Elizabeth Cromwell and Female Cloth Merchants in the Late Medieval Period
By Carol McGrath
The Woman in the Shadows is set in London during the first three decades of the Tudor Era. Some historians, including myself, would consider this to be the last decades of what is known as the English Medieval period rather than this as 1485 and The Battle of Bosworth which heralded in the Tudors.
Elizabeth Cromwell, wife to Thomas Cromwell who later became King Henry VIII’s chief minister, is the protagonist and heroine of The Woman in the Shadows. The novel is her story, researched from whatever sources were available. Not much was written about Elizabeth. She really was the Woman in the Shadows. However, we are told that she was the daughter of a Putney Cloth Merchant, Henry Wykes, and that it is likely her first marriage was into another cloth merchant’s family. Her second marriage to Thomas Cromwell was similar and yet different since he was a cloth middleman. He was a self-taught lawyer and at this time he took on legal work for The Merchant Adventurers. Elizabeth and Thomas married in 1514, long before Thomas Cromwell became involved in the King’s Great Matter, the dissolution of King Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon.
I suggest in The Woman in the Shadows that Elizabeth, by 1513/ 14, was a widowed female cloth merchant and compensate for the lack of specific knowledge about her life by researching Thomas Cromwell and the London Merchant Class, aiming to write a portrait of a woman who was firstly a widow, a merchant and wife to an ambitious man.
So what do we know about female traders during this era?
It is well-known that for women, and for men also, marriage throughout the medieval period and into Tudor times could see the beginning of a new professional life. Business was often based on a partnership. A town wife’s co-operation was as important to the success of that business as that of a peasant wife working in the fields was to the labouring family’s survival. The Ordinance of Founders in 1390 stipulated that each master could have only one apprentice unless he had no wife and therefore he could have two apprentices. A wife’s contribution to the family business was therefore significant. In Elizabeth’s case, since she had an education, within the context of the novel, she kept the books for her husband’s family business. As several centuries passed since the Ordinance of Founders, more apprentices were permitted to a business and girls were often apprenticed to trades in the same way as boys. Wills written by craftsmen often leave provision for their daughters as well as their sons to be apprenticed. Girls were apprenticed to men as well as to women, though more usually female apprentices were under the tuition of the master’s wife. This makes sense since they lived in the house as part of the family.
Wives and daughters were engaged in the work of the household, whatever this work was. Traditional roles did not exclude other roles. A woman could be an armourer, a merchant as is Elizabeth in my novel, a book-binder, a fletcher. Women were even found loading wool onto ships. Guild regulations which prohibited women from fully entering many trades did allow for the contribution of wives. It was her expertise that allowed her to continue her husband’s trade should she be widowed. Interestingly, sometimes women could follow a path of her own. For example, if she lived in London and some other towns such as Bath, Bristol, Lincoln, a single or married woman could become a femme sole. She would have full responsibility for managing her own business but, as such, a woman could face charges concerning her business. She could be charged, fined and go to prison, yet her husband remain untouched by law. He would not be accountable if his wife registered as a sole trader. If a business is shared, the property would by law belong to the woman’s husband who would face any charges incurred.
The widow who did not remarry fulfilled many masculine roles. She could take on her husband’s name as her own or revert to her maiden surname. I allowed Elizabeth to continue as Elizabeth Williams, her dead husband’s name. A new marriage could endanger her legacy so, within the novel’s context, she was reluctant to throw away her freedom when pressed by her father to remarry. That is, until she met Thomas Cromwell and made a marriage of her own choosing.
In London city law and common law combined to give the widow a good package. Legitim which usually applied to widowhood was a law of thirds, a third to the widow, a third to the children and a third part for the Church. This varied in London. In the City, by common law, legatim could be ignored. Also, Elizabeth had no children by her first husband and therefore inherited his business. Goods could be willed to the wife in the City by common law and this meant a London merchant widow could invest goods and property as she wished.
A potentially wealthy widow like Elizabeth would be wooed relentlessly. Business as usual was expected, so Elizabeth carries on her husband’s cloth business. Widows were entitled to take up the freedom of the City for themselves. This was a bonus as it gave a woman the right to carry on her trade, freedom from tolls throughout England (great if you were exporting cloth through a port other than London) and she had permission to maintain her husband’s apprentices and take on others. Widows were usually regarded as ‘goodwives’ in Medieval and Tudor England. It is a term used in the novel.
There was often male jealousy of the competition of female labour. No surprises there. Life could be tough for a female trader. Thus, barring women from trades (by the guilds) did happen. For example, as women’s wages were lower than a man’s for the same work men were afraid of being undercut by cheap labour. Female apprentices might not be permitted. There were women members of craft guilds, but these women were usually widows, not femmes soles, and women were rarely admitted as full members. We find women employed in all stages of cloth production from combing and carding wool, spinning of yarn, weaving though men often were found to be occupied as weavers, and female cloth merchants are, like Elizabeth Cromwell in my novel, and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath sometimes to be discovered amongst the big clothiers of England in this late medieval period. They had to be tough and frequently ruthless particularly in a competitive city such as late Medieval/early Tudor London.
|The Wife of Bath, as portrayed by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales|
If you are interested in further reading I suggest:
Eileen Power Medieval Women published by Cambridge University Press
Tudor Women by Allison Plowden published by Sutton Publishing
Medieval Women by Henrietta Leyser published by Phoenix Press
From a young age my passion was reading historical novels and biography. Now I am writing them. My debut novel, The Handfasted Wife was published by Accent Press in May 2013. The Handfasted Wife is the first novel in a trilogy about the Norman Conquest from the point of view of the royal women. Its subject is Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold’s common-law / handfasted wife. The Swan Daughter and The Betrothed Sister followed in 2014 and 2015.
I studied for an MA at Queens University Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre for Creative Writing. Later I worked on the MPhil in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Life is not all about academic pursuits and writing books. I travel extensively, enjoy photography and love spending time with my two children, husband and our home and garden. Moreover, visits to a location here and in Europe that features in my books is the greatest excuse of all to lose oneself in the past.
The Woman in the Shadows
(A standalone novel about Elizabeth Cromwell)
A powerful, evocative new novel by the critically acclaimed author of The Handfasted Wife, The Woman in the Shadows tells the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Tudor England's most powerful statesman, through the eyes of his wife Elizabeth.
When beautiful cloth merchant’s daughter Elizabeth Williams is widowed at the age of twenty-two, she is determined to make herself a success in the business she has learned from her father. But there are those who oppose a woman making her own way in the world, and soon Elizabeth realises she may have some powerful enemies – enemies who also know the truth about her late husband.
Security – and happiness – comes when Elizabeth is introduced to kindly, ambitious merchant turned lawyer, Thomas Cromwell. Their marriage is one based on mutual love and respect…but it isn’t always easy being the wife of an influential, headstrong man in Henry VIII’s London. The city is filled with ruthless people and strange delights – and Elizabeth realises she must adjust to the life she has chosen…or risk losing everything.