Jane Ratcliffe and the life of an ‘upper middling’ woman in seventeenth-century Chester

In our Social Status Calculator Jane Ratcliffe is given as an example of a typical ‘upper middling’ woman. This blog uses the limited surviving source material to further flesh out Jane’s social and cultural life in seventeenth-century Chester.

Jane was baptised in 1587, the daughter of John Brerewood, a glover of Chester who also served as a sheriff of the city. She was the granddaughter of Robert Brerewood, an illiterate yet highly successful glover who elevated the family’s status through success in trade and local politics, becoming an alderman and three times mayor of Chester (1583-4, 1587-8, 1600-1). The Brerewoods were therefore a family on the rise. In 1607 Jane married the Chester brewer John Ratcliffe, a match that was advantageous to Jane and the Brerewood family as John Ratcliffe was a successful tradesman, as well as being an alderman, sheriff, twice mayor (1611-12, 1628-9), and elected as an MP (1620, 1628). John, along with other members of Jane’s family, was a puritan and Jane underwent her own ‘conversion’ after losing their first child. Like Lettice Green (Hannah’s blog) and middling women more generally, Jane’s status was shaped by and reflected that of her husband and male relatives, affording her a strong position in local society. [1]

However, alongside the notability of her family, Jane received recognition in her own right in the form of a printed funeral sermon written about her by the Chester preacher John Ley in 1640.[2] Ley’s text has previously been examined by Peter Lake through the lens of the puritan tradition of ‘godly lives’, who argues that it demonstrates the ways in which women could use the puritan tradition for emancipatory purposes, to forge their own identities.[3] Whilst examining certain aspects of Jane’s ‘internal life’, Lake’s focus was on Jane’s application of puritan principles to her daily life. In contrast, I want to take a more secular reading of Ley’s text and show how the text can be used to uncover more about the everyday life of a middling woman in seventeenth century Chester. Whilst not her own account and, as argued by Lake, intended as puritan propaganda, Ley’s sermon also reveals a good deal about Jane’s social and cultural world.

Title page: John Ley, A Pattern of Piety (1640) [EEBO]

Unlike her grandfather Jane was fully literate, able to both read and write. Ley attributes Jane’s learning, and her ‘sharp and vigorous wit’, to her literate father and to her ‘learned Uncle of Gresham College’, Edward Brerewood, who attended Oxford and later became a professor of astrology.[4] Literacy and education were therefore prominent aspects of this families rise to prominence in Chester and beyond. While Jane did not have the grammar school education of her uncle or her brother, who was also grammar school and university educated, she must have benefitted second hand from their books and possibly from home schooling. Whilst it has been argued that provincial women were less likely to be literate than their London counterparts and that literacy was minimal in women below the gentry, Jane Ratcliffe is an example of one middling provincial woman that was fully literate.[5] Jane’s literacy is, however, only known to us through the secondary testimonial of Ley, which demonstrates the difficulties of determining whether Jane was typical or not of her gender and status as so few personal sources survive for middling women.

For Jane, reading appears to have been a popular pastime in her daily life. Ley describes her as ‘reading good bookes’, especially the Bible, to the extent that she ‘was addicted with an incredible desire and delight’. In addition to this, Ley makes frequent reference to her ‘letters’, writing for her ‘own private use’, and her ‘private papers’, although he does admit that he had ‘trouble’ reading them as Jane’s handwriting was ‘not easily legible’. The slightly illegible hand of Jane could reflect the disparities in female literacy and training, suggesting unfamiliarity with writing or lack of sustained education. Alternatively, it could be the result of illness. Ley recalls that Jane had suffered a ‘long and sore’ illness in previous years, which had caused her jaw to fall so that ‘she could not bring it up toward the upper part of her mouth’ and generally made her ‘weake’. Despite this Jane seems to have been a frequent writer. Her writings, as described by Ley, formed a spiritual diary or commonplace book of about ‘forty leaves in octavo’, which comprised of ‘enterchange of writing and blanks wherein she ment to make additions’. Jane would ‘first setteth downe the Articles of her Faith … with pertinent proofes of scripture to every point’ before making ‘application’ of each point ‘to herselfe’. Jane’s writings are therefore reflexive of the broader trend in puritan self-writing, particularly feminine spiritual reflection. [6]

Alongside evidence of her literacy, Ley also provides us with information surrounding the materiality of Jane’s writing practices, in a reference to the ‘little desk’ where she kept her private papers. This implies that the desk belonged to Jane and was for her own private use. Margaret Ezell has shown that literate women of status often had ‘female domestic space’ reserved for literacy and Jane’s desk could represent a slightly lower status version of this, which was confined to one piece of furniture rather than the luxury of a bigger private space.[7] Although Ley only recounts her spiritual writing, it is likely that Jane’s literacy had a wider practical function for the household, educating both her ‘children and servants’, and her husband’s Brewery business, which Jane assisted him with and eventually took over after his death in 1633.

Middling women were often involved in their husband’s business and it was not uncommon for women to take over management in their widowhood. Jane is described by Ley as having assisted her husband in her ‘conjugall estate’ and had, since being widowed, governed the same business with great providence, to the extent that ‘there was good hope if death had not pulled her downe too soone that she would have built it up to a further height.’ Jane’s business acumen is evident in her frugality, positive reputation within the community, and punctuality in meeting financial obligations – qualities that have been identified as central to ‘creditworthiness’ in early modern society.[8]

Jane’s frugality is emphasised further in her ‘estrangement from sensuall delights’, including the desire not to remarry despite receiving suitable offers. Whilst Ley claims that her reluctance to remarry demonstrates her devotion to God, ‘loyalty and love to her mate’ and a desire for more time for religious devotion, it is likely that a more practical, economic reason was involved. Amy Erickson has shown that wealthy widows were less likely to remarry, as they were released from the strictures of coverture and had control over their own life and estate. [9] That Jane ordered her life differently once widowed is suggested by Ley’s description of her committing the ‘chiefe part of her estate into the hands of her servants’ in order to obtain more ‘leisure’ for herself. Those servants are most likely Charles Farrington and Thomas Chrishley, to whom Jane left bequests of £20 a piece in her will and who she hoped would ‘continue their service to my sonne Samuell in the Brewhouse or use their best endeavours to furnish him with meete servants’.[10] Jane clearly wanted to manage the brewery and could do so efficiently, only handing over the business to her son at her death, and her detailed will further demonstrates her command over her estate.

In the five years between John’s death and her own, then, Jane was a business owner and employer in her own right and had significant status in the city. Her status was reflected in her daily business practices as well as in her outward appearance, which Ley also gives us some insight into. When discussing Jane’s modesty and humility, Ley recounted an incident he witnessed in the Ratcliffe house in which John Ratcliffe bought a new dress for his wife. According to Ley, the dress left Jane conflicted between her pious modesty and wish to obey her husband, as it was costly and made ‘her more fine than she desired to be’. In the end Jane chose to obey her husband and wear the dress, which Ley commended her for. Lake has emphasised the contrasting aims of this passage, which on the one hand serves as an example of the ‘obligation to obey’ a husband that was ‘propagated by puritan writers’, but on the other was framed to ‘illustrate [Jane’s] freedom from the usual feminine vice of vanity’ and show that her worth rested on ‘criteria other than those of mere feminine grace, outward appearance and comeliness.’ Lake also pointed out that this conflict took place in front of an ‘audience’, with Ley as the spectator who ‘served both to frame and strengthen’ her response to her husband.

However, there is another aspect to this discussion that Lake does not discuss, which can tell us more about dress, status, and social life in early-seventeenth-century Chester. Ley goes on to state that as well as submitting to her husband’s will, ‘the habit was no better than others of her ranke did weare’ or even those who ‘were inferiours unto her’. Indeed, even when Jane was widowed and ‘loosed from the law of her husband’ she did not wear ‘meaner raiment’, as the dress she had was ‘suitable to the place shee held in the City’ and she feared it being ‘imputed either to singularitie or nigardice, to have come too much below the condition wherein she was placed’. That Jane saw her appearance and dress as significant, and that her belongings were of some value, is suggested in her will, in which she specifically bequeaths jewellery and clothing to her two daughters. She bequeaths her ‘chaine of gould and one ring with a little stone in it’ to her daughter Jane, and her ‘two best suites of wearing apparrell with six suites of my best lynen wearing apparrell’ to her younger daughter Mary. Therefore, it was not just her obedience to her husband, her desire to be pious, or even to reflect her social status as a wife that made Jane dress in such a way. It was also her status as an independent woman and widow in Chester and how this was communicated outwardly that was important.

Ley also gives us some insight into Jane’s social life and cultural pursuits in Chester. As a young woman, before her ‘conversion’, Ley describes Jane as enjoying ‘dauncing, stage plaies, and other Publique vanities’ that he associated with youth culture (‘according to the fashion of young folkes’). He also states that such entertainments used to be ‘well thought of’ and ‘acted in the Church’, demonstrating the changing role of the Protestant church in Chester’s social calendar. Although Jane no longer took part in these cultural pursuits, she did have an active social life in Chester that consisted primarily of a circle of ‘female friends’. Later in the text, Ley relates reasons why Jane welcomed death that were supposedly written by her, one being that she did ‘daily suffer the losse of my friends who were the companions of my life, and meanes of much contentment unto mee’. Female friendship and sociability therefore appear to have been central to Jane’s daily life and of great importance to her.

As well as sociability with female friends, Ley was a regular visitor at the Ratcliffe’s house. He described his ‘often recourse’ there and remarked that he was ‘daily entertained for my diet when I was in towne’. Jane also made a visit to London ‘every other yeare’ as ‘performance of her promise made to her daughter’ upon her marriage to a London citizen. This reveals the close nature of familial relations and how kin maintained contact over long distances, as well as suggesting a tradition of visiting other cities for leisure and sociability. It was during one of these visits that Jane Ratcliffe passed away in 1638, hence why her will was proved in London and not in Chester. While Jane survived the earlier illness that affected the movement of her face, she was later struck by a sickness causing ‘certaine fits or traunces’ that ‘left her at last unable to speake or move’.

In the final sections of Ley’s text, he highlights the link between Jane Ratcliffe and her home city of Chester. Middling families like the Brerewoods and Ratcliffes were heavily involved in their civic environment as owners of property, members of their respective trade guilds, and officeholders in local government. However, the civic identity and prominence of these families is more often focused on their male members. Ley’s account is interesting for the emphasis he places on Jane as a ‘citizen’ in her own right, who was not only a comfort and friend to private individuals but in ‘every way so good, so assiduous and important a petitioner for both the publique welfare of the Church and state’. Through her charity she had ‘beene a good Benefactresse’ and possessed ‘a good Name and reputation in the world’, to the extent that Ley believed the city should be honoured that she was ‘borne’ and ‘brought up in it’ and remained ‘a Citizen of it well towards 50 yeares together’. Therefore, alongside her religious zeal, Ley paints Jane as an ideal citizen of a city commonwealth who upheld the moral, social, and economic values of early modern Chester.

Although not in her own words and written by Ley with an agenda to edify her fellow citizens, the sermon does provide us with a good account of Jane Ratcliffe’s life. Without it, Jane’s life, in contrast to that of her male family members, would be largely untraceable and confined solely to her role as wife and mother. Whilst this blog has only been concerned with Jane Ratcliffe, her life could reflect or resonate with the lives of many other middling women of this period.

By Mabel Winter


[1] For more on the Brerewood family see: D. M. Woodward, ‘The Chester Leather Industry, 1558-1625’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 119 (1967), pp. 65-111.

[2] John Ley, A Pattern of Piety. Or the Religious life and death of that Grave and gracious Matron, Mrs Jane Ratcliffe Widow and Citizen of Chester (London, 1640).

[3] Peter Lake, ‘Feminine Piety and Personal Potency: The ‘Emancipation of Mrs Jane Ratcliffe’, The Seventeenth Century 2 (1987), pp. 143-165.

[4] Thompson Cooper, revised by Anita McConnell, ‘Brerewood, Edward (c. 1565-1613)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/3335 [accessed 13 April 2021].

[5] David Cressy, Literacy and the Social order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 1980), particularly chapters 6 and 7; Eleanor Hubbard argues for greater literacy than Cressy, but still claims less in the provinces than her London sample: ‘Reading, Writing, and Initialing: Female Literacy in Early Modern London’, The Journal of British Studies 54 (2015), pp. 553-577.

[6] Andrew Cambers, ‘Reading, the Godly, and Self-Writing in England, circa 1580–1720’, Journal of British Studies 46 (2007), pp. 796-825; Michael P. Winship, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America (Yale, 2018).

[7] Margaret Ezell, ‘Women and Writing’ in Anita Pacheco (ed.) A Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing (2002), pp. 79-80.

[8] Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 1998), especially pp. 123-128.

[9] Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), p. 196.

[10] TNA: PROB 11/179/116.

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