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  • Hazarding for Marriage:John Blagrave's Lottery for Maidservants
  • Richelle Munkhoff (bio)

Among the charitable bequests made by the well-regarded mathematician John Blagrave upon his death in 1611 was a sum to be disbursed annually to a worthy maidservant chosen from the parishes of the Borough of Reading (near London), his birthplace and residence. Blagrave offered this gift, a purse of twenty nobles (£6 13s 4d), to the lucky young woman specifically "for her helpe and preferment in marriage."1 What is striking about Blagrave's bequest is the form it required for determining which woman would receive the benefit of his generosity: the casting of lots. Charity dispensed through a game of hazard, even one with associations of divine providence, seems incongruous. Certainly, one of Blagrave's motives, as stated in his will, is that lots are to be drawn "the better to avoyde partiality" in choosing the recipient, what we might think of as a mathematical purity of purpose.2 But Blagrave's bequest comes at a significant moment in the history of games of chance, both in terms of England's experience with lotteries, and in the development of probability theory. Indeed, whatever Blagrave himself may have intended, the significance of his bequest resonated across time, as this annual lottery became woven into the fabric of Reading civic life across the seventeenth century and beyond.3 More difficult to interpret is how the participating [End Page 165] women understood their part in this hazarding for marriage, and what it meant for their lives. This brief essay focuses primarily on the maidservants who won Blagrave's purse from the first casting of lots in 1612 through 1667. Although there are some gaps in the records during this fifty-five-year period, this span gives a sense of the patterns that can provide us at least a faint outline of the impact of Blagrave's lottery on poor maidservants.

Borough authorities are relatively consistent in offering basic information about the lottery each year. The records provide the names of the women who were selected to stand for each of Reading's three parishes: St. Mary, St. Giles, and St. Lawrence.4 Blagrave's will imposed several strictures on who could compete for the purse. The maids elected to participate must be "in good name and fame" and have been at least five years in service.5 The lottery itself was to take place "uppon good Fridaye between the hours of sixe and nyne of the clocke in the morninge."6 Every fifth year, a maid from Southcote, Blagrave's manor, would be included in the casting of lots.7 The description of the first event in 1612 is quite detailed and worth quoting in full:

divers maid-servauntes were presented to stand in election to cast lottes for the 6li. 13s. 4d. geven by Mr. John Blagrave in his last will, accordinge to the wordes of his will, and uppon examynacion of their desertes by service and continuaunce one service yt was then apointed that three of them, videlicet, Alice Younge, Anne Watlington, Anne Grenwaye, should stand elected to cast lottes for the money, and then and there before the sermon, the said three maides came personally into the inner Hall and there, in the presens of the said Mayor and burgesses, three lottes were made in paper and wrapt rounde and put into a hatt, and then presentely a childe of ten yeres of age was called out of the free schoole and … delivered to eache of the said three maides one lott, and the lott fell to Anne Watlington, who then and [End Page 166] there hade the purse and 6li. 13s. 4d. in money in it delivered to her accordingly.8

The incongruity between the holiness of Good Friday and the odd game of a ten-year-old child delivering carefully wrapped lots to the maidservants is striking. Perhaps the choice of a holy day was to underscore the divine providence implied in the casting of lots, which also took place "before the sermon."9 Certainly, the biblical tradition of casting lots emphasizes equity, which Blagrave acknowledged with his insistence on "avoyd[ing] partiality." But...