Saturday, November 21, 2009

Question from Lily - Wives taking husbands' surnames

Was it customary for women to use their husband's surname in the upper, middle, or lower classes? I have seen a portrait titled, "Anne Stanhope.." painted around the time that she was married to Edward Seymour. On the otehr hand, I see references to names like Mary Boleyn Carey. Is that what she would have been called during her time or is that how modern historians refer to people?

[The previous related discussion was specifically on the royal surnames, but I'm not sure that the topic in general has been discussed. Related threads linked below. - Lara]


  1. I am under the impression that wives used their husband's surname in the case they used a surname at all (titled nobility would use their titles), although I am no expert on this. E.g., Jane Grey called herself Jane Duddeley, likewise it was Amy Duddeley or even Lettice Dudley (although she would have been called Lady Leicester or Lettice Leicester), instead of Amy Robsart, Lettice Knollys etc. Mary Boleyn Carey is modern (and very American).

  2. As I understand it women were generally expected to use their husband's surname (unless, of course he held a title). Sometimes women insisted on still using their maiden names. Anne Askew, a Protestant reformer, was married to a man called Thomas Kyme, but she never used his surname. She and her husband never got along well and it has been supposed that her refusing to use his name was a sort of rebellion against him. Interestingly, Katherine Parr, even after she had been married, still signed her initials "KP" and she seems to have been more liberal minded in this area regarding women than most of her contemporaries.

    I am quite sure that "Mary Boleyn Carey" was never called so in her lifetime. It seems to me that some people now use this to refer to her to emphasize the fact that she was Anne Boleyn's sister, while still using her married name (or first married name, at any rate) which she would have gone by during her life before she married William Stafford. That is just my speculation on that particular name, however.

    Nowadays more people refer to Tudor women by their maiden names so as not to get them confused with each other, but I am pretty sure that when they were alive they would have, as a general rule, gone by their husbands' names.

  3. Regarding Mary Boleyn Carey:

    After her marriage to William Carey she was referred to as Mistress Carey in contemporary documents. After her marriage to William Stafford she was known as Mistress Stafford.

    Women whose second husband held a lower title, or no title at all, kept their their first husband's title and sometimes appended their second husband's surname.

    For example, Frances Howard married Henry Fitzgerald, 12th Earl of Kildare and then began signing her name Fr. Kildare or Frances Kildare. In 1601 she married Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham and was referred to in the state papers as the 'Countess of Kildare Frances Cobham.

    Douglas Howard married first John Sheffield, 2nd Baron Sheffield. Subsequently she married Edward Stafford. She took as her name Douglas Stafford, Baroness Sheffied. In contemporary documents she is often referred to as Baroness Sheffield or Lady Sheffield. After this second marriage she still signed her letters Douglas Sheffield.

    Catherine Willoughby married first Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. She married second Richard Bertie. She was known as Lady Catherine duchess of Suffolk throughout the second marriage. Retha Warnicke discusses this particular marriage ‘Indeed, he, himself, recognized that his marriage to a noble woman gave him special social status. At the top of a manuscript he wrote in 1558 defending the succession of women as monarchs, he identified himself as “husband to ye lady Catherine Duchess of Suff.”’ Warnicke p.77.

    I suspect that women expressed more independence in their name choices than we might think. I agree with Jacque's comment that some women might have continued using their birth family name as an indication of their feelings for their husband. But also possibly because their family name carried more prestige. Much may have depended on the financial arrangements and the influence of the wife's family. In Katherine Parr's case, she may just have been distinguishing herself from previous Katherine's or .... I don't know if Henry ever complained about her use of Parr after their marriage.

    As far as titles went, it appears women kept the most prestigious title they could claim, even if the male association had died.

    Today, many historians use all the names available to help distinguish which woman they are referring to as their is still significant confusion over elite female identities in the 16th century. Otherwise, it's hard to keep all the Franceses, Marys and Elizabeths straight.

  4. Thank you for the comments. That was informational.


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