painting of two women looking down at the floor; one holding a candle
Alison Rough and her daughter, Katherine, immediately after the crime was committed.
Source: Tim Fitzpatrick, The Real Mary King’s Close

Alison Rough, Rouche, Rouch or Ruch (c. 1480 – 3 September 1535) was a 16th-century woman executed for murder. The affluent Edinburgh merchant and property investor, together with her daughter Katherine16th-century Scottish woman convicted of the murder of her first husband, Alexander Cant., killed her son-in-law, Alexander Cant, following a family argument.

Both women escaped from custody but were quickly recaptured; Alison was executed by drowning on 3 September 1535 in Nor Loch; this type of execution is frequently believed to have been dispensed to those convicted of witchcraft, although research into Scottish witchcraft cases by specialist modern-day academics suggests it was rarely used in Scotland.

For six years after her death Edinburgh Council and King James V argued over which of them were entitled to her confiscated property and goods. The matter was finally settled after a statute was passed in 1542.

Family and career


No records of Alison Rough’s – sometimes spelt as Rouche,[1] Rouch or Ruch[2] – early life or her parents have been discovered except that she was born in about 1480. She married Jasper Mayne before 1507.[3] The couple’s lavishly furnished marital home was in Edinburgh; although they were not part of the city’s high society, they would be classified as within the upper level of middle class due to their property holdings.[4] They had four children: two girls, Katherine and Isobel;[a] and two boys, John and Adam.[3]

Despite being unable to write,[6] Alison assisted her husband, a notary and burgess, in his property and merchant business. Records indicate he began to assign property plus rent receipts to their joint ownership on 6 September 1508. By 1512 some of their holdings and the resultant rents were assigned solely to Alison; King James IV gifted the couple a property in Edinburgh that year.[3]

Left a widow with a young family to support after her husband died at the Battle of Flodden on 9 September 1513, Alison took over the management of the business. Initially she maintained her late husband’s existing trading portfolio, but within three years she was well-established in her own right.[3] From 1517 she traded from a stall set in the prime merchant area, Anchor’s Close on the northern side of Edinburgh High Street; she sold cloth, millinery and general attire.[7] Alison had a short-lived second marriage to Thomas Louranstoun; records do not specify any more information about him, nor do they reveal the precise dates of the couple’s relationship. A brief entry in the church court register indicates the granting of a divorce sometime between 1516 and 1520, but does not elaborate further. Another entry in the register from around 1517 mentions Alison successfully suing another widow for defamation; academic Elizabeth Ewan speculates this may be connected to the divorce.[8]

Alison’s business flourished, and she built up a substantial fortune from her extensive property portfolio.[1] Drawing on expertise learned while assisting her first husband, she had no qualms asserting her rights in the various courts, even against her own family when she considered it advantageous.[9] She had, however, ensured that as her children reached maturity, they were provided for. When Adam became a priest in 1528, two properties that had been held in his name since before his father’s death were transferred back to Alison and he instead received a life pension.[3]

Earlier in the same year, a lucrative marriage was arranged for her other son, John, to an affluent property-owning widow.[10] Alison also secured an advantageous marriage for her daughter, Katherine, to a prosperous merchant, Alexander Cant. Like John’s wife, Cant possessed several properties, although his liquid assets were minimal; he too had previously been married and was widowed twice.[10] Considerably older than his new wife, Alison lured Cant into the arrangement by promising a sizeable dowry of 400 merks in cash,[11][b] enhanced with her merchant stall together with the two properties formerly held by Adam.[3] Her other daughter, Isobel – also known as Isobel Kerr[3] – was married by 1528; no further details are known about her except that John had publicly asserted she was not fathered by Jasper, something vehemently denied by their mother.[5]

A property at Peebles Wynd, held by Adam then transferred to Katherine as part of her dowry, was home to Alison and her daughter prior to Katherine’s marriage to Cant.[11][c] After the marriage, Alison and Katherine lived in Cant’s large townhouse situated in the street known as Alexander Cant’s Close;[15][d]

Despite being basically retired from her business enterprise and relying on the rents from her property investments for her main income, Alison’s litigious nature kept her returning to the courts to assert her rights. Together with her daughter, she was sued by Cant in March 1535 for failing to pay him Katherine’s dowry; acrimony also built up over the Peebles Wynd property, which had been sold but the purchaser took the trio to court concerning it. On 30 August, at a hearing in the central court, the decision was in favour of the buyer.[5]

Murder


The conflicts between Alison and her son-in-law reached a climax following the failed court action on 30 August 1535.[11][e] Alison, together with her daughter and a female servant, murdered Katherine’s husband after a bitter argument at home that evening.[11]

After being arrested Alison and Katherine both managed to escape from custody but were quickly detained again.[14] The pair were convicted and sentenced to be executed on 3 September.[11]

Execution and legacy


Katherine gained a stay of execution by pleading the belly[f] – claiming to be pregnant – but Alison was drowned in Nor Loch on 3 September 1535.[14][g] Although this method of capital punishment is often stated to have been used for women convicted of witchcraft,[14] research into Scottish witchcraft cases by modern-day academic specialists suggest it was rarely used in Scotland.[19]

Alison’s properties and estate were forfeit with King James V claiming them for the crown.[11] The King gifted them to David Wood but the Edinburgh town council objected, claiming entitlement to the forfeiture.[20] The legal wrangle continued for six years, until a resolution was eventually reached when a decree was passed on 28 May 1542.[11][21] The statute clarified that the council was entitled to the confiscated goods and property of murderers who were convicted in the town where the crime was perpetrated; the estate would, however, fall to the Crown if the perpetrator absconded, thereby being deemed an outlaw first. Alison’s properties remained allocated to the Crown.[11]

Citations



Bibliography


Burgh of Edinburgh. (1871). Extracts from the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh (1528-1557): Vol. 3 (1528-1557) (M. Wood & J. D. Marwick, Eds.). Scottish Burgh Records Society, 1871.
Butler, S. M. (2018). Pleading the Belly: A Sparing Plea? Pregnant convicts and the courts in Medieval England. In S. M. Butler, K. J. Kesselring, & C. J. Neville (Eds.), Crossing borders: boundaries and margins in medieval and early modern Britain: essays in honour of Cynthia J. Neville (pp. 131–152). Brill.
Ewan, E. (2020). Rough, Alison (c. 1480–1535), merchant. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.90000369470
Ewan, E. (2018). Rough, Alison. In E. Ewan, R. J. Pipes, J. Rendall, & S. Reynolds (Eds.), The new biographical dictionary of Scottish women (p. 372). Edinburgh University Press.
Ewan, E. (2003). Alison Rough: A Woman’s Life and Death in Sixteenth-Century Edinburgh. Women’s History Magazine, 45, 4–13.
Goodare, J. (2013). Witchcraft in Scotland. In B. P. Levack (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America. Oxford University Press.
Holmes, N. M. McQ. (2006). Scottish Coins in the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh (E. Screen, C. S. S. Lyon, & T. Abramson, Eds.). Published for the British Academy by the Oxford University Press.
Staff writer. (2003). The Real Mary King’s Close (Official Souvenir Guidebook). Continuum.
Thomson, T. (Ed.). (1833). A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurents that have passed within the Country of Scotland. Bannatyne Club.

Notes


  1. Isobel is sometimes given as Isabel[5]
  2. A Scots merk was equivalent to 13 shillings 4d.[12]
  3. There are discrepancies surrounding the date of Katherine’s marriage: the ODNB entry sets it as “Shortly after 9 December 1530”;[3] The new biographical dictionary of Scottish women gives “late 1531”;[13] The Real Mary King’s Close only states the year, 1531;[14] and the article in Women’s History Magazine reads “in late 1531 or early 1532.”[10]
  4. Alexander Cant’s Close became Craig’s Close.[16]
  5. Ewan gives 31 August in The new biographical dictionary of Scottish women,[13] but 30 August in other accounts;[3][11] A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurents that have passed within the Country of Scotland states the penult day of August.[17]
  6. Pleading the belly or alternatively phrased as Benefit of the belly, has been likened by academics to Benefit of clergy Benefit of clergy was the legally enshrined right of any clergyman facing prosecution for a felony in a royal court to have the case heard instead in an ecclesiastical court. , and was used by pregnant women to gain a stay of execution.[18]
  7. Nor Loch is now Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.[14]