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 marraige.  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;

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.