Elizabeth Pickering: The First Woman to Print Law Books in England and Relations within the Community of Tudor London's Printers and Lawyers *

By Kreps, Barbara | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Pickering: The First Woman to Print Law Books in England and Relations within the Community of Tudor London's Printers and Lawyers *


Kreps, Barbara, Renaissance Quarterly


Elizabeth Pickering took over Robert Redman's press when he died in 1540, thus becoming the first woman known to print books in England. Her books tell us simply that she was Redman's widow. Wills and other legal documents in the London archives permit us to know much more. The documents examined here illuminate aspects of her personal life, but also reveal connections between a group of law-printers and lawyers that appear to have influenced the printing of law books in Tudor London. The first part of the essay traces this microhistory of family and community relations. The second half examines the books Elizabeth Pickering published.

1. FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND FINANCES

During the first half-century of printing in England, there are no signs of a wife or a daughter taking over when the owner of a press died or was unable to continue. (1) The first documented notice of a woman running a printing shop in England appears to come from York, where the chamberlains' accounts record a payment of ten shillings in 1527 to a Widow Warwick for "prynting of a thowsand breyffes." Aside from this entry, nothing is known of her printing activity; if she printed books, none seem to have survived. (2) The first extant publication traceable to a woman printing in England is A Lytle treatyse composed by Iohn Sta[n]dysshe ... againste the p[ro]testacion of Robert barnes, a small book issued by Elizabeth Pickering Redman from her shop at the sign of the George in Fleet Street, with a colophon dated 13 December 1540. Elizabeth took over the press of her printer-husband Robert Redman when he died, probably at the end of October 1540, and she continued the work of publishing in her own right for about ten months, issuing ten books that are identifiably hers, and possibly another three that for different reasons present problems of attribution. When or where Elizabeth Pickering was born is unknown, but her family connections in later life emerge from records kept in London at the Guildhall Library, the Corporation of London Record Office, and the Public Record Office.

The only surviving parish record for the years in which Elizabeth and Robert Redman resided at St. Dunstans in the West is the Church Wardens' Account Book. (3) This ledger contains several entries that throw some important light on Robert Redman; two of these are funeral entries that clearly affected Elizabeth's life as well, though she herself is unnamed. The money the parish received for Redman's funeral is recorded for the church year that started at Michaelmas 31 Henry VIII: "Item received for the knell of Robert Redman... iiis iiiid." (4) Three years earlier, the first of the book's funeral entries was for his wife: "Item Receiued for the knylle of the late wyfe of Robert Redman... iiis iiiid." (5) This entry attesting the burial of Robert Redman's wife is the only witness that can now suggest the possible time-limits of Elizabeth's marriage to her printer husband: it indicates not only that Elizabeth was not Robert's first wife, but also that the earliest possible date for their marriage was sometime after 29 September 1536. The exact length of the marriage cannot be known: what the two entries testify is that the very most it could have lasted was four years. (6)

Redman's will gives no instructions that his printing shop, next to the church of St. Dunstans in the West, should go to his wife. Redman seems to have been surprised by his final illness, and in a hurry to make his final dispositions: his will, dated 21 October 1540, was entered for probate two weeks later on 4 November, and does not contain the detailed instructions regarding personal items often left by testators in this period. Redman's dispositions simply observe the divisions into three parts that were in any case obligatory "borough custom" among the freemen of London who had children: (7)

   I will that my goodes be departid in three partes the first part to
   fulfill my bequestes / and ffunerall expenss / the second parte to
   my wif/The thirde parte to my children to be devided amongest them /
   in equall parties / Item I bequeith to the high aulter of Saint
   Dunstones afore said xx d/Item I will that xl s shalbe distributed
   amonge poore people / at the day of my decease / Item I ordeyn and
   make Elizabeth my wif my sole Executrix of this my last will and
   testament / and I do ordeyn and make William Peyghan / and my sonne
   in lawe Henry Smythe overseres of this my last will and testament /
   and they to haue for thair Labours at the discretion of my
   Executrix. 

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