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Isham, Elizabeth (bap. 1608, d. 1654), diarist, was baptized on 5 February 1608 at Lamport, Northamptonshire, the daughter of Sir John Isham, first baronet (1582–1651), and Judith (1590–1625), daughter of , ecclesiastical lawyer, of Otterden, Kent. Her younger brother was the scholar and politician . She was educated at home, her curriculum consisting mainly of religious readings, needlework, some poetry reading, and some physical exercise. Her father and grandfather were learned men who collected a library that included many continental works as well as ones of natural science; her own reading, described in her two diaries, indirectly suggests that she had good access to this library, but only via her father and brother. As she wrote in 1638:
my brother lent me Sir Philip Sidney's book (after Spencer), which I heard much commended by some, and others again discommended the reading of such books of love, but I found no such hurt. But I suppose there are play books which are far worse than these which my father would lend me none of (‘Book of Remembraunce’, fol. 26r)
Isham's early education, directed by her mother, focused on habits of writing and reading for spiritual development, memorizing catechism, Biblical stories and prayers, and learning intricate stitching patterns. Later in life she commented on her wish to learn Latin, but ‘could not so well’ (ibid., fol. 28r), and turned instead to the virtues of herbs and flowers. She was extremely close to her mother, Lady Isham, who died when Elizabeth was seventeen; from then on, as the eldest daughter, Elizabeth took on the responsibilities of the domestic management of the house and estate.

Most existing knowledge of Elizabeth Isham's life comes from two sources: a short almanac-type diary that she left (preserved among the Isham papers at Northamptonshire Record Office) and a longer confessional ‘Book of Remembraunce’ which was rediscovered among Princeton's manuscript collection in the early twenty-first century. She never married, although serious negotiations were continued between her father and Sir Erasmus Driden on behalf of his grandson John Driden between April 1630 and May 1631 (‘Now my father thought to marry me’ (diary, fol. 2, entry 22)). Agreement foundered because Sir John Isham felt that the amount that the Dridens were offering for her annual income was not sufficient in the light of her dowry, which was to have been £4000. Extant letters from John Driden and Elizabeth's own ‘Book of Remembraunce’ suggest the couple were eager to marry, although Elizabeth displayed conflicting feelings about both the courtship and the marriage. She later described marriage as ‘not to be agreeable to my natural inclination’ (ibid., fol. 72r), but simultaneously expressed a wistful regret for a lost life. Thereafter her life was spent in helping with the responsibilities of the Lamport estate, including some charity visiting, helping with the accounts, a huge amount of intricate sewing for her family, and, after her brother's marriage, helping to educate his young daughters, who are mentioned with great affection in the diary. She was responsible for the beehives on the estate, and records regular swarming and the volume of honey collected. During the years of the civil war she and her father were left at Lamport while Justinian was at Oxford with the king, and she educated and cared for his daughters. Her diary does record a few of the political events of these years. For example to her catalogue of the weather in 1642 she adds visitors, deaths, teaching her niece, sewing, and that the ‘King fled to London’ (ibid., fol. 4); in 1645 she notes simply ‘Naseby field’, although she later annotates ‘God be praised at [his] scaping’ (ibid.). It is known, from a letter of her brother's, that in 1644 parliamentary forces broke into the house, disturbing her and the children. She mentions this only obliquely: ‘soldiers 3 or 4 days’ (ibid.).

Elizabeth Isham's two diaries seem to have served different functions, reflected in their form and appearance. The sketchier diary (held in Northamptonshire Record Office) is composed in the manner and form of an almanac or aide-memoire, divided into small squares, each representing a year of her life. The first three squares—for the years between four and seven—are relatively empty. Subsequently each year from eight to forty is described, with later additions for some of the early and middle years, particularly as regards religious reading and spiritual feelings. It is unclear when exactly she began the diary but each basic annual entry is given retrospectively, perhaps at the end of the year, while both the earliest entries and some of the spiritual observations are clearly made much later. Her key reading is noted in both diaries, and became increasingly religious as she aged, although she also records reading Sidney, Spenser, and Chaucer. The ‘Book of Remembraunce’ is a discursive spiritual and biographical reflection, consisting of 38 handwritten folios, produced in 1638, for personal self-reflection and familial education: ‘not that I intend to have this published, but to this end I have it in praise a than[k]fulness to God and for my own benefit, which it may do my brother or his children any pleasure, I think to leave it to them’ . The spiritual diary models itself on St Augustine's Confessions and engages in the habit of puritan self-examination. It records key moments in her spiritual development, her reading, and emotions and feelings about her family and suitor. It is a rare and valuable insight into the interior life of a seventeenth-century noblewoman. Both diaries record the spiritual and domestic life and responsibilities of the sister of a more famous brother. Isham died on 11 April 1654, after a short illness, and was buried at Lamport church.

Kate Aughterson

Sources  

E. Isham, diary, Northants. RO, IL 3365 · E. Isham, ‘Book of Remembraunce’, Princeton University Library, Robert Taylor collection, RTCO1 (no. 62) · The correspondence of Bishop Brian Duppa and Sir Justinian Isham, 1650–1660, ed. G. Isham, Northamptonshire RS, 17 (1951) · E. Isham, letters, Northants. RO, L.197; L.199–20 · M. E. Finch, The wealth of five Northamptonshire families, 1540–1640, Northamptonshire RS, 19 (1956) · parish register, Lamport, Northamptonshire, 5 Feb 1608 [baptism] · digital editions of Isham's ‘Diary’ and ‘Book’, www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ren/projects/isham/, accessed on 6 Sept 2012 · I. Stephens, ‘The courtship and singlehood of Elizabeth Isham, 1630–1634’, HJ, 51 (2008), 1–25 · I. Stephens, ‘“My cheefest work”: the making of the spiritual autobiography of Elizabeth Isham’, Midland History, 34 (2009), 181–203 · A. Cotterill, ‘Fit words at the “Pitt's Brink”: the achievement of Elizabeth Isham’, Huntingdon Library Quarterly, 73 (2010), 225–48 · M. Ezell, ‘Elizabeth Isham's book of remembrance and forgetting’, Modern Philology, 109 (2011), 71–84

Archives  

Northants. RO, papers · Princeton University, papers


Wealth at death  

£400 p.a.: Finch, Wealth; letters from or about Elizabeth Isham, Northants. RO