Women in medieval and early modern England were not usually independent.The law deemed that a woman once she married was covert de baron ie protected by her husband. The use of baron here simply identifies the correct natural hierarchy (don’t blame me!)
However, there were some women who broke the mould and were legally designated femme sole. These women could conduct their own business transactions and would be held responsible for their own debts. The idea developed during the thirteenth century in London. Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III, was identified as a femme sole by the law courts – meaning that she had no husband, father or brother to look after her affairs – and was treated as though she was single. This allowed Alice to buy property on her own behalf but also made her liable for any debts that she incurred and as it turned out any debts that her deceased husband might have incurred prior to his death.
Women in an urban setting were more likely to wish to carry on their husband’s trades if he pre-deceased them. There are examples of this situation within many guild books and occasionally, but not often, women with one trade marrying into another guild craft and the couple continuing about their separate businesses. And just to be clear, canon law was quite adamant that the husband in question had to give permission for his wife to continue in her old trade. This was because the concept of debt was that it belonged not to one person but to a family – thus it would be usual for the husband to become liable for his wife’s debts if her business failed (I make no comment.). Femme sole meant that the woman could trade as though she was single and the husband’s business would be legally protected.
Other circumstances might include banishment and in the case of Alice Dudley the wife of Sir Robert Dudley, illegitimate son of the Earl of Leicester – abandonment. Alice was given access to the jointure which she would have received in the event of Robert’s death and given the status of femme sole at the same time.
Needless to say there weren’t many femme soles.