Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England

Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England

Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England

Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England


This book represents the most comprehensive study of women's letters and letter-writing during the early modern period so far undertaken, and acts as an important corrective to traditional ways of reading and discussing letters as private, elite, male, and non-political. Based on over 3,000 manuscript letters, it shows that letter-writing was a larger and more socially diversified area of female activity than has been hitherto assumed. In that letters constitute the largest body of extant sixteenth-century women's writing, the book initiates a reassessment of women's education and literacy in the period. As indicators of literacy, letters yield physical evidence of rudimentary writing activity and abilities, document "higher" forms of female literacy, and highlight women's mastery of formal rhetorical and epistolary conventions. The book also stresses that letters are unparalleled as intimate and immediate records of family relationships, and as media for personal and self-reflective forms of female expression. Read as documents that inscribe social and gender relations, letters shed light on the complex range of women's personal relationships, as female power and authority fluctuated, negotiated on an individual basis. Furthermore, correspondence highlights the important political roles played by early modern women. Female letter-writers were integral in cultivating and maintaining patronage and kinship networks; they were active as suitors for crown favor, and operated as political intermediaries and patrons in their own right, using letters to elicit influence. Letters thus help to locate differing forms of female power within the family, locality and occasionally on the wider political stage, and offer invaluable primary evidence from which to reconstruct the lives of early modern women.


The letter-writing activities of the indomitable Elizabethan matriarch and ambitious dynast, Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury (c.1527–1608), better known as 'Bess of Hardwick', are the best-documented of any sixteenthcentury English woman with the possible exception of Elizabeth I. More than 200 of her letters, to and from over sixty correspondents, are extant, many preserved among her own papers. Her voluminous correspondence represents in microcosm the range of letters and letter-writing activities of other Tudor women letter-writers of the aristocracy, gentry, and mercantile groups. Throughout her long life—a life largely documented by her correspondences— letters and letter-writing performed important functions for Elizabeth Hardwick. Conducting correspondence allowed her to maintain close communication with immediate family and household members; to keep abreast of family, local, national, and European news. As a secondary patronage function, the writing of letters worked to oil the wheels of kinship and patronage networks. It enabled her to maintain a firm grip on estate and household management, and to direct her vast building programmes, to transact business and expedite legal disputes, and to intervene as an intermediary or patron in suits for favour and patronage. Viewed as a whole, the countess's correspondence is also emblematic of many of the central themes of this socio-cultural study of Tudor women's letters and letter-writing—female education and literacy; family, gender, and other social relations; and the role of early modern women in patronage and politics—and acts as a useful corrective to traditional ways of reading and discussing letters as private, elite and non-political.

In common with most Tudor women, little is known about Elizabeth Hardwick's early upbringing and education. the indirect evidence of her letters, however, indicates that she was at least taught to write (as well as to read): her large, untidy, and rather angular italic handwriting features throughout much of

the best biographical study of Bess of Hardwick is Durant, Bess of Hardwick. See also
Williams, Bess of Hardwick; Rawson, Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle. (For full references to works
cited, see the Selected Bibliography.)

Bess of Hardwick's papers are held mainly at the Folger Shakespeare Library (X.d.428), and
are distinct from the Shrewsbury/Talbot manuscripts relating to the family of her last husband,
George Talbot, seventh earl of Shrewsbury, now kept at Lambeth Palace Library and Longleat.
Her outgoing correspondence is scattered throughout numerous collections.

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