A Puritan Lady

Thursday, October 17th, 2019

A Puritan Lady: The Diary of Margaret Hoby

Lady Margaret Hoby, née Dakins, was an heiress and valuable commodity on the Elizabethan marriage market. Her first two husbands, Walter Devereux, the younger brother of the earl of Essex, and Thomas Sidney, brother to the poet Philip Sidney, both died early. Her third husband, the puritan MP Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby, nagged her into marriage in 1596, aided, no doubt, by Margaret’s need to have someone represent her property interests in court.

A puritan lady

It was in 1599, not long after her third marriage, that Lady Hoby started her diary. Running for the next six years with varying levels of commitment and detail, it follows the godly tradition of self-examination, listing her religious life and the marks of favour – or disfavour – revealed by God. In mainly simple and repetitive language, Lady Hoby recorded how she had ‘priuat pariers’, ‘ta[l]ked a litle with Mr Rhodes’ her chaplain, ‘Reed of the bible’, ‘went to church, and … medetated of that I h[e]ard, and praied’.[1] Through this journaling she found evidence of her position as one of the elect (those destined to join God in heaven), reminded herself of God’s mercies, and chastised herself for her slips.

As set-piece as the diary often is, we do find some personal glimpses into the puritan mindset. There are strong Calvinist opinions: Lady Hoby considers the graces of God – some of which belong to every Christian and some just to the elect – and the differences between good works and faith alone.[2] She ponders the state of the Elizabethan church, the justification for the clergy purchasing livings, and the (un)lawfulness of archbishops.[3] And she carries on the ‘good fight’ against ‘poperie’, recording her attempts to convert ‘a yonge papest maide’ and her husband’s night-time raids on Catholic houses.[4] She also rather-gloatingly tells of the divine justice visited on non-puritans: how a minister died of drunkenness and how one ‘extreordenarie prophane’ young man, who had christened his horse in a church, was murdered.[5]

An industrious lady

As much as the diary is a spiritual exercise, it can’t help but show flashes of Lady Hoby’s ‘secular’ life and, as the diary progresses, it becomes more concerned with non-religious business. We see her managing the household and estates, working in the kitchen, finding food in the gardens or through fishing; weighing, dying, and spinning wool; and overseeing sowing and harvesting. She helps her husband with papers, paying bills and receiving rents. She sees to her tenants’ needs, giving charitable handouts to the poor and, in one case, talks to a woman divorced ‘from hir Husbande with whome she liued inceastuously’.[6] She also tends to their health, dressing wounds, making purges and ointments, and helping women in childbed. Her work as a nurse occasionally takes a distressing turn, and she records a newborn baby brought to her ‘who had no fundement, and had no passage for excrementes but att the Mouth: I was earnestly intreated to Cutt the place to se if any passhage Could be made, but, although I cut deepe and searched, there was none to be found.’[7]

A lady of leisure?

But her life wasn’t just preoccupied with work, be it spiritual or temporal, and she also found time for leisure. When she wasn’t ill – she regularly complained of ‘cholic’, toothache, headache, sickness, the ‘stone’ (i.e. kidney stones), and the like – Lady Hoby played bowls and the orpharion. She enjoyed walking in the countryside and visiting friends and relatives, taking journeys to both York and London. Through these travels, she discovered the wider world: she mentions her brother-in-law, the earl of Essex’s rebellion and execution; the death of the queen and the accession of James I; and an outbreak of the plague, which forced the Hobys temporarily from their home. We also hear stories that piqued Lady Hoby’s interest. At Yarmouth, for example, a fish was caught that was reputedly 53 feet long, while a conjoined calf she saw had ‘2 great heades, 4 eares, and to ether head a throte pipe besides’.[8]

Lady Margaret Hoby’s diary is so much more than a simple list of spiritual observances; it is a portal to another time, and another life. Through her godly exercises, she reveals herself to be not just a puritan, but a rounded individual, interested in religious dispute, committed to her work as wife and manager, and curious about the world around her. The diary that was intended to show her as a member of the elect instead shows her as a member of a family, a community, a gender, a state, and of humanity. It has, therefore, albeit in a more worldly manner than she would have liked, granted her a certain level of immortality.

By Debbie Kilroy (www.gethistory.co.uk)

To hear more about the Reformation, listen to our podcast!


Further reading

DNB, ‘Lady Margaret Hoby’ (subscription required)

Joanna Moody, The Private Life of an Elizabethan Lady: The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599-1605 (Stroud: Sutton, 1998)

[1] These are stock phrases and can be found throughout the diary.

[2] Diary, 20 December 1599; 10 and 16 April 1600;

[3] Diary, 23 September 1599; 13 April 1600; 1 April 1601.

[4] Diary, 23 February 1600; 24 March 1600.

[5] Diary, 5 December 1601; 26 December 1601.

[6] Diary, 24 December 1599; 28 October 1599.

[7] Diary, 26 August 1601.

[8] Diary, 4 February 1602; 5 May 1601.

More Magazine Articles

#On This Day – Cats

8, 8, 2018 - #OnThisDay Happy #InternationalCatDay! August 8 is International Cat Day which was created by .... Read More

#On This Day – The Reformation

27, 8, 2018 - #OnThisDay Pope Sixtus V, a significant figure in the Counter Reformation, died of malarial .... Read More


16, 9, 2019 - Voodoo and Zombies Zombies have become an important element in pop culture films, books, and tv .... Read More

Subscribe to our newsletter

Keep up to date with Histories of the Unexpected