‘Seldom doth the husband thrive without leave of his wife’ – The Sixteenth Century Manor Wife

A slightly more succinct version of this post was published on Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots on 8 July 2019.

Sixteenth century conduct manuals advised a man seeking a wife to consider everything from the woman’s age, appearance, health, obedience and piety, to her love of children, singing voice and ability to be silent. Practical skills were not always mentioned; however, Robert Furse (c1539-1593), a Devon farmer, believed that a good wife was more necessary to a well-functioning household than a good husband, so it was important that she was not ‘ignorante how to use and governe thos thynges appertenynge and belongen to her charge’. Depending on the size of the household and a man’s estate, the ‘thynges … belongen to her charge’ could be vast. With men at all levels often away from home for long periods—at court, at Parliament or on other business—wives not only oversaw the day-to-day running of the domestic household but also their husbands’ rural business enterprises, their estates. The scale of such undertakings is illustrated by the lives of two sixteenth century women, Sabine Johnson and Margaret, Lady Hoby.

In 1541 Sabine Saunders (c1520-1597?) married John Johnson, a draper and wool stapler, in what was, and continued as, a love match. Johnson was in business with his brother Otwell and Sabine’s uncle, Anthony Cave, exporting wool and fells and importing wine and herring. Although based in Calais, in 1544 Johnson leased the Old Manor House at Glapthorn, Northamptonshire, and went into the business of wool production, clearing and enclosing land to run sheep. Sabine, as well as producing a child every second year, ran the estate and a household of nearly twenty people in his absence. She employed the domestic staff, paid the bills and kept the accounts. She saw that there was enough to feed the household through the leaner winter months, ensuring that beef was salted, bacon cured, brawn made and, later in the year, overseeing the extra baking at shearing time for the shearers and the wool-winders. She directed the seasonal tasks of shearing, sorting fleeces and winding wool as well the threshing and haymaking. She bought cattle and horses, collected tithes and rents and saw to repairs on the barns and the house. Sabine oversaw the tasks of every farmer’s wife, large or small – cheese and butter making and egg collecting. Excess grain and surplus domestic produce was sent to market. Frequent guests, both family and friends, also needed to be fed and entertained. And there was the never-ending sewing. While Sabine might not have done the tedious mending, she had to ensure her household and her family were clothed as befitted their station in life and that would have included decoration and embroidery on shirts and smocks.

Sabine also had to deal alone with any crises that arose including, in 1548, a dispute over the right to collect tithes. The lease of Glapthorn gave John Johnson right to the tithes payable to the local church. This, naturally enough, upset the local minister and resulted in a long and costly lawsuit. To make matters worse, the villagers supported their minister, partly because the Johnsons’ clearance and enclosure of land would have made them no friends among the villagers. When Sabine went ahead and collected the tithes, the minister descended on the manor house, hammering at the front door, demanding them back. She held out but, in the end, the case was found in the minister’s favour and the tithes had to be returned to him.

Following Otwell Johnson’s death, the family business became bankrupt in 1553 and from 1555 John Johnson was imprisoned for two years in the Fleet Prison for debt. Sabine remained at Glapthorn with their children, once again managing alone. On Johnson’s release, the family moved to London where he worked as a secretary to Lord Paget.

While the Johnsons were of the middling sort, Margaret Dakins (1571-1633), later Lady Hoby was more highly placed. She was born in 1571, the only child of a wealthy well-connected Yorkshire gentleman, and raised in the household of the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon who were both of strong Puritan leanings. Margaret married three times, the final time to Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby who was pressing his suit within three months of the death of Margaret’s second husband, despite knowing she had absolutely no wish to remarry. She described herself as ‘nothing but grefe and misery’ in June 1596, two months before her marriage to Hoby. The main reason for her acquiescence to the marriage was the promise of support from Hoby’s influential relatives, such as Lord Burghley, in a property dispute over the Manor of Hackness which had been settled on Margaret at her first marriage.

Margaret is best known as the author of the earliest known diary written by a woman in English. Begun as an aid to spiritual discipline, the diary covers six years from 9 August 1599 and records her religious life in detail—prayers, exercises and reading. As the diary progresses, Margaret records her domestic life in increasing detail. Unfortunately, she does not touch on her emotions and feelings, matters fascinating to the modern reader for the insights they could give into the workings of a marriage that was not a love match.

The household tasks mentioned through the diary give a sense of the rhythm of the household and the range of skills needed by a woman managing such an enterprise. These included preserving both fruit and meat, making sweetmeats and gingerbread, overseeing beehives, candle-making and, most importantly, ensuring there were sufficient stores. There were seasonal tasks such as ‘pulling hempe’ and weighing and dying wool as well as spinning and winding yard. Margaret kept the household accounts and supervised and paid the servants. Most of her work was done in the company of her women, especially the endless hours spent at needlework, often accompanied by reading from godly books. Margaret tended to the sick and infirm at Hackness, visiting them in their homes, dressing cuts and sores, and assisting poor women in their confinements. She made up medicinal salves as well as distilling oils and aqua vitae. On Sunday she went twice to church and read to a group of old women of the estate; she often spoke to her women and maids about religion and its principles. At Hackness, as in most households of any standing, Margaret had young women in her care learning the skills of household management and piety in the way she had at the Countess of Huntingdon’s. These women included her sister and a cousin as well as several others of good family.

Work aside, Margaret played music on her alphorion and sang, spent time in her garden, fished and bowled at the alley on her estate. She drove out in her coach to visit family and friends, as well as having family to stay and neighbours to dinner – necessary, doubtless, because of her husband’s reputation as a humourless puritan* and hunter of recusants in an area of England with lingering Catholic sympathies.

Thomas Hoby was frequently away from home about his duties as a member of the Council of the North and of Parliament and Justice of the Peace. In his absence management of the estate fell to Margaret. She oversaw 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 as well as playing a role in keeping the Manor Court even when Hoby was at home. When he was at home, she discussed management of the estate with him, talking ‘a good time with Mr Hoby of Husbandrie and Houshould matters’.

Both Margaret, Lady Hoby, and Sabine Johnson managed their households in relatively peaceful times but in times of tumult women faced great dangers alone, sometimes even holding out against the depredations of over-mighty neighbours or besieging armies. The lives of these women show the close partnership that existed between husband and wife whether the marriage was based on mutual affection or cooler duty. Most certainly neither John Johnson nor Thomas Posthumous Hoby could have ‘thrive[d] without leave of his wife’, as the common saying had it.

*Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby is thought to be the inspiration for the character, Malvolio, in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

‘Hoby [néeDakins], Margaret, Lady Hoby’ (bap. 1571, d. 1633), diarist’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37555
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.
Travers, Anita (Ed.) Robert Furse: a Devon Family Memoir of 1593.Exeter: Devon and Cornwall Record Society, 2012.
Winchester, Barbara Tudor Family Portrait London : J. Cape, [1955].

Image of village church in Northamptonshire by jLasWilson from Pixabay
Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Robert Peake the elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – There are no known portraits either of Margaret or of Sir Thomas Hoby.

4 thoughts on “‘Seldom doth the husband thrive without leave of his wife’ – The Sixteenth Century Manor Wife

    • There were some amazing women in this period. I had thought of including Margaret Paston (1423-1484) as well, as she withstood three sieges of their property without her husband beside her. At one point she knew what was coming and asked him to send her crossbows, winches, and bolts. But she was a little too early and this post was long enough with only two women.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I know the name but don’t know a great deal about her other than she was a 17th century diarist. For a long time my main area of interest has been the 16th century, not a great fan of the Stuarts. Doing a bit of googling just now and looking at your post – Anne Clifford is fascinating.
      I wouldn’t have the first idea about withstanding a siege either.


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