Estate management during the Civil Wars: the case of Margaret Roper

The Gender Place and Memory research cluster hosts a team of researchers whose ongoing work is establishing how significant women were as managers of households and estates. From litigating for property and overseeing inheritance, to handling accounts and collecting household objects, women could play an integral role in the development and maintenance of property and land. What happened, however, when that estate was thrown into chaos by the events of the Civil Wars? This blog will explore the case of one woman, Margaret Roper, to see how she managed her estate during this turbulent period.

Section of an order from the Kent Sequestration Committee (TNA, SP 28/210/142)

The Ropers of Kent (descendants of Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret Roper) were known to be recusants and, as such, they were presented to the Quarter Sessions for not attending their local church during the 1630s.[1] In 1641, with divisions between Parliament and King growing, Parliament passed an Ordinance requiring the houses of recusants to be searched for arms. As a result of this search ‘several Chests or Trunks of the Length of a Musket, of a very great Weight, wherein it is conceived, are Arms and Ammunition’ were found in the house of Anthony Roper, Margaret Roper’s husband.[2] His lands were confiscated by Parliament, according to their policy of sequestering the estates of their enemies, and when he died the following year his widow Margaret was unable to access any part of his estate.

The confiscation of the Roper estate meant that local Parliamentary sequestration committeemen became responsible for collecting the rents from tenants and disbursing any money on estate repairs. So, not only was Margaret unable to collect the profits from the lands but the management of them was placed in the hands of local agents. This was bad news for Margaret’s estate. One of her tenants, John Menvill, asked the local sequestration committeeman if he could be abated his rents ‘owing to the barrenness of them’.[3] The account books of the sequestration committee show that her estate went from receiving 308li from tenants in 1646 to 119li in 1649 (from, roughly, £23,000 to £9,000 in modern money).[4] Furthermore, Margaret’s own house had fallen into disrepair and she needed 20li to repair it.[5]

The Roper Gate
Plaque that marks the location of The Roper Gate in St Dunstan’s Canterbury, Kent: the only remaining section of the Roper family house

Despite what her estate suffered as a consequence of the wars, Margaret was proactive in trying to achieve the best for herself and her family’s property. She joined numerous other widows in petitioning the central Parliamentary Committee to ask to pay a fine to regain her lands (although unfortunately that petition does not survive).[6] Furthermore, while Parliamentary agents should have been receiving the profits from Margaret’s property, they discovered in 1647 that she had been collecting rents from the entire estate.[7] Additionally, Margaret succeeded in obtaining money to repair her home in St Dunstan’s Canterbury, after her cousin Henry Roper wrote personally to a local Parliamentary agent to ask him to intervene on Margaret’s behalf.[8]

Margaret utilised her family connections, and even disregarded the confiscation order on her estates for a time, in order to maintain her estates during the Civil Wars. There is little doubt that the 1640s and 1650s were a challenging time for landowners. In addition to sequestration, the billeting of soldiers on people’s property and the plunder enacted by roaming armies all took their toll on civilians who managed land. Nevertheless, during this turbulent and chaotic period women remained vital as managers and defenders of estates for themselves and for future generations.

Post by Hannah Worthen, PDRA for the Gender Place and Memory research cluster. Follow her on twitter here and read more about her research here.

All images are author’s own

[1] Kent History and Library Centre, Presentment Roll, Q/SRp/1/m.1v.

[2] ‘House of Commons Journal Volume 2: 12 January 1642’, in Journal of the House of Commons: Volume 2, 1640-1643 (London, 1802), pp. 371-375.

[3] The National Archives (TNA), SP 28/210/160.

[4] TNA, SP 28/210/3; SP 28/210/12. Conversion made using The National Archive’s Currency Converter:

[5] TNA, SP 28/210/161.

[6] TNA, SP 23/3, p. 110.

[7] TNA, SP 28/210/159.

[8] TNA, SP 28/210/161, 162.


Women, Dollhouses and the Possession of Space

This Boxing Day, the BBC will be screening a dramatization of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist, a fictionalised story based on Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse. Oortman’s dollhouse, now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is beautiful, elaborate and enormous. It represents a wider trend for women to have, create and curate dollhouses in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century Netherlands. These were much in the same mode of activity and thinking as their male counterparts compiling their cabinets of curiosity; but for women, the dollhouse represented an educational and aspirational tool where they could build their own world, a microcosm of the domestic sphere which they could control.

Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman (c. 1686-1710)

Dollhouses are fascinating: today seen as a toy, what the dollhouse meant for early modern women was highly different. Women exercised ownership and their own aesthetic values in building their own houses on a small scale, spending considerable amounts commissioning artwork and furniture from key manufacturers and artists. It constituted an educational space where women, and younger girls, could role play at being a mistress of a household, whilst also engaging with contemporary fashion for scientific collections and a burgeoning market for luxury goods.[1] Indeed, Oortman’s house was rumoured to have cost as much as a real house on a canal in Amsterdam.[2] Yet they were not all about confining women to the domestic sphere. As Susan Broomhall points out, whilst at first glance dollhouses appear to indicate the limitations of their ambition, it cannot be ignored that women were engaged in making, collecting, leisure and cementing relationships through the medium of the dollhouse.

Although dollhouses are often viewed as a highly gendered object, and clearly had a specific meaning for women during this period, they could be owned by men too. For example, Albrecht V of Bavaria ordered a cabinet house in 1558, which was to go alongside his collection of five miniature towns. Life in miniature could be a curiosity to explore for both genders.[3] Dollhouses also took on a distinctively gendered identity through their inheritance, particularly in the Dutch case, passed down the matrilineal line. This encouraged female relatives to maintain the control, decoration and curation of domestic space in their own ideal image.

It is not only the Dutch who were fascinated by dollhouses. Indeed, the National Trust has a site dedicated to some of their dollhouse highlights, including a beautiful eighteenth century dollhouse at Uppark, and Beatrix Potter’s dollhouse at Hill Top, where she imagined her famous tales. Perhaps the most famous dollhouse in England is that belonging to Queen Mary, built for her by Sir Edward Lutyens, between 1921 and 1924. By commissioning a house from a leading architect, it shows no expense was spared, and it was to be as true to life as possible to encapsulate Queen Mary’s ideal home. Perhaps the most charming aspect are the two hundred books in the library, penned exclusively by famous authors of the day. Dollhouses were a place to showcase wealth, control and the exercising of excellent taste.

Lizzie Rogers, PhD Student, University of Hull

[1] S. Broomhall, ‘Imagined Domesticities in Early Modern Dutch Dollhouses’, Parergon 24:2 (2007), 50-55.

[2] Rijksmuseum, Dolls’ Houses. Available online: [Accessed 14.12.17].

[3] S. Broomhall, ‘Imagined Domesticities in Early Modern Dutch Dollhouses’, 51-52.


Image: Dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman , wikimedia.


Pre-marital contracts: A study through history

Most people are familiar with the concept of a pre-nuptial agreement. The media is rife with salacious stories of celebrities whose marriage breakdowns are eased by the existence of a pre-nuptial agreement, and those who are drawn in to lengthy and costly proceedings over the lack of one. High profile cases, such as the 2016 divorces of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, spark debate and breed speculation whether a breakdown of marriage is anticipated by entering in to such agreements. Either way, these agreements appear relevant only to the rich and famous.

stormm blog
Married To An Old Maid — A Rake’s Progress series, by William Hogarth

It may perhaps be surprising therefore for readers to learn that marriage settlements (or a pre-nuptial agreement in modern parlance) were used far more widely in the early modern period than they are today, nor were they something only used by the wealthy. Planning for life beyond a parties’ marriage was not an uncommon feature of marriage preparation and negotiation in the early modern period. Families often wished to protect their daughter’s property from being absorbed into their son-in-law’s family. Many were concerned to ensure that their daughter’s husbands could not ‘kiss or kick’ from her property which would have reverted to her (and thus her natal family) upon her husband’s death.[1]

As such, many families began from the mid seventeenth century onwards to use trusts in order to secure a wife’s separate property. This usually gave her access to income but also protected the realty and personal capital from harm; most importantly, such trusts could be (and were) enforced through the law of equity.

One example of how trusts functioned is demonstrated through the life of a widow named Catherine Langwith. Catherine sought to protect her assets when embarking on her marriage to her second husband, the Reverend Robert Younge in 1782. In the settlement, Catherine secured £20 per annum for her own separate use. During their short and difficult marriage, Younge attempted to assign some marital property away, but was rebuffed by lawyers, who advised him that without her agreement, or a court order, he could not dispose of property against which Catherine’s separate estate was secured.[2] After four years of marriage, the parties entered in to a separation agreement, once more protecting Catherine’s assets from her husband. Catherine continued to demonstrate financial shrewdness when she corresponded with her cousin after the death of her estranged husband, determining that she would seek to recover all she could, ruminating that “we had better take the very Best Counsil opinion upon it.”[3]

The existence and implementation of marriage settlements has bred debate amongst historians, particularly as to whether they benefited women. Scholars such as Lloyd Bonfield and Amy Louise Erickson argued that settlements represented a shift towards greater equality[4] and gave women ‘more power over property than previously allowed.’[5] By contrast, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall suggested that trusts removed women’s independent economic agency over their estates and subsequently female access to the marketplace.[6]

It is these and other debates which inform my doctoral research. Over the next few years of my PhD research, I will be exploring women’s agency within early modern pre-marriage agreements, focusing in particular on the question of whether women had greater autonomy over their property than the letter of the law suggests. As is clear from the case of Catherine Langwith, even though trusts may have been set up to protect against overbearing husbands, many women were pro-active in using settlements for their own ends. Catherine would have been secure in the knowledge that such settlements were enforceable in equity. Today, a pre-nuptial agreement is only one factor that English courts will take in to account when deciding a disputed case. One reason given for this is that women may be pressurised into accepting an arrangement that is not in her best interests. As with Catherine Langwith, many eighteenth-century women were using legal devices with aplomb; perhaps the courts of today could reflect on these advantages.

In other words, examining the marriage settlements of the past may inform how we view pre-marriage arrangements of the future. In realising the extent to which pre-marriage settlements were used by a broad range of people in the early modern period, it may allow us to re-evaluate the benefit of using them now. This may also lead us to accept them as a feature of our everyday lives, rather than leaving us to uncomfortably peer and wonder at the private lives of the rich and famous.

Stormm Buxton-Hill, PhD Candidate, University of Hull

Image: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

[1] Courtney Stanhope Kenny, The History of the Law of England as to the Effects of Marriage on Property and on the Wife’s Legal Capacity (London: Reeves and Turner, 1879), p.204.

[2] UDDDU/21/25

[3] UDDDU/20/9

[4] Lloyd Bonfield, Marriage settlements, 1660-1740 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 120

[5] Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1995), p.19;

[6] Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 209-11