Some notes on the Witchingham family

Thanks to work done by Lowestoft local historian Mr. David Butcher, who used surviving documentary sources to do a complete family reconstruction of Lowestoft during the late Elizabethan period and after, it's now possible to shed a little light on the social background of Nashe's mother's family.

Mr. Butcher describes late Elizabethan Lowestoft as "a market town..provider of goods and services for its neighbourhood." Despite having only around 1500 people there was a "complex occupational structure of about seventy to eighty trades....(Lowestoft) was a coastal station for trading and fishing, especially herrings...(there were) strong maritime connections with other parts of Britain and continental Europe (Frenchmen, Bretons, Channel Islanders, Flemings, Dutch, Icelanders and Scots resident in small numbers among its population, usually as servants to leading mariners and merchants.)"

He discovered however that the Witchingham family had not been established in the town for any considerable time. They are not present in the Lay Subsidy records of 1524, though the name appears right from the beginning of surviving parish register entries in 1561. Mr. Butcher believes that sometime between those two dates the Witchinghams may have moved to Lowestoft from the area around Dunwich, a coastal town to the south which declined after its harbour silted up; the name is frequently found in the Dunwich port bailiffs' accounts of the early 15th. century.

As for status, the Witchinghams were at an interface between groups; though the older generation were artisans, mainly fishermen and blacksmiths, the family was heading upwards. Margaret's brother George, for example, was a mariner, while his son Stephen dies possessed of some small properties and is not a mariner but a "merchant".

Nashe could never have known his uncle, George Witchingham, as apparently he died before 1566; in that year his widow Whiborow married another mariner, John Mayhew. (It's even possible George may have been lost at sea, since there is no burial record for him.) This brother seems however to have been a significant figure in Margaret Nashe's life. After bequests to her two surviving sons and her step-daughter, it's the children of her brother George who loom largest in Margaret Nashe's will. He left at least three: a boy called Stephen and two girls, Elizabeth and Mary. The "Elizabeth Blancher my kinswoman" to whom Margaret leaves a pair of sheets, is George's daughter, by then married to a shoemaker called William Blancher; and the "Stephen Witchingham my kinsman", who gets a similar bequest, is his son. The niece whose name is missing, Mary, was in fact the wife of the man who was writing down and witnessing the will - Stephen Phillip, the local schoolmaster. One wonders why there is no bequest to her, or to him, or to Whiborow. Perhaps Margaret had already given them theirs in person? In fact it's even conceivable that all of them shared one residence - after all, when Margaret and Israel vacated West Harling they must have found some kind of lodgings in Lowestoft.

The only non-kinsman Margaret mentions is "one Gilian", - possibly an ex-servant, or a chapman whose stock she was storing. "Elizabeth the wife of Mathew Witchingham my kinsman" is presumably the Elizabeth Basse who married a Mathew Witchingham in 1586; but exactly what the relationship was between this Mathew and Margaret Nashe isn't clear. Interestingly, though, he christened his first son "Nathaneell", the name also given to Margaret's short-lived first son some twenty years before. It's possible that this Mathew too was a son of George and Wiborow, born too early for inclusion in the records. If so he doesn't feature in his brother Stephen's will of 1603, but then he may have died before it was made.

My best guess for the outline of Margaret Nashe's Lowestoft kin is as follows:

Spot the fisherman?

"Had I a ropemaker to my father, and someone had cast it in my teeth, I would forthwith have written in praise of ropemakers, and proved it by sound sillogistry to be one of the seven liberal sciences", boasts Nashe in 'Strange Newes', in one of the many passages in which he mercilessly teases Gabriel Harvey about his allegedly humble origins. (The Harveys were in fact a quite substantial provincial family - landowners as well as ropemakers.) Yet when it comes to his own family's working-class roots Nashe keeps rather quiet, airily mentioning "the Nashes of Herefordshire" but not the Witchinghams of Lowestoft. Was he ashamed of them? Perhaps. But once you become aware that Nashe's maternal uncle and cousins were fishermen, you begin to notice how often in his work he comments approvingly on their occupation. Fishermen are almost the only body of people this acerbic writer speaks of with unswerving admiration. In 'Christs Teares' he praises them for their indifference to the country's universal vice of social-climbing: "Scandalous and shamefull is it, that not any in thee (Fishermen and Husbandmen set aside) but liue aboue their ability and birth.". He chooses them as exemplars of rugged virtue, their occupation forever ennobled by its association with Christ's apostles: "...Whether it be a blessing or no giuen to all Fishermen (for the Apostles sakes), I know not, but surely there is no one trade (in theyr vocation) lyues so faithfully & painfully as Fishermen, that in theyr apparraile or dyet less exceede...Beware, Fisher-men, the deuill owes you an old grudge, hee takes you for daungerous men."

By the time we reach 'Nashe's Lenten Stuffe' of course we're into pure panegyric:"I am the first that euer sette quill to paper in prayse of any fish or fisherman...Will this appease you, that you are predecessors of the Apostles, who were poorer Fishermen than you, that for your seeing wonders in the deepe, you may be the sonnes and heires of the Prophet Ionas, that you are all Caualiers and Gentlemen since the king of fishes vouchsafed you for his subiects, that for your keeping of fasting dayes Friar Obseuants, and lastly, that, looke in what Towne there is the signe of the three mariners, the huffe-cappest drinke in the house you shall be sure of alwayes?"

In fact Nashe goes so far out of his way to praise and promote fishermen that I'm sure the word must have gone round among his London acquaintance what his Lowestoft kin did for a living. I think Nashe was making good on his promise, quoted above - if you cast his fisherman lineage in his teeth, he would outface you with proofs that there was no true gentility which did not have a faint reek of tar to it. He would be defiant in defence of fishermen to his last breath. And twice he even pays the ultimate compliment, comparing the fishermen's trade to his own act of creative writing: in 'The Terrors of the Night' "in a leaden standish I stand fishing all day...", and in 'Have With You To Saffron-Walden' "...I am playing the paper-stainer and fishing for pearl in the bottom of my tar-box..."

Another salient fact to bear in mind is that sometime in the early 1590s Nashe's kinsman, the mariner Mathew Witchingham, moved away from Lowestoft to its rival town of Yarmouth. Yarmouth of course, that "curteous compassionate clime", was where Nashe fetched up in the autumn of 1597 when lying low in the aftermath of the 'Isle of Dogs' affair, the town in whose hyperbolic praise he wrote 'Nashes Lenten Stuffe'. One can't help but wonder whether, despite Nashe's metropolitan connections and genteel friendships, in the end it was the fisherman Mathew Witchingham of Yarmouth who offered refuge to his hard-pressed cousin. And of course, as David Butcher has pointed out, Yarmouth had one significant advantage: it was a very handy place from which to get a fast ship over to Antwerp, should the need arise - and if the need did arise, having a kinsman with seafaring connections would have been a definite plus.

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