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The Elizabethan Civil Service, or If at First You Don’t Succeed, Get Up and Petition Again

British bureaucracy is under constant scrutiny, from the public, the press, and even the government itself. Yet administrative paperwork and systems of protocol have a long history that underpins the growth of the modern capitalist economy and the communities who sustained it. The individuals who drove the bureaucratic revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which witnessed the significant growth of English towns, were not monarchs or famous statesmen but literate middling men who possessed the necessary skills and networks to facilitate it.

Of particular importance were civic clerks. These individuals were responsible for writing out and filing legal documents and recording the minutes of civic assemblies. Whilst the professional role of town clerk is well recorded and the individuals traceable, the lives of under-clerks are often obscure. Although their work is preserved in myriad town documents, there is often little trace of the man behind the hand. Chester’s Hugh Dod was one such clerk for whom information can be found, and as such provides an interesting case study of the life of a professional scribe and lower civic official.

Dod is traceable through a series of petitions he entered throughout his lifetime to the civic authority of Chester in pursuit of a position in one of the city’s legal courts. As the Power of Petitioning Project has shown, although early modern petitions could take a variety of forms, in essence they were handwritten documents from an individual or group to a particular authority, requesting that a specific action be granted or carried out. In short, they were a means for inferiors to appeal to superiors, seeking a positive change to their present circumstances. Petitions were usually written up by a scrivener or scribe, so as a clerk Dod would have been familiar with the form and structure of a petition. Additionally, as he worked in civic government himself, he would also have known how to get a petition heard at the assembly. Only two of Dod’s original petitions survive but accounts of the others are found in the city’s assembly books, which record the minutes of meetings of the civic officials of Chester.

The surviving petitions are written out formally and addressed to the mayor, recorder, justices of the peace, aldermen, sheriffs, sheriff peers, and common council of Chester. The language used by Dod is deferential, ‘earnestlie desiringe’ preferment and the ‘favourable consente and allowances’ of the assembly. To further his case for preferment, he emphasizes certain ‘losses’ he has sustained in ‘labouringe meanes’ to obtain letters from his friends and patrons who wrote in support of his petition, demonstrating an impressive network of influential associates. However, networks and technical skill do not guarantee that a petition will be successful. Despite being literate, skilled, and well connected, Dod’s life was characterized by precarity. His position as a clerk clearly did not afford him the lifestyle he sought and as a result he was constantly petitioning for higher, and more permanent, employment.

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies: ZML/6/57, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1611, records in the Cheshire Record Office are reproduced with the permission of Cheshire Archives & Local Studies and the owner/depositor to whom copyright is reserved.

Dod first appears in the civic records in 1592, when his petition to be an attorney in the courts of Portmote and Pentice in Chester was considered by the assembly and deferred. The petition was either not considered again or rejected, as Dod put in another petition in 1594 to be an attorney in the same courts, which was also rejected. Dod then waited 12 years before entering another petition in 1606, in which he is described as a scrivener and petitioned the city to be made an attorney in the court of records. The petition reveals that Dod had previously served as an under-clerk in the Pentice, which was the town hall and court room in Chester for the local courts, and was looking to sidestep into another career, one in which he had no formal training. Instead, he claimed to have been ‘broughte upp under mr Knight late Clarke of the Pentice’ and ‘experimented in the premisses’. Dod had served under William Knight, who was Clerk of the Pentice from 1569 to 1600, for 17 years presumably at the end of Knight’s life, which would date his service to 1583-1600. Dod appears not to have had any prior legal training or education at a university of Inn of Court; he probably had a grammar school education. However, his training or experience as a scrivener meant that he would have been familiar with a range of legal documents. Nonetheless this informal legal apprenticeship did not satisfy the assembly and Dod’s petition was denied.

Five years later Dod petitioned the city once again. The petition from 1611 survives in the Chester archives. In it Dod claims that he had ‘the experience of a Scrivernor within the said Citie’ for the past 18 years and had throughout this period been ‘wanting sufficient preferment whereby to mentaine him selfe and his femely’. According to a manuscript written by Dod himself, clerks in Chester received a set fee of 8 pence per page for drawing up and entering of every sheet containing 14 lines in the court of Pentice and Portmote where Dod worked as an under-clerk. Professional scribes like Dod regularly earnt money outside of the courts writing up documents for private individuals, who lacked either the literacy or skill to draw up documents themselves. Indeed, Dod appears as a notary on various wills, indentures, and assignments in Chester in the period 1600-1640. However, Dod clearly believed that his earnings were not enough and requested a greater and more steady wage as an attorney in the common law courts of Chester.

For his 1611 petition, Dod did not just rely on his own protestations of experience but provided letters of recommendation from Sir Rogert Aston, Sir John Salusbury, and Thomas Ireland, who all presented their ‘harty commendacions’ to the mayor on behalf of Dod. All three men were well connected lawyers and courtiers. Aston was a courtier and Master of the Great Wardrobe to King James I, Salusbury was Esquire of the Body (a personal attendant) to Elizabeth I and a lawyer, and Thomas Ireland was a lawyer who later became the vice chamberlain of the Exchequer court of Chester. The exact relationship Dod had with these three individuals is difficult to ascertain. The letters from Salusbury and Ireland are quite standard letters of recommendation and include no specific information about Dod himself. The letter by Aston, however, further recounted Dod’s qualifications stating that he had been clerk under Knight and had ‘dwelled in the saide Citty’ ever since, suggesting that Dod did not hail from Chester originally. Dod had, Aston claimed, behaved himself ‘verie honestly’ in his role as a scrivener and ‘in respecte of his saide longe tyme of service’ was able ‘to discharge the duty of an attorney at the Comon Lawe’. Aston therefore desired the city to place him as such ‘the better to maineteyne himself when hee shall growe into further yeares’. Despite the letters Dod’s petition was again thought ‘not fit to be graunted’ and ‘utterly denied unto him.’

The votes of the assembly have been jotted down by another hand at the side of his petition on the same page and show that only 1 person voted in favour of the petition against 35 rejections. The decision by the assembly appears to have rested solely on Dod’s education. However, as Christopher Brooks has shown, to be an attorney did not require formal legal training at the Inns of Court but was more commonly learnt through apprenticeship. Either the assembly’s rejection of Dod was due to the fact he had not served his ‘apprenticeship’ under an attorney, or their decision rested on a personal issue not recorded in the assembly book.

Detail of CALS: ZML/6/57

A man of habit, Hugh Dod waited another five years before petitioning the city again in 1616. This time Dod played his trump card. He produced a letter from King James himself recommending his ‘welbeloved Subject Hughe Dod’ to an office in the courts of Chester due to the ‘acceptable service’ Dod had carried out ‘in writeinge of sundrie Instructions for the Ayde due for our deereste daughter the Lady Elizabeth’. In a further letter to the mayor Dod stated that his letter from the king proved that he ‘deserveth to be admitted’ to a position in the courts or, if he ‘happen to survive’ the incumbent William Hockenhull, to have the office of Serjeant in reversion. Despite Dod having friends in high places, his petition was once again refused, and he remained in his position as an under-clerk in the Pentice.

Dod’s situation may have improved slightly in 1627 when the current Clerk of the Pentice, Robert Brerewood, was suspended from office for negligence. It was thereby ordered, on 20 February 1627, that mayor Nicholas Ince ‘put in some fitting clerke or clerkes to execute the said place and office’ whilst Brerewood was suspended and to ‘take into his Custodye the Bookes and records of the said Office and of the Severall courts within the said Citty’. The name of the chosen individual is not recorded in the assembly book, but a manuscript written by Hugh Dod reveals that it was he who was appointed. In an account of the freemen admitted in Chester in the year 1626/7 Dod recorded that he ‘was admitted by the said Nicholas Ince in the tyme of his maioralty to write in the office of Pentice during the sequestracion thereof’. Despite his lack of formal training and prior rejections of legal office, the city was clearly happy to let Dod take on this significant role, albeit not as a permanent appointment. Clerks of the Pentice were not required to have formal legal training, although the two of the previous incumbents, Robert Whitby and Robert Brerewood, were both Inns of Court men, and the post had been filled previously by William Knight, Dod’s own patron, and Thomas Whitby who had both served apprenticeships. Therefore, Dod’s experience and training meant he had the experience needed to take up the role of temporary Clerk of the Pentice but did not possess the skills necessary for a more permanent office as an attorney.

After 11 months of sequestration a new Clerk of the Pentice, Richard Littler, was appointed and Dod was once again seeking employment. He petitioned the city one final time in 1631, requesting that in light of his service to the city, which included him writing up an official list of legal fees for the city, he deserved to be admitted to a legal office. Dod was never granted an office as an attorney and next appears in the civic records in 1636 when he petitions for an almsroom – charitable accommodation for the poor – in Chester, which had recently become available and was being allocated via ‘lott or ballettinge’. Ironically, this was Dod’s only successful petition. Dod retained the room until his death in 1639.

Dod’s petitions offer an insight into the life and career of an early modern civic clerk, a position that required literacy and a specific skill set that could be acquired through a form of apprenticeship. However, similar to being self-employed or working freelance today, Dod’s work as a clerk and professional scribe also required a certain amount of self-promotion and trading on his reputation to attract business. As such, his earnings were not set or secure and he clearly did not earn enough to support himself or his family. His skills were constantly deemed ‘not fit’ by the civic council to sidestep into the career of an attorney despite his experience and letters of recommendation. This suggests that whilst education, literacy, and patronage were important for social mobility, the exact set of skills acquired and how they had been obtained also mattered. As a result, Dod’s life was characterized by petitioning and precarity, and his social mobility and career progression were hampered by his lack of specialised education.

Mabel Winter

Sources

BL: Harl MS 1944, f. 115

BL: Harl MS 2020 and 2082: A catalogue of the Harleian manuscripts, in the British Museum. With indexes of persons, places, and matters : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

CALS: ZAB/1, Assembly Book,

CALS: ZAB/2, Assembly Book,

CALS: ZM/AB/1, Apprenticeship Registers, f.27

CALS: ZML/6/57, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1611

CALS: ZML/6/58, Letter of Roger Aston, 1610

CALS: ZML/6/59, Letter of Thomas Ireland and John Salisbury

CALS: ZML/6/108, Letter from the King, 1616

CALS: ZML/6/112, Letter from Hugh Dod to Mayor Thomas Thropp, 1616

CALS: ZA/F/11/43, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1620

J. H. E. Bennett, The Rolls of the Freemen of the City of Chester, Part 1, 1392-1700, The Record Society for the Publication of Original Documents Relating to Lancashire and Cheshire Vol. 51 (1906)

Christopher Brooks, ‘Professions, Ideology and the Middling Sort in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries’, in Jonathan Barry and Christopher Brooks (eds) The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550-1800 (Basingstoke, 1994)

Famarez Dabhoiwala, ‘Writing Petitions in Early Modern England’, in Michael J. Braddick and Joanna Innes (eds), Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations: A collection to honour Paul Slack (2017)

Robert Tittler, Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community c.1500-1640 (Oxford, 1991)

Keith Wrightson, Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City and the Plague (New Haven, 2011)

Power of Petitioning, The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England (history.ac.uk)

Blog Post: Petitions in Early Modern England: A Very Short Introduction – The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England (history.ac.uk)

History of Parliament, SALUSBURY, Sir John (c.1565-1612), of Lleweni, Denb. | History of Parliament Online

History of Parliament, IRELAND, Thomas (1560-1625), of Bewsey Hall, Warrington, Lancs and Gray’s Inn, London | History of Parliament Online

History of Parliament, ASTON, Sir Roger (-d.1612), of Edinburgh and Cranfold, Mdx. | History of Parliament Online

Immigration, Travel, and Social Mobility: TIDE and Middling Culture Case Studies

We are thrilled to host a blog written by members of the TIDE project. TIDE investigates “how mobility in the great age of travel and discovery shaped English perceptions of human identity based on cultural identification and difference.” The following profiles, written by Lauren Working, Emily Stevenson, and Tom Roberts, use our Status Calculator to think through immigrant experience and merchant travel in the period, reflecting on our categories and considering how middling identity fits with nationhood, travel, and social mobility.

A She-Jesuit in Spitalfields (Luisa de Carvajal), by Lauren Working

Turkey Merchant’s Daughter (Joan Staper), by Emily Stevenson

An Englishmen in Italian (John Florio), by Tom Roberts

A She-Jesuit in Spitalfields

By Lauren Working 

How will the Social Status Calculator place a noblewoman who renounced her wealth, took a vow of poverty and perfection, moved to a new country, and pitted herself against Protestant authority in London? Meet Luisa de Carvajal, a Spanish woman who arrived in London in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, intent on bringing the English back into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. 

What is your gender?

Female 

Do you have a title?

No

Carvajal was born into a noble family, but she was orphaned at the age of six. She took a vow of poverty before she moved to London, and never married. 

Do you have a coat of arms?

No

Can you write?

I write regularly, though not just for professional/trade purposes.

Carvajal left a spiritual autobiography, mystic poetry, and dozens of letters to prominent English and Spanish Catholics. Her opinions on London and the royal family were particularly scathing. ‘In my opinion’, she wrote to her friend Inés de la Asunción in 1607, ‘only to please God can one tolerate living here’. She called James I’s daughter, Elizabeth, an ‘ignorant slip of a girl’ and ‘the boy prince’ Charles as ‘a nasty little so-and-so in matters of religion’. 

What property do you own?

I rent property and do not own any.

This is a bit misleading since Carvajal grew up in an aristocratic home. She inherited wealth and engaged in a sustained legal battle against her brother for her inheritance in the 1590s. When she won, however, she donated the money to the Society of Jesus. In London, she wrote with pride about living in poverty in a house in Spitalfields, where she and her ‘warrior maidens’ made ends meet by making gold embroidery thread, typically used in Spain for religious vestments. She also created relics made from the bodies of executed priests, preserving their bodies in her household in East London and sending them to various patrons and clients in gold and silver boxes.

What is the main thing you do to earn a living?

James I himself referred to Carvajal as a ‘foreigner’ and a ‘spinster’, but I am going to go with, I work in a profession, such as a lawyer/academic/clergyman/writer/clerk. Carvajal had a profound sense of religious vocation, which she devoted her life to while choosing not to become a nun. 

What positions of office or authority have you held?

I hold a position in a stranger church and/or hold an influential place among immigrant craftspeople. 

Technically, Carvajal didn’t hold office. But she firmly believed her misión de Inglaterra was conferred onto her by God, connecting her evangelism to missions happening in other parts of the world. As a result, she possessed a keen sense of divinely-appointed authority. ‘In the session of the Council of State’, Carvajal wrote to the Duke of Lerma, the Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbot had brought forth the accusation that ‘I have brought many Protestants to my religion by means of persuasion’.

How much are you worth?

I’m going to tick the lowest amount, under £20, though this is reflects Carvajal’s wealth in London, rather than her upbringing in Pamplona, Valladolid, and Madrid. 

What is your living situation most comparable to?

I have some furnishings including a table, some stools, and some earthen pots; I have tools for my trade; I have just enough to get by some months and plenty in other months; if I get ill then I will need to depend on charity. All of my furniture is old and inherited and I cannot afford to buy any new pieces. 

When Carvajal was arrested in 1608, she used her shabby clothes as evidence of her commitment to the cause, recording that during the interrogation ‘my sleeve, on which all the light was falling, had a mended spot or two showing, and on my head was a ragged black taffeta’. 

Credit in the community

I struggle to get by through my work and am dependent on charity.

Carvajal’s charity came from high places, and she was well-connected, having access to the households of Catholic ambassadors in London. She also provided some relief to imprisoned Catholics before their execution, offering to pray with them and bringing them pear tarts. 

What kind of people are in your close social circle?

The lord/lady of the manor; a lawyer, town or court clerk, an author, a clergyman; other tradesmen or shopkeepers in my locale or their wives; other servants who work in the houses on my street; financially secure wives and widows.

Carvajal interacted with a range of men, women, and children from different social statuses. She learned English with the help of two ‘ladies form the land’ and offered spiritual guidance to prominent English Catholics. Once comfortable with the language, she publicly preached in the streets of London. She visited priests in prison, ambassadors, and complained about the ‘false bishop’ Abbot and other Jacobean councillors who sought to restrict her efforts to convert. She also corresponded with high-ranking courtiers in Spain, including Philip III’s favourite, the Duke of Lerma.

Status…

Professional middling 

The calculator has placed Carvajal as ‘professional middling’, ‘defined by your high level of literacy’. This seems accurate in terms of the kinds of connections and spaces that Carvajal moved through: a kind of ‘golden mean’ between her aristocratic upbringing and her fervent rejection of wealth and comfort in the second half of her life. It places due emphasis, too, on her strong sense of vocation through her spiritual work, including her language-learning skills. But this useful exercise also raises attention to what thrums beneath social categorization, from the influence of personal choice (in this case, downward mobility) to the way migrant women sought to find a place in drastically different environments from those they called home. 

Bibliography

Anne J. Cruz, The Life and Writings of Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza (Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2014)

The Letters of Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza, Volume I, ed. Glyn Redworth (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012)

Glyn Redworth, The She-Apostle: The Extraordinary Life and Death of Luisa de Carvajal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

This Tight Embrace: Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza (1566 – 1614), ed. Elizabeth Rhodes (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2000)

 Portrait of Luisa Carvajal y Mendoza, c. after 1614, printed by Juan de Courbes

The Turkey Merchant’s Daughter

By Emily Stevenson

Joan Staper was born on 24 November 1570 at 6:30 pm to Richard and Dionis Staper. Her father, one of the most important English merchants in the sixteenth century, was deeply invested — financially and personally — in the Anglo-Levant trade, which brought vast quantities of luxury goods into England. Her mother was a member of another mercantile family, the Hewitts, and Joan would make a similar mercantile marriage to Nicholas Lete, another merchant involved in the Levant trade.

In many respects, Joan’s life was entirely typical of her social circle, atypical only in that an unusual number of details — such as the exact time of her birth — have been preserved. These details are recorded thanks to her many visits to Simon Forman and Richard Napier between 1597 and 1622.[1] Joan’s visits addressed a wide range of questions including: whether she was pregnant, whether her husband’s ship was likely to return soon, whether her daughter could be convinced to marry her mother’s choice of spouse, and which member of her household had stolen her wedding ring. These records give us access to a level of quotidian detail which makes it possible to place Joan on the calculator.

Do you have a coat of arms/Where did you get this coat of arms?

Yes, I was awarded it in my lifetime

Both her husband and father had coats of arms: Lete’s were awarded in 1616 and Staper’s appear on his monument in St Helen’s Bishopsgate, apparently awarded during his lifetime.[2]

Can you write?

I can write, but little writing in my hand survives

Joan was able to write, evidenced by a note in the Casebooks that ‘Mres Leate sent […] a letter in the behalf of her daughter [J]ane who hath for this twelfemonthe bene troubled w[ith] a swelling’.[3] There is, however, no other known evidence of Joan’s ability to write, nor extant examples of her writing.

What property do you own/What is the main thing you do to earn a living/ What positions of office or authority have you held?

I own and/or lease the building/rooms I live in/I live by the finances of my husband (but that doesn’t mean I don’t do any work!)/I have never held office

Joan lived by the finances of first her father, then her husband in property that the men owned and, typically for a woman, never held local office. 

How much are you worth?

£500+

The exact details of Joan’s finances are difficult to ascertain, since she does not seem to have left a will. From her husband’s will (written after her death, since Joan is not mentioned), they appear to have been wealthy without living extravagantly. He left 1000 marks in 1631 to each of their three daughters: this comes to around £666 each (according to the National Archives Currency Convertor), which places the family well over the £500+ limit.

What is your living situation most comparable to?

I have a very large home […]

The absence of Joan’s will makes this question difficult to answer, and her husband’s will divides the estate equally between his sons without any specific mention of items. One exception is the portrait of Nicholas ‘in oyle colour’ given by their sons after his death to the Ironmongers’ company, ‘to remain in the Hall as a remembrance of their dear deceased father’.[4] The artist is not named in the records, suggesting that they were a local rather than immigrant artist. There are similar glancing references to luxury goods in the Casebooks: Joan gave Napier ‘succet & a night cap of silke’ brought back by her husband’s ships in return for his services.[5] There is no indication, however, of the family acting as literary patrons, while Nicholas’ failure to apportion expensive items such as furniture or fabrics amongst his children suggests that this was not where the Lete family invested their wealth. The second category — ‘I have a very large home […]’ — thus seems the most fitting.

Credit in the Community: which statement is comparable to your situation?

I have a fair amount of spare money to spend at my leisure

Joan’s level of financial credit is unclear: something between ‘a fair amount of spare money’ and the ability to ‘spend at will’. The constant anxiety regarding ships expressed in the Forman and Napier casebooks suggests that it would be more accurate to err towards the former, as a considerable amount of capital was tied up in ships and ventures.

What kind of people are in your close social circle?

Prominent tradesmen and their wives [OR] Financially secure wives and widows [OR] Wealthy merchants or their wives

Joan’s social circle definitely included the wives of prominent tradesmen, wealthy merchants and financially secure wives and widows — many of them related to her. 

Status…

Upper Middling

The social status calculator, using these answers, places Joan in the ‘Upper Middling’ category. This tracks with her family’s level of wealth and their social status, and also usefully recognises that though merchants held considerable influence, it was not necessarily through inheritance such as a title or land. Joan’s marriage to Nicholas Lete is one example of a common way in which wealthy mercantile families attempted to circumvent this issue: her sisters made similar marriages, all serving to embed the Staper family deeper into the web of London’s mercantile family networks and ensuring the continuation of their influence after the death of their patriarch. 

Using the calculator for Joan also highlights some of the difficulties of tracking the social mobility of mercantile women in the period. Though the most personal facts — when was she born, whether she could write, what she worried about — are available to us thanks to the records of her conversations with Napier, questions of finance and property are more difficult to answer because Joan was financially dependent on male figures all her life and did not leave a will. Her level of personal choice in these matters is impossible to know, since it was not recorded, and there lies a tension in trying to fit facts to answers when Joan’s presence is only inferred. Social mobility was vital to Joan’s social role — and for other merchant women as well — and this fluidity also means that her social status at the end of her life may have been different to its beginning, making the calculator result primarily significant for her later years. It remains a useful exercise, however, with the ‘Upper Middling’ category recognising the importance of gaining and maintaining social status for such merchants, as well as the potentially meteoric changes in fortune resulting from participation in England’s growing trade networks.

An Englishman in Italian

by Tom Roberts

How will the Social Status Calculator place a London-born son of Italians and self-described ‘Englishman in Italiane’? Meet John Florio, the linguist, translator, and celebrated translator of Montaigne whose career as England’s champion for Italian cultural consumption brought him from the cramped lodgings of a French silkweaver to the Privy Chamber. 

What is your gender?

Male

Do you have a title like Sir, Duke, Duchess, Princess, etc.?

No

Do you have a coat of arms?

Yes

A marigold with the sun in chief. 

Can you write?

I write regularly, though not just for professional/trade purposes

Writing was of course central to John’s career and reputation, but it was not a primary source of income in a commercial sense. His early printed Italian dual language manuals were as much (unsuccessful) attempts to secure patronage as they were functional language learning materials for an expanding middling sort with Italianate tastes. Whilst some works of translation carried out in the 1580s can be said to have been commercially driven, and his employment as reader in Italian and private secretary to Queen Anne would have involved writing and translating correspondence, John’s more distinguished and celebrated works of translation and lexicography were not financially viable in the commercial world of print, and instead required the support of wealthy and often aristocratic patrons.

What property do you own?

I own and/or lease several buildings in the community I live in

[OR]

I rent property and do not own any

The dramatic change in John’s fortunes throughout his life make this question difficult to answer. What we know of John’s property comes from his will in 1626, seven years after the death of his patron Queen Anne and the loss of his position at court, when he lived in a leased property in Fulham valued at around £6 per annum. However, it seems likely that he would have owned other properties during his more prosperous years that were then sold when the family fell on hard times. 

What is the main thing you do to earn a living?

I work in a profession, such as a lawyer/academic/clergyman/writer/clerk/doctor

We can say with confidence that John worked in a profession, albeit a poorly defined one with no concrete training programme. Whilst in Oxford in the early 1580s, he worked as a tutor in Italian to interested students, although without an official university position. Returning to London in 1583, he taught Italian to the daughter of the French Ambassador, Michel de Castelnau, and translated several news items dispatched from Rome whilst possibly in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham. As he became connected to those prominent Inns of Court men and intellectuals in the circle of Sir Philip Sidney, John caught the attention of the Earl of Southampton and the Countess of Bedford, who he tutored from the early 1590s. This financed both his first Italian/English dual language manual in 1578, and his celebrated translation of Montaigne’s Essays in 1603. Both this work and his reputation as England’s leading expert in all things Italian brough him into the orbit of Queen Anne, and the following year he was appointed her private secretary and Groom of Privy Chamber. This position came with a yearly pension, which had risen to £100 by the Queen’s death in 1619.

What positions of office or authority have you held?

I work for the government of the country (I advise the Queen, I am the chancellor or I am in charge of a royal department)

Groom of the Privy Chamber, Reader in Italian, and Private Secretary to Queen of Anne.

How much are you worth?

I don’t know

This really depends on what point in John’s life we are focusing on. Although we have some sense of his worth between 1604 and 1619, he had little financial security either side of this period. Arriving in London a migrant with no family or friends in the city, the 1570s and early 1580s were marred by poverty and unsuccessful attempts to secure patronage. As he became well acquainted with the intellectual circles around Oxford, the Inns of Court, and the French Embassy, he found relatively steady employment as a language tutor and translator. How much this paid is unclear, although he relied heavily on the generosity of Nicholas Saunders, a gentleman from Surrey, for several years before eventually coming to the attention of Southampton and Bedford. Patronage was of course an unreliable income, and even the stability he attained under Queen Anne would not last. Following the Queen’s death in 1619, the pension of £100 per annum that she had reportedly promised John was denied by the Lord Treasurer. Over the next few years, his fortunes steadily worsened until his death from plague in 1626. 

Few material possessions are listed in John’s will – he bequeaths his daughter, Aurelia, her deceased mother’s wedding ring, which was regrettably the only thing of any value he had to give by ‘reason of my poverty’. This was not strictly true. He had collected some ‘Three hundred and Fortie’ Italian, French, and Spanish language books by his death, which he bequeathed William, Earl of Pembroke, to place in his library at Wilton or Baynards Castle as a ‘token of my service and affection’. He also left Pembroke a curious jewel described as a ‘Corinne stone’, gifted to his late benefactor the Queen by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Duke of Tuscany. He also kept several other items items gifted him by his former employer, including a ‘Faire blacke velvet deske, embroidered with seede pearles, and with a silver and guilt inkehorne and dust box therin’, which he left to his son-in-law, James Mollins; and two ‘oule greene velvett deske with a silver inke and dust box in each of them’, which he gifted to his ‘much esteemed, dearely beloved, & truly honest good Friends’ Theophilius Field, Bishop of Landaffe, and Dr Richard Cluet, vicar of Fulham. 

There was clearly some financial dispute between John and Aurelia. She claimed he owed them ‘threescore pound’, although John claimed that ‘my conscience telleth mee, & soe knoweth her conscience, it is by Thirty Foure pound or therabouts’, plus a separate loan from James of £10 for which two gold rings encased with thirteen diamonds (another gift from the Queen) was given up as collateral. John proposed that they accept the rings, which ‘I might many tymes have had forty pounds readie money’, several other items, and the lease of his house in Shoe Lane as payment. 

What is your living situation comparable to?

I’m young; live in accommodation owned by my employer, college or inn; I am starting to build up things pertinent to my trade; I’m always learning. 

[OR]

I have lots of tools/items in order to work my living; a stock of materials to use in my trade; some joined furniture including one or two special pieces with carving; perhaps a servant and an apprentice

Again, the answer depends entirely on the period. If he was the ‘Jhon Flehan’ residing with the French silkweaver Michael Barnyard in the parish of St James Garlick Hythe in November 1571, he would have lived in overcrowded conditions with many other strangers from the continent when he first arrived back in England. He appears to have secured the resources and connections to print his first dual language manual, Florio his first fruites, in 1578, although he failed to spark the interest of the dedicatee, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and a few years later he’s found residing in presumably meagre quarters in Oxford as a language tutor. From 1583, he resided in the house of the French Ambassador on the Strand. We can assume that his living situation changed after he came to the attention of the Southampton and the Countess of Bedford, and his £100 per annum salary under Queen Anne to the Queen would have given him the means to live an exceptionally comfortable lifestyle. Whether he purchased a property is unknown, and dependent on whether he was considered ‘native-English’ in the eyes of the law. He claimed English identity, but it’s likely that both his parents were first generation migrants, in which case John was, in the best-case scenario (legally speaking), a denizen. This meant that he had certain limited rights, including the right to lease property, sell merchandise, and inherit/bequeath property. Owning land or properties freehold, however, was restricted to the natural-born English.

In any case, he resided at a leased property in Fulham with his second wife Rose and servant Arthur until his death, surrounded by the tools of his trade: hundreds of books and three separate writing desks. 

Credit in the Community: which statement is comparable to your situation?

I have some spare money, have the ability to borrow on credit, and can spend and take risks

[OR]

I don’t know/none of these

Clearly a man in the employ of the Queen had some standing amongst creditors, although John would often allude to anti-stranger hostility from the English throughout his work. He was also known to butt heads with others at court, and feared that some of these adversaries would discourage the Earl of Pembroke from supporting Rose after his death, pleading in his will that the Lord Chamberlain ‘not suffer her to be wrongfully molested by any enemi of myne’. For whatever reason, Pembroke’s support was not forthcoming, and other, later friendships and associations proved equally fickle. His ‘true honest good Friends’, Field and Cluet, refused his request to act as executors of his estate, and the responsibility reverted back to Rose. It is worth noting, however, that despite his professed poverty, he had no creditors worth naming in his will apart from his daughter and son-in-law.

What kind of people are in your close social circle? (check all that apply) 

The lord/lady of the manor

[OR]

A lawyer, town or court clerk, an author, an academic, a physician, a clergyman or their wives

[OR]

Students at universities or the inns of court

[OR]

Other tradesmen or shopkeepers in my locale or their wives

[OR]

Wealthy merchants or their wives

Florio interacted with a range of men and women from different social statuses. He was, of course, employed by the Queen and acquainted with senior statesmen; he was patronised by well-respected families in the shires, and aided proto colonialist through works of translation. He caroused with Inns of Court men, a close friend of the Welsh preacher Matthew Gwinne and the poet, Samuel Daniels, marrying his sister in 1580. Ben Jonson gifted a copy of his 1605 play, Volpone, in which he referred to Florio and ‘his Loving Friend … the ayde of his Muses’. He maintained correspondences with renegade recusants, like Theodore Diodati, exchanged ideas with heretical ex-Dominicans, like the cosmologist Giordano Bruno, and was acquainted with London’s community of wealthy Italian merchants and financiers.  

Status…

Profession-al Middling

The calculator has placed Florio as ‘professional middling’. He possessed a ‘high level of literacy’, was exceptionally mobile, and relied on his ‘social networks with the landed gentry, urban gentry, and middling officeholders’. It was a difficult task as John’s fortunes changed greatly over the course of his life, and he did not, as did many his contemporaries, set up shop in London teaching Italian to aspiring courtiers, and English to resident Italian merchants, but navigated his way through the English social hierarchy by forging a place for himself at a prominent intersection – the interest in and admiration for Italian culture. Strikingly, it suggests that if property ownership factors into our assessments of social status, we inevitably exclude a substantial number of first- and second-generation migrants who were exceedingly wealthy and well connected, but unable to own property freehold. For Florio in particular, who capitalised on his Italian heritage to assert his authority as London’s preeminent advocate for Italian language and culture, difference meant both his exclusion from traditional social and economic systems and his inclusion in a vast intellectual network that resulted in a singularly impressive career.

Bibliography

‘Will of John Florio of Fulham’, 1 June 1626, TNA, PROB 11/149/289

Florio, John, Florio his firste fruites which yeelde familiar speech, merie prouerbes, wittie sentences, and golden sayings (London, 1578; STC (2nd ed.) / 4699) 

Florio, John, Florios second frutes to be gathered of twelue trees, of diuers but delightsome tastes to the tongues of Italians and Englishmen (London, 1591; STC (2nd ed.) / 11097)

Florio, John, Queen Anna’s nevv vvorld of words, or dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues, collected, and newly much augmented by Iohn Florio, reader of the Italian vnto the Soueraigne Maiestie of Anna, crowned Queene of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, &c. (London, 1611; STC (2nd ed.) / 11099).

Pfister, Manfred, ‘Inglese Italianato – Italianato Anglizzato: John Florio’, in Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Andreas Höfele and Werner von Koppenfels (Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co, 2005)

Wyatt, Michael, The Italian Encounter with Tudor England: The Cultural Politics of Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


[1] Digitised as part of the Casebooks project, <https://casebooks.lib.cam.ac.uk&gt;.

[2] ‘ARMS OF NICHOLAS LEATE. From Camden’s Grants, Hart. MS. 6095’, printed in Joseph Leete, The Family of Leete (London: Blades, East & Blades, 1906), p. 189.

[3] Case50684, <https://casebooks.lib.cam.ac.uk/cases/CASE50684> (accessed April 2020).

[4] The Family of Leete, p. 188.

[5] CASE41692 <https://casebooks.lib.cam.ac.uk/cases/CASE41692> (accessed March 2021).

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.

Pen, Ink, Paper

We are thrilled to host this guest post from Dr Paula Simpson, who works at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, and who is currently writing a book on Tithe Disputes in Early Modern England: Everyday Popular Protest in the Diocese of Canterbury (Boydell and Brewer).

Scribes – often of professional middling status[1] – held a crucial social role in sixteenth-century England. But the writing undertaken by these scribes did not always occur at a desk in the office or home. I’m interested in the movement of pen, ink and paper between agricultural fields and urban courtrooms and in the records stored in parish chests and household ‘archives’. This post explores the scribal activity involved in recording tithe payment in early modern Kent. Tithes were a form of tax paid to members of the clergy or to lay tithe owners on agricultural produce or personal income. Although strictly speaking the amount due was one tenth, the reality was much more complex. Tithing practices tell us about the interplay between written and oral testimony, formal and informal record keeping and the activities of the middling sort in local communities.  

***

In the sixteenth century, literate people regularly undertook a scribal role for their friends, neighbours and kin.[2] One such person was the local clergyman. In Mersham, Kent in 1583 John Whytinge, vicar wrote out the will of his parishioner and kinsman Richard Batchelor. According to a deposition in a subsequent case in the ecclesiastical courts over this will, his ability to do so had been aided by his ‘having penne, ynke and paper about hym’ which ‘he doth usually carry with him at suche tymes.’[3]

A witness in another case described a presentment (a formal statement for the court) which was written out in the house of Henry Snod of Sittingbourne, where the vicar ‘toke pen and ynke and wrote the words’. When he realised, however, that the accusation was levelled at his own curate he ‘put upp his paper into his bosome.’[4]

We might suppose then that literate members of the community including the clerical profession had ready access to the materials needed to record the last wishes of parishioners as well as for writing other types of document. The wealthier may have owned equipment such as a desk box (a sloped writing desk) or a standish (a stand or case for pen and ink) and those with access to the market and the financial means had access to a variety of writing materials as well as a paper supply.[5] Inkhorns and penners (pen cases) are especially interesting in this context as portable items carried slung from the girdle or perhaps around the neck.[6] This equipment could be utilised for both planned record making as well as impromptu note taking.

SBT 1956-1: A seventeenth-century inkhorn or penner, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I am particularly interested in the way in which Kentish tithe collectors (often clerics) may have recorded agreements, receipts and debts owed to them often in the course of their everyday interactions with parishioners. Unlike wills, as ephemera these notes or notebooks rarely survive but there are telling glimpses of their existence or use in the records of the ecclesiastical courts. The people who produced these records did not usually write to make a living but a certain level of skill and expertise was required to make meaningful records of transactions, whether they were formal accounts or hastily-written notes.

Tithe payment punctuated the agricultural year and sums were paid at particular times in the liturgical calendar. Often this was at Easter, linked to the receipt of communion.[7]  In urban parishes those who had paid tithe would be given a token which they would redeem in order to receive the sacraments and receipts would be recorded in ‘Easter Books’.[8]But in other instances deponents also described payments made for acreage for feeding cattle with half paid at the feast of the Annunciation (25th March) and the other half at the feast of St Michael the Archangel (29th September).[9]Payment of tithe in kind could be linked to the birth of animals: another witness named St Georgestide (around 23rd April) as the usual time for delivering tithe lambs[10] or to the seasonal production of particular fruits.[11] Most great tithes were collected at harvest time.[12] The adherence to traditional Quarter Days reminds us that tithe could be an onerous financial burden in addition to other rents that were typically payable at these dates.

Six Preacher and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Henry Wayland kept a ‘booke of his accomptes or reckoninges.’[13]As the pluralist and often absentee rector of the Kent benefices of Hastingleigh, Ivychurch and Lyminge, he clearly had considerable income to keep track of and which made him a frequent plaintiff in the ecclesiastical courts suing for tithe. 

In a long-running dispute Mason versus Paramor (1574-5) which concerned tithing-out (setting aside the tithe owner’s share during harvesting) in the parish of Monkton, the number of sheaves bound together had been carefully overseen and noted down in a book by the plaintiff.[14] Of course, tithe collectors were entirely within their rights to observe and keep such accounts, but we might imagine that on occasion the sight of such noting could have been provocative, especially perhaps to those labouring hard to bring in the harvest. 

Reapers 1785 George Stubbs 1724-1806 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and subscribers 1977 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02257

An ill-tempered encounter took place in the churchyard of Molash in the 1580s. There Ezechias Fogg, vicar of Chilham revealed to his curate Robert Coxon that he would not be renewing his cure at Michaelmas and, showing him a document, confirmed that the small tithes would instead be leased to Christopher Goteley who was also present. Fogg testified that at this point ‘the sayd Coxon offered to snatche the same out of this deponents [Fogg’s] hande and did rent parte of one of the counterpannes and the sayd Coxon did greatly abuse this deponent in speeches.’[15]

These examples suggest that tithe owners used both formal and informal documentation to assert, monitor and defend their right to tithe. Tom Johnson has written about the proliferation of paper flying to and fro between the ecclesiastical courts and the parish in the late medieval period.[16] The situation was no different in the sixteenth century. Apparitors (court officials who delivered summons to court) were often unpopular figures in local communities[17] and the clergy and parish elite acted as intermediaries in this system of ecclesiastical bureaucracy through the system of presentment (though of course they were often the subject of presentments themselves) and by citing recalcitrant tithe payers to court. While it might be argued that these accounting procedures and citations to appear in court were indicative of power relations in a culture where the everyday maintenance of customary practice and tithe payment was still primarily oral, tithe payers were still able to turn these documents to their own symbolic advantage. 

Thomas Gardener, curate of Seasalter, described the events of the afternoon of one Trinity Sunday when Mr Marshe, the vicar of Hernhill, had preached in the parish church of Seasalter and after the service came to the vicarage house ‘to drynck and to make mery’. After a while, parishioner John Turnor came to the vicarage gate and asked to speak with Mr Marshe who came ‘yncontynentlye’ out of the house to meet him. Turnor had come to pay Marshe for half a year’s agistment (the pasturing of livestock). It was reported that “… the saide Mr Marshe therupon takinge oute of his purse a pece of paper and after he had looked therupon a whyle then sayde that he did there fynde a mentyon of suche a dutye”. [18] Turner offered to pay, but the vicar had no change and so Turner had to obtain some in order to make the exact payment to the tipsy cleric. He remained on horseback at the gate for the whole of the encounter. Far from being intimidated by the cleric’s record-keeping Turnor had engineered payment at a time when the tithe collector was arguably at a significant moral and physical disadvantage.

The use of these documents reveals much about dialogue between literate and oral culture in the maintenance of the tithe payment system. While literate culture may have been gaining ascendancy over oral by the 17th century, the Kentish evidence for tithe suggests that the 16th century was very much a transitional period. Take, for example, the case Chillenden versus Thompson in which events on Lady Day in the parish church of Goodnestone (Faversham) were described. William Chillenden had paid seven shillings for his small tithes for half a year. He asked for an acquittance (a written receipt), but the vicar refused instead asking those assembled in the church to bear witness to the payment.[19]

The meaning of bearing witness is relation to tithe payment was very complex. Often payment involved deliberately-staged encounters which took place, often in churches, before specifically appointed witnesses as well as by others who observed events because they happened to be around. Production, consumption and tithe payment was closely observed by the parish community because everyone had a stake in the tithe payment system. Payment was a matter of community concern because of the defining role of custom and precedent.[20]

In court (literate) people were as likely to cite visual and oral testimony as well as drawing on more formal record-keeping. Henry Butler, a previous town chamberlain of Sandwich, deposed in a case over the disputed site of a mill in 1555, that ‘he hath herd his father now deceased about xiiii yeres now past say and report that the wyndmyll before specified is in the parish of Saint Maryes of Sandwich and so the said wyndemyll is conteyned in the rentalles to be in the parishe of St Maryes’.[21] This period is especially interesting then for the dialogue between the two modes. People may have been able to read even if they could not write. They recognised the value of written records by adding their marks to wills and to witness testimonies and in so doing added veracity to the contents.

While court cases often drew on institutional record-keeping such as urban and monastic archives in support of claims for tithe, there is also evidence that yeomen and small farmers and perhaps clergy were beginning to build small personal archives of their own. Scraps of paper, lists and receipts – some of which might be identified as ‘makeshift texts’ – may gradually have built up into small carefully-preserved personal archives probably kept in people’s homes. [22]Whether scribbled notes or fair copies, these records would have been a resource to draw on in times of dispute. 

In the case Harper versus Asherste (1573) the defendant, yeoman William Asherste referred to a book of ‘incomings and outgoings’ which had belonged to his grandfather, describing it as ‘verry credible old a book of antiquity’.[23] Here he was bringing to bear all of the notions of veracity and credibility usually associated with the oral testimony and memories of older members of the community but this time to personal written records.

Alongside oral testimony local documentation, including that passed from one clergyman to another, was another resource of community memory. These documents assumed an important authority especially in times of crisis or court dispute. Increasingly such documentation was kept in locked parish chests and regulating access to this knowledge was central to social and economic relationships within the parish community.[24]

Credit: Bob Embleton / Parish Chest in St. Mary’s Church, Kempley / CC BY-SA 2.0

It seems then that note-taking and personal archive-building activities were characteristic of the professional middle stratum of society. When created by tithe collectors they reveal the use of these documents as part of the everyday experience of negotiating and maintaining the tithe payment system. These documents were used alongside activities such as perambulation of the parish bounds and obtaining the oral testimonies of older members of the community as the custodians of the knowledge of past practice. 

Tithe also reveals the complexity within the social strata identified as middling. It exposes ongoing tensions within this group. Often tithe disputes occurred between clergy and those who were office-holders, or who were from families long-established in the parish, or over religious tensions. Aspirant parishioners – sometimes those we might consider to be members of the same professional middling stratum as the clergy – often clashed with incumbents over tithe payment.[25] Tithe offers then a unique perspective on what it meant to belong to the professional middle stratum. 

Furthermore, wealth was not always a significant indicator of this middling status. Clearly some clerics enjoyed high incomes, social standing and were well-educated and lay tithe owners, especially those who benefitted from the dispersal of monastic lands, were usually aspirant and again relatively wealthy. Others, usually vicars or curates, were scraping by on a low income from a relatively poor benefice.[26] Disputes over tithe – a time of rupture in local social and economic relationships – might be a meaningful way to tease out the complexities of those among the socio-cultural status of the middling and of those bound to engage with them.

Paula Simpson


Notes

[1] https://middlingculture.com/social-statuses-of-early-modern-england/ (accessed 18/02/2021).

[2] For Kent, for example: Hallam, E. A.,‘Turning the hourglass: gender relations at the deathbed in early modern Canterbury’, Mortality, 1/1 (1996), pp. 61-81; Hallam, E. and Hockey, J., Death, Memory and Material Culture (Oxford, 2006), chapter 7; Richardson, C. (2017) ‘Continuity and Memory: Domestic Space, Gesture and Affection at the Sixteenth-Century Deathbed’ in Buxton, A., Hulin, L, and Anderson, J (eds), InHabit: People, Places and Possessions (Oxford, 2017).

[3] PRC 39/10, f.151v. See also another testamentary case PRC 39/10, f.166: ‘there being redy provided penne, ynke and paper’. Thank you to Catherine Richardson for these references.   

[4] Bunker versus Newland (1556), PRC 39/3, ff. 23v-24.

[5] Hamling, T. and Richardson, C., A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (Yale: New Haven, 2017). A book of rates dated 1552 lists a wide range of commodities for writing, p.159.

[6] For examples see http://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/search/museum/strst-sbt-1994-22/view_as/grid/search/everywhere:desk/page/1 (accessed 17/02/2021); http://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/search/museum/strst-sbt-1993-31-3/view_as/grid/search/everywhere:standish-117245/page/1 (accessed 17/02/2021); https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/435206.html (accessed 17/02/2021); https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/118933.html (accessed 17/02/2021)

[7] For example CKS PRC 39/8, f.21v; X.10.16, f.69v.

[8] Wright, S. J. ‘A Guide to Easter Books and related parish listings’, Parts 1 and 2, Local Population Studies, 42 (1989), pp. 18-31 and 43 (1989), pp. 13-27. There are no known Easter Books extant for the diocese of Canterbury.

[9] For example Merricke versus White (1586-89), CKS X.11.1, ff. 195v-196r. Also Lane versus Cheeseman (1598), CKS PRC 39/22 f. 58r.

[10] Ducklyng versus Symonds (1573), CKS PRC 39/6, f.229v. 

[11] Hawks versus Hawkins (1572), PRC 39/6 ff. 128-30, 144v-6, 149v-50, 172v-9r.

[12] There are numerous examples of dispute over tithing out. See Simpson, P., ‘Custom and Conflict: Disputes over Tithe in the Diocese of Canterbury, 1501-1600’, Phd University of Kent (1997), pp. 99-116.

[13] CKS X.11.6 ff236v.

[14] Mason versus Paramor (1574-5): KCC DCb X.10.16 f. 21v.

[15] Goteley versus Coxon (1588), CKS X.11.1, f. 221v. The ‘counterpanne’ is the copy or counterpart of an indenture.

[16] Johnson, T. L., ‘Legal Ephemera in the Ecclesiastical Courts of Late-Medieval England’ (Open Library of Humanities, 2019) Vol. 5, No. 1. pp. 1-17.

[17] Ingram, M., Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 56-64.

[18] Turnor versus Lakes (1571-2): KCC DCb PRC 39/6 ff. 125v-6. 

[19] Chillenden versus Thompson (1561): X.10.8, ff.11v-12.

[20] See Simpson, P., ‘Custom and Conflict’, chapter 3.

[21] Saunders versus Cosby (1555): KCC DCb X.10.6 f. 114r. 

[22] See Waddell, B. ’Writing history from below: chronicling and record-keeping in Early Modern England’, History Workshop Journal 85 1 (2018), pp. 239-264 for the notion of the ‘makeshift’ archive’. See also Walsham, A., ‘The social history of the archive: Record-keeping in early modern Europe.’ Past and Present, 230 Issue suppl_11 (Nov, 2016), pp. 9-48, esp, p.41.

[23] Harper versus Asherste (1573): KCC DCb X.10.14 ff. 122v-4.

[24] Wood, A., The Memory of the People: Custom and Popular Senses of The Past In Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2013), especially pp. 256-271. See for example KCC DCb X.3.3 pt. 1 f. 95v which describes documents borrowed from the parish chest for personal perusal.

[25] See Simpson, P., ‘Custom and Conflict’, chapter 5.

[26] For example the encounter described above between Ezechias Fogg (graduate of Oxford, gentleman) and curate Robert Coxon. It is worth noting here that the small tithes were instead given to Christopher Goteley who was denounced by Coxon as a ‘papisticall fellowe’ and who had himself been the defendant in a tithe case brought by Fogg.

The Early Modern Precariat: Women in the Precarious Household Middling

*Trigger Warning: mentions of coercive control and financial abuse*

Woman with Broom. Dummy Board at V&A. Although this image is of a wealthier woman than our examples, she is said to represent ‘industry’ by her broom. Women of precarious middling status were certainly industrious! For a discussion of these kinds of images see: Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2017), p.228.

Women in early modern England occupied positions across the “middling” scale.  There was no singular “female experience” in this period, but a rich and varied spectrum—one in which women suffered at the hands of patriarchal ideologies but in which many women still had degrees of economic independence and cultural and sexual agency. 

This blog explores the complexity of two women’s experiences of their social worlds and the precarity of their positions.  Precarity was a fundamental feature of early modern social status, with individuals socially mobile both upwards and downwards.  Young individuals could be well-poised to establish themselves in a trade or profession, but their advancement was by no means guaranteed. Similarly, in a period in which credit and reputation was all-important, few were ever entirely safe from social and economic deterioration.

Our social groups calculator, launched last week, sets out new social status categories for early modern England. In compiling it, we took into account different gendered experiences as well as different life-stages: things were complicated in the period because a young apprentice (ostensibly in the “latent/emergent category”) might come from almost nothing, or they might be the younger son of gentry parents who had helped start him in a powerful and potentially lucrative trade (such as merchant or haberdasher).  Similar complications exist within the “precarious household middling”: individuals in this category had the run of their own household and likely had an income derived from their trade or other practices, as well as through domestic production of foodstuffs or goods. 

Such a position was not always dependent on a male head of house or a “nuclear family.”  Certain widows and older, socially-established single women sometimes fell into this category.  They held property (either owned or rented), derived an income (from land, some form of trade or production, or taking up a late husband’s trade and/or his apprentices or shop, or other small inheritance), yet their independence was not future-proof. Various factors, including legal costs, rent, wages or trade disputes, and reputational damage, could jeopardise a woman’s station.

This blog introduces two examples emerging from Middling Culture’s archival research that demonstrate the real-life consequences of social and economic precarity for those within the “precarious household middling” group.  It looks at two means of precarity for the women in question: i) marriage coercion and ii) wage holding and worth.

1. Marriage Coercion in Yorkshire: Hanson and Turnar

In 1568, Isabelle Hanson was subject to a marriage validity suit before the Consistory Court of York (an ecclesiastical court that dealt with “spiritual” infringements, including behavioural offences such as adultery or marriage disputes) (CP.G.1406, 975, 1008).  The testimonies, known as depositions, from such courts are not straightforward or direct examples of words spoken by the individuals in question; rather, they were generated “collaboratively” by the subject, scribes and clerks, and/or legal intermediaries.  Yet they can be treated as examples of real actions, situations, and sometimes of quoted speech.[i]

 In Hanson’s case, the court wanted to establish whether she and George Copley were legally married—something that could occur in this period without a formal church wedding but via a “contracting” or “handfasting” in pretty much any location, provided sufficient witnesses were present and the correct words were spoken and tokens exchanged.

Although a singlewoman, it seems Hanson had some stable living, including a “farmhold” (a small piece of farming land) which she used to make money, on top of other unstated forms of income.  It is possible that this financial situation led Hanson to value her independence or for her to wait, as we might put it now, for the right man to come along—or no man at all.  In any case, her testimony in the court suggests she was in no rush to settle into a marriage: she claims she had previously “contracted” herself to another man (Stephen Trygot), who then promptly disappeared for some months.  Convinced he would not return (and seemingly relieved at the fact), Hanson perhaps thought she was free of undesirable couplings.  But she explains that her uncle then impatiently forced her hand in marriage, declaring his insistence (perhaps as someone with financial and/or familial authority over her as guardian or head of household) that she marry George Copley. 

Despite the “handfasting” ceremony having gone ahead, the Consistory Court process allowed Hanson the chance to revisit the “oaths” sworn.  She and her representatives understood the dynamics of the court; Hanson undermined the validity of the contract by explaining that she was “soo constreined by her said uncle” when she spoke the words of marriage, suggesting they were not spoken freely and willingly.

Other individuals who testified in the case shed some more light on Hanson’s situation.  Copley was the servant of a seemingly unscrupulous local landowner, Gervaise Bosvile, with whom Hanson was presently at suit over her farmhold.  Copley himself told the court that she held the lease from Bosvile, who was her “Landlord,” and that there was “a suit made by … Mr Bosvile against her for a farmhold (and that rightfully).” He minimises the significance of this legal clash by suggesting that the farm in question is “but a small part of her living.”  In other words, she could do without the extra income because she had, he stated, “living elsewhere.”

Copley’s words paint a fascinating, if enigmatic, picture of Hanson’s social situation. According to him, she had a “living” (perhaps an allowance or inheritance, or perhaps a trade), happily supplemented by the profits of agricultural land rented from a local gentleman.  Her situation seems almost comfortable.

Other comments paint a different picture.  Although Copley minimised the significance of the legal suit over the farmhold, numerous depositions imply that Bosvile was blackmailing Hanson into marriage by using her lease to the farm as leverage.  Bosvile had repeatedly approached Hanson trying to broker a marriage with his servant Copley (for what reasons remain unclear).  Hanson’s interrogatories (the list of questions posed on her behalf to deponents—those testifying) suggest she was “afraid.”

These claims of fear would mean Hanson was hardly financially stable and suggest that she required the farm’s income to stay afloat.  Perhaps Bosvile knew this.  Hanson’s uncle told the court that once she and Copley were married, “Mr Bosvile said that he would discharge her of all suits and other troubles.”  This implicitly-detectable economic abuse indicates how single-woman-run households could be capable of a comfortable “Living” (as Copley puts it) but equally how such comfort or security remained contingent upon patriarchal power structures and institutions such as marriage.

Other examples of economic marital coercion arise from the York Consistory Court.  Most egregious is the case of Christina Turner of Hutton Cranswick in 1593 (CP.G.2671 & A).  Turner explains that she and her late husband were tenants of “a cottage in Fosen belonging to Christopher Bell, father of … Richard [Bell]” at the time her husband died.  They “had no interest therein but at the good will and pleasure of the said Christopher, under whom they held the same from year to year.”  This married couple were part of the “precarious household middling,” with no long-term claim or contract to their place of residence, though they seemingly ran their own house and presumably paid rent.  Within three days of her husband’s death, Christopher Bell came to the house and “discharged her of the same and cruelly threatened her that she should not tarry there except she would grant her good will of Jane Stocke[r], her daughter, to Richard Bell [his son].”  This court case appears several more times in the records, with both Christina Turnar and Jane Stocker herself insisting that the landlord exploited the newly-widowed Turnar’s precarious position in order to manipulate her daughter into marrying his son.

This case demonstrates how it can be difficult to place women who occupied a grey line between “precarious household middling” and “dependent poor.”  Turnar and her husband remained vulnerable to the caprices and abuses of their landlord.  Their precarity also had an effect on others associated with the household, in this case on the young woman Jane Stocker. 

Yet the case also shows the complexity in questions of marriage and social status and the room for agency among those on the lowest rungs of the middling.  It is perhaps unlikely, given her mother and father-in-law’s financial position, that Jane Stocker had a significant dowry; however, because her mother had remarried it is equally possible that Stocker’s late father had a portion aside only for Jane; this would offer a further financial motivation for the Bells’ interest in a marriage.  In any case, the prospect of marrying the son of a substantial landowner could well seem an appealing prospect.  Yet Stocker prizes other questions, not least that of consent, above the match.  Her own deposition (included in an appendix here[ii]) is testament to the agency women sometimes displayed in the ecclesiastical court, using otherwise largely patriarchal legal structures to resist those with whom they did “utterly dissent a match.”  Although the outcomes of this particular case and Hanson’s above have not remained on the record, there are numerous examples where women who insisted upon their lack of true consent to a contract successfully had their marriage dissolved or annulled.

Ann Johnson, Testamentary Case, 1629

Ann Johnson was a widow and woman who sat on the wavy line between the dependent poor and the precarious household middling. The company she kept—of shoemakers, clerks, stationers, and clothiers—was solidly middling; she was able to live by her ‘handie labour’ in the service of one Thomas Deane and ‘hath wrought for day wages over fower yeares & […] her work is commonly stock cardinges’; she also had at least some furniture, ready money of around £3, a brass pot, and bonds in writing. However, she was keenly aware that this if she lost favour with Deane that she ‘might goe a beginge’.[iii] At the end of her life, Ann had the vestiges of what would have been a solidly middling married life – a chest, a coffer, a brass pot, bonds owed to her, and paperwork – but, she rented a room in a house and lived with some need to earn a wage to avoid falling into poverty, which was more akin to a wage labourer.

Ann’s master, Thomas Deane, went to Chester’s Consistory Court to dispute the distribution of Anne’s belongings at her death. The court wished to uncover whether Ann had been coerced into leaving her goods to her master, Thomas Deane, and whether she had made any kind of nuncupative will (a will declared by speech rather than formally written and signed). Thomas Deane, the master of the workhouse where Ann worked, claimed that she left all of her money and possessions to him, to the great distress of her family, and the detriment of her great-niece Margaret Plombe was the other possible beneficiary of Ann’s goods. The depositions given by witnesses on both sides of the argument give a fascinating insight into what the end-of-life of a precariously middling woman looked like: vulnerable and independent, but with enough stuff to be fought over.

Thomas Deane claims that in the presence of him and Gwen Evans, one of his wool carders, at his work house, Ann said that she would ‘leave all of her goods unto Thomas Deane […] wishing him to give something hee pleased unto Margaret Plombe daughter of Phillip Plombe’ and that ‘she uttered these words in earnest but whether to please […] Thomas Deane or not he cannot answere’. Gwen Evans, confirms this, saying that Ann:

divers times betwixt Christmas last and the time the decedent died […] Ann Johnson, being of perfect sence and memory did say & affirme that her master Thomas Deane should have all that ever shee had and wished that hee would give something what hee pleased unto Katherine’s Wench, meaneinge Margaret Plombe daughter unto Plombe, conditionally that he should keepe what hee gave her in his hands & not give it to her mother for she would spend it.

Her colleagues, then, were very certain that Ann intended to bequeath her possessions to her master, Thomas Deane, and that she spoke ‘in earnest’ and repeatedly whilst at work.

However, the court wanted to establish whether Ann was coerced by Thomas Deane, and responses to questions posed to other witnesses suggest her vulnerability. Elizabeth Quaile, another of Ann’s colleagues, says that ‘she is a hired servant’ to Deane and that she is:

uncertaine whether the decedent did speake in earnest […] & saith the occasion that moved her to utter the words predeposed […] was that [Thomas Deane] asked her to whom shee would leave her goods & asked her what shee would leave to divers of her frends nameinge them & she said shee would leave all shee had unto him & none other.

Elizabeth illustrates a power dynamic between Thomas Deane as workhouse owner and Anne, which suggests the coercion Thomas Deane had over Ann’s public declaration of her wishes.

Those that socialised with Ann also told a similar story, with Alice Lea, who encountered Ann before the fire at the home of her niece Kathryn Plombe in St Mary’s parish, chester, believed that Thomas ‘hath not or ought not to have any of the goods of the decedent […] either by any pretended will or otherwise reference’. She’d heard Ann say that Margaret ‘shall have what I have’ but that she ‘did not desire them to be present as witnesses’. Thomas Fletcher, shoemaker, also present by the fire, agreed with Alice’s details, adding that Ann ‘confessed the said Deane had money of hers in his hands and yf shee shold take it out of his hands hee would let her have no worke & then shee said shee might goe a beginge’. Ann’s financial situation, however, remained murky, with others, who read her paperwork to her, claiming she had money owed to her too. Richard Moreton, a stationer who lived in the same house as Ann often ‘reade over the writings and bonds the decedent had for what money was owing unto her’ and often heard Ann say before him and his wife that Margaret should have her ‘brass pot’ and ‘all her goods’ and William Price, another literate man, provided the same reading service for Ann so that she could plan ‘when the sum was due’. Ann was, then, likely short on ready money but wealthier than her material circumstances showed, due to the debts owing to her.

Like Jane, it seems Ann’s position on the lowest rungs of the middling put her into a position where she was susceptible to exploitation from powerful men. She had enough wealth to make it worth Thomas’ time to fight the case to court, but not enough to live out her widowhood entirely comfortably. This tension is exposed by Alice Lea and Thomas Fletcher who demonstrate the powerful coercion Ann suffered through Thomas’ withholding of her wages; financial control therefore led to Ann’s public declaration of her wishes at work.

The last person to spend time with Ann before she died was Anne Fornby, her neighbour who recalls that, whilst she knelt by Ann’s bedside in the upper chamber of her house, she heard her say ‘good cousin Anne be good to my Peggie, meaning Margaret Plombe, a childe daughter to Phillippe Plombe & Katherine Plombe’. She also testifies to the coercion saying that Ann often promised ‘almost anybody something at her death’ and that she ‘did not with a full intent and meaning leave anything to the said Deane, but only to please him because she had work from him’. After Ann died, Fornby, being left with her keys, ‘tooke out thereof three poundes VIIIs & noe more’ from her ‘chest or coffer’ in order to keep it safe.

This is where the case ends, without a written resolution, but the fact that the dispute over Ann Johnson’s goods reached the early seventeenth courtroom is fascinating, when it was only in 2015 that Thomas’ type of coercion was acknowledged by the criminalisation of controlling behaviour. There are parallels between Jane and Ann: both were living independently and sought to maintain their status as single women; both had a small amount of wealth – enough for them to become the targets of more powerful men; both were subject to economic abuse; and their actions, words and mode of living were subject of consistory court scrutiny. Their precariously middling status, where they were able to generate enough income to live alone, also meant that they were at risk of falling into poverty, and their social networks were keenly aware of this fact in the depositions they gave. Despite this, it seems the consistory court valued and sought to establish consent—to determine whether yes really did mean yes in both cases, given the incidence of precarious, single women’s coercion in early modern England.

By Callan Davies and Hannah Lilley


[i] (For more on the evidential issues of depositions and their language, perhaps start with the work of Laura Gowing or Frances Dolan’s True Relations).

[ii] “…about a year ago, this examinant’s father-in-law died and her mother (being then left a poor, comfortless widow) was threatened diverse times by the father of Richard Bell, that unless she would maek them atch that his son Richard Bell and her daughter, [me], might be married together, he would put her forth of her house wherein she then dwelt and she would make up that match she should nto want anything that he could do for her, wherewith their said mother being moved, acquainted this respondent therewith and required her consent thereunto, whereunto this respondent did utterly dissent a match, which she altogether disliked, and told her mother that she had rather be buried quick than match that way. Whereupon her mother once or twice beat [me] very sore and said to [me] that she should have the said Richard Bell to her husabnd whether she would or not. And in so much that even this day twelve months past, the said Richard Bell’s father and Richar Bell himself and Mr Sadler, vicar of Foston, and two or three more dined at [my] mother’s house at Foston, and after dinner was done the said Bell’s father and Mr Sadler called on [me] to go with them into a lathe of Bell’s thereby, which [i] at first Refusing, [my] mother again threatened her to go with them. And thereupon she went with them into the said lathe, to whom neither before that time nor at that tyme, the said Richard Bell did ever once move a word to [me] for [my] consent or good will to marry him, until Mr Sadler the vicar commanded them to join hands…” ()

[iii] Chester Record Office WC 1629.

[iv]< https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/controlling-or-coercive-behaviour-intimate-or-family-relationship#:~:text=or%20coercive%20behaviour%3A-,The%20offence%20of%20controlling%20or%20coercive%20behaviour,force%20on%2029%20December%202015.&gt;

The Draughtsmanship of Divines in Early Modern England: Some Preliminary Observations

Guest post by Hannah Yip, a Research Assistant for ‘GEMMS – Gateway to Early Modern Manuscript Sermons’, an SSHRC-funded project based at the University of Regina, Canada. Her latest article, ‘What was a Homily in Post-Reformation England?’, is published in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

The English Protestant divines discussed in this blog were of ‘professional middling’ status. Although they were highly educated individuals, many of them holding degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, they relied on their livings and patronage from institutions and wealthier individuals to support themselves. While the role of published writings as instruments of patronage for Protestant clergymen in early modern England is widely recognised,[1] the question of whether there were alternative avenues for securing patronage, such as scribal publication, remains largely unaddressed. Moreover, how did Protestant preachers decorate their manuscripts intended for patrons? What evidence do we have that they practised the art of penmanship and drawing in their leisure time? 

Today, the subject of ‘Protestant art’ in post-Reformation England constitutes a thriving area of study. Over the past thirty-five years, historians have continued to challenge Patrick Collinson’s ‘iconophobia’ thesis, contributing to a deeper understanding of the manner in which English Protestants generated a visual culture of their own.[2] While such research has included the Protestant clergy’s defence of visual imagery in certain contexts, there has been insufficient research into the practical engagement of these divines with the visual arts. One principal exception is represented in studies of the graphic art of Samuel Ward (1577–1640), town preacher of Ipswich; in particular, his print entitled The Double Deliverance, claimed by the minister to illustrate ‘the two grand blessings of God to this nation’ but ultimately misinterpreted as a personal affront to Catholic Spain.[3] The limnings of Stephan Batman (c. 1542–1584), rector of St Mary’s, Newington, Surrey, have also been explored at some length by M. B. Parkes, who has drawn attention to a treatise on the art of limning written by the cleric which appears to be no longer extant.[4] One of Batman’s commonplace books featuring his drawings survives as Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Eng 1015, and is available to view in its entirety here.

To what extent did Protestant churchmen cultivate their skills in draughtsmanship, and why? This blog examines the devotional artistic endeavours of other Protestant ministers as manifested primarily in manuscript, posing crucial questions regarding their function as gifts for patrons or as forms of record-keeping and private meditation. It begins to enquire whether the pen-and-ink drawings within these manuscripts can be categorised as a genre of Protestant artwork which has not, thus far, been recognised either by palaeographers or by historians of early modern visual culture. 

It was undoubtedly the case that the wide range of confessional allegiances, theological positions and religio-social groups could dictate Protestant divines’ appreciation for art and their own artistic pursuits. In their fascinating article about the scheme of imagery for a Wiltshire parish church designed by Christopher Wren (1589–1658), dean of Windsor and father of the famous architect, Louise Durning and Clare Tilbury emphasised the ways in which his designs negotiated the boundaries between the Laudian ‘beauty of holiness’ and a word-centred piety.[5] Jasper Mayne (1604–1672), a prolific poet and playwright as well as a Royalist Oxfordshire vicar, not only expressed his disdain for ‘the vanity of some of our Modern Prophets, who can see Idolatry in a Church-window’ in a typically moderate Protestant defence of ‘the Ornamentall use of Images’, but also revealed his dedication to art in a poem extolling the qualities of the ‘table-book’ of Anne King (b. c. 1621), sister of Bishop Henry King (1592–1669).[6] Detailed analysis into the attitudes of preachers hailing from multiple branches of Protestantism towards the visual and decorative arts richly merits further investigation.

Notwithstanding specific religious allegiances, it was certainly the case that an individual preacher’s skills in draughtsmanship could be used to his advantage when seeking or maintaining gentry patronage. With their bespoke woodcuts, engravings and accompanying verses, printed funeral sermons could serve as Protestant memorial keepsakes for a grieving patron’s family. Lucy Russell (c. 1581–1627), Countess of Bedford may have financed in part the production of a handsome octavo volume containing various visual and textual tributes to her brother, Sir John Harington, Second Baron Harington of Exton (c. 1592–1614).[7] A considerable number of presentation copies of manuscript sermons intended for patrons, written in the hand of the preachers themselves, survive in archives and libraries today. However, arguably few are as exquisite as a sermon dedicated to Lady Thomasine North of Mildenhall, Suffolk (c. 1586–1655), dated 27 August 1626 and preached locally by Nicholas Searle (1592–1678).[8] Searle was clearly an accomplished penman, exhibiting a variety of calligraphic hands in a manuscript which imitated a printed sermon in its layout and appearance, complete with decorated drop-cap initials. Bound in gold-tooled vellum, this was designed to pay tribute to an important patron in rural Suffolk.

The drawings of divines could also be rendered at the service of record-keeping. The commonplace book of the Cambridgeshire vicar Edward Beaver (c. 1649–c. 1705), an octavo volume comprising notes of sermons which he had attended in addition to memoranda and accounts, also contains several diagrams which connect his interests in astronomy with his faith (see Figure 1). ‘The Constellations as they stand in ye North Hemespheer of Heaven’ are spread out over twelve pages (ff. 9v–15r). While clearly not as sophisticated as the efforts of his contemporary, the astronomer Reverend John Flamsteed (1646–1719), Beaver’s sketches reveal a personal engagement with scientific study. This was an aspect of a cleric’s interests which could often find its way into his sermons.[9] Choosing Revelation 2:1 as his text (‘Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks’), the royal chaplain Thomas Bradley (1599/1600–1673) muses upon whether the ‘seven stars’ refer to ‘that famous Constellation clearly visible in our Horizon, in dorso Tauri, called by Astronomers, the Pleyades’.[10] A yet more erudite marriage of astronomical knowledge with biblical exegesis appears throughout a sermon delivered by Robert Gell (1595–1665), rector of the affluent St Mary Aldermary, London. Preaching to the Society of Astrologers, Gell’s final exhortation argues that ‘a living and powerfull faith […] hath the vertues not onely of some one Star, or some one Asterisme, or Constellation, but even of all the Stars, all the Constellations of the heavens’. Citing Daniel 12:3 (‘And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever’), Gell expresses his hopes that the members of his congregation ‘shall become true Magi’ who will subsequently ‘shine as the Firmament’.[11] 

Figure 1. Edward Beaver’s commonplace book. British Library, Harley MS 2314, ff. 12v–13r.

Finally, churchmen could also decorate their manuscripts ‘for art’s sake’. British Library, Harley MS 663 is an autograph folio volume containing notes relating to the private accounts and sermons of William Hull (d. 1626), lecturer at St Oswald’s Church, Ashbourne, Derbyshire and dating from the first quarter of the seventeenth century.[12] At the end of the volume, there are several decorative tracings and drawings in pencil, evidently pricked from an original printed source (see Figure 2). There is little evidence to suggest that the volume was owned by anybody other than Hull before it passed into the Harleian Library. It is therefore likely that, in a spare moment, Hull traced these designs for his own pleasure. Such practices would not have been lost on the likes of an even more illustrious churchman, Bishop John Cosin (1595–1672). As Adrian Green has shown, the designs for Cosin’s ecclesiastical woodwork were inspired by Netherlandish and German pattern books.[13]

Figures 2a & 2b. Private accounts and sermons by William Hull. British Library, Harley MS 663, ff. 70r, 71r.

Deriving from devotional pursuits, but also undertaken at their leisure, these diagrams, drawings and instances of ornamental penmanship blur the boundaries between ‘recreation’ and ‘work’ in the service of God. Whereas the art of drawing and calligraphy may have been considered as secular pursuits which were at odds with clerical vocation, it was the case that these talents could, in fact, be utilised at the service of patronage, or to ally external interests in natural phenomena with the Protestant faith.[14] This blog challenges older assertions that the practice of drawing and limning was the principal preserve of royalty, courtiers and the landed gentry in the seventeenth century.[15] Such assumptions mean that it is of no surprise that preacher-painters exist on the margins of art-historical research. For example, Robert Tittler’s invaluable ‘Early Modern British Painters’ resource does not mention Francis Potter (1594–1678), rector of Kilmington, Somerset, whose portrait of Sir Thomas Pope (c. 1507–1559) hangs in Trinity College, Oxford, which Pope founded (see Figure 3).[16] The painting is an accomplished work, showing Potter’s sensitivity to the intricacies of his sitter’s jewellery and ermine. 

Figure 3. Francis Potter, Sir Thomas Pope (c. 1637). Oil on panel. 119.4 × 81.3 cm. Trinity College, Oxford.

Very little research has been undertaken thus far on how preachers acquired these creative skills. By beginning to examine the artistic recreational activities of Protestant divines, this blog has highlighted that more research is required regarding the relative social status of the clergy, the ‘largest profession of the early modern period’, and the leisure time that they could afford to take.[17] Endowments attached to certain livings varied enormously, as did the backgrounds and early upbringings of clergymen.[18] It is possible that certain churchmen were able to build a rapport with the middling sorts ensconced within their parish by taking up recreations which they could identify with. Jill Francis has shown how the published garden designs of William Lawson (1553/4–1635), vicar of Ormesby in the North Riding of Yorkshire, were ‘simplified and accessible’, aimed towards the emerging class of rising gentry in the first quarter of the seventeenth century.[19] Considerations of space have precluded discussion of wealthier clergymen’s activities as art collectors, including the intriguing career of the Cumbrian rector William Petty (c. 1585–1639), who was both chaplain to Thomas Howard (1585–1646), Earl of Arundel and his principal agent, purchasing collections on his behalf.[20] Investigating the artistic recreations of clergymen in early modern England leads to the potential for discovering the origins of the characteristics of the Hanoverian squarson, whose lifestyle bore strong similarities to those of the landed gentry.[21] The recognition of certain preachers’ abilities to interpret art is also crucial for enhancing scholarly understanding of their engagement with the religio-political controversies of their day. In a published defence of a painting censured as showing King Charles I’s submission to the Pope, the Royalist divine Daniel Featley (1582–1645) demonstrated that the work was a representation of a story from the Golden Legend, analysing with considerable detail its religious symbolism which was incompatible with the accusations against the painting put forward at the Star Chamber.[22]

Moreover, whereas Durning and Tilbury previously argued that Dean Christopher Wren’s visual skill was ‘hardly a typical attribute of the early modern cleric’, this blog argues that, on the contrary, a wider awareness of certain clergymen’s capabilities as visual thinkers would advance scholarly knowledge of the external influences that informed the composition of their sermons.[23] The admirable work of Jean-Louis Quantin, Katrin Ettenhuber and Noam Reisner, amongst others, has revealed how preachers drew upon classical literature in addition to theological texts, ancient and modern.[24] But what about the godly inspiration which could be gained from studying artistic treatises? According to William A. Dyrness, The Mysteryes of Natvre and Art (London, 1634), a treatise by John Bate (fl. 1626–1635) which covered the art of drawing and painting, was owned by the staunchly godly Mather family in New England.[25] While I have argued elsewhere for the enthusiasm of the ‘hotter sort’ of Protestant ministers for other types of visual devices such as anagrams, more meticulous study may disclose further evidence of the appreciation of, and active engagement with, visual culture by clergymen across the wide spectrum of Protestant belief in post-Reformation England.[26] 

Hannah Yip

Notes

[1] Paul Seaver, ‘Puritan Preachers and their Patrons’, in Religious Politics in Post-Reformation England: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Tyacke, ed. by Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006), pp. 128–42.

[2] Among a large literature, see, in particular, Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis, ‘After Iconophobia? An Online Symposium’, <https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/after-iconophobia/> [accessed 12 November 2020].

[3] Alexandra Walsham, ‘Impolitic pictures: providence, history, and the iconography of Protestant nationhood in early Stuart England’, Studies in Church History, 33 (1997), 307–28; Helen Pierce, Unseemly Pictures: Graphic Satire and Politics in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 35–47; Ema Vyroubalová, ‘Catholic and Puritan Conspiracies in Samuel Ward’s The Double Deliverance (1621)’, in Puritans and Catholics in the Trans-Atlantic World 1600–1800, ed. by Crawford Gribben and Scott Spurlock (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 47–65.

[4] M. B. Parkes, ‘Stephan Batman’s Manuscripts’, in Medieval Heritage: Essays in Honour of Tadahiro Ikegami, ed. by Masahiko Kanno and others (Tokyo: Yushodo Press, 1997), pp. 125–56 (p. 128). 

[5] Louise Durning and Clare Tilbury, ‘‘Looking unto Jesus’[:] Image and Belief in a Seventeenth-Century English Chancel’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 60.3 (2009), 490–513. 

[6] Jasper Mayne, A late Printed Sermon Against False Prophets, &c. ([London], 1647), p. 15; British Library, Harley MS 6931, ff. 59r–60v.

[7] Richard Stock, The Chvrches Lamentation for the losse of the Godly, &c. (London, 1614); Ted-Larry Pebworth, ‘“Let Me Here Use That Freedome”: Subversive Representation in John Donne’s “Obsequies to the Lord Harington”’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 91.1 (1992), 17–42 (p. 40). 

[8] Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich, HD607/1. For presentation copies of sermons in manuscript which follow print conventions, see Mary Morrissey, ‘Sermon-Notes and Seventeenth-Century Manuscript Communities’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 80.2 (2017), 293–307 (p. 300). 

[9] For Flamsteed, see Frances Willmoth, ‘Flamsteed, John (1646–1719)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn (2008), <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/9669> [accessed 13 November 2020].

[10] Thomas Bradley, A Sermon Ad Clerum, &c. (York, 1663), p. 4.

[11] Robert Gell, Stella Nova, A New Starre, Leading wisemen unto Christ (London, 1649), pp. 30–1.

[12] For this manuscript, see Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and Their Audiences, 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 276–81.

[13] Adrian Green, Building for England: John Cosin’s Architecture in Renaissance Durham and Cambridge (Durham: Durham University, 2016), p. 16.

[14] Mordechai Feingold, ‘Parallel Lives: The Mathematical Careers of John Pell and John Wallis’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 69.3 (2006), 451–68 (p. 457).

[15] Kim Sloan, ‘A Noble Art’: Amateur Artists and Drawing Masters c. 1600–1800 (London: British Museum, 2000), p. 11.

[16] Robert Tittler, ‘Early Modern British Painters, c. 1500–1640’ (September 2019), <https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/980096/> [accessed 12 November 2020].

[17] Arthur Burns, Kenneth Fincham and Stephen Taylor, ‘Reconstructing Clerical Careers: The Experience of the Clergy of the Church of England Database’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 55.4 (2004), 726–37 (p. 737). 

[18] Rosemary O’Day, ‘The Anatomy of a Profession: the Clergy of the Church of England’, in The Professions in Early Modern England, ed. by Wilfrid Prest (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 25–63; Fiona McCall, ‘Children of Baal: Clergy Families and Their Memories of Sequestration during the English Civil War’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 76.4 (2013), 617–38 (p. 618).

[19] Jill Francis, ‘Order and Disorder in the Early Modern Garden, 1558–c. 1630’, Garden History, 36.1 (2008), 22–35 (pp. 29–30).

[20] For clergymen’s art collecting, see Tarnya Cooper, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 138, 153. For William Petty, see David Howarth, ‘Petty, Rev. William’, Grove Art Online, <https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T066833> [accessed 13 November 2020].

[21] Wilfrid Prest, ‘Introduction: The Professions and Society in Early Modern England’, in The Professions in Early Modern England, ed. by Wilfrid Prest (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 1–24 (p. 18).

[22] Daniel Featley, The Sea-Gull, &c. ([London], 1644); Laura Lunger Knoppers, Politicizing Domesticity from Henrietta Maria to Milton’s Eve (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 38–40. 

[23] Durning and Tilbury, ‘‘Looking unto Jesus’’, p. 513.

[24] Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity: The Construction of a Confessional Identity in the 17th Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ch. 1; Katrin Ettenhuber, Donne’s Augustine: Renaissance Cultures of Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Noam Reisner, ‘The Preacher and Profane Learning’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 72–86.

[25] William A. Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 223–24.

[26] Hannah Yip, ‘‘Speaking now to our eyes’: Visual Elements of the Printed Sermon in Early Modern England’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 2020), ch. 3.

Bringing Sextons Back: Stepney’s Buriers, Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

In my last post, I introduced the maritime hamlets of early modern Stepney and explored some of the ways in which the parish’s middling sort used admin and officeholding to establish themselves as part of a local elite. Returning to the vestry minutes book as a starting point, this post will examine some of Stepney’s less desirable parochial offices before attempting to place these stations within the maritime parish’s complicated civic and social hierarchies. 

Noisome Graves and Troublesome Sextons

Plague had an acoustic, and that acoustic was the ringing of bells[1]

Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England

Stepney’s sexton played a crucial role in the daily management of the parish. Responsible for both the ringing of the parish church’s bells and the digging of graves in the churchyard, the sextons employed at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, found no shortage of work during the first half of the seventeenth century. As the parish’s population swelled and outbreaks of plague tore through the riverside hamlets, the St Dunstan’s churchyard quickly became overburdened. The vestry minutes record that in 1625 ‘the spedy purchasing of one parcell of ground’ for new burials was ordered, as well the earthing over of the present churchyard, owing to the ‘noysome sents’ that emanated from ‘the ground there so opened by reason of so many bodies formerlie enterred there’.[2]

Unfortunately, the Stepney vestry found itself repeatedly troubled by ‘very uncivil and disorderly’ sextons.[3] In 1601, sexton Francis Whitacres was ‘put out of his place’ and ‘utterly dismissed’ from the parish for a series of transgressions, which included neglecting and breaking the church bells to ‘the great chardg’ of the parishioners; attempting to persuade the parish clerk to embezzle funds so that they did not ‘dye beggers’; breaking his bonds and promises with the vestrymen; and bidding a churchwarden to ‘shake his eares emonng dogges’. A later sexton, William Culham, was similarly declared ‘unfitt for any further imployement’ after making himself known to be a ‘contemner & scoffer of them that are godly’ and refusing to ‘suppress a victualing house’ that he leased and ‘furnish[ed] … w[i]th beere’.[4] The early modern sexton perhaps best lives on today in the shape of Shakespeare’s proud ‘sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’, the Gravedigger from Hamlet.[5] The Gravedigger’s oaths, flippancy, morbid wit, and request for a ‘stoup [jug] of liquor’ suggest that unruly sextons were not only found in Stepney but throughout the nation, working their knavish grave-making characters into the broader early modern imagination. 

However, the position also provided perks and financial security. Along with the respected and necessarily literate clerk and curate, the sexton was provided a room above the vestry house and was also guaranteed a steady income owing to the constant need for bellringing and burials.[6] Furthermore, as demonstrated by Culham’s position as both sexton and landlord of the victualing house ‘the Rose’, Stepney’s sextons were able to pursue other economic ventures alongside their paid parochial responsibilities. 

A sexton at work in Humphrey Crouch’s Londons Vacation, and the Countries Tearme (London: Richard Harper, 1637)

Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

During the plague of 1625, ‘certaine [individuals] dwelling about Stepney’ took it upon themselves to become ‘common bearers of such as die of the pestilence and other diseases’.[7] In an attempt to suppress the extortionate ‘summes of mony as are no ways sufferable’ that were charged by these bearers, Stepney’s vestry decided to formalise the trade, setting fixed rates for the bearers of between four and twelve pence depending on where the body was carried from and its method of burial. The vestry further ordered that the bearers must travel ‘w[i]thout cloakes and cary red wands in theire hands that euery one may take notice of them’. It was decreed that the production and delivery of the wands to the bearers would be the responsibility of the sexton. 

Another office created in response to disease – this time an initiative of the vestry, rather than the regulation of an existing practice – was advertised for in 1617, although it was not filled until the outbreak of plague in 1625. It was ordered by the vestry that, in order to prevent the spread of infection, ‘there shalbe chosen in euerie hamlet two fit aged women to search and vew the bodies of euerie one decease[ed]’, with the women being paid ‘four pence a peece by the householder for the said vew and serch’ or the same amount by ‘the Churchwardens or Collectors for the poore’.[8] In 1625, Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott of Ratcliff were ‘chosen to be searchers […] in case & feare of Contagion of sicknes now suspected’.[9] Unsurprisingly, given the wealth disparity within the hamlet of Ratcliff, the St Dunstan’s parish registers reveal that both Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott resided in the hamlet’s poorer western side, in Shadwell near to Wapping Wall. 

Elizabeth Scott of Shadwell, ‘widow & pentioner’, is entered into the parish’s burial register on 8 May 1626, one year after her appointment as a searcher of the dead.[10] Mary, ‘wife of William Oswell of Shadwell[,] mariner’, followed just under a year later on 6 March 1627.[11] By tracing Mary and William Oswell through the parish registers of Stepney, Wapping, and St Katherine by the Tower, it becomes clear that Mary lost a three-year-old son a month after becoming a searcher, and left an eight-year-old daughter and two-month-old son behind after her death.[12] William, perhaps owing to his need for childcare and an imminent return to sea, remarried just three months later.[13]

The above example illustrates that although women’s names are almost entirely absent from Stepney’s vestry minutes, women did indeed perform civic office and play vital roles in the management of their communities, as has been explored in fantastic detail by the Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 project. However, in this instance, it is possible that Elizabeth Scott and Mary Oswell did not have much choice in the matter. In The Launching of the Mary by Walter Mountfort, a drama composed by the middle-ranking East India Company merchant during his 1632 return to Stepney from Persia, the hardships of mariners’ wives are extensively portrayed. The characters Mary Sparke and Isabel Nutt testify that the ‘two months paye a year’ provided by the East India Company is not ‘able to keep’ them whilst their husbands are at sea, and the character Dorotea conveys the need to ‘sitt at shopworke’ to ‘gett a liuinge by hard hand-labour’ during the ‘discontinuance of theyr husbands’.[14] Bearing in mind William Oswell’s profession, and the age of their children, it is possible that Mary Oswell found herself in a similar position. 

Civic Benefaction

So far I have argued that while the office of sexton might not have been the most desirable or respected occupation, it was nonetheless a necessary job that provided a secure position and reasonable economic stability – as long as you behaved and did as the vestry asked. While the reputation gained from performing the role of sexton might not be transferrable to another parish, and there is no evidence in Stepney of individuals advancing from sexton to a higher parochial office, the parish’s sextons seem to consistently hold positions somewhere between securely middling and of the lower-middling sort.

Stepney’s bearers and searchers of the dead also performed acts of civic benefaction that were necessary to the continued function and wellbeing of the parish community. The performance of deeds that benefitted the broader civic community was a key way in which individuals could gain public reputation for being a valuable member of the parish. The bearers’ and searchers’ acts of civic duty took the form of the dangerous handling of the parish’s diseased bodies, and these acts were carried out in public view and were recorded in important records kept in the parish chest. However, while this might sound like the ideal circumstances for achieving social advancement, for the bearers and searchers of the dead the reward was not favourable reputation but the monetary incentive that directly replaced – or at least supplemented – the poor relief they would otherwise receive. The wages of these workers were provided directly from affording households or from the already established overseers of the poor. Although these ‘offices’ received parochial recognition – and in the case of the bearers were even provided with uniform – just like in the case of Shadwell in my previous post, these individuals were brought into the public eye and recorded within parish documents so that they could be identified, shaped, and regulated by the parish’s central governing body.

Stepney’s parish records are full of complex narratives. These may partly be pieced together through retrospective historical study, but, far from being superimposed by scholarship, they were consciously written into these texts by early modern individuals whose representations have remained inscribed upon them ever since. 

The office of sexton is proving a particularly fascinating position to explore in the investigation of Stepney’s middling sort as, although the officeholders seem to have consistently occupied places amongst the parish’s lower-middling sort, unlike others in their social and economic position they held a secure role that was assigned to them for the length of their ‘naterall lyffe’.[15] Was it the guarantee of work and social position, but lack of hope for advancement from their office, that gave Stepney’s sextons the confidence to repeatedly act out against the vestry?  As Hamlet notes to Horatio beside the Danish sexton, ‘The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense’.[16]

By Michael Powell-Davies
(PhD Candidate, University of Kent, School of English and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies)


[1] Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 177.

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 71v, 73r.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 106r.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 106r, 113v.

[5] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 420. 

[6] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 40r, 71v.

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 70r.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 57v, 69r. 

[9] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 69r.

[10] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[11] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[12] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/256; P93/DUN/265; P93/DUN/277.

[13] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/265.

[14] Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. by John Henry Walter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932).

[15] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 10v.

[16] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 414.

How to Get Ahead in Early Modern London’s Maritime World

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 83v. 3 April 1632.

Early modern London was a port city, which sat at the centre of England’s international networks of colonial and commercial venture. However, London’s maritime operations were underpinned by working communities that were situated just beyond the city’s walls, in the vast parish of Stepney to the east. Home to the riverside hamlets of Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, and Poplar, and host to branches of powerful institutions such as the Navy, the East India Company, and Trinity House, Stepney provided London with the materials and workers necessary for the capital’s overseas activities. The economic growth of both London and the maritime sector in the late sixteenth century prompted a huge number of workers to migrate to maritime Stepney, some of whom settled permanently but many of whom were seasonal workers or mariners sent immediately to sea. 

This post will offer a look at some of the individuals, chiefly of the middling sort, that lived, worked, and fought for their positions within the mobile communities of Stepney’s riverside hamlets. In a maritime parish permeated by competition at all levels, it was necessary for individuals to take advantage of every opportunity to establish their social and professional positions. For the early modern middling sort, holding administrative office was a valuable way in which one could achieve social advancement. The following exploration of Stepney’s vestry minutes book will uncover some of the ways in which middling individuals worked to write themselves into their local community and, through administrative culture, equipped themselves with the edge needed to get ahead in maritime London.

The vestry minutes book (1579-1662) of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, contains a textual record of the meetings and administrative activities of the parish’s chief civic and ecclesiastical governing body, the vestry. Chronologically ordered, and loosely structured around the annual election of parish officers, the vestry minutes provide a frequently updated index of the parish’s local elites, or ‘chiefest inhabitants’, as well as a record of the region’s shifting social, economic, and topographical landscapes.[1] However, Stepney’s vestry minutes book was not just a static record of past events; it functioned as a tool that, like the navigational instruments crafted in the maritime parish’s workshops, could be used to locate and project one’s current and future positions. As an object of communal memory and consensus that parish elites repeatedly returned to, and subsequently disseminated the contents of, the vestry minutes book provided a textual surface onto which the parish’s middling sort could write their identity and assert their position within their local community. By providing access to this important piece of administrative culture, the vestry served as a privileged platform on which Stepney’s land-based middling sort could attempt to negotiate and settle identities of place, self, and other within the parish’s turbulent and mobile maritime hamlets. 

The Vestry 

Although the appearance of vestries as the central unit of local government did not occur in many rural areas until after 1660, Stepney’s minutes indicate that the vestry was central to local governance and administration by as early as 1579.[2] Initially made up of thirty-two men – eight representing each of the parish’s four hamlets of Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar, and Mile End – Stepney’s vestry was populated by necessarily local individuals, who were largely drawn from the middling to upper-middling sort. Rather than being ruled directly by manorial authority or by the elite commercial or naval officers that worked within the parish, Stepney’s vestry was largely composed of individuals whose social and economic positions were won through the professional status that they held within the parish’s maritime industries. That they described themselves as the ‘chiefest inhabitants and p[ar]ishoners’ is significant – these were men that lived and worked within the realms of Stepney parish, and the parish bounds were often the limits of their influence.[3]

Stepney’s maritime social signature was clearly reflected in its vestry. From 1589 onwards, Stepney elected to operate a ‘select vestry’, meaning that only those chosen by the previous vestrymen were able to serve, ensuring the group remained a self-selecting maritime ‘in-crowd’. Amongst the names in the vestry minutes are individuals whose colonial and military involvement gained them wide renown, such as William Borough and John Vassall, and also those whose professional achievements earned them fame beyond the parish, such as John and William Burrell, a father and son that were, between them, Master of Trinity House and Master Shipbuilder for the East India Company.[4] However, most vestrymen were successful middling professionals whose occupations included ballasters, ropemakers, shipwrights, anchorsmiths, chandlers, and victuallers. 

The Vestry Minutes Book 

This example of a minutes book was a new form of textual culture that developed alongside the establishment of England’s vestries and the growing civic consciousness and cultural identities of the middling sort. Drawing on established models of administrative and textual culture, such as chronicles and court records, vestry minutes often rhetorically positioned the vestry to speak on behalf of the entire parish and depict the group’s decisions through a united authoritative voice.

Wee the Cheefe Parishoners beinge now assembled together […] have by mutuall assent and consent, ordayned and agreed, that there shalbe chosen of the fowre Hamletts viz. Ratcliff Lymehowse, Popler and Milend, Eight specyall p[er]sons w[hi]ch […] assemble together in the Vestrie and there to consult, and agree, howe to reforme, and order any matter, or thing […] and the same enter or cause to be entered in this Churchbooke for a Testimony of their agreement.

We the Parishoners p[re]sently assembled both for ourselves, and in the name of all the rest of the Parishoners doe bynde our selves, and them by mutual assents, To howled, observe and mayntayne.

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 19r-19v. 17 August 1589.

The language of unity and consensus used throughout these minutes was especially important for the Stepney vestry’s depiction of itself as a cohesive governing unit, as the group of thirty-two was larger than most early modern vestries, which nearly always consisted of twelve or twenty-four members.[5] In 1599, the vestry elected to increase its number even further to forty. Reflecting the vestry’s large membership, Stepney’s minutes book contains a vast diversity of “hands” (handwriting styles representing an individual) both anonymous and identifiable, giving the book the appearance of an incredible work of joint authorship – an example of this multitude of hands can be seen in the list of signatures included later in this post. Furthermore, a wealth of scribal evidence throughout the book demonstrates that generations of future vestrymen repeatedly returned to the vestry minutes and election records. 

The above table records the names of the vestrymen elected for Ratcliff and Limehouse in 1594; ‘dead’ and ‘gone’ are marked against the names of those no longer on the vestry and the names of future vestrymen are inserted into empty spaces. Whilst the inscriptions of ‘dead’ and ‘gone’ evidence that the minutes have been returned to by a parish clerk or a member of the vestry, it is not entirely clear when any of these notes were made. Joseph Pett’s name is inserted towards the bottom of the list for Limehouse alongside the label ‘dead’ – whilst Pett did become a vestryman in 1599, the next vestry election after the creation of this table, he did not die until 1605. 

Paper Performances and Placemaking

Whilst the surface performance of unity and continuity was important for the vestry’s image as an authoritative collective, the minutes book’s pages also served as a site of social competition amongst the vestry, particularly amongst those of the middling sort that were looking to consolidate and improve upon their hard-won positions.

Stepney’s vestry minutes book was a stage on which displays of skill and literacy were performed. The vestry minutes were produced and consulted in meetings that involved influential maritime figures, meaning that individuals who had earned a place on the vestry, but who were still seeking social and professional advancement, could exhibit their skilled identity in front of – and in competition with – the other local elites. 

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327

Robert Salmon, who served variably as vestryman, auditor, and churchwarden for Stepney parish between 1623 and 1641, was a prominent merchant, a leading director of the East India Company, a sometime Master of Trinity House, and the suggested eponym for Stepney’s Salmon Lane.[6] A conservative estimate, based on the number of signatures made in the vestry minutes book, puts the document in Salmon’s hands and gaze at least fifty times during his tenures. Catching Salmon’s attention through the vestry meetings and minutes could have proved a profitable endeavour.  

From ‘A Map of London and the adjacent Country’, John Rocque, 1746

Whilst it was Salmon’s reputation that placed his name onto the map and into public use, the vestry meetings – and the minutes book itself – also played a part in shaping place and space in early modern Stepney.

As the East India Company’s presence in Stepney rapidly increased, particularly after the building of Blackwall Yard began in 1614, the hamlet of Poplar’s importance began to be challenged by nearby Blackwall. Within the vestry minutes, the ‘hamlet of Popler’ increasingly becomes the ‘hamlet of Popler & Blackwall’, reflecting Blackwall’s rising significance. 

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 108v. 16 April 1650

However, Stepney’s vestry minutes book not only records the ways in which conceptions of local place changed, but evidences active attempts made by vestrymen to shape the places of the parish. Just as the area of Blackwall had been thought of as a subdivision of Poplar, before being elevated to the same status as the hamlet itself, the district of Shadwell began as a part of the larger hamlet of Ratcliff. In 1641, the vestry formally decreed that owing to the difficulty of managing Ratcliff’s growing population, they would divide the hamlet into two distinctly bounded administrative regions. 

Whereas the Hamlet of Ratcliffe is of late so largely encreased by the multitude of buildings & number of Inhabitants […] It is therefore at this vestry ordered & decreed, so farre as in vs lieth, that in the Hamlet of Ratcliffe shalbe chosen two Churchwardens […] 

the Churchwarden of Ratcliffe to have for his division, Stepney, Whitehorse street, Brookestreet, Ratcliffe wall, Ratcliffe street unto the old balist wharfe, And the Churchwarden for Wapping side to have for his division, upper Shadwell, lower Shadwell, Ratcliffe highway, Foxes lane, wapping wall, Prusons Iland, Kingstreet Wapping, Knockfergus, Newgravel-lane & Old gravel-lane.

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

Yet, whilst Ratcliff’s division from Shadwell is explained as an administrative necessity, the vestry’s decree also functioned as a placemaking activity that was closely bound to the control of civic identities. The vestry’s division of Ratcliff into the ‘Stepney’ and ‘Wapping’ sides clearly distinguished the wealthy eastern side of Ratcliff from the much poorer Shadwell to the west. Although both sides had churchwardens to regulate their districts, it was only the eastern ‘Stepney’ side that retained the name of Ratcliff and only this side that was represented on the vestry. Furthermore, whilst the decree’s first item clearly asserted that the two churchwardens ‘shalbe reputed & taken but as one’, within four years Ratcliff’s churchwarden is openly referred to as the ‘upper churchwarden’ over Shadwell’s ‘under’, consolidating Ratcliff’s superiority.[7] That the large majority of vestrymen lived and worked in Ratcliff, rather than Shadwell, is no coincidence.

By formalising the social and economic division between Ratcliff and Shadwell through the creation of parochial offices, and through further repeated appraisals within the vestry minutes of an ‘upper’ Ratcliff and ‘under’ Shadwell, Stepney’s vestry consciously shaped concepts of place within the parish.[8] By 1670, Shadwell had become its own distinct parish, functioning as no part of Stepney at all.

‘Shadwell Churchwarden’. London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

Being elected to the vestry was a testimony to one’s reputation and position within a local community. It allowed middling individuals, who were still working daily to keep their social and economic positions, to assert their place amongst a ‘better sort’ and attempt to fix this achieved position through acts of parochial legislation and record-keeping. Stepney’s vestry minutes book functioned as a tool that allowed its users to demonstrate their skills and project their own envisaged identities, whilst also shaping places and managing the ‘divers others’ that were not a part of the vestry’s ‘unified’ local elite. 

By Michael Powell-Davies
(PhD Candidate, University of Kent, School of English and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies)


[1] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 30r. 26 May 1597.

[2] Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, 1550-1640 (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 206-7.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 30r. 26 May 1597.

[4] For biographies of these individuals, and many others mentioned in the vestry minutes book, see Memorials of Stepney Parish, ed. by G. W. Hill and W. H. Frere (Guildford: Billing & Sons, 1891).

[5] J. F. Merritt, ‘Religion and the English Parish’, in The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume I, ed. by Anthony Milton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 122-147 (pp. 135-6).

[6] Sydney Maddocks, ‘Ratcliff’, Copartnership Herald, 3.26 (1933), no pages. Hector Bolitho disputes this claim, suggesting that the lane is named after an earlier Captain Robert Salmon (fl. 1588) in Without the City Wall (London: John Murray, 1952).  

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 103v. 6 May 1645. Subsequent references to the ‘West’ and ‘East part of the Hamlett of Ratcliffe’ evidences that ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ are appraisals of position rather than topographical references. 

Strangeness, Jacobean Drama, and Chester

BOOK LAUNCH DETAILS: Zoom, 6 October 2020, 6pm. Contact MEMS details in poster below or c.j.davies@kent.ac.uk for a Zoom link:

On 23 April 1610, the city of Chester in the north-west of England inaugurated its new St George’s Day horse races on the surrounding fields known as the Roodee—a tradition that endures today.  To celebrate the occasion, a raft of pageants and activities unfolded all over the city and its environs.  The festivities were recounted in a pamphlet of that year dedicating the races to James I’s eldest son, Prince Henry, which relates how the opening “act” (so to speak) saw “A Man by strange devices climbing to the top of a very high spire steeple”—the St Peter’s Church—and flying the flag of St George, shooting a gun, and “casting Fire-workes very delightful,” all while doing a handstand (Chesters triumph in honor of her prince, 1610; A3r).  This bizarre, elaborate, and visually spectacular performance seems to me an ideal emblem of “strange” performance.

“Strange devices” is a particularly choice phrase, especially in 1610.  Both words have a multiplicity of meanings in early modern English.  I was first drawn to the phrase when researching plays and their contexts in Jacobean England, and it sits at the heart of my book, Strangeness in Jacobean Drama, published today. There will be a launch event and roundtable on strangeness in early modern performance hosted by the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (part of their digital seminar series for this term) on the 8 October at 6pm.  The book’s interest in “strange devices” broadly speaking spans the different meanings of “device”: across verbal constructions (ie how something is written or said) and material technology (a “device” in the sense of, say, a winch or perpetual motion machine).  

My prompt to explore “strangeness” itself as a dramatic concept came when I noticed how many plays in the years around 1610 employed the term or its derivations to describe their technological and rhetorical “devices,” as well as their narrative and generic peculiarities.  Despite its remarkable prevalence in characters’ speech, only two plays use the term in stage directions referring to visual action, both dating from the early 1610s—Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c.1610/11) and Heywood’s The Brazen Age (c.1613): “Medea with strange fiery-workes, hangs aboue in the Aire in the strange habite of a Coinuresse” (Brazen, G2v).

In turn, as the Chester festivities capture, I became especially taken with the term’s ambiguity and mystery. How on earth did the man in Chester climb to the top of the steeple?  A reader is left only to imagine what such a performance looked like.  Recovering the early modern connotations of the word “strange” seemed to me to be an important step in understanding how performance worked, as well as how it was articulated by playwrights, eyewitnesses, or commentators. 

A number of the thoughts underpinning the book have helped me approach the lived experience of Chester for middling individuals on this present project.  For starters, the term strange often speaks to questions of legal and/or geographical belonging, and the port city of Chester occupied a site of particular cross-cultural interaction and multi-lingualism: numerous residents spoke both Welsh and English; Chester was a mid-level trading port dealing with intra-coastal and overseas merchants; and the city sat in this period as England’s main “gateway” to Ireland and was therefore at the heart of the English state’s ongoing project of violent colonisation.  Simultaneously, the city (like many others across England) periodically expressed deep concern about “strangers”—which includes anyone born outside of Chester itself or not “free” to trade in the city, as well as those hailing from outside the nation.  The complex national and racial dimensions that underpin the label “stranger” are laid out in the ERC Tide project’s invaluable Keywords (see “Stranger”), and its enduring significance in this regard (as taken from a phrase in Othello) provides the exposition for Ayanna Thompson’s magnificent engagement with Shakespeare and race in contemporary American performance, Passing Strange

Early modern Chester is also marked by strangeness in other conceptual ways.  Like liberties in London such as the Blackfriars (which also happened to be characterised by a high population of immigrant craftspeople and was therefore especially strange), it sat at the time partly “estranged” from England: it had a complex jurisdictional arrangement as a “Palatinate,” which had for some time given it some autonomy apart from the Crown but whose separate authority was eroded and blurred by Elizabethan legal reforms.  Nonetheless, as Catherine A. M. Clarke has shown, the area’s broader cultural imaginary, formed through historical associations with the long-past kingdom of Mercia, cultivated a distinct “local” identity “which is contiguous—but not synonymous—with ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’” (202).

Such local distinctiveness is clearly visible through the vibrant records of performance in the city and the different “strange devices” at the heart of its musical, dramatic, and tumbling culture.  Indeed, the Stanley family who were Chester’s chief aristocratic champions included one Ferdinando Stanley, AKA Lord Strange (b.1559, d. 1594).  Strange not only gave his name to the London-based performing troupe of the period (whose plays, Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean have shown, have strong regional markers linking them to the area), but the Derby/Strange family were also one of the only named early modern aristocratic patrons of a tumbling troupe (Revels Accounts, TNA AO 3/907; 1582)—a pastime especially popular in the north-west city.  

The term strange occupies a powerful position in the early modern English vocabulary, and it is one tool through which early modern English speakers and writers attempted to understand and articulate the human experience.  It therefore provides a fascinating example of one way in which a culture processes major change in a period of newness, doubt, and aesthetic and linguistic development.  This is just as true of the more “provincial” area of Chester as it is of London or the royal court.  

For early modern England, “strangeness” is at the root of legal questions of immigration and nationhood, it provides the means to make sense of challenging natural phenomena, and it is a site of debate about human communication and how individuals process and articulate their experience of the physical and social world. In the early years of James’s reign, the word begins to take on even more concentrated associations as it fell into the cultural spotlight: how is language related to thought and can words be trusted? What do mechanical inventions signify and to what ends can they be used? How should forbidden or queer desire be expressed?  How can we relate powerful sensory experiences? 

Strangeness in Jacobean Drama aims to plant some of the seeds for exploring these questions and identifying the widespread cultural and dramatic significance of “strangeness.”  In some oblique way, I also wonder if it might tell us something about the experience of living through times of extreme uncertainty and scepticism (something achingly familiar to us in 2020).  For, as I suggest in the book, the early modern concept of strangeness doesn’t simply serve to reflect or accept profound doubt but reacts to it—it represents an “attempt to resist total uncertainty and confusion by constructing open-ended and productively ambiguous aesthetic and linguistic responses.”

Lettice Greene of Stratford-upon-Avon and her World

Stratford-upon-Avon Guildhall

Lettice Greene, like the majority of women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, led a life in which her social status was determined by her male relatives. The life of her husband, Thomas Greene, was very well documented, particularly during the period 1602-1617, when he was town clerk and then steward of Stratford-upon-Avon. Lettice emerges as an important figure in documents made by or pertaining to her husband and other Stratford residents. This blog post presents a portrait of a middling woman who emerges from fragments of text.

Middling women’s activities often have to be glimpsed through snatched words, and their biographies are frequently partial. Their lives, where documented, are often written by men, though they followed very different trajectories: their educational experienced was geared towards skills that facilitated their running of a household, they very rarely gained positions of office, and their luck in marriage often determined whether they lived comfortable or difficult adult lives.[1] Their experiences, however, were varied, and many young women gained apprenticeships and positions of service before marriage and continued to have evolving careers over the course of their lives, as the Women’s Work in Rural England project has shown.[2]

Lettice began her life as the youngest daughter of a landed gentleman of West Meon in Hampshire. Here she would have had a privileged life, and she inherited 100 marks out of the profits of her father’s land. She bought this into her marriage to Thomas Greene, which took place in or around 1603, by which time she would have been in her late 20s. Thomas, although he was entitled to the title “gentleman” due to his education at the legal training centre of Middle Temple, was reliant on wages gained from his work for survival, and their early life in Stratford was spent as lodgers at New Place. Therefore, at this point in her life Lettice could be considered what we are terming “profession-al middling” status (working in or adjacent to a profession or literate role for a living), dependant on the hope that her husband would rise in status and wealth throughout his life. Although this status would have been gained through marriage, and shows a downward mobility from her landed gentry beginnings, from the evidence presented below, it seems that she may also have held this status in her own right, through the work she performed in relation to her husband’s profession as town clerk.

Lettice as a Writer and Networker

Letter from William Chandler to Thomas Greene at the Middle Temple. 26th January 1614. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, BRU15/5/151.

Lettice first caught my attention when I was exploring her husband Thomas’ cultural life through his writing. The letter in fig.1 is from William Chandler to Thomas, who was at the time of the letter, 26th January 1614, away from Stratford at the Middle Temple, where he spent a lot of his time. William asks Thomas for a subpoena out of the Star Chamber for six labourers involved in the enclosure of the common fields at Welcome, to which the Stratford Borough Corporation was opposed. He writes that:

I would intreate you if you have not the note of Remembrance that you tooke concerninge Mr Combe and other busyness at London all ready, then I would intreete you to Right downe to my mother greene that shee may send you the note up to you by the next retorne of the carrier.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, BRU15/5/151.

This sentence tells us a lot about Lettice’s important role in her husband’s professional life. She was clearly literate enough to read her husband’s fiendishly tricky cursive handwriting (which was especially bad in any of his ‘notes’) and could navigate her husband’s working space to the point of locating a particular document. Without his wife’s household management, Thomas might have been left to make do without some important information. Lettice, then, played an important role in mediating between Thomas’ life at the Middle Temple and his Stratford business.

The second document that gives an insight into Lettice’s involvement with her husband’s professional world emerges from Thomas’ diary, which records his conversations and actions during a protracted enclosure dispute in 1614 and 1615. Lettice’s social network of Stratford women gave her information, via Margaret Reynolds, of attempts by the local Combe brothers to buy up land from nearby landladies; this insight was relayed to her in Thomas’ absence, and he then recorded it in his diary when he got back.[4] Lettice was, then, trusted as a source for town news to be written down and Thomas’ recording of the conversation he had with her after his return home demonstrates the social role she played as a gatherer of information.

The third document where Lettice’s presence is marked is on a deed of conveyance for Elizabeth and Adrian Quiney drawn up in 1611, which she signs as a witness in fluent italic hand. Here we get more of a sense of her social connections – she signs alongside her husband as well as Edmund Rawlins (another lawyer) and Judith Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s daughter. She was, then, connected to some of the most powerful women in Stratford-upon-Avon: Elizabeth Quiney, the merchant and landowner, the Shakespeares (with whom she and Thomas also lodged at New Place in the first decade of the 17th century), and Margaret Reynolds, another female landowner. Her handwriting, present in her signature, also hints at her high level of literacy: her ink distribution is even and her hand confident (despite having to add an ‘I’ into her first name – Let^i^ce). The image of Lettice which emerges from these three documents is one of active involvement within her community and embeddedness within a network of socially and economically prominent women.

Lettice’s fluent handwriting, ability to locate and send documents to her husband, and role as a gatherer of information begs the question, just how frequently did Lettice write? Where did it all go? How typical was she of a middling woman married to a professional man who often spent time away for work? I’d been willing to imagine from her handwriting that Lettice was a regular scribe; that maybe she sent letters to her husband in his absences; that maybe she noted down information given to her. Her importance as an administrator only comes to light in a few documents, with her inevitable considerable unpaid labour towards her husband’s professional life hidden – if we had her matriarchive then #thanksfortyping might well be applicable to Lettice’s writing!

Lettice – a Businesswoman?

Although very little information survives about Lettice’s and Thomas’ home ‘St Mary’s’, it was described at its sale in 1617 as having a ‘brewing furnace’ and a brewhouse, as well as some land. This hints at the kind of activity Lettice may have participated in to enhance the household’s income. If Lena Orlin’s research into Anne Hathaway, and her speculation that Anne brewed beer at New Place is considered, it is not unlikely that Lettice, whilst lodging there, picked up this skill and continued it in her own home.[5] Her social circle of women who were economically active and successful in their own right, like Elizabeth Quiney and Margaret Reynolds, would suggest that Lettice also participated in similar enterprises within the town. Middling wives and widows conducted a range of paid and voluntary work within their homes and locales, and so it would not be unusual for Lettice to have generated produce in her brewhouse and on St Mary’s land to sell on.

After the house’s sale, Thomas and Lettice moved to St John’s Parish, Bristol, where, they largely disappear from the record.[6] Sadly, it seems Lettice’s marriage was not as economically or socially advantageous as she perhaps anticipated when she married a Middle Temple lawyer, who had secured a good position of office. In Thomas’ will (the final document in which Lettice can be found) he makes Lettice sole executrix, and bequeaths all of his remaining goods to her his ‘most deare & loving wife, being sorry that I haue noe more (than I haue to doe good a woman)’.[7] This statement is an extraordinary admission of Thomas’ failure to sustain the lifestyle Lettice was born into, but also suggests her important role as part of a team in marriage. Although, then, it is difficult to gain a full picture of Lettice’s life, these small mentions of her activities in documents pertaining to others hint at her varied work activities and the essential role she played in her household’s economic production. Perhaps, then, we might think of Lettice as having more than a supporting role, but as sharing a career with her husband, through her labours in his absence and domestic production of consumables. 

Hannah Lilley


[1] For an introduction to women’s education see: Caroline Bowen, ‘Women in Educational Spaces’ in The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing, ed. by Laura Lunger Knoppers (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).

[2] See https://earlymodernwomenswork.wordpress.com/ and Laura Gowing, ‘Girls on Forms: Apprenticing Young Women in Seventeenth-Century London’, The Journal of British Studies 55:3 (2016), 447-473.

[3] BRU15/5/151. William Chandler to Thomas Greene, Stratford the 26th January 1614. The survival of this letter within the borough archives suggests that either it was never sent, or that Thomas bought it back from London with him.

[4] BRU 15/13/29r.

[5] SBT, BRU15/7/128. Lena Cowen Orlin, ‘Anne By Indirection’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 60.4 (2014) 421-454,  p.447.

[6] BRU, 15/7/125 and BRU15/7/128.

[7] Will of Thomas Greene, National Archives PROB 11/186/420.

NB. Links in text are to Shakespeare Documented and to a Buzzfeed summary of #thanksfortyping.