by Elizabeth Norton
Editor’s Note: Today is a very exciting day for the English history of women’s studies!! Two major historical works are releasing that explore the lives late 15th through 17th-century women researched and composed by eminent historians Elizabeth Norton and Sarah Gristwood. Over the next few weeks, Queenanneboleyn.com will be highlighting through author interviews, guest articles, book reviews and extracts both The Lives of Tudor Women, by Elizabeth Norton and Game of Queens: The Women Who Made 16th-Century Europe, by Sarah Gristwood. Pull up a chair as together with these two fine historians we explore the “Gaps in English History”, the extraordinarily lives of powerful, as well as common women. Let’s start with an extract from Elizabeth’s new release, which explores the life of one of my favorite Tudor Era historical figures, Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent.
Of Servants and Masters
BOOK EXTRACT: The Lives of Tudor Women
In late 1524, or early 1525, Elizabeth Barton, a young girl from Aldington in Kent, walked over to the house of Thomas Cobb, a gentleman of the parish. Verbally, they agreed their terms, and within a few days she had moved into the servants’ quarters of his house, high in the attic. She was nineteen years old, but she probably had several terms of service behind her already – stretching back to the beginning of her adolescence. It was the way for most of her peers.
She had received little in the way of education; indeed, one contemporary considered her to be ‘a poor wench without learning’. She knew no Latin, although she could probably read and write, and may have attended a village school until she entered service.
Service was far from unusual for both boys and girls of her class: the vast majority of them spent a period of time as agricultural or household servants. In Tudor Salisbury, for example, in the parish list of 1533 one-third of women and half of men were in service. The parents of adolescents usually assisted in finding a suitable first placement from among families in the local area or from connections further afield. A verbal agreement was then made, tying the teenager into work for one year’s service, in return for a wage.
With that agreement, the adolescent was ready to leave home, packing up their belongings and walking over to the house of their new master or mistress. This period of service was looked on as a transitional stage, in the same way that most girls’ social betters were sent to serve in the households of the nobility. Agricultural servants were young and unmarried – it was not a career, and cases of married women staying in service were rare. While they learned skills and saved for their future, they were also looking to marry and start their own households. And with so many young people entering service, it was also possible for them to gain useful social connections that would benefit them later in life. Young Elizabeth Cooper from Norwich, for example, became lifelong friends with Thomas Sutton, who served in the same household. He would serve as a Sheriff of Norwich in the 1550s and show Elizabeth some favour when she found herself in trouble with the law.
Since service was more of a life-stage than either a career or an indicator of social class, it is unsurprising that the dividing line between the servant and the served in houses such as Thomas Cobb’s was not always strictly drawn. Indeed, it was expected that Cobb – and other masters – would stand in loco parentis. They were obliged to maintain their servant for the term of his or her service, regardless of whether there was enough work or whether the servant was fit to do it. Conversely, servants were not free to leave their employment early, and the courts regularly ordered those who absconded back unless they could prove that they had been mistreated.
Runaway servants might have hoped that they could quietly melt away by securing a better offer elsewhere; and it is true that new employers were often less than rigorous in their checks when employing new servants. Mawdlin Gawen, a young servant from Oxfordshire, found this to be the case in 1575, after running away, with her lover, from service in Teddington. In London, they claimed to a prospective employer, Mr Fluett, that they hailed from Collyweston. Evidently suspicious, Fluett questioned them on the distance of Collyweston from Stamford; but took them into his employment even when they failed to answer. The pair would have been constantly aware that their former master might seek them out.
In 1520, John Smith, a servant of a London draper named Thomas Howell, ran away, after which Howell and his wife expended great efforts and sums in chasing him. Mistress Howell ordered men to ride after him – following his trail for over four weeks all the way to Plymouth. When Smith was finally located, he refused to return until forced to by the court. It cost his master more than £6 to secure his return to unwilling service – a sum that Howell intended that Smith should reimburse. Howell was not considered a bad master, as suggested by the fact that one of his maidservants stayed in his household for at least five years and another for six. They were paid 13s and £1 4s a year respectively, which was considered a good wage, and they each received a new gown every year.
More common than absconding, for dissatisfied servants, was simply moving on at the end of their term, and many maidservants often passed through the service of a number of employers. There would usually be plenty of choice, for even quite lowly households could employ servants. For example, one William Blunte, of Richmond in Surrey, worked as a labourer yet was known to have kept an eleven-year-old girl as his servant in 1559.
By far the majority of servants – including Elizabeth Barton – worked on farms. Her master, Thomas Cobb, was a prominent man, charged as bailiff and steward with running the Archbishop of Canterbury’s substantial estates in the parish. As the archbishop’s most senior manorial officer, Cobb held considerable sway in the local community, his daily life centred on both church and the farm.
Life in rural Aldington was dominated by the grand archiepiscopal palace, sitting close beside the parish church. It loomed large over the little town that nestled close to the winding road taking travellers to and from the ancient port of Hythe. The palace – with its five kitchens, nine barns, six stables and many other agricultural buildings, all set within more than a thousand acres of farmland – dwarfed the other buildings in the settlement. The townspeople proudly displayed their ambitions in the great new church steeple, which was slowly rising, stone by stone as donations and bequests trickled in. It was a project that would never be completed, though it was already the tallest local structure in 1525.
Elizabeth Barton was too young to remember the great Erasmus’s brief tenure as Rector of Aldington, which had begun in 1511; but she was certainly familiar with the new priest, Richard Masters, who had arrived in 1514 and would remain for well over fifty years. He was a scholarly, conservative man, who spent most of his time with his head bent over his enormous library of 113 books, stowed carefully in his chamber in the parsonage.
Farming life was a busy, hard life, but, as contemporaries asserted (based on the Book of Job), ‘a man is ordained and born to do labour, as a bird is ordained to fly’. The year was an annual cycle, with ploughing and sowing to be done, alongside animal husbandry. The main crops were always peas and beans, corn, barley and oats, while horses, cattle, sheep and pigs were usually kept on mixed farms.
Women, either wives or servants, were expected to play an active part in farm life, and this would have been no less true for Elizabeth Barton. They had their own specific and vital jobs to do; not for nothing did the old saying maintain that ‘seldom doth the husband thrive, without the leave of his wife’. On waking, the women of the house were enjoined to first say their prayers, before sweeping and tidying. It was then time to milk the cows, feed the calves, and wake up the children of the family before preparing breakfast.
Women carried corn and malt to the mill, as well as attending to brewing and baking, and making butter and cheese. They fed the pigs and dealt with the poultry. It was also the wife’s job, assisted by the female servants, to prepare a kitchen garden in March, sowing the seeds and herbs that would ‘be good for the pot and to eat’. They would need to plant flax and hemp, too, which they would later spin into cloth for towels, sheets, shirts and smocks, while they also prepared the sheep’s wool for clothes and blankets. For servants such as Elizabeth, there was at least variety within the yearly cycle of hard toil. In towns, servants’ work could be even more varied, where a good position could see girls involved in their employer’s trade, either through work in the shop or in manufacture.
Thomas Cobb was by all accounts a diligent master, aware of his contractual obligations and prepared to fulfil them. At Easter 1525, which can only have been weeks, at most, after Elizabeth Barton was hired, she fell dangerously ill – ‘touched with a great infirmity in her body’. Sometimes her throat would swell so much that she writhed in agony, struggling for breath as ‘though she had suffered the pangs of death itself’. There was considerable fear that the swelling ‘was like to stop her breath’. At other times she was quieter, but still very sick, her illness coming in fits and starts. As her sickness progressed, she was carried out of the servants’ attic and down to a room that she shared with one of Cobb’s young children. The baby, which slept in a cradle close to her was also dangerously ill, so it was thought the pair could be nursed together.
Elizabeth was still very ill in November 1525. During all this time her master had been paying for her food and care, in spite of the fact that she could carry out none of her duties. He must surely have been intending to end her employment when her year’s term was set to conclude, at the start of 1526. That was soon set to change.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Norton is a British historian that researches and writes primarily of the women contributing to English medieval history. With MA degrees in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and a MA degree in European Archaeology from Oxford, Elizabeth certainly is multi-talented and highly gifted. Elizabeth completed her doctoral research at King’s College, London where she researched the Blount family of Shropshire. Elizabeth also researched and released a non-fiction book focusing on the remarkable life of Elfrida, England’s first crowned queen, further broadening her expertise of England’s most remarkable female historical figures. For more information, visit Elizabeth’s website at ELIZABETH NORTON.
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