Elizabeth Pepys by Rita Greer 2007 (Historical Painter)
The original title was Rights of Restoration Women, but I soon realised how brief that would be. In this companion to Barbara Villiers on Smorgasbord, I focus on how men saw women, and women saw themselves in Restoration England (1660-1690).
Despite having Queen Elizabeth I on the throne for 45 years a century earlier, a woman’s place in society did not really change from medieval times to the 20th century, except when convenient to plug the holes caused by plague and war. During the Civil War, as with other wars, women stepped into the breach running businesses and estates. Once war was over they were expected to step aside for men.
There were two careers for women during Restoration times. Both involved going into a man’s house; either through the front door as his wife or through the back door as his servant. The law required all single women, between 12 and 40, without visible means of support to go into service. Even middle-class diarist Samuel Pepys’ unmarried sister, was obliged to take a number of menial servant positions, until Samuel forked out £600 (around £50,000 today) for a dowry to persuade someone to marry her.
Although some London Guilds admitted the daughters as well as sons of members, records show pitifully few women registered in trade. At best women might be dressmakers or run a husband’s shop, as women did work in retail. Many women were unlicensed street vendors selling perishable foodstuffs. Women ran shops in the fashionable arcades such as the Royal Exchange, but this was to attract male shoppers.
Only guildsmen could own London shops, so it is likely those women worked for male relatives: although rights could pass to daughters as well as widows. The law ensured widows’ rights over her husband’s property. But this did not prevent a widow being forcibly re-married against her will, at which point her property became her new husband’s.
Once conducted by a clergyman marriage was legal, regardless of the circumstances. What God hath joined let no man put asunder. Divorce was not an option. There were no legal grounds- not infidelity, rape in marriage, brutality, syphilis or madness.
It is a myth Henry VIII divorced his wives. Henry dissolved his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon using the legal nicety of incest. Catherine was betrothed to his brother. He claimed they slept together. She denied it. With Anne of Cleves, the marriage was simply not consummated.
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