Today it is a pleasure to welcome author Toni Mount to History … the Interesting Bits with a fascinating guest article based on her new novel The Colour of Lies.
Silk-women, femmes soles and Ellen Langwith
In my latest Seb Foxley medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Lies, set in London in the 1470s, the adventure involves Seb’s wife, Emily, and her fellow silk-women. We meet Dame Ellen Langton once more – she has appeared in most of the novels in The Colour of … series – a character closely based on a real life London silk-woman of the period: Ellen Langwith. In this article, we will look at the lives of Ellen and other silk-women of London, what their work required and how they organised their business.
Silk manufacture has always involved a sequence of skilled processes. Firstly, the silk filaments had to be wound off the cocoons by heating the cocoons in water to loosen the natural glue (sericin) which holds the silk together. Then, as the loosened ends floated free, the raw silk could be unravelled and wound on to spools. The fineness of the silk depended on how many filaments were wound together, a single filament being too fine to work with; four was usual. This part of the process was done at source – southern Spain, the Middle East or even farther afield – because the cocoons were too fragile to transport, so it was traded as these reels of raw silk. During the medieval period, England didn’t weave her own silk textiles: these luxurious cloths always had to be imported, but London did have its own thriving industry run by silk-women. They converted the raw silk into yarn, a process called ‘throwing’, then wove the thrown threads into ribbons, laces and girdles, making up hairnets, decorative fringes and tassels. To learn the craft of silk weaving, a young woman had to serve a long apprenticeship – usually seven years. Some London silk-women ran extensive workshops, taking apprentices from as far away as Yorkshire.
It would seem from the statutes of the City of London for the 1450s that silk working was strictly a woman’s business, unlike embroidery, knitting or even laundering, because the statutes say:
…Many a worshipful woman within the city has lived full honourably and therewith many good households kept, and many gentlewomen and others, more than a thousand, have been apprenticed under them in learning the same craft of silk making.
The language of the statutes implies that this craft was carried out by the most respectable women and was seen as a suitable occupation for ladies of gentility, as well as bringing in sufficient profits that ‘many good households’ depended upon it for their livelihood. Since it was so important, it is surprising the craft never formed its own formal guild, probably because men weren’t involved in the work. Instead, the silk-women regulated and co-operated among themselves, very much as guild members would have done, but unofficially. Having completed her apprenticeship, instead of being admitted to a company of fellow artisans, the young woman would remain with her mistress until she was able to marry and set up her own shop and, maybe, take on apprentices of her own, to pass on her skills.
The London silk-women carried out each skilled process of their craft and trade. As throwsters, they turned raw silk into yarn; as weavers, they produced ribbons, laces, and other small silk goods; as craftworkers, they made up silk laces and other trappings; and as traders in silk, they undertook large and lucrative contracts. This work wasn’t a mere sideline to domestic duties, something a wife pursued in moments free from housework, child care and labour in her husband’s workshop. Wives often continued to work in silk, no matter what the occupations of their husbands. It was a craft with secrets of production and trade passed on from mistress to apprentice. The women ran workshops, invested large amounts of money in purchases of raw materials and trading ventures, often continuing throughout their working lives. They also banded together for mutual aid. On six occasions between 1368 and 1504, the London silk-women sought protection for their craft through petitions (presented to either Parliament or the Lord Mayor of London), and many of their requests were granted.
Most working women were regarded, by law, as being ‘covered’ by their husbands and, therefore, in records of court cases, business contracts and debt collection, the activities of these women are, literally, concealed from view under their husbands’ names. The legal term is femmes couvertes and such women only appear in the records once they are ‘uncovered’ on becoming widows. But some women preferred to run their businesses in their own right, as femmes soles, even when their husbands were still alive, particularly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – perhaps this has some connection to the advent of the plague, when so many social changes were underway. In this case, the women were responsible for their own debts and could be sued through the courts. On the positive side, any profits made were theirs, not their husbands’, and they could sue others if money was owed to them or a contract was reneged upon to their loss. Silk-women were among those who opted to be femmes soles – with their husbands’ permission, of course. Often their husbands were merchants, especially mercers, who brought in the reels of raw silk for their wives along with other textiles imported from abroad.
Ellen Langwith – we don’t know her maiden name – probably came from Beckenham in Kent to London, to serve an apprenticeship as a silk-woman, sometime in the early fifteenth century. Her first husband, Philip Waltham, was a cutler who also owned a brewhouse: ‘Le Hertishorne’, just outside Newgate. But Ellen was already a successful silk-woman. In his will of 1425, Philip named his three apprentices: Agnes Walshale, Agnes Sampson and Alice Dunnowe, leaving them 6s 8d each on the condition that they behaved courteously, in both word and deed, towards his wife Ellen, their mistress, at whose discretion the money was to be given. From the wording of the will, it is impossible to say whether the three girls were apprenticed as cutlers or silk-women. Perhaps they were making high fashion silk scabbards for the knives Philip manufactured. Ellen was a widow by May 1426, the main executor of her husband’s will, sole owner of all his movable goods and the Hartshorn brewery.
By 1437, she had married again. Her second husband was John Langwith, a well-established London tailor who had become a freeman of the city in 1418 and took on his first apprentices in 1425. Since masters were required to have wives to care for the apprentices, it seems probable that John had been married previously, before he wed Ellen since, at this date, she was still Philip Waltham’s wife. John was elected Master of the Tailors’ Company in 1444 and, in the summer of 1445, he led the company in the elaborate processions to welcome Margaret of Anjou to London as the bride of Henry VI. The tailors spent £3 on blue livery gowns for the Master and Wardens to look their impressive best for the occasion. Did Ellen supply any silken trimmings for the robes? We don’t know, but that year she was admitted, free of charge, to the Tailors’ Fraternity of St John the Baptist. It was in the chapel of St John the Baptist, in their parish church of St Mary Abcurch, that both John and, later, Ellen would be buried. The Langwiths lived in a tenement on the north side of Candlewick Street, one of a group of properties, owned by John, which shared a courtyard.
After marrying John, in 1439, Ellen was one of a group of London silk-women who bought £30 worth of silk from Venetian merchants visiting the capital. In February 1443, she purchased a fardell (a bundle) of silk for herself at the incredible cost of £60 11s 8d, showing how her business had grown. Ellen certainly had apprentices but may also have distributed work to others, to do at home. At this time, another silk-woman, Katherine Dore, was putting out work to women living in Soper Lane. While John was training lads as apprentice tailors, one indenture for a girl survives: Elizabeth Eland was taken on in July 1454 by both John and Ellen, to train as a silk-woman. She may have joined other girls under Ellen’s tutelage; if so, their indentures haven’t survived. We don’t know whether Elizabeth completed her apprenticeship or what happened to her. She isn’t mentioned in Ellen’s will but that’s not surprising since it wasn’t drawn up until 1481, twenty-one years after Elizabeth should have finished her training.
In 1465, Ellen gained royal patronage when she was commissioned to supply silk banners and trappings for the saddle and pillion for Edward IV’s queen, for her coronation. Ellen had to deliver the goods ‘into the hands of Thomas Vaughn one of the esquires of our [the king’s] body to the use of our most dear and entirely beloved Queen…’ and was paid £27 10s. John Langwith died in July 1467 and, like Philip Waltham before him, made Ellen his executrix, leaving her responsible for an ‘estate of lands’ at Beckenham in Kent which may have been her own inheritance. Ellen was now a very wealthy widow without an heir so she too drew up a will, though she would outlive John by over thirteen years. Her will was artfully worded: she left much of her property to the Tailors’ Company with the proviso that if they failed in its adequate administration, all would be forfeit to the Cutlers. In this way, she was well favoured by both companies, invited to their feasts on special occasions and sent gifts of food and wine to keep them in mind. In 1476, the tailors spent 2s on a pike and wine for Mistress Ellen Langwith, while the less wealthy cutlers sent her a rabbit and a hen costing 8d.
In her will, Ellen left 10s to pay for her funeral in St Mary Abchurch which included money to the parish clerk to ring the bells. There were alms to the poor and the Tailors’ Company was to use money from the rents paid to them from the Langwith properties, to buy 26 quarters of coal for thirteen poor men and women of the parish, on the anniversary of Ellen’s death. Before she died – sometime between January and June 1481 – she left an additional, modest will, leaving most of her household goods to her current apprentice, John Brown (presumably an apprentice tailor). She leaves a bequest of 40s to Richard Wiott, the son of a shearman, when he should come of age, and money and goods to her servants, John England and Emmott Bynchester. Otherwise, all her bequests are made to women: Margaret, wife of John Wareng, one of her two executors, is to have a gold ring set with a diamond and an image of Our Lady from Ellen’s chamber; Mary, wife of John Jakes the draper, the second executor, is to have her blue silk girdle with silver gilt decorations. Katherine, wife of Hugh Pemberton, the overseer of Ellen’s will, is to receive a gold ring set with turquoise. A gown of black medley (a wool mixture?), trimmed with white lamb, was left to her cousin Mistress Bowyer of Northampton, and her best blue gown, trimmed with marten fur, was bequeathed to another cousin, Mistress Bounesley of Nottingham. Her personal belongings and considerable household goods and furnishings, mentioned in her will, suggest Ellen was a prosperous and dignified elderly woman who had had a very successful career, whether as the wife of a cutler and a tailor, or as a craftswoman in her own right.
In my new novel, The Colour of Lies, Emily and the other silk-women set up a profitable stall at St Bartholomew’s Fair and Dame Ellen Langton is going to name one of them as her successor in taking on her business. All is going well for them until an accident occurs… It’s down to Emily’s husband, Seb, to solve the mystery and get the silk-women out of trouble.
If readers would like to know more about silk-women and many other craftsmen, traders and life in medieval England in general, there is a series of online courses available from medievalcourses.com which includes The Roles of Medieval and Tudor Women and Everyday Lives of Medieval Folk. There are also my books, both published by Amberley, Everyday Life in Medieval London, which was chosen as ‘the best factual history book of 2014’ by GoodReads, and A Year in the Life of Medieval England, among other titles. All are available from Amazon as both Kindle, hardback and paperback editions.
About the Author
Toni Mount MA
Toni is a history teacher, a writer, and an experienced public speaker – and describes herself as an enthusiastic life-long-learner; she is a member of the Richard III Society Research Committee and a library volunteer, where she leads the creative writing group.
Toni attended Gravesend Grammar School and originally studied chemistry at college. She worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry before stopping work to have her family. Inspired by Sharon Kay Penman’s Sunne in Splendour Toni decided she too wanted to write a Richard III novel, which she did, but back in the 1980s was told there was no market for more historic novels and it remains unpublished.
Having enjoyed history as a child she joined an adult history class and ultimately started teaching classes herself. Her BA (with First-class Honours), her Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing and Diploma in European Humanities are from the Open University. Toni’s Certificate in Education (in Post-Compulsory Education and Training) is from the University of Greenwich. She earned her Masters degree from the University of Kent in 2009 by the study of a medieval medical manuscript at the Wellcome Library.
After submitting an idea for her first book, about the lives of ordinary people in the middle-ages, Everyday Life in Medieval London was published in 2014 by Amberley Publishing – the first print run sold out quickly and it was voted ‘Best history book of the year’ at Christmas 2014 on Goodreads.com. The Medieval Housewife was published in November 2014 and Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark, the mysteries of medieval medicine (later renamed in paperback as Medieval Medicine it mysteries and science) was first released in May 2015. A Year in The life of Medieval England, a diary of everyday incidents through an entire year, was published in 2016.
Having taught history to adults madeglobal.com recruited her to create a range of online history courses for medievalcourses.com, but she still wanted to write a medieval novel: The Colour of Poison the first Sebastian Foxley murder mystery was the result, published by madeglobal in 2016. Shortly before publication Tim at madeglobal asked if this was going to be a series – although nothing else was planned, Toni said “yes” and now The Colour of Lies (published in April 2019) is the seventh book in that series.
Toni is married with two grown up children and lives with her husband in Kent, England. When she is not writing, teaching or speaking to history groups – or volunteering – she reads endlessly, with several books on the go at any one time. She is currently working on The Colour of Shadows the next Sebastian Foxley murder mystery and The World of Isaac Newton, her next non-fiction.
From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.
Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World, is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Toni Mount