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Elizabeth Clarke, 'What kind of a Puritan?'


What Kind of a Puritan is Elizabeth Isham?

Elizabeth Clarke, University of Warwick



Robert H. Taylor Collection RTC01 no. 62, Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Booke of Remembrances’, represents a very early account of one woman’s spiritual, emotional and intellectual responses to the thirty years of her life before 1638, when it was composed. This was a crucial thirty years in the history of the realm, and particularly contraversial in Northampton, where Elizabeth grew up. The community of local gentry, which the correspondence of the Ishams reveals a profound interaction with, was particularly Puritan in affiliation: some families such as the Drydens and the Knightleys were obviously more radical than the Ishams, but Elizabeth’s manuscript reveals that her early years were dominated by a moderate Puritan spirituality. Her mother seems to have been fairly strict in her opinions, and was very attached to the radical minister John Dod, who was a frequent visitor to the household. From quite early on Elizabeth shows herself capable of disagreeing even with such eminent men as Dod: her manuscript debates issues such as ceremonies, feasts and liturgy, often resolving matters in a less than Puritan manner. Towards the end of the manuscript the marginalia demonstrate an increasing awareness of the ecclesiastical contraversies of the 1630s, perhaps coinciding with the appointment of her cousin William Noke, who appears to have had Laudian sympathies, to the church at Lamport.

In many ways Elizabeth’s manuscript seems imbued with the vocabulary and preoccupations of Puritan culture. She reads the sermons of Preston and Sibbes. She records 3 deathbed scenes, registering the conventional Puritan anxiety about the ‘good death’. In 1617 she records the anti-Catholic sentiments of ‘the preciser sort’ whilst distancing herself from them. What is very marked about her discussion is the willingness to take an independent position on issues where Northampton orthodoxy is clearly Puritan. This paper notes such intellectual independence and its rarity in a woman writer. It offers possible explanations for it, and charts the eventual Royalist trajectory of the Isham family in the correspondence of the 1640s. Robert H. Taylor Collection RTC01 no. 62 is offered as one of the few documents in existence that reveals the change of affiliation in its author from mainstream Puritan to Royalist and Arminian, and this paper suggests some reasons for this evolution.