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Drawing on Kinship Webs

Tuesday, May 10, 2022 - 08:09

Another paper that explores aspects of the informal--but vitally important--webs of connection between women in pre-modern societies in which they lacked formal power.

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Robertson, Karen. 1999. “Tracing Women’s Connections from a Letter by Elizabeth Ralegh” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Robertson, Karen “Tracing Women’s Connections from a Letter by Elizabeth Ralegh”

This paper considers the difficulty of tracing female alliances, due to gender differences in the types of records created and preserved. Women’s bonds are less commonly traceable in formal documents than men’s. Women’s letters provide one source for connections, even though many are written to men. The letter under consideration was written by lady Ralegh after her husband’s conviction for treason. It has a list of female names as endorsers on the back, and identifying the signatories maps out an informal alliance network largely organized around kinship, especially women with experience with legal conflict rooted in inheritance and widowhood.

Lady Raleigh tries to salvage some economic protection for herself out of the treason verdict (which would have made Ralegh’s property forfeit to the crown). She argued that the property had been transferred to their son before the conviction, and so was exempt.

A one-time lady in waiting to Elizabeth, her secret marriage to Ralegh resulted in a break. So other support for her various legal difficulties was essential. The Tudor court aristocracy was complexly intermarried providing women with options to leverage when alliances were needed. Marriage and childbearing may have been the foundation of women’s power in that context, but the power came from how they employed those connections. Appeals may have been directed toward male gatekeepers, but support often came more from women’s peers who saw parallels to their own interests, especially in matters of inheritance and property rights. With Ralegh imprisoned and abandoned by former allies, the power in the marriage shifted to Lady Ralegh.

On Lady Ralegh’s letter of appeal to Robert Cecil, 19 women appear endorsing her position. The women did not sign the letter personally – their names were added by someone else, perhaps acting as an intermediary. The remainder of the paper works to identify how the endorsers were connected – socially or by family – to Lady Ralegh, as well as noting the difficulties in doing so due to the small pool of given names popular at the time and women’s surname changes on marriage.

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