In the reign of Elizabeth I, a Chrishall woman set up charities for the benefit of the poor of a number of villages.
Who was this Chrishall lady? How was she so wealthy and why did she give so generously?
Her name was Lettice Martin and in 1568, when she made her will, she described herself as a widow living in Chrishall.
As many of you will know, there is a house in Chrishall called Martinholme, where it was thought that she may have lived. However it is unlikely that that was the case as it was probably built some considerable time after she died.
It is more likely that she lived in one of two manor houses in Chrishall at the time, Chrishall Bury, which was located in Bury Lane, on the other side of the road to the church, or Crawley Bury, which may have been situated in the field between Wire Farm and the pond and Faerie Cottage. Both manor houses were owned by her nephew, Thomas Crawley, who died in 1559 (9 years before Lettice’s will) leaving two little girls.
Lettice’s life remains something of a mystery.
She was born Lettice Crawley, (sometimes written as Crowley or Crowle) probably around 1508 – the year before Henry VIII came to the throne.
Her name, Lettice, has caused some confusion over the years. It used to be thought it was pronounced like the salad vegetable, but it seems likely that Lettice herself would have pronounced it Le-ttice (think of Letitia).
Lettice lived through Henry’s six marriages and divorces/beheadings, as well as the reigns of Edward VI and Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary as she is sometimes known) and into Elizabeth I’s reign. She would have seen the dissolution of the monasteries and the break from Rome, the protestant years of Edward VI (which seems to be when her nephew acquired both the Chrishall manor houses), the return of Catholicism under Mary and the return again to Protestantism under Elizabeth. There is evidence that some of these events had a marked effect on her family, and probably also on her own life. Some members of her wider family were protestant – her nephew, Thomas Crawley, probably fled to the continent during Mary’s reign. Other members of her family are described in Elizabeth’s reign, as Catholic recusants. What Lettice’s thoughts on religion were are not known.
We do not know where Lettice was born, but we do know that her very wealthy father, also called Thomas Crawley, lived, for at least part of his life,) at a house at Lofts Hall on the edge of Elmdon. He owned a lot of land (and houses) in Essex, including Manuden Manor, as well as land at Ugley, Stansted Mountfitchit and Elmdon. In Elmdon church you will find an engraved stone in the floor to Lettice’s father with a brass of 4 men and 8 women – it looks like his family. Maybe one of the women is Lettice.
Her father was married at least twice and Lettice had at least two brothers (Robert and Thomas) and 4 sisters (Johan [Joan?], Margery, Phillipe [probably Phillipa] and a second Johan) all of whom married.
Her nephew, who was her father’s heir died in early 1559 and her father passed away later that same year. This must have devastated the family. Less than a year after Elizabeth’s reign began, in what were very uncertain times, the family had lost its head and its heir. This left the family estates with Lettice’s much younger brother, who was only 9 years old in1559. This brother grew up to have Catholic leanings and found himself imprisoned for them at times during his life.
Her father’s will, rather oddly, refers to her younger brother and to her sisters, but makes no mention at all of Lettice. It is not clear why and it remains one of the many mysteries of Lettice’s life.
It is possible that Lettice was married at least twice. There is evidence of Lettice, daughter of Thomas Crowle of Elmdon in Essex, marrying John Boyton of Walden and having 5 children – 3 boys and 2 girls. The first two boys survived to adulthood, John and William. (William who went to Eton and then to King’s College, Cambridge and became a Doctor of Physic in Norfolk). It is not clear what happened to the other children. There are a number of Boyton Ends in Essex. It is not clear if Lettice was linked with any of them.
John Boyton probably died in the early 1540s and Lettice must at some point have married a Mr Martin. Her will refers to a number of gifts to men and women with the surname Martin, but it gives little indication of who her husband was.
There is some evidence that she owned or rented land at what is now Wenden’s Ambo, close to the Bell Inn. In Wenden’s Ambo church, there is a wooden plaque on the wall which shows that the rector of Little Wenden (which no longer exists) was, during Lettice’s time, a William Martin. Perhaps they were related.
In her will, Lettice asked to be buried between two of her children in Chrishall Church. Just inside the church there is a brass of a woman on her own which may be Lettice.
Her will also required a stone to be purchased ‘wherein to be ingraved my late husband and his first wife, my children and me ‘Lettice his second wife’ and two of my children’. It does not name her husband, but if she did have two husbands it is giving an indication as to which husband she is referring to (assuming they did not both have first wives!). It seems likely that this was a reference to Mr Martin.
At the time of her will, Lettice appears to have owned land at Chrishall, Heydon, Ickleton, where she owned a house, and possibly Sewards End. She died in either 1574 or 1575. She must have been very wealthy for a woman in the Elizabethan age. How she came to be so wealthy remains unclear.
Chrishall Archive Group has prepared a walk around Chrishall and Elmdon which takes in many sights of Lettice’s life. You can purchase a copy of the walk from the Group on their open days at the Chrishall pavilion, from the Red Cow Pub or from the website here.