It occurred to me whilst discussing the Dumbartons’ elsewhere that not a single woman’s name came down to us in all the broadsheets, pamphlets, letters and government records I came across. True a military rebellion is a particularly masculine affair, but were there camp followers, wives, victims of their East Anglian crimes or trial witnesses? If so their names are lost.
This is less true in the life of Phineas Pett. 16th and 17th century shipbuilding was also a predominantly male activity, but as we have the tale of Phineas’ long life as a source, we encounter many women and girls. These are mostly close family, Phineas had three wives, five full and one half sister, three daughters and, of course, a mother and there are occasional mentions of others, neighbours, servants and in-laws. Notably there are no mistresses mentioned, whether this is because Phineas was more sexually continent or more discreet than his son’s contemporary Pepys is unclear.
Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, all Phineas (and his early 20th century editors) tell us is the bald facts of births, marriage, sickness, and death. I realise that looking at these women in this way means that they we are still following an essentially masculine narrative with the women only having a role as they relate to Phineas. In my defence, this is a source driven piece and it is hard criticise an autobiographer for writing mainly about himself. Further we don’t get much of a sense of any of the women as individuals, more as occupiers of roles as wife, mother or daughter and. Where we see a little more of these women’s life it seems almost invariably in a tale of tragedy. Looking at them collectively though we do get some ghost of how women, from moderately poor to moderately wealthy households in the late 16th to early 17th Century lived and died and how their families were formed, grew and changed.
Phineas’ mother, Elizabeth nee Thornton was his father, Peter’s second wife. There is some debate as to his first wife’s name, but possibly another Elizabeth. Her mother-in-law was yet another Elizabeth, the ubiquity of the name is perhaps unsurprising bearing in mind their era, although Elizabeth senior would probably have been born before the start of her royal namesake’s reign
Five children of this first wife- four boys and a girl survived into adulthood but for this generation of the Petts it is unclear if there were more births who didn’t survive or died in childhood. We don’t know when, or at how old she died, but Phineas’ mother had a child die in 1567 so Peter must have remarried no later than about 1566.
Phineas was the third of nine children of his mother that we know of, five of them girls. The eldest were twin girls, Jane and Susannah, who died in 1567, three years before Phineas’ birth, presumably as infants. An unborn child is mentioned in Peter’s will, but probably did not survive. It is not clear how new this will was at the time of Peter’s death, but if this child was unborn at his death in 1589 this would put up to 23 years between Elizabeth’s first recorded and last pregnancies.
Peter’s death had serious consequences for his surviving family, not least Phineas himself (“whose loss proved afterwards my upper undoing almost”), but in particular for the women close to him. He died fairly wealthy and tried to provide for all his many children, but the legacies were only due when the children reached 24 and Elizabeth was left with the management of the legacies of her children, Phineas, two brothers and his sisters Rachel, Abigail, (yet another) Elizabeth and Mary. The widowed Elizabeth then remarried and
her fatal matchmaking with a most wicked husband, one Thomas Nunn, a Minister, brought general ruin to the whole family
Now Phineas is not necessarily the most reliable of witnesses when it comes to people who had crossed him, especially over money, but here his claim that Nunn stole the legacies of he and his minor siblings seems likely to be true. As we shall see, Nunn had other, greater, character flaws than avarice. Elizabeth’s no doubt unhappy second marriage lasted until 1589 when Phineas reports the death of his “dear and loving mother”.
The next generation of Pett women, Phineas’s sisters produce some of most vivid, but saddest, glimpses of the lives of women the the very end of the 16th Century.
Firstly, whilst Elizabeth was still alive in 1589, Phineas’ eldest (surviving) sister Rachel was married to a Reverend Newman. The Pett women seemingly had no luck with clergymen and Newman was, according to Phineas
a man of dissolute life, with whom she not long enjoyed, for god, of his great mercy, took her and delivered her from a most miserable and slavish life wherein she lived with him; by whom she had two children, but both died.
How much misery can be expressed in so few words? She died in about 1591, when Phineas was 21. There were two children between in between her and Phineas so she was probably no older than 19 when she died.
After their mother’s death, Elizabeth, Abigail and Mary continued to live with Nunn, who had married again.
He used himself to them as a stern and cruel father-in-law, not contented that he had brought a general ruin upon my mother’s whole family by cosening us of all that was left us, but pro-
ceeded further, even to blood, for upon a slight occasion about making clean his cloak, being wet and dirty with riding a journey the day before, he furiously fell upon my eldest sister Abigail, beating her so cruelly with a pair of tongs and a great firebrand that she died within three days upon that beating and was privately by his means buried ; but God that would not let murder pass unrevenged, stirred up the hearts of his own parishioners and neighbours, who, complaining to the Justice, caused the body to be taken up, and so by the coroner’s inquest that passed upon her and miraculous tokens of the dead corpse, as fresh bleeding, sensible opening of one of her eyes, and other things, he was found guilty of her death and so committed and bound over to answer the matter at next General Assizes to be held at Bury, which was in the Lent after, being in this year 1599, and in the time of my employment in Suffolk and Norfolk.
The two remaining sisters were made wards of the town of Weston until Phineas, now 29 and took them into his care. Despite clerical pressure, Nunn was convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned to “sue for the Queen’s” pardon. He was soon released but, to Phineas obvious satisfaction, soon died.
Phineas was now married and working as a shipwright, but not the wealthy man he would become later. He makes much of the costs he incurred in the trial and subsequent care of Elizabeth and Mary- he was never slow to tell us of his virtues, but it seems likely that he was genuinely kind to them. No help was forthcoming from the elder brothers who Phineas says felt they had lesser responsibility to their half-siblings. This perhaps says something about the internal politics of the late sixteenth century family with its frequent remarriages and complex families of and step-parents and half- and step-siblings. Phineas however, to his credit, did not seem to reciprocate. Skipping forward a few years to 1610, Lydia, a half sister by Peter’s first wife died. Phineas had been “glad to maintain her for a long time before” died, along with her husband(“a poor man”)and they were buried at Phineas’ expense.
Elizabeth and Mary, then were initially lodged with Phineas and his wife, but then Phineas arranged for Elizabeth to be “placed with a gentlewoman of good fashion”. Sadly though she soon sickened and returned to Phineas house where she died,they feared from Plague. Five children behind the 29 year old Phineas, she was probably in her early 20s. Mary then also fell ill and they feared for her life, but she survived what was a bout of Smallpox and lived with Phineas until she was married. She alone of Elizabeth’s daughters survived until middle age, dying in 1626.
With Elizabeth’s death, we hope after some more happiness than her sisters, I’ll end Part 1. In Part two, I’ll write on Phineas’ wives and daughters