Erasing Pregnancy in Early Modern Mothers’ Legacies: Elizabeth Richardson’s Revisions

In this post, Amanda Zoch discusses mothers’ legacies, books that were written by early modern women for their children but often gained a larger audience in print form. She focuses particularly on the fascinating, shifting self-representations in the legacies by Elizabeth Richardson. 

By Amanda Zoch

Portrait of an Unknown Lady circa 1595 by Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2-1636
Fig. 1. Portrait of an Unknown Lady, c.1595, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts. Tate Collection, T07699.

The genre of mothers’ legacies flourished in seventeenth-century England. A sub-genre of domestic and courtesy literature, mothers’ legacies are advice books written from a mother’s perspective that provide educational and religious instructions to the author’s children.[1] The form of advice ranges from specific directives—such as Dorothy Leigh’s rather imperious insistence that her unborn grandchildren be named Philip, Elizabeth, James, Anna, John, and Susanna (Leigh 29)—to more general materials intended to promote devotional behavior, such as prayers and religious meditations.

A legacy serves as a textual surrogate after a mother’s death, and, therefore, many, like Leigh’s, were written when a woman was older and her children grown. Some legacies, however, were composed during pregnancy because the author fears she might die during childbirth. Elizabeth Jocelin, for example, felt an “apprehension of danger that might prevent me from executing that care I so exceedingly desired” at the same time that her child first moved within her womb (Jocelin B1r-B1v). Anticipating her death in childbirth, Jocelin composed a legacy for her unborn child. Tragically, Jocelin’s prediction came true; her child—a daughter—survived, presumably turning to Jocelin’s legacy for its intended purpose.

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Fig. 2. The final page of Richardson’s incomplete, 1606 legacy. Folger Shakespeare Library MS. V.a.511 fol.86v. Image from Luna.

In my research on mothers’ legacies, I consider how women’s attitudes toward childbirth shifted as they aged. During a woman’s child-bearing years, each pregnancy could pose a mortal threat; even the halest women could die in childbed with little to no warning. For older, post-menopausal women, references to childbirth were no longer entangled with fears of death, but employed as an opportunity to exercise maternal authority over one’s children. For the most part, women only wrote one legacy, or, alternatively, only one version of a woman’s legacy survived, usually because it was published (either due to the woman’s efforts or a male relation’s). Elizabeth Richardson, therefore, remains an unusual case: with three extant and distinct legacies, she offers the most comprehensive portrait of an individual woman’s evolving perspective on motherhood and authorship within the genre of mothers’ legacies.

Fig. 3. Sir Thomas Richardson. Attributed to Thomas Athow, after unknown artist (early 19th century). National Portrait Gallery, NPG D23260.

Elizabeth Richardson was born in 1576/7 to Sir Thomas Beaumont and Catherine, his wife. In 1594, she married John Ashburnham, and together they had ten children, with six surviving to adulthood. In 1620, Ashburnham died, and six years later Richardson married Sir Thomas Richardson (fig. 3), eventually becoming the 1st Lady Cramond. Sir Thomas died in 1634, and Richardson outlived him by nearly twenty years. She died at age seventy-five in 1651 and was buried next to her first husband.

Richardson is primarily known to us because of the success of her 1645 published legacy, A Ladies Legacie for her Daughters. Compared to the specific advice of legacies like Leigh’s, Richardson’s seems rather quotidian, with such offerings as “A prayer for Thursday morning” and “A prayer for Friday night” (fig. 4). Unlike most legacies, however, Richardson’s was intended for daily use. Printed in octavo size, Ladies Legacie was highly portable, and, as Sylvia Brown notes, the prayers themselves are generally impersonal—fitted for an everyman or everywoman to use on different days of the week (Brown 144).

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Fig. 4. The table of contents for Books II and III of A Ladies Legacie (A4r-A4v). Image from EEBO.

Although she did not publish her legacy until she was in her sixties, Richardson was writing in the maternal legacy genre as early as 1606. An incomplete 1606 manuscript collection of prayers and meditations on biblical passages resides at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and a different legacy, written in 1625 and presented to one of her daughters in 1635, is housed at the East Sussex Record Office. While Richardson does not appear to reuse any of the material from her 1606 manuscript in later versions, material from the 1625 copy appears in the first part of the published version, to which Richardson added two additional books.

Spanning nearly forty years, Richardson’s works reveal her evolving perspectives on maternity. While each text builds—if only conceptually—on the previous one, the individual manuscripts and published texts also exhibit evidence of continuous revision. Although many of the changes are minor and merely indicative of aesthetic preferences, such as substituting “respect” for “regard,” other changes contribute to a revision of her self-presentation. In fact, Richardson appears to be grappling with a tension between her identity as a pregnant woman and a mother as early as the 1606 manuscript, which bears many marks in her hand as she adds and alters phrases to refine her ideas. In the original composition, Richardson describes her writing as “poor labors” (2), a physically evocative reference that draws the reader’s attention to Richardson’s many travails in childbirth, in addition to the author’s humility and her intellectual labor in producing the legacy.

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Fig. 5. Richardson’s revision from “poor labors” to “motherlie endeavors.” Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.511. Image taken by the author with permission from the library.

At a later date, Richardson crosses out “poor labors” and replaces it with “motherlie endeavors” (fig. 5). Though essentially synonymous with “poor labors,” the phrase “motherlie endeavors” is arguably more poetic than the original. Moreover, this change replaces the physical connotations of labor with the more abstract “endeavors.” Victoria Burke reads this change as “a significant emendation, which genders [Richardson’s] efforts and places them in an established tradition of mother’s advice writing” (Burke 101). In addition to gendering Richardson’s text as female, I contend that this revision also identifies her first and foremost as a mother, rather than a laboring lady.

V0014914EL A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by
Fig. 6. Woodcut of a woman on a birthing stool. The original is a plate to: E. Roeslin, Rosengarten, 1513. Image from the Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Library no. 16926i.

Pregnancy is often viewed as a state of troubling in-betweenness. As Monika Karpinska notes, “when [women] are pregnant, they are not quite mothers” and certainly not maids (Karpinska 427). Because the early modern period idealized femininity in the form the virgin and the mother (ideals married in the Virgin Mary and, occasionally, Elizabeth I), patriarchal society had difficulty reconciling the chastity of virginity with the sexual activity necessary for biological motherhood. The pregnant body, therefore, often discomfited men and prompted misogynist speculations about parentage and the expectant mother’s virtue. It is no surprise, then, that women, especially those intending to publish their works like Richardson, would highlight their maternal, rather than procreative, identities.

On the one hand, Richardson’s revisions across her three legacies show the development of a confident writer who clarifies her prose and eliminates redundancies. The 1625 prayers, for example, are lengthy and prone to digressions. In the 1645 version, however, Richardson takes some of her earlier prayers and divides them into more focused meditations. The 1625 “A prayer for the Lords day” becomes a prayer of the same name and the more versatile “An entrance to prayer.” Similarly, Richardson splits the 1625 “A private morning prayer” into a prayer for morning and also one for thanksgiving. More significantly, however, Richardson’s revisions reveal a transformation from pregnant hesitancy to maternal confidence. For example, in 1625’s “A letter to my four Daughters,” Richardson refers to her text as “a smale token & motherly remembrance, commending this my little labour.” The 1645 version takes the same sentiment and condenses it: “a motherly remembrance, commend this my labor.” By dropping “smale token” and the “little” from “little labour,” Richardson erases her earlier hesitancy at her textual offerings. Furthermore, the 1625 version refers to the author’s “straying soul,” but the published version drops the descriptive “straying.” While Richardson carefully displays humility, she also intentionally limits her self-remonstrations so as not to diminish her authority as a mother.

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Fig. 7. Richardson’s revised title. Image from Christie’s Auction page.

Brown argues that revisions like this reveal Richardson’s growing confidence as a writer, and while Richardson’s changes certainly streamline her prose, I contend that her increased confidence can also be understood as an increased desire to assert her maternal identity. For example, in some presentation copies of the 1645 legacy, Richardson emends the title from A Ladies Legacie to The tytle is A Mothers Legacie, crossing out “Ladies” in her own hand (fig. 7). While some have critiqued this emendation as Richardson’s inability to leave well enough alone, I see this post-publication change as evidence that Richardson never considered her work as a writer, or as a mother, to be complete. Similar to the change from “poor labors” to “motherlie endeavors,” Richardson’s revised title underscores her maternal role and her maternal authority to write and publish. Although Richardson’s legacies avoid explicit references to the author’s pregnancies, this change of self-presentation from “lady” to “mother” effectively negates the pregnant self, a self that, perhaps, feared death or doubted God’s plan, as legacies like Jocelin’s suggest. Richardson’s changes erase “labor” as a physical effort and instead frame it as a textual and spiritual endeavor, privileging maternal labor over the physical labor of pregnancy.

The content of Richardson’s legacy also serves to further erase the labor of childbirth. In a collection dedicated to her daughters and daughters-in-law and intended for help with daily life, it is surprising that Richardson offers no prayers for childbirth or for thanksgiving afterwards. Such genres of prayer are common in compilations for women, such as Thomas Bentley’s Monument for Matrons. Richardson does include “A prayer in sicknes, either for recoverie, or patience, willinglie to referre my self to the good pleasure of god,” which is immediately followed by “Meditations of thankes givinge” and “A thankesgivinge for benefits received with a prayer for continuance of them” (76). These entries echo the themes and sequence of Elizabeth Egerton’s prayers for herself during and after childbirth, yet Richardson’s are far less specific, intended for the more generic issue of “sicknes” rather than childbirth. This departure from traditional prayers for women, like those composed by Egerton or Bentley, shows Richardson’s effort to appeal to a diverse audience beyond the daughters to whom she dedicates her legacy, as well as another instance of eliminating the dangers and fears of childbirth in favor of a more detached, authoritative maternal self-presentation.

Richardson’s textual revisions across and within her three legacies illuminate a shift in representation from pregnancy—an unruly site for misogynist skepticism, as well as a mother’s own anxieties—to the stability and authority of motherhood. For Richardson, increased confidence in her role as author mirrors a shift in her self-presentation, from the uncertainty of pregnancy to maternal authority. Indeed, the erasure of pregnancy and its attendant effects and feelings is not unique to Richardson, nor to the early modern period—consider, for example, Thaisa in Shakespeare’s Pericles or the countless unmarried women who hid their pregnancies until birth.[3] Even today, pregnancy, particularly the pregnant body, can be a source of scrutiny and unease. While some people claim that a “halo effect” erases the trauma of birth from the minds of new mothers, other sources—like celebrity gossip magazines—linger on the physical, rather than mental effects of pregnancy as they speculate about baby bumps and, later, highlight full-term bellies. After childbirth, however, these women typically fall out of the spotlight, only to return about a month or so later with newly toned figures. These “magical” transformations are just another example of the instability occasioned by pregnancy and the need to remake it into something more easily known and controlled.

Amanda Zoch is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at Indiana University. She is the recipient of an American Association of University Women American Dissertation Fellowship for her project, “Narratives of Erasure: Performing and Revising Pregnancy in Early Modern Drama and Women’s Writing.” Her essay on maternal revision in mothers’ legacies and Thomas Middleton’s More Dissemblers Besides Women is forthcoming in Stage Matters: Props, Bodies, and Space in Shakespearean Performance (eds. Annalisa Castaldo and Rhonda Knight).

Further Reading 

Brown, Sylvia. Women’s Writings in Stuart England: The Mother’s Legacies of Dorothy Leigh, Elizabeth Joscelin, and Elizabeth Richardson. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1999.

Brownlee, Victoria. “Literal and Spiritual Births: Mary as Mother in Seventeenth-Century Women’s Writing.” Renaissance Quarterly 68.4 (Winter 2015): 1297-1326.

Burke, Victoria E. “Elizabeth Ashburnham Richardson’s ‘Motherlie Endeauors’ in Manuscript.” English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700. 9 (2000): 98-113.

Burke, Victoria E. Richardson, Elizabeth, suo jure baroness of [sic] Cramond (1576/7–1651). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Demers, Patricia. Women’s Writing in English: Early Modern England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Dowd. Michelle M. “Structures of Piety in Elizabeth Richardson’s Legacie.” Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England. Eds. Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011. 115-30.

Heller, Jennifer. The Mother’s Legacy in Early Modern England. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

Trubowitz, Rachel. Nation and Nurture in Seventeenth-Century English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Wall, Wendy. The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.


[1] All of the legacies discussed here are composed by women, though some mothers’ legacies, such as Nicholas Breton’s The Mothers Blessing (1602), are written by men who have adopted the persona of a mother.

[2] Karpinska, Monica. “Early Modern Dramatizations of Virgins and Pregnant Women.” Studies in English Literature 50.2 (Spring 2010): 427-44.

[3] See Laura Gowing’s book Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England for more discussion of the management of pregnancies outside of wedlock.




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