The Moreton Papers
A group of research volunteers at the Hall have been using their spare time wisely during the Covid lockdown. They have been working on a project to transcribe the Moreton family letters, held at the British Library. Abigail Greenall, a PhD student from the University of Manchester working in collaboration with the National Trust, photographed copies of the letters and made them available to the volunteers. The project is still underway, but the team have already discovered much of interest in connection with the Moreton family.
The letters of Peter Moreton (1601 - 58) cover the time when he had left both Little Moreton Hall and his education at the University of Cambridge to find employment down in London.
His correspondence, mainly to his father, sheds a great deal of light onto the life of a young man in the first half of the 17th century. They not only give an insight into the troubled times in Europe in this period, but also the lifestyle, difficulties and emotions that Peter himself experienced.
The letters also give us an understanding of his relationship with his father, other relatives and the many statesman, ambassadors and noblemen he met and worked for.
For a while he had some difficulty finding employment, until he was recommended to Sir Isaac Wake, the English ambassador to Venice, by Master Welde. The Welde family were acquainted with the Moreton family and Peter refers to John and William Welde as his cousins.
Sir Isaac Wake employed him as his secretary and appeared to be impressed by the young Peter. In a letter written in January 1625 to Master Welde he wrote:
“These are to give you an account of your frend whom you did recommend unto mee whose faire cariage & good disposition hath gaigned so much uppon my affection to him that sorrowing to see him loose his time, & not being able to serve mee at the present in that which he & I do most desire.”
Peter did not speak Italian at the time, and the letter goes on to say:
“I have sent him to Padoua, where I hope he will sooner learne the language then he could have donne in my howse, & when he can either write or copy Italian, I shall find worke for him to his liking.”
Thus Peter’s career began as Sir Isaac’s secretary, which would entail many visits to continental Europe, particularly to Venice and Turin.
During this time, he would always refer to Sir Isaac as My Lord and to his wife as My Lady, and they both showed him great kindness.
After Sir Isaac’s death, Peter found himself in difficulty as he struggled to find stable employment. At one point, he was in the employ of Lord Feilding and his letters tell us that he had not been paid for 34 months. He had somehow managed to find himself in a 17th century zero hours contract!
War in Europe
Europe at that time was in the midst of the 30 years war and was a volatile region. The war lasted from 1618 to 1648. It started as a battle between the Catholic and Protestant states that formed the Holy Roman Empire. However, as the war evolved, it became less about religion and more about who would ultimately govern Europe. Many of Peter's letters recount the events of this war such as the battles and sieges that took place.
Here he describes a first-hand account of the siege of Breda in September 1624:
“Breda is yet besieged without any shott made upon the towne: Our 4 last Coronells have beene with his Excellency at the takeing of Cleve, which yielded upon the first summons, but the castle stood out till night, when having her Captaine & som 13 soldiers Slaine the rest abandoned it, being permitted to goo onely with there swords by their sides: it is said they are now coming downe to make a passage through the enemy into Breda.”
Peter’s letters continued to report on the war throughout, and his father had his own personal war correspondent keeping him up to date; he would be much better informed than most as to developments on the continent!
Peter also suffered from a period of ill health which gives some insight into the medical terminology of the time.
In September 1631 in Westminster, Lady Wake is looking after him:
“I continued not long enough when I was last in England, my phisicke for the scurbute which lingered upon mee all the tyme of my last absence; but my Lady who doth pretend to have a most singular remedy for that disease, doth prepare for mee of her owne makeing & I have allready on 6 dayes using it, found this benefitt; that my apetite is well amended, & I sleepe much better than I used to doe. I suspect my spleene may bee distempered.” Note. Scurbute is Scurvy
Travel in the 17th century was somewhat slower than it is today. Peter relates being stuck in Dover waiting for the right weather conditions to set sail for Calais. In the next letter he reports on the journey:
“Wee had a fayer wind which wafted us from Dover to Callis in 4 howers.”
This was with a good wind. The ferry now takes 90 minutes!
The journey did not end there as he was going to Turin. In a letter a month later, he recounts crossing the Alps into Italy:
“wee have marched over the Montaines of Savoy with good successe (god bee thanked) yet not without som difficulty of raine, snow, and cold weather.”
Asking for money
A great deal of letters written to his father also included requests for money as he always seemed to be hard up. This was in addition to the £30 per annum allowance that his father had granted him. In today’s money that would be about £4000. Furthermore, these requests were also on top of his salary for working as a secretary.
In a letter from Sir Isaac Wake to Master Welde, he told him he intended to pay Peter 13 Ducats a month for “dyet and lodgings”. The Ducat was a gold or silver coin used as a trade in Europe at the time and could be regarded as a 17th Century Euro!
But his letters were not all about the war and money; they did provide an insight to the relationships within the Moreton family and something of their character.
In a letter to his father he writes:
“I have sent you your tobacco pipes, your spectacles, and am in going to provide the grasses if possiblie I can. You shall receive likewise a forbidden booke, compiled if my judgment faile not (for it depends but uppon circumstances) by one Lithgoe, a traveller and excellent scoller”
From this it can be ascertained that William Moreton III smoked a pipe, wore spectacles and read books. Note: Lithgoe was reputed to be a spy.
He would always end his letters by sending his love to his mother, father, sisters, brothers and very often his ‘cousin’ Rode. There is within all the letters that the brothers wrote to their father, and to each other, a sense that this was a deeply connected family who had a lot of love and respect for each other.
Very often the cousins, brothers and sisters were not actually related to him in that way; they were either distant relatives or friends of the family.
One of his ‘sisters’ who he refers to as Sister Leversage (a half-sister Dorothy) got herself into some considerable trouble over a dishonest property dealing and ended up in court, much to Peter’s embarrassment, as he writes in a letter in Oct 1631:
“I shall blush, & account my selfe scandalised in having hir soe foule faults published in such a place.”
There was also some family strife regarding his brother John, who was the black sheep of the family. He led an expensive life in London, could not get a job and made a disastrous marriage. As the eldest son, he should have been the brother to inherit Little Moreton Hall, but his father cut him out of his inheritance.
Peter wrote about this in 1624:
“I mentioned my brother Johns unfortunate proceedings: the prologue to his after acts you were noe stranger to; & since your departure, his freinds have beene, to their greife, the weeping witnesses of his miserable catastrophee to them: I writ how hee had marryed his wife directly contrary to any freinds concent, and soe hath forfeited his birthright, & cut himselfe of from ever enjoying his inheritance:”
Thank you for reading. Watch this space for more articles about the letters, as we continue with the project.