One of the best things about the taught MA is that, like a BA, you get to work on a number of smaller projects in the run up to the mighty dissertation (a meaty 20,000 words rather than the 10,000 at BA level). This introduces a level of variety that I, for one, really enjoy. In the last two years I’ve worked on the medieval landscapes of Ludlow and its environs; the relationship between Thomas, Lord Coningsby and the town of Leominster; a project evaluating what a small country churchyard in the south of Shropshire can reveal about the community and culture of the parish it serves; and finally, a project asking what Joyce Jeffrey’s Household Accounts could reveal about her local identity. Each of these has resulted in a document numbering around 5,000 words and each one has been great fun to research and write – the bigger word count means there’s more room to play with and to explore complex themes.
The Joyce Jeffreys project – her local identity – involved exploring her accounts to see what mention there was of place, to try to glean clues as to how she might have seen herself. In the event, that project came to the conclusion that there was indeed a gap in the literature, one that would be worth exploring and I resolved to try to explore it – as best I could, given time limitations. That was in May 2015, and unfortunately there are always other projects and ever since this has been on the back burner.
When I saw the Call for Papers for the Nottingham Trent University’s History postgraduate conference, with a theme of ‘Space and Place’, I jumped at it. I mean, it was such a perfect fit – surely it was meant to be…! In the event, they accepted my abstract and I delivered the paper last week, just slightly over a week since the Robert Foulkes paper at the University of Leicester School of History postgraduate conference. This (coupled with the Midlands3Cities event the week before) made for an interesting (and busy) three week period.
So who was Joyce?
Joyce lived in Hereford in the early seventeenth century, leaving the city just before the third Parliamentarian occupation of Hereford. She’d lived there from at least 1623, probably quite some time earlier, but was born in the 1570s at Ham Castle, near Clifton on Teme in Worcestershire, the daughter of very minor gentry. In the 1590s, as was normal for a young woman of her station, she was sent to live with an older gentlewoman, who would finish her education and introduce her to eligible and suitable gentlemen. That woman was Lady Philippa Coningsby, the wife of Sir Thomas Coningsby, then a fairly powerful politician, both locally and nationally. These two gave Joyce an introduction to Hereford, and when her mother died, took her on as a perpetual companion. It seems that Thomas thought a great deal of Joyce – she was asked to be a witness and executor of one of his wills – and both remembered Joyce in their wills. They were not alone in leaving Joyce money (her parents and a cousin also remembered her) and by the 1620s Joyce was reasonably well off, financially independent and – to modern eyes, at least – seemed determined not to walk the traditional path of an unmarried older woman: that is, living with family, shuttled around from pillar to post, trying to find a useful position. She rented a house in Hereford, in an area she knew well from her time with the Coningsbys (Sir Thomas founded a hospital on the same street, buildings that are still present), and began to lend money to people. She chose carefully, of course, and also bought and farmed land, which gave her a seperate income, but she managed her money so that she was always financially secure. Her account books detail much of her financial life – who she lent money to, when they gave it back, and what she spent her own money on – things like food, clothing, etc. They’re not complete account books in the modern sense of the word – there’s no yearly reckoning, for example – and some projects are not included (such as the building of her house). This is a very useful document for a wide range of historians, for those interested, for example, in the minutiae of early modern living (food, clothing etc.), in the politics of the early modern city, and for those who are interested in how the non-traditional woman made her way in that period. The account books themselves are kept in the British Library.
In historiographical terms, Judith Spicksley has transcribed and published an edited form of the accounts, which is available for purchase. Robert Tittler has worked on the accounts, focusing primarily on the moneylending aspect of her activities. There are a few antiquarian accounts but otherwise, the account books seem relatively underused – I hope the recent publication of them and Judith’s fine work in editing them will help them to become better known and used, as they deserve to be.
In my background reading for the project, I read through Robert Tittler’s work, and then followed various references through to the work of Amy M. Froide. Her work has focused on the activities of what she called ‘never-married’ women (as opposed to widowed women, who were treated differently) and she has studied how never-married women were treated in Southampton, concluding that women would not be allowed to live independently or to run their own business unless they met three key criteria: both their parents were dead; they were financially independent, and they had passed the menopause. All three apply to Joyce, by the time of her account books both her parents had long since been dead, she was probably just heading into the menopause, and we know she was financially independent, which sort of confirms Amy’s theory about the social and economic restrictions placed on unmarried women in that period. What is tantalising, however, is something Robert Tittler suggested: he noted that while Joyce tended not to lend to people who were related to her, they were mostly related to each other, and that they tended to be women. He called it a ‘regional shadow economy composed of independent women’.¹ Very tantalising. If he is correct, then potentially, Hereford saw and treated women differently to the city of Southampton, suggesting that regional variations were possible in terms of the social restrictions placed on women in the early modern period.
This was what I had hoped to explore, but, as explained, the project kept getting put onto the backburner. With the conference coming up however, I thought it might be a good way to refamiliarise myself with Joyce and kickstart it again.The conference went well – I was warmly welcomed by the students from Nottingham Trent, and since it was an interdisciplinary conference, the other papers were on a huge range of subjects that made for a very interesting day, and I made a number of useful connections. I was invited to the pub – I kind of wish I’d gone! The paper itself went well and I had a number of good questions and compliments on it. It explored how Joyce saw her local place, Hereford, so it explored things like mention of local food, local events, local places, and explored some of the gap in the literature that I’ve mentioned here, and which I want to continue to try to explore. In between all my other research! I have seen, in the archives at Hereford, some papers that may be a way forward into this – but we will have to see. Watch this space!
Well, she was still living in Hereford in 1642 when the Parliamentarian army, led by Sir Robert Harley and Henry Grey came to the city. Joyce fled – like many other inhabitants – but the city was occupied only briefly and the Royalists regained control. Joyce returned, but after a second occupation the following year, she made the decision to sell up and get out. She sold her beloved house, which was then destroyed (it was outside the city walls and the area was cleared for defensive purposes); and Joyce went to live with her nephew at Ham Castle, seeing out the remainder of the Civil War there. She died in 1650. She seems to have been quite a remarkable lady and I’m glad to have had the chance to read her account books and to get a feel for the person she was.
¹ Robert Tittler, Townspeople and Nation: English Urban Experiences 1540-1640 (Stanford, California, 2001), p. 195.
Judith Spicksley, (ed.), The Business and Household Accounts of Joyce Jeffreys Spinster of Hereford, 1638-1648 (Oxford, 2012).
Robert Tittler, ‘Money-lending in the West Midlands: the activities of Joyce Jefferies, 1638-49’, Historical Research, 67:164 (1994), pp. 249-263.
Amy M. Froide, ‘Marital status as a category of difference: Singlewomen and widows in early modern England’, in J. Bennett and A. M. Froide (eds) Single Women in the European Past 1250-1800, (Philadelphia, 1998), pp. 236-269.
Amy M. Froide, ‘Old maids: the lifecycle of single women in early modern England’, in L. Botelho and P. Thane (eds) Women and Aging in British Society since 1500 (London, 2001), pp. 89-110.