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.

Humphrey Beckham, Craft, and Literacy among the Middling Sort

Section of Humphrey Beckham’s Panel

A common misconception when thinking about those below the level of the elite is that the majority were completely illiterate, with no reading or writing ability whatsoever. Many of those at the centre of Middling Culture were indeed literate, though the extent and nature of their literacy varied. It’s a complex issue, as people learnt to read before writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so just because someone leaves no trace of writing (e.g. a signature) does not mean that they could not read. Equally, “illiteracy” would not preclude a person from reciting a well-known story, recognising an image including Biblical figures, or understanding a street sign or coat of arms (Tara Hamling is going to address visual literacy in a future post). Literacy mattered to people: for instance, an abused apprentice in Bristol was ordered in 1621 to be sent to school ‘for the space of five yeeres together to learne to write & read Englishe’–demonstrating that not giving a middling child apprenticed to a trade a chance at schooling could be considered a form of mistreatment.[1]

 It is, however, very difficult to know exactly how many people had some form of literacy, with David Cressy’s signature-counting study being the most extensive exploration of ability to write in early modern England.  Cressy found a clear upward trajectory in terms of the number of people able to sign their name in witness statements.[2] It is very hard to understand the scale of literacy during the period and to properly assess where people fell on it: someone who could read the Lord’s Prayer and recognise the letters of an alphabet would have a very different kind of literacy to someone who could draw up a simple account, note, or basic will, and they, in turn, possess a different kind of literacy to someone like Shakespeare. Yet all of these people might be of a similar social status. Access to some means of learning to read and write from a parent, school, acquaintance, or at church, would be essential to a person’s literacy, and during the late sixteenth century new free schools and grammar schools were set up to facilitate a growing drive for reading and writing. Many of the boys which came through these schools would go on to occupy trades, hold positions of office, and maybe even become clerks or other kinds of administrators for corporations or parish churches and then create the records we use for our research.[3]

When we think of Shakespeare, therefore, his literacy has to be seen in the context of his family – his father, John, who rose through the ranks of the Stratford Corporation and became wealthy, but who left no trace of an ability to write, and his mother, who was from a wealthy farming family.[4] John Shakespeare clearly reaped the benefits of legal knowledge thanks to his positions of office, and the family had the wealth to allow William the time to go to school and learn to read and write to a high level. In fact, for many tradespeople an ability to read and write was beneficial to their business, from accounting to buying books that inspired aesthetic choices in performances of craft. As such, it is unsurprising that many people of Shakespeare’s status display a range of literate practices in their work or in the documents they leave behind. An example from one of our case study areas, Bristol, is the inventory of William Gethen, composed on the 7th June 1597. He self-authors an inventory of his belongings kept in two chests within the widow’s house he is lodging in, declaring that it is ‘p[er] me William Gethen his in[c]ke’ before leaving Bristol to go on an adventure with one Thomas Vaure.  Although he does not state his occupation, he is probably a middling merchant, and many of his belongings are items he has gathered from various places, including a Flemish chest full of ‘writings’. In writing his own inventory in preparation for sailing, Gethen demonstrates the means to which an individual might put their literacy.[5] Contemporary culture, particularly in looking to the past, often engenders a Two Cultures mind set between those engaged in reading and writing and those who occupying practical pursuits. In reality, these divisions do not play out in practice, and they can prevent our appreciation of the ways skill, knowledge, craft, and literacy interact across many fields.

The Beckhams of Salisbury

Chair Attributed to Humphrey Beckham’s Workshop 1610-1620, Bonhams

 To give an example of a family who display various kinds of literacy and who are of middling status, making their money through the craft of joinery-work, let’s take a trip to seventeenth-century Salisbury to meet the Beckhams.

John and Humphrey are the two eldest brothers in the Beckham family and those who appear most frequently in the records. They grew up on the east side of Catherine Street in the parish of St. Thomas in a large house complete with warehouses with their joiner father Raynold, mother Mary, five brothers and three sisters (ten children in all). In the decades and centuries after his death, Humphrey became quite a famous joiner, with chairs attributed to his workshop by their carved crests. Accounts of his life, however, often describe him as illiterate:

Beckham’s learning reached no further than being able to read the Testament or Psalms, so that want of money added to other circumstances precluded him from all improvement [instead he spent his youth] gazing at the Statue of Henry III in a niche over the Arch of the close gate. ‘Tis very extraordinary what an impression this statue made on Beckham’s mind, he contemplated it from his infancy, and formed his works to that model as nearly as possible.[6]

This 1777 antiquarian account gives the sense that Beckham had no time for reading and writing because he was needed to aid his family’s financial situation and, anyway, he was too busy becoming an extraordinary joiner. But it is worth pausing to ask just how illiterate was Humphrey? After all, he is most famous for a spectacular carved panel in St Thomas’ church which displays Old Testament narratives in great detail.

 The written record of the family clearly contests the antiquarian sources about the Beckhams’ literacy level and, as a family, they really were not very poor (though also not very rich), with Humphrey’s inventoried wealth equalling almost £190 at the time of his death (at the good age of 83). There was also a free school right round the corner from the Beckham household situated in The George Inn. It operated from 1590-1624, perfectly timed for Humphrey and his brothers’ schooling.[7] Furthermore, Humphrey and his youngest brother Benjamin were literate enough to appraise John’s inventory in 1645, and Humphrey also witnessed the will of John Young, another Salisbury joiner, in 1618, and on both documents he was able to fully sign his name.[8] Humphrey’s inventory also mentions that he owned ‘books’ to the value of 5s, a desk, and a coffer: a clear indication that he read and also conducted some writing at home.[9]

Humphrey’s writing practices might also be hinted at in a note made in St Thomas’ Church vestry minutes, which record how, on 14th January 1660:

At their meeting of the vestry Humphrey

Beckham brought in a note for worke

about remoueing the pulputt & some seats

& for cou[er]ing the new font w[i]thin

the whole couer to 4li 15s 5d

& its appoynted that some corse be

taken for paym[en]t w[i]th as much speed

as maii be.[10]

Although it is not clear here whether Humphrey is the author of this note, from his clear signatures and presence of a desk in his home, it seems he would have likely been capable of writing it. As such, Humphrey’s literacy allows him to use writing for practical means – in this case to create a memoranda so that the church vestry pay him for work completed.

John Beckham’s Will

John Beckham’s will  of 1645 offers a powerful case study to conclude this exploration of seventeenth-century Salisbury’s middling artisans and literacy. John was the eldest Beckham brother, and his original will is signed by his brothers William and Benjamin as well as himself. It is idiosyncratically written, with minimal preamble (‘I John Beckham dooe make my laste will and testament I bequeath my soule in to the handes of the allmightie ^god my maker^ and my body to the earth’) followed by a list of bequests, complete with lots of crossings out and additions. [11]  The ink is unevenly distributed across the page and content gets closer together the less space there is to write, suggesting someone not all that practised at writing a will. Although the scribe might not have been John, Benjamin or William, from their signatures it seems they all would have had the literacy to write this kind of will. The inventory, taken by Humphrey and Benjamin, is in the same hand as the will, perhaps narrowing the scribe down to Benjamin, who appears on both documents, but it does not necessarily mean that Humphrey could not have written it too. If one of the Beckham brothers did write this will, however, it gives us an insight into the uses literacy could be put to at a middling level – to create legal records and a written legacy of the goods and chattels of an individual.

The Beckhams’ Cultural Awareness

            Beyond Humphrey Beckham’s panel, which demonstrates acute awareness of Biblical narratives and printed iconography, Benjamin, the youngest brother, also seems to show an interest in a wider textual world. Benjamin bequeaths to his tenant, one William Spencer: ‘one picture of Mary Magdalen one picture of King James one picture of King Charles and one booke which he shall make choise’.[12] These bequests give an insight into the historical interests of Benjamin, with his portraits of past Kings and devotional imagery in the form of an image of Mary Magdalen within his house. Perhaps these interests were shared by his family, to whom he remained close to throughout his life, as illustrated by the brothers’ bequests to one another, witnessing of legal documents and provision of sureties for each others’ debts.

            When assessing what it means to be “literate” among early modern England’s middling sort, it is easy to be swayed by arguments about artisans not learning to read and write, being so dedicated to their craft. But, from the example of the Beckhams, and indeed Shakespeare, it is clear that this was not always the case. With the number of schools rising in urban areas, it boys in towns would have likely been able to access education if their parents could spare children from the family’s means of financial production. Equally, not being literate, in the sense of being unable to read and write, did not mean that people would not have been deeply engaged in pervasive networks of literacy, able to recite stories, recognise images from popular texts, or sing ballads or rhymes.

Hannah Lilley


[1] Bristol Archives, JQS/M/2, 19v.

[2] David Cressy, ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20:1 (1977) and Literacy and the Social Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[3] A particularly well-documented school is Shakespeare’s school in Stratford-Upon-Avon. See: Ian Green, “More Polite Learning”: Humanism and the New Grammar School’, in The Guild and Guild Buildings of Shakespeare’s Stratford (Ashgate, 2012), pp.73-97.

[4]David Fallow, ‘His Father John Shakespeare’, The Shakespeare Circle (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), p.37.

[5] Bristol Records Office, EP J/4/18, Bundle 1542-1601, William Gethen.

[6] Edward Ledwich and Walter Pope, Sarisburienses: Or, The History and Antiquaries of Old and New Sarum (1777), p.211.

[7] <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol6/pp81-83>

[8]Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, P4/1618/16.

[9] Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, P4/1671/14.

[10] Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, 1900/174., fol.71r.

[11]Wiltshire and Swindon Records Office, P1/B/320

[12] Wiltshire and Swindon Records Office, P4/1683/16.