I always find it interesting to read about different women’s experiences throughout history. During each stage of history, there is always a backdrop by which to understand the people of a particular time. This backdrop includes social, economical, political, and cultural factors that all roll together to influence what people believe and how people behave. And the key to understanding people properly is to understand their “backdrop”.
The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser (2002)
I have recently finished reading The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser, about women and their role in seventeenth century England. It is a fascinating account of real women and what they did during this period.
During the seventeenth century, it was often proclaimed that women were the weaker sex. This term was preached from the pulpit, professed in poetic verse, and generally acknowledged by everyone. However, it was unclear exactly how far to extend that precept. Women were certainly weaker than men physically, but there was more uncertainty as to whether women were weaker spiritually or intellectually.
In any case, women often viewed themselves (that is, their own sex) as weak, so much so that they often apologised when a show of strength was required in order to endure whatever circumstances confronted them.
Marriage and Love
No passion could be long lived, and such as were most in love forgot that ever they had been so within a twelvemonth after they were married.
Fraser examines women in the context of marriage in the seventeenth century, where marriage, at least in the upper classes, was often a financial transaction settled between parents. Whilst there was consideration for the suitability of the prospective spouses for each other, this manner of arranged marriage did result in some unhappy marriages but it also resulted in some happy ones too. What we would call love was not actively sought when marriage was contemplated, and was even thought to somehow damage the offspring of such a match. However, Fraser gives several examples of couples who had somehow developed this mutual love in their relationship (or beforehand) and there is little doubt that they certainly enjoyed their life together more.
“Dost thou love me?”, Elizabeth Walker would ask of her husband, smiling. To which he would reply, “Most dearly.” “I know it abundantly,” she would answer, “to my comfort; but I love to hear thee tell me so.”
Often, after the death of a spouse, the obituaries or memoirs conveyed hauntingly how treasured this love had been that had developed during a marriage. Ann Fanshawe had endured much with her husband, Richard, during his life, including an escape from a plague-ridden town after first fleeing Cromwell’s troops. They also had an eventful – and frightening – voyage to Spain which included an imminent capture by a Turkish ship and a violent storm which almost resulted in shipwreck. However, their lives together were peppered with that very mutual respect and even, on occasion, passion [God forbid!] that good marriages are built on. Ann, when writing to her son after her husband’s death, said:
Now you will expect I should say something that may remain of us jointly, which I will do, though it makes my eyes gush out with tears, and cuts me to the soul, to remember and in part express the joys I was blessed with in him. Glory to God we never had but one mind throughout our lives, our souls were wrapped up in each other, our aims and designs one, our loves one, and our resentments one. We so studied one the other that we knew each other’s mind by our looks; whatever was real happiness, God gave it me in him…”
Ann Lady Fanshawe
There are many accounts of women greatly fearing the pain accompanying child-bearing. And it was not only the pain, but the reasonable expectation of death – either during or afterwards.
These are doubtless the greatest of all pains the Women naturally undergo upon Earth.
Jane Sharp (midwife)
And labour was not the only peril of motherhood. The high infant and child mortality rate meant that many women buried many more of their children than they reared. The grief of losing children, and sometimes losing many children, was often enormous and was not lessened by the fact that death could be reasonably expected. Fraser cites many first-hand accounts of parents whose “great affliction” was all-encompassing.
We are so comfortably sure that the poor innocent babies are taken out of a naughty world to be very happy, that I have often wondered at the excessive sorrow I have sometimes seen on these occasions.
Anne Digby, Countess of Sunderland
One of the things that most intrigues me about history is the up-and-down nature of progress. Often we think of the rise of women’s rights, for instance, as progressing in a rather linear manner; that is, each generation builds on the advances of the previous one. However, quite often generations “lose” the advantages, progresses or knowledge of previous generations. This is particularly so in the case of women’s education in the seventeenth century.
The sixteenth century had been presided over by a particularly strong woman, that of Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign it became acceptable, even a mark of elegance, for a woman to learn the classics, including Latin, Greek, arithmetic, writing, and music. Indeed, even the Queen could translate Latin to Greek! However, the next monarch, James I, did not share the same opinions as his predecessors and so education declined to a more basic sort for young women (music, dancing and French), which inevitably lead to a decline in female literacy.
This verse written by Anne Bradstreet summed up the change well;
Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,
Know ’tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the sisters Queen Mary II and Queen Anne had lamentable education for their eventual roles as monarchs. Mary, luckily able to leave state matters to her husband, William III, confined herself to refined accomplishments such as needlework, while Anne was known to have an appalling knowledge of history and geography with dreadful spelling and grammar. They are in stark contrast to the Queen of the previous century.
The most advantageous daughters, in terms of education, were those who had a learned father who believed in the importance of education, and Fraser cites several examples where a significant parent radically altered the educational experience of their daughter.
During the middle of the seventeenth century a civil war raged in England. Charles I had taken great liberties with his powers of kingship and had eventually been overthrown, put on trial and executed. Oliver Cromwell took the reigns of government and what ensued was a nine year war between the exiled heir to the throne, Charles II, and Cromwell’s troops. Naturally the nation divided. On one side stood the Parliamentarians and on the other the Royalists.
There are many examples of women taking extraordinary roles during this period of wartime, generally involving feats of strategy, strength, determination and cunning that was deemed beyond the bounds of female ability but was applauded nonetheless.
My dear wife endured much hardship, and yet with little show of trouble; and though by nature, according to her sex, timorous, yet in greatest danger would not be daunted, but shewed a courage even above her sex.”
Sir Hugh Cholmley
There were great ladies who defended their great homes when under siege. The Countess of Derby successfully defended Lathom House against attack for over three months until reinforcements could arrive. The Marchioness of Winchester was valiant in the siege of Basing House, with her and her ladies casting bullets out of the lead stripped from the castle, and held out for over two years before falling to their attackers. Lady Bankes of Corfe Castle only had her daughters, her waiting women and a garrison of 5 soldiers to defend her home, and managed to hold out successfully against a troop of 500 men. Eventually this castle fell in a subsequent siege when one of her soldiers smuggled enemy troops into the castle under the guise of reinforcements. Brilliana Lady Harley successfully defended Brampton Bryan Castle from attack for 10 months. After only one month of relief the siege began again but this time she became sick with an illness and died, leaving her great house to fall to its attackers within three months of her death.
Then there were other women who defended their towns from attack by helping to construct fortifications. They fought fires, threw stones and suffered injuries.
Still other women dressed like men and went to war so that they could follow their husbands. In these cases it was often expedient to adopt soldier’s dress, but there is evidence that some women actually fought (with weapons) as – what came to be known as – “she-soldiers”.
Her Husband was a Souldier, and to the wars did go,
And she would be his Comrade, the truth of all is so.
She put on Man’s Apparel, and bore him company,
As many in the Army for truth can testify.
The Gallant She-Souldier (1655)
Women of the lower and middle classes needed an income like anyone else, and could often be found working as ale-house keepers, linen drapers, tobacco sellers, booksellers, merchants, and shop-keepers. The type of occupation a woman had was usually a result of some sort of family connection to a particular industry. Mrs Constance Pley assisted her husband with his business in the manufacture of sailcloth, which was supplied to Cromwell’s Navy. However, when the business became a partnership and was expanded to include manufacture of hemp and cordage and the importation of canvas, Mrs Pley became a key part in keeping the business productive. One of her roles was to correspond with many navy officials, often demanding outstanding payments for wares already delivered. Her business partner, Mr Bullen Reymes, even said that the business “would have been aground long since but for his woman partner.”
Pray be punctual with her [Mrs Pley], she being as famous a she merchant as you have met with in England, one who turns and winds thirty thousand pounds a year…
Sometimes a widow, able to control her assets after the death of her husband, was able to use her capital to start her own business. Joan Dant, a widow, became a pedlar and imported and sold wares in and around London. By her death, she was able to bequeath 9000 pounds to be distributed by her executors.
The upper classes of women would normally rely on income from the family estates, but women here could also conducted business. Anne Russell, the Countess of Bristol, had a licence to import and sell wine, and did so until she was 80.
There are many more illustrations of actual women and the lives that they led within this book – religious women, women teachers, actresses, prostitutes, and midwives – more than I could include here. Each one serves to illustrate the breadth of experience of life that women had in the seventeenth century. Far from being the mere seventeenth century ideal in virtuosity and obedience, in reality there were many women who led much more active lives within their social circles. It makes for interesting reading.
To conclude, I found one particularly poignant sentiment communicated between a mother and her daughter; one which probably still applies today.
Believe me, child, life is a continual labour, checkered with care and pleasure, therefore rejoice in your position, take the world as you find it, and you will I trust find heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
Rachel Lady Russell (1695)
What would You want in a Wife?
Sarah Hurst’s Diaries: From 1759 to 1762
Sources and Relevant Links
All quotes from The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, by Antonia Fraser – buy on Amazon