bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A disordered sister and her unwomanly boldness

Posted in Offbeat observations, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 28 September, 2015

A last will and testament is by its nature a formulaic document. It opens with assurance that the person expressing their wishes is of sound mind, lists the bequests to family, friends and institutions, and closes by establishing the executors who are to see to the fulfilment of the will. Within the standard wording and the list of gifts, so defined by cultural convention, there are moments of light when a human voice seems to speak above the murmur of what is standard and expected.

One such passage comes from the will of a man whose posthumous reputation has been, at best, ambivalent. Otho Nicholson was an agent for James I, whose task was to help fill the royal coffers and, by the bye, enriched himself. He seems not to have had any university education but was one of those who sought to create an assocation for himself later in his life: he provided Oxford with a water-supply reaching the city at Carfax Conduit. One of the pipe-lines from the conduit was reserved for Christ Church, whose Library Nicholson also ‘restored’ (and so he appears in the introduction to the catalogue of Christ Church’s manuscripts, the revisions of which I am now completing). We might like to think that Nicholson was virtuous for being a benefactor without even a sense of pietas to impel him to his generosity; the less maganimous might see in his ostentatious donations a desire to buy respectability.

His good deeds in Oxford are remembered in his will, but only briefly. The larger sequence of bequests is reserved for friends like Fulke Greville and, all the more, for his family. Through them we might be able to trace his extended family tree but little here tells of what he thought of his relatives – except for one passage. Here it is:

Item I give unto my disordered Sister Anne Lee one Annuitie of Ten pounds per Annum To be payde to her quarterlye duringe her liefe Uppon condicion nevertheless that shee leave her unwomanly boldnes in gaddinge daylye to the Courte and troublinge the King, Queene, Prince and divers honourable Lordes and Ladyes there with her Counterfeitt clamors (as heretofore she has too often done) And that shee give herself to a civill carriage of lyfe and followe her needle for her better manytenans Shee having good knowledge to use the same…

You sense how Nicholson’s heart sank when sister Anne walked in the room, how he must have feared the good contacts he had made at court might be undermined by what he perceived by her meddling. We also get sight of what was considered to be a more appropriate lifestyle for a lady – and might wonder whether Anne stuck the needle through the cloth a little sharper when thinking of her patronising brother. Most of all, perhaps, we might feel that, among the references to people who are little more than names in this will, she comes alive and is someone whom, in her fiestiness, we might like to meet.

There is a coda to this: Nicholson’s will was proven in July 1622 but it was found that the lavish range of bequests that he had so thoroughly arranged exceeded the monies remaining at his death. Perhaps, then, Anne never received her annuity and was thus free to continue gadding daily to the Court.


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  1. kathrinluddecke said, on 29 September, 2015 at 9:25 am

    Coincidentally, I’d never before heard of Otto Nicholson but having cycled up Harcourt Hill to see the conduit house where the water supply that went down to Oxford starts (thanks to Open Doors), his name is now familiar! Good to find out a bit more about him and, of course, Anne.

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