and 9, testified that he had had to do with her for half a year together every Sunday, that she was hindred from crying the first time, by his stopping her mouth, and that he gave her money afterwards; and she never discovered it, still some of her friends observing her to go as if she were very sore, examined her, and by telling her she would be in danger of hanging in Hell, got her to confess, that the Prisoner was her fathers Prentice. . . .

The Prisoner with a great many tears denied the Fact, and desired some Witnesses might be called. Among whom there was a maid that lived at the Doctors where the Girl was for Cure, who testified that the Girl upon Taxing her, why she did conceal it, said, she took Pleasure in it, and that upon Examination there were no Symptomes on the Prisoner, as the Doctor said, of any such disease as the Girl had, which was indeed the Pox; which was also attested by one Mrs. Rawlins: and the Prisoner protesting his Innocence, alledged that they offered a Composition. 1

All which notwithstanding, the Court with great detestation and abhorrence of so Horrid and Vile an Offence, told him the Matter was so plain against him, that he must have as great impudence to deny it, as he had wickedness to Commit it; that her consent would not save him, for the Statute provides, that a Child under 10 years of age, should not be abused with, or without her Consent. That the First Violence whereby he stop'd her Crying, made the Rape, had it been a Woman above 10; that if the Parents were so wicked, as to offer a Composition, yet that made not him innocent. . . .

[The jury returned a verdict of not guilty] which Verdict Mr. Recorder, not conceiving it to be according to their Evidence, would not take from them without further deliberation, and labour'd to satisfie them of the Manifestness of the Proof. One of the Jury being an Apothecary, said it was his opinion, that a Child of those years could not be Ravished. Which the Court told him was to Elude the Statute, that having provided a Punishment, had done it in vain, if there were no offence, and so he did tax the Wisdom of a whole Parliament; Which ought not to be Others of the Jury, because the Girls were not sworn, doubted of the sufficiency of their Testimony, and they had nothing but hearsay from the other Witnesses. But the Court told them, in regard such Offenders never call others to be by while they commit such actions, they could expect no other Testimony than from the Party injured, which they had, and with it of an eye Witness, both whom they forbore to Swear, because of the tenderness of their Age; but if they insisted upon it, they should be Sworn.

[The jury deliberated again and found Arrowsmith guilty]

1 A "composition" is a settlement by mutual arrangement.

How to Cite This Source

Stephen Robertson, "Age of Consent Laws," in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/230 (accessed August 10, 2021).