The Case of Mistress Mary Hampson: Her Story of Marital Abuse and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century England

The Case of Mistress Mary Hampson: Her Story of Marital Abuse and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century England

by Jessica Malay

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The centerpiece of The Case of Mistress Mary Hampson is the autobiographical narrative of a 17th-century woman in an abusive and violent marriage. Composed at a time when marital disharmony was in vogue with readers and publishers, it stands out from comparable works, usually single broadsheets. In her own words, Mary recounts various dramatic and stressful episodes from her decades-long marriage to Robert Hampson and her strategies for dealing with it. The harrowing tale contains scenes of physical abuse, mob violence, abandonment, flight, and destitution. It also shows moments of personal courage and interventions on the author's behalf by friends and strangers, some of whom are subject to severe reprisals. Mary wrote her story to come to terms with her situation, to justify her actions, and to cast herself in a virtuous light. The accompanying discussion of her life, drawn from other sources, provides chilling evidence of the vulnerability of seventeenth-century women and the flawed legal mechanisms that were supposed to protect them. Readers are also invited to consider in what ways the self-portrait is accurate and what elements of it may be considered fabrication. Malay's archival efforts have thus rescued a compelling and complicated voice from the past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804790604
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/29/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Jessica Malay is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Huddersfield.

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By Jessica L. Malay

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8628-7



Competing Stories

Mary Hampson's pamphlet, or book as she always called it, tells the story of her troubled marriage with Robert Hampson from her perspective. But this was not the only place where the story of this marriage was told. In two courts—the Court of Arches, and the High Court of Delegates—Mary and Robert Hampson give their own, often conflicting, versions of events. Here the circumstances of their early meeting and early married life are presented. Here also are conflicting versions of the violence that marred this marriage, and behavior that society would consider undesirable. In these court cases they present differing stories of Robert's first beating of Mary, his neglect of her, and her journey to France. In discussing later conflicts, Mary, in her testimony, insists that after their second reconciliation in 1668 she submitted to Robert's authority and resumed all the duties of a wife. Robert in his responses accuses Mary of continued shrewishness and dishonesty. In court testimony, Mary also accuses Robert of stealing the inheritance her mother intended to leave her, and of attempting to destroy her relationship with her mother. Finally the last days of the marriage are described in court documents. Here we see the end of the Hampson marriage, with Mary locked out of her house and accused before a justice of the peace with the very real possibility of imprisonment. These are the stories that are told in court testimony, which sometimes support and sometimes challenge the version of events that Mary Hampson tells in her published narrative of her marriage.

In her letter to Sir William Trumbull dated 20 October 1680,1 Mary Hampson declared that she believed she would be forced to tell her story to the world in print. It would have been more accurate to say she intended to present her version of events to the world. In her pamphlet, Mary Hampson took possession of the story of her marriage in an attempt to give her marital trials a central purpose. In order to do this, she presents her suffering as part of a predestined path through which she triumphs as a heroine of adversity—where her struggles become a sign of God's spiritual design for her, rather than the result of her human vulnerability. More practically, the pamphlet provided an opportunity for Mary to defend herself and express the anger and frustration she felt toward Robert and her society more generally. The court testimony presents a much more detailed and complex version of events.

The first public airing of the story of this disastrous marriage was in the ecclesiastical Court of Arches, with a second hearing coming a few months later in a court of appeals—the High Court of Delegates—where Robert sought to reverse the Court of Arches decision that ordered him to fulfill his responsibilities as a husband to support Mary financially and live with her peaceably. Other records and documents, including parish records, lawsuits, and a small inscription on the slab covering the grave of Mary's youngest daughter Anne, also contribute to a more complete and complex picture of the Hampsons' life together than Mary chose to present in her pamphlet. However, these documents contain their own limitations as well, produced as they were in particular circumstances for particular purposes.

Depositions taken by the various courts of the period were written according to a fixed structure, which could reveal as well as hide certain aspects of the situation being described. The language and the imagery found in Mary's deposition at times seem unnatural. In the legal setting, people like Mary would draw on language found in religious teachings, conduct manuals, and legal practice in the hope that their testimony would carry more weight and bring about a positive outcome for them. Word choice, the level and type of detail, the order in which the events were told, and the emphasis given to particular aspects of their stories all contributed to how the testimony of each individual was perceived and had a direct bearing on the result of the legal action. This understanding of the importance of how one told one's story to the courts appears to have been widespread in the culture. The tense nature of legal actions, which pitted an individual against another, demanded that people craft their responses carefully. Despite this, court testimony did establish a core of agreed fact. The story that Mary tells in her depositions should be accepted as generally the truth as she saw it.

How one carried oneself while giving a deposition could also influence legal decisions. Both Mary and Robert were aware that their behavior as they met with the court officials and staff, and the manner in which they responded to questions, could affect the judgment to come. For Mary, the experience of telling her story in this setting must have been particularly daunting. She would have been brought to a room or chamber, surrounded by men, where a court official would have asked her the set questions of the deposition. A legal clerk would have taken down her answers and recast them into a third-person narrative. He would also add legal terms and repetitions, and he would have phrased her responses according to legal convention. Mary would then have been shown the written text containing her answers. At times there is evidence she added information, which the scribe then wrote into the margins. This situation generally would have been stressful enough for Mary. However, there was also the fact that Robert was a gifted lawyer in his own right and a man well practiced in legal rhetoric and strategy. He also, coincidentally, had taken rooms in Exeter House, where (after the Great Fire of 1666) much of the legal business of the Court of Arches was being carried out in rented chambers. Mary would have been keenly aware that she was stepping into Robert's space—both because he resided there and because it was the world of the law. She knew that her answers and the way she carried herself within this environment would have consequences so fundamental that her very existence as a gentlewoman literally hung in the judicial balance. In this tense and contentious environment emerged a record of the discord, the disagreements, and the raw and painful moments of the Hampson marriage that Mary sought to reshape more fully (to her own advantage) when she wrote the story of her marriage for publication in 1684.

In Mary's printed story, A Plain and Compendious Relation of the Case of Mrs. Mary Hampson, the marriage sounds doomed from the beginning. Here she condenses her courtship and early marriage into a few sentences, with adversity arriving quickly at her door. Yet court testimony reveals this was not actually the case. It confirms that in the autumn or early winter of 1655–56 Robert Hampson came to the house of the widow Elizabeth Wingfield with the intention of obtaining permission to wed the young Mary. Robert was twenty-nine years old and a rising lawyer who had just inherited a substantial interest in land that he believed would make him a fortune. Robert's father, Sir Thomas Hampson, had heavily invested in the Bedford Levels Project to drain the marshy fenlands of East Anglia. Mary recounts in her pamphlet that Robert "came to Chatres [Chatteris] in the Isle of Ilee [Ely], to look after his fenlands, and lay at a ministers house, an acquaintance of my mothers, which minister brought him to see me with the reputation of a man of very considerable estate, his father's only executor." She prefaces this comment with the lament "by sad misfortune to me." Elizabeth Wingfield, along with her brother Thomas Whalley and her sister-in-law Sarah Whalley, was delighted with the prospect of a marriage between Mary and this prosperous lawyer from a good family. It is very likely at the time that Mary was just as pleased with the proposed marriage.

In the society of seventeenth-century England, marriage was an important familial institution. It bound not only the marital couple but also their extended families into a relationship of mutual aid and support. Through marriage, families enhanced their standing in their communities, their financial prospects, their political security, and even their personal well-being. And even though the many books on matrimony and marital relations stressed the importance of a supportive and companionate marriage between two people, everyone accepted that marriage had consequences far beyond the immediate marital household. Robert Hampson's appearance in the parlor of Elizabeth Wingfield's modest gentry house suggested possibilities for social advancement and security that Elizabeth and Mary could not have expected to find while living quietly in their provincial town.

Mary herself recalled that in her youth she had expectations in line with her birth and fortune. These certainly would have included a marriage that would advance her socially and place her in the highest social circles. Mary was the only child and heir of Bodenham Wingfield, son of Sir James Wingfield of Kimbolton Castle. Mary's ancestor, Charles Wingfield, favored by Henry VIII, had played host to the discarded Katherine of Aragon, who spent the last eighteen months of her life at Kimbolton. Thus Mary had pretentions that came from her membership in a long-established gentry family. Unfortunately, Bodenham also came from a large family and was the second son. He took a degree from Cambridge but appears to have been content to live the life of a provincial gentleman, surviving on the modest income his father had provided, rather than seeking his fortune at law or as a scholar. Bodenham also died young, while still in his twenties, less than a month after Mary's birth. Mary's mother, Elizabeth, never remarried, choosing instead to raise Mary in the small town of Chatteris rather than seek the social advancement that could have come from marrying again.

Yet, despite Elizabeth Wingfield's reluctance to remarry, she would certainly have accepted her responsibility to arrange a suitable marriage for Mary. Robert Hampson was the second son of a baronet, with a promising legal career. In addition, he had a fresh inheritance in what appeared to be the fortune-making project of the century. All of this made him appear to be an ideal marital prospect for the young Mary. As for Robert, Mary's modest inheritance made her suitable, but her real attraction would have been her family connections. The Hampson family had only recently entered into the ranks of the upper gentry. Marriage with Mary would align Robert with a more established gentry family and place him in an excellent position for social advancement.

In her pamphlet, Mary states that several women refused to marry Robert before he came to Chatteris, and there may have been some truth to Mary's accusation. It is possible Robert may not have been a particularly attractive spouse to the class of gentlewomen he pursued before he received his inheritance. It is likely that Elizabeth Wingfield and John Whalley would not have seriously considered Robert for Mary were he only a lawyer with just his wages to live on. The death of Sir Thomas Hampson in 1655 changed all of this, when he left Robert substantial property and the Hampsons' London house. Mary also accuses Robert of presenting himself as possessing more wealth than he actually had, and though he certainly misrepresented his financial health because of his overconfidence in the fenland project, he was the executor of his father's estate and did inherit the bulk of Sir Thomas Hampson's non-entailed property. In his will, Sir Thomas made it clear that he believed his eldest son, Thomas, to be unworthy and his second son, Robert, more ambitious and hard-working. Thus Robert's apparently large inheritance from his father boded well for the future of the couple. And although Mary's printed version of her story leaves very little room to imagine a period of marital harmony, other documents suggest that the early years of the Hampson marriage were a period of hope and contentment.

The couple married in August 1656 and moved directly into the Hampsons' London house in Holborn road that Robert had recently inherited. Just nine months later, in April 1657, their first daughter, Elizabeth, was born. Her baptism is recorded in the parish register of St. Andrew's church, Holborn, which also notes that their home was near the Cross Keys Inn in Holborn. Their second child, a son Robert, was born fifteen months later in 1658 and was also baptized at St. Andrews. During this time, Mary notes that two of Robert's sisters lived with them. It is likely that one of these sisters was Katherine Hampson, who remained unmarried and later became the foster mother of Mary's daughter Elizabeth.

For a little over two years, the family lived a comfortable gentry life in the Holborn townhouse, with Mary unaware of the financial firestorm waiting to erupt. During this time Mary was mistress of her own home, enjoyed the company of Robert's sisters and another family that lodged with them, and had the visible status of a well-born gentlewoman who had just given birth to her first son. This was the life Elizabeth Wingfield and Thomas Whalley hoped to secure for Mary when they arranged her marriage to Robert Hampson. When a fight between Robert and his sisters broke out in his study one night, Mary could not know that it signaled the end of her settled and contented life. It was only in retrospect, when Mary wrote her account of this evening nearly twenty years later, that she recognized the events of that night were an end to her youthful expectations and the beginning of the suffering she was to endure.

In her pamphlet, Mary explains that this argument between Robert and his sisters concerned money he was supposed to pay them for their share of the fenland property left by their father. The pamphlet does not go into further details concerning these fenlands, but court documents in the lawsuits Robert's siblings filed against him fill in many details. From these documents we learn that Sir Thomas's fenlands included 219 acres in Raveley Fen (lot 11) and 296 acres of Rough Westmoor (lot 19). According to Sir Thomas Hampson's will, Robert was allowed to purchase his siblings' share of this property for two thousand pounds. At the time this was a reasonable financial agreement, given the wild optimism of the profits to be made from draining the fenlands. Unfortunately, this optimism was misplaced. The draining of the fenlands was never particularly successful, and the land that emerged from the swampy fens was useful only as poor grazing land, not the rich and valuable agricultural land the project had envisioned. Robert was never to recoup his investment in the fenlands. In 1694 Robert's daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, sold the Raveley Fen acreage for a hundred pounds, less than a tenth of the price Robert had paid to his sisters for it. Sir Thomas Hampson's act of generosity in settling the fenlands on Robert with the stipulation that he buy his siblings out ended up having disastrous financial and personal consequences for Robert and Mary, and later for their two daughters.

Mary claims in her pamphlet that the Rough Westmoor acreage that made up part of her first jointure was encumbered by debt. Sadly, this was true. The legal actions of Robert's siblings prove that before his marriage he had not paid them the two thousand pounds for their portions of the fenlands. In other words, Robert was guilty of misleading Mary and her family before the marriage. He included property in the marriage agreement that was not paid for yet and thus was useless as a guarantee of future income for Mary should he die. This eventually led Mary to accuse her uncle, John Whalley, of being naïve and careless with respect to her financial well-being. Mary suggests that Whalley should have investigated Robert's financial situation more thoroughly before agreeing to the marriage settlement. But those accusations are not well founded. Whalley held back property he had agreed to settle on the couple once they were married, as a guarantee that Robert would fulfill his financial obligations toward Mary, which suggests he may have been aware that Robert had not yet settled all the financial issues related to the fenland property. It was not unusual for a family that invested money in a couple to exercise some control over the financial dealings of the husband by withholding property or money until they were satisfied all the obligations agreed to in the marriage settlement were met.


Excerpted from THE CASE of MISTRESS MARY HAMPSON by Jessica L. Malay. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Chronology xiii

Introduction: Early Modern Marriage and the Case of Mrs. Mary Hampson 1

A Plain and Compendious Relation of the Case of Mrs. Mary Hampson … (London, 1684) 23

1 The Hampson Marriage: Competing Stories 57

2 Afterlife of a Marriage: Accusations and Recriminations 85

3 The Widow Hampson and Her Daughters 105

Conclusions 117

Appendix: Letters from Mary Hampson to William Trumbull (1680-1681) 129

Notes 135

Suggested Reading 155

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