- The Case of Mistress Mary Hampson: Her Story of Marital Abuse and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century England by Jessica L. Malay
The subtitle of Jessica Malay’s stunning new book says it all: this is a shocking account of marital abuse and defiance in seventeenth century England. Mary Hampson’s story, most of it told in her own words, provides details of repeated episodes of violence and intimidation that marked her thirty-two-year marriage to the prominent lawyer Robert Hampson. The scale of the abuse and deprivation she suffered and the social and cultural climate that permitted it to occur (and to go virtually unpunished) make for a deeply depressing read: Mary was just one of countless victims of domestic abuse in the seventeenth century, let down by the legal system and the crushing weight of a societal bias that favored men in almost every domain, from property and law to politics and religion. Yet at the same time this text manages to be uplifting, with Mary’s proud and distinctive voice, and evidence of her defiance and resourcefulness, coming through on almost every page. This is an extraordinary study of an extraordinary woman.
Mary Wingfield was born in 1639 into a long-established gentry family that had played host to Katherine of Aragon at the end of her life. Brought up by her mother in Huntingdonshire, she faced the prospect of a comfortable but provincial life until she met the bright young London lawyer Robert Hampson. With his recently inherited wealth and London townhouse in Holborn, he seemed a perfect catch. Robert appears to have found Mary and her extensive family connections equally attractive, and the pair married in 1656. Unfortunately for all concerned, Robert had almost all of his financial eggs in one basket, the highly speculative project of draining the East Anglian fens for farmland that ended in financial disaster: a small section of Robert’s holdings that he bought for £2000 sold a few years later for only £100. Constant money troubles provided the catalyst for the failure of the couple’s marriage, as Robert cajoled and bullied Mary into agreeing to sell her jointure (the interest in lands reserved for her in case she became a widow) to pay his debts and then tried to do the same with the interest that replaced it. Mary’s reluctance to sign away her few rights to property led Robert to resort to violent means to get his way, and so the marriage disintegrated in a depressing spiral of harsh words, distrust, physical blows and threats, attempted reconciliations, then further violence.
Deprived of her jointure and ejected from Robert’s house without any means of supporting herself, Mary won a separation order against him in the Court of Arches, under which the couple agreed to live apart and Robert promised to pay her £100 a year in alimony. Up until this point, as Malay [End Page 837] points out, there was little that was unusual about Mary Hampson’s case, as dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other married women at this time experienced similar attacks on their bodies and property and sought assistance from the ecclesiastical authorities. What makes Mary’s story unique is what happened in the months and years following the couple’s official separation. For Robert Hampson refused to make the promised alimony payments and continued to hurt and harass Mary for years to come, at one point having his associates throw her at a London mob, saying that she was a madwoman. He schemed to acquire her and her mother’s remaining property, and spread or encouraged rumors that she had walked out on him, that she was guilty of adultery, had converted to Catholicism, had conspired to murder him, and finally that she was dead. To combat this unremitting attack on her character and entitlement to her alimony, Mary wrote and published a 13,000 word autobiographical pamphlet setting out her side of the story, framing her narrative...