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Godly Women in Early Modern England: Puritanism and Gender


This paper argues that Puritanism and gender interacted in dialectic fashion in seventeenth-century England and changed one another significantly as a result of that interaction.1 Such Puritan strategies as reliance on the experience of the individual, extensive use of literacy, and infusion of spiritual issues into all activities deeply affected women's spirituality and their conventional roles in the community. At the same time, changes in the traditional practices of gender altered the Puritan experience. Gender gave new reality to the Puritan emphasis on spiritual egalitarianism, the Puritan practice of godly communion and counsel, and the development of lay–clerical relationships. From the interaction between Puritanism and gender, new forms of reciprocity and alternative sources of authority emerged among the godly.

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Research for this article has been funded by the American Philosophical Society, the American Historical Association (Bernadotte E. Schmitt grant for research in European history), and Georgia State University. I am grateful to these three institutions for their support.

1 I am much indebted to the theoretical arguments of Scott Joan Wallach, ‘ On language, gender, and working-class history’, in her Gender and the Politics of History, New York 1988, ch. iii. Scott sees gender ‘in the construction of social and political meaning’: p. 55. See also Susan Cahn, Industry of Devotion: the transformation of women's work in England, 1500–1600, New York 1987, 9. Although I have serious qualifications about Cahn's study, I find her notion of a ‘dialectical interaction of ideology and material conditions’ a useful model.

2 Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: the rise of English Arminianism, c. 1590–1640, Oxford 1987;Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: the Church in English society Oxford 1982.

3 For recent examples of the debate, see Paul Christianson, ‘Reformers and the Church of England under Elizabeth I and the early Stuarts’, this JOURNAL 31 (1980), 463–82;Patrick Collinson, ‘A comment: concerning the name Puritan’, Ibid.. 483–8; Peter Lake, ‘Puritan identities’,Ibid., xxxv (1984), 112–23; Aylmer G. E., ‘Collective mentalities in mid-seventeenth century England: I. The Puritan outlook’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, fifth ser. 36 (1986), 1–25;John Morgan, Godly Learning: Puritan attitudes towards reason, learning and education, 1560–1640, Cambridge 1986, ch. i. I have also found helpful an unpublished paper by Peter Lake, ‘Defining Puritanism - again?’, presented at the Conference on Puritanism, Millersville University, Millersville, PA, 4 April 1991.

4 Morgan, Godly Learning, 3, 18. Morgan prefers the term ‘Puritan’ to ‘Puritanism’, a distinction difficult to maintain since he recognises the existence of a ‘group mentality’: p. 17. See also Rupp Gordon E., ‘A devotion of rapture in English Puritanism’, in R. B. Knox (ed.), Reformation, Conformity and Dissent: essays in honour of Geoffrey Nuttall, London 1977.

5 Armstrong Brian G.,‘ Puritan spirituality: the tension of bible and experience’, in E. Rozanne Elder (ed.), The Roots of the Modem Christian Tradition, Kalamazoo 1984, 242–5;William Hunt, The Puritan Moment: the coming of revolution in an English county, Cambridge 1983, 93. Cf. John Booty, ‘Joseph Hall, The Arte of Divine Mediation, and Anglican Spirituality’, in Elder, Roots of Modem Christian Tradition. Booty sees Anglican spirituality rooted in corporate worship and the Book of Common Prayer: see esp. p. 219.

6 Peter Lake, Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church, Cambridge 1982, 282.

7 Seaver Paul S., Wallington's World: a Puritan artisan in seventeenth-century London, Stanford 1985, 183–4. For the experiential or ‘experimental’ nature of assurance see Kendall R. T., Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, Oxford 1979, esp. pp. 69;Kendall, however, finds the term Puritan ‘not very useful’.

8 BL, Add. MS 53,726, fos 59r, 71r. Whitelocke puts forward their grandmother as a model for his own daughters.

9 Quoted from Jacqueline Eales, ‘Sir Robert Harley, K.B., (1579–1656) and the “character” of a Puritan’, The British Library Journal 15 (1989), 150. Eales provides an edited version of the document (pp. 150–2) and points out that with his sympathetic portrait, Harley was inverting the popular literary form of satirical characterisation (p. 136). For discussion of‘character literature’ in relationship to Puritanism, see Collinson, ‘A comment’, 486–7.

10 Letters of the Lady Brilliana Harley, ed. Thomas Taylor Lewis (Camden Society, 1st ser. repr. 1968), no. 58, pp. 15, 178; Jacqueline Eales, Puritans and Roundheads: the Harleys of Brampton Bryan and the outbreak of the English Civil War, Cambridge 1990, 51–2.

11 For one of the few exceptions, see Peter Lake,‘ Feminine piety and personal potency: the “emancipation” of Mrsjane Ratcliffe’, The Seventeenth Century ii (1987), 143–65. Lake provides a thoughtful study of gender in the context of Puritan spirituality.

12 Seaver, Wallington's World, 188; Morgan, Godly Learning, 169.

13 John Lyster, A rule how to bring up children, London 1588, 27V.

14 William Gouge, Of domesticall duties, London 1622, 235.

15 Richard Greenham, The Workes of the Reverend Richard Greenham, ed. H[enry] H[olland], London 1612, 742.

16 Samuel Clarke, The Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons in this later age, London 1683, ii. 140.

17 ‘The Commonplace Book of Brilliana Harley’, Nottingham University Library, Portland MS, London Collection, fo. 176r.

18 Gouge, Ofdomesticall duties, 236. To appease irate female parishioners, Gouge sought to emphasise mutual responsibilities and duties for husband and wife. Rather than extract full superiority, the husband ought to make his wife ’a ioynt Governor of the family with himselfe’: ‘The epistle dedicatory’, Ibid..

19 Greenham, The Workes, 742.

20 In 1603, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, withheld funds from his wife Margaret, who was reduced to dependency on friends. Clifford also conveyed all his lands outside of jointure away from their only surviving child Anne: Kendal Record Office, WD/Hoth/Box 44. When in 1632, Lady Lucy Jervoise wanted her sons to attend Oxford, she felt compelled to beseech her husband ‘you doe not keepe them bake because t[he]y are mine but showe them some loue because t[he]y are yours’: Hampshire Record Office, Jervoise MS of Herriard Park, 44M69, Box E 77, 16 May 1632. For affectionate marriages between godly ‘yoke fellows’, see John Penry's final testimony ‘of my love to so deare a sister and so lovinge a wife’: BL, Add. MS 48,064, fo. igr; Lady Elizabeth Lucy's account of her mother-in-law: Folger Library, V.a. 166, fo. 23; the correspondence of Rebecca Sherfield: Hampshire Record Office, Sherfield Papers, 44M69, L31; William Waller's remarks on his three wives: William Waller, Divine Meditations upon several occasions, London 1839; and the reaction of Lady Joan Barrington to the death of her husband Sir Francis: Barrington Family Letters 1628–1632, ed. Arthur Searle (Camden Series, 4th ser. 1983), no. 28 passim.

21 Patrick Collinson, The Birthpangs of Protestant England, New York 1988, ch. iii, surveys the current state of the historiography. See also Diane Willen, ‘Women and religion in early modern England’, in Sherrin Marshall (ed.), Women in Reformation and Counter– Reformation Europe: private and public worlds, Bloomington 1989, 148 and nn. 55–8. For a recent analysis of the complexities and ambiguities of gender relations, see Linda Pollock, ‘“Teach her to live under obedience”: the making of women in the upper ranks of early modern England’, Continuity and Change 4 (1989), 231–58.

22 Lucy Hutchinson, On the Principles of the Christian Religion; addressed to her daughter; and on Theology:, London 1817, 6.

23 Hampshire Record Office, Sherfield Papers, 44M69, L 31/3.

24 BL, Loan 29/172, fo. 172V.

25 Letters of Brilliana Harley, 85; BL, Loan 29/72, letter of 17 May 1641 and subsequent letters.

26 Willen, ‘Women and religion’, 140 esp. n. 2 for bibliography on this issue. For recent discussions which show how women used religion in a liberating way to assert control over their lives, see Ellen Macek, ‘The emergence of feminine spirituality in The Book of Martyr’, the Sixteenth Century Journal xix (1988), 6380;Warnicke Retha M., ‘Lady Mildmay's journal: a study in autobiography and meditation in Reformation England’,Ibid., xx (1989), 68; Westerkamp Marilyn J., ‘Anne Hutchinson, sectarian mysticism, and the Puritan order’, Church History 9 (1990), 482–96.

27 Lake, ‘Feminine piety’, 155, 157.

28 Thomas Gataker, Pauls Desire of Dissolution, and Deaths Advantage. A Sermon Preached at the Funerall of that right vertuous and religious Gentlewoman Mrs Rebekka Crisp, London 1620 [sig.A4 r ].

29 Stephen Geree, The Ornament of Women, Or, A description of the true excellency of Women, London 1639, 2, 20. See also Samuel Torshell, The woman's glory. A treatise asserting the due honour of that sexe, London 1645, ii 210ff.

30 Gataker, Pauls Desire of Dissolution, sig. B1V.

31 In a funeral sermon for Lady Frances Roberts, Hannibal Gamon argued the case both ways. On the one hand, sin was universal: ‘By nature then both sexes are alike faultie’. On the other, since women were the weaker vessel ‘ by so much the combate she hath, is more difficult, and the victory she gets, more commendable’: Hannibal Gamon, The Praise of a Godly Woman, London 1627, 3–4.

32 Gataker, Pauls Desire of Dissolution [sig. A4r].

33 Lake, ‘Feminine piety’, 158–9.

34 Collinson, The Birthpangs of Protestant England, 75. Collinson here is speaking of Protestant women but the phenomenon he describes is most prevalent in the godly community.

35 For the ‘female style of piety’ practised by convent nuns, see Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: women and morals in Reformation Augsburg, Oxford 1989, ch. vi, esp. pp. 240–2. Roper argues that the early Reformation ‘ ruptured’ this form of religiosity but leaves open the question of whether Protestant women may subsequently have been able to reconstruct ‘ a female–centred piety’: p. 265. I intend to discuss the whole question of religious self–imagery in a forthcoming study. Puritan clergy were especially fond of using bridal imagery. For a striking example, see Letters of Samuel Rutherford, ed. Andrew A. Bonar, Edinburgh 1891. Rutherford applied the image to males as well, but used it most consistently throughout his extensive correspondence with women. Margaret Clifford explained to her daughter that they would suffer discontent, with or without a husband, ‘ontille we injoy that most blesset howsbant Jesus Christ’: Kendal Record Office, WD/Hot/Box 44, letter of 29jan. [1616], fo. 3. For medieval use of bridal imagery, see Carolyn Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the religious significance of food to medieval women, Berkeley 1987, 28, 290–1;Ibid.. Jesus as Mother: studies in the spirituality of the High Middle Ages, Berkeley 1982, ch. iv; Roper, The Holy Household, 206.

36 Greenham, Workes, 689.

37 Ibid.. 357, 341, 352, 344–5, 877, 349, 353. For a discussion of the pastoral side of Puritanism, see Morgan, Godly Learning, 10, 13, 81–6, 94, 305; Claire Cross, Church and People 1450–1660: the triumph of the laity in the English Church, London 1976, 1961. For the position of the minister, see Lake, Moderate Puritans, 89–90, 156.

38 Seaver, Wallington's World, 187–8.

39 Greaves Richard L., ‘Foundation builders: the role of women in early English nonconformity’, in Richard L. Greaves (ed.) Triumph over Silence: women in Protestant history, Westport 1985, 70–81; Cross, Church and People, 160.

40 Greaves, ‘ Foundation builders’, 81; Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, London 1967, 443.

41 Goldsmith Joan B., ‘ All the Queen's Women: the changing place and perception of aristocratic women in Elizabethan England, 1558–1620’, unpubl. PhD diss., Northwestern 1987, 129; Calendar of Slate Papers, Domestic (hereinafter CSPD), ii. 609.

42 Greaves, ‘Foundation builders’, 79–81. For Barrington, see Essex Record Office, D/DBa, A 15 and Barrington Family Letters, 220–1. For Barnardiston and Waller, see PRO, SP 16/351/100, fo. 260r, SP 16/463/67 (CSPD, 1640, 568–70). Lady Vere also promoted the appointment of James Ussher as archbishop of Armagh; see his letter of thanks: BL, Add. MS 4274, fo. 32r.

43 Hampshire Record Office, Jervoise MS of Herriard Park, 44M69, Box E 76, letter to Mr William Wilde, dated only 24 April.

44 Folger Library, V.a, 166, fo. 7.

45 Richardson R. C., Puritanism in North–West England: a regional study of the diocese of Chester to 1642, Manchester 1972, iii. Also Patrick Collinson, ‘The role of women in the English Reformation illustrated by the life and friendships of Anne Locke’, in Godly People: essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism, London 1983, 275. Cf. Willen, ‘Women and religion’, 151.

46 Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby 1599–1605, ed. Dorothy M. Meads, Boston 1930, 63, 66, 154, 159, 166, 243 n. 180; East Sussex Record Office, Dunn MS 51/58, Simon Moore to Anne Busbridge, 26 Nov. 1632.

47 John Ley, A pattern of piety or the religious life and death of that grave and gracious matron Mrs Jane Ratcliffe, London 1640, 65 and Lake, ‘Feminine piety’, 149–50.

48 Geree, The Ornament of Women, 86–91.

49 Hunt, The Puritan Moment, 220. Hunt pVovides a perceptive psychological portrait of Joan Barrington. See also Barrington Family Letters, introduction.

50 Ibid.. 13, 255–8. For Harrison, see also Mary Bohannon, ‘A London bookseller's bill: 1635–1639’, The Library, 4th ser. 18 (1938), 424 and PRO, SP 16/351/100, fo. 262V.

51 BL, Egerton MS 2644, fo. 196.

52 Ibid.. fo. 203r.

53 Ibid.. fo. 240r.

54 Ibid.. fo. 251 r.

55 Barrington Family Letters, 128–30, 167, 225–6. See also Hunt, The Puritan Moment, 221–2. Rogers also urged Lady Barrington to find inspiration from other saints and complained that charity was too meagre during his days at Hatfield Broadoak.

56 BL, Egerton MS 2648, fo. 133r. This sum was apparently never given to Rogers as, increasingly during the 1630s, Rogers's relationship with Sir Thomas Barrington, deteriorated: Cliffe J. T., The Puritan Gentry: the great Puritan families of early Stuart England, London 1984, 136 and Marchant Ronald A., The Puritans and the Church Courts in the Diocese of York 1560–1642, London 1960, 100–2.

57 BL, Egerton MS 2644, fo. 230r. I am grateful to Alasdair Hawkyard for the transcription of this letter.

58 Ibid., fos 26ir, 262r.

59 Barrington Family Letters, 71, 74–5, 86, 108, 85, 160.

60 Essex Record Office, D/DBa, A 15, passim.

61 Barrington Family Letters, 168.

62 Daniel Rogers, Treatise of the Two Sacraments of the Gospell: baptisme and the supper of the Lord, 2nd edn., London 1635, sig. A2[r]. Like so many of her clerical friends, Daniel Rogers wanted to help Lady Barrington reach assurance.

63 Barrington Family Letters, 61–2, 161; Essex Record Office, D/DBa, A 15, fo. 51r.

64 Ibid.. fos. 2Ov, 26r, 28r, 35f; Barrington Family Letters, 14, 100.

65 BL, Loan 29/173, fo. 260r; Jacqueline Levy, ‘Perceptions and Beliefs: the Harleys of Brampton Bryan and the outbreak of the First Civil War’, unpubl. PhD diss., London 1983, 61.

66 Clarke, The Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons, ii. 144ff.; Dictionary of National Biography, xx. 238.

67 Sprunger Keith L., The Learned Doctor William Ames: Dutch backgrounds of English and American Puritanism, Urbana 1972, 30.

68 BL, Add. MS 4275, fos 60r, 62r.

69 Ibid., fos 68–69V. I again thank Alasdair Hawkyard for transcribing this letter.

70 Greaves, ‘Foundation builders’, 81. Davenport was admitted to the vicarage and lectureship at St Stephen, Coleman Street, London; Eales calls him ‘Lady Vere's protege’ there: Eales, Puritan and Roundheads, 62.

71 BL, Add. MS 4275, fo. 160r. Davenport had consulted with Dr Sibbes, and both clerics agreed that Lady Vere should remain in the Hague.

72 Ibid.. fo. i66v. For Davenport's intercessions on behalf of other clerics, see also PRO, SP 16/13/15.

73 BL, Add. MS 4275, fo. 173r.

74 Levy, ‘Perceptions and beliefs’, 160 n. 160. Correspondence is found in BL, Add. MS 4275, 4276; unfortunately, Vere's letters to the clergy do not survive.

75 Clarke, The Lives 0f Sundry Eminent Persons, ii. 147.

76 BL, Add. MS 4275, fos 64r, 160r.

77 Letters of Samuel Rutherford, 214.

78 Gataker, Paul's Desire of Dissolution, sig. B2r.

79 Williams served as chaplain to Barrington's daugher and son-in-law, Sir William and Lady Masham. In 1629 Lady Joan felt he twice insulted her, first by contemplating marriage with a Barrington niece, his social superior, then by warning Lady Barrington that her fear and anxiety were messages from God, ‘loud alarums to awaken you Certainely (madame) the lord hath a quarrell against you’. So offended was Lady Barrington that to the Mashams’ dismay and Roger's sorrow, she refused to see him for a number of months: Barrington Family Letters, 64–8, 79, 91; Hunt, The Puritan Moment, 221, 223.

80 CSPD, 1633–1634, 324.

81 Letters of Brilliana Harley, 65–6.

82 Levy, ‘Perceptions and beliefs’, 148–52, 170–1;Cliffe, The Puritan Gentry, 77–8; Letters of Brilliana Harley, 26.

83 Eales, Puritan and Roundheads, 106.

84 Ibid.. 109–10.

85 See her letters to Sir Robert on 19 May and 27 June 1642:BL, Loan 29/173, fo. 250r, 26ir.

86 Letters of Brilliana Harley, 174, letter of 27 June 1642.

87 BL, Loan 29/72, letter of 2 Sept. 1643.

88 In the mid sixteenth century, Mrs Elizabeth Bowes established a ‘spiritual and ideological relationship’ with John Knox, who became her son-in-law, and the recusant Margaret Clitherow became emotionally tied to priests whom she hid in her home. The degree of reciprocity in these relationships, however, is not clear. See Willen, ‘Women and religion’, 150–5. On the spirituality of English female recusants, see Rowlands Marie B., ‘Recusant women 1560–1640’, in Mary Prior (ed.) Women in English Society 1500–1800, London 1985, 149–80;Hanlon J. D., ‘These be but women’, in Charles Carter (ed.), From The Renaissance to the Counter–Reformation: essays in honor of Garrett Mattingly, New York 1965, 371–400.

89 I am grateful to Dr Miriam U. Chrisman for discussing this issue with me.

90 Essex Record Office, D/DBa, A 15, fos 6, 2ir, 23V, 27r, 56V; Barrington Family Letters, e.g. 38–9, 50–1, 203, 210, 214–15, 226–7; Hunt, The Puritan Moment, 226.

91 Letters 0f Brilliana Harley, 32. Even Lady Harley's ten–year old daughter followed and wrote about continental battles: Eales, Puritans and Roundheads, 94.

92 Hunt, The Puritan Moment, 16gff. and Seaver, Wallington's World, 178. Cf. Lake's concept of active citizenship:Peter Lake, Anglicans and Puritans? Presbyterianism and English conformist thought from Whitgift to Hooker, London 1988, 242.

93 Barrington Family Letters, 56. See also Joan Barrington's attitude to fasting in 1636 to combat plague: BL, Egerton MS 2646, fo. 1O2r.

94 Barrington Family Letters, 49, 61, 176. For this phenomenon among a different network of the godly, see Anthony Fletcher, A County Community in Peace and War: Sussex 1600–1660, London 1975, 64.

95 Hampshire Record Office, Jervoise MS of Herriard Park, 44M69, Box E 77, 20 Apr. 1633. I am grateful to Professor Conrad Russell for drawing my attention to this letter.

96 BL, Harleian MS 387, fo. 8r.

97 Gamon, The Praise of a Godly Woman, 28.

98 Ley, A pattern of piety, 62.

99 Samuel Ainsworth, A Sermon Preached at the Funerall of that religious Gentle–woman Mrs Dorothy Hanbury, London 1645, 31. Cf. Nathaniel Parkhurst, The Faithful and Diligent Christian described… Preached at the Funeral of the Lady Elizabeth Brooke, London 1684, 37.

100 Barrington Family Letters, 122.

101 Richard Sibbes, ‘ The epistle dedicatory’, in The Bruised Reed, and Smoaking Flax, London 1630.

102 John Collings, Faith and Experience or, A short Narration of the holy life and death of Mary Simpson, London 1649, 72, 66. Collings explains that during the three years of her sickness, Simpson ‘ did more good, to poore soules… by telling them her experiences, directing, quickning, exhorting, strengthening, satisfying them, than God hath honoured any of us who have been preachers of his word, to doe in much more time’: pp. 66–7.

103 Patrick Collinson, ‘“A Magazine of Religious Patterns”: an Erasmian topic transposed in English Protestantism’, in Godly People, 516. For other remarks on the use of funeral sermons, see Lake, ‘Feminine piety’, 143–5; Owen Watkins, The Puritan Experience: studies in spiritual autobiography, New York 1977, 24–5. Lake notes that‘ Idealized such portraits might be, but they had also to be recognizable’: p. 160.

104 The phrase is used by Morgan, Godly Learning, 39.

106 Collings, Faith and Experience, 72.

106 John Barlow, ‘The epistle dedicatory’, in The True guide to glory. A sermon preached at… the funeral of the Lady Strode of Mewingham, London 1619.

107 Gamon, The Praise of a Godly Woman, 34–6.

108 Earlier versions of this paper were presented at a seminar directed by Professor Esther Cope at the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought, Washington, DC, June 1990 and at the joint meeting of the North American Conference on British Studies and the Southern Conference on British Studies, New Orleans, 1990. I thank Professor Cope, Professor Barbara Harris and Professor Arthur Slavin for discussing the paper with me.

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