Everyday sedition: Women and religion

We tend to look at centuries past from a broad perspective. We note that in the sixteenth century religion and politics were intricately intertwined. We know that in the past, nearly everywhere on earth, and even now in the so-called first world, that politics in the broad sense is a game played by men. We have learned how restricted women’s roles were in the sixteenth century; legally, they had almost no standing. They couldn’t hold public office, attend universities, preach, or even just go out and find a job in an office or a shop, except to clean the place.

We look at the published records of political events and conclude that women were powerless victims or manipulated tools, apart from the occasional queen. That conclusion is not entirely correct, at least not in the Elizabethan period.

Religion begins at home

Portrait of Chiara Albini Petrozzani with their children in prayer. Painting attributed to Pietro Facchetti (1535 or 1539-1619). Mantua, Palazzo Ducale. Credit: DEA / G. Cigolini Getty Images

Religious people generally begin to inculcate their children from birth. Certainly fathers have a role in this, often a very strong one. The expectation in the sixteenth century was that male heads of household laid down the law of religion in their homes just as male governors laid down the law of the land. Objection from the wife wasn’t likely, since common religion was a major factor when choosing a mate. Once that law was defined, however, it was the mother who taught the rules and enforced compliance on a daily basis.

Mother managed the household routine from rising to going to bed. Wake, rise, pray, dress, eat breakfast, feed chickens; how is that list ordered under her roof? If she could read, she probably taught her children to read from the family bible. She made sure everyone said their prayers at the appointed times and in the appointed fashion and got everyone dressed appropriately and herded to church at the appointed time.

If she was the wife of a prosperous man — a gentleman or substantial yeoman or merchant — she also had a household full of servants to keep on the straight and narrow, if she was the straight and narrow kind; not everyone was. Individual families varied considerably as to actual practice, even though attendance at church on Sunday was officially mandatory. You could daydream through the services if you wanted, after all, thinking about who you’d meet at the tavern afterwards.

Religious dissidents

The idea of religious tolerance was many long years in the future. Everyone believed that everyone ought to believe the same thing; at least, that was everyone’s public opinion. Privately, people insisted on doing what they wanted, the way people everywhere continually insist on doing. (You’d think the authorities would get a grip on this fundamental concept.) English persons who were mild about religion in the first place, or who genuinely agreed with the queen, shifted easily into the beliefs and practices of the established church. Others dug in their heels.

Catholics were the most notoriously non-compliant. They clung to their old religion — their saints and icons, their incense and masses, their rosaries and counted prayers — in spite of considerable risk to their lives and property. I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you how: the women did it.

Women maintained private chapels or transformed the library into a place of worship twice a day. They purchased and kept in order altar cloths, candles, incense, wine — everything needful. They hired like-minded servants and compelled their loyalty by all the usual means (persuasion, salaries, possibly sometimes threats.) They offered house-room to priests who slipped off to the Continent to be educated and then slipped back to sustain the faithful and make new converts. They passed banned books and pamphlets from household to household.

This is work, ladies and gentleman; this is active sedition on a daily basis. Without these women and these sheltering households, Catholicism would have vanished shortly after Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Men can yak away in their parliaments and council chambers, but the humble home is where the rubber meets the road.

The untouchables

These women were very difficult to prosecute, thanks to their stunted legal status. Married women were almost non-persons. How can you arrest a non-person? “[A]lthough wives could be indicted and convicted, they could not be fined, and forfeiture could not be made nor distraints levied upon them during their husband’s lifetime, since the wife had no property of her own to distrain (Rowlands, p. 152.)”

Their husbands could be prosecuted, and if the husband died, the widow might lose up to 2/3 of her jointure, but that doesn’t seem to have discouraged many Catholic women. But “even if the recusant was indicted, the ultimate penalty for refusing to appear was outlawry, and this could not be imposed in the case of a married woman. She had no property or civil rights and could only be ‘waived’ (Rowlands, p. 152.)”

Widows were impossible, thorns in the sides of the authorities. In 1586, Parliament passed an Act attempting to clarify measures that could be taken against recalcitrant wives, to little avail. The mighty men of Parliament and Privy Council debated the issue again and again between 1591 and 1593. “In the year of the Armada, 1588, the Sheriff of Cambridge begged to know how to proceed against women recusants ‘whom he dare not presume to apprehend without advice’ (Rowlands, p. 153.)”

I envision a haughty, disdainful, righteous middle-aged woman standing in the hall in full regalia — skirts some 60″ in diameter — facing a pair of young constables or even justices of the peace with their hats in their hands, wondering if their mothers have any idea what nonsense they’re perpetrating at this moment. “I hope not, Madam,” they say as they back steadily out the door to make their escapes.

Some women were arrested of course, and prosecuted, and imprisoned, and sometimes even hanged. These would be your honest tradeswomen, not gentlewomen. Only 3 women were executed for harboring priests during this period, however, compared with 27 men.

More thorns on the other side

Catholics, as we have seen, weren’t the only contributors to religious strife in Elizabeth’s time. Many people believed the official church had not gone far enough up the road to Reformation. Churches still had altars; ministers were still called ‘priests’ and still wore Romish costumes. Why would anyone want anything but plain bread served to everyone around a plain table?

The official policy sought to constrain, contain, or even imprison radical Protestants, even though they had sympathizers at the highest levels, like the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s favorite. One of the many things I love about her was her staunch refusal to be pulled out of the middle, religiously speaking.

Here again, women, especially widows, played a sustaining role. Lady Anne Bacon sheltered a changing community of non-conformist preachers who had been expelled from their native parishes for being too radical. I can’t find those notes now, but I think Robert Browne may have spent some weeks at Gorhambury enjoying her hospitality. She thumbed her nose at the authorities, relying on her status as the widow of a Lord Keeper and sister-in-law of the Lord Treasurer.

Punishment that fits the crime

The better sort of religious dissident, if punished at all, might be sent to live with a family known for their staunch and centrist Protestantism. Margaret Throckmorton, Catholic matriarch of a very troublesome family, was put in the care of the Dean of Gloucester. In practice, that meant she was supervised by the Dean’s wife, with whom she doubtless spent many hours sewing in the parlor.

Aren’t we glad we weren’t there? Although now that I think of it, it could be fun to put my characters into such a household at such a time. You know somebody was thinking about murder, stitch by long-suffering stitch. The picture shows some of Mary, Queen of Scots work, done perhaps during her long years in the custody of the unshakeable Countess of Shrewsbury, aka Bess of Hardwick.


Rowlands, Marie B. 1985. “Recusant women 1560-1640,” in Prior, Mary, ed. Women in English Society 1500-1800. Pp. 149-180. London: Methuen.


Woman's estate in Elizabethan England

A loophole

This post takes a look at the legal and economic status of women in early modern England, based mostly on Amy Erickson’s research. She’s interested in ordinary women — the ~70% between the gentry and the very poor. One of her contentions is that “women had an economic importance within the family which we continue to overlook.” She searched for evidence in court records and wills, and found quite a lot to support her hypothesis.

One of my contentions is that women in historical fiction could be far more active as protagonists, more in charge of their own destinies, than the average novel allows. My characters, like many real women of the past, are always looking for those loopholes that will let them do what they want and get where they want to go.

A few statistics

In the late 16th century, we find about 46% widows, 34% married, 7% singlewomen. I know, it doesn’t add up to 100, and I carelessly failed to note the source of the numbers. 7% is far too small to include young women who have not yet married. Still, we can take it as a ballpark for the period.

Erickson notes that up to 20% of the female population never married. Male historians tend to assume economic pressures as the reason; Erickson recognizes that women might remain single by choice. She quotes Alice Thornton, age 23 in the 1650s: “As to myself, I was exceedingly satisfied in that happy and free condition, wherein I enjoyed my time with delight abundantly in the service of my God…”

45% of women could expect to become widows. 74% of widows lived as heads of households or alone. The other 26% must have lived in the homes of their adult children. Ordinary women didn’t have access to divorce, but the unhappily married could wait for nature to take its course — or help it along. The broadsides are full of cases of impatient spouses murdering one another!

We can contrast these statistics with modern demographics. Pew Social Trends says marriage is declining (although perhaps gay people will revitalize the institution, now that they can.) In 2012, 20% of adults over 25 had never married (23% of men, 17% of women.)

That’s a rather dim-witted starting point, since Wikipedia’s article about American demographics says, “In 2010, the median age for marriage for men was 27; for women, 26.” That’s almost identical to Elizabethan England!  Pew notes that in 1960, only 10% of men and 8% of women in this age range had never married. Perhaps that was the peak.

According to the Widows Bridge, 32% of women aged 55 and older are widows (U.S. Census, 2000.) Everyone says, without citing the source, that in the modern U.S., 40-50% of marriages end in divorce.

Statistics are curiously both boring and fascinating. To sum up, we have vastly fewer women who never marry in early modern England, and more, but not vastly more, widows. No divorcees, of course. People married for life, like it or not, but lives ended earlier.


(Modern female scholars write that as one word for some reason; indexability, perhaps?)

Detail, Joris Hofnagel, 1569, Fete at Bermondsey. Source: Wikipedia

Girls could consent to marriage at age 12, although this was strongly deprecated for all but the uppermost with estates and titles to secure. They reached the age of majority at 18. (Boys had to wait to age 21.) A woman that young would have to be orphaned, bereft of male relations, and devilishly strong-minded to control her own property at that age.

Many young people of the middling sort, perhaps a majority (I can’t find a percentage in my notes), spent the period from late adolescence to marriage (roughly ages 15-25) in service; house work for women, craft work for men. Population was growing at a noticeable rate and prosperity also rose for the better-off. This meant there was a rising demand for domestic workers.

A young woman who came into a bit of property would likely be in a supervised situation, and her employers would advise her. She would probably lend them some of her small wealth, since she wouldn’t be able to do anything else with it. No banks or Christmas funds. We know such lendings happened because servants sued their masters and mistresses for the recovery of the loans. Erickson’s book is full of delightful anecdotes of such cases, drawn from court records.

If a young woman inherited sufficient chattels or property, she would probably start scouting around for a suitable husband. She would go to dances and sermons in neighboring villages like the gals at the Fete in Bermondsey.

The state of matrimony

Most women married, usually in their mid-twenties. Marriages among the ordinary sort were often arranged by the young people themselves, in consultation with family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. The negotiations were usually conducted by older women: mothers, aunts, and mistresses.

What did they negotiate? The bride’s portions, of course — the property a woman brought to her marriage. (It’s the same as a dowry, but the term ‘portion’ was more commonly used in this period.) Young women put together a portion from various sources: inheritance, gifts from parents, wages as house workers. Grooms also ponied up, but their contributions went to establishing the new household.

Size mattered. “At some level, a bride’s portion was not merely a nest egg for the new household — it was a token of her character, and thus of her sexual honour.”The bride would essentially trade her portion for maintenance during the marriage and a sufficient jointure if she were widowed. Her portion would thus indicate the standard of living she expected to enjoy.

A moveable asset.

The property a woman brought to her marriage came under the immediate control of her husband. “The moveables she lost permanently; the leases she might recover if she survived her husband and he had not disposed of them during his lifetime.”

The marriage settlement might consider three categories of property:

  • A separate estate – specified properties held in trust for the wife’s use during her coverture.
  • Pin-money’ – an annual allowance for household and personal items like clothing. A widow could claim up to a year in arrears from the husband’s estate.
  • ‘Paraphernalia’ – clothes, jewels, bed linens, plate.

Coverture is the principle by which a wife is legally “covered” by her husband. She had no legal standing and thus could not sign a contract, borrow money, or make a will in her own name. Women found ways around the restriction — there is evidence in the court records of wives operating independent businesses, especially in the food service industry (alehouses, inns). Equity courts, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, would sometimes accept cases brought by married women acting on their own. But married women, unfortunately, tend to disappear from the public record.

More chattels.

Coverture is why marriage settlements were so important. “A marriage settlement was a legal evasion of the law of coverture and dower, in the same way a will was an evasion of the law of intestate inheritance.” The settlement both makes explicit that expectation of marital standard of living and provides for the woman’s widowhood.


When the husband died, the woman emerged from coverture and became a legal entity under her own name. She could now sign contracts, borrow and lend money, manage her own property, and make her own will. In fact, widows who had a little property or a family business were frequent lenders of money, actually an important economic resource in this pre-banking period.

Widows supervised their late husband’s businesses, maintaining the family income until a son could come of age or a daughter grow up and marry. Clever widows framed all their economic acts, including extended lawsuits, as being performed selflessly on behalf of their poor fatherless children.

The widow Agnes Lee kept a London tavern, the King’s Head. When she agreed to marry William Rawlinson, a plasterer, he delivered to her an indenture (a contract for labor or payment of a debt) which she passed on to “one Lee in Fletestrete a cutler to be kept to her use.” She ended up suing for it in Requests. I’m not sure what the indenture guaranteed — probably a set sum of money to be reserved for her if she survived him — but it’s a good example of a widow of the middling sort taking legal steps to safeguard her financial future. She was probably not literate, let’s remember. She would have hired a lawyer to draw up the indenture.

“Between 1602 and 1606 Petronella Samyne, a London widow, acted as the English representative for her two sons, importers of silk who spent most of their time in Verona, Italy. Their business required a very heavy investment: in 1602-3 alone her sons sent eleven bales of silk to England, to a total value of around L2,500.” Now, there’s a character waiting for a role!

Your astute craftsman would keep his eyes peeled for a ripe widow in possession of her late husband’s workshop. Wealthy, lusty widows and the men who scrambled after them became staples of comedic plays from Christian Custance in Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister-Doister (1552) to the Widow Blackacre in William Wycherly’s The Plain Dealer (1675.)

In reality, most widows were probably worse off after the death of their husbands. Sad, true, but much less fun to write about. I like strong-minded, independent, pro-active women and widows are the most likely to fit that bill in my period of interest.

The Widow Blackacre had this to say about a woman’s estate: “Matrimony to a woman is worse than excommunication in depriving her of the benefit of the law.”



Erickson, Amy Louise. 1990. “Common law versus common practice: The use of marriage settlements in early modern England, The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Feb 1990), pp. 21-39.

Erickson, Amy Louise. 1993. Women and Property in Early Modern England. London: Routledge.

McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston. 2005. Working Women in English Society, 1300-1620. Cambridge University Press.

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