Katherine Mayne (c. 1513 – c. 1565) was a 16th-century Scottish woman convicted of the murder of her first husband, Alexander Cant.

Although she had been sentenced to death on 3 September 1535, Katherine’s execution was postponed owing to her pregnancy. After the baby was born she abandoned the child to her brother before absconding to England, where she married her second husband, a Lutheran theologian.

The couple fled to Germany on the eve of the Act of Six Articles being passed by the English parliament of King Henry VIII, reimposing the vow of celibacy on all clergymen.

Family and career

Born in about 1513, Katherine Mayne was the daughter of an affluent upper-middle-class Edinburgh couple.[1] Her father, Jasper Mayne, was a successful merchant, property speculator, notary and burgess; her mother, Alison RoughEdinburgh merchant and property investor convicted of murdering her son-in-law in 1535., assisted Jasper in his business.[2] Following the death of Katherine’s father at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the family business continued to prosper with her mother at the helm.[3]

See caption
Katherine Mayne and her mother, Alison Rough, looking down on their victim
Source: Elizabeth Ewan, Women’s History Magazine

In February 1529, several properties were transferred to Katherine by her mother; the rental income of the merchant stall previously occupied by her mother but at that time leased to another merchant was also included. By 1531, Katherine was established in business in her own right as a brewster.[4]

An advantageous marriage to a prosperous merchant, Alexander Cant, was arranged by her mother. Cant possessed several properties, although his liquid assets were minimal; he had previously been married then was widowed twice and he had at least three children from his earlier marriages.[4] Considerably older than his new wife, Cant had been lured into the arrangement by the promise of a sizeable dowry of 400 merks in cash,[5][a]A Scots merk was equivalent to 13 shillings 4d.[6] enhanced with the merchant stall together with two properties.[2]

Before her marriage, Katherine lived with her mother in a property at Peebles Wynd, held previously by her brother then transferred to her as part of her dowry.[5][b]There are discrepancies surrounding the date of Katherine’s marriage: the ODNB entry sets it as “Shortly after 9 December 1530”;[2] The new biographical dictionary of Scottish women gives “late 1531”;[7] The Real Mary King’s Close only states the year, 1531;[8] and the article in Women’s History Magazine reads “in late 1531 or early 1532.”[4] After the marriage, both women moved to Cant’s large townhouse in the street known as Alexander Cant’s Close.[9][c]Alexander Cant’s Close became Craig’s Close.[10]

Conflict and murder

It was not a harmonious household with conflict existing between Katherine, her mother and Cant. Four years into their marriage, Cant petitioned the church court to force his wife and her mother to pay the dowry which remained unpaid. Further acrimony built up between the three of them over the Peebles Wynd property. It had been sold but the purchaser took the trio to court concerning it. On 30 August 1535,[5][d]Ewan gives 31 August in The new biographical dictionary of Scottish women,[7] but 30 August in other accounts;[2][5] A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurents that have passed within the Country of Scotland states the penult day of August.[11] at a hearing in the central court, the decision was in favour of the buyer.[5]

On returning home to Cant’s townhouse that evening, a bitter argument broke out; the climax of the row resulted in Katherine, together with her mother and a female servant, murdering Cant.[5]

The two women were arrested; both managed to escape from custody, but were quickly recaptured.[8] The pair were convicted and sentenced to be executed on 3 September.[5] Alison was executed by drowning in Nor Loch on 3 September 1535,[8][e]Nor Loch is now Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.[8] but Katherine gained a stay of execution by pleading the belly,[f]Pleading the belly or alternatively phrased as Benefit of the belly, has been likened by academics to Benefit of clergyLegally 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.[12] as she was pregnant.[5] She was transferred to her brother’s custody who was to hold her under house arrest until she gave birth.[5]

Flight and second marriage

Following the birth of her baby – a daughter named Elizabeth – Katherine absconded to England in early 1536, abandoning the infant to the care of her brother who had probably aided the fugitive’s escape. While there she married the Scotsman, Alexander Allan,[5] a Lutheran theologian.[13][g]Alexander Allan (1500-1565), was also known by the pseudonym Alesius from around 1531;[13] he was an attendee at the University of St Andrews at the same time as Katherine’s brother.[2] Some of Alesius’ biographers mistakenly attributed Katherine’s nationality as English until she was correctly identified towards the end of the 20th century.[2]

In June 1539 Katherine’s husband was warned by his close friend Thomas Cranmer that the Act of Six Articles was about to be passed by parliament. The Act stipulated that vows of celibacy must be adhered to so would place married reformers in danger; the couple sold their possessions then travelled incognito to Germany.[13] Based in Wittenberg then Frankfurt an der Oder, where Alesius lectured in his capacity as a theological professor, they finally ended up in Leipzig in 1542,[13] where they established a family home to bring up their children.[2]

Katherine died sometime after 1565.[2] During the 1560s,[h]The ODNB entry gives a specific date of 17 June 1561[2] whereas Women’s History Magazine states 1566.[5] with the full support of Alesius, she relinquished all claims to her Scottish properties, transferring them to the ownership of her abandoned child, Elizabeth Cant.[2]




Butler, Sara M. “Pleading the Belly: A Sparing Plea? Pregnant Convicts and the Courts in Medieval England.” Crossing Borders: Boundaries and Margins in Medieval and Early Modern Britain: Essays in Honour of Cynthia J. Neville, edited by Sara M. Butler et al., Brill, 2018, pp. 131–52.
Ewan, Elizabeth. “Rough, Alison (c. 1480–1535), Merchant.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.90000369470.
Ewan, Elizabeth. “Alison Rough: A Woman’s Life and Death in Sixteenth-Century Edinburgh.” Women’s History Magazine, no. 45, Autumn 2003, pp. 4–13.
Ewan, Elizabeth. “Rough, Alison.” The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, edited by Rosemary J. Pipes et al., Edinburgh University Press, 2018, p. 372.
Holmes, N. M. McQ. Scottish Coins in the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh. Edited by Elina Screen et al., Published for the British Academy by the Oxford University Press, 2006.
Staff writer. The Real Mary King’s Close. Official Souvenir Guidebook, Continuum, 2003.
Thomson, Thomas, editor. A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurents That Have Passed within the Country of Scotland. Bannatyne Club, 1833.
Wiedermann, Gotthelf. “Alesius [Formerly Allane or Alan], Alexander, (1500-1565).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/320.