Skip to main content
The Collation

A ‘declineing time’? The final illnesses of Constance and Elizabeth Lucy

A small brown volume with gold lettering being held by a hand mostly out of frame
A small brown volume with gold lettering being held by a hand mostly out of frame
An elaborate two-story gatehouse with fading brick and two towers, one of which has a clock inset into the top.

Gatehouse of Charlecote Park (Wikimedia Commons)

The Folger Shakespeare Library holds a small but intriguing manuscript book, dating from around 1675, with a multilayered, multigenerational narrative. It was written by and about three women of the Lucy family, owners of the stately Charlecote Park near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

Constance Lucy was the second wife of Thomas Lucy, whose magistrate father reputedly caught the young William Shakespeare poaching deer at Charlecote.1 Constance died in 1637, and the Folger book begins as an account of her character framed around her final illness and death. It was written by her daughter-in-law Elizabeth Lucy (née Molesworth), who married Constance’s son Francis, for a friend named ‘Mrs Moore’. However, in the second section of the book, Martha Eyre takes up the pen to describe the character and death of Elizabeth (d. 1645) herself. Martha was Elizabeth’s daughter and Constance’s granddaughter.

The book is an example of a popular seventeenth-century literary genre, spanning manuscript and print, which extolled the Christian virtues of elite women partly by praising their conduct during physical and mental suffering.2 Throughout, remarks on Constance and Elizabeth’s noble heritage, piety, charity, and dedication to the roles of daughter, wife, stepmother, and mother-in-law are interspersed with the those of their deaths. Primarily then, text’s portrait of two model gentlewomen reflects and reinforces seventeenth-century religious and moral ideals.

A man with his hand on a skull stands next to a bed with a pale woman in it. At the foot of the bed kneels a well-dressed woman. At the man's side is a small girl.
Sir Thomas Aston at his wife’s deathbed (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it also offers a wealth of evidence on other subjects. My research interests revolve around the social dynamics of sickness. How did family life – consisting of and shaped by individual identities, interpersonal relations, and daily routines – shift in response to illness? The accounts of Constance and Elizabeth’s last days, hours, and moments offer a fascinating response. Their precise causes of death are unclear. It seems that Constance had a chronic illness, which ‘had increased dayly for many years together’, while Elizabeth lay sick for ten weeks of a ‘Feaverish Distemper’. Yet both deaths were highly social ones. By that I mean that family, friends, priests, and physicians were ‘constantly aboute’ Constance and Elizabeth as they neared their ends. It was a time for negotiating and expressing identities, emotions, and relationships.

Social activities centred on the women’s sickbeds. Elizabeth Lucy was concerned not to disrupt the normal routines of her family; her daughter Martha noted that she was ‘earnest with me not to confine my self to her Chamber’. But in practice, the household did reorient itself around the patient in many ways. Constance Lucy, for example, ‘would Praise God that when she could not indure to Read herself, she had those that did Read to her’. In a touching vignette, Martha recalled how, on the very day of her death, Elizabeth beckoned one of her grandsons and asked, ‘now Young Man, have you no News, nothing to Entertane us with?’. Here, we clearly see the sickbed, and soon-to-be deathbed, as a site of family conversation and sociability.

Domestic devotional practices also continued. Both Constance and Elizabeth regularly asked their children and grandchildren into their rooms to give them their maternal blessing, and Elizabeth spent her last hours preparing to take the Sacrament alongside her family. She personally ‘ordered what should be for Dinner, what Table, and Cups, and Linning [linen], should be made use of for that sublime service’, enacting her duties as mistress of the house even on the day of her death.

While doctors are present in the accounts, prescribing and administering medicines, Constance and Elizabeth were also cared for by their family members. Martha Eyre remembered how she ‘Dropped some Palsy Watter’, a medicine which recurs often in household recipe books, ‘on Crumbs of Bread’ and offered it to her mother. Elizabeth initially refused before acquiescing, perhaps to satisfy Martha. Servants were also busy about their sick mistresses, with Elizabeth asking her maid to draw the curtains around her bed as her pain intensified. She had been confined to her bedchamber for some time, and it was presumably the maids who kept this room clean and comfortable, for example by stoking the fire which Elizabeth liked to sit beside. Martha stressed that her mother ‘would have all Clean, be shifted, and set up in her Bed’. Servants likely performed or helped with this housework and ‘bodywork’, to use Mary Fissell’s term.3

A page of manuscript showing a recipe for The Palsy Water
A recipe for ‘The Palsy Water’ in ‘Cordial waters, simple waters and syrups’ [manuscript], c.1680 (Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.669)

However, illness and caregiving could also spark tension and conflict in the household. When Constance refused to call eminent physician Sir Theodore de Mayerne to her bedside, she ‘was not Perfectly Obayed’ by her family, who sent for him anyway. Constance also recognised that ‘through her Illness she had spoken sometimes more Hastyly or Displeasingly than she has thought [her family] did deserve’. On these occasions, she would ‘call them to her again, and tel them she had been too Sharp with them, and pray them to forgive her’. This detail was included to demonstrate Constance’s Christian humility and penitence. Yet it also reveals how pain, fear, and frustration could strain family interactions during sickness.

Sensing the irreversible approach of death, Constance Lucy called her last illness her ‘declineing time’. And yet, this was not a period of fading social interaction for either she or her daughter-in-law Elizabeth. Both women relied on others for care, but also seemed determined to perform their roles as mothers and mistresses with as much energy as possible despite, or perhaps because of, their weakening physical conditions. The generic nature of the Folger book means that it emphasises, and to some extent idealises, Constance and Elizabeth’s relationships with their family. But what it tells us about the sociability of sickness, supported by countless letters and diaries at the Folger and elsewhere, is worth further exploration by scholars of illness, death, and family life.

A page of manuscript writing
A small brown volume with gold lettering being held by a hand mostly out of frame
An account of the Lady Constance Lucy written to a particular friend of hers, Mrs Moore, together with Martha Eyre’s account of the last moments of the authoress [manuscript], c.1675 (Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.166) (Photograph by author)
A page of manuscript writing
  1. The Folger holds a 19th-century engraving of this tense encounter. See also this essay by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine for more on young Shakespeare’s life and his supposed interaction with Sir Thomas.
  2. Published funeral sermons frequently commended women for enduring pain; see for example Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath, A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Right Honourable the Lady Margaret Mainard at Little Easton in Essex on the 30th of June 1682 by Thomas Ken D.D. one of his Majesty’s Chaplains in ordinary (London: Printed by M. Fletcher, for Joanna Browne, at the Sign of the Gun in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1682). For more on female virtue and early modern literature, see Jessica C. Murphy, Virtuous Necessity: Conduct Literature and the Making of the Virtuous Woman in Early Modern England (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015).
  3. Mary E. Fissell, ‘Introduction: Women, Health and Healing in Early Modern Europe’, in ‘Women, Health, and Healing in Early Modern Europe’, special issue, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82, no. 1 (2008): 1-17.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *