Chapter Nine: Feminism as it used to be

The arms of Sir John Spencer, Lord Mayor of London,
as borne by his daughter Elizabeth



Sir Henry Compton, raised to the Peerage of England as Baron Compton in 1572, one of the English Peers who attended the trial and judicial murder of Mary, Queen of Scots, had an eldest son William, a Privy Councillor both to Queen Elizabeth and to her successor, James I of England. In 1618 James created William Compton Earl of Northampton.

William was an interesting youth who caught the fancy of Elizabeth, which may explain why she assisted him in consummating the love he bore for her namesake, Elizabeth, the heiress daughter of Sir John Spencer, then Lord Mayor of London. Sir John, seemingly unaware of the Queen's interest, disapproved, beat his amorous daughter quite savagely (it was reported at the time) and locked her into her rooms.

Young William thereupon engineered her escape through a window and carried her away in a laundry basket secured to a dray horse. Naturally, she was disinherited, but the Queen subsequently prevailed upon the father and there was a reconciliation that ultimately brought the Spencer money into the Compton family. How much? The estimates of the time put it between £ 500,000 and £ 800,000 ~ and that was then, in the early 17th century, very serious money indeed. Indeed, it was so serious that when in 1610 Sir John died and William heard the amount he was to receive, he lamented that he would never be able to spend so much. He then swooned ~ and for a few weeks was so unbalanced mentally that he was housed for his safety in the Tower of London.

When he recovered, his loving wife Elizabeth began immediately to relieve him of his worries ~ as this letter convincingly demonstrates:

My Swete Life,

Now I have declared to you my mind for the settling of your state, I supposed that it were best for me to bethink or to consider with myself, what allowance were meetest for me. For considering what care I ever had of your estate, and how respectfully I dealt with those who by the laws of God, of nature, and of civil polity, wit, religion, government and honesty, you, my dear, are bound to, I pray and beseech you to grant to me, your most kind and loving wife, the sum of £ 1600 per annum quarterly to be paid.

Also I would beside the allowance for my apparel have £ 600 added yearly, quarterly to be paid, for the performance of charitable works, and those things I would not neither will be accountable for. Also I will have three horses for my own saddle that none shall dare to lend or borrow : none lend but I, none borrow but you.

Also I would have two gentlewomen lest one should be sick, or have some other lett. Also believe that it is an indecent thing for a gentlewoman to stand mumping alone, when God hath blessed their lord and lady with a great estate.

Also when I ride a hunting or a hawking, or travel from one house to another, I will have them attending ; so for either of those said women I must and will have for either of them a horse.

Also, I will have six or eight gentlemen ; and I will have my two coaches ; one lined with velvet, to myself, with four very fair horses, and a coach for my women, lined with cloth ; one laced with gold, the other with scarlet, and laced with watch-lace and silver, with four good horses.

Also I will have two coachmen ; one for my own coach, the other for my women's.

Also at any time when I travel, I will be allowed, not only carriages and spare horses for me and my women, but I shall have such carriages as shall be fitting for all, or duly ; not pestering my things with my women's, nor theirs with chambermaid's, nor theirs with washmaid's.

Also, for laundresses, when I travel, I will have them sent away with the carriages, to see all safe ; and the chambermaids I will have go before with the grooms, that the chambers may be ready, sweet, and clean.

Also, for that it is indecent to crowd up myself with my gentleman usher in my coach, I will have him to have a convenient horse to attend me either in city or in country ; and I must have two footmen ; and my desire is, that you defray all the charges for me. And for myself, (besides my yearly allowance) I would have twenty gowns of apparel ; six of them excellent good ones, eight of them for the country, and six others of them very excellent good ones.

Also I would have put into my purse £ 2000 and £ 200, and so you to pay my debts.

Also, I would have £ 6000 to buy me jewels, and £ 4000 to buy me a pearl chain.

Now, seeing I have been and am so reasonable unto you, I pray you do find my children apparel, and their schooling ; and all my servants, men and women, their wages.

Also, I will have all my houses furnished, and all my lodging chambers to be suited with all such furniture as is fit ; as beds, stools, chairs, suitable cushions, carpets, silver warming pans, cupboards of plate, fair hangings, and such like. So, for my drawing-chamber, in all houses, I will have them delicately furnished, both with hangings, couch, canopy, glass, chairs, cushions, and all things thereunto belonging.

Also, my desire is that you would pay your debts, build Ashby-house, and purchase lands, and lend no money (as you love God) to the Lord Chamberlain, which would have all, perhaps your life, from you. Remember his son, my lord Waldon, what entertainment he gave me when you were at Tilt-yard. If you were dead he said he would marry me. I protest I grieve to see the poor man have so little wit and honesty, to use his friends so vilely. Also, he fed me with untruths concerning the Charter-house ; but that is the least : he wished me much harm ; you know him. God keep you and me from him, and such as he is.

So now that I have declared to you what I would have, and what that is I would not have, I pray, when you be an Earl, to allow me £ 1000 more than now desired, and double attendance.

Your loving wife
Eliza Compton

The Lord Chamberlain mentioned in the letter was Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, who was appointed Lord High Treasurer of England in 1614 and was deprived four years later. His father was Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who in 1572 lost his head for the support he had given Mary, Queen of Scots. His son, "my lord Waldon", was Lord Howard of Walden during his father's lifetime and did marry an heiress after all, another Elizabeth, one of the two co-heiress daughters of George Home, Earl of Dunbar.

While the letter conjures up a charming picture of a young lady admiring what she had written while dreaming of what she might set down next, it offers more seriously a useful cameo of the role and power of high-ranking women in Tudor-Stuart society. The quoted figures may seem little enough today, but then they represented huge sums. It is worth noting also that Elizabeth, not yet a countess (for William was still only a baron), required that her attendants be gentlewomen and that she should have also "six or eight" gentlemen.



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Chapter X ~ Some Ancient Measures

Mists of Antiquity: Introduction

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