Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Access


      • Send article to Kindle

        To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

        Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

        Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

        The variety of women's experiences as servants in England (1548–1649): evidence from church court depositions
        Available formats

        Send article to Dropbox

        To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

        The variety of women's experiences as servants in England (1548–1649): evidence from church court depositions
        Available formats

        Send article to Google Drive

        To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

        The variety of women's experiences as servants in England (1548–1649): evidence from church court depositions
        Available formats
Export citation


This article demonstrates, using evidence from church court depositions, that women's experience of service in early modern England was more varied than scholarship suggests. Moving beyond its conception as a life-cycle annual occupation, the article situates service within individual life-stories. It argues firstly, that service extended across the whole of women's working lives and secondly, that employment arrangements took a wide range of forms. Service for women is shown to have been flexible, varied and contingent, employing a diversity of individuals under a variety of different employment agreements.

1. Introduction

The pioneering work of Peter Laslett and Ann Kussmaul has encouraged historians to think of service as a life-cycle occupation in which servants worked for particular employers for a year at a time between the ages of 15 and 24. Live-in service as a formative life stage provided a conduit for social advancement, as young men and women left service only once they had acquired the skills and capital to marry and form their own households.1 In his study of early modern household and family structure, Laslett found that around two thirds of male and female servants were between the ages of 15 and 24 in a selection of pre-industrial English settlements.2 Kussmaul similarly concluded that very few servants in husbandry were above the age of 34, and estimated that around 60 per cent of those between the ages of 15 and 24 worked in service in early modern England.3 Understandings of service and household formation across pre-industrial north-west Europe are deeply entrenched in this life-cycle model.4 Studies have shown that ‘life-cycle’ service precipitated a higher age of first marriage than in central and southern Europe, as young men and women left service only once they had acquired the skills and capital to form their own households.5

Service is also understood to have held a specific contractual meaning that set it apart from casual work: it was paid and contracted annually, and employers were expected to provide their servants with bed and board in addition to wages. Service was structured, regulated and ordered: Kussmaul found that most servants in husbandry were contracted on an annual basis, serving a particular employer for just one year before moving on to a new position.6 This pattern of employment was endorsed by late medieval and early modern labour laws; the 1563 Statute of Artificers made service compulsory and specified that employment in service should be by the year.7 In at least some parts of England, authorities sought to control idleness among young people by prosecuting those living out of service and compelling them to live and work under the governance of a master for a year at a time.8 Young women were of particular concern as the association of vagrancy and idleness with sexual immorality raised fears over bastardy in a period of demographic expansion. Within this context, a distinction between casual labour (paid by the task, day or week), and service (paid and contracted annually) is well established in this history of early modern labour. Kussmaul charts the changing balance between annual servants in husbandry and day labourers between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries as the agrarian economy changed.9 More recently, Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf make this same differentiation, chronicling wage patterns between 1260 and 1850 of ‘two distinct forms of female employment: daily wage labour, often on a casual basis, and annual service’.10

These important studies have shaped how historians understand service as an institution. Service is almost invariably presented as highly regulated, with annual hiring practices taking place at particular points of the year and coinciding with a phase in the life cycle we might characterise as ‘youth’. However, the quantitative approaches of these studies and their commitment to studying service in the long perspective result in typical or more orthodox experiences being prioritised and speaking for the experiences of all those employed as servants in early modern England. Alternative but not necessarily anomalous circumstances in which individuals entered and performed service are consequently neglected. Court records have helped to shed light on individual experiences of service and remind us that servants were people, not just faceless statistics. However, they are more frequently used to explore less favourable aspects of female service such as illegitimate pregnancy and sexual abuse.11 Privileging the scandalous over more mundane or everyday patterns of service, this work has nonetheless equally come to bear on how we understand service as an institution.

Court records should not, however, be dismissed as providing evidence only of miscreant behaviour. Close reading and detailed exposition of depositional evidence from the church courts of the dioceses of Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester between 1548 and 1649 forms the basis of this study of female service in early modern England. Although depositional material has occasionally been employed to study female servants, this is the first time it has been used to form a systematic survey of the work experiences of female servants.12 Depositions offer a different type of evidence about service patterns, bringing to the fore a range of servant experiences that parish listings, used in traditional quantitative analyses, cannot access.13 By analysing demographic patterns of service from the biographies of servant witnesses recorded in the church courts and teasing out incidental information concerning conditions of employment from the depositions themselves, this article establishes a new methodology for studying service that combines the strengths of both quantitative and qualitative approaches.

In particular, this article lays out a new agenda for understanding female service in early modern England by moving beyond its characterisation as ‘life-cycle’ and ‘non-casual’. My aim is not to reject these models of service entirely. Certainly, the life-cycle annual model shaped, determined and regulated many experiences of youth. Rather, by shifting the focus to alternative experiences and placing service within individual life-stories, this article shows that the institution of service was more flexible, contingent and often ambiguous than existing models suggest. The late seventeenth century has been cast by historians as a period in which society transitioned away from life-cycle service.14 This article shows that service in the preceding century may have been an annually contracted, life-cycle occupation for many but it is wrong to think that this was the only way in which it was experienced.

Servants can be difficult to identify within church court depositions. The occupation ‘servant’ was only sporadically assigned to male and female testimonies as it was not considered a ‘good addition’ for legal record keeping and within common law, servant status made individuals unaccountable for their own actions.15 Many witnesses signified that they lived within the house of a non-relative without specifying the nature of the relationship (that is, whether they were a servant or lodger). Therefore, only women clearly identified as servants in the records are included in this study. An additional challenge presents itself in the case of male servants: the assignment of the occupational descriptor ‘husbandman’ to many male testimonies conceals a significant proportion of men working in service in husbandry, adding an extra layer of uncertainty about the arrangements under which these men were employed. For this reason, the focus here is primarily on the experiences of female servants, while drawing gender comparisons where possible. By focusing on female servants, it is not my intention to suggest that service was by comparison a structured or fixed life-cycle experience for men; instead, this article outlines a new methodology that would benefit future research on the experiences of male servants. The article falls into two parts: the first lays out a detailed age structure of female service, thereby complicating our understanding of who servants were. The second part considers service not simply as a process of socialisation for the young, but as an economic exchange, examining the conditions under which contracts of service were negotiated. It is argued that women's experience of service was varied, stretching across the whole of women's working lives and with employment arrangements taking multiple forms.

2. Church court depositions

Witness testimonies provide commentary on a catalogue of transgressions dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts including defamation, evaded marriage contracts, tithe disputes and adultery. These offences have been the subject of sustained enquiry over the last 30 years.16 Cases heard in the ecclesiastical courts of England were produced either by office (ex officio) or by injured parties (instance suits). The vast majority of cases examined here were instance suits, as they more typically generated depositional evidence from witnesses. Over the period 1548–1649, the church courts of Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester produced witnesses for a total of 5,601 cases, in which 623 female servants were recorded (Table 1).17

Table 1. Distribution of cases and female servants recorded in the church court depositions of the dioceses of Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester (1548–1649)

Note: Depositions survive for cases heard in the following years in each diocese: Exeter – 1550–1572, 1574–1590, 1592–1604, 1606–1609, 1613–1620, 1634–1638; Gloucester – 1548–1555, 1560–1564, 1566–1597, 1600–1618, 1622–1631, 1638–1641, 1643–1649; Winchester – 1561–1603, 1631–1632, 1635, 1637.

Sources: Gloucestershire Archives, Church Court Depositions, 1548–1649: GDR/3, GDR/6, GDR/8, GDR/10, GDR/16, GDR/17, GDR/19, GDR/21, GDR/22, GDR/23, GDR/24, GDR/25, GDR/32, GDR/45, GDR/46, GDR/57, GDR/65, GDR/75, GDR/79, GDR/89, GDR/95, GDR/100, GDR/106, GDR/109, GDR/114, GDR/121, GDR/122, GDR/127, GDR/148, GDR/159, GDR/168, GDR/204, GDR/205; Devon Heritage Centre, Church Court Depositions, 1556–1640: Chanter 855, Chanter 855a, Chanter 855b, Chanter 856, Chanter 857, Chanter 858, Chanter 859, Chanter 860, Chanter 861, Chanter 862, Church Court Depositions, 1561–1633Chanter 864, Chanter 865, Chanter 866, Chanter 867; Hampshire Record Office,: 21M65-C3-2, 21M65-C3-3, 21M65-C3-4, 21M65-C3-5, 21M65-C3-6, 21M65-C3-7, 21M65-C3-8, 21M65-C3-9, 21M65-C3-10, 21M65-C3-11, 21M65-C3-12, 21M65-C3-13.

Depositions typically include a biographical preamble, outlining the witness's name, age, place of residence and sometimes full mobility history. Occupations were recorded for male witnesses while marital status was more typically recorded for women. When testifying in court, witnesses were asked to respond to a series of questions or ‘articles’; their responses (but not the articles themselves) were recorded and in some instances, particularly from 1600 onward, responses to interrogatories (or ‘counter questions’) were also recorded.18 These depositions are not unmediated accounts of events. Despite swearing oaths, at least some witnesses were likely to give biased testimonies.19 Their depositions were also circumscribed by the questions they were asked, and filtered and shaped by the court scribe who transcribed and transformed them into a third-person narrative. The challenges of using this material are well known and many scholars take the approach of Natalie Zemon Davis, treating them as narratives that provide a window into the cultural values and attitudes of early modern society, rather than as ‘factual’ accounts of criminality or immorality.20 But what also shapes the testimonies of these witnesses is incidental evidence of the everyday. Depositions provide a wealth of information about the economic, social and cultural worlds of early modern people. Ubiquitous in the early modern community, servants were sometimes summoned to give evidence of what they had seen and heard. Rich details of their experiences of service are woven into their narratives and their testimonies outline a range of contexts in which they entered service.21

The evidence given by women of their employment in service appears relatively incidentally and typically has little or no bearing on or relevance to the case. The veracity of a deposition was occasionally called into question if the witness was alleged to have been a servant of the litigant parties, as this kind of affinity was deemed objectionable. Yet the evidence a servant-witness provided of his or her wages, length of service, age and other elements of employment had to be credible for their testimonies to be deemed trustworthy. Depositions therefore provide plausible evidence of early modern women's experiences of being employed as servants.

3. The age structure of service

Evidence of the life-cycle model of service has relied on ‘snapshot’ age data. Typically, this type of evidence, gathered at a single moment in a servant's lifetime, derives from parish household listings. From his selection of six parish censuses between 1599 and 1796, Laslett found that 67 per cent of female servants were between the ages of 15 and 24, and 82 per cent between the ages of 15 and 29.22 Laslett understood those over the age of 30 as life-long servants, remaining unmarried and in service until death, while those between the ages of 15 and 29 are taken to have been life-cycle servants as they were still likely to marry. At all ages, women working in service are assumed to have been unmarried.23 However, servants’ futures were less certain than this model allows. A 20-year-old woman recorded as a life-cycle servant may have never married, or married only much later in life after long-term employment in service. Recorded only at the age of 20, however, she would irrespectively be categorised as a life-cycle servant rather than a life-long servant. Individual experiences could be more complicated and the implications of making assumptions based on snapshot evidence of age are clear: in 1602, Anne Smyth of Northleach in Gloucestershire was 50 years old and married at the time of her examination in the Gloucester church court. She deposed that she had worked in service 12 years earlier at the age of 38. If recorded in parish listings at the age of 38, Anne might be classified as a life-long servant, her later marriage unanticipated. Moreover, if Anne's period in service was as a married woman or followed the death of a first husband, then her experience departs from both the life-cycle and life-long models of service entirely.

Analysis of the age structure of service is nonetheless useful in highlighting the range of circumstances in which women entered service, but needs to be considered and interpreted with care, paying attention to individual experiences. Depositional material allows for this type of analysis, providing a different type of age data with accompanying individual narratives of servant experiences. When witnesses testified in court, they were asked to state their age. Ages were not always recorded (or perhaps given) with precision; in the Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester courts, just under 50 per cent of respondents’ ages ended in ‘zero’, indicating age heaping.24 However, Alexandra Shepard and Judith Spicksley found that ages were more frequently rounded to decadal thresholds by those in later stages of life, typically in the depositions of those over the age of 40.25 This is true across the three courts studied here: around 28 per cent of the witnesses who were under 40 stated that they were 10, 20 or 30, whereas almost 60 per cent of the ages associated with those over the age of 40 ended in a ‘zero’.

Church court depositions can provide more than the typical snapshot evidence of age in service. Recalled or past experiences of service were also sometimes recorded by witnesses. In 1587, 60-year-old Alice Grene of Tytherington in Gloucestershire deposed ‘that about fyve and thirtie yeres agoe at the least she this examinate for the space of a yere & no more dwelled in the parsonag[e] of Rockhampton’ as a servant.26 She was therefore around 25 years old while in service. A servant witness also sometimes gave the length of her employment as well as her age, allowing additional ages at which she had worked in service to be calculated: in 1611, 26-year-old Johanna Drinckwater of Cheltenham told the court of her recent departure from the service of Thomas and Elizabeth Mathewe, where she had worked for ten years. Her period of service spanned from 1601 to 1611, or the ages of 16 to 26.27 Although depositions do not provide evidence of full careers in service, the inclusion of recalled or past experiences allows reconstruction of more years in service than one per individual recorded in parish listings.

Of the 623 female servants recorded between 1550 and 1650 in the church court depositions of Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester, age data are available for 276.28 Fifty-three were former servants who exclusively recalled ages at which they had worked in service and 223 were employed in service at the time of their examination. A total of 754 servant ages are recorded across the dataset. Multiple years in service were recorded by 118 women (representing 596 of the ages provided) while 158 provided single or ‘snapshot’ ages. Those giving multiple years typically recalled fewer than five years. Twelve women who recalled between ten and 31 years in service comprise 24.5 per cent of the overall dataset. However, their recalled ages are distributed across the typical life-cycle pattern of service and do not significantly alter the overall demography of service represented in Figure 1. Moreover, these examples provide important evidence of more complete careers in service that could last up to 31 years. Table 2 shows the distribution of the data.

Sources: See Table 1.

Figure 1. Ages of female servants recorded in the church court depositions of the dioceses of Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester (1548–1649).

Table 2. Distribution of female servant witness ages recorded in the church court depositions of the dioceses of Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester (1548–1649).

a The total in this column does not include the additional 53 female witnesses who were not described as servants at the time of their examination but provided one or multiple years in which they had formerly worked in service.

Sources: See Table 1.

The demographic breadth of female service recorded in the church court depositions is clear. While Figure 1 shows a concentration of women in service between the ages of 15 and 24, it also shows that service could be experienced at any point in life between the ages of 7 and 60. Importantly, Table 2 shows that only 56.7 per cent of female servants were employed between the ages of 15 and 24, a lower proportion than the two thirds Laslett identified. Even if defining the life-cycle servant as between the ages of 15 and 29 (thereby incorporating the group of 25- to 29-year-olds who might still marry), around a quarter of women's experiences of service are still unaccounted for. This significant proportion experienced service at other times in their lives. Service filtered into all stages of the life cycle from childhood through to old age, and the circumstances in which women entered service, their aspirations and experiences while in service, cannot adequately be explained by the life-cycle model. The data represented here show that the variety of women who were employed in service in early modern England demands further attention. The following sections therefore shift the focus from mapping typical experiences to variation, and situate female service within individual life-stories, demonstrating the flexible, contingent and ambiguous character of the servant institution.

4. Childhood

Less well represented in the data are those below the age of 15. Although childhood is not a fixed concept, leaving home represented a transition from childhood to youth in early modern society. This event usually took place in a child's mid-teens and service was a common destination upon departure from the parental home.29 In studying the transition from childhood to youth, Paul Griffiths observes that ‘service was not age-specific’ but ‘was clearly age-related in this period’.30 Young children were typically maintained in the family home, where they familiarised themselves with working life by running errands and performing chores for their parents. They remained at home, it is argued, until they had reached physical maturity and acquired the strength to exchange their labour for payment.31

However, sources recording non-elite childhood experiences are scarce and we have little evidence of how the formative years of lower levels of society were spent. Church court depositions do not offer an obvious solution. Romano-canonical theory permitted no child under the age of 14 to testify in court32 and so child witnesses were rare.33 Yet although church courts offer no direct accounts of childhood experiences, pre-pubescent employment in service can be observed in Figure 1. Including calculated servant ages from female witness recollections of service, the percentage of servants between the ages of 7 and 14 accounts for approximately 6 per cent of all servant ages recorded in the depositions. As Figure 1 shows, this evidence would be concealed if only age at examination were included in the dataset. In fact, this low proportion probably underestimates childhood experiences of service. Female recollections of service typically extend back only to a previous employer and do not catalogue an individual's complete employment history or career. Moreover, depositions were more frequently made by older sections of the population; the average age of a female witness across the three courts was 38. Nonetheless, it is possible to push beyond the statistics. In 1630, 22-year-old Anne Nashe deposed that she had served Sir John Jones, an alderman of the city of Gloucester, for 12 years; she was ten years old when she first entered his household.34 Like Anne, many younger children remained with the same employer for significant periods of time. Jane Peeke of Tavistock in Devon was seven years old when she took up service with Dorothy Gaye in the early seventeenth century. She remained in Dorothy's service for 20 years before leaving to marry in the early 1630s.35 Johanna Deacon spent thirty years between the ages of 10 and 40 in the service of Maud Dennys of West Down in Devon, until her mistress's death in 1580.36 In 1565, Johanna Bonde deposed that she had served John Leach, a farmer of Pinhoe near Exeter from the age of seven. She remained in his service for at least 16 years before appearing in court at the age of 23.37

The circumstances in which these young girls entered service, often long before their fifteenth birthday and in many cases before they had even reached their teenage years, are difficult to identify. The long periods of time they spent with the same employer from a young age mirrors patterns of pauper apprenticeship, in which poor children could be bound out to work in other households to relieve their economically stretched families.38 This method of poor relief was formalised in the 1598 Poor Law (although in practice it pre-dated the legislation). Pauper or parish apprenticeships could last as long as 13 years for girls and although free to find paid employment elsewhere from the age of 21, some chose to remain with their host families for longer.39 In Colyton in Devon, children most commonly entered a formal parish apprenticeship at the age of eight, while female pauper apprentices were slightly older in the West Riding, with a mean age of nine years and three months.40 The work female pauper apprentices undertook was probably indistinguishable from the tasks performed by women in service. Pamela Sharpe suggests that they were typically expected to perform housewifery tasks, although training in crafts was occasionally offered.41 No witness recorded in the church court depositions was specifically labelled a pauper apprentice, which is unsurprising as the very poorest members of society were rarely summoned as witnesses. However, it is likely that upon entering a host family's household, pauper apprentices were assigned the occupation of ‘servant’. The line between service as income-generating work and as a form of poor relief could therefore be blurred. Girls like Johanna Bonde of Pinhoe may have been initially bound as pauper apprentices but subsequently adopted the occupational identity of a servant, highlighting the fluidity of the term ‘servant’ and the range of circumstances in which it could be employed.

Although children's labour was a currency that could be traded, those who could afford to keep their children at home did so. The stability of the household economy was an inevitable determinant in choosing – or potentially, from 1598, being coerced – to send a child into service. Evidence of childhood service reveals as much about the economic prosperity of a girl's parents’ household as the requirement for labour in servant-employing households. Typically paid no wages, the youngest girls were placed in service to provide economic relief to their families and their experiences cannot simply be understood by the term ‘life-cycle service’. They entered service not in the hope of receiving training for marriage but instead to ‘get [their] feet under someone else's table’.42 Depositions offer a glimpse into experiences of female service at this early stage of the life cycle and the evidence raises several important questions about the intersection of childhood, poverty and service: how do the experiences of child servants compare with those of teenage or young adult servants? What was the economic threshold that forced families to place their children into service? How did this experience change with the formalisation of poor relief in 1598? It is beyond the scope of this evidence to provide satisfactory answers to these questions but it is hoped that these avenues for future research will shed light not only on early modern service but also on alternative family strategies for alleviating poverty.

5. Marriage

Placing a child in service was therefore one household strategy for navigating a ‘makeshift economy’.43 But married couples might seek alternative solutions. Advice literature indicated that a married woman was expected to manage her own household. In 1568, Edmund Tilney promoted the importance of good housewifery, instructing the married woman to ‘looke well to hir huswifery, and not onely to see that all be done, but that all be well done’.44 However, wives were not absent from the labour market: married women were engaged in numerous forms of employment including charwork, textile production, caring for the sick, and working alongside their husbands or individually in trade or commerce.45 Although Amy Erickson demonstrates continuity in working experiences for women upon marriage, it is still assumed that live-in service came to an end.46 Sara Maza notes that in eighteenth-century France, married men might continue as servants but this option was not available to their wives as employers disapproved of married women in service.47 However, in early modern England, marriage and service were not always incompatible.48 In 1629, 21-year-old Margaret Mayo, a former London servant, deposed in the Gloucester court that she was ‘with childe when she dwelt in service with … Sir Raphe Dutton but [the child] was by her husband with whome she was before that tyme marryed unto’.49 In 1583 in Titchfield in Hampshire, 36-year-old Elizabeth Godderd, a miller's wife, told the Winchester court ‘that she hath binn the said Robert Godfrys servant and so yet ys’, demonstrating continued economic and occupational dependency on her master.50

Married women's employment in service in later periods has been explained as a response to the poverty of their households.51 This connection between service, marriage and poverty has not been fully explored by historians of early modern England. Servant Margaret Knowsley, who takes centre stage in Steve Hindle's cultural microhistory of early seventeenth-century Nantwich, was married with four children. Hindle observes that Margaret had probably lived ‘a life of grinding poverty’, having worked as a casual servant for preachers and ministers for some time.52 As service is not the focus of this microhistory, this important point is overlooked. But further evidence of economic distress as the catalyst for a married woman's employment in service is found in church court depositions. The 1568 deposition of 60-year-old Dionisia Hobbes of Exeter records that she was both a servant and the wife of William Hobbes. She deposed that she ‘hath kept Mr doctor's howse syns he came to be chanon here at Exett[er]’. It is unlikely that she was a live-in servant, however. Despite occasional absences from home when required to travel to her master's vicarage house in Rockbeare, she was recorded as living in St Katheryn's Almshouse in Exeter with her husband. The couple's residence here indicates their reliance on parochial aid and Dionisia's service most likely formed part of an economy of makeshifts. While poor relief comprised some of the elderly couple's household income, Dionisia's old age and married status did not exempt her from employment in service.53

Married women who were not reliant on alms also took up employment in service. In 1605, Catherine Moore of Bisley in Gloucestershire testified in a defamation dispute on the behalf of her former mistress, Joan Compton, a widow of the same parish. Catherine was 50 years old and married to 47-year-old William Moore, a broadweaver. Six months before Catherine's examination, she had worked in Joan's household as a live-in servant. Her employment was temporary as by the time of her examination, she had left Joan's service and had possibly returned to her marital home.54 This prompts questions about how this particular household's economy functioned. William Moore's employment as a broadweaver appears to have coincided with a period in which clothworkers might have enjoyed relative economic prosperity in Bisley. A survey of the manor taken in 1608 recorded the cloth industry, in which Catherine's husband was employed, as a major employer for its inhabitants.55 Other depositional evidence indicates an existing employment connection between the Moores and Joan Compton that provides a glimpse into the economic position of the household. Upon her widowhood, Joan became owner of the Bisley tithes. Recorded as a witness in the Gloucester court on several occasions, William deposed that his additional work as a tithe gatherer that spanned much of his adult lifetime and he was therefore hired by Joan.56 Despite the apparent prosperity of clothworking in the area, it is possible that his age, fluctuations in trade or flooding of the market prevented William from earning a sufficient living and he was therefore required to seek additional employment opportunities.57 William's primary employment as a broadweaver was undertaken in tandem with other work and Catherine's period in service might therefore be understood within this context. Multiple income-generating activities appear to have characterised this early seventeenth-century Bisley household. Service as a married woman did not necessarily supplement the income of the male ‘breadwinner’, but was part of a collective household strategy to maintain a living.58

Service as a married woman might therefore be understood as disruptive to normative social and marital behaviour. However, there is no evidence to suggest that couples perceived a wife's employment in service as a disturbance to married life. Nor was this a gender-specific experience. Husbands were also employed in service. In 1578, Barbara Lowe of Gloucester described her husband, Roger, as the servant of Mr Pate.59 In this particular case, it is unclear whether Roger was a live-in servant, but in 1602, husbandman Richard Windoe of Haresfield in Gloucestershire described himself as the servant of John Huntly and appears to have lived in while his wife, Joanna, deposed that she ‘dwelte at Ipslade in the parishe of Strowde with her father’.60 Working in service might therefore be part of a practical economic strategy and it is not difficult to imagine it fitting within existing frameworks and repertoires of male and female work. For example, the engagement of married women in charwork, a form of daily, non-resident service is well known. Although largely the domain of the poor, Eleanor Hubbard notes that these women were ‘as respectable as their poverty permitted’.61 While live-in service was perhaps a less common experience for a married woman, it was a similar labour exchange that was convenient for both her and the employer.

For other couples, a married woman's employment in service may not represent a response to economic hardship but was instead a solution to marital troubles. Joanne Bailey notes that in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England, lone women who were separated from their husbands found employment in casual low-skilled and low-paid occupations (although she does not include service as an option for these women).62 The live-in arrangements of service were nonetheless well suited to women estranged from their husbands, as it provided them with refuge and an independent income. Anne Collens of Tregony in Cornwall sought to annul her union with Edward Pasthawe in 1556, claiming that the marriage was unlawful as she had been too young to marry. Witnesses deposed that following the wedding, she refused to live with him and instead offered her service to her godfather, Sir Hugh Trevennon.63 In 1567, Joanne Corne, a married woman of North Hill in Cornwall, was accused of adultery by her husband who claimed she had left him for a man named Thomas Fynche. Appearing in the Exeter court, Joanne denied this allegation, deposing that she had left her husband to take up a position in service with Sir William Goddolphin on board a ship, where she was hired ‘to washe the clothinge of the Saulderes’. Service could offer a permanent escape from an abusive husband: she claimed she had left her husband ‘by reason that [she] wolld be owt of Trouble with her husband [who] was extreme and cruewell [cruel] unto her’. Upon her return from sea, Joanne moved extensively around Somerset and Devon, living with various widowed women and begging for alms with a baby, whom she maintained was her husband's child. Service therefore offered an escape for married women from both economic and physical precarity.

6. Old age and widowhood

As the cases above show, maturity and old age were certainly not a bar to live-in service. Table 2 shows that servants between the ages of 31 and 60 comprised 19.2 per cent of all servant ages recorded in the depositions. Many were unmarried women. It was rare for single women to set up their own households. Amy Froide shows that there was no distinct age at which this became possible, but that a woman could only achieve this independence with the consent of the community.64 As a result, many never-married women remained in the dependant position of service for their whole lives. Those fortunate enough to secure long-term employment with a family who took a shared or collective responsibility for their welfare enjoyed service as a stable, life-long occupation. In 1587, 50-year-old Margaret Warner of Gloucester described herself as a spinster who had served Margaret Weike for 24 years. Upon the death of her mistress, Margaret Warner might have found herself unemployed. However, having firmly established herself within the family, she was invited to work in the service of her former mistress's son-in-law, Henry Reynolds.65 But some left service as they aged and their participation in the workforce shifted to other forms of labour. In 1612, 32-year-old Mary Malin in Brockworth of Gloucestershire left the service of William Brushe to work ‘for her selfe’ in the household of Henry Hallier.66 For some older women, service might become more temporary as old age affected their ability to perform particular tasks.67 Charwork was often an alternative to service for these women: Edith Serney of Iron Acton in Gloucestershire had formerly been employed as a servant to Cressett Cox but by 1612, aged 35, she was instead employed as her charmaid.68 In 1637, Mellony Pacey, having given birth to an illegitimate child two decades earlier, was likely to have been around 40 years old. She was employed as ‘an ordinary servant’ in the house of Emmanuel Sanders in Sampford Peverell in Devon where she had ‘beene dayly’ and was therefore not a resident servant.69

As we have already seen, however, older female servants were not exclusively never-married women. Church court depositions record several widowed women who turned to service upon their husband's death when the household income was reduced. It is possible that widowed men faced the same reality upon the death of their wives; however, as marital status was not recorded for male witnesses, comparable examples cannot be identified. The work of Jane Whittle and Erickson has shown that the wealth of many ‘enterprising widows’ either equalled or rivalled that of their deceased husbands. They were proficient in undertaking market-orientated activities such as money-lending and running farms and businesses.70 In 1612, widow Anne Butt of Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire was recorded as an innkeeper.71 Many widowed women, however, did not possess the skills, resources or capital required for these sorts of enterprises and instead performed piecemeal work: widow Alice Poncherd of Crediton in Devon described winding corn in 1567.72 Service was another option. Susan Lay, whose experiences of illegitimate pregnancy as a servant are recounted by Laura Gowing, was a widow, referred to as ‘gammer’ (grandma), and was probably in her thirties or forties. Gowing points out that ‘service for her was likely to be a last resort, not a stage of the lifecycle’.73

Whittle's analysis of widowed women's probate inventories suggests that women on average lost their husbands around the age of 52.74 Younger women who lost their husbands were perhaps more likely to remarry than older widows, but their prospects ultimately depended on the wealth that their husbands left them. In 1631, Jane Woolley, a 26-year-old widow, was employed in the service of Walter Dansey of Romsey in Hampshire. That service was a response to her recent widowhood is indicated in her explanation that Walter was ‘her master whom she nowe liveth withall’.75 Young widows like Jane were less likely to have children, while older widows could rely on their offspring for economic support, depending on their children's ages and ability to generate income. Young children and childcare responsibilities could bind a widowed woman to her own domestic space where she might spin, knit or undertake other income-generating activities.76 However, it is likely that some widowed women entrusted the care of their children to family members, neighbours or friends.77 Certainly, unmarried mothers continued to work in service: in 1592, Agnes Debett of Badgeworth in Gloucestershire worked in the service of the parish vicar, Richard Rea, despite claims that she had given birth to ‘foure base children borne out of wedlock’ in the previous 12 years.78 She was not a live-in servant, but lived with her mother; it is possible that the latter may have agreed to care for Agnes's children while she was away from the home.

In the absence of wage-earning children or a favourable widow's portion to support them, older widows were not legally absolved of the requirement to return to service. In theory, the 1563 Statute of Artificers could place those under the age of 60 in compulsory service.79 Widow Margaret Powell of Castle Frome in Herefordshire was 60 years old when she appeared before the Gloucester court in 1596, and had worked in the service of Henry Hooper of Bromsberrow in Gloucestershire for at least two years.80 In practice, the Statute of Artificers was enforced primarily against the young; Griffiths found enforcement in Norfolk to largely be against those aged 14 to 26.81 Hindle argues that some older widows were considered deserving poor by their fellow parishioners and were allowed careers as parish pensioners.82 Like employment in service, access to poor relief was not determined by age but was nonetheless age-related. In 1616, 60-year-old widow Elizabeth Howell, life-long resident of Kentchurch in Herefordshire, told the Gloucester court that ‘shee is a very poore woman litle or nothing worth & sometymes receave the almes of the parishioners of Kentchurch where shee dwelleth’. Younger widows were less likely to receive parish relief. Recorded in the same court case, Mary Wyeman and Margaret Netherlock were 30 years younger than Elizabeth. Despite Margaret similarly describing herself as ‘a very poore woman of litle or nothing worth’, they did not have access to poor relief and instead took up positions in service in their widowhood. The sources of economic support that widows relied on therefore differed according to age. Mary and Margaret were expected to eke out their own living through labour in service. Elizabeth, as a senior widow, was unlikely to have been entirely exempt from work but was granted intermittent parochial aid.83

Widowed women were among the employers of servants, comprising around 11 per cent of 148 servant employers identified in the depositions. However, maintaining this position was not always possible as the economic balance of a household could shift dramatically. In 1606, 41-year-old widow Margaret Addams deposed that she had worked in the service of Alice Knight. Upon Alice's husband's death, Margaret's service came to an end as Alice herself was forced to ‘g[i]ve over her house keepinge att Bulley, and came to service in the Cytie of Gloucester with Margarett Wodcocke’. The relative security that the Knight household had offered Alice as a married woman and Margaret as a widowed servant came to an abrupt end upon the death of one of its key income-generating members. No longer able to employ Margaret in her service, Alice was instead forced to disassemble her household and return to service herself. Alice served Margaret Woodcocke for two years before her own death. The court records offer no clue to the fate of Margaret Addams after she left Alice's service.84

Service in widowhood contrasts starkly with the prosperous, enterprising activities of the widows of Whittle's and Erickson's studies. The early modern household economy could become precarious upon the death of a spouse whose earnings were lost. The occupation of Alice Knight's deceased husband was not recorded, but despite employing Margaret Addams as a servant, the household was probably not wealthy. Witnesses described the items that Alice took with her when she entered Margaret Wodcocke's service: the word ‘old’ was used to describe 6 of the 12 separate household items recorded, which included ‘one overworne coverlidd’ and ‘two olde clokes’.85 For widows like Alice, service was not a life-cycle occupation, offering socialisation and training for prospective marriage; it was a safety net in times of hardship.

7. Contracts of service

The demographic structure of service reconstructed from church court depositions reveals the range of women across various stages of the life cycle who were employed as servants. Situating service within these life-stories, the depositions bring to the fore experiences of young children like Anne Nashe, married women like Catherine Moore and Joanne Corne, and widowed women like Alice Knight, who appear to have entered service as a response to economic hardship or marital breakdown.86 This evidence stresses the contingency and flexibility of service: it was an institution that offered a solution to economic and social adversity and did not simply facilitate the socialisation of the young. Church court depositions also provide evidence of the flexible conditions under which service was contracted, further highlighting variation in experiences and how service could be an attractive option for women in early modern England, not just a stage in the life cycle.

At the beginning of this article, it was emphasised that service was inextricably linked with social control of the young. Casual employment was associated with disorder, vagrancy and vice, in which young people lived outside the authority of a master.87 Uniformity within service was key to maintaining order. In enacting compulsory service, the Statute of Artificers stipulated that employment should be non-casual, with contracts between servants and employers lasting for a year, or half a year as an absolute minimum.88 Less frequent movement of servants between masters made monitoring their behaviour easier. Hiring fairs have been suggested as a mechanism by which it was possible for men and women to secure annual positions in service in both late medieval and eighteenth-century England.89 It has therefore been assumed that this means of labour exchange existed too in early modern England, creating a narrative of continuity in regulating servant hiring.90

Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century church court depositions provide a range of evidence about how contracts of service were arranged and agreed. The means by which women found employment in service were varied but hiring fairs do not appear in any account of how connections between servants and employers were made. Rather, less formal routes were found into an employer's household. Door-to-door enquiry or word of mouth was common. In 1574, Robert Watte alias Davys of St Germans in Cornwall deposed that his servant, Joanne Sybly ‘came to this deponentes wife to seke service’.91 In 1568, gentleman John Brook of Rockbeare in Devon, deposed that he had ‘knowne Isott [his servant] by the space of ii [two] yeres for she came to Staverton from Overbryen and offered her service to this deponentes wiff’. Travelling across parish boundaries from one small settlement to another, Isott Riches secured employment with the Brooks, having no familiarity with them but presumably having heard of the opportunity by word of mouth.92 The informal and ad hoc ways in which women secured employment are clearly laid out in the 1580 deposition of Alice Gary of Otterbourne in Hampshire. Alice deposed that after six years of continuous service, Rosa Michenar left the service of Avice Hewes as Avice refused to pay her sufficient wages. Rosa came to Alice and her husband, staying with them temporarily until she could ‘here [sic] of a service’.93 Occasionally, employers sought out particular servants. Isott Riches (noted above), was subsequently invited to work in the service of Francis Yarde, a gentleman of the next parish.94 Elsewhere, kin connections could be important to both servant and employer. In 1585, Margaret Wathen served her aunt and uncle, John and Mary Walker in Hardwick in Gloucestershire. As she made plans to marry and leave service, Margaret suggested that her sister, Juliana, might replace her. This succession of kin servants was no doubt convenient for her aunt and uncle.95

Kussmaul found that eighteenth-century (predominantly male) servants in husbandry were overwhelmingly employed for one-year periods.96 Yet Table 3 shows that this was not the case a century earlier for women in service; employment periods were more varied and length of service was not limited to full years. The variation in female servant employment lengths shown in Table 3 indicates that those employed for partial years (for example, more than one year but less than two years) comprised 43.8 per of all lengths of employment recorded in the depositions. Witnesses were not always precise about the amount of time they had spent with their employers, but are likely to have rounded up or down to full years, meaning that a higher proportion may have actually served for partial years. As hiring fairs could only operate if all servants sought employment at the same regular intervals during the year, it is unlikely that such a regulated system of hiring existed. Rather, the informal hiring practices outlined above allowed flexibility and meant that the length of time a female servant was employed for could vary.97 Informal agreements of shorter periods in service were relatively commonplace. Alice Mathewe of Cheltenham agreed to serve Thomas and Elizabeth Mathewe for a five-month period between April and Michaelmas 1611, but stayed for only one week.98 In 1551, a woman named Julian was hired to serve John Curtesse of Beckford in Worcestershire for no more than six months ‘between Shrovetide and harvest’, the liturgical and agricultural calendar determining the start and end points of her employment rather than fixed dates.99 Agnes Barons of Ilsington in Devon allegedly agreed to serve Mr Done for just six months ending around Lady Day of 1626, although her master ‘did clayme a promise of Longer tyme’. Agnes was cited to appear before the Justice of the Peace to defend her exit from service but was not forced to return to Mr Done's house, demonstrating that shorter terms of service were accepted by local officials.100 In 1592, 50-year-old Bridget Foster of Warnford in Hampshire deposed that she was hired as a ‘covenant servant’ with Mr Turner. The word ‘covenant’, literally meaning ‘an agreement’, is usually taken to imply a more formal, long-term contract (typically one year). Yet it was used here to signify a period of just three months; Bridget was employed ‘from a moneth before Whitsontyde untill ye tyme of barly harvest’. During this quarter of a year, she was responsible for milking ewes that Mr Turner kept in the parish, again reflecting the importance of the agricultural year in determining the length of time a woman spent in the service of a particular employer and indicating the type of work she might be expected to perform.101

Table 3. Number of years of continuous completed employment within a household recorded for female servants in the church court depositions of the dioceses of Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester (1548–1649)

Sources: See Table 1.

Even when women were employed in service for exactly one year, it is clear that this was not always fixed. In 1637, Joseph Trobridge deposed that Elizabeth Mordon was ‘a servant in howse with this deponent and his wife neire about one yere’.102 Witness William Freeman of Turkdeane in Gloucestershire similarly deposed that Elizabeth Gawen was ‘covenant servant with George Bannister’ and ‘contynewed with him as his servant maide for one yeare or thereaboutes’.103 The imprecision with which these lengths of service were stated further suggests that the Statute of Artificers was not dogmatically enforced and that employers and servants alike determined, set and negotiated the terms and conditions of their own labour agreements. While the studies of Griffiths, Whittle and Tim Wales show that many young men and women were prosecuted under the labour laws for living outside the authority of a master, the extent to which this legislation held any real weight in early modern England has been only gently probed.104 Women, both young and old, lived outside service without facing legal action.105 Depositional evidence demonstrates that service was not a rigid and tightly controlled institution. Instead, it recasts it as flexible and contingent, allowing employer and servant to make mutually convenient arrangements. Authority and control may have been at the heart of labour legislation, but this framework for how service should be experienced has limitations when studying it at a local level. Female servants were certainly subject to the patriarchal authority of their employer while in service but were essentially free to move between employers as frequently as they pleased.

8. Wages and remuneration

A key difference that allegedly set service apart from casual forms of work was its annual payment. But servants who were hired for less than a year could not be paid annually. Descriptions of weekly-negotiated wages recorded within church court depositions shed further light on the casual terms upon which service was agreed. Wage assessments set maximum rates of pay for service and other occupations by the year, but wages were calculated accordingly for those who made short-term agreements. In October 1604, witness Elizabeth Greene identified herself as a servant in John Sheile's Gloucester home. She further deposed that ‘she doth worke taske worke with John Sheile in his house in bargaine by the weeke tell [till] Christmas next’. Her short contract of service, lasting just three months, meant that she was accordingly paid by the week.106 In 1634, 20-year-old Mary Thomas of Kentisbeare in Devon deposed that she

did live a servant in howse to the said Joane Bennett & her husband with whome she lived 3 quarters of a yere for wages after the rate of xl [40] s per ann.

Employed for nine months in the Bennett household, Mary was paid 30s. In 1595, maximum wages for female servants (between the ages of 16 and 24) were assessed at 16s per year and even by 1654, the maximum legal wage in Devon was just 23s 4d for female servants (between the ages of 18 and 30).107 Mary was therefore paid at a higher rate than was legally permissible. According to a witness in a 1618 defamation dispute, 23-year-old Maria Hayne had worked in the service of John and Elizabeth Faryes of Silverton in Devon ‘in the tyme of Christmas last past by the daye and by the weeke’. The casual arrangement of her service meant that her wages fluctuated. Willialmus Trowte deposed that

He did aske the said Merria what sorte she was abiding with the forsaid Elizabeth Farye And the said Marria tould this deponent that some tymes the said Elizabeth Farye promised her vi [6] d a weeke and sometimes viii [8] d a weeke for her service

Earning either 6d or 8d through weekly-paid service, Maria earned the equivalent annual wage of between 26s and 34s 8d based on a 260-day working year.108 Her wages were undoubtedly determined each week by the Faryes’ economic situation or the work she had performed and the formality of a contract or pre-agreed wage was absent from this early seventeenth-century labour exchange. Although her employment was insecure, Maria's casual arrangement with the Faryes provided an opportunity to earn a higher wage than she legally might have earned in annually paid service.109

The term ‘servant’, assumed to have had a contractual meaning, was nonetheless used to describe those hired and paid for short-term periods. It is clear that the servants on short-term contracts discussed above resided with their employers. As board and lodging was an important (and usually greater) part of the value of a servant's earning, this was important.110 Although evidence from church court depositions indicates that most servants lived with their employers, in some cases, ‘servant’ could, as Jeremy Goldberg has suggested for the late medieval period, be used to represent the dependency of a non-resident worker on his or her employer.111 The additional payment for lodging elsewhere meant that casual, non-resident servants probably experienced a lack of parity with live-in servants in terms of their earnings. When Mellony Pacey was referred to as an ‘ordinary servant’ in 1637, she was hired on a daily basis and was certainly not resident in her employer's home.112 Yet we find the status of ‘servant’ conferred on individuals by virtue of the work they performed, not on their place of residence. This is most evident in cases where witnesses attempted to discredit opposing witnesses on the grounds that they were in the service of the opposing party (and therefore to be suspected of bias). In 1574, husbandman John Goter stressed that ‘Johan Sturte hath bynn at the parsonadge of Ashly [Hampshire] & donn such busines as belongeth to a servannt to do. And she is reputed & taken of the parishioners ther to be Mr Tanners servant.’113 The distinction historians make between a casual worker and a servant is therefore too rigid. When early modern people used the term ‘servant’, they did not always mean to indicate a contractual agreement. Rather, contained within its meaning are ideas of dependency as well as work that contributed to an employer's household economy. The informality with which contracts of service were made and the varying terms upon which they were agreed has important consequences for how the institution of service is understood. In particular, it poses a challenge to longitudinal studies that track the emergence or disappearance of these two forms of labour or compare the fortunes of servants and casual workers over time.114

9. Conclusion

Neither a fixed nor rigid institution, service accommodated and attracted individuals from a range of social and economic positions in early modern England. Service was, it is generally argued, a life-cycle occupation. But in this period as in others, it was also a solution to different social and economic circumstances and pressures for a significant minority of women outside the 15–24 age bracket. This article has identified neglected sub-groups of servants using church court depositions as a lens through which to study a broader range of servant experiences: the social and economic experiences of pauper apprentices, never-married, married and widowed women were all distinct from those of the life-cycle servants who dominate early modern scholarship. By shifting the focus onto these alternative experiences, the institution of service is shown to have been more varied and flexible than historians have supposed. This raises further questions about whether the life-cycle model itself, so deeply entrenched in expectations of marriage and ideas of authority and order, can adequately characterise the experiences of young women in service. The term life-cycle servant indicates only a young person's end goal (marriage) in entering service. But a woman's experiences were not only determined by her marital plans.

Finding such diversity in experiences of female service, with women employed from across all stages of the life cycle, disrupts our understanding of early modern social norms. In considering the demographic hierarchy of early modern England, Keith Thomas observed that ‘the prevailing ideal was gerontocratic: the young were to serve and the old were to rule’.115 Yet the evidence presented here suggests that this principle requires revision. Service is shown to be an occupational category that engaged women from all life-cycle stages. Children bound out as pauper apprentices were either formally or informally labelled as servants, thereby complicating our understanding of service as a form of labour exchange. Service in this context was part of a system of poor relief, placing the employer in a position of both power and benevolence. The evidence presented in this article also disrupts our understanding of women's work in early modern England. Once married, women were expected to leave service and become managers of their own households. Yet we find examples of these women continuing in or returning to service. Depositional evidence records widowed women, too, who were sometimes forced back into service. These examples simultaneously expose the economic vulnerability of women as well as the contingency of service in times of hardship.

This stands at odds with the portrayal of service as a uniform institution. To serve the economic and social needs of such a varied group, it was necessary that service was flexible. This article has shown that far from servants being employed at particular times of the year on an annual basis, hiring was informal, irregular and adaptable to the requirements and circumstances of both servant and employer. Contracts were sometimes made for shorter periods than Kussmaul found for eighteenth-century servants in husbandry and payments could be calculated and awarded by the week. The distinction made by historians between casual employment and service as a form of annual labour is complicated by these findings and cannot easily be maintained. It might be objected that the issue is simply a matter of language and that casual or non-resident workers such as charwomen may have been identified as servants but were still a distinct sub-group. Yet as this article has shown, firm distinctions between live-in servants, non-resident servants, those employed on annual contracts, and those employed on a short-term basis or paid by the week were not made in early modern England. In this sense, it is anachronistic to draw such distinctions today. A female servant identity, let alone a servant class, cannot be talked of, not least because of substantial differences in the economic, social and demographic experiences of service and the conditions under which employment was agreed. This has implications for the historiography of service more broadly as the same established patterns of service are found across Europe; it is hoped that this new approach to studying variation in service will prompt further comparative studies on the continent.116


I would like to thank the reviewers of Continuity and Change for their constructive feedback and extremely useful critique of this article. An early version of this paper was presented at the European Rural History Organisation (EURHO) conference in Leuven in 2017. I would also like to thank Jane Whittle and Josh Rhodes for reading and advising on earlier drafts.


1 Laslett, Peter, Family life and illicit love in earlier generations: essays in historical sociology (Cambridge, 1977), 34; Kussmaul, Ann, Servants in husbandry in early modern England (Cambridge, 1981), 3.

2 Laslett, Family life and illicit love, 34.

3 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 304, 71.

4 See De Moor, Tine and Van Zanden, Jan Luiten, ‘Girl power: the European marriage pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period’, Economic History Review 63, 1 (2010), 133; Prytz, Cristina, ‘Life-cycle servant and servant for life: work and prospects in rural Sweden, c. 1670–1730’, in Whittle, J. ed., Servants in Rural Europe: 1400–1900 (Boydell, 2017), 95112; Sarti, Raffaella, ‘“The purgatory of servants”: (in)subordination, wages, gender and marital status of servants in England and Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’, Journal of Early Modern Studies 4 (2015), 347–72.

5 Laslett, Family life and illicit love, 34; Hajnal, John, ‘European marriage patterns in perspective’, in Glass, D. V. and Eversley, D. E. C. eds., Population in history: essays in historical demography (London, 1965), 135; Hajnal, John, ‘Two kinds of preindustrial household formation system’, Population and Development Review 8, 3 (1982), 449–94.

6 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 3–4, 71.

7 ‘The Statute of Artificers (1563)’, in Tawney, R. H. and Power, Eileen eds., Tudor economic documents: being select documents illustrating the economic and social history of Tudor England (London, 1951), 340.

8 See, for example, Whittle, Jane, The development of agrarian capitalism: land and labour in Norfolk, 1440–1580 (Oxford, 2000), 281; Griffiths, Paul, Youth and authority: formative experiences in England, 1560–1640 (Oxford, 1996), 382–4; Wales, Tim, ‘“Living at their own hands”: policing poor households and the young in early modern rural England’, Agricultural History Review 61, 1 (2013), 1939.

9 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 133.

10 Humphries, Jane and Weisdorf, Jacob, ‘The wages of women in England, 1260–1850’, Journal of Economic History 75, 2 (2015), 405–47, here 407.

11 Illegitimate pregnancy, caused by the advances or abuses of a licentious employer and the dynamics of patriarchal household order, has been at the forefront of this scholarship. For example, see Gowing, Laura, ‘Secret births and infanticide in seventeenth-century England’, Past & Present 156 (1997), 87–15, here 87–115; Capp, Bernard, When gossips meet: women, family, and neighbourhood in early modern England (Oxford, 2003), ch. 4; Meldrum, Tim, Domestic service and gender, 1660–1750: life and work in the London household (Harlow, 2000).

12 See Capp, When gossips meet; Meldrum, Domestic service and gender.

13 For Laslett's analysis of six parish registers between 1599 and 1796, and for Clayworth and Cogenhoe in particular, see Laslett, Family life and illicit love, 34, 50–101. Marjorie McIntosh and Ann Kussmaul have also used similar data. See Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 70–2; McIntosh, Marjorie K., A community transformed: the manor and liberty of Havering, 1500–1620 (Cambridge, 1991), 53–4.

14 Cooper, Sheila McIsaac, ‘Service to servitude? The decline and demise of life-cycle service in England’, The History of the Family 10, 4 (2005), 367–86; Mayhew, Graham, ‘Life-cycle service and the family unit in early modern Rye’, Continuity and Change 6, 2 (1991), 201–26.

15 William West, The second part of symboleography (1604), sect. 70, 94v; Whittle, Development of agrarian capitalism, 261.

16 For a selection of the most celebrated studies that use church court records, see Gowing, Laura, Domestic dangers: women, words and sex in early modern London (Oxford, 1996); Ingram, Martin, Church courts, sex and marriage in England, 1570–1640 (Cambridge, 1988); Capp, When gossips meet; Amussen, Susan Dwyer, An ordered society: gender and class in early modern England (New York, 1993).

17 The availability of sources bookends the period studied here. From the 1530s, the layout, form and structure of depositions became more regular. Around 1640, activity within the Exeter court appears to have ground to a halt due to the Civil War two years later, while a small smattering of cases continued to be heard in the Gloucester court until around 1650 when its activities were also suspended. In 1661, the courts were restored and continued to play an important role in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. See Ingram, Church courts, 7; Outhwaite, R. B., The rise and fall of the English ecclesiastical courts, 1500–1860 (Cambridge, 2006), 93.

18 Alexandra Shepard discusses in detail the changing place of interrogatories in the church courts. See Shepard, Alexandra, Accounting for oneself: worth, status, and the social order in early modern England (Oxford, 2015), 12.

19 For a detailed study of oath swearing, see Shapiro, Barbara, ‘Credibility and the legal process in early modern England: part one’, Law and Humanities 6 (2012), 145–78; Shapiro, Barbara, ‘Credibility and the legal process in early modern England: part two’, Law and Humanities 7 (2013), 1954.

20 Davis, Natalie Zemon, Fiction in the archives: pardon tales and their tellers in sixteenth- century France (Cambridge, 1987).

21 For examples of how this approach has been used, see Ogilvie, Sheilagh C., A bitter living: women, markets, and social capital in early modern Germany (Oxford, 2003); Fiebranz, Rosemarie, Lindberg, Erik, Lindström, Jonas and Ågren, Maria, ‘Making verbs count: the research project “Gender and Work” and its methodology’, Scandinavian Economic History Review 59, 3 (2011), 273–93; Shepard, Accounting for oneself.

22 Laslett, Family life and illicit love, 34.

23 The assignment of ages to these categories is based on the assumption that the average age of first marriage between 1600 and 1649 was 26. Those above the age of 30 were unlikely to have married. For data on age of first marriage, see Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield, R. S., The population history of England 1541–1871: a reconstruction (London, 1981), 255.

24 For a discussion of age heaping, see Thomas, Keith, ‘Numeracy in early modern England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 37 (1987), 126.

25 Shepard, Alexandra and Spicksley, Judith, ‘Worth, age, and social status in early modern England’, Economic History Review 64, 2 (2011), 498.

26 Gloucestershire Archives, Church Court Depositions, 1548–1649 (hereafter GA) GDR/65, John Welcock v. John Smith, 1586.

27 GA GDR/114, Elizabeth Mathewe v. Thomas Mathewe, 1611.

28 Due to the sample size, it has not been possible to draw any conclusions about whether this period witnessed any change over time in terms of the age structure of service. This is not to argue that the period was chronologically static; rather, that a study of change over time would require additional data.

29 Griffiths, Paul, ‘Tudor troubles: problems of youth in Elizabethan England’, in Doran, Susan and Jones, Norman L. eds., The Elizabethan world (Abingdon, 2010), 316–34; Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman, Adolescence and youth in early modern England (New Haven, 1994), 9; Wall, Richard, ‘The age at leaving home’, Journal of Family History 3, 2 (1978), 181202.

30 Griffiths, Youth and authority, 356.

31 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 70; Ben-Amos, Adolescence and youth, 39, 41; Reinke-Williams, Tim, Women, work and sociability in early modern London (Basingstoke, 2014), 29.

32 Foyster, Elizabeth, Marital violence: an English family history, 1660–1857 (Cambridge, 2005), 146; Foyster, Elizabeth, ‘Silent witnesses? Children and the breakdown of domestic and social order in early modern England’, in Fletcher, Anthony and Hussey, Stephen eds., Childhood in question: children, parents and the state (Manchester, 1999), 5773, here 64.

33 The youngest female witnesses recorded in the Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester church courts were ten years old, but they were exceptional; the average age of female witnesses was around 38. See Charmian Mansell, ‘Female servants in the early modern community: a study of church court depositions from the dioceses of Exeter and Gloucester, c. 1550–1650' (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter, 2016).

34 GA GDR/168, Margaret Hill v. Thomas Whittingham, 1630.

35 Devon Heritage Centre, Church Court Depositions, 1556–1640 (hereafter DHC) Chanter 866, Eustice Peeke v. William Carewe, 1638.

36 DHC Chanter 860, John Dennys v. John Dennys jr, 1580.

37 DHC Chanter 855b, John Leache v. Hubert Colwell, 1565.

38 Sharpe, Pamela, ‘Poor children as apprentices in Colyton, 1598–1830’, Continuity and Change 6, 2 (1991), 253–70, here 253.

39 Ibid., p. 253.

40 Ibid.; Hindle, Steve, On the parish?: the micro-politics of poor relief in rural England c. 1550–1750 (Oxford, 2004), 214.

41 Sharpe, ‘Poor children’.

42 Selina Todd makes a similar argument for girls in service in the early twentieth century, using Winifred Foley's recollections of service as evidence. See Foley, Winifred, A child in the forest (London, 1974), 141; Todd, Selina, ‘Domestic service and class relations in Britain 1900–1950’, Past & Present 203 (2009), 181204, here 187.

43 This term, first coined by Olwen Hufton in her study of the poor of eighteenth-century France characterises both the position of families living dangerously close to subsistence levels and their strategies for staying afloat. See Hufton, Olwen, The poor of eighteenth-century France, 1750–1789 (Oxford, 1974), 69127.

44 Tilney, Edmund, The flower of friendship: a Renaissance dialogue contesting marriage, ed. Wayne, Valerie (Ithaca, NY, 1992), 137.

45 Hindle, On the parish?, 26; Erickson, Amy Louise, ‘Married women's occupations in eighteenth-century London’, Continuity and Change 23, 2 (2008), 267307.

46 Erickson, ‘Married women's occupations’, 267–307.

47 Maza, Sarah C., Servants and masters in eighteenth-century France: the uses of loyalty (Princeton, 1983), 78.

48 Crawford, Patricia, Parents of poor children in England, 1580–1800 (Oxford, 2010), 165.

49 GA GDR/168, Elizabeth Mayo v. Hugo Griffith and Hester Griffith, 1629.

50 Hampshire Record Office, Church Court Depositions, 1561–1633 (hereafter HRO) 21M65-C3-9, Testament of Margery Smyth, 1583.

51 See Todd, ‘Domestic service and class relations’, 185; Delap, Lucy, Knowing their place: domestic service in twentieth-century Britain (Oxford, 2011), 42.

52 Hindle, Steve, ‘The shaming of Margaret Knowsley: gossip, gender and the experience of authority in early modern England’, Continuity and Change 9, 3 (1994), 391419, here 396.

53 DHC Chanter 858, John Roo v. Frances Yarde, 1568. See also, Pelling, Margaret, ‘Old age, poverty, and disability in early modern Norwich: work, remarriage, and other expedients’, in Pelling, Margaret and Smith, R. M. eds., Life, death and the elderly: historical perspectives (London, 1991), 74101, here 68.

54 GA GDR/95, Joan Compton v. Edward Townsend, 1605.

55 Baggs, A. P., Jurica, A. R. J. and Sheils, W. J., in Herbert, N. M. and Pugh, R. B. eds., A history of the county of Gloucester, volume 11: Bisley and Longtree hundreds (London, 1976), 2030.

56 See GA: GDR/95, Joan Compton v. John Shewell, 1604; GDR/95, Elizabeth Robinson v. Eleanor Shoell, 1605; GDR/106, Christopher Windle v. Walter Butt, 1608; GDR/148, John Fry v. John Gardiner, 1622; GDR/148, John Fry v. Edmund Snowe, 1622; GDR/168, John Sedgman v. Walter Masters, 1630.

57 Shepard found that the average worth of weavers in this period was between that of a husbandman and labourer. See Shepard, Accounting for oneself, 74.

58 Several recent works have questioned whether there really was a male breadwinner in early modern England. See Hurl-Eamon, Jennine, ‘The fiction of female dependence and the makeshift economy of soldiers, sailors, and their wives in eighteenth-century London’, Labor History 49, 4 (2008), 481501; Erickson, ‘Married women's occupations’, 267–307; Shepard, Accounting for oneself, 176, 214–31.

59 GA GDR/45, Testament of Margaret Brodie, 1578.

60 GA GDR/89, Hugh Baker v. Mabel Elliottes, 1602.

61 Hubbard, Eleanor, City women: money, sex, and the social order in early modern London (Oxford, 2012), 213.

62 Bailey, Joanne, Unquiet lives: marriage and marriage breakdown in England, 1660–1800 (Cambridge, 2003), 189.

63 DHC Chanter 855, Anne Collens v. Edward Pasthawe, 1556.

64 Amy M. Froide, Never married: singlewomen in early modern England (Oxford, 2005), 23–4.

65 GA GDR/65, Johanna Wieke v. Margaret Wieke, 1587.

66 GA GDR/121, Agnes Brushe v. William Brushe sr, 1613.

67 Froide, Never married, 90.

68 GA GDR/114, Cressett Cox v. Silvester Nayle, 1612.

69 DHC Chanter 866, Sanders v. Sanders, 1637.

70 Whittle, Jane, ‘Enterprising widows and active wives: women's unpaid work in the household economy of early modern England’, The History of the Family 19, 3 (2014), 118; Erickson, Amy Louise, Women and property in early modern England (London, 1993), 193–5.

71 GA GDR/114, Andrew Filtoe v. Giles Gardiner, 1612.

72 DHC Chanter 856, Katherine Spenser v William Dearle and Agnes Dearle, 1567.

73 Gowing, Laura, ‘The haunting of Susan Lay: servants and mistresses in seventeenth-century England’, Gender & History 14, 2 (2002), 183201, here 187.

74 This calculation is based on Whittle's finding that the average length of marriage was 26.5 years and Wrigley and Schofield's estimation that the average age of first marriage was 26. See Whittle, ‘Enterprising widows’, 291–2; Wrigley and Schofield, The population history of England, 255.

75 HRO 21M65-C3-12, Ann Dansey v. Christopher Hide, 1631, emphasis added.

76 Wall, Richard, ‘Economic collaboration of family members within and beyond households in English society, 1600–2000’, Continuity and Change 25, 1 (2010), 83108, here 91; Hindle, On the parish?, 26.

77 Ogilvie, A bitter living, 140–205.

78 GA GDR/79, John White v. John Thaier, 1592.

79 ‘The Statute of Artificers (1563)’, 340.

80 GA GDR/79, Henry Hooper v. Richard Mathewes, 1596.

81 See ‘The Statute of Artificers (1563)’, 340–1; Griffiths, Youth and authority, 356.

82 Hindle, On the parish?, 26.

83 GA GDR/122, William Heywood v. Mary Wyeman, 1616.

84 GA GDR/100, Mary Syer v. Margaret Woodcocke, 1606.

85 Ibid. William Gorway, a weaver, deposed that Margaret Wodcocke possessed ‘one flock bedd twoe bolsters one old overworne coverlidd two olde clokes an old gownde an old petticoate three payre of sheetes twoe coffers twoe pynneis, twoe partlettes & an olde hatt and apron one Candlesticke & certen writinges’.

86 GA GDR/168, Margaret Hill v. Thomas Whittingham, 1630; GA GDR/95, Joan Compton v. Edward Townsend, 1605; GA GDR/100, Mary Syer v. Margaret Wodcocke, 1606.

87 Griffiths, Youth and authority, ch. 7.

88 ‘The Statute of Artificers (1563)’, 340.

89 Penn, Simon and Dyer, Christopher, ‘Wages and earnings in late medieval England: evidence from the enforcement of the labour laws’, Economic History Review 43, 3 (1990), 356–76, here 365; Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 59–61.

90 Roberts, Michael, ‘“Waiting upon chance”: English hiring fairs and their meanings from the fourteenth to the twentieth century’, Journal of Historical Sociology 1, 2 (1988), 119–60.

91 DHC Chanter 858, Joanne Sybly v. Thomas John, 1574.

92 DHC Chanter 858, John Roo v. Frances Yarde, 1568.

93 HRO 21M65-C3-8, Avice Hewes v. John Wayte, 1580.

94 DHC Chanter 858, John Roo v. Frances Yarde, 1568.

95 GA GDR/57 and GDR/65, Margaret Wathen v. Richard Dowdie, 1585.

96 Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry, 51–2.

97 Whittle found similarly varying lengths of employment in the Toke and Le Strange households. See Jane Whittle, ‘A different pattern of employment: servants in rural England, c. 1500–1660’, in Whittle ed., Servants in rural Europe: 1400–1900, 57–76.

98 GA GDR/114, Elizabeth Mathewe v .Thomas Mathewe, 1611.

99 GA GDR/8, Office v. John Curtesse, 1551.

100 DHC Chanter 866, William Harries v. Audrey Rowell, 1636.

101 HRO 21M65-C3-10, Parrie v. Turner, 1615.

102 DHC Chanter 866, Daniel Jackson v. Elizabeth Mordon, 1637, emphasis added.

103 GA GDR/122, Robert Payne v. Elizabeth Gawen, 1615, emphasis added.

104 Griffiths, Youth and authority, 382–4; Whittle, Development of agrarian capitalism, 276–7; Wales, ‘“Living at their own hands”’, 19–39, here 31.

105 See Charmian Mansell, ‘Female service and the village community in south-west England, 1550–1650: the labour laws reconsidered’, in Whittle ed., Servants in rural Europe: 1400–1900, 77–94.

106 GA GDR/95, Sheile v. Thomas Bishopp, 1604.

107 Hamilton, Alexander Henry Abercromby, Quarter sessions from Queen Elizabeth to Queen Anne: illustrations of local government and history drawn from original records (chiefly of the county of Devon) (London, 1878), 163.

108 Humphries and Weisdorf have shown a 260-working-day year, based on 5 working days a week over 52 weeks of the year, to be a good representation of women's working patterns in the pre-modern period. See Humphries and Weisdorf, ‘The wages of women’, 412–13.

109 DHC Chanter 867, Elizabeth Faryes v. Grace Luscombe, 1618.

110 Burnette, Joyce, ‘An investigation of the female-male wage gap during the Industrial Revolution in Britain’, Economic History Review 50, 2 (1997), 271.

111 Goldberg, P. J. P., ‘What was a servant?’, in Curry, Anne and Matthew, Elizabeth eds., Concepts and patterns of service in the later Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2000), 120, here 4.

112 DHC Chanter 866, Sanders v. Sanders, 1637.

113 HRO 21M65-C3-6, Richard Tanner v. Richard Widge, 1574.

114 See, for example, Gritt, A. J., ‘The “survival” of service in the English agricultural labour force: lessons from Lancashire, c. 1650–1851’, Agricultural History Review 50, 1 (2002), 2550; Kussmaul, Servants in husbandry; Humphries and Weisdorf, ‘The wages of women’, 405–47.

115 Thomas, Keith, ‘Age and authority in early modern England’, Proceedings of the British Academy 62 (1976), 205–48, here 207.

116 Recent comparisons between experiences of service in Europe between 1400 and 1900 are found in Whittle ed., Servants in rural Europe: 1400–1900.