Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Jill Millman, 'The Other Life of Elizabeth Isham'

Northamptonshire Record Office MS IL3365 – The Other Life of Elizabeth Isham

Jill S. Millman, University of Warwick


1. Northamptonshire Record Office IL3365 is a single folio, roughly 387 by 304 mm, folded to form 36 sections (six across by three down, making eighteen on each page). The manuscript is quite fragile and frayed round the edges. Occasionally there are blotches and bleedthrough; the writing has faded and rubbed in places, and parts of the verso been soiled by a negative photocopy kept with the manuscript. The majority of the text, however, is still readable with a magnifying glass. Isham summarises her life up to the age of eight in the first three sections, which are mostly blank; from then, she has numbered each section with her age that year, running across the entire page in ‘landscape’ orientation (left to right, then starting again on the left, despite the modern pencilled page numbers). On the verso, she continues the same pattern, sometimes adding the year’s date to her age, and the writing gets smaller and denser towards the end of the manuscript, which would suggest that the earlier sections were written more retrospectively. Isham thus creates a record of her activities and reflections up to the age of forty in 1648. The writing is generally smaller than, but not as neat as, her hand in the Princeton manuscript. Isham’s main hand, in which she usually records events, is sometimes just as small as the the tiny, darker one she has typically used to add reflective or devotional notes, perhaps as she returned to her text later.

2. Isham uses distinctive abbreviations throughout her manuscript, often using the initial letter for family relationships (e.g. ‘B’[rother], ‘S’[ister]) and expressions she repeats frequently (e.g. ‘r’[emember], ‘t’[ime]). In the last five sections of the manuscript, she also relies heavily on a form of shorthand for certain common words. Combined with the abbreviations, the increasingly tiny hand, and her practice of setting down diverse notes very densely together, it makes the last few sections very difficult to decipher. Despite a reference in 1644 to reading ‘B [of?] Caracters’ I am not yet sure which shorthand she is using. However, several of the symbols can be interpreted (we have deciphered signs for and, at, for, my, of, our, the, that, they, there).


3. Kate Aughterson (Isham's DNB biographer) calls IL3365 a diary, in ‘the manner and form conventional to the seventeenth century’, although the project team has not seen this form of manuscript before. If a diary, it is not one that has been created daily or even annually. Further evidence that the early years in particular have been written retrospectively is provided by the phrases ‘as I take it’ and ‘as I remember’, with expressions like ‘in these yeares’, ‘in this year and the next’ and ‘from this time forward’. The last such reference is dated 1638, when she was 30; she refers to the work of writing the autobiography now housed at Princeton University Library: ‘I began my confessions which was my Chiefest worke for this yere \and almost the next/’. This might suggest that a large part of the diary is roughly contemporary with the autobiography.

4. Our initial thought within the project was that the diary or memoranda contained notes towards the autobiography. However, the overlap in terms of content between the two manuscripts is not significant. The same events do appear occasionally, but apart from a few domestic marginalia there is no coincidence of phrasing. The failed courtship between her and John Dryden, for example, is barely mentioned in her notes. (1630) ‘Mrs Driden cam’; ‘now my father thought to marry me, he setled a 100 {...} pounds a yeare on my Sister Judeth for her life’; (1631) ‘[Mrs] Dr[i]den went away’. Most of IL3365 notes her reading, sewing, domestic tasks, devotional and leisure activities, recording comings and goings within the household, and events in her local community and wider family circle – births, christenings, marriages, illnesses, deaths. Very occasionally (every few years) she might record something of national interest – ‘the prince returned from spain’ (1623), or ‘there was sicknes at London’ (1630).

5. From 1639, there seems to be a shift in the style and content of Isham’s note-taking. Two events combine to impact her ‘life’, one national and one personal. Beginning in 1640 (‘Scots rise’), Isham records events of the Civil Wars across the country and as they affected her household – several each year. She mentions soldiers at her house every year from 1643 to 1646. She notes movements of the King, with various battles and sieges. (There is a large amount of contemporary material on the Civil Wars at Lamport Hall, so she might perhaps have had access to current news from them.) Her reflective notes in the smaller, darker hand cease after 1640, although she adds short prayers to recorded events (usually praise to God for safety). It all seems more immediate and suggests that note-taking is much closer to the actual occurrences.

6. Perhaps less obviously, in 1639 the event that provides the focus for the conclusion of Isham’s autobiography is literally an absent presence: ‘my Nevy Jack was borne’. Her newborn nephew’s death, and the subsequent death of her sister-in-law, are passed over in silence. The large gap immediately below was perhaps intended to be filled; perhaps Isham never found the right words. In the autobiography, the spiritual and emotional implications of their deaths are explored in some depth. Isham was no stranger to death. But in practical terms as well as spiritual, the impact of these events would be significant for her: in this case, the outcome would have been to shift her position in the household, giving her additional responsibilities. She still notes her own reading, household chores, and needlework, but to this is added her nieces’ (Gin and Sue’s) needlework and reading – she is now responsible for their welfare and education. This is also made clear from letters at the time. The extra burden of a parental role may have pushed her from a reflective, devotional model of writing to a more businesslike approach.


7. In summary, we can probably say that much of Isham’s rough diary (notes, memoranda) is approximately contemporary with her autobiography (confessional work) which she began in 1638, aged thirty. It may be significant that Isham fitted her notes on each year to the relevant sections so that they would go forward as well, taking her to the age of forty. One possibility is that she first began to sketch in memories of her life so far, doing this a few times as further recollections came to her. Later, perhaps, she went back to it and added more reflective sections. This scheme would have been followed for a short while, until 1639/40, when domestic and public pressures shaped her notes more into a record of the progress of the civil wars and the running of her household.


Works Cited


Princeton University Library. Robert H. Taylor Collection MS RTC01 no.62. Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Book of Rememberance’. c. 1639.

Northamptonshire Record Office. IL3365. Elizabeth Isham, memoranda. c. 1638-48.

Secondary Sources

Kate Aughterson, ‘Isham, Elizabeth (bap. 1608, d. 1654)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 3 Dec 2007]