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;

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.”

The Cally Family: Chester’s Early Modern Music Scene

This document details a rather formal conclusion to a brotherly quarrel.

BL Harley MS 2054

Dated 1599, it’s preserved as part of a manuscript “anthology” of copied and original documents from Chester’s administrative past by early antiquarian, Randle Holme II.

The brothers in question, Robert and George Cally, were both musicians, and they seem not to have been able to agree how to share the profits of their profession. This formal accord, signed by both of them, concluded that they should split the shares equitably between them based on the number of sons each had (1 and 2 respectively, at this date, with provision for this to change in the future). Having agreed to terms, they pledged to “Contynue be and remayne of one consorte and to play vpon their instrum{en}t{es} together still in one Company and be loving and frendlie.” The subsequent shape of their careers shows that this happy settlement didn’t last so long… But the Callies do present a fascinating case study of a large family of musicians adept at navigating the social hierarchy, status, and commercial possibilities of musical performance in the early modern city.

Meet the Callies

The Cally/Kelly family were something of a Chester dynasty of musicians. They had been active as musicians or performers from at least the mid-sixteenth century, and the George and Robert of this particular document were at their busiest in the early years of the 1600s.

After their agreement to continue as “one Company,” they seem to have split and sought different areas of patronage in the following decade. George, for instance, became a servant to the Earl of Derby (William Stanley), while Robert worked for Sir John Savage—both local elite figures. In their introduction to the Cheshire edition of Records of Early English Drama, Elizabeth Baldwin, Lawrence Clopper, and David Mills point out how the nature of this patronage arrangement speaks to a complex hierarchy of service: in 1609, under these new employment situations, George accused Robert of “crouching” to Savage (ie being servile or sycophantic), the erstwhile Mayor of the City, and he suggested that working for the mayor was far less prestigious than working for the noble Earl of Derby (lxiii).

Nearly a decade after signing the accord with his brother, George became the first musician to be made “free” of the city (granting him privileges and rights in accordance with his profession), granted in 1608 without any customary fee. He was clearly proactive not only in arranging his financial legacy for his children but in securing requisite status and authority within the city to practice music as a serious trade or profession.

The Case of the Missing Musicians

This proactive approach went further in 1613, when the Chester “waits”—the musicians who work formally for the city—just vanished without a trace! George saw this as an opportunity to petition the City for the role for himself and his company. He asked the Assembly whether he “and his felowe Musitians may be admitted waytes […] in steede of the Waytes now absent fyndinge Instrumentes of his own Charg to perform the service” (REED p. 387 and and Calendar of Assembly Minutes, ed. Margaret J. Groombridge, 1956, p. 66). The Assembly delayed a decision “vntill it may be vnderstoode what are become of the ould waytes.” This tantalising Case of the Missing Musicians notwithstanding, the Assembly did eventually grant the petition, and the mayor even gives them extra instruments on top of those Cally promised to secure himself: a “double Curtayle [a bassoon-like instrument] wantinge a staple of brasse for a reede, and one tenor cornett beinge the Citties instrumentes” (REED 383).

George was also more widely engaged in commercial competition and jostling for status, petitioning in 1615 for protection against “strangers” who were teaching music and dance. His complaint asserts his rights as a freeman of the city and also draws on his newfound public “office” as City Wait; he also emphasises how his musical ability and dance teaching have not only helped keep him and his family of ten children “but hath allso obtained & procured a good respecte and estimacion from men of the best sort & generall fashion truelie sensible and respectiue of the like faculties [of music and dance]” REED 407-08). Cally’s wording confers significant status on the public musician, indicating the role’s respectability and music’s potential for social mobility (and so speaking very closely to Ipswich’s Marten the Minstrel, who likewise occupied important public office as a town musician).

Just Dance 1612

Such musical rivalry is detectable throughout Chester’s rich history of music, play, and performance, sometimes overlapping with its wider leisure industry (especially in drinking!). In 1595, for instance, we hear of Richard Preston from Warrington, a musician who was visiting with his company when he gets into an altercation with an over-eager musical enthusiast (available on the Intoxicants website):

about 10 of the clock in the night upon Tuesday last this examinate and his company were playing upon their night’s music up St Werburgh’s Lane out of the Eastgate Street towards their host Foxall his house and saith that in that Lane Mr William Hicock clerk who came out of John Stile’s tavern overtook them and spake to this examinate and requested this examinate to leave him this examinate’s treble violin to play upon […]

Chester Record Office ZQSE 5/46

After a few drinks, the evening of violin-exchange turns into the theft of the musician’s sword by the drunken Hicock and a violent scuffle. In 1612, a Quarter Sessions case shows Robert involved in similarly impromptu performance, with an apprentice going to a “Sillibub” at Margery Waterson’s house, before meeting Robert Cally at 4 in the morning, whom he asked “to teache him daunce & stayed dancing one hower” (REED 391).

A pamphlet written by T. F. in 1579 offers a lively picture of what such dance teaching might have looked like. Written partly in satire and partly in censure of such revelry, the pamphlet’s speaker tells us how he visited a dancing school in London to partake in some of the pleasures “that were straunge and noueltie [sic] vnto vs of the Cuntrie”:

when wée weare come into the Schoole: the Musitions were playing and one dauncing of a Galiard, and euen at our entring hée was beginning a trick as I remember of sixteens or seuenteens, I doo not very wel remember but wunderfully hee leaped, flung and took on

Newes from the North C3r

T. F. indicates something of what visitors to Chester might meet in the Callies—a distinctly different urban leisure scene from quieter surrounding towns and villages. Such a difference is certainly borne out by the many different court documents of Chester from the mid-sixteenth-century onwards that recount individuals visiting or holidaying in the city, simply in order to sightsee, to drink in inns and taverns, or to meet up with friends. As such, individuals like the Callies helped create an atmosphere of play that was central to Chester’s economy and to the movement of people in and through its streets—in other words, to its local identity and sense of place.

Middling Musicians

The Callies therefore occupied a major role in the festive life of the city, while, even in a court case dealing with bad behaviour, delineating its propriety or respectability, in a similar way to George’s advertising of positive reviews from “men of the best sort.” As he intimates in his petition in 1615, by monopolising the trade of music and dance in the city, individuals like Cally could control its status and ensure that it was taught and performed to standard.

And so the document above signed between Robert and George in 1598/9 testifies to a rivalry developed early in their musical career. It also makes clear that at this earlier stage than the examples above, the two played together in a troupe, ahead of subsequent work for two different elite employers (Savage and Stanley respectively) and eventually for the city (at least for George and possibly for Robert or other Cally family musicians who may have formed part of George’s promised “company”). Despite their various quarrels, their brotherly connection and the longer family history of professional music-playing clearly helps map for them a way to make a living as musicians and dancing instructors. In this, they parallel the extraordinary rise to prominence of Edward Alleyn, a key and perhaps exceptional middling success story, who began as a player in a troupe with his elder brother; Shakespeare’s brother, Edmund, who followed the playwright to be an actor in London, also springs to mind!

The signatures of George and Robert Cally on this document offer a wonderful chance to get a little closer to the rich and tempestuous creative lives of these two remarkable personalities of early modern Chester.

Callan Davies