This is the final post in a series on a particular seafaring family from the seventeenth century with a habit of being called Thomas. Pevious posts introduced ‘Thomas snr’, ‘kinsman Thomas’, and ‘Thomas jnr’ and his brother Caleb, following their fortunes as much as possible through the available sources, especially their wills. In this post, I want to step back and think about what they tell us in a boader sense (so if you haven’t read the other three posts yet, a) why not? and b) it might be a good idea if you want to make sense of this one).
First of all, it is worth saying that everything I have found out about this family, so far, has come from documents which are available online. Research on the internet is a theme that has come up before on this blog, mostly from my own experiences both in working with online sources and in teaching. The resources that are accessible on the internet are, frankly, brilliant; for example, when teaching an undergraduate module on seventeenth-century sources last year, I found a great deal of content for students to look at, some of it more ‘conventional’ (collections of records that have long been staples for historians), some of it more unorthodox and experimental. Most of the resources I used found their way into my bundlr bundles, and I am always on the lookout for more. Gathering evidence on the Trenchfields, which was really an unexpectedly productive sideline to my recent work, brought this home to me once again. Perhaps it doesn’t need saying, but the greatest two benefits are access and speed; people can now get hold of resources without travelling to distant archives, libraries, or other repositories, and in a few days you can gather material that might once have taken weeks to find.
Of course, it’s not all simple and great. While making digital copies can help to preserve originals, there is much debate amongst historians and archivists about whether scans or photographs can ever replace the ‘real thing’, and what the implications of using these copies are. Besides that, there are two aspects of digital collections that are quite worrying. The first is the question of privileged access: students and staff at universities, museums, and similar places can rely on institutional subscriptions to get them into many databases and collections, but for those outside the ivory tower – and even those on the inside, when certain collections are too expensive or too niche for universities to purchase subscriptions – these resources are not all free, and some are very pricy indeed. The cost of digitisation, transcription and so on may mean that archives have to rely on a commercial model in order to get these collections online, and sometimes the fee might be cheaper than the cost of travel to an archive, working out quite fairly for both archives and researchers. There are also some fantastic initiatives, such as the Text Creation Partnership, which today has begun to make transcriptions of early modern books freely available. Even so I still wonder (as I wrote in this post some time ago) why, when Open Access is being demanded for publicly-funded research, it is not also demanded for collections held by public archives or similar institutions.
The other problem with online sources – and this is another consistent topic that crops up when introducing such resources to students – is the need to understand their context, and to resist habit-forming, i.e. accessing online resources (and only online resources) just because they are easy to access. Record-keeping has always been political; people keep records about things that they think are important, and records also tend to be kept by the powerful, which is why so many documents deal with government activity, why books or papers concerning the rich and (in)famous have often been preserved, and why there are so many gaps in the evidence. It is also why, if you are a social historian used to sifting large volumes for small gems, something as vivid and personal as Thomas snr’s will is so exciting. With online sources, there is an additional layer of politics around what has been digitised, which is usually what archivists now think is important, or perhaps what commercial publishers think will be profitable, although in both cases this is often decided in consultation with experts from various fields. Put simply, not everything survives, and only a tiny proportion of what survives has found its way online (yet), and we need to bear this in mind both when choosing where to look for our evidence, and when deciding what to do with it. Or, as it is often expressed, searching on Google can be a good place to start, but that is all it is.
As my first priority when I began looking into the Trenchfields was to establish the family members and their connections, it is lucky that some of the best sources for this – their wills – have indeed been digitised by The National Archives, although they are not free to download without a subscription. As I mentioned in the first post of this series, wills have attracted a lot of attention amongst social historians since the mid-twentieth century; this book – reviewed here – is probably the best introduction to English probate records. They are particularly good for reconstructing family networks, although (as discussed in the second post) there are some limitations to this. Indeed, my feeling when reading the Trenchfield wills was rather ‘down the rabbit hole’, with each will opening up a new series of people to investigate. The major problem with wills is that they are often regarded as formulaic documents, defined as much by legal requirements as by the wishes of testators. Debate has centred around religious preambles – where the testator bequeathed their soul to God, and made arrangements for their bodily remains – which were once thought to reflect popular religious attitudes, but were actually often inserted by the will-writing clerk (who might use the same phrasing for many people’s wills) rather than the will-maker. On the other hand, the very formularity of wills could be a bonus in making them comparable if working with large numbers. In either case, the wills of Thomas snr and kinsman Thomas were so unusual that the question of formula does not apply as much as it might. Maria Fusaro, with whom I have been working on this, pointed out to me that wills in Venice, including those of English merchants resident there, were often narrative in form. It is possible, then, that Thomas snr picked up this approach during his time there, and so wrote some of his own story into his last will and testament.
A more serious problem with wills, like many other sources, is that they tend to tell us far more about men than women; although women as testators themselves are not unknown, they appear far more often as inheritors, executors, and recipients of bequests, due to the legal status of daughters and wives, who were not supposed to own property. At least nine individual women were mentioned in the three Trenchfield wills I have looked at, but in these sources they were defined by their relationships to the men who wrote them. Thomas snr’s will left bequests to his wife Margaret (or Margott), his daughter Martha (the will also names her husband Gregory Clements, another important merchant), his granddaughter Judith (Martha’s daughter), his sisters Margaret, Mary, and Susan (only Margaret and Susan are given surnames, so presumably they were married or his sisters-in-law), and kinsman Thomas’s wife (but not by name). Kinsman Thomas’s will was a letter addressed to his wife Elizabeth, in which he mentioned ‘our mother’, ‘Aunt Trenchfield’ (probably Thomas snr’s wife Margaret), and Caleb’s wife (again, not by name). Caleb’s will names only his wife, Judith. Besides their wills, I found quite a bit on the four eponymous men (and some of their male family and friends), but very little on the lives of these nine women. It is fairly clear from kinsman Thomas’s will that Elizabeth was an important figure in the family’s maritime business, and his tone towards her is deeply affectionate, while Margaret Trenchfield acted for herself in lawsuits in the late 1640s (see HCA 24/109/10 and HCA 13/121, answer of Margott Trenchfeild, 25 April 1649) which suggests that she was similarly involved, or at least took over her husband’s commercial affairs after his death. I have found nothing else yet about Judith, or the nature of her marriage to Caleb, although in his book A cap of gray hairs, for a green head Caleb had some decidedly patriarchal advice for his son on how to choose a wife. In recovering this family’s story, then, at least half of the story remains untold, although more may come to light by digging in the right places; this particularly clearly reveals the limitations of the online sources that I used for this study.
So, for all its problems, what can this sort of research reveal? I think the example of the Trenchfields raises two issues in particular; the importance of family, and its connection to social mobility in the early modern period. Both of these have received attention from historians, indeed have been debated vigorously, and these are just some very limited comments drawn from one case. I would argue that these documents show how family was very important; the wills give only traces of relationships which must have been complex, but it is evident that individuals relied upon fellow family members personally and professionally. Both kinsman Thomas and Caleb appear to have had help from an uncle at a pretty important moment in their lives, and kinsman Thomas’s letter to Elizabeth suggests that she acted for their trading interests at home. We might also reflect on the cultural implications of family; Thomas snr described a grandmother whom he cannot have met as a heroic Protestant martyr, suggesting perhaps a story handed down in the family circle, and there are hints in Caleb’s writings that he too had listened to tales from his father which he still remembered years later. There is, perhaps, a danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy here; we might expect Thomas snr’s religious views to be passed down to his sons, and hey presto, one of them was a minister who wrote (semi-)religious books, which therefore must have been because of his father’s views. Such potentially circular logic is of course dangerous, although in this one case I think there actually is sufficient evidence to suggest such intergenerational continuity of belief (on generations and early modern religious change, see Alex Walsham’s article on ‘the reformation of the generations’). We should be similarly cautious with the idea of social mobility. The Trenchfields could suggest that seafaring was ‘meritocratic’, with Thomas snr rising from humble origins in Ipswich to financial and social prominence, kickstarting his nephew’s career, claiming the elite title of ‘esquire’ for himself and ensuring that his sons and grandson remained at roughly the same social level, although Caleb’s declining circumstances are a reminder that social mobility can be a two-way street. This is a possible scenario, but thinking about the examples of kinsman Thomas and Caleb, I wonder if Thomas snr’s origins were as humble as he suggested, or whether he also had some assistance from family or friends in the early stages of his career. Another sailor later in the seventeenth century, Edward Barlow, complained in his journal (a printed edition was published in 1934) that he never secured command of a ship because he lacked the right contacts; even if Thomas snr was very successful, we shouldn’t assume the same opportunities were available to everyone.
The final point to make, then, is that one of the most important things about research is that you never know where it will lead you. What began as a fairly specific question (how many Thomas Trenchfields were there, and how were they related?) revealed an unusually detailed family history, an incomplete one based only on online sources and one which neglects the female members of the family, but nevertheless one which allows us a privileged glimpse of a series of lives and how they influenced one another in many different ways. I think that’s rather a positive note to finish on for my first post of 2015. Happy new year!