Servants

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OF DOMESTICALL DUTIES: SERVANTS IN THE 1640s-50s

Written by Dr Charles Kightly and first published in True Relation in 2005.

Even if we have no intention of ever playing a servant's role, it is worth considering that most of us - in our Civil War personas - would either (like perhaps one-tenth of the population) have at one time been a household servant, or been related to a servant, or kept servants: so servants are people all of us should know about.

WHO EMPLOYED SERVANTS?

Everyone who could afford to do so kept servants, from the single maid employed by modest tradespeople, through the 16 or so servants kept by the average country knight, up to the 50 or more servants employed by grandees like the Earl of Strafford. But though the word "family" [or "household"] was still used to mean an employer's servants as well as his wife, children and blood relations, the status and nature of servants were changing in the 17th century.

Gone were the late-mediaeval days when a master was served at table by the retainers (often his tenants or relations) upon whom he also depended for his safety: and when even the noblest families sent their children to learn manners as servants in another household. Now (although in the Civil Wars servants were often recruited into their master's troop or company) the class-gap between master and servant had grown much wider - though nothing like as great as it would become by the Victorian period. Domestic service was no longer such an honourable profession, especially for men. Even the Levellers did not propose granting servants the right to vote, mainly because their votes would be controlled by their masters.

Now that servants were no longer needed for defence, more and more women were being employed in the 1640s household: they were also of course cheaper to pay and to feed than men-servants, and regarded (not always correctly) as easier to control, especially by lower-status employers. But in greater households like Strafford's - 44 of whose 50 servants were men - male servants were still in the majority, and almost everywhere they were still preferred for front of house public activities like waiting at table or accompanying their employers on visits or journeys, where their protective role was also still needed.

EMPLOYING SERVANTS

Lower-grade servants, especially kitchenmaids and labourers, were sometimes hired by the year at public hiring fairs (or Mop Fairs, so called because maids seeking hire carried the implements of their trade). But most prospectively permanent domestic servants were probably interviewed by their employers, sometimes after a recommendation from a friend or relation, and then taken on trial. All served for an agreed and legally enforceable term, which might or might not be formalised by an indenture. This was a document setting out the terms of the agreement, written out twice for employer and employee and then cut in half with a wavy or indented cut: each party kept their own half, whose authenticity could be guaranteed by its exact fit to the other part.

The agreement was unbreakable by the servant, though the master could end it by dismissal, paying (at least in theory) the wages up to date. Dying employers could even legally bequeath servants to their successors for the remaining part of their term; and during it servants could theoretically not marry without their employer's consent. If a maid-servant did manage to legally marry, with or without consent, the agreement with the employer was automatically broken: cases of maids marrying simply to escape from an irksome job-commitment are not unknown. Employers were also strongly advised to guard their maids against falling pregnant outside marriage. Not only was this a sin, but the girl would not be able to work efficiently during the later stages of her pregnancy, and worse still the employer might find himself paying the cost of midwife and baby clothes.

SERVANTS IN THE PURITAN HOUSEHOLD

This last advice appears in two early 17th century treatises on the duties of masters and servants: Robert Cleaver's A Godlie Form of Household Government (1612) and William Gouge's Of Domesticall Duties (1622 and later editions). Virtually the only contemporary printed manuals concerning servants, these were both by staunchly Puritan authors, devoted to publicising their own very rigid views on how a godly household should be run, and backed up by copious Scriptural references. Though almost mind-numbingly dull at first reading, perseverance with them reveals much about conditions for servants.

Many servants, they relate, were wary of employment by "…religious masters… who instruct their servants in the way of Salvation… they had rather serve profane masters, meere wordlings, yea very Papists… who suffer them to swear, to profane the Sabbath, and spend that whole holy day in sleeping, sporting, eating and drinking…". It was of course wrong to make servants work on Sundays - though Gouge also condemned the practice of keeping them hard at it until the stroke of midnight on Saturday, when the Sabbath was deemed to begin. But Sunday and indeed every day should be hallowed by long religious exercises, despite servants' protests that "…I was not hired for this, neither am I bound to you herein, set me about your worke and I will doe it…". At the opposite religious extreme, radical Protestants like Anabaptists refused altogether to enter service, declaring “It is against nature and the liberty that Christ hath purchased for one to be servant to another…” - a view strongly condemned in the manuals, though very probably shared by some New Modellers.

ENFORCING DISCIPLINE

The manuals emphasise that it was an employer's duty to enforce Godliness, discipline and hard work on his servants, if necessary backed up by beatings. For seemliness, if possible the master should beat men-servants, and the mistress the maids, although if a maid proved "…mannish…" and physically stronger than her mistress "…the master may and must beat down her stoutness and rebellion…". He should not however "in his mood" strike a servant "…with anything that cometh next to hand, be it heavy, cragged, hard or sharp...".

Even if actually innocent of offence, the servant was expected to accept a beating, "…not struggling or striving… by taking the staff or wand by the end, or by holding the hands of them that correct them…". Still less should they "…give as much as they receive… and smite the master again…": or like "…some hot, heady, hardy youths…" challenge him to a duel, or even "…seek to poison or make away with him privily...".

In 1616 Mrs. Knightley Wyrley certainly suffered unforseen consequences after "reforming" her "verie negligent and slothfull" maid Susan Holland "with a little wand". Susan's vengeful brother and sister, accompanied by a forceful family friend Bridget Eyre of Birmingham, appeared at the Wyrley establishment. When Mrs.Wyrley strove to quiet their clamour, Bridget "…forgetting her sexe and all womanhood or Civility…" set upon her and scratched her cheeks. According to other witnesses, however, it was Mrs.Wyrley who assaulted Bridget "…and pulled her band from her necke and rente her gowne and did otherwise greatly abuse her…".

FAULTS OF SERVANTS AND EMPLOYERS

Offences which might warrant a beating included repeated lack of respect, a problem especially plaguing lower-status employers. In greater households; "…servants can be so full of courtesy, as not a word shall be spoken by their masters to them, but the knee shall be bowed withall: they can stand houre after houre before their masters and not once put on their hat… And if they be walking after their masters, their masters shall not turn sooner than their hats shall be off, and that so oft as hee turneth and speaketh to them… Why should rich masters have so much reverence shewn to them…" whinged the down-market employer Gouge, "…and poor masters none at all?".

Gossip among servants should also be discouraged, for "…when servants of divers houses, men or maids meet together, all their talke is of their masters and mistresses, whereby it cometh to pass that all the secrets of an house are soone known about the whole town…". In particular, servants should keep mum about their employers' "bodily infirmities", though they were duty bound to "…make known to the master the sinne of his wife, or to the mistresse the sinne of her husband…" - which can scarcely have contributed to domestic harmony.

Other common servants' faults included "…mumbling and grumbling…", "…lewd and licentious pranks…", and more seriously corruption of the family's children by "…filthy and shamefull communications… teaching them uncleane speeches… or alluring them to stage-plaies and dice-houses…" or worst of all inveigling them into secret engagements or marriages. "…Excesse in apparel… wherein new fashions are as soon got up by servants as by masters and mistresses…" was also discountenanced: servants' clothes should clearly proclaim their inferior status.

Unwise employers encouraged bad habits by over-familiarity with their servants. "…As mistresses oft lose their authoritie by conspiring with their servants to goe abroade, take away goods, gossip and doe such other things without their husband's consent… or masters suffer their servants to be their companions, playing, drinking, revelling with them and saying 'Hail fellow well met…' ". Having sexual relations with servants was worst of all, giving the servant a hold over the employer which destroyed all discipline and subordination: it was however far from unknown, among mistresses as well as masters.

While remembering the watchword "…children must be kept in subjection: much more servants…" employers were nevertheless advised in their own interest not to be too hard or stingy. Servants should not be fed "…musty, mouldy or otherwise unsavoury food…bought for cheapness sake…"; and should not be made to "…tarry for their suppers untill ten a clocke at night…". When sick, they should be provided with medicine and comforts, the cost of which should not be stopped from their wages (apparently a common practice); and if they died, they should be decently buried - though some employers "…will scarce afford them a winding sheet, but say, anyone that will, bury them for the sake of their clothes…".

The chief secret of a well-run household, however, was choosing the right kind of servants in the first place. Masters foolish enough to employ "…Atheists, Papists, swearers, profane wretches, naughtie vain persons…" could only expect to "…make their houses to be cages of uncleane birds, seminaries of wickedness, and nests of all disorder and perpetuall disquiet…" And serve them right, implied the Puritan manuals.

Male servants were still the majority in households of the 1640s-50s, especially for front of house roles such as serving at table. The general rule is that the grander the household or the earlier in the 17th century, the larger the proportion of male to female servants. Female servants would increasingly grow in numbers after the regrettable Restoration in 1660, when for instance more and more female housekeepers were given positions of authority: but those days were yet to come.

'GENTLEMAN' SERVANTS

Documents of the earlier 17th century sometimes distinguish between 'gentleman', 'yeomen' and 'ordinary' male servants. Among the first category - scarcely servants at all by modern standards - were chaplains, tutors, and most important of all estate stewards, who ran both household and lands and would now be called agents or factors. Drawing a salary vastly greater than that of an ordinary domestic, these men had to be learned in law and agricultural management, and were usually drawn from the minor gentry or at least the educated middle classes. In addition, or where there was no estate attached to a town house, domestic affairs were presided over by a house steward: not quite so grand or well-paid, but still a man of authority, with his own rooms and personal servants.

COOKS AND SCULLIONS

Next in seniority after the steward came the cook, at this time almost invariably male. Celebrity chefs are no modern phenomenon, as witness Robert May, who wrote the most important English 17th century cookery book, The Accomplisht Cook, in 1660, when aged 71 and still in service. May had trained in Paris and London, and French or French-trained cooks could demand and get a salary of up to £20-25 a year, while even the home-grown variety could expect at least £12 (as compared with the steward's £30-40 and the kitchenmaid or scullion‟s annual £2). Having undisputed charge of feeding servants as well as masters, cooks were men to be placated, and not always popular: in 1618 Sir Thomas Overbury satirically observed: "…The servingmen call him the last relique of Popery, that makes men fast against their conscience. He can be truly said to be no man's fellow but his master's: for the rest of his servants are starved by him…".

The cook's immediate kitchen staff included perhaps an under-cook, and certainly several adult male scullions or kitchen men, stereotypically drunken and ruffianly servants who did heavy lifting and the nastiest cleaning jobs, as well as fetching and cleaning vegetables from field or garden - tasks increasingly assigned as the century progressed to female kitchenmaids. There would also probably be a few kitchen-boys, aged from perhaps seven years old upwards. The lowest and most frequently put-upon species of servant, these frequently worked for their keep only, slept wherever they could, and performed such unpopular and uncomfortable jobs as spit-turning and chimney-cleaning.

FRONT OF HOUSE SERVANTS

Very different were the front of house servants: who served at table, usually wore their master's distinctive livery coats, and generally acted as human symbols of his wealth and influence. Of these the most important was the butler, who in some smaller households took the steward's place as the senior male servant. As his title (a version of 'bottler') implies, he was in charge of the household's wine and other drinks, as well usually as its plate and other display tableware. Paid perhaps £6-8 a year, he often presided over service at table, and had to be able to ceremonially carve and present the principal dishes. Under him were a number of liveried serving-men (later usually called footmen), whom Overbury satirised as: "…His life is for ease and leisure, much about gentleman-like… His discretion is to bee carefull for his master's credit, and his sufficiency to marshall dishes at a table, and to carve well…".

The public face of the household, serving-men also ran messages and accompanied and protected their employers on journeys - the greater the liveried attendance, the more important a traveller would appear. The most crucial of the travelling servants (especially after the wars, when coaches became more common) was however the coachman. Paid rather more than a butler or lesser cook, the coachman also often had charge of all the family's horses, and was expected to oversee their shoeing. Along with the postilions who either rode one of the coach-horses or sat on the coach, he had likewise to defend his employer against highwaymen, and attempt to stay sober in the face of attempts to ply him with drink. Accounts of coachmen falling off their vehicles in a dead stupor - often with disastrous results - are however quite common.

Another highly-specialised travelling servant, especially later in the century and in very great households, was the running footman: he literally ran beside the coach, or ahead of it to advertise his master's coming and arrange meals or lodgings at inns. With his staff of office, jockey style cap, often bare feet and revealing kilt-like petticoat breeches, the running footman was necessarily chosen for youth and athleticism as well as good looks: anecdotally he enjoyed great favour with mistresses as well as maids and innkeepers' daughters.

PERSONAL SERVANTS

Another notorious household lady-killer was the personal valet, who looked after his master's clothes and most intimate needs and tended (much to the resentment of fellow-domestics) to regard himself as above all other servants, if a servant at all. Like French cooks, French or Frenchified (or Italianate) valets were fashionable, and so too, for mistresses as well as masters, were good-looking and well-mannered pages. The old tradition of boys from aristocratic or gentry families learning manners as pages (Rowland Laugharne, the Parliamentary commander in Pembrokeshire, had been page to the Earl of Essex) was however rapidly dying out. As their depiction in many portraits shows, the most fashionable pages were black boys - called 'Moors', though many came from the West Indies. Technically slaves, hence the silver collars many of them wore, such novelty pages often enjoyed a fairly pampered and luxurious life, at least until they grew up. Then, if they could avoid sale by ungrateful employers as field workers, they might be nominally freed and promoted to valets or footmen, or (like the 18th century Ignatius Sancho) even set up as wholesale merchants.

OUTDOOR SERVANTS

Perhaps surprisingly in modern eyes, among the highest paid and most sought-after of outdoor servants was the head gardener, whose wages often at least equalled the butler's and might in exceptional cases reach £20 a year. Once again, in a period whose passion for gardens rivals the present decade's, foreign training and a knowledge of garden design and the new exotic plants were at a premium. Like the steward, cook, butler, coachman and other upper servants, the head gardener could also expect a room of his own instead of a bed in a (single-sex) servants' dormitory. It should also be remembered that, like all servants, his keep was provided in addition to his wages. Front of house servants could also expect free livery clothes in their master's colours, while unliveried servants usually had some garments provided annually as part of their employment deal - an important consideration when clothing was comparatively so much more costly than today.

Other important outdoor servants - so far unrepresented in our generally horseless domestic re-enactments - were those connected with riding and hunting: grooms, parkers or gamekeepers, huntsmen and the like. Operating entirely outside the domestic sphere, but often in close association with the men (especially the young men) of the family, these "…light wanton persons…" were sometimes resented by wives and mothers as "…serving onlie to allure a young man to folly, disregard of sober and prudent livinge, and from the proper dutie owed to his family, his countrie and his Maker…".

Rather the view expressed of fellow re-enactors, perhaps, by some of our own loving partners and relations?

FURTHER READING

J.T.Cliffe: The World of the Country House in Seventeenth-Century England: Yale 1999. (Out of print but available remaindered on the Internet.)

G.Waterfield et al: Below Stairs: 400 years of servants' portraits; National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue 2004. (Covers 17th-20th centuries, has some splendid illustrations.)