Woman's estate in Elizabethan England

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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?)

Joris Hoefnagel Fete at Bermondsey c 1569 wikiped 1

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.

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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.

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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 aEnglishmen for my Money 1 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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