Recovering and Reconstructing the Lives of Parish Clergy Wives in Elizabethan England by Dr Anne Thompson

Women in Elizabethan England rarely have a voice of their own, but occasionally an individual emerges whose thoughts, words, and actions come across loud and clear; Avice Helme, widow of a sixteenth-century Dorset vicar, proved to be one such woman. It is evident that Avice was not someone to be trifled with as she ended her 1584 will with a warning that the local parson and her overseers should fulfil her wishes ‘as both he and they [would] answer for it before god’. She was equally forthright in reminding her daughter that unless she obeyed her mother in general, and married a man of whom her mother approved, she would fail to benefit from her mother’s will. Yet, Avice could also show compassion. The poor of Sturminster Marshall figured prominently in her will which demonstrates both Avice’s involvement in parish life and a recognition of her charitable responsibilities. Gifts of household items, clothing, money, and produce were made to a long list of individuals within the parish. She targeted at least 12 less fortunate individuals and their particular needs, named all ‘ten poor women’ who were to receive ‘grey frise gowns’, and then singled out five of the ten for additional bequests. Alongside an awareness of parishioners’ specific needs, Avice was discerning of character for she insisted that one bequest should not fall into the hands of the child’s father. Avice Helme’s close involvement in parish life, competence, and charitable behaviour mirrors that of the archetypal clergy wife of later periods, but it very much contradicts the traditional portrayal of sixteenth-century ministers’ wives.

The emerging role of minister’s wife during the second half of the sixteenth century has afforded ample scope for enquiry by historians of gender, ecclesiastical, and social history, but with attention focused on the institution of clerical marriage, the individual women themselves have slipped beneath the radar. The secondary literature has little to say about Elizabethan ministers’ wives apart from those who had achieved notoriety, usually as a result of an appearance before the courts. If they do receive a mention, these women generally do not fare well. The withering assessments made by contemporary Catholic polemicists and the legacy of clerical concubinage have had a lasting impact on their reputation. When combined with an over-reliance on the clergy wives whose unfortunate behaviour has given them undue prominence within the archive, such appraisals have allowed a stereotypical depiction of early ministers’ wives to persist. They are invariably portrayed as dim, pathetic individuals of low esteem and social status who failed to enhance their husbands’ ministry.

In my monograph, Parish Clergy Wives in Elizabethan England, the initial aim was to rescue these early ministers’ wives and their stories from the obscurity to which they had been condemned. Clearly there was also a need to begin to create a more nuanced assessment of their lives, and this could only be achieved by moving beyond collective generalization. However, Elizabethan clergy wives and their stories had been neglected largely due to a belief that there is insufficient archival material from which to reconstruct a narrative. Rather worryingly, my initial research appeared to support this view. Unlike their seventeenth century counterparts, Elizabethan clergy wives have left no extensive bodies of evidence to interrogate – no letters, diaries or contemporary biographies. A more indirect and eclectic approach was clearly needed.

The answer lay in consulting a large number of underused and unexplored sources, and in re-evaluating more familiar evidence drawn from a wide geographical area, all in the hope of uncovering enough fragmentary material to reconstruct a composite picture. In the end, evidence from over a thousand parish registers, around eight hundred clerical wills, the church court records of numerous dioceses, lists of marriage certificates, memorials, and a previously unknown set of extremely rare letters testimonial (certificates verifying good character required for minister’s wives) afforded sufficient glimpses from which to construct a meaningful narrative. Of course, and very frustratingly, once the wives did surface, they very quickly faded from sight. Only a few wives spoke for themselves, but even in mediated form, their stories, characters, and emotions gradually began to emerge. In clerical wills, for example, far from confining themselves to the transfer of property, ministers, both directly and inadvertently, frequently disclosed much about the strength of character, piety, social status, dependability, and expectations of their wives and laid bare the dynamics at work within their marriages and households. In many court cases, the fears, concerns, and indignation of the women could be clearly heard, if you were prepared to listen. Through a careful interrogation of such cases, it was possible to determine the nature of clerical courtship, the legacy of clerical concubinage, parochial tensions, and the mechanisms of marriage formation itself.

The material which came to light directly challenges many of the traditional views associated with early clergy wives. These include the belief that the stigma associated with marriage to a clergyman was such that ministers found it difficult to acquire brides. As a result, it was held that they were obliged to marry desperate women in the form of widows and low-status maidservants or compelled to embrace clerical endogamy. Aided by the numerous sources which reveal that clergy wives, like the ministers themselves, were drawn from across the social spectrum, my book tackles these misconceptions in turn. I also explore the impact of clerical marriage on charitable giving and clerical sociability, the reception afforded to ministers’ wives within the parish, the extent and nature of abuse directed towards them (far less than often supposed), their involvement in the life of the parish, and the plight of the clerical widow. As the commonplace activities performed by early modern women went largely unremarked and unrecorded, little has been written about how the first clergy wives defined and pursued this innovative role. The ecclesiastical authorities, who viewed marriage primarily as a remedy for the problem of clerical fornication, failed to offer any guidance on what role a minister’s wife was to perform within her husband’s parish. However, the common assumption that a wife would involve herself in whatever features of her husband’s occupation seemed appropriate and the well-established trope of the ‘perfect spouse’ combined to provide an appropriate framework on which these women could build. Active engagement with the general precept of good neighbourliness, often in the form of hospitality and charity, enabled a minister’s wife to further her husband’s pastoral ministry and involve herself in areas from which their husbands were excluded. Very quickly, parishioners developed a clear perception of the character, piety, behaviour, even dress, required of their parson’s wife, and were vociferous in their complaints should she fail to meet those expectations.

Recovering and reconstructing the lives of the wives of Elizabethan clergymen afforded a wonderful opportunity to visit record offices throughout the country, and to engage with, and reflect on, a wide variety sources. Trying to reveal more of the characters, relationships, and duties of this group of women than is normally present in the wider discussions of sixteenth-century clerical marriage proved immensely satisfying. Although it could, and did, prove incredibly frustrating at times, such moments were vastly outweighed by the exhilaration of uncovering yet another snippet of information. The desire to immerse myself in the early modern archive remains as strong as ever and, hopefully, will be possible once again in the not too distant future. The research behind Parish Clergy Wives in Elizabethan England, has allowed me to revise many of the common assumptions about this group of women and challenge many of the serious misrepresentations. Not all ministers’ wives were suited to the role, and they did not always negotiate the various requirements and pitfalls with success, but the customary belief that the archetypal minister’s wife did not emerge during the reign of Elizabeth, is in need of serious revision. Avice Helme, was unusual in letting us hear her voice so distinctly, but clearly not in her interpretation and realization of this new role.

Dr Anne Thompson is an early modern social and religious historian. She is interested in recovering the lives of sixteenth-century women and her first book, Parish Clergy Wives in Elizabethan England, was published in 2019.