Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Evangelical ladies

The most recent tutorial I gave on sixteenth century women concentrated on that distinct group of aristocratic or gentlewomen who adopted evangelical religion, and its consequent politics, in the 1540s and early 1550s. As a group they do not appear to have successors in the later sixteenth century - perhaps Gloriana simply put everyone else in the shade.

They include Queen Katherine Parr, Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, heiress of the Willoughby de Eresby family in Lincolnshire, second wife of Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk, and ancestress of the Bertie families, her step-daughter Frances Duchess of Suffolk and her daughters Lady Jane Grey, Lady Catherine Grey and Lady Mary Grey. For these four I would recommend Lucinda de Lisle's biography The Sisters who would be Queen, as a balanced assessment of their lives , families and times. In addition there was the assertive Anne, Duchess of Somerset, wife of the Protector, Anne, Countess of Sussex and Anne Askew , whose life and death, shaped by those who used her to attack more prominent figures is in many ways a counterpart to that of the Catholic Nun of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, in the 1520s and 1530s.

As a group they were related, or part of patterns of connection and friendship, and the extent to which they influenced one another looks not inconsiderable.  As supporters of evangelical ideas they were serious and articulate and cannot be seen as mere followers of ecclesiastical fashion. Thanks to John Foxe both Ann Askew and Lady Jane Grey acquired a hagiography as martyrs for the Protestant cause. 

File:Catherine Parr.jpg

Queen Katherine Parr

Image: Wikipedia

Catherine Willoughby, drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger

Katherine Willoughby,
Duchess of Suffolk

Drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger

Image: Wikipedia

File:Frances Brandon.jpg

Frances, Duchess of Suffolk

Image: Wikipedia

Portrait of a Lady, possibly Lady Jane Grey, c.1545-47 - Lievine Teerlink
Lady Jane Grey

This miniature by Lievine Teerlink is now considered to be the only,
or best surviving, likeness

Image: MyStudios.com


Lady Catherine Grey with her son.
She is wearing a miniature of her husband, William Seymour
Earl of Hertford.

Miniature by Lievine Teerlink

Image: Lisby 1 on Flickr

These were all, in their own ways, determined, forceful women, and not easily persuaded to keep quiet about their opinions. In many ways they had the advantages of their social position, which gave them independence and the ability to move as Anne Askew did to London.

One other thing, apart from good birth and controversial religious opinions, which links them as a group is that most of them managed, despite their noble, or at least good, birth to contact marriages with second or subsequent husbands well below their own station. This, which was so often a worry for families with daughters of marriageable age, was something they discarded. Moreover these marriages were sometimes arranged with what looks like indecent haste.  Not for them the traditional life of the pious widow or vowess. Some of the marriages seem surprising given the background of the ladies and their husbands, who were not in a position to aid their wives as Lord Stanley had been able to support Lady Margaret Beaufort.

Katherine Parr's fourth marriage as Queen Dowager to Lord Seymour raised eyebrows, and, although not without parallel (Adeliza of Louvain and Katherine of Valois come to mind), appears hasty and unusual. In the case of the Grey sisters their position as heirs or potential heirs made their marriages ones of immediate concern to the monarch at the time.

Determination to achieve what they wanted, be it in religious, political or personal terms seems to be the distinguishing mark of these women. the cost might be high, indeed fatal on occasion, but they were not to be deterred.

Women of more humble origins have not left such ample evidence of their lives and opinions, but it seems not unreasonable to think that sixteenth century women of all classes and opinions were perfectly well able to give voice to their opinions and ideas within the society in which they lived - something which has not always been appreciated by historians or their readership.


Stephanie A. Mann said...

Have you ever read Paul Zahl's book on Protestant women and the English Reformation?

Once I Was A Clever Boy said...

I have n't, but will remember it for future reference. I had some of the articles on Lollard women in mind for the background to the topic, and have taken a biographical approach to this series of tutorials.

Anonymous said...

Henry's dissolution of the convents and the persecution of many grammar school teachers (and levels of schooling more humble) pretty much led to the collapse of women's education in England. (Though Mary's opposite stuff probably didn't help.) Nor did QEI lift one fair finger to help her sisters, much less try to start a parallel system for Protestant women's education. There were some tough educated ladies of all religions still around during E's reign, but after that?

Meanwhile, a lot of the Protestant and Puritan types were very anti-women's education, or at least anything more advanced than reading and figuring. Ownership and business rights for women went downhill, and a lot of those younger, poorer second and third husbands that were being encouraged by Protestant ministers got control of women's businesses. (Though not all; some Elizabethan women specialized in outliving all their husbands and keeping all the money from everybody.)

It was another case of "Women should work hard to help the revolution succeed, and then women should keep their mouths shut or else."

Stephanie A. Mann said...

FYI: I linked to this post on my blog.