The Tixall letters (95 letters)

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge and Victoria Van Hyning

Tixall House and Gatehouse, from Robert Plot, The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford, 1686), plate XXVIII, between pp. 358–9. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Tixall letters (1617–1703)

The Aston and Thimelby families lived within eighty miles of one another and were social equals, but they suffered disproportionately for their recusancy. The Thimelbys were life-long Catholics and the Irnham estate was fined heavily throughout the seventeenth century. By contrast, Sir Walter Aston (1584–1639), head of the Tixall estate, was a Protestant until the 1620s. James I dubbed him Knight of the Bath at his coronation in 1603, but despite pledging his allegiance to the Protestant king, Aston converted to Catholicism while on his first ambassadorial mission to Catholic Spain. He was pardoned formally by James I for his ‘lapse’ in 1623, and all recusancy fines against him were remitted. There does not appear to have been a connection between the Astons and the Thimelbys prior to the 1630s. The families were first connected by the marriages of Katherine Thimelby and Herbert Aston around the year 1638, and Henry Thimelby (1609–1655) and Gertrude Aston (1617–1668) in 1645. Perhaps because of the differences in their fortunes, four of the ten Thimelby children to survive into adulthood became professional religious, including Richard, Edward, Winefrid and Frances, whereas only two Astons undertook religious vows in the seventeenth century: Gertrude Aston Thimelby, as a widow, and Katherine (Keat) Aston, daughter of Katherine and Herbert (c.1646–1668).

Amongst the most lively and interesting family letters in this collection are those between Aston’s children, Constance Aston Fowler and Herbert Aston (bap. 1614–1688/9), his future wife, Katherine Thimelby (1617/18–1658), and her sister, Winefrid Thimelby (1618–1690), a nun of the English St Monica’s convent, founded in Louvain in 1609. Thimelby served as Prioress there from 1668 until her death.

Partners and Additional Contributors

It was at the suggestion of Dr Victoria Van Hyning that these letters of the Aston Thimelby family were included in EMLO. Dr Van Hyning’s doctoral research centred around the literary culture of early modern English Augustinian nuns at St Monica’s convent in Louvain, founded in 1609, and its daughter house called the English convent of Nazareth in Bruges, founded in 1629. The thesis was funded by a ‘Letters and Lives’ co-doctoral award and supervised between the University of Sheffield, and the British Library, where the original Tixall manuscript letters are held. The metadata for this catalogue in EMLO was taken from Arthur Clifford’s 1816 publication of the letters of the Aston family and their circle, and, in addition to supplying this introductory text, Dr Van Hyning will be supplying a number of images and transcriptions which will be used to enrich this catalogue in the course of the coming months.

EMLO is grateful to Digital Fellow Katie McKeogh who, under the auspices of the Cultures of Knowledge project, worked to collate this metadata and to add biographical and geographical details to the people and place records involved.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Tixall Letters; or the Correspondence of the Aston Family and their Friends, ed. Arthur Clifford, 2 vols (London, 1815). Researchers would be advised to consult the MS correspondence at the British Library where possible.


The original Tixall letters, upon which Arthur Clifford’s printed edition is based, are preserved in London, British Library Board, MS Additional 36452, among six volumes of papers (MSS Add. 36444–36452). These were purchased by the British Museum in 1899 because they contained the ambassadorial correspondence of Sir Walter Aston (1584–1639), first Baron of Forfar, resident ambassador to Spain from 1620 to 1623 and again in 1635 to 1637, during which time he attempted to negotiate the Spanish match between Prince Charles and the Infanta Maria Anna, daughter of Philip III of Spain. Though not the main attraction at the time of purchase, the family papers are mentioned in the BM acquisition records of 1900.1 A selection of the family papers were edited by A. Clifford as Tixall Poetry2 and Tixall Letters.3

Members of this family group exchanged poetry, devotional work and letters, and influenced one another’s writings for generations. Of the papers included in this collection, the above-mentioned correspondents are notable for the literary style. The loving and humorous letters of Winefrid Thimelby are particular striking for what they manage to express in such as short space: in line with convent statutes, Winefrid typically only wrote to her family once a year. Her earliest surviving letters are to her older sister Katherine and, after Katherine’s death, to Herbert, and their children, Katherine (Keat), Gertrude (Gatt) and Jack. Very few papers relating to the Thimelbys are known to survive, making the Aston family papers particularly important to our understanding of the Thimelby literary legacy.

Detail of the title-page from Tixall Letters; or the Correspondence
of the Aston Family and their Friends
ed. Arthur Clifford, 2 vols (London
and Edinburgh, 1815).

Scope of Catalogue

It is the intention of Dr Van Hyning that work will continue on this catalogue and that images and transcriptions for a number of letters will be included. For the present, a link is provided from each letter record to the relevant volume of the Clifford edition on Google Books, where the printed copy may be consulted.

Further resources

Tixall Letters; or the Correspondence of the Aston Family and their Friends, ed. Arthur Clifford, 2 vols (London and Edinburgh, 1815), volume 1.

Tixall Letters; or the Correspondence of the Aston Family and their Friends, ed. Arthur Clifford, 2 vols (London and Edinburgh, 1815), volume 2.

Robert Plot, The natural history of Staffordshire (Oxford, 1686).


Launch Catalogue

Please see our citation guidelines for instructions on how to cite this catalogue.


1 Private correspondence, Frances Harris, email to Van Hyning, 5 February 2010.

2 Tixall Poetry, ed. Arthur Clifford (Edinburgh and Edinburgh, 1813).

3 Tixall Letters, ed. Arthur Clifford (London and Edinburgh, 1815).