Early Modern Women – Sabine Johnson (c1521-1597?)

There is no known portrait of Sabine Saunders.
This portrait is of Jane Pemberton (1518–1602) whose life bears some similarities to Sabine’s, She was the daughter of Christopher Pemberton, a Northamptonshire gentleman and married Nicholas Small, a London cloth merchant, probably in about 1540.
Hans Holbein c1540 / Public domain

Sabine Saunders was the daughter of Thomas Saunders of Sibbertoft, Northamptonshire, and Margaret Cave. The Saunders were a well-connected family and early converts to Protestantism. Sabine is believed to have spent at least part of her upbringing in the household of her uncle, Anthony Cave, a merchant, grazier and wool stapler based at Tickford in Buckinghamshire.1 Sabine’s education would have taken place here, as well as at her parents’ home, learning beyond social and domestic skills, the ability to cast accounts and to organize a household. Sabine’s youngest brother Ambrose would also have spent time in Cave’s household as he was apprenticed to him.2

Sabine married John Johnson in the autumn of 1541. John had been born in Calais but his family was Flemish in origin. His grandfather, Willem Jansen, a cordwainer from Geldersland, had brought his family to London and later taken out letters of denizenship.3 John was raised in England, also in the household of Anthony Cave to whom he was apprenticed. By the time Sabine and John married, John was a merchant of the Calais Staple and a member of the Drapers’ Company. He was in business with his younger brother Otwell and Anthony Cave. John and Otwell’s youngest brother, Richard, later joined the company as a junior partner in 1547 after he too had finished his apprenticeship with Cave.4 Otwell, who was later to become a business manager for Sir John Gage, a courtier and soldier, was based at Lime Street in London before moving to Lombard Street in 1548 and John was at Calais.5 Beyond exporting wool and fells, the business imported wine and herring.

There is no known portrait of John Johnson.
This portrait is of a young merchant c1541.
Hans Holbein / Public domain

While Sabine and John Johnson were well matched in matters of material wealth and status, their relationship appears to have been inspired by mutual affection. During the period of their courtship, there are entries in John’s accounts of personal expenditure for ‘a neck-chief’ and delicate boned lace from Antwerp bought as love tokens, as well as various items intended to improve his appearance such as doublets of satin, surcoats finished with gold and silver lace, ‘a hat dressed with laces’ and scent.6

Immediately following their marriage, Sabine and John stayed with Anthony Cave but quickly moved to the parsonage of Polebrook, Northhamptonshire, just under three miles to the south east of the market town of Oundle. It was leased from the parson, Thomas Saxby, a cousin of Sabine’s. They leased not only the parsonage house and glebe farm but also the tithes of wheat, hay, milk, chicken and calves that belonged to the living of the parsonage. In 1544, John leased the Old Manor House at Glapthorn, about two miles north of Oundle. The manor house’s surroundings included a formal knot garden, a kitchen garden, a fish pool with pike, perch and bream, and orchards of cherries, plums, and medlars and a walnut grove.

We know that John and Sabine Johnson’s marriage was happy from the extensive correspondence that survives for the period 1542 to 1553. This despite the fact that the pattern of their life together was much the same as many other married couples of the period – Sabine lived at Glapthorn while John was away for months on end on business, in his case in Calais or Antwerp,7 his first trip away occurring about a year after their marriage.

They wrote to each other several times a week, Sabine including news of their children and their extended family and friends as well as the seasonal developments on their estate and requests for items to be bought abroad such cloth, gifts for family members, shoes for one of the children, the occasional toy. There were requests, too, from Sabine for money to run the household. Their letters to each other are threaded through with endearments, addressing each other as ‘with all my heart, entirely beloved’, ‘loving heart’, ‘well beloved husband’ as well as good-natured teasing, ‘I bid you Goodnight, goodwife sometimes!’, and the longing that these lengthy absences produced, ‘would ye were in my bed to tarry me’. Occasionally too, there were misunderstandings, and slight irritations as with any normal couple. When John was in London, Sabine sent him cheeses, chickens and pigeon pies. She begged him to take care in Calais, where there was plague, and not walk abroad in the streets. 8 In November 1546, John fell ill of an ague in Calais and was nursed by a Mrs Baynham, a widow with whom he lodged. As soon as Sabine heard, she travelled immediately to London, accompanied only by a single groom. Despite Otwell’s attempts to dissuade her, Sabine travelled to Calais where she took over the nursing from Mrs Baynham and as soon as John was fit to sail, took him home to Glapthorn.9

View of the Calais, 1541
Public Domain

Sabine had a child nearly every second year starting with Charity around 1542. Her lyings-in were prepared well in advance, ensuring that the chamber in which she was to give birth was properly furnished with a new mattress, cushions, hangings and a groaning chair. There was also loaves of sugar, spices, dates, prunes, raisins and oranges sent from London so that there were special foodstuffs not only for the labouring mother but for her friends who attended the birth as well as visitors in the days after. While Otwell’s wife Maria nursed her own children, Sabine employed a wet-nurse. The children spent up to three years living with their wet-nurse, referred to as a foster-mother, returning home when they were weaned. Both Sabine and John loved loved their children, John calling his them his ‘jewels’, while Sabine, with the fond exasperation that often comes with the close care of children, wrote to him saying, ‘Our brats be well, thanks be to God’   

As well, Sabine ran the estate and a household of nearly twenty people. She employed the staff, the most important being the cook, a woman known as Joan Cook, who was capable to taking charge of the whole of the housekeeping if necessary and who could bake, brew, make white bread, and malt as well as overseeing the other servants. When extra help was needed for spring cleaning, or at sheep shearing, harvest time and Christmas, women from the village were employed. Sabine paid the bills and kept the accounts until around 1550 when a Thomas Egillsfield was employed. Ensuring that there was enough to feed the household through the leaner winter months meant that beef had to be salted, bacon cured, brawn made. Extra baking was required at sheepshearing time for the shearers and the wool-winders. She directed the seasonal tasks of sheep 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 as well as surplus domestic produce was sent to the nearby Oundle market. Frequent guests, both family and friends, also needed to be entertained. And there was the neverending 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 shifts. She oversaw the basic medical care of the household and when plague came within four miles of Glapthorn, she sent children thirty miles away to stay with her sister’s family at Teeton.

Northamptonshire countryside

Despite spending much of his time in Calais, John went into the business of wool production at Glapthorn, clearing and enclosing land to run sheep. In 1545 his goods were valued at £24, by 1549 at £100; the following year he is recorded as farming more than 1,000 sheep.10 Sabine was involved in his wool business, sending John a reckoning of the payments made to local men for their wool.11 She was also sometimes responsible for seeing that the wool collected was packed according to Staple regulations. In 1545 the woolwinders demanded a pay increase, threatening to walk off the job. Sabine raised their ‘bonus’ payment from 10s to 11s and the wool was packed in time.12

John Johnson thought he had an agreement with the retiring minister of Cotterstock and Glapthorn, Dr Edward Artwyke that gave him the right to the tithes payable of Glapthorn as had been the case at Polebrook. This upset the new minister, Edmund Oliver, who had received a more lucrative offer for the lease of the tithes from the previous farmer, Nicholas Walker. This resulted a long and costly lawsuit. When the court of Chancery found in Oliver’s favour, Oliver descended on the manor house, hammering at the front door, demanding the tithes that Sabine had collected. Sabine feigned to know nothing of the matter but wrote to their landlord, Sir Thomas Brudenell, who although sympathetic advised her to hand over the tithes as ‘the parson upon malice might set both you and me in the Fleet. I had as lief the parson were there as other you or I.’ Sabine then wrote to John begging him to come home saying that she ‘most heartily to desire you to make all speed home that may be, for if you come not home before Saint Thomas day, I shall not know how to behave myself to the parson and Walkerer’. John returned but when Oliver and Walker demanded the tithes of him, he refused. They then had a writ of imprisonment issued against him but John’s influential family and friends intervened; Sabine’s uncle, the diplomat Sir Ambrose Cave, and the respected lawyer Sir John Croke managed to smooth things over. John continued to collect tithes but the villagers supported their minister, at one point threatening the servant sent to collect the corn tithes with violence. Eventually a solution was reached to the apparent satisfaction of all parties when the ownership of Glapthorn and the right to recommend the appointment of the local minister was granted to Sir Robert Kirkham.13

St Leonards, Glapthorn
Image by jLasWilson from Pixabay

The animosity between the minister and the Johnsons may, in part have been due to religious differences. In a letter dated 23 October 1545 Sabine had written to John ‘Our priest [Oliver] is as very a K[knave] as our last [Artewyke] was’.14 The Johnsons had fully embraced Protestantism by the 1540s. John Johnson in particular would have encountered reformed ideas in Calais which from as early as 1537 had been locus for evangelicals, as well as in Antwerp, the centre of the Protestant book trade.15 It is apparent, particularly from the letters between John and Otwell, that they hated the Pope, believed in justification by faith alone and held to the belief that they were members of the elect.16 In 1545, when there was plague in Calais and Sabine and had written to John begging him to ‘keep yourself well till you come home to me’, John’s reply was in keeping with true Protestant resignation to the will of God. ‘We all be in God’s hands: as it pleases him, so be it. I will keep myself for your sake as well as I can.’ In his next letter he continued in the same vein, ‘I am in the hands of God, whom it may please to dispose me according to his godly will, and he it is that knoweth what is best for us. If it will please the same God to send me life (as your prayer is), then I shall help the bringing up of my children the best I can, and so provide for them and you as nigh as God will give me grace. But if God will otherwise dispose me, you must be content to receive it thankfully at the Lord’s hands.’17 The Saunders also were early converts to Protestantism. One of Sabine’s brothers was Laurence Saunders, a Marian martyr. During the reign of Edward VI he became one of the leading evangelical preachers in London. He was arrested early in the reign of Mary I for preaching against her and was burned at Coventry in 1555.18 The Johnsons gave several of their children names that were evidence of a firm commitment to the reformed religion. They named their daughters Charity (c1542), Rachel (1544) and Faith (1548) and their sons Evangelist (1550) and Edward (before 1553) possibly after the king.19 There was also an unnamed son born around 1546 who died within a few weeks of his birth, an experience that so many women of the period suffered.

On occasions Sabine and John travelled together such as to the wedding of John’s brother Richard in Calais in 1547. They were in Bruges in late 1551 when they heard of Otwell Johnson’s death of the Sweat. They travelled to Calais intending to sail for England; however, Calais too was afflicted with the disease. Both Sabine and John became ill with it but survived.20 His personal sorrow aside, John Johnson did not have quite the same business acumen as his brother. In a period when England was suffering financial chaos and debasement of coinage, John took business decisions and organized trading ventures that left the company deep in debt and ultimately resulted in bankruptcy in March 1553. John took this with religious fortitude seeing it as ‘the punishment of God justly laid upon me for my sins’.21

All the Johnsons’ papers, business and personal, and account books were forwarded to the Privy Council then passed on to the Lord Chancellor and so have survived, allowing us a glimpse not only of the business but the personal life of a Tudor merchant family. After failing to meet a deadline for repayment of their debts, John, his brother Richard and brother-in-law, Ambrose Saunders, also partners in the business, were imprisoned in the Fleet. They were in and out of prison over the next two years, John managing to pay one creditor only to have another have him put in prison.22 In 1557 a full investigation into their financial affairs was conducted by a committee of merchants and aldermen appointed by the Lord Chancellor. The result was that all legal action against the company was stopped and any new action against them forbidden.23 During the years of John’s imprisonment, Sabine was permitted to remain at Glapthorn with their children, managing alone.

The year after John’s release, Anthony Cave died. Angry at having lost £1,500 as a result of John’s business failure, he had offered the Johnsons no help. Not even Sabine, his niece, was mentioned in his will.24 The Johnsons moved to Lombard Street, London and lived with Owell’s widow. John’s first position was as a secretary to William Paget, most likely obtained through the help of Sir William Cecil. While in Paget’s service he came up with ideas for various projects including increasing the customs duty on cloth and that the Queen should take over the Staple, all of which came to nothing and, in the case of the latter, earnt him that anger of other wool staplers. In 1561 he lost his job with Paget. He then approached Sir Robert Dudley in the hope of gaining a position with him, presenting him with a discourse on the abuses in the customs of wools and fells but that, too, failed to gain him favour. Finally, a cousin, William Haddon, Master of Requests, used his influence to assist John in leasing the parsonage and farm at West Wickham in Kent from the chaplain of the Bishop of Rochester who had the living. But the chaplain, still a Catholic, was not amenable. Although Sabine and John had no lease they moved in and the chaplain was gaoled for recalcitrance in matters of religion. It was not until 1567 that the matter was finally settled. The Johnsons were able to live with a degree of comfort at the parsonage with its large garden, farmland and cattle. Relatives with influence also manage to provide them with income through small wardships. But John still had plans and projects and the family moved back to London to small house not far from the Palace of Westminster. By 1572, Lord Burghley had used his influence with the merchants of the Staple to get John appointed as official clerk to the Staple at a salary or £40 a year. His youngest son, Edward, was also appointed as an under-clerk at 40 Marks a year. 25 From around 1570 John began writing pamplets including one for remedying abuses in the sizing of wood for fuel and for regulating the woodmongers of London and another attempting to persuade government to create a special office for the survey of export licences. He also carried out investigations for Sir Francis Walsingham into the conduct of wool licences.  With Ipswich merchant Christopher Goodwyn, John presented Lord Burghley with ‘Ipswich out of England, or Antwerp in England’, a plan to establish Ipswich as a mart to rival Antwerp. While Burghley was impressed, the great merchants of London were not. Interest waxed and waned over the ensuing years. Even as late as December 1582 John was writing to Sir Francis setting out the advantages of erecting a Staple in England using Strangers, religious refugees from France and the Low Countries.26

London 1543

As there are no surviving private papers from the years that followed John’s bankruptcy to his and Sabine’s deaths, we have no idea of Sabine’s views on her husband’s plans and schemes. It is fair to assume, though, that she was at John’s side. When she had married John Johnson in 1541 she had promised to take him ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’. We do not know if she accepted the vicissitudes of their life after 1553 with stoicism and good humour or if they embittered her. It is to be hoped that the playful affection of the first decade of their marriage survived through the later years. Their early life together had not been without its strains – John’s frequent and prolonged absences, troubles with their local minister and his tithes, the death of their first son in 1546. As well as the difficulties experienced by all those who held to the reformed faith during Queen Mary’s reign, Sabine would have been deeply affected by the execution by burning of her brother Lawrence in 1555, a time when she was managing alone.

By 1582 John was feeling his age, he spoke of failing eyesight and that he was ‘ill provided to travel, wanting both good feet and other necessaries for one that should go from home’ in a letter to Walsingham in December 1582.27 This was one of his last letters; after December 1582 there were no more plans or letters to Sir Francis Walsingham or to Lord Burleigh or any other notable person, nothing to be found in the Calendar of State Papers. Barbara Winchester,* who transcribed the Johnson papers, admits in her PhD thesis, but not in her subsequent book, that John Johnson may have died soon after this but she also suggests more strongly that, sorely disappointed, he might have given up on all his plans. She then envisages John and Sabine’s last years as ‘comparatively tranquil and content’ finding ‘delight and pleasure, hope for the future, and some measure of consolation for the years of unhappiness’ in their children and grandchildren.28 Most discussions of the Johnsons put John’s death at around 1590 although I have found no burial record or will to give certainty to this date. Within the registers of St Michael, Cornhill, there is a burial in July 1583 of a John Johnson, householder, who had died of plague. This is the parish where John and Sabine’s son Evangelist appears to have been living from at least 1583 – his son Evangelist was baptized there in October 1583.29 There is nothing else to confirm that this was John Johnson former Wool Stapler but the date, perhaps, is as likely as that of 1590 and would explain John’s silence after December 1582. The date of Sabine’s death is said to be unknown but in the same parish registers in April 1597 there is a burial of a widow, Sabee Johnson, a name near enough in sound to Sabine in an age where spelling was fluid and reflected as much what the person writing thought he heard. Once again there is nothing that can be used to definitively say that this is the wife of John Johnson but it is certainly a possibility.

St Michael, Cornhill
from The Pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere – Histories, Vol.1
ed. by C. Knight (1867)

Through the Johnson papers we are permitted to see in detail a decade in the life of the wife of a rising Tudor merchant. We see that marriage could be more than duty and the exchange of property, that it could be based on mutual affection, that women were not necessarily silent and obedient, that they could be playful, impetuous, and still capable of taking on the broad range of skills and responsibilities needed to run both the domestic household and, in his absence, some areas of her husband’s business. And in Sabine Johnson’s life we see clearly, too, what those in the sixteenth-century knew so well, that the erratic and unreliable movement of Fortune’s wheel could as easily drop a family down as raise it up.

*Barbara Winchester (1924-1963) transcribed the Johnson letters as part of her PhD thesis (1953). Volume 1 of her thesis, modified for general readers, was published as Tudor Family Portrait in 1955.
While there are issues with the book such as a lack of footnoting and difficulties with determining chronology in the latter pages of the book, without Winchester’s immense work, Sabine Johnson and the rest of her family would have remained hidden in the archives.

Image from a review of Tudor Family Portrait in The Illustrated London News 17 September 1955, p.474

1 – Branch, Laura Faith and Fraternity: London Livery Companies and The Reformation 1510-1603, Brill, 2017. pp.141-2
2 – Rose, Susan The Wealth of England: The Medieval Wool Trade and its Political Importance 1100–1600, Oxbow Books, 2018. p.115
3 – Winchester, Barbara Tudor Family Portrait, Jonathan Cape, 1955. p.22
4 – Winchester, p.211
5 – Tankard, Danae ‘Protestantism, the Johnson Family and the 1551 Sweat in London’ in The London Journal, Vol.29, No.2, 2004. p.2
6 – Winchester p.65
7 – Tankard, ‘Protestantism…’ p.2
8 – Winchester pp.68-70
9 – Winchester pp.73-75
10 – Tankard, Danae ‘The Johnson family and the Reformation, 1542–52’ in Historical Research Vol.80, No.210, 2007. p.485
11 – Rose p.117
12 – Rose p.118
13 – Winchester pp.194-200
14 – Tankard, ‘The Johnson Family…’, p.484
15 – Tankard, ‘Protestantism…’, p.2
16 – Tankard, ‘The Johnson Family, p.472
17 – Winchester pp.70-72
18 – Tankard, ‘The Johnson Family, p.480
19 – Tankard, ‘The Johnson Family, p.476
20 – Tankard, ‘Protestantism…’, p.5
21 – Winchester p.294
22 – Winchester chapters 10 and 11 deal in detail with the bankruptcy and the events leading up to it.
23 – Winchester pp.304-5
24 – Winchester p.306
25 – Winchester p.316-7
26 – Rose p.179
27 – Winchester p.317 The last correspondence from John Johnson listed in the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the reign of Elizabeth, 1581-1590, preserved in Her Majesty’s Public Record Office edited by Robert Lemon (pp.77,78) is dated 11 December 1582.
There is a petition of a John Johnson and Ephraim Arnold of 23 March 1590 ‘for licence to cast and found 120 ton of iron ordnance to enable them to complete their contract with the London merchants.’ This John Johnson was a gunfounder of Retherfelde, Sussex.
28 – Winchester p.318
29 – Most discussions of the Johnsons, Winchester’s included, say that Evangelist married Alice Spencer in 1582 and together they had four children: Evangelist, Peter, Sabine and Emanuel. With the wealth of parish registers now available online I have found a marriage for an Evangelist Johnson, ‘Batcheller’ to a Bridgitt Rophyn, widow on 28 April 1578 at St Mary, Stratford Bow.
There is a burial for a Bridget Johnson on 3 February 1579 at St Helens, Bishopgate. Who knows if this woman is Evangelist Johnson’s wife? This is genealogy and records are ALWAYS ambiguous and incomplete.
The marriage that is taken to be that of Evangelist Johnson took place on 21 August 1581 at St Margaret, Westminster. The parties to the marriage are recorded as Angell Johnson and Alice Spencer.
I have located baptisms for the following children with Evangelist Johnson as the father.
Sabina on 14 November 1581 at St Bartholomew-by-the- Exchange, London. I have not located a burial for a Sabine/Sabina Johnson before the birth of the second Sabine in 1587.
Evangelist on 6 October 1583 at St Michael, Cornhill
Peter on 3 October 1585 at St Michael, Cornhill
Sabine on 28 May 1587 at St Michael, Cornhill
Emanuel on 2 Feb 1594/5 at St Michael, Cornhill
©Catherine Meyrick

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