Early Modern Women – Margaret, Lady Hoby (1571-1633)

Unknown_Lady_Robert_Peake_c1592 (2)

Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Robert Peake the elder (1592). There are no known portraits either of Margaret or of Sir Thomas Hoby.

Margaret, Lady Hoby, is best known as the author of  the earliest known diary written by a woman in English. While her diary began as a religious exercise and includes details of her religious practices, prayer and reading, it is also a window through which we can glimpse the busy domestic life of a woman managing a large household and estate. In many ways Margaret can be seen as the epitome of the Early Modern period’s ideal woman – obedient, pious, industrious and sociable.

Margaret Dakins was born in 1571 at Linton in the East Riding of Yorkshire to Arthur Dakins and Thomasine Gye. They were a well connected family and as their only child Margaret was a substantial heiress.  She was educated at Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire, in the household Henry Hastings, third Earl of Huntingdon, who was also President of the Council of the North. It was common practice during this period for young men and women at all levels of society to learn their place in another household, preferably a household of higher standing, in the hope not only of learning but also of advancement and advantageous marriages. The Earl of Huntingdon was a firm Puritan and his ideal of what a woman should be was that she ‘fears God, loves the Gospel, and hates Popery’.(1) Margaret spent her time under the care of Catherine, Countess of Huntingdon, along with a number of other young women including the Countess’s nieces, Penelope and Dorothy Devereux, the daughters of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. These two young women would later become Margaret’s sisters-in-law.   The skills Margaret had been taught by her mother would have been built upon and refined. Like other young women of her standing, she would have learnt to read and write and keep household accounts, to sew, to play musical instruments, to dance and to acquire the social graces so important in 16th century society. She would also have received religious instruction. Lady Huntingdon was as devout a Protestant as her husband and Margaret developed the same Puritan leanings. From her later letters, it would appear that Margaret received little of the classical education that was evident in the writings of Queen Elizabeth and the women of her court or even her future mother-in-law Lady Russell, a woman of sound Puritan convictions. Where Lady Russell’s letter are sprinkled with classical allusions, Margaret’s mainly refer to scripture.(2) Through the Huntingdons, with their connections to the Earls of Leicester and Essex and Sir Francis Walsingham, Margaret came into the orbit of some of the highest placed people in England.


The remains of Ashby de la Zouch Castle, the home of the Earls of Huntingdon.

In 1588, aged 18, Margaret married Walter Devereux, the younger son of the Earl of Essex and brother of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite. During the marriage negotiations which were, in part, brokered by the Earl of Huntingdon, who had been Devereux’s guardian since his father’s death in 1576, the manor and parsonage of Hackness was purchased for young couple. Hackness was situated in the  East Riding of Yorkshire where many of their neighbours were old established Catholic families. Contributions to the purchase were made by Arthur Dakins and the Earls of Essex and Huntingdon. Dakins did not pay his full amount, expecting the bridegroom to pay the balance owing out of the dowry. The marriage secured a substantial income for Walter Devereux, the younger son of a noble family, who had limited financial prospects.

Walter Devereux died at the siege of Rouen on 8 Sep 1591. To protect Margaret from fortune hunters her parents and the Huntingdons, who were also her guardians, decided that it was better for Margaret to remarry sooner rather than later with a match organized by those who cared best for her. So within a fortnight of Devereux’ death, negotiations for a second marriage were already underway, even though his body had not yet been returned to England for burial. The Countess of Huntingdon pressed the case of her nephew, Thomas Sidney, the younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney, the hero of Zutphen, and son of Mary Dudley (the Countess’s sister who had nursed Queen Elizabeth through smallpox in 1563). Another aspirant to Margaret’s hand was Mr Thomas Posthumous Hoby, son of the translator and English ambassador to France, Sir Thomas Hoby. Hoby was  also nephew of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Hoby was not the most prepossessing of men. Even his mother, Lady Russell, described him as ‘wanting in stature, learning and otherwise’.(3) But he was a Puritan and had sat in the House of Commons since 1589. More recently, Shakespearean scholars have suggested that Thomas Posthumous Hoby was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s character Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

17th-century_unknown_painters_-_Portrait_of_a_Couple_-_WGA23678 (2)

Hoby’s suit was unsuccessful as Margaret married Sidney on 22 Dec 1591 in London. As well as Hackness, Sidney owned property at Kingston on Hull and, when Margaret’s father died a year later, she acquired further property. Thomas Sidney died in June 1595 and by August of that year Hoby, now Sir Thomas having been knighted for military service in Ireland in 1594, was again pressing his suit. Letters had been sent to the Earl of Huntingdon both from Lady Russell and Lord Burghley proposing Hoby as a match. This time the Earl of Huntingdon saw value in the match and encouraged Hoby to meet Margaret. He sent Margaret’s cousin, Sir Edward Stanhope with Hoby to act as intermediary. Stanope reported that when he first saw Margaret, without Hoby present, she had ‘payne in her eyes and heade, which I founde to proceede of greate lamentacion for the loss of the worthy gentleman her late husbande, for she could not then speake of him without teares’.  He also said that ‘the tender love she bare to him that was dead, made yt grevous to her to hear of any newe’ husband.(4) But such a valuable heiress was allowed no time to decently mourn her husband. Unfortunately the Earl of Huntington died on the 14 December and the new Earl attempted to reclaim Hackness, claiming that it was not fully paid for and therefore the property was his. Sir Edward Stanhope counselled Margaret that best way to resolve the dispute was to marry Hoby and make use of his powerful connections.(5) Even as late as July 1596 Margaret described herself as ‘she that is nothing but grefe and misery’.(6) Yet on 9 August she married Thomas Posthumous Hoby at his mother’s house in Blackfriars. The couple lived at Hackness which, through the intervention of the Cecils, remained with Margaret.

Margaret Hoby

Margaret Hoby’s inscription on the title page of Philip de Mornai’s Doctrine of the Holy Sacraments…(1600)

Margaret began her diary  as an aid to spiritual discipline three years later on 9 August 1599, her third wedding anniversary, and continued it for six years, ending it on 9 August 1605. While the diary records in great detail Lady Hoby’s religious life, it gives us nothing of her emotion or feelings. Its purpose seems to be to monitor her spiritual life and although it mentions prayers, exercises and readings, she does not record the detail of what these were. She began each day with bible reading and prayer and often retired to her room at least twice during the day for further prayer and meditation. She mentions the public prayers that were part of the usual household day even in less Puritan households. She wrote out lectures and sermons she had heard, and read other religious works. She often closed the day with ‘I went to priuate praier and so to bed’. On Sunday she went twice to church as well as reading to old women of the estate in what appears to have been some sort of class. She spoke to her women and maids about religion and its principles. Her personal chaplain, Richard Rhodes, played a very important part in Margaret’s life. As well as speaking to Margaret about religious matters, he provided a public lecture accompanied by the singing of psalms for the household. He would read aloud from the Bible or religious books while Margaret and her women worked. In his absences she would have another of the household read to them. Margaret wrote in her diary assiduously through 1599 and 1600, but by 1602 the entries are far less frequent and by the end more about daily comings and goings than a detail of her spiritual life.

At Hackness, as in most households of any standing, Margaret had young women in her care learning the tasks of household management and piety in the way she had at the Countess of Huntingdon’s. These women included her sister Elizabeth Dakins, one of her Dakins cousins Jane Lutton, Jane Gates, granddaughter of Sir Henry Gates of Seamer,  and several other women of good family.


Throughout the diary individual household tasks are mentioned often enough for the reader to get a sense of the rhythm of such a household and the range of skills needed by a woman managing such an enterprise. There were, of course, endless hours  spent by Margaret and her maids at needlework  – Margaret ‘sat and wrought with my maids’. She tended to the sick and infirm at Hackness. Beyond visiting them in their homes, she dressed cuts and sores, and assisted poor women in their confinements. She also made up medicinal salves as well as distilling oils and aqua vitae, often used medicinally. Her household tasks involved preserving foods such as damsons and quinces, making sweetmeats and gingerbread, overseeing her beehives, candlemaking, and ensuring there were sufficent stores. There were seasonal tasks such as ‘pulling hempe’ and weighing and dying wool as well as spinning and winding yard. Most of her work was done in the company of her women.

Sir Thomas was a member of the Council of the North, a member of Parliament, Commissioner for the Subsidy, for Musters and a Justice of the Peace. As a fervent Puritan he was tireless in his hunting out of recusants, Catholics who refused to attend services of the Established Church. After the Armada and the many plots against the Queen’s life and with the increasing number of secular priests and Jesuits entering England, especially the latter’s connections with Spain, every Catholics came to be viewed as a potential traitor by virtue of faith alone. Lady Hoby had similar views of Catholicism as Sir Thomas yet her approach was more by persuasion than persecution. She mentions on 24 February 1599 talking ‘with a yonge papest maide’, no doubt with a mind to talking her out of her erroneous beliefs.(7)

As Sir Thomas was frequently away from home for long periods about his many duties, management of the estate fell to Margaret. Beyond keeping the household accounts and supervising and paying servants, she oversaw the planting, harvesting and sale of wheat, the buying of sheep, planting of trees. She signed leases, received fines and rents,  paid the workmen’s wages and kept the estate accounts. She also played a role in keeping the Manor Court held by the owner of the manor for those living there. Margaret writes on 4 August 1601 ‘this day I was busie in the house, hauing manie strangers, because of the Courte that was kept after Mr Hoby and my self’.(8) In effect, as well as running the household, Margaret was the estate manager in Sir Thomas’s absence.

Margaret suffered some ill health, reporting headaches and stomach pains, toothache, coughs and colds. Her attitude to her illnesses is reflected in her entry of 19 September 1599. ‘I was at publeck praers very sicke : the Lord pardon the sinne for which I was so punished, it beinge the will of god often to punishe one sinne with another.’ She also considered plague to be a punishment. ‘This day I hard the plauge was so great at whitbie that those wch were cleare shutt themselves vp, and the infected that escaped did goe abroad : Likewise it was reported that, at London, the number was tahen of the Liuinge and not the deed : Lord graunt that these Iudgmentes may Cause England wt speed tourne to the Lord.’(9) As one of the primary duties of a wife was seen to be to produce children, heirs for a husband’s estate, it is fair to assume that Margaret would have felt sadness at her failure in this area. There is no explicit mention of this in the diary but on 7 October 1603 she writes, ‘this day I fasted untill Eueninge, eatinge nor drinkinge any thinge, begging of the Lorde that blissne wch yet I want’. It is tempting to assume that the blessing she wanted was children.


Her life was not completely work. Margaret loved her garden, writing often of time spent in it. She fished and bowled at the alley on her estate. She drove out in her coach to visit family and friends, sometimes staying overnight, as well as having neigbours to dinner. Family often visited, such as her cousin Arthur Dakins in June 1601. ‘After I Came home and that I had dined, I talked of good matters wth him, and he reed to me, and after we went forthe and we sawe some sheppe which he was to buy’.  Two days later, ‘This day Came my Cousine Isons wiffe, and Mr Bell and his wiffe, and Lay att my house, to goe the next morning to se my Mother and to hear a sarmon’.(10) Margaret wrote frequent letters, especially to her mother. She enjoyed music, on one occasion saying, ‘To refresh myself being dull, I plaied and sung to the alphorion’.(11)  She also took extended visits to London and to York where she visited family such as Lady Russell, and her many cousins. She heard sermons at churches such as  York Minster and at Westminster, passing her own judgement on the quality of the sermons. On a visit to York in April 1600 Margaret visited family and friends, dined frequently with them and also saw a new physician. In October of the same year she travelled to London, staying on for three months. Apart from visits to her wide circle of family and friends including Lady Walsingham (Sir Francis‘ widow), Lady Russell, Lady Rich (Penelope Devereux) and Lady Rutland (Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Philip Sidney, and Margaret’s second husband’s niece), she did what so many other visitors to London did, visited the Royal Exchange and went to Court ‘to se the Quene’. Margaret also records some of the greater events occurring during the period of the diary. Apart from the mention of plague, she also records the death of Queen Elizabeth. The entry of 23 March 1603 begins ‘which day the Quene departed this Life’.(12) On 26 March Margaret writes ‘this day, being the Lordes day, was the death of the Quene published, and our now kinge Iames of Scotland proclaimd kinge to sucseede hir : god semd him a long and Hapie Raing, amen.’(12) The Hobys travelled to London in April for the Queen’s funeral and to await the arrival of the new King though the diary includes no detail of what they did and saw.


London 1616 by Claes Visscher

Although Margaret appears to have been well respected in the district, Sir Thomas Hoby does not seem to have got on so well with his neighbours, especially those of the Catholic faith. This was, no doubt, partly due to his tireless pursuit of recusants and, certainly partly to his personality. One remarked of him that he was ‘the busiest sauciest little Jack in all the country [who] would have an oar in anybody’s boat’.(13) Hoby was often involved in lawsuits and in some instances he was certainly justified. On 27  Aug 1600, a hunting party led by William Eure (eldest son of their neighbour, Ralph, third Lord Eure) arrived at Hackness uninvited and stayed for supper. Sir Thomas dined with them but Margaret was not present as she was ill. They behaved boorishly, ‘discoursing of horses and dogs, sport wherunto Sir Thomas never applied himself, partly with lascivious talk where every sentence was begun or ended with a great oath’.(14) Sir Thomas arranged rooms for them for the night but rather than retiring the party played dice. Sir Thomas left them and went down to the hall to say the evening prayers with the household as was his usual practice. While they were singing their psalms, Eure and his companions stamped their feet and some stood on the stairs at a window opening into the hall and laughed all through the prayers. At breakfast the next morning the guests continued drinking and demanded more wine but Sir Thomas locked the cellar and told them he would give them no more. They made a great deal of noise through breakfast, shouting and yelling, to the point where Sir Thomas requested that they keep the noise down not to disturb Lady Hoby. Eure then demanded to see Margaret who was still in bed. In her diary she provides little detail of the incident however she does say, ‘After I was readie I spake with Mr Ewrie, who was so drunke that I sone made an end of that I had no reason to stay for’.(15) She asked him to leave the house which he and his companions did after insulting Hoby, galloping horses over the newly levelled courtyard and throwing stones at the windows breaking four quarrels of glass.(16) Hoby took it to the Privy Council but it was not until May 1602 that the matter was finally resolved in Hoby’s favour, although Sir Thomas’s refusal  to unlock his wine cellar was considered by the court to be as large a breach of hospitality as a guest breaking four windows and behaving riotously while the household were at prayers. Eure was ordered to pay for the breakages which was done in the presence of the Hobys’ tenants. Writing on 29 May 1602, Margaret saw it as ‘the Justice and mercie of God to his seruants in manifestinge to the world who Litle regards them, that he will bringe downe their enemes vnto them.’(17)

It is not possible to gauge Margaret’s feelings for her husband as she always referred to him as Mr Hoby, and on a couple of occasions ‘my husband’, but this was not an unusual practice up to the 19th century. They walked together about the estate, frequently had long conversations that Margaret mentions in her diary. At times Sir Thomas read to Margaret. They dined together, not every meal, or necessarily every day as both led busy lives and Sir Thomas was often away from home. No matter what her inner feelings, she behaved as a good wife was expected to and there is a clear sense that Sir Thomas valued what he had in his wife. After Margaret died on 4 September 1633, Sir Thomas erected an alabaster plaque to her in the chancel of St Peter’s Church, Hackness where she was buried. He also built St Margaret’s Chapel in Harwood Dale to her memory ‘for devine service for ye good of ye sovles and bodies of ye Inhabitantes dwelling wthin Harewood dale’.(18) Sir Thomas Hoby died in 1640 and was buried beside his wife.


St Peter’s Church, Hackness

Margaret, Lady Hoby’s life is in many ways the exemplar of what was seen as the good woman in the Elizabethan period. A dutiful daughter, she married where she was directed by parents and guardians, even as a widow, although it is clear that she was particularly reluctant with her third marriage, having to decide before she had time to mourn a husband she cared greatly for. But, at that time, marriage was a serious business not a decision to be made based on reckless emotion. We do not know what Margaret felt for Thomas Posthumous Hoby but she treated him with respect and behaved as an irreproachable helpmeet, living a life of piety and industry.


Ruins of St Margaret’s Chapel, Harwood Dale

©Catherine Meyrick
(1) Fox, Evelyn ‘The Diary of an Elizabethan Gentlewoman’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 2, 1908. p.154
(2) ibid.
(3) Crawford, Julie Mediatrix: Women, Politics, and Literary Production in Early Modern England OUP, 2014. p.87
(4) Moody, Joanna (Ed.) The private life of an Elizabethan lady : the diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599-1605 Sutton, 1998. p.233
(5) ibid. p.236
(6) ibid. p.xxviii. The quotation is from a letter from Margaret to Sir Robert Cecil in the Cecil Papers Vol. IV,42.34,301
(7) ibid. p.64
(8) Crawford op cit. p.93. Manor courts were one of the few places were women were able to hold office.
(9) Moody op cit. p.195 23 October 1603
(10) ibid. p.152
ibid. p.56 26 January 1600. The orpharion is a plucked stringed instrument from the cittern family.
Although the death of the queen is recorded as 24 March 1603.
Moody op cit. p.187
Crawford op cit. p.95
Moody op cit. p.240
ibid. p.108
ibid. p.239 Appendix 2 includes correspondence and evidence in the case of Hoby v. Eure including the evidence of Robert Nettleton one of Sir Thomas Hoby’s servants.
ibid. p.181
Moody op cit. p.224 From inscription on a black marble tablet in the new Church of St Margaret, Harwood Dale, commemorating the old chapel.

Crawford, Julie Mediatrix: Women, Politics, and Literary Production in Early Modern England OUP, 2014 Ch2 ‘How Margaret Hoby read her De Mornay’ pp.86-120
Fox, Evelyn ‘The Diary of an Elizabethan Gentlewoman’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 2, 1908), pp. 153-174
Moody, Joanna (Editor) The private life of an Elizabethan lady : the diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599-1605 Sutton, 1998. Appendices include correspondence concerning the courtship  of Margaret by Thomas Hoby and correspondence and evidence in the case of Hoby v. Eure.

Seelig, Sharon Cadman  Autobiography and Gender in Early Modern Literature: Reading Women’s Lives, 1600–1680.  Ch 1 ‘Margaret Hoby : the Stewardship of Time’ pp.15-32

Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Robert Peake the elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ashby de la Zouch Castle panorama by Pahazzard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image of page with Lady Hoby’s inscription from blog post Parish library collections at the York Minster Library by Mary Nagle
Family Saying Grace by Anthonius or Antoon Claeissins (www.weissgallery.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

London panorama 1616 by Claes Janszoon Visscher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
St Peter’s Church, Hackness by JThomas [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Old St Margaret’s Church, Harwood Dale by Oliver Dixon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


3 thoughts on “Early Modern Women – Margaret, Lady Hoby (1571-1633)

  1. Pingback: The Elizabethan ‘Suter’ | Catherine Meyrick

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  3. Pingback: ‘To have and to hold from this day forward’ – The Celebration of Marriage in Early Modern England | Catherine Meyrick

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