‘Wilfully and with stomach’: Wifehood in Medieval and Early Modern England

While Women’s History Month is a relatively new development, women have of course been active participants in history all along. These three titles from Boydell Press share stories of women who exerted more influence over the course of their own lives, inside and outside of their marriages, than we might expect.

Aristocratic Marriage, Adultery and Divorce in the Fourteenth Century: The Life of Lucy de Thweng (1279-1347), by Bridget Wells-Furby

Three weddings, an affair, a possible attempted murder, at least one abduction, and two funerals. Yorkshire heiress Lucy de Thweng (1279-1347) appears to have led an unusually dramatic life. Her first marriage, contracted when she was a child, didn’t formally end until she was 33—and required her to run away and live in hiding to keep safe while she pressed her suit. Six months after her divorce, she was abducted into a second marriage, which ended four years later in her husband’s death. In 1327, she married her third husband, evidently by her own choice, and remained married until her death two decades later.

During her first two marriages, flouting all kinds of conventions, she had a long relationship (and two children) with Nicholas Meinill, a Yorkshire lord with whom her first husband had feuded for years and whom he had accused of attempted murder. Nicholas also “abducted,” or more likely rescued, Lucy from her second husband. He seems to have been her preferred partner all along, up to his death in 1322. Though this may seem like the far-fetched plot of juicy costume drama, these events, author Bridget Wells-Furby shows, weren’t as uncommon as we might think—they just didn’t all usually happen to one person. Ample evidence of similar happenings in other families provide context to every fascinating twist and turn in Lucy’s memorable life story.

Love and Dishonour in Elizabethan England: Two Families and a Failed Marriage, by Ralph Houlbrooke

A series of unfortunate events. While Lucy de Thweng managed to make the best of a bad situation, Elizabeth Jerningham appears to have made her own fate from the beginning. Elizabeth’s father was either imprisoned or overseas for long periods, leaving her and her mother on their own. This may explain why Elizabeth, with her mother’s help, conspired to entice a wealthy young man, Charles Forth, into a marriage his parents knew nothing about and would never have approved. Although the Jerninghams were Catholic and the Forths were Protestant—not an obvious partnership—the more important thing for Elizabeth and her mother might have been that the Jerninghams were broke and the Forths decidedly were not. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, creature comforts did not make up for a life she didn’t truly want, and the marriage, which occurred c. 1582-1593, turned into a series of unfortunate events.

Elizabeth did not meet the expectations of a dutiful and obedient wife. By all accounts (exept her own), she was relentlessly recalcitrant. She bickered with Charles, sowed discord in the Forth household, had regular assignations with an unidentified fellow, left one day to visit her sister and didn’t return for three years (thereby humiliating her husband), gave birth to two children whom Charles did not believe were his, and was overall, it seems, impolite. Caught in an unhappy situation, her reaction was not to give in—she rebelled in every way possible, ‘wilfully and with stomach’ as quoted by author Ralph Houlbrooke. While her actions may not be especially admirable, her iron will makes her a wonderfully formidable and fascinating character to follow through a turbulent time in her life.

An Elite Family in Early Modern England: The Temples of Stowe and Burton Dassett, 1570-1656, by Rosemary O’Day

Happily ever after, within reason. Unlike Lucy de Thweng and Elizabeth Jerningham Forth, Hester Sandys had only one husband and seemed to like him. She and Thomas Temple were married for half a century, from 1586-1637. During this time, Rosemary O’Day points out, Hester played many roles, in all of which she wielded a significant amount of power: “housewife and manager, mistress of servants, disciplinarian, secretary-cum-accountant, farmer, negotiator, patron, credit and debtor, even litigator.” Hester not only lent money to her own husband and other family members, but also maintained her own assets and kept them secure. She even saved the day when her husband didn’t have enough money to raise a portion for their daughter upon her marriage. When Thomas had a riding accident that he never fully recovered from, his letters reveal how deeply involved Hester was in running their estate. She also seems to have been outspoken, reportedly uttering “unsemely speeches” when angry, and apparently giving cause for her husband to advise her that “Softe fire maketh sweete malte,” presumably meaning, “Please take it down a notch, dear.” When Thomas died in 1637, Hester lived another twenty years, through the Civil Wars and English Republic, successfully managing her own affairs and those of her family using skills she had practiced throughout her married life.

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