05 May 2008

Families & Children: Fathers in 1600s England

By Christine Koehler

It's hard to describe everyday life in a time period considered 'unusual.' Books aren't devoted to children and families of, say, the Restoration--they're devoted to Charles II and his court and their antics.

Patriarchy was incredibly important, so much so that the husband/father was despotic in nature. His word was law and there were no exceptions. Laws were enacted to this effect, while kinship ties weakened to the point where it was the nuclear family only. Children were considered submissive and molded to their father’s interests.

Of course, this wasn't new. But now that everyone believed it to be so and never questioned it, it was embraced with ever widening arms.

It was a trickle down effect--the head of the country was the sovereign, the head of the household, the husband. So the sovereign's power wasn't disputed, and neither was the husband's. James I in 1609 declared that "...Kings are compared to fathers in families: for a King is truly parens patria, the politic father of his people." In 1619 Robert Mocket's book God and the King insisted that all subjects were children of the King, therefore bound by the 5th Commandment to obey him.

According to Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, even during the execution of Charles I in 1649, his subjects were dismayed at his death, looking upon it, almost as if their own father stood on the platform in Whitehall to be murdered.

No wonder sovereigns insisted they were their people's fathers, while fathers retained absolute control over their families. Any threat to the state diminished with this analogy. The nuclear family buttressed political order.

Not all households fell into his category, but the majority did. Women and children were often trapped with a man who abused them, with no option for escape. The head of house's power was all-consuming and, most importantly, right. This power was across religions and classes. Lower income families fluctuated between absolute power over their large families, and limited power over children who left home early to find work as an apprentice.

These laws were in existence until the 1900s, when war brought about social upheaval that could no longer be contained by old rules.