A Page in the Life of Elizabeth Jeake: unfeigned love among mercantile matters

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Anne Murphy offers a loving letter from a seventeenth-century merchant’s wife, who Anne has discussed in more detail in a recent article and whose letters will be included in a forthcoming edition.]

I first encountered Samuel Jeake through his Astrological Diary, edited by Michael Hunter and Annabel Gregory. As the only ordinary investor in the financial revolution of the 1690s who had left a record of his actions, he formed an invaluable case study for my PhD.

Later, when I needed a sample module to talk about at job interviews, ‘The Jeakes’ seemed a perfect fit. A module exploring the seventeenth century through the eyes of an ordinary family looked great presented on one side of A4. When I got a job and actually had to start teaching the module I quickly realised I was going to need much more than was contained in the diary, so I turned to the family’s letters. There are hundreds of them preserved in the East Sussex Record Office and the Rye Museum Archive.

And the more I read, the more I realised the family, especially its female members, offered fascinating insights into early modern life. I encountered Frances Hartridge, Samuel’s mother, who resisted marriage and insisted on a contract before agreeing to a betrothal. Then came Barbara Hartshorne, his mother-in-law, who struggled to keep her teenaged son from the gallows, a task that left her ‘afflicted tormented without any relief’.[1] And there was Samuel’s wife, Elizabeth Hartshorne, a thirteen-year-old bride, whose labour was essential to every aspect of the marital economy. For this post, I have chosen to focus on a page in Elizabeth Hartshorne’s life.

Rye, Sussex null by William Daniell 1769-1837

The Jeakes’ hometown of Rye, from William Daniell, A Voyage Round Great Britain (1815-25)

In the absence of her own writings and her virtual absence from the many pages of Samuel’s writings,  Elizabeth’s life can only be reconstructed from the letters she left behind, both those she wrote and those she received. Much can be recovered from these letters. Like most early modern correspondence, they covered a wide variety of topics. Family matters sat easily alongside business and were generally intertwined with spiritual contemplation, an ever-present concern for the health of all correspondents and their connections, and the exchange of news, especially on religious or political matters. Yet, emotions have been somewhat harder to find. The Jeakes rarely wrote of love and never exchanged letters just for the sake of being in touch.

The marriage certainly had less than auspicious beginnings. There was a large age gap between the couple, Samuel was twenty-eight when they were betrothed and his bride was just twelve. It was not a love match. Samuel had been disappointed in love before and probably sought out Elizabeth for her dowry. Soon after their betrothal, Elizabeth’s future husband suffered a recurrence of the severe depression that he had experienced since adolescence which created ‘great displeasure and difference between me & my intended Mother in Law & Wife’.[2] But a letter written from Elizabeth to Samuel in February 1686, four years into the marriage, shows that things had changed.

AM Letter from Elizabeth to Samuel Feb 1686 FRE


Rye Feb 2 1685/6

My Dear

These will serve to let you know that my Cousin Freebody is safly I hope delivered of a Dage Daughter this day it being about a quarter of an hour past one of the clocke as neer as could be ghessed. Little Betty free from harm still thanks be to God. My Dear I received your letter it was very acceptable to me in regard I heard of your welfare and that of my Father with other relations but I am extreamly dissatisfied at your so long abscence but am in hopes your return will be ere long else it would be more insupportable to me then now. As for Robert Bartholomew of Hasting I have heard nothing from him since your departure I did hear that he was gone out of town but know not whether it be certain or not and have not time to enquire at present. Pray my Dear let me have a letter from you befor your return if possible for I long both to hear from you and see you as soon as your affairs will permit you; in the interim be pleased to accept of my real and unfeigned love to your dear self with duty to my father and service to those you shall think fit. I am my Dear

your real & truly affectionate wife

Elisabeth Jeake.

On[e] thing I forgot to instance in my last to you when I mentioned my hangings I must desire you to buy some of the same of the carpet enough to cover three of the little stools. I have since sent to know if Robert Bartholomew were gone as I heard but I find he is still in town but waits only for a fair wind which he expects every day. Little Betty remembers her duty to her grandfather and you and sends you a kiss, my Mother presents her service to my Father with love to your self and others. It grieves me my Dear to leave of[f] writing when I consider it is to you [word lost] paper will not permit me to write so much as I would. I must [th]erefore be forced to leave though much against my will but I fear you [will] tax me with impertinence for what I have already wrote but I hope [you] will excuse this.

I could wish you would write me a letter to last a day ere it be read. Methinks you are to brief that you cannot fit half as [damaged section]

Excuse my evil writing but I slept but half an hour last night [damaged section].


Elizabeth’s feelings were apparently not one-sided. Samuel departed, albeit briefly, from his usual business-like mode of letter writing to respond that he had read her letter ‘with great satisfaction, and as I doubt not of the sincerity of your affections. So assure your selfe my dearest that nothing can alienate mine from you. I think my time as long ere I revisit you, as you can possibly before you see me’.[3]

This letter also indicates other developing bonds. ‘Little Betty’ was the second of the Jeakes’ six children. Their first child, a daughter born when Elizabeth was just fifteen, had died soon after birth. While mentioned infrequently in the Astrological Diary, the Jeake children appeared often in the couple’s letters. Despite the initial discord between the two families, Elizabeth’s married life was also embedded in a strong network of extended kinship ties. Grand-parenting and the continuing parenting of adult children by Samuel’s father and Elizabeth’s mother were particularly important.

On a practical level the letter offers interesting vignettes of domestic life and shared decision-making. In the Jeake household shopping was often a family affair. The marriage was also a partnership in that Elizabeth laboured in support of Samuel’s business interests. Her enquiries after Robert Bartholomew in this letter represent the tip of the iceberg.

This activity is particularly interesting since we know relatively little about what has been described by Aridane Schmidt as early modern wives’ ‘assisting labour’.[4] Through the Jeakes’ letters, however, we can see that Elizabeth took on numerous roles requiring education, authority and knowledge of the monetary environment and the business world. As I show in a new article in Women’s History Review, her activities included negotiations with business contacts, managing credit relationships, gathering and disseminating business and investment information, managing property and tenants, and the purchase and sale of commodities.

These were activities that receive no mention in Samuel’s Astrological Diary and yet were essential to the maintenance of the marital economy. Here we see how easily women’s lives and the value of their labour can be erased from the historical record.


[1] East Sussex Record Office, Frewen Family Archive, FRE 5296

[2] Hunter and Gregory (eds), Astrological Diary, p. 153.

[3] ESRO, FRE 5242.

[4] Ariadne Schmidt (2014) ‘The profits of unpaid work. “Assisting” labour of women in the early modern urban Dutch economy’, The History of the Family, 19, pp. 301-322

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4 thoughts on “A Page in the Life of Elizabeth Jeake: unfeigned love among mercantile matters

  1. Pingback: A Page in the Life | the many-headed monster

  2. I would not call the lack of information on women’s roles ‘erasure’ as it was not intended that her life be erased. I would call it more disappearance, invisibility or even benign neglect, in that it was so common no one ever thought to record it,.

  3. “It grieves me my Dear to leave of[f] writing when I consider it is to you [word lost] paper ”

    The gap is probably “but my” (there is a b and what looks like half a u at the beginning, a y at the end, and it would make sense).

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