122:  The Troubles of Us She-Creatures

In truth, I never wished to bear kits.  That did not mean I was happy to see others make away with them for no cause.

All I heared the mistress of our household say to her maidservant was that it must be done before the children learnt of them, else there would be yowling.

It was the maidservant who seized the little innocents as they came forth and dropped them in the bucket.  The mistress troubled not to soil to her fingers.  (I’ll say nowt of her conscience.)

Then they made a plaister of leaves and rags, wound it tight about my belly, and hid me from the sight of all.  I pulled that plaister off as soon as I could.

When next I went forth, Onix nosed the stinks on me and sayt the leaves were a poltiss to dry my milk and keep my bubs from akeing.  “You should thank the Queen Cat of Heaven you was so well-tended,” sayt he.

I sayt, “Your mistress may be a midwife, but you’re a Know-Nowt.”

Onix sayt, “I know more than you.  The Lady Essex, wife to the noble Earl, is nigh to dropping her next kit, but she’s been ill and has grown so lank [thin] you would scarce credit it.”

Frances (nee Walsingham) 1567-1635, Countess of Essex, with their eldest child Robert (b.1591).

“Old newes,” sayt I. 

“And,” sayt Onix, “the Lady Southampton, wife to your Earl, had a kit in her belly that she hoped would be a boy.  Nowt came of it, and she felt very low.  Your Earl writ to her most kind, saying he was not troubled.  They can make more kits.”

“How know you this?” I arrkst.

A black and white cat reclining on dark floor boards, with his eyes wide and his ears pricked.
Onix, trusted with information of a delicate nature.

“My mistress and her friends speak free in my presence,” sayt Onix.  “They know I may be trusted with such informations.”

“And what of the Pretty Penny?” I arrkst.  “Has she a kit in her belly?  And if so whose?  Her husband’s or Lord Mountjoy’s?”

“By the Pretty Penny,” sayt Onix, hawtie, “mean you the Lady Rich, sister to the Earl of Essex?”

He, being of the middling sort, always spake most respective of great folks. 

But that’s not how they speak of each other, as my uncle Gib and I both observed.

Onix sayt, “The Lady Rich came from the country to her husband’s house at Leez.  He sent for her because he required her aid in some matter of the law.  The Lady Southampton accompanied her.  And now they’re come into the citie to cheer the Lady Essex in her travails.”

One thing I will say for Onix, he knew much about women’s business.

“Are all at Essex House?” I cried.  “We must make haste there now.”

Onix sayt, “The Lady Essex is at her mother’s house, many ways from here.  And I’m required in my shop.”

He turned away.  When I saw his blotched back, I remembered how Picker and Stealer had compared him to a nosewipe, fresh spat into by one with lung-rot.

I thought, I could make a sonnet upon that.

But I durst say nowt.  I’d offended him too much alreadie.

The back view of a seated cat with unusual irregular dark markings..
Onix in his doorway, offended.

Editor's Note. Small image of a quill pen.None of the letters the Earl of Southampton wrote from Ireland seem to have survived, but several to him by the women in his life have.

In May 1599 his anxious mother wrote that she’d written three times since she last had a letter from him.  She now presumed he was “in the field…. You may believe I carry a careful heart whilst you are in these dangers.”

The Countess of Essex also wrote, asking him to let her know how her husband was doing.  She knew his reports and letters to the Queen and Privy Council had priority on his time.

The Earl’s wife Bess Vernon had accompanied her cousin Penelope (Lady Rich) to Chartley, the old Essex family home in Staffordshire, for the summer.

Bess thought she was pregnant, and Penelope wrote to the Earl that “by your son I shall win my wager”.

In June, however, Bess wrote to say what comfort his last letter had brought her now she was not “in that happy state”, and that in time she would bear him as many boys as his heart desired.

Ten days later she wrote again to him whom “I love as my soul, and everlastingly will.  Send to me as soon as you possibly may, for I extremely long for … assurance as I have already received from you of your perfect well-being.

Then she added, in a sad little P.S, that she heard of their daughter’s “beauty and fair grey eyes in all my Lord Rich’s letters hither … but … I have in many letters sent you word of it and … cannot have a word … from you of her.

Poor Bess.  By then she’d probably heard the Earl was still being punished for marrying her while she had yet to provide him with an heir.

A dark-eyed woman with loosely arranged reddish gold hair.
Penelope, Lady Rich (nee Devereux).

Their daughter, now about 7 months old, must have been in the Richs’ house at Leighs (in the county of Essex) with some or all of Penelope’s children.  By mid-1599 Penelope had around eight.

The first four were her husband’s; the rest were those of her lover, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy.

Such a marital arrangement was extraordinary for Elizabethan aristocrats, but by the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century it wouldn’t have been so rare.