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Authors: Antonia Fraser

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The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England

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The Weaker Vessel

Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-century England












By Antonia Fraser

About the Author

List of Illustrations

Author’s Note

Chronology of Important Events 1603–1702

Prologue: How Weak?

As It Was – This Blessed Knot

1 A Wife Sought for Wealth
2 Affection Is False
3 Crown to her Husband
4 The Pain and the Peril
5 Are You Widows?
6 Poor and Atrabilious
7 Unlearned Virgins
8 Living under Obedience

With the War – Stronger Grown

9 Courage above her Sex

10 His Comrade

11 A Soliciting Temper

12 Sharing in the Commonwealth

13 When Women Preach

Afterwards – A Continual Labour

14 Worldly Goods

15 Divorce from Bed and Board

16 Benefiting by Accomplishments

17 Petticoat-Authors

18 Helping in God’s Vineyard

19 The Delight of Business

20 Wanton and Free

21 Actress as Honey-Pot

22 The Modest Midwife

Epilogue: How Strong?


Reference Books






By Antonia Fraser

Mary Queen of Scots

Cromwell: Our Chief of Men

King James VI of Scotland, I of England

Kings and Queens

King Charles II

The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England

The Warrior Queens: Boadicea’s Chariot

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605

Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Antonia Fraser is the author of many widely acclaimed historical works including the biographies
King Charles II
, the recently republished
Mary Queen of Scots
Marie Antoinette: The Journey
which won the Franco-British Literary Prize in 2001 and was made into a film by Sofia Coppola in 2006. Most recently she has published
Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King

Antonia Fraser won a Wolfson History Prize in 1984, was made CBE in 1999, and was awarded the Norton Medlicott Medal by the Historical Association in 2000. She lives in London and has six children and eighteen grandchildren.


A family group c.1645 (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)
The family of Sir Robert Vyner (National Portrait Gallery, London; now being restored)
Margaret Duchess of Newcastle (British Library)
Mary Countess of Warwick (Mansell Collection)
Ann Lady Fanshawe (National Portrait Gallery, London)
Lettice Viscountess Falkland (photograph by courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art)
Mrs Margaret Godolphin
A milkmaid
Susanna Perwick (British Library)
A countrywoman
The housewife and the hunter
The title page of
The Needles Excellency
A scold’s bridle (British Library)
Execution of witches, 1655
A Boulster Lecture
A witch and her imps (British Library)
Dorothy Countess of Sunderland (Earl Spencer, Althorp, Northampton; photograph by courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art)
Mary Ward (Rev. Mother Superior General, Mary Ward Institute, Rome; photograph by Foto-Studio Tanner)
Brilliana Lady Harley (Mr Christopher Harley; photograph by P. G. Bartlett)
Brampton Bryan Castle (Hereford and Worcester County Libraries)
Illustration from ‘The Female Warrior’ (Bodleian Library, Oxford,
Douce Ballads
Illustration from ‘The Valiant Virgin’ (British Library)
Corfe Castle (Royal Commission on Historical Monuments)
Mary Lady Bankes (University Library, Cambridge)
Lady Bankes’s monument (by permission of the Vicar of Ruislip; photograph by Behram Kapadia)
Charlotte Countess of Derby
Lucy Hutchinson (from a private collection)
Eleanor Countess of Sussex (photograph by courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art)
Mary Lady Verney (Sir Ralph Verney, Claydon House; photograph by R. & H. Chapman)
Fishwife (reproduced by courtesy of the Guildhall Library, London)
‘Grandmother Eve’, as shown on an English charger (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath City Council)
Oliver Cromwell at the age of fifty (courtesy of Sotheby’s)
A Quakers’ Meeting (Mary Evans Picture Library)
Cromwell’s granddaughter, Mrs Bridget Bendish
Mrs Elizabeth Pepys (National Portrait Gallery, London)
Lady Isabella Thynne (by permission of the Marquess of Bath; photograph by courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art)
Basua Makin (Mansell Collection)
Mary Duchess of Beaufort and her sister Elizabeth Countess of Carnarvon (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, bequest of Jacob Ruppert, 1939)
Anne Countess of Winchilsea (National Portrait Gallery, London)
Rachel Lady Russell
Anne Killigrew (British Library)
Elizabeth Barry (E. T. Archive/Garrick Club)
Painting thought to portray Anne Viscountess Conway (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Peg Hughes (The Earl of Jersey)
A London courtesan (The Museum of London)
Diana Countess of Oxford (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)
Catherine Countess of Dorchester (National Portrait Gallery, London)
Mrs Jane Myddelton
Illustration from the
The Midwives Book
(British Library)
Seventeenth-century gynaecological instruments (The London Hospital)
Medal commemorating the birth of Prince James in 1689 (Cyril Humphris; photograph by courtesy of Spink and Son Ltd)
Satirical medal commemorating Prince James’s birth (Cyril Humphris)

Author’s Note

there any women in seventeenth-century England?’ This question was put to me by a distinguished person (male) when I told him the proposed subject of my new book; like another jesting interlocutor, he did not stay for an answer, but vanished up the steps of his club. This book is in part at least an attempt to answer that question.

Wherever possible I have quoted the voices of women themselves, in letters, in the few but poignant diaries, and in the reports of others. Obviously there are enormous difficulties with the written record where women of this period are concerned, in view of the fact that the vast majority below the gentry class were, through no fault of their own, illiterate. Nevertheless I have battled to breach the walls of this artificial silence. Indeed, if I have had a bias, it has been towards the unknown rather than the known; believing strongly in what we owe to ‘the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’, in the words of George Eliot’s moving conclusion to

The idea of writing such a book first came to me in 1970 when I was working on a biography of Oliver Cromwell; it occurred to me that a study of women in the English Civil War would produce some interesting results, in view of the spirited nature of
the women in question, whether petitioning, defending castles or fighting alongside their husbands – a variety of activities, none of them particularly passive. Working on a life of Charles II, following these women through to the next generation, did nothing to diminish my ardour, but did show me how much more complicated the subject was than I had supposed.

After ten years of working on the seventeenth century I felt more enthusiasm than ever. But I did come to the conclusion that I must confine my study to England alone; although I had at an early stage wistfully contemplated including Scottish women, until the many differences in the laws as well as the society of the two nations convinced me that this was a separate subject. I also realized how important it was to take the hundred odd years from the death of Queen Elizabeth I to the accession of Queen Anne as a whole, if only to explore to what extent woman’s position in society did or did not improve with the passage of time.

BOOK: The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England
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