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“my Beloved And Good Husband…”
Thus Margaret Winthrop to her spouse, the governor of the Bay Colony. Her letters—and John’s in reply—reveal behind the cold Puritan exterior a warm and deeply touching relationship
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
Only in the matter of dress does there seem to have been difficulty in Margaret’s change to Groton, the house that John’s grandfather had bought and which she now called home. Set on a rise overlooking the five hundred acres of the estate and, in the distance, the River Box and the neighboring village of Boxford, Groton Manor was not opulent. But its hall and great parlor, its many chambers, its pantry, buttery, bakehouse, and brewing house were ample. So too were the produce of the garden that fed the family, and the income of the dependent farms, part from crops and part from the rent of tenants, which when combined with John’s income as a lawyer gave them some eighty pounds a year. Within a few years, as John advanced in his profession and inherited the remainder of his father’s estate, his income was to climb to seven hundred pounds.
At Chelmshey, children and guests had filled the house, their care and comfort being the province of Margaret and her mother. Now there was the same flurry at Groton, where Margaret found herself the mother of four children by John’s first wife: John, Jr., Henry, Forth, and Mary. She herself was to bear John eight of her own: Stephen within a year, Adam, Deane, and Samuel; four others died in infancy. Nine servants or more; her mother-in-law, Anne; and John’s unmarried sister, Lucy, lived in the house, too. And there was John’s father, Adam, he who welcomed her to the family as “gentle mistress Margaret” and who wrote gay doggerel to her:
The sweetness of your love Which I did lately taste, Doth make me to affect the same, Even with a mind most chaste For though my youth be past And head is clad with gray, Yet in your love I do rejoice As do the birds in May.
But if the house was crowded with relatives and visitors—the Winthrop clan was large, and Puritan “brothers” and “sisters” were always welcome—it was all too often empty for the bride. As a lawyer, John’s work took him regularly to London, leaving Margaret busy but lonely at Groton. Letters passing between the two give a portrait that belies the coldness usually attributed to the Puritans.
Mundane matters take up much of these letters. There are the errands that John must do for her in London, clothes he must buy, tobacco that his mother wants him to bring back for her. There is the “turkey and two capons and a cheese” that Margaret is always sending to him, the family greetings that must be passed on, the pipe that John is giving up, the caution against “taking cold.” There are sick servants and sick children to report. There is coy confession, a trip Margaret takes without John’s knowledge or permission: “Thou seest how bold I am to take leave to go abroad in thy absence, but I presume upon thy love and consent, or else I would not do it.” ∗ There is talk of the wayward son, Henry. There are religious exhortations from John, too, and once Margaret responds: “Those serious thoughts of your own which you sent me did make a very good supply instead of a sermon.” But above all, these are love letters: My good husband, your love to me doth daily give me cause of comfort, and doth much increase my love to you, for love liveth by love. I were worse than a brute beast if I should not love and be faithful to thee who hath deserved so well at my hands. I am ashamed and grieved with myself that I have nothing within or without worthy of thee, and yet it pleaseth thee to except of both and to rest contented. …
∗The previous quotations from Margaret Winthrop’s letters to her husband in London have been reproduced with the original spellings and punctuation unchanged. In this one and those following, they have been modernized: the vagaries of seventeenth-century orthography often obscure the meaning. — Editor
I am much indebted to you for your loving and long letters that I must needs write a word or two to show my thankfulness and kind acceptance of them, although I can do nothing to equal them or to requite your love; and so I think I had better do a little than not at all, that I may show my willingness to do it though I am ashamed I can do no better. …
What can be more pleasing to a wife, than to hear of the welfare of her best beloved, and how he is pleased with her poor endeavors. I blush to hear myself commended, knowing my own wants; but it is your love that conceives the best and makes all things seem better than they are. I wish that I may be always pleasing to thee, and that those comforts we have in each other may be daily increased as far as they be pleasing to God. I will use that speech to thee that Abigail did to David: I will be a servant to wash the feet of my Lord; I will do any service wherein I may please my good husband. I confess I cannot do enough for thee, but thou art pleased to accept the will for the deed and rest contented.
Your loving and obedient wife