Sunday, July 5, 2020

A daughter’s desperation, a mother’s mediation: Early Modern Women’s Voices

I’m teaching ‘A Human in the Archives’ class this summer, and was browsing manuscripts on the British Library Digital website (BL Digitized Manuscripts) to find examples of legible letters for transcribing and editing. I love these weekend sessions lingering online with books and papers I would never find through more deliberate and contained searching. This summer, too, I was meant to be in the UK, where I'd have located the relevant sources for my research on women scribes, and looked focusedly at those. The global pandemic’s lockdown might have prevented in-person reading, but it has encouraged dipping-in and -out of primary sources serendipitously.

In browsing around for ‘letters’, I came across London, British Library, Additional MS 32091. It’s a collection of Early Modern English State papers and documents, but there’s also, curiously, a set of twelfth-century Latin folios containing correspondence between the English and Papal courts. I work mostly in the twelfth century; I looked it up. It has lovely purple Ps, one of the rarer colours in manuscript decoration at this time. 

London, British Library, Additional MS 32091
Happy to have seen the Ps and saving them for another day, I then spotted an Early Modern English letter sent by Elizabeth Brydges, Lady Chandos, to Robert Dudley in 1559. The British Library description says the correspondence is about ‘the imprisonment of her daughter on the pretence of bewitching her husband, George Throckmorton’. I skipped to folio 176r to see what was afoot. 

London, British Library, Additional MS 32091, fol. 176r

Quick bibliographical searching reveals relatively little about the writer, Elizabeth, or the daughter, who is Frances Brydges Throckmorton. The only-known existence of this gentlewoman seems to boil down to this letter and a couple of other related documents (for some of which see the very brief discussion in M. Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England, [CUP, 2000], p. 69). The latest scholarly reference to Frances over-hastily labels her a ‘criminal’ (M. White on Frances Throckmorton in A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen, ed. Levin, Bertolet, Carney [Routledge, 2017], pp. 36-37), when she was almost certainly a victim of domestic ill-treatment. Moreover, even with the evidence of this letter, in which Frances is centred but not named, she has been confused with her shadowy sister, Mary Brydges. (It’s irritating, too, to see Google’s insistence on replacing a search for ‘Frances Throckmorton’ with ‘Francis Throckmorton’. Gender-bias in databases, anyone?)

Sudeley Castle, where the eleven Brydges children of Elizabeth were brought up
It turns out that in 1559 Frances had been locked up in ‘close prison’ in the notorious Fleet gaol in London, with only her keeper permitted access to her. Alone, afraid, and aged perhaps only 23, she stood accused of ‘wytchcraft and sorcerye’—of poisoning her husband, George, apparently driving him to madness at the court. That such a crime culminated in this episode at court necessarily meant Elizabeth I—newly crowned—knew and was ‘incensed’ about the situation. Many other courtiers seem also to have known and been involved in deliberations about the case during the late summer of 1559. Frances was ostensibly friendless, where George had witnesses and the advocacy of his powerful brother, Nicholas Throckmorton, diplomat and administrative aide to the Queen. Nicholas was also George's intermediary with William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief advisor, writing an overwrought and dramatic letter, now preserved in the State Papers.

It isn’t known for how many months Frances had been in isolation in prison, but the witchcraft and poisoning is said to have occurred over seven years—presumably the time of her entire marriage to George, which might then have taken place as early as 1552 when she was sixteen. What is particularly moving about Frances's plight is her mother’s explanation to Robert Dudley of how Frances ended up in this situation:

It is so that my said daughter is charged with witchcraft and sorcery, and that she should thereby go about to get her husband’s love, and that the late falling mad of her husband at the court should be caused by her witchcraft and sorcery. All which said matter she denies unto death as untrue and by him surmised and he has brought in certain poor people of no credit or honesty, who by [his] threatening and entreating, have accused her of certain things which she should go about to do about seven years past. Which persons she swears she never knew nor had [anything] to do with them nor with any others, more than looking in her hands.

The urgent denials of Frances can be clearly heard here, as can the recognition of her naivete in ‘looking in her hands’. Perhaps this information came directly from her mother, who managed to visit with her or speak to her through the gaoler. At this time, according to John Stow, Elizabeth lived in Knightrider Street, just to the south of St Paul's and not very far from the Fleet. In the letter, Frances's words show her rejection, under threat of death—and which she would deny to the point of death—any wrongdoing. She claims to have been the victim of a plot to bring about her arrest and execution, a plot devised by George Throckmorton involving the coercing and threatening of bribed and improbable witnesses. She swears that she knows nothing about poisoning him, and has never met these false accusers. What has given him ‘evidence’ is her desire to have him love her, which she has sought to determine and influence through the practice of palmistry, popular in the sixteenth century: the ‘looking in her hands’. This vignette gives us a glimpse into an unhappy and perilous marriage, and unrequited love for the young wife.

The Fleet Prison, London, and its surroundings

Trying desperately to obtain the love of her husband might have been doubly important, because from Elizabeth's letter we learn that Frances is imprisoned while pregnant. This causes her mother to tell Dudley that the situation represents a grave danger to mother and unborn child, and she beseeches him to orchestrate bail for Frances. 

In a flurry of correspondence in August 1559, recorded in the Domestic State Papers (State Papers published by Gale, accessible with subscription), the case was clearly coming to a head. Elizabeth was writing both to Robert Dudley and, as part of a broader campaign, also directly to William Cecil. In the very same week that Elizabeth was writing to Cecil, so too was Nicholas Throckmorton—urging Cecil to see the malice of Frances, the ‘dearness’ of his brother George, and preempting an effort by Frances’s supporters to have the case thrown out: ‘If some devices are sought to colour the matter to the woman's advantage, he heartily requires him, for justice and the example's sake, not to be too much pitiful nor remiss in this case, what suit soever be made unto him for her.’ Cecil, for his part, noted in the State Papers that ‘Of Throckmorton's brother George [I] will write no more, but trust to see justice done upon his devilish wife. All the danger is that her deeds were done before Her Majesty's reign, and so pardoned’.

The best efforts of the violent, coercive George Throckmorton and the 'conspiratorial' Nicholas Throckmorton ('conspiratorial', according to his ODNB entry, by Stanford Lehmberg) seemed to have failed in having Frances condemned. Perhaps because of her mother’s determined intervention, or because of her obvious innocence, Frances was pardoned after a second Commission investigated. It seems likely, though, that she didn’t live long after her imprisonment, since, rather bizarrely, her sister Mary appears to have married George within a year or two. I haven't yet been able to trace Frances's death.

Elizabeth herself died just a few months later in December 1559. She was memorialised in a panegyric epitaph at St Faith's, London, that John Stow recorded. She was a woman of 'honour', a 'worthy Dame', and she certainly fought for her daughter. Through the two letters of Elizabeth, and the emotive efforts of Nicholas Throckmorton, it is possible to see into the domestic lives of an ill-matched husband and wife—he, a manipulative bully; she, naïve and lonely. Not only through the correspondence can we retrieve the voices of a resolute woman negotiating with senior courtiers to save her daughter, we can also hear the resilience of an unjustly imprisoned mother-to-be. We are warned, too, quite emphatically, against trusting tools of prognostication, like palmistry; in Frances's case, trying to secure love through divination proved to be her undoing, almost costing her her life.

John Indagine, trans. Fabian Withers, The Art of Chiromancy, Manuel Divination and Physiognomy (London, 1558)

1 comment:

  1. It's too bad the women accused of witchcraft over the years didn’t really have the supernatural powers of which they were accused. I would so like to read about them devastating the Throckmortons of the world with magical just deserts.