Agnes Throckmorton: A Jacobean Recusant Widow
Recusant gentlewomen have long been recognised as having played a pivotal role in the preservation of the Catholic religion within early modern England. As women they were protected by their legal and political invisibility, while their gentility provided them with a privileged position within society. While Catholic gentlemen were increasingly coerced into at least outward conformity to the established Church, their wives were able to preserve the Catholic character of the household and to raise their children in the old faith. Recusant gentlewomen also played an important part in the networks that supported the priests in their mission to England. Yet, although they could exploit their overt powerlessness to advantage in some circumstances, recusant gentlewomen inevitably suffered disadvantages because of their sex.1 Among the most disadvantaged of early modern gentlewomen, regardless of religion, was the widowed mother whose young son was the heir to a large estate. All families feared the damage caused by the succession of a minor and the interference in their affairs of the Court of Wards. Recusant mothers had particular fears, because their religion was liable to undermine what maternal rights contemporary society was prepared to recognise. When John Throckmorton died in February 1604, his young son Robert became the heir of his 70-year-old grandfather, Thomas Throckmorton of Coughton and Weston Underwood.2 From that moment his mother, Agnes Throckmorton, became embroiled in a battle to maintain her relationship with her son, defending her rights against both her father-in-law and the state. She also needed to fight in support of the claims of her other children. At the same time the death of her husband removed her legal protection and exposed her to the punitive measures inflicted on recusants. Through studies of the Brownes, viscounts Montague, and of the descendants of Sir Thomas More, Michael Questier has posited the importance of kinship as
a cohesive force within recusant society.3 The following study examines how competing loyalties and interests created tensions within and between kinship circles. It is largely based on the surviving correspondence between Agnes, her father-in-law, and her eldest son, which allows us to gain some insight into the power struggles within the family precipitated by the death of her husband.4 Through it I hope to throw light on the important role of recusant widows in maintaining family cohesion across generations in often difficult circumstances.