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date: 17 February 2020

Thornton [née Wandesford], Alicefree

(1626–1707)
  • Ann Hughes

Thornton [née Wandesford], Alice (1626–1707), autobiographer, was born on 13 February 1626 in Kirklington, North Riding of Yorkshire, and baptized there the following day. She was the fifth child and youngest daughter in the family of four sons and three daughters of Christopher Wandesford (1592–1640) of Kirklington, lord deputy of Ireland, and his wife, Alice (1592–1659), daughter of Sir Hewett Osborne of Kiveton, Yorkshire. Christopher Wandesford, second Viscount Castlecomer (d. 1719) [see under Wandesford, Christopher (1592-1640)] was her brother. Her father was the kinsman, friend, and protégé of Thomas Wentworth (later first earl of Strafford), and she spent her childhood as the pampered daughter of a prospering family: 'I enjoyed great easiness and comfort during my honoured father's life, having the fortunate opportunity … of the best education that kingdom could afford.' She was educated with Wentworth's daughters in the traditional female pursuits of French, music, dancing, embroidery, and 'other suitable housewifery', besides receiving 'pious, holy and religious instructions' from her parents (Autobiography, 8).

The death of Christopher Wandesford in December 1640 was 'the beginning of troubles in our family' (Autobiography, 26), followed as it was by the public catastrophes of the Irish rising of 1641 and the English civil war. The family escaped to Chester and then settled, much impoverished, on their mother's jointure estates in Yorkshire. On 15 December 1651 Alice married William Thornton (b. 1624), of East Newton, Yorkshire, son and heir of the late Robert, whose parliamentarian connections were seen as useful to her royalist family. William's health was poor, while his improvidence and family quarrels weakened their estate, but on Alice's own account the marriage was an affectionate one and she mourned him sincerely on his early death in 1668. Between 1652 and 1667 Alice gave birth to nine children, five daughters and four sons, only three of whom survived to adulthood. Little is known of Alice's long widowhood: she lived in retirement in East Newton, noted for her charitable and religious activities, and supervised the education and marriages of her children. Her son Robert (1662–1692), an Anglican clergyman, predeceased her.

Alice Thornton's life made little public impact but her 800-odd pages of autobiographical writings, preserved by the Comber family and published, in part, in the nineteenth century, provide a fascinating account of her personality, and more generally, of the family life of a gentlewoman in later seventeenth-century England. It was perhaps the poignant contrast between her privileged youth and the straitened circumstances of her later life that stimulated Alice to write 'my own book of my life, the collections of God's dealings and mercies to me and all mine till my widowed condition' (Autobiography, 259). More immediately the autobiography, several times reworked, was circulated among friends and relatives to vindicate her conduct in a series of family quarrels with her husband's kin, her own niece, and especially with her younger brother Christopher, the eventual heir to the Wandesford estates.

Within a providential framework, Alice Thornton's writings reveal staunch royalist views and a distinctly Anglican Restoration piety expressed through the set forms of the Book of Common Prayer and the regular orderly celebration of the sacraments. They commemorate her father and mother, 'such a holy and sanctified a couple' (Autobiography, 102); and describe, in great detail, her relationships with her siblings, her husband, and her children. They are an invaluable source for women's health problems in this period, especially the 'dangerous perils' of childbirth (ibid., 145), and movingly discuss the traumas of the early deaths of children, which she met with resigned submission to the will of God.

Above all, Alice Thornton's autobiography suggests the tensions between her strong-minded, independent personality and the allotted role of a seventeenth-century woman. While overtly and inevitably she accepts women's subordinate position, there are strong undercurrents of resentment at the restrictions of marriage and at her lost prosperity. She was reluctant, given her 'more than competent fortune', to give up 'that happy and free condition' of a single life and suffered a collapse on her wedding day (Autobiography, 75). When her younger brother tried to challenge her inheritance from her mother:

I told him that though he was now the heir, as being son, yet I was two years the elder by my birth, and though he had got the birthright, yet I ought to have a share of her blessing.

ibid., 120

A sense of her own importance, which survived despite the sadnesses of her adult life and prompted her to tell her own story at such length, is summed up in her quotation of a relative's comment on her autobiography, 'it was not writ as if a weak woman might have done it, but might have become a divine' (ibid., 260).

Alice Thornton died in 1707 in East Newton and was buried on 1 February in the parish church at Stonegrave. Her will indicates a modest estate, although the bulk of her household goods had been settled earlier on her daughters Alice (b. 1654), the widow of Dr Thomas Comber, dean of Durham, and Katherine (b. 1656), wife of Robert Danby of Northallerton, gentleman.

Sources

  • The autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, ed. [C. Jackson], SurtS, 62 (1875)
  • parish registers, N. Yorks. CRO

Archives

  • East Riding of Yorkshire Archives Service, Beverley, autobiography, DDHV/75/1 [copy in BL, RP 2346]

Wealth at Death

modest estate: Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton

Surtees Society
North Yorkshire County Record Office, Northallerton