Mary Herbert (née Sidney), Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621)

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Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676)

Women in Early-Modern English society

"England is the paradise of women, the purgatory of men, and the hell of horses."

John Florio (1553-1625)



Foreign travelers in England commented on the surprising degree of freedom and independence enjoyed by English women - but their standards differed from today's. Certainly, English women were not confined to the home in anything like the way common in the Mediterranean region.


Although it was assumed that women would be supported by their husbands or fathers, and although women were excluded from the educated professions and public office, women moved freely outside the home and many were engaged in economic activities designed to supplement the family budget.


In France, Salic Law excluded women from succession to the throne; but the English crown could descend to a woman if there were no male heirs.
This had happened in 1135, when King Henry I had died leaving no sons - only his daughter Matilda (or Maud). The barons had sworn to accept Matilda's succession but many supported Henry I's nephew, Stephen, instead. The result was civil war. (Eventually, Matilda's son, Henry II, succeeded).


Princess Mary

This was the only English precedent for female rule when  Henry VIII and his wife Katherine of Aragon after many years of marriage had produced only a daughter, Mary. Fear of civil war spurred Henry's various divorces aimed at begetting a male heir.


In fact, there was rebellion when Mary came to accede to the throne on her brother, Edward's death. However, perhaps because Mary's rival - Lady Jane Grey - was also a woman, the uprising was rapidly suppressed.
Jane was executed on Tower Hill, 12 February 1554

Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554)



Queen Elizabeth I succeeded without contest in 1558 on Mary I's death.




Queens were not the only women who could inherit and control property.


Wives were entitled to a jointure on their husbands' death (i.e. control for life of a portion of the inheritance). Widows could therefore be well placed financially - especially if they were widowed more than once.

"I have a widow aunt, a dowager
Of great revenue, and she hath no child:"

(Midsummer Night's Dream 1.1.)


Hardwick Hall

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury (1520-1608) known as "Bess of Hardwick"  was born to a modest gentry family. She married her first husband Robert Barlow, at the age of twelve. Widowed, she married again twice (Sir William Cavendish and then Sir William St. Loe) and was widowed twice more. Finally, in 1567 she married George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, who died in 1590
With her immense wealth, she built Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.



Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) got on badly with both her husbands and outlived them both. Her first husband, Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset (1589-1628) moved his mistress into the family mansion at Knole. Her second husband, the "brutal simpleton" Philip Herbert, 5th Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery (1584-1649) - one of those to whom Shakespeare's first folio was dedicated in 1623 - was also unfaithful on a grand scale as well as being stupid, violent and extravagant.
Her husbands' death left Anne with two rich jointures, but she was also able - after lengthy legal disputes - to inherit the family's land (despite her father's attempts just before his death to bequeath his estates away from Anne to his brother, Francis, and his male heirs). Anne lived to the ripe old age of eighty-six whilst her male rival (Henry, son of Francis, died at the tender age of 52).

Like Bess of Hardwick, Anne poured her money into rebuilding and restoring castles and churches.

Pictured left is Appleby Castle - built in the 12th century and extensively restored by Anne Clifford.



Even women of noble birth tended to be very poorly educated - grammar schools and universities were exclusively male. Only a few women such as Sir Thomas More's daughter, Margaret Roper, and Mary Herbert (née Sidney), Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621) received advanced education.




Not only noblewomen but those lower down the social scale took on new responsibilities in widowhood.


Jacqueline Vautrollier, the wife of a London printer and publisher took over the firm at his death and managed it with the help of his apprentice, Richard Field - a fellow townsman of Shakespeare. Jacqueline later married Field, who printed Venus and Adonis,  Lucrece and other works.


When William Wheeler, a London goldsmith died in 1661, his widow Martha married one of her husband's apprentices - Robert Blanchard. Her daughter Elizabeth, (Blanchard's stepdaughter) married Francis Child, another apprentice, in 1681. Francis Child came to control the whole business - of which banking now constituted an important part - prospered and became Lord Mayor of London and a Member of Parliament. The business became Child & Co. - one of the world's first banks.


"Doctor Ravens, a physician in Cambridge, rich, who had had 2 rich wives, presumed to get into the chamber of a widow, an alderman’s daughter, worth £20,000, and put his leg into the bed; she asked who was there; he answered “Doctor Ravens”; she cried out and company came in.
Thus the tale is told.
He was fined £500, besides imprisonment and other disgrace. The widow’s action against him is yet to come."

(Diary of John Rous , 1628)



Women far lower down the social scale were also forced into business by their husbands' deaths. One traditional means of support was brewing ale.


However, in many cases widowhood brought a severe decline in a woman's standard of living. Many of those supported by England's scanty system of poor relief were widows.



bulletMost early-modern Englishwomen were wives for much of their lives. Only about 15% of women remained spinsters.
bulletMarried women were legally subordinate to their husbands. Most lost control of their property, which under Common Law was subject to couverture, i.e. the wife's legal rights were subsumed into the husband's who exercised control.
In practice equity protected wives from the harsher aspects of their Common Law status, and the Court of Chancery actively protected the property rights of wives and heiresses.

Social theory accepted that women as the "weaker" sex should be subordinate to men, all other things being equal. Women did sometimes exercise authority over men - queen over her realm, mother over son, mistress of the household over servant - but on any particular rank of the hierarchy of social order it was accepted that women should take second place.

Thomas Gataker's Marriage Duties is an example of a fairly standard summary of a wife's duties towards her husband.


"I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?"

(Taming of the Shrew, 5.2)



It was almost universally accepted at this time that wives should obey their husbands and children their parents. Wives were the "junior partners" in the family - superior to children and servants but subordinate to the husband and father.

One of the first to question the subordination of wife to husband was Mary Astell (1666-1731). Astell was a Tory theorist who wrote against the Whigs and in support of the Church of England. She was one of the first to argue that since women were equal to men in intelligence and virtue, they should not be kept in a state of social and political inferiority.



Virtually all early-modern English theorists insisted that husbands should not use physical force against their wives (thought everyone accepted the corporal punishment of children and servants). Familial power was directed to the welfare of its members and did not extend to capital punishment (unlike the civil state).


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