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Our work: the Moreton Papers

Stained glass crests in the Great Parlour at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
Stained glass crests in the Great Parlour at Little Moreton Hall | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Our research volunteers used their spare time wisely while the property was closed due to Covid. They worked on a project to transcribe the Moreton family letters held at the British Library, with some support from our collaborative PhD researcher Abigail Greenall. Read on to discover the fascinating contents of these letters, which provide a valuable glimpse into the political and religious strife throughout Europe in the 17th century.

Peter Moreton (1601–58)

The letters of Peter cover the time when he had left both Little Moreton Hall and his education at the University of Cambridge to find employment in London.

His correspondence, mainly to his father, sheds a great deal of light on 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 throughout this period, but also the lifestyle, emotions and difficulties that Peter himself experienced.

Work highs and lows

For a while Peter 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 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."

Thus Peter’s career began as Sir Isaac’s secretary, which would entail many visits to continental Europe, particularly to Venice and Turin.

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 Fielding but his letters tell us that he was not 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 Thirty Years' War (1618-48) and was a volatile region. Many of Peter's letters recount the events of this war, such as the battles and sieges that took place.

Here he narrates 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 conflict, so his father had his own personal war correspondent keeping him up to date!

A period of illness

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 was 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.” NB. ‘scurbute’ is scurvy.

Slow travel

Travel in the 17th century was somewhat slower than 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!

Asking for money

A great deal of letters written to his father also included requests for money. This was in addition to the £30 per annum allowance his father had granted him (about £4,000 in today’s money). Furthermore, these requests were also on top of his salary for working as a secretary.

In a letter from Sir Isaac to Master Welde, he told him he intended to pay Peter 13 ducats a month for “dyet and lodgings”. The ducat was a coin used in European trade at the time and could be regarded as a 17th century euro.

Family relationships

Peter’s letters weren’t all about war and money: they also provide an insight into the relationships and characters within the Moreton family. In a letter to his father he wrote:

“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.” NB: 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.

There was also some family strife regarding his brother John, who was the black sheep of the family. He led an extravagant life in London, could not get a job and had 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:”

Detail of the stained glass wolf's head crest in the Great Parlour at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire
A Tudor pun - the Maw (wolf's head) and Tun (barrel) used to pictorially represent the family name of Moreton | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

William Moreton (1598– ?)

A life at sea

William, one of Peter’s older brothers, was originally going to follow a career in law but then set his heart on travelling at sea. It was perhaps not what his father had in mind for him as, in this letter written in March 1618, he seems to be asking his father’s permission:

“Wherefore loving father I entreate you now to fulfil and graunt mee my desire, that is to give mee leave to follow the sea, which kinde of life I ferst undertooke, and you gave your consent to, for there my minde is, and I hope that if you will but give mee your blessing and your good will I shall bee both a comfort to you, and to all my frendes.”

Things moved rather slowly, but in November of 1619 he was about to set sail on the East India Company ship The Unity with his ‘cousin’ Matthew. He thought he was bound for India, but we actually know he was going to the East India Company factory in Java. It seems his geography was not brilliant.

“My cosen is now bounde for the East India in a ship called the Unytie of London, and hath a promisse for to have a pursers mates place for mee, w[hic]h will bee a place of good meanes to mee.”

A lengthy journey

His letter to his father of March 1620 shows it took about five months to get to Java, which was not unusual for a 17th century sailing ship. Not only did progress depend upon wind direction, but they also had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope.

“Wee aryved heere in India within 6 monthes after our departure from England in good health and safety god make us thankfull. My cosen Mathew hath an intent to place mee in a factorye as an under marchant…

If you could by the next shiping send mee some coulered hats, and a paire or 2: of silke stockings and wosted by that time I dare presume to returne you the doble worth in Indian commodityes.”

It appears that coloured hats and silk stockings were essential wear for the East Indies in the 17th century. Hopefully William was not desperate for the new clothes: this letter would have had to go on the next ship back to England, then make its way on horseback to Cheshire. The clothing would then have been sent back down to the south coast to go on the next ship to Java. All in all, the best part of a year!

We only have eight letters written by William and the last one is from Virginia where he was on a tobacco plantation, in which he once again asked for a delivery of clothes.

Philip Moreton (1611–69)

Political gossip

Philip was often unemployed but did eventually find a position in London. He wrote a number of letters to his father from the City, sometimes sharing gossip and scandal. In July 1641 he wrote:

“The charges against the judges came out in print about 3 dayes since, wherein judge Berkley stands charged of Treason; And the rest of the judges that deliver there opinion for the King in the case of Ship money.”

Ship money was a tax typically levied on the inhabitants of coastal areas of England. The attempt of King Charles I, from 1634 onwards, to levy ship money during peacetime and extend it to the inland counties of England without Parliamentary approval provoked fierce resistance and was one of the grievances of the English propertied class in the lead-up to the Civil War.

This was a time of religious upheaval, and Philip reports on the actions of the House of Commons as they tried to quash Holy Communion in September 1641:

“There came an order on Friday last from the house of Commons, to take away the Railes from the Communion tables in every Church to remove the table from the East end of the Church, into some other convenient place, and to levell the Chancells, And that all cruxifixes, present should be taken away, And that the bowing att the name of Jesus shall be forbore.”

The plague in London

The plague was present in London in 1636 and killed about 10,000 people in the capital that year. In the early 17th century the population of London was about 200,000, so about 5% died. This was nothing compared to the Great Plague in 1665. The population of London had then risen to about 400,000 and 100,000 died of the disease.

Although shipping was quarantined, there appear to have been no other measures such as closing the taverns, so there was no lockdown like what we experienced recently. That said, the rich (including the king) fled the city to escape the plague. 

Philip writes in December 1636:

“I hope you will be please (considering the danger of the tymes by reason of the contagion) to excuse the breach of my promise made unto you at your last being in London which was monethly to expresse my duty unto your selfe and my mother by a llettre, which I will here after (god willing) more faithfully peforme, I cannot nowe enforme of any newes, but as soone as I heare of any I will in a lettre relate the same unto you; Onely this weeke the sicknes is much abated from 312 unto 167 Soo with my humble duty rememberd unto your selfe and my mother my love to my brothers and sisters I rest.”

Sending goods home

As well as providing the latest news, Philip also continued to furnish his father’s tobacco habit and send other items. For instance, in May 1642 he wrote:

“I have sent you by Buckley a pound of that tobaccoe which you wrote to me for and 2 sticks of wax, I have enquired but cannot yett heare of any bookes in English which were wrote my master Meade.”

Buckley’s name features many times in Philip and Peter’s letters, and he appears to be a regular carrier of post between London and Cheshire. The sticks of wax mentioned would be used for sealing letters with their melted ends and a seal stamp. And ‘master Meade’ was probably Joseph Mede, an English scholar with a wide range of interests.

The Civil War

In April 1642, Philip related this news to his father:

“It is reported here that the king will be att Chester the latter end of the next weeke. There is an answer (lately come forth in Printt) of his Majestie to a peticion proferred to him by both the houses of Parliament; which I will send you downe by Buckley.”

It is noticeable in the letters of Philip and his brothers the lack of reference to Royalists or Parliamentarians in the conflict. This was undoubtably wise as the post was lost or intercepted on many occasions, and it would have been unwise to be seen to take sides. Philip remarked on mail not being delivered a number of times.

The Civil War was a time of great instability, and the Moreton family were gravely affected when William Morton III was imprisoned, probably for his Royalist leanings. This is recorded in a letter from Philip in January 1643:

“I understand by my sister Anne her letter that you have obtayned your liberty, and that you are in good health and have bine ever since your ymprisonment, all which I am exceedinge glad to heare.”

Things did not improve for the Moretons, as later that year Parliamentarian troops were billeted to Little Moreton Hall. The Civil War was a turning point in the family's fortunes and, from this point on, the Hall fell into decline.

Looking through an archway sided by panels with stained-glass windows into the inner courtyard at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire. The decorative black-and-white exterior of the Tudor house is visible on the other side of the courtyard, which has light gravel on the ground.


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