The curious commissions which great ladies in the seventeenth century gave to their male friends abroad, and the presents exchanged among members of noble families, show that many ordinary articles now in domestic use were then luxuries. In 1679, or thereabouts, the Countess of Sunderland writes to her brother, Mr. Sidney, envoy to Holland, in the following terms:—
“I desire you to lay out £20 for me in Dutch wax candles, which my Lady Temple says are very good. I would have them four to the pound, three parts, and the fourth part six to the pound; and some tea if you love me, for the last you gave was admirable.”One would like to know what quantity of candles Mr. Sidney was able to buy for £20, which represented a much larger sum then, and whether the countess kept a private cupboard in which to lock up these precious articles.
Lady Chaworth, in 1676, writes to her brother, Lord Roos, at Belvoir Castle, to thank him, among other things, for a present of some oat-cakes and a pie. She sends him in return a peck of chestnuts and five pounds of vermicelli, some portion of which, she says, is of the same quality as that supplied to the king, who had a consignment of three hundred pounds’ weight. This seems a prodigious quantity, when it is remembered that farinaceous foods were not a staple article of diet. She also sends Lord Roos comfits, which she is pleased to hear that he likes, for she tells him—
“There is four pound of them, and made fresh for you of the purest sugar, though I gave a little more for them.”
Anne Countess of Warwick, wife of the king-maker, was shamefully robbed of her possessions by her sons-in-law, the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester, and was obliged, she tells us, to write many letters with her own hand, in the absence of clerks. She finally got back all her property by Act of Parliament, but she did not keep it. She was either cajoled out of her estates, or her attachment to the king, whom her husband had assisted to the throne, was all-powerful; but, whatever the cause, she passed over one hundred and eighteen manors by private compact to Henry VII.
Another great lady, Margaret Countess of Salisbury, grand-daughter of Richard Earl of Salisbury, had a great deal of trouble in keeping a hold of her possessions. She was engaged in a suit against Henry VIII. to recover a yearly income of 5000 marks from certain of her manors. The rapacious king appears to have yielded, and she afterwards generously presented him with a year’s revenue as an aid in the prosecution of his wars. A revengeful lover whom she had rejected did his utmost to deprive her of her estates by filling the king’s mind with suspicions as to the legality of her claim. She also suffered much annoyance from marauders, who broke into her domain and cut down her woods.
Women of property were very liable to be preyed upon by grasping sovereigns and unscrupulous ministers like Wolsey, who actually led Elizabeth Dowager Countess of Oxford to endanger the cliff at Harwich, which formed part of her estate, in order to supply him with stone for his new college at Ipswich.
The famous Anne Clifford, Countess of Pembroke and Dorset, after struggling with James I. over her inheritance, found plenty of occupation in going to law with her numerous tenants, in building, in causing “bounds to be ridden,” and courts to be kept in her several manors. She seems to have divided her time pretty equally among her northern castles, travelling in state in a coach and six from Pendragon Castle to Appleby, and thence to Skypton and Brougham. She describes her tenants as frequently obstinate and refractory, and evictions were sometimes necessary. However, in the midst of these unpleasant processes, she was building brew-houses, bake-houses, and stables, repairing decayed mansions which had not been inhabited for years, and establishing fresh almshouses for the poor.
The Countess was very tenacious of her rights, and refused to yield at any cost when it was a question of principle. On one occasion a rich clothier of Halifax, one of her tenants, would not pay the one “boon hen” which traditional custom demanded from the holder of a certain tenement. The Countess took the case to the law courts and recovered the hen, but at a cost of £200 to herself and the same amount to her adversary. She much resented interference, and when Cromwell sent down a commission to compose some differences between herself and her people, she politely but firmly refused to let the commissioners deal with the matter at all, saying she preferred to leave it to the decision of the law. As a landlord she did all she could for her county by buying everything from her neighbours and tenants, very rarely sending to London or elsewhere as other great folk in the country were in the habit of doing, and as a mistress she was very kind to her attendants.
Anne Clifford was not singular in her taste for litigation. Walter Cary writes, in 1626—
“These three which have turned things upside down and strangely altered our estate are suits of law, suits of apparel, and drunkennesse.”
The celebrated Bess of Hardwicke, who made her first marriage in 1532, and was a widow for the fourth time in 1609, after the death of George Earl of Shrewsbury, spent much of her time and money in building. It was a passion with her to repair and to erect magnificent piles. She persuaded her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, to begin the building of Chatsworth, which she completed after his death. Near the old home of her childhood she erected a second Hardwicke Hall, and also built a mansion at Oldcote. She has been described by her greatest detractor, Lodge, as “a builder, a buyer, a seller of estates, a money-lender, a farmer, and a merchant of lead, coals, and timber.” She also built herself a magnificent mural monument in All Saints’ Church, Derby. It was her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had for a long time the custody of Mary Queen of Scots, of whose supposed influence “Bess” was so jealous. A significant remark which she made to Queen Elizabeth caused the Earl to be deprived of his fair charge.“did not long for their neighbours’ land, neither sold of their own, but keeping good hospitality and plainly ever attired were very rich.”
The great lady in her own home appears to far better advantage than her compeers at court, who are thus caustically described by a writer of the second half of the sixteenth century—
“The women of the Courte have also their vices. For alwaie we see manie endowed with goodly giftes of the body, fayre, preatie, handsome and comely. Moreover, richly attired in purple, golde, jewels, and ryches: but all men cannot see what filthy monsters do often lurke under those faire skinnes....
“They have mouthes armed for all kindes of clattering trifles with which they utter idle and foolish communication, and oftentimes displeasant to those that be compelled to heare them. For what shoulde we thinke them to speake emong themselves so many howers, but foolish and idle thinges: as how the heare should be dressed, how it should be kembed, how the heare should be coloured, how the face should be rubbed, after what facion the garment should be playted, and with what pompe they should go, rise and sit, and what attire they should weare, to what persons they should geve place, with how many bowinges salute, what women, and whome they should kisse or not kisse, what women ought to ride upon an asse, horse, seate and be carried in a chariote or couche: what women maie weare golde, pearle, corall, chaines, ringes hanginge at their eares, bracelets, ringes and tablets and other trifles of Semiramis lawes.
“There be also ancient matrons whiche tell how many wowers they have had, how many giftes thei have receaved, with how many flatteringe wordes they have benne wowed: this woman talketh of him whome she loveth, that woman cannot skantly forbeare to speake of him whom she hateth, and every one thinketh that she speaketh with the admiration of other women, sometimes they maintaine talke with fonde quippes or very impudent lies. There wante not emonge them cruell hatredes and eger brawlinges, malicious detractions, backebitinges, false accusations and whatsoever be the vices of a naughtie tongue.”All the blame is laid upon the wives by this moralist, and the husbands he depicts as long-suffering martyrs—
“O how sorrowful do thei make their good husbandes when continually they objecte to them their lineage, dowrie, beautie, and other mens mariages, and with scoldinge and tauntinge do weary their husbandes, they alwaies lamente, whilst they dispise housholde and temperate fare, and twite their husbandes with the courtly excesse and being enured in pleasant fantasies and gloriouse ostentation do consume theire riches upon superfluous ornamentes, they bring houses by ruine, sometimes they enforce their miserable husbandes to dishonest and naughtie gaines.”Lady Brilliana Harley, who lived through the Civil War, stands out in pleasing contrast as a quiet domestic character, a model housewife. While her husband, who was actively engaged on the Parliamentarian side, was away from home, she watched over the family interests with the greatest solicitude, and seems to have been her own housekeeper and man of business. At one time she was busy with repairs and alterations to the house, and mentions having to pay five shillings a day to plumbers and five shillings a hundred to them in addition for “casting lead.” She was constantly sending provisions to her son at Oxford University, and sometimes to her husband, and describes with such minuteness the contents of the pies that one feels she must have assisted in the making. Very big pies they were; a couple of chickens would be added as a kind of make-weight, and one of these pasties contained two whole turkeys. As this was a present to her son at Oxford, it may be supposed that Lady Brilliana had hospitable thoughts for the other undergraduates.
Lady Lucas, mother of the learned Duchess of Newcastle, was “very skilful in leases, setting of lands, court keeping, ordering of stewards”—useful talents, seeing that she married a rich husband. After the Civil War, her daughter, who presumably inherited some portion of the property which her mother had so carefully guarded, was reduced to great straits. The Duke of Newcastle’s estates were sold by the Commonwealth, and, the Duke being made a delinquent, his wife was deprived of the usual allowances. She retired to Antwerp, but returned to England and spent a year and a half unsuccessfully trying to obtain some compensation. However, as her chief interest lay in literature, the absence of outward show in her surroundings did not greatly affect her, and she bore her losses very philosophically.
Dependent as has been woman’s position up to the present century, in all the important relations of life, she has always been called upon as a great lady to bear responsibilities and fulfil duties of no light character. In mediæval times they were chiefly domestic, but none the less weighty, for the health and comfort of the household depended upon the “bread-giver.” As social conditions altered, we see the great lady extending her duties outside her own walls, and engaged in what is almost public work. She is frequently drawn into the current of political life, and her position is considerably affected by the religious changes in the country. She comes into prominence as an independent actor in the drama of history, forced oftentimes to stand alone, and beset by trials and cares which only belong to those who have much to lose. In times when the power of the sovereign was more absolute, the position of persons of property and influence, whether men or women, was less secure, and they were liable to a rise or fall of fortune according to the caprice of the monarch. A great lady in the present day could not be brought into collision with the sovereign over the rights of property, as were Margaret Countess of Salisbury and Anne Countess of Pembroke. There is no longer that intimate personal relation between the sovereign and the subject.
The hereditary right of succession to titles of nobility granted by the Norman kings, without distinction of sex, greatly affected the position of women among the higher classes. They acquired a dignity and importance in the eyes of rulers which otherwise they would not have possessed. An heiress who could convey a title and lands to her husband was a personage to be reckoned with and considered. There are numerous instances of men claiming titles and privileges by virtue of their wives’position. Richard Neville gained the earldom of Salisbury, and his son that of Warwick, by marriage with heiresses. But while a woman could thus confer advantages of a substantial kind upon her husband, she still lacked that control over her own property which characterized the position of a wife until recent times. Women’s marriage portions were denounced by writers in the seventeenth century as the cause of wedded misery and sin—
Marriages were arranged among people of good estate and condition with a very frank display of mercenary motives. For instance, we find various relatives of the excellent Sir Ralph Verney anxiously engaged in helping him, after his wife’s death in 1656, to find an heiress for his son. One, Mrs. Sherrard, writes that she has discovered a lady whom she thinks would be a suitable mate for young Edmund Verney—“men and women, being byassed by interest in marriage and not having that firm friendship and love for each other, do seek for a greater happiness abroad.”
“Her father will give her five thousand pounds, and hath but on dafter more, and she is sickly and never licke to mary, and if not shee will have more than enouf, for it is beleved that her father is worth above thirty thousand pounds, and dooth daily incres in welth. I hear shee is not but of a very good disposition.”Another relative writes—
“Here is a match for your sown, Mr. Wilson’s daughter of Surrey (formerly a cittizen) that I think worthy yur consideration; they offer £5,500.”People used plain language in the seventeenth century, and when a match was proposed it was in out-spoken terms. The young people were treated as pawns by their respective guardians, and instead of lawyers settling matters, it was the parents who wrangled over property and drove bargains. There is little difference in this respect between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the following letter of Lady Katherine Berkeley, though it belongs to the Tudor period, might well have been written a hundred years later. Lady Berkeley was wife of Henry, first Lord Berkeley, to whom she was married in the reign of Queen Mary. She is writing to her confidential man of business, John Smyth, about her son’s marriage.
“I have received your letter, but doe not think good to show it to my lord least hee should leave his suits in law whereof I have soe good hope to a dangerous event, with an imagination that out of his own judgment hee could conclude a profitable end upon the overture now made. These imaginations you know have not produced the best effects. If the motion for my son’s marriage proceed I doe then believe the politicke lady will bee glad to come to an end; yet doe I fear her proffer rather proceeds of policy then from sincere meaning. I have observed that when she sees anything bending to our good, then shee proffers an agreement, and yet proceeds in lawe with all extremity.” She concludes by requesting that “whosoever intends to match with my son shall only deale with my lord and mee.”This really meant with Lady Katherine herself. She had but a poor opinion of her husband’s ability, and was exceedingly anxious to keep him by her side. She does not at all approve of his going to London by himself to negotiate marriages or any other business, being confident that he will only lose his money.
“At London younge crafty courtiers will lay baits which will bee swallowed with danger; the safest way is to keep him from London.”Many romances have been written on the carrying off of heiresses by bold suitors. During the Commonwealth some effort was made to prevent scandals of this kind and save women from being married against their will. There was one case that excited a good deal of attention in October, 1649. Mistress Jane Puckeringe was abducted from Greenwich Park while walking with her maids, close to her own house. She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Puckeringe, and an heiress. The abductors were some people named Walsh, a Worcestershire family. Joseph Walsh and his friends seized Mistress Puckeringe, mounted her on a horse, and, having a hoy in readiness, went across to Dunkirk. Thence they went to Nieuport, in Flanders, and shut her up in a religious house. As soon as the affair was made known, there was a great stir in the official world, and warrants were issued for her recovery and for the punishment of Walsh and his companions. Walsh maintained that there had been a marriage ceremony performed. The Spanish ambassador was appealed to, and steps taken that every one concerned in the affair might be arrested. The Council of State in England sent over a Mrs. Magdalen Smith, armed with letters of authority, to seek for the lost heiress and bring her back; and a ship was ordered to go to Nieuport to be in readiness to receive her. The English agent at Brussels, Peter Thelwell, was told to turn his attention to the matter. Still, the winter sped away and Mistress Puckeringe was not restored to her friends, so in March the Council of State again took action and wrote to the archduke. Mr. Peter Thelwell, on his own responsibility, appealed to Prince Charles, which was distasteful to the officers of the Commonwealth, who were not disposed to have any dealings with the Cavalier party, and at last in June, some eight months after the abduction, the lady was sent back to England in a man-of-war, and her captors were surrendered to the English authorities and indicted for felony, the supposed marriage being set aside.
Compiled from sources in the public domain.
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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915