It is undoubtedly a cliché, but people in the past had much more contact with death than we do now, and probably as a consequence they were much more comfortable in talking about it, and in discussing grief and memorialization than we are today. This familiarity with death is something that the popular imagination tends to associate most directly with the Victorian era, largely because of the death of Prince Albert at the age of just 42 and the bereaved Queen’s very public response to her loss. Yet, if anything, death was even more of an ever-present reality in earlier periods, not least in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period of my own historical research. On the basis of parish records, historians have concluded that in early-modern England the infant mortality rate (that is the number of children who died during the first year of life) was approximately 140 out of every 1000 live births. The estimated rate for the UK in 2015 was just 4.38. The average life expectancy in early-modern England fluctuated, but according to Wrigley & Schofield’s highly regarded work, it was generally between 30 and 40. (E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 234-6. Of course the life expectancy figures reflect the high infant mortality just mentioned. A very rough estimate of average life expectancy for those among the aristocracy who managed to reach the age of 21 would be 60 years of age. See H. Lancaster, Expectations of Life (New York: Springer Verlag 1990), p. 8.) For children born in the UK today that figure has doubled. Infectious diseases were a particularly common cause of death in early-modern times not least the bubonic plague, which hit England in 1563, 1603, 1625 and, most famously, 1665. The Civil War itself was another major killer. Though it has been contested, some historians have suggested that the proportion of the adult male population who died as a result of the Civil War was higher than the proportion killed in World War One.
Of course, the statistics only tell us so much. To see what people thought about death, how they were affected by grief, and what means they used to cope with loss, we have to turn to other sources. As a young widow myself I have become particularly attuned to discussions of death, grief and loss in the sources I have been reading. In a bizarre way the knowledge that many of the historical figures who are central to my current research lost a spouse or a parent at a young age is comforting; and their ability to survive, and often succeed, in spite of their loss is reassuring. James Harrington himself lost his mother when he was just 8 (the same age as my son when his Dad died). Harrington’s father then died when he was still only 19, making him an orphan before he had come of age. A half-brother also appears to have died young. The life of another central character within my research - Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, and sister of Charles I - was equally tragic, royal status offered no protection against death. Her first experience of death occurred at a very early age when her infant sister Margaret died soon after having joined Elizabeth at Linlithgow Palace in Scotland in 1602. We know little of the effects this tragedy had on the five-year old princess, but much stronger evidence is available for the devastating effect of the loss of another sibling, her favourite brother (and the heir to the throne) Henry Frederick in 1612. He died of typhoid fever aged just 18. Elizabeth was 16 at the time and was clearly much affected by the loss. Elizabeth’s eldest son, who had been named Frederick Henry after her husband and brother, did not even make it to the age of his younger namesake. He drowned, aged just 15, in 1629.
Three years later, Elizabeth was widowed, aged just 36, when her husband, Frederick V, Elector Palatine, died. Despite this being far from her first experience of grief, Elizabeth was deeply affected by her husband’s death. The editor of her letters refers to her disappearing ‘as a letter writer’ for about three months and Elizabeth’s comments in letters written after that gap betray her anguish and reflect a humanity that unites royalty and commoners, and early-modern people with us in the twenty-first century. In a letter to a friend she admitted: ‘I know not what to say more to you, you having lost a deare frend and I the best housband in the worlde, I shall never take anie more contentment in this world, having lost all in him.’ (Elizabeth in The Hague to the Marquess of Hamilton, 1 February 1633 in The Correspondence of the Queen of Bohemia, ed. Nadine Akkerman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), II, p. 163.) This idea that the happiness had gone out of her life was also expressed in an earlier letter to her brother Charles I where she described herself as: ‘the most wretched creature that ever lived in this world, and this I shall ever be, having lost the best friend that I ever had, in whom was all my delight; having fixed my affections so entirely upon him, that I should have longed to be where he is, were it not that his children would thus have been left utterly destitute’. (Elizabeth in The Hague to Charles I, 24 December 1632 in The Correspondence of the Queen of Bohemia, II, p. 151.) Elizabeth would, of course, go on to lose Charles himself, in particularly traumatic circumstances, in January 1649. Were she alive today she would no doubt have been in therapy for years and would probably have had her tragic life story featured in a newspaper weekend supplement. In the seventeenth century, by contrast, her story was not particularly unusual and she seems to have dealt with it by writing to her close friends and family about how she felt and by getting on with her life.
For obvious reasons, wills provide a particularly rich insight into these issues. They were the place in which seventeenth-century men and women (of a certain social standing, of course) voiced their expectations and religious beliefs concerning life after death; expressed their wishes on the place and nature of their burial; spoke of their love and concerns for those they would leave behind; and dictated what should be done with their worldly goods once they had gone. Despite their legalistic language and formulaic structure, reading them provides a rich insight into the strength of familial and friendship ties; seventeenth-century attitudes to death; and the varied ways in which people attempted to come to terms with the inevitable ending at least of their earthly life. Amongst all this, however, there was one phenomenon in particular that caught my attention in my research into Harrington: his family’s practice of leaving money to close friends and relatives for them to purchase mourning rings.
Harrington’s brothers and sisters seem to have been particularly keen on this method of memorialisation. Here is a short extract from the will of Harrington’s younger brother William, which was written on 23 March 1669 and proved (or validated) following William’s death on 17 November 1671:
I give and bequeath unto my dear Brother James Harrington Esquire and my most loving friends Walter Hampton and Thomas Davies Merchants … the summe of forty shillings a piece of lawfull money of England to buy each of them a Ring to wear in memory of mee. … I give and bequeath my dear Sisters Elizabeth wife of Sr Ralph Ashton Baronet and Anne the wife of my said Brother James Harrington Esquire, my Sister Ann Evelyn Widow, my Systers Dorothy Harrington and Frances Bagshewe, my Brother Edward Harrington and my honored kinsman Walter Pell Esquire, to each and every of them Twenty shillings a piece To buy each of them a Ring to weare in memory of mee. (The National Archives (TNA), Prob 11/337.)
Similarly, in her will, which was dated November 1674 and proved on 2 February 1676, James and William’s sister, Anne Evelyn, left ‘to my Brother James Harrington Esquire Twenty Shillings to buy him a Ring’ and she gave her sister Dorothy Bellingham forty shillings to do the same. (TNA, Prob 11/353.) Sometimes, rather than leaving money for a ring to be bought or made, an individual would have rings made to be given to their family or friends on their death. This seems to have been what happened in the case of John Thorowgood who, in 1656, left to both James and William Harrington and a number of other ‘noble friends’ and relations ‘a ring with death heads thereon of the value of fortie shillings a piece to weare in memorial of me’. (TNA, Prob 11/265. On the whole subject of mourning jewellery and the evolution the custom of bequeathing rings during the seventeenth century I have learnt much from Cara Middlemass's thesis 'Mourning Jewellery in England, c.1500-1800' (Newcastle PhD thesis, 2016).)
While the idea of mourning rings might seem like a quaint old custom, it does have a modern equivalent. Not only is it possible to buy antique mourning rings and other jewellery (generally at great expense), but there are now also companies that will produce cremation jewellery, including rings in which you can place some of your loved one’s ashes. While lives in the twenty-first century may generally be longer and less tainted by death than those of our early-modern ancestors, there are, needless to say, continuities in the anguish of bereavement, and to some extent also in the means by which we seek to memorialise our dead relatives and friends.