The Crankiest Woman in England: Elizabeth Freke and her Money
By Sarah Skwire
Elizabeth Freke is widely acknowledged to have been the crankiest woman in England in the 17th century. The editor of her diary, Raymond Anselment, justly describes her life as one of “medicine, money, and misery.”
I think economists would find her fascinating.
Freke’s misery begins when she marries a dissolute cousin without her father’s knowledge or support. She would be the first to agree with that assessment, heading up her journal with a note indicating that it is “Some few remembrances of my misfortuns [that] have attended me in my unhappy life since I were marryed.”
These misfortunes are primarily economic, and Freke’s diary provides us with a grim picture of the economic life of women when coverture was still the law of the land. Coverture was the notion, in law, that wives were “covered” by their husbands, and that the married couple existed legally as one person. This meant, in effect, that married women were largely unable to own property, retain the rights to any income, and decide what to do with their possessions. The few property rights women did have were, at best, unreliably enforced.
In February of 1673, Freke’s father forgave her unwise marriage far enough to give her a mortgage worth 500 pounds a year on a property near London so that she “might nott bee disapoynted of a subsistance for my life.” Her husband promptly sold the property for a little over 5600 pounds. “Which niether my deer father, my selfe, or my 5 trustees did know any thing of.”
This is the pattern for the rest of Freke’s marriage. She obtains money or property. Her husband sells it, spends it, or is swindled out of it. Add in a son who doesn’t fulfill his financial obligation and a variety of disputes with tenants, and Elizabeth Freke seems to have experienced nearly every variety of economic misfortune. While we might admire a more cheerful and resigned response to such problems, Freke’s blunt record of her continual disappointments is more revealing for the historical and economic record. Anyone wanting to convey the importance of clearly delineated and institutionally supported property rights should take a serious look at Freke’s diary.
One of the most interesting documents Freke left behind–along with her diary, letters, scrupulous household accounts and inventories of household goods–is a detailed “Account of whatt I laid outt on the sicknes, death, and buriall of my deer husband…paid by me, Elizabeth Frek, his unhappy wife.”
This is where Econlog readers will really have fun. How much did it cost to buy 3 dozen lemons and oranges in 1705? 12 shillings. Elizabeth Freke writes it down.
Does white wine from Lisbon cost more than hock? It does. Elizabeth Freke writes it down.
How much did she spend on a new wicker chair for the invalid that “he would never use or sitt in”? 10 shillings. Elizabeth Freke writes it down.
We know what she spent to have him bled. To feed the mourners. To buy gold mourning rings and black gloves for the funeral attendants.To purchase a lead lined coffin.
It’s a little grim, a little funny, and a little heart-breaking to picture Freke, widowed and suspicious of everyone around her, recording every detail of the money spent on the death of a husband who spent and wasted nearly all her money when he was alive. But her decision to do so assured that–while her wasteful husband has been forgotten–her diary, and her record of the wrongs done to her, survives to bear witness more than 300 years later.