Department of Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; Centre for Digital Scholarship, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; and Cultures of Knowledge
Six Letters written by Elizabeth Wagstaffe of Warwick to her husband, Timothy Wagstaffe, lawyer of Middle Temple, between 1616 and 1622.
These letters give a fascinating glimpse of the gentry in Warwick in the time of Shakespeare. It has been established from other sources that Timothy Wagstaffe was lord of the manor of Tachbrook near Warwick (and Elizabeth lady of the manor, therefore), as well as a lawyer in the Middle Temple. With Elizabeth running the household in the absence of her husband at the Inns of Court in London, they provide in particular an insight into the role of women in the early seventeenth century.
The letters, which range between 1616 and 1622, show that Elizabeth was supervising building works and managing builders and joiners making modifications to their home in Warwickshire. The work was not always going to plan. In 1619 we hear of the joiner who ‘hath bin heare very little’ and then only to ask for the 8 or 10 pounds owed him by Mr. Wagstaffe. Elizabeth sends news of the work to her husband, as well as specific instructions for errands in London; Timothy Wagstaffe is enjoined to buy ‘a good store of shewgar … against Christmas, for it is very deere heare’. In three of the letters we discover that Sir Bartholomew Hales is involved in the building work: ‘your buildinge woulde goe a great deale better forwardes, if you weare heare to looke unto it, for Sir Barthellmew Haelles doeth gett a waie your best workemen …’ (July 1620); ‘Sir Barthelemew Haeles was here this morninge, and went up into your newe roome … he will alter the staires … for he saith, hee will not have the best and fairest roome in your howse spoiled for a little corner in a cittchin …’ (Nov. 1622). Hales was a notable Warwickshire puritan, and lord of the manor of Snitterfield, the birthplace of William Shakespeare’s father John Shakespeare (c. 1530–1601); Shakespeare’s uncle Henry occupied a farm on the manor.
The puritan connection may be significant. The first letter is dated 11 November 1616, and unlike the others, which are all written from Warwick, it is written from ‘Chamberhowse’. The letter mentions social events in the Thatcham area in Berkshire, including a wedding at which ‘Besse must be faine to weare her gowne with one sleeve’. Elizabeth is staying with her mother, and reports the doings of her cousin John Backhouse. This reveals that Elizabeth was the daughter of the puritan lawyer and politician, Nicholas Fuller (1543–1620), a famous critic of James I’s government who was imprisoned more than once for his views. Fuller married Sarah, daughter of Nicholas Backhouse, alderman and former sheriff of London, and in 1586 they set up home at Chamberhouse, near Thatcham (see the entry for Fuller in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Having stood down as an M.P., Fuller was still active in the last years of his life, attending meetings of the Gray’s Inn benchers until 19 November 1619, where no doubt he would have encountered Timothy Wagstaffe.
Curator of Early Modern Archives and Manuscripts