In the 17th century, families and friends could regularly keep in touch with those they loved through letter-writing, often maintaining contact even in the face of adversity. We take an in-depth look at one such family, the Astons of Staffordshire, who in the words of their patriarch Walter Aston, 1st Lord Aston of Forfar, were ‘united in true affection’, yet geographically forced apart by their various duties.
Meet the family’s youngest member Constance Aston, as she traversed the 1,200 miles between her family home in Tixall and Madrid, where her beloved elder brother Herbert was on diplomatic ventures for King James I. She gossips, complains, and expresses her love and support, all while attempting to arrange her brother’s betrothal to her best friend Katherine Thimelby.
The trios’ letter-writing escapades reflect the complexities of life as a 17th century young adult, separated by distance and forced to create their own sense of belonging through the written word, yet also hold some truth to the modern day.
‘Your ever affectionate sister, Constance F.’
In 1636, the 15 year-old Constance wrote her first letter to Herbert in Madrid. She discussed the news in England, how their family fared, and reminded him of the ‘true and serious dearness of my ever constant love to you’.
Never one to hold back her emotions however, her letters are often also saturated with melancholy. In one such, she laments:
‘I can go nowhere, but I miss you; and to miss you so often, and never to find you, is worse than a continual death to me’.
This duality of emotions likely stemmed from the ‘slow and uncertain conveyances’ by which their letters were exchanged, meaning a consistent correspondence was not guaranteed. With no established global postal system, the only way to send letters abroad was to know of someone travelling to your intended destination, thus they would often arrive late or not at all.
Other nuisances could hamper delivery, such as Constance’s passing comment that the ‘plague does so increase in London’. How inconvenient.
In matters of the heart, she instilled herself as the ‘author’ of her brother’s happiness. With all the sass of a modern teenager, she demands to know the subject of his amorous poem, whom he refers to as his ‘Seraphina’.
‘Oh pardon me,’ she comments, ‘if I complain this is not kindly done of you, to make me such a stranger to your heart…I have deserved a greater freedom with you’.
His Seraphina was in fact Katherine Thimelby, whom Constance was already desperate to see wed her brother. Throughout her many letters, she drip fed him information on the seriousness of her friend’s affections. On several occasions even sneakily copying out some of Katherine’s letters to send to him as proof, bidding him not to tell her.
Ever the dramatist, she paints herself ‘the most miserably unfortunate creature that ever breathed’ should the romance not come to plan, believing she would lose her beloved friend forever if it did not.
Constance and Katherine
‘I vow to you, with my eyes drowned in tears…there is none in England worthy of her’ – Constance discussing Katherine in a letter to Herbert, 1636.
Aside from the rare example of sibling affection, the collection shows an interesting depiction of early-modern female friendship. Knowing that Constance would be horribly lonely in his absence, Herbert encouraged his sister to write to Katherine, with whom he had already begun a romantic courtship. The girls hit it off immediately, with Constance writing in one letter that
‘you never knew two creatures more deadly in love with one another than we are’.
A chance meeting at Tixall following their long letter exchanges sets an intriguing scene. Despite their deep affection for one another, etiquette demanded that Katherine pay both Constance and her sister the same neutral respects. No one knew of their friendship, and thus they were barely able to communicate in more than ‘silent expressions’ as they sat side-by-side around the dinner table.
Katherine was at this time terribly lovesick and desperate to catch her friend alone in order to discuss her troubles, agonisingly knowing the rarity of the opportunity.
They did not have the freedom of expression most teenage girls enjoy today, and Constance would have to wait a tantalising three weeks before receiving word from her friend.
Early-modern letters were often read aloud to a room and would contain messages for a multitude of friends and family members. This meant that sensitive content could be difficult to exchange.
Constance and Katherine cleverly found their way around this however, by establishing a system of secret letter exchanges. To keep their messages private, the girls sent them between two loyal female servants, using mysterious handwriting and addressing them to different recipients.
Secrecy was vital for their communication. Not only did the letters expose Katherine’s feelings, they also exposed the girls’ plans to exert their own agency over her marital future, an idea largely frowned upon without parental consent.
Daughters in particular were viewed as unable to take initiative in the courtship process, and their male family members often picked out matches for them. Katherine and Constance had no intention of allowing that to happen however, and their efforts paid off when Herbert returned from Madrid. The young lovers finally married, much to Constance’s delight.
Relationships in the early-modern era were however at the fragile mercy of their own mortality. With life expectancy in the 1640s a mere 32 years old, the group’s letters often reflected deep concerns that could easily be realised.
Thus in 1654, the very person who orchestrated her closest friends’ love affair would now have to reconcile it to its end. Constance’s final letter in the collection sees her beg Herbert to alter his ‘resolution of solitariness’ and be ‘amongst your friends’. It is a letter of condolence – Katherine had passed away, leaving Herbert in deep despair, refusing to see his family or leave his house.
He penned a long account of Katherine’s final days, in which he lovingly cared for her throughout the day and night, sadly stating that ‘all the joys of ten thousand such worlds as this, cannot make me the least reparation’ for her death.
Many other members of the family wrote to the inconsolable Herbert, coming together to offer emotional support. His elder brother Walter implored him, ‘we all desire the same thing, it is your company’, while Constance requests he visit Tixall where they may all be together.
By the end of the English Civil War, the staunchly Royalist Astons were ruined along with Charles I, and today both their family name and their estates are lost to history. These letters however provide us with a small reflection of their life, focused on the personal, and highly accessible to the modern day reader.
Though writing 400 years ago, their display of unity and belonging through letter-writing reminds us that comfort is never far away, so long as one is committed to it.