Early Modern Mothers, in Their Own Words

‘Various figures and lands’ (Diverse figure e paesi). Stefano della Bella, 1649. Image Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Joanne McEwan

I went with my deer sister Norton to Epsom for my son to drink the watters, where after he had drunk them a fortnight, he fell sick of the small pox. And like to dye hee was before they came outt to my greatt torture and distracttion.[1]

There is a persistent myth that parents in the past couldn’t afford to invest emotionally in their children because of a large numbers of births and high mortality rates.[2] However, diaries, letters and reflective ‘remembrance’ books written by early modern women provide an abundance of evidence to the contrary. Norfolk gentlewoman Elizabeth Freke, as the quote above suggests, spent a lot of time worrying, and writing, about the health and actions of her son. Elizabeth Freke married Percy Freke as a 30 year old in 1672, after a long engagement, after which the couple spent large periods of time apart and only had one living (she does disclose a number of miscarriages and a still birth) child, Ralph. Perhaps, given the circumstances surrounding Ralph’s birth, it is completely understandable that she was so anxious about his health throughout his childhood:

I were 4 or 5, five, days in labour of him and had for him fowre midwifes aboutt me when he was borne, the man midwife afirming he had bin long dead in me to my husband and aunte [and] sister Norton with my Lady Thinn, all who were with mee severall days in this extremity. Att last the resullt was thatt he should be taken in peices from me or I should nott live one howre, which concideration of my life all consented to the takeing away my dead child from me in peices. Butt whilst the man midwife was putting on his butchers habitt to come aboutt me, my greatt and good God thatt never failed me (or denyed my reasonable request) raised me up a good woman midwife who came in att this juncture of time and for aboutt two or three howrs in her shift worked till by my Gods mercy and providence to me I was saffly delivered. And tho of a dead child hurt with severall greatt holes in his head, hurtt by midwiffes, my God raised him up to me thatt he was the same night christned by my deer fathers name, Ralph Frek.[3]

Elizabeth entrusted Ralph to a surgeon for six weeks, during which time he contracted an infection and ‘was againe given over for dead and carried away from me in order to a buriall’. Five months later he broke his leg while in the care of a nurse, an affliction that went unnoticed (Elizabeth had left him in the care of the nurse while she accompanied Percy to Ireland) and untreated for some time, and from which Elizabeth was also convinced he would die.


mother's 2
‘Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’. Albrecht Dürer, 1519. Image Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In fact Ralph didn’t die, and went on to receive extensive schooling before joining his parents in Ireland in 1693. Elizabeth noted in November 1694, during the first assizes that Percy Freke oversaw as the Sheriff of Cork, that of 28 prisoners who had been capitally convicted she begged for the life of one – a young Englishman who was the only son of a landed gentleman in Devonshire: ‘I considered my own condition that have butt one child’.[4] Her sense of attachment as the mother of an only son was significant to her. When a match (with Lady Ealce Moore) was proposed for Ralph in 1695, she wrote bitterly that it would keep her son in Ireland: ‘My son was to be wholly tyed to live in thatt partt of the country, which I thought very hard to loose my only child when they had ten children’. She wanted the couple to live within 20 miles of her, and became so concerned about how ruinous the match would be that it was eventually broken off, ‘tho my son was most bitterly angry with me for itt’.[5] In 1699 Ralph, perhaps understandably, married without involving her in the arrangements. Elizabeth’s relationship with her daughter-in-law was strained, especially because before long she formed a strong attachment with one of her grandsons, John Freke, and focused her attention on him in the same wholehearted way she had doted on her son. She repeatedly tried to convince his mother to leave him with her:


I often begged of my daughter the youngest child, her son John, finding him noe favourite, and I loved him to my soule because he was the picture of my deerst son. Butt she cruelly deneyed him to me and caryed him away from me, which turnd me to a violentt sickness.[6]

John was accidentally shot when he was four years old, which doubtless made the terse relationship with his mother worse, because Elizabeth regarded John’s death foremost as her own loss and repeatedly asserted that the child would have been alive and safe had he had been left with her. She repeatedly refers to Ralph’s wife as her ‘cruell’ daughter in the book of remembrances, and blames her for John’s death: ‘I lost my child to shoe their undutifulness and cruellty to me, which God forgive her them’.[7]

Elizabeth Freke was an early modern helicopter parent. From what increasingly reads like the whining complaints of a cantankerous and lonely (Ralph stopped writing to her after she accused him of causing the death of his son) old lady, there is little doubt that she felt a strong emotional attachment to her son and, later, grandson. She was not a mother who was cold or distant, hardened by the potential for – and experience of – child death, as the myth of ‘unloving’ parenting in pre-modern Europe would have us believe. On the contrary, the precarious nature of Ralph’s health throughout his childhood and her fear of his death arguably strengthened this attachment.

Virgin and Child. Anthony Van Dyck, ca. 1620. Image Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Elizabeth Freke was slightly unusual in that she documented so extensively the time and tenacity she devoted to dwelling on her relationship with her son. This is partly a function of the ‘remembrance’, or self-reflective, nature of her writing. But she was not alone in writing about her affective connections to her children. Katherine Austen also left a record of strong attachment that detailed an active engagement in her children’s lives. A London gentlewoman, Katherine married Thomas Austen in 1645. He died in 1658, when the eldest of their three living children, also Thomas, was 12. Katherine did not remarry. Rather, she engaged herself in managing her children’s inheritance and actively sought to protect their interests. She appears in chancery records in 1662, 1665 and 1666, after two separate legal disputes arose over lands inherited by her (still teenage) son, Thomas.[8] She also wrote extensively. Her book of meditations survives, which documents two years of Katherine’s life between 1664 and 1666. In addition to paraphrasing sermons, describing her dreams and ranting about being called an old goat while riding in her carriage, Katherine explicitly explains her reasons for not remarrying in terms of the threat it would pose to her children’s material future:

I am able to bear with patienc my self the lose of an estate … if my children should find lose in their estates by Gods blesing [I] should be able to make a supply to them in their great disapointments. Which I could never doe by ingaiging my self away from them … O noe I can not vnderstand it. And as I am able to make requital to them without studying designes of Entreaty and commiseration for them.

To marry again, she suggests, would be to give up her ability to be able to provide for her children. This she also associates with a closeness that would be shattered if, using the language of battle, she aligned herself and joined ranks with a new husband against them. This gives us a perspective on the conscious strategising early modern mothers engaged in with regards inheritance. Katherine’s decision not to remarry in her children’s interests was counter to the actions of her own mother, also Katherine, 20 years earlier. Katherine’s father, Robert Wilson, had died in 1639 when she was 11, leaving her mother to care for seven children. Her mother married Thomas Highlord, a member of the Skinners Company and Alderman of London, soon after she was widowed. This marriage elevated the social and financial status of Katherine and her family. It was short lived, however, with Highlord dying two years later in 1641. He bequeathed lands to his widow and, while her children didn’t benefit directly from his estate, the income he left her contributed towards a £2,000 legacy she left for each of her daughters when she herself died in 1648. Katherine Austen’s relatively young age at the death of her husband and the prospect of having more children with a second husband likely influenced her staunch refusal to entertain the idea of remarriage, but in both of these women we can see evidence of conscious decision-making with their children’s futures in mind.


Charles Le Brun (French, Paris 1619–1690 Paris) Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family, ca. 1660 Oil on canvas; 110 1/4 × 129 1/8 in. (280 × 328 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Keith Christiansen, 2014 (2014.250) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/626692

Of course we shouldn’t forget about mothers lower down the social scale who didn’t leave such rich written records, but who have left other evidence of strong attachments to their children. Emotional connections can be found in the testimonies poorer women gave before the courts (occasions on which their voices and words were captured by legal clerks and journalistic note-takers) and in the petitions, tokens and material swatches that women left with children at the London Foundling Hospital after it began operation in 1741. Following a directive by the Hospital in 1745 to preserve any material artefacts left with the children, women attached notes, tokens and swatches of fabric – sometimes embroidered with names or initials – with them. As John Styles, historian and curator of an exhibition titled Threads of Feeling, suggests, the handiwork and symbolism of these tokens was an enormously significant form of emotional expression for the mothers:


Even more emotionally explicit is a subset of emblematic items among the objects supplied as tokens. The most expressive include carefully contrived textile images, sometimes hand-sewn, sometimes obtained by customizing the natural imagery commonly employed in commercial designs printed on linens and cottons. An acorn or a bud might suggest germination and new growth, a butterfly the chance to fly free, a flower the capacity to blossom and fruit. The most direct expressions of raw maternal emotion are those that use the heart, an established symbol of love in the eighteenth century. The heart was literally believed to be the seat of the emotions. Foundling mothers left embroidered hearts, hearts cut out in fabric, hearts drawn on paper, metal hearts, and suit of hearts playing cards. One heart-shaped metal pendant left as a token carried the lines ‘you have my Heart, Tho’ we must Part’, but the words seem almost redundant, such was the familiarity of the heart as an emblem of love.[9]

Whether writing about their own fears, or their efforts to safeguard their children’s interests or demonstrating their affective attachments in other forms, women in the early modern period were unquestionably invested not only in their children but also in their role (and the responsibilities and expectations they believed that entailed) as mothers.

Joanne McEwan is a Research Assistant with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Western Australia. Her research interests focus on crime, gender and family history in Britain, c.1650–1850.

[1] The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, 1671–1714, ed. Raymond A. Anselment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 55.

[2] Ralph Houlbrooke, for instance, has suggested that childbearing women gave birth on average every 30 months in the late sixteenth century: Ralph Houlbrooke, The English Family, 1450–1700 (London: Longman, 1984), p. 128. Demographic historians Wrigley and Schofield have posited a general infant mortality rate of 170 per 1,000 births in England between 1650 and 1699, but Patricia Crawford and Sara Mendelson pointed out that this doesn’t necessarily match perceptions in the early modern period, when fears about the impending death (of both mother and child) were much higher. E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, ‘English Population History from Family Reconstitution: Summary Results, 1600–1799’, Population Studies, 37.2 (1983), p. 177; Patricia Crawford and Sara Mendelson, Women in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 152.

[3] The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, p. 41.

[4] The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, p. 62.

[5] The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, p. 63.

[6] The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, p. 81.

[7] The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, p. 82.

[8] Katherine Austen’s Book M: British Library, Additional Manuscript 4454, ed. by Sarah C. E. Ross (Tempe: ACMRS [Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies], 2011), p. 14.

[9] John Styles, ‘Objects and Emotions: The London Foundling Hospital Tokens, 1741–1760’, Emotional Objects: Touching Emotions in History: https://emotionalobjects.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/181/.

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