Sunday 20 November 2011

Fertility, Marriage and Motherhood: Women of Elizabethan Burnham

                       The Cholomondely sisters, married and delivered on the same day, c1599

Situated on the north bank of the river Crouch in south east Essex, Burnham-on-Crouch had been populated long before the Romans and Saxons settled there and was in the front line during the Danish invasion of the tenth century. By medieval times, a quay had been built to aid the farming of Waynflete oysters and the return of the fishing fleets: a survey of 1565 recorded twenty-one merchant vessels and seventeen fishing boats, a sizeable amount of regular sea traffic. Sheep were the main livestock kept on the marshes; Burnham women would have been involved in the production of the thick, rich ewe’s cheeses made in large huts known as wicks, as well as milk, butter and cream. No doubt they would also be the ones to cook the game brought home by the wildfowlers and the little fish caught at high tide in the traps called keddles, set into the black Essex mud. These women would have been the daughters, wives and mothers of yeomen, husbandmen, farmers, dairymen, wildfowlers and fishermen.
Most of those born in the parish would have been baptised, married and buried at St Mary’s Church, also known as the cathedral of the marshes. A church was first recorded on the site in 1155 although the current building dates from the fourteenth century; Tudor worshippers would still recognise the south porch door carved in linenfold panels and the square Purbeck marble font inside the church today. Wanting to conceive or safely deliver a child, Burnham women might have called on one of the local saints for protection: the missionary St Cedd, who founded the Seventh century chapel at nearby St Bradwell, the pilgrim St Helen of Colchester or St Osyth, a Seventh century abbess beheaded by the Danes. If they survived their ordeal, they would return to St Mary’s for churching and thanks giving and would ultimately be buried there.
Burnham fertility levels are fairly typical of neighbouring Essex parishes of the time. When it came to first babies, the majority of wives conceived within six months, with subsequent children arriving at intervals averaging a year to eighteen months. The widow Bridge married Richard Mannfield on April the twelfth 1559 and conceived at once, giving birth to their first son the following January. Longer gaps, usually of a year or more followed between the arrivals of her next three children, possibly delayed by breastfeeding, although the couple were clearly intimate again very soon after the arrival of their penultimate child William in July 1569, as a final daughter, Jane, was born only nine months after him in March 1570.
Following Agneta Bowman’s marriage to Richard Lund in April 1563, the couple produced their first son in March 1564, indicating a two month conception period, although the boy died a few weeks after his birth. Unless she had then taken in a nurse child, Agneta’s milk supply would have ceased, removing any contraceptive benefits and she was pregnant again six months later. The wife of John Gatton gave birth to Mary in July 1562 and must have fallen pregnant almost straight away in order to deliver twins John and Denis the following March. Her next recorded arrival was December 1563, meaning that she must have conceived again in the same way, barely days after her twins had arrived. An interval of a year elapsed before she fell pregnant with her final daughter Dorothy, born in October 1565. Such a concentrated period of childbearing must have taken its toll on her health and subsequent fertility levels.
Some did take longer to conceive. Grace Putipole was married to Thomas Sharpe in May 1561, although their first child was not christened until 1564 and Alice Harrison did not fall pregnant until more than two years after her wedding to Robert Anderson in 1578. Of course, the parish registers do not record those couples who were actively trying to conceive and failing or those pregnancies that did not go to term or resulted in still births. Long term infertility must have been an issue for some couples: the marriage register is full of unions that have no subsequent offspring, either through accident or design, although it will also include older couples and those who may have left the parish, so infertility statistics are impossible to determine.
                                                            St Mary's, Burnham

The rates of maternal mortality in Elizabethan Burnham were slightly higher than the estimated national averages of around 2.35 percent.[1] In unfortunate cases, it coincided with the slightly higher risk of infant mortality, often with first births. Alice Battle married Mark Wethers at St Mary’s on the thirteenth of September 1562. Neither were listed as having previous spouses so this was probably a first marriage, likely to have been contracted between two young people in their mid-twenties, according to usual ages of their class and time. Within four months Alice had conceived and would have begun to feel confident that she was pregnant by the following spring. The couple would have made preparations for their first child and Alice may have been apprehensive; no doubt she called on her female relatives and friends when her time came close in October 1563. At some time during her labour, things either began to go wrong or she delivered a child and was taken ill afterwards and died. Puerperal fever was common in an age that failed to connect the spread of disease with basis hygiene like hand washing; fevers could rapidly set in or else take days to incubate. Sadly, many mothers may have been infected by germs spread on the midwife’s hands, making the holders of that office the bearers of both life and death. Alice was buried on October the twenty-seventh, just over a year after her marriage; the couple’s son William followed her to the grave on November the fourth. Mark does not appear to have married again in Burnham.
It was a similar story for Annes Bott, who married Thomas Hill on May the twenty-second 1560.  Annes conceived about eighteen months later; the couple must have had their suspicions confirmed around the time of her quickening in February 1562. Five months later she went into labour but neither mother nor child, a boy named John, survived, both being buried at St Mary’s on the same day, the twenty-first of July 1562. Just over three months later, Thomas Hill remarried to Elizabeth Hamon but does not appear to have fathered any more children.
Husbands often found new wives with what appears like indecent haste to the twenty-first century eye, although it seems to have been quite a common practise at the time, following the examples of the Tudor court: Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk remarried three weeks after being widowed and the rapid turnover of Henry VIII’s wives was the subject of national gossip. But marriage was a necessary outlet. For Elizabethan men and women, relationships and casual sexual encounters could lead to charges of fornication, fines and public humiliation. Especially in the latter end of the period, increasing litigiousness gave rise to an explosion of immorality cases in the local Assize courts. Marriage was a safeguard against sin in the eyes of the church, a comfort and support as well as demarcating social standing and advancement. When John Ellis lost his wife Johan and baby son John in June 1562, it only took him until the beginning of October before leading Innocent Kemp to the altar at St Mary’s: she went on to bear him two more children.
The early 1560s saw particularly high rates of infant and maternal mortality in the town: Thomas Fowle lost his wife Annes and son John in April 1561, outliving them by twenty-three years; Thomas Drywood lost his wife Margaret and son in 1563; Thomas Hithe’s wife Johan and son died in the winter of 1560 and Henry Awman’s daughter Margaret was buried on June the thirteenth 1560, followed by his wife Johan two weeks later. By the 1580s, the rate of deaths was still high. Grace Whit died giving birth to her son John, who also died in January 1588 and Josanne Harvie was buried in September 1586, along with her daughter Susan. Agnes King died after having given birth to a daughter in June 1585, who followed her to the grave in early July. Women were not just at risk when having their first child. Elizabeth Medows gave birth to William in 1561, but died soon after the arrival of John in 1563.
In spite of the local proverb: “make haste when you are purchasing a field but when you are to marry a wife be slow,” enough men and women of Burnham married in haste to ensure the growth of the town. Case studies from St Mary’s parish register of baptisms, marriages and burials indicate a community where death was constantly present and unpredictable. Remarriage in the face of this helplessness was one way of reaffirming life. The rate of remarriage was high, with many men taking three or more wives, often only months after bereavement and fathering a string of children over a span of twenty or thirty years. This suggests marriage was less companionate and lasting than today; the romantic notion of a life-long union was rare and many matches were contracted between widows and widowers. Between 1559 and 1568, one in four weddings involved a widow; by the end of the Tudor period it was one in six. Women were less likely to remarry after having children although a large proportion of them did not survive long enough to do so. A significant number died giving birth to their first child but this did not lessen the danger risked with every subsequent delivery. The same sad story recurs through the parish registers.

Heartless as it may seem today, the death of a spouse created an opportunity, subject to timing. The speed of courtship and the ability and readiness of both parties to forge unions suggests marriages were licences for sexual activity, comfort and advancement in a transient world. With many marriages frequently lasting mere months, the concept of “until death do us part” must have been more immediate and relevant. Mathew Hone married the widow Johan Peeke on the thirteenth of October 1564 but when she died the following February, he married Johan Palmer in May, who had in turn been widowed that January. When Alles Munson died only weeks after marrying John Tailor, the six months he waited before remarrying in July to Annes Kenet was long in comparison with his next match; after his new wife died on the twenty first of April 1573, he waited only four months before leading Mary Mabbes to the altar at St Mary’s. It was common for women to die after a string of fairly close pregnancies and leave young children; Margaret Hunt had at least six children living when she died in 1560, the youngest being a girl of six while Alice Redwort, left exactly the same situation when she died in the same year. Widowers must have been looking for a potential stepmother as much as a wife.
Widowhood gave woman a degree of status and freedom in Tudor society; as spouses they and all their worldly goods were the property of a husband but in the event of his death, they could inherit possessions, homes, businesses and wealth, making them an attractive prospect for a new husband. On average, they waited longer than the Burnham men before seeking to become a man’s property again. With many marriages so brief, a Tudor widows did not fit the modern stereotype of women past their prime; many were still young and had not yet born a child; multiple marriages and the decease of spouses allowed some to acquire wealth through fortune and shrewd moves in the marriage market. Others had step children to consider when making a rematch.
One surviving will of the period shows in detail how a widow and surviving children were catered for. Kateryn Hanley became the sixth wife of seafaring man William Nicoll in May 1572, who had fathered his first children before 1559, when the parish records began. Perhaps the marriage or illness prompted him to write his will in November that year, giving a detailed insight into the division of the domestic treasures of his household: clearly his new [i]wife only had a claim of months whilst his children received the largest portion of his goods. To his son Thomas he left a feather bed, with bolster, pair of blankets and a covering of black and white, a brass pot and pewter dishes, platters, saucers and candlesticks. To his daughter Annes, he willed a flock bed that was his before his marriage; carefully ensuring it was not taken by his new wife; along with blankets, bolster, a covering, sheets and bedstead. She also received a number of kettles, pewter dishes, the best skillet with the legs, candle sticks, a salt cellar and linen of Holland cloth. Nicoll requested that his cousin sell his boat and use the money to discharge his debts before paying his daughter a fixed sum before concluding that the remainder “if there be any spare” go to his wife. Nicoll died in July 1573 and Kateryn went on to marry a William Everett the following February.
Elizabethan Burnham’s patterns of fertility, marriage and motherhood can throw up many surprises for a modern reader but serves as a reminder of the fragile and opportunistic nature of life in an era riddled with uncertainties, not least of mortality and medicine.

[1]  Schofield, Roger. “Did The Mothers Really Die? Three Centuries of Maternal Mortality” published in “The World We Have Lost.” Cambridge, 1991


  1. Very interesting blog explaining the the lives of women in Elizabethan Burnham.
    Childbirth a life threatening experience with no contraception to prevent and no medical help to mitigate the dangers.
    As you mention fever was another real problem. For some reason women were more at risk of 'Dengie fever' in the marshland areas than men and many women died very young.
    I look forward to reading more of your blogs.


  2. Fascinating article. I've lived here my entire life (a good 32 years) and had no idea St. Mary's was known as the Cathedral of the Marshes! I even went to St. Mary's school!

  3. Very interesting post Amy. I love hearing about the ordinary women and their lives.