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Early modern history Women's history

The last will and testament of Dame Helen Branch (1593)

It has taken me far too long, and I really can’t complain about the writing, but I have now finally completed the transcription of the will of my amazing dame, who died the year following the making of this will, at the age of 90.

I’ve put the full transcript below the fold, since in detail it isn’t exactly gripping reading. Any of my early modernist readers who feel like taking a shot at the italicised words (which I can’t identify fully) would be most welcome to do so; also I’d greatly welcome any general thoughts on the contents.

I think Dame Helen broadly fits into the “godly” mould – in fact an expert was telling me her second husband certainly did, but the will seems to me quite light on that sort of rhetoric. (Although of course that might in part be the influence of the scribe.)

Generally the form is pretty standard, but there are a couple of places where I think the words and character of Dame Branch come through – in the preamble when she humbly gives god thanks for being in “perfecte memory” (at the age of 89!) and in the careful listing of all of the jails and hospitals to which money was to go. Also perhaps the way it rambles a little – an old lady just thinking her thoughts out loud, rather than starting at the biggest bequest and working her way down the list.

Her executor is her brother’s son Robert Nicholson (which I already knew), although I didn’t know the brother Beniamyne (possibly Robert’s father – got to chase that) was still alive. He presumably must be also a pretty significant age – some good genes in there, although the fact that Robert got all the work suggests he’s fully “retired”. (All the father gets is a black gown, presumably to attend the funeral.)

One thing that strikes me about the will is how broad Dame Helen’s social circle still is, even at her great age. There are godchildren being left gold rings, lots of neighbours and widows (presumably friends) – although unfortunately many of them have common names, which is going to make them hard to track down.

Interesting too that she wants to be buried as near as possible to her first husband (Mynors), not her second – and that neither husband’s family has an obvious role in her life (although no way of knowing at the moment if there are female relatives from them along the line – at present I know nothing at the Wismans/Wisemans, or the Hide/Hydes or which side cosen Thomas Smyth comes from. Why did he have to have such a common name?!)

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Dame Helen Branch, a 16th-century nonagenarian

Probably a long shot, but I’m on the trail of Dame Helen Branch (or possibly Helena/Helenae) who died – in her nineties – on 10 April 1594 and was buried in St Mary Abchurch in London.

A pamphlet was published containing a poem celebrating her virtues. (Infuriatingly short on detail, as such things usually are.) It is titled A Commemoration of the life and death of the Right worshipfull and vertuous Lady Dame Helen Branch, late wife to the Right Worshipfull Knight Sir John Branch, sometime Lord Maior of the famous Cittie of London, &c. and can even be found on the web here.

It is curious that the poem seems to be widely attributed; to Joshua Sylvester, and to John Phillip[s], also here.

Yet the original pamphlet, which I was holding in my hands today, has a closing signature “W. Har.” – and it is hard to see how you can get either of those names from that. The ODNB says it was written by a William Herbart or Herbert, but not the most famous one of those?! Another source says it was a Sir William Harvey.

Her second husband, Sir John Branch, a draper, was mayor 1580-81.

Her first husband had been a John Mynors, who may have been (if he was a fair bit older than her) the John Mynors who in Lincolns Inn in the Trinity Term of 1494 was, with William Fyllyff and Richard Eryington, fined “for not keeping or preparing the moots for two days as they ought, when divers Benchers were prepared to hear the moots”. (These were formal disputations.) He may have some connection with a composer, William Bryd.

Her father was William Nicolson, her mother Joan.

In the back of the pamphlet is what looks to me like contemporary handwriting recording what seems to have been the epitaph on her tomb, mostly in Latin, but with a bit of English. There’s mentioned in that a Robin? Nicolson, also “JOHANNIS DIINORS” and “CVIBERTI BVCKLE”.

I’d be eternally grateful to anyone who can shed any more light on her life; if I get time tomorrow I’ll probably try to transcibe the handwritten bits in the pamphlet (although working from handwritten Latin IS a challenge.) I’d also welcome any suggestions for other directions of research; I’ve got a few threads, but they are pretty thin.


From blog author Natalie Bennett

Philobiblon started life in July 2004 as a mostly women’s history blog, back in the days when newsreaders still said “a blog is an online diary” every time they used the word. Back then I was working on a history book that became a series of four history books that I still hope to get back to one day. History still has a strong place, although usually with a political slant.

Where does the name come from? This early post explains. And this blog also has a “patron saint”, Anne Clifford.

It’s charted quite a bit of my political life since I joined the Green Party in January 2006, and these days is mostly a books blog (often to record readings/ideas/facts for myself, as well as to share with others – that’s why you’ll often find page references), with an occasional line in short commentary/linkage that won’t fit on Twitter.

A few favourite posts from over the years:

Green politics


Women’s history

You’ll also find my theatre and arts reviews on My London Your London.

I was the founder of the Carnival of Feminists, and was a books editor on

Want to get in touch? Please email.

Books History

Literary London 2006 (Part 1)

I may have been a bit quieter than usual last week, as I spent Thursday and Friday the Literary London 2006 conference. It was the first of these I’ve attended (although it probably won’t be the last), for it is a fascinating combination. Basically focused as the name suggests on literature, it is however, highly welcoming to interdisciplinary approaches, and ranges widely in timeframe, from current, very current, technological “art” back to, well the earliest paper this year was on Chaucer and the “shitty” place of Southwark in his London.

I also presented, for the first time, a paper myself, entitled “Exercises in rhetoric or genuine laments? Four accounts of a ‘bounteous Ladies large beneficence'”, about Dame Helen Branch. The session worked out rather nicely, since one of my fellow panel members, Adam Hanson, from Queen’s University Belfast, was speaking about “William Haughton’s London in Englishmen for my Money,” a play written in 1598, only four years after Dame Helen died, so the two papers were quite complementary, and I was able to refer to his map handout. (Thanks Adam! and thanks to all the commenters on this blog – particularly Clanger and Sharon – for all their help in the research that went into my paper.)

I’m not posting the paper here because I would like to get it published some time and posting might complicate that, but if anyone is interested I’d be happy to send you a copy.

The following is a short collection of notes from the sessions I attended. (Note, these are my thoughts and collected snippets, and should not necessarily be taken as a full reflection of what the speaker said. And I think they are accurate, but it was an intense two days. Caveat rector.)

“John Milton, London writer”: Patrick J. Cook, Washington University
He’s more of a London writer than you think, was the basic thesis. Women and London are both alluring and frightening – the combination explains why London starts as the source of all beauty and ends up as Circe’s cave. (Logical enough for a boy just up from a male-dominated Cambridge.)

Milton was a great walker, but became much more a walker in London after going blind he “became a blind version of John Stowe”. (And when you think about it walking about early modern London – the smells, the noise – manufacture, horses, carts, itinerant traders singing out their wares – must have been pretty amazing, and frightening.)
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A question of rhyme

It is not that history repeats itself, exactly, just that the same debates come up again and again. So it was that when “English literature” was just getting established in the 16th century, there was a concerted struggle over whether poetry should rhyme.

“But the question of rhyme was nor simply a small technical question about the following of ancient models. It was a fundamental element in the definition of poetry itself and the question of its relationship to the other half of the liveral arts, the quadrivium, those arts concerned with measure and proportion. The opponents of rhyme — among whom we may principally number William Webbe and Thomas Campion, along with Ascham himself — all acknowledge the close relationship of poetry to rhetoric, or eloquence in general, and thereby agree that poetry has been a principal source of civil order.” (in Kinney (ed) The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1500-1600, CUP, p. 42)

Webbe was seeking “the means, which we yet want, to discern between good writers and bad, but perhaps also challenge from the rude multitude of rustical rhymers, who will be called poets, the right practice and orderly course of true poetry.” (From A Discourse of English Poetry, 1586, quoted p. 265.)

Looking at some of the rhymes I’m working on now, I kind of wish that they’d won at the time, rather than blank verse having had to wait until the 20th century to win out.

Three of the four pamphlets I’m looking at that are “elegies” for Dame Helen Branch (who died aged 90 in 1594) give her burial date. One doesn’t, which has led me to think that it is likely to have been the earlies, produced before the funeral.

But it has the following lines …

The yeare was fifteene hundreth, ninetie foure,
And grateful Abchurch hath her bones in store.

Now does “in store” suggest something temporary? There were – for reasons on which I am unclear – 18 days between her death and her funeral. (The only possibly explanation I have is that London had been hit by massive, exceptional storms in the weeks before her death, which might have disrupted things?)

Or is it “in store” just because it rhymes with “foure”?

There may be no answer to this, but I am open to suggestions…


A short guide to learning about an early modern pamphlet

Today, at the British Library, I think I really, finally, after a couple of days of flailing around, finally worked out how to approach this simply and systematically. (With a lot of thanks to my commenter Clanger, who sent me in many of the right directions.) So, in case this is of use to anyone else (and for my own future reference), here it is:

Imagine you’ve just found, say in a catalogue, a pamphlet or broadside from the 16th or 17th century that you want to know more about, but all you’ve got at this time is probably an extended title. (And a secondary literature search indicates no one has written anything on it.)

Walk through the rather gloomy doors of the Rare Books Reading Room at the BL, then:

1. Search the English Short Title Catalogue, which is available online at the BL, and I believe most decent uni libraries, to find out particularly where copies are held. There is also a print version. (This will also provide lots more technical data – write it all down, it may make some sense eventually.)

2. If somewhere accessible to you, it is best to get the pamphlet itself, as the actual artefact will tell you more than any copy. (Handwritten annotations often don’t come out on copies.) However, if a trip to the US to consult one pamphlet is out of the question – and lots of them are in America – see if it has been microfilmed (which all of the ones I’ve encountered have been.)

3. But stop – don’t get out the microfilm without checking Early English Books Online – a completely separate database (don’t you wish it was linked to the Short Title Catalogue). All of the microfilmed Early English Books 1475-1650 are on this – taken from the microfilm, but far easier to handle, and to print … (even at the ridiculous BL price of 20p a sheet.)

4. To find out more, try checking the Register of the Company of Stationers (ed. Arber), which is on Open Access in the rare books reading room. (The above two databases may only be available in there too – not sure about that.)

5. If you are trying to find an author only identified by initials, try The Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English literature by Samuel Halkett and John Laing.

(If you are wondering what I’ve been researching there is a listing here.)

Looks simple, doesn’t it. But my search was complicated by the fact that the BL’s copy of Monodia appeared to have been printed with another work by the same author, The Sacrifice of Isaac which was first printed two years earlier. (And it appears that the person who put the stamps on it when it entered the BL thought so too.) The numbering of the leaves of the printing runs A3, A5 etc, then the next item starts B1 etc. And the font and general style seems to be identical.

But it is catalogued separately, and the only other known copy, in the Huntington, has a different call number and also appears separate. I finally solved the mystery by looking at the EEBO image of Isaac, which shows the numbering of it starts at B because there are eight pages of prefatory matter – a letter to the reader, to two of his “beloved friendes” (for which, I think read patrons), and a stray sonnet. These have leaf numbering with “As”.

(Leaf numbering, BTW, means that each sheet has its own number, rather than each side, and it usually seems to start with a letter, followed by a number.)

So now I’ve got lots of info, and a whole heap of new research questions.

There’s one I’m hoping anyone who’s read this far might be able to help me with, specifically the following woodcut image, which is found on both of the elegies of Helen Branch printed by Thomas Creede.

Not quite sure how that is going to come out, so to describe it, the image is of an apparently naked woman holding an open book, wearing a crown over long hair flowing down her back, and striding right foot forward. Behind her is a cloud from which descends a hand holding a sheath of hay/brush (?) that is almost running down her back, or perhaps striking her. The Latin around it reads: Viressit Vvlnere Veritas.

It may be that this is used on other Creede books, maybe all – that’s one of Monday’s projects, but I’d still like to know what it shows…

I’d also love if anyone could point me in the direction of a work dealing with woodcuts and other decorations (fancy letters etc) of these books and pamphlets …!