Elizabeth Greene, a Puritan widow in Stepney

A few days ago I posted a transcription of the last will and testament of Elizabeth Greene, widow of mariner William Greene of Upper Shadwell, Stepney, a copy of which was kindly sent to me by my fellow researcher, Kori Lambert. Elizabeth drew up her will in 1652 and it was proven in 1655. In this post, I want to highlight some of the things we can learn from the will, both about Elizabeth’s family and about the social and religious context in which they lived.

In her will, Elizabeth Greene expresses a wish to be buried alongside her first husband, Gregory Wood.  On 12 September 1614, Elizabeth Wheeler married a mariner of that name at the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney. On 22 December 1625, Elizabeth Wood married William Greene. This wedding took place at St Dunstan in the East – a church that is often confused with St Dunstan’s, Stepney (see below) but is actually in the City of London. However, this might still be the right marriage. If it is, then it would mean that Elizabeth was almost certainly not the biological mother of William’s three sons, all of whom had children of their own by the time he died in 1634.

St Dunstan's, Stepney, on a map of 1615 (via spitalfieldslife.com)

In his will of 1634, William Greene mentions three sons, but only names two of them  – William and Bartholomew. His widow Elizabeth’s will helpfully names the third (though as he is mentioned first, he was probably the eldest): John, also a mariner, of ‘New Castle’ – can we assume this means the city of Newcastle? A John Greene, son of William Greene of Limehouse, was baptised at St Dunstan’s on 21 October 1603: unfortunately, his mother’s name is not given in the record.

William’s will also mentions seven grandchildren, but Elizabeth’s will refers to only three surviving grandchildren: John, son of John; Elizabeth, daughter of William; and Sarah, daughter of Bartholomew.

The fact that Elizabeth’s will mentions an unusual number of other relatives, most of them ‘cousins’, is both a blessing and a frustration. It’s difficult to know which of these are blood relations, and which are connected to her by marriage. We can assume that Whittingham Wood, gentleman of Canterbury, was a relative of her first husband Gregory. Someone of that name was christened at Bromley, Kent, on 20 March 1614: his father’s name was also Whittingam Wood. Perhaps the latter was the person who was baptised at All Hallow’s, Lombard Street, in the City of London, on 16 May 1578. The identical forename suggests some kind of family connection with Whittingham Fogg, also referred to in Elizabeth’s will: in 1702, Whittingham son of Whittingham Fogg, weaver of ‘Mileend N Town’, was buried at St Dunstan’s, Stepney. I’ve been unable to find any record of the Ezobias (?) Fogg mentioned in the will.

It was interesting to see the name of Tobias Greene, tanner, mentioned in the will. In my search for records for of my 8 x great grandfather, Captain William Greene of Ratcliff (d. 1686), I briefly considered Tobias as a possible father. On 11 April 1619 a boy named William was christened at St Botolph, Aldgate, to Tobie Greene tanner and his wife Jane ‘of ye East End’.  I had been tempted to ignore this as a possible source for my ancestor, given the location and his father’s occupation, but it now seems that Tobie or Tobias was related in some way to Elizabeth’s late husband, William Greene of Upper Shadwell. This branch of the Greene family lived in Nightingale Lane, East Smithfield. Besides William, they had six children: Lettis, John, Alice, Susan, Elizabeth and Tobias (presumably the person named in the will), some baptised at St Botolph’s, others at St Mary, Whitechapel.

William Medlicott, another cousin who is named as sole executor of the will, was a grocer whose family originated in Shropshire, but who was a Citizen of London and a member of the Freemen of Grocers Company. He died in 1667 and was buried at St Stephen, Coleman Street.

It will take some time and painstaking effort to follow up all of the other ‘cousins’ mentioned in Elizabeth Greene’s will, and to work out their precise relation either to Elizabeth or to the Greene family. The Kent branch, in particular, might prove difficult  to research, given the relative inaccessibility of parish records for that county at this period.

Elizabeth’s will provides some confirmation of the Greene family’s religious leanings. In writing about Bartholomew Greene the younger, grandson of William and Elizabeth, I noted that his children’s births were registered at  Stepney Independent Chapel. The Stepney Meeting was founded in 1644 and the meeting house opened in 1674.  In her will, Elizabeth Greene bequeaths ‘unto Master Samuell Slater the Elder and to Master Kentigh both Ministers of Saint Katherines and to Master Greenhill Minister of Stepney fortie shillings apiece’. I haven’t been able to find out anything about Rev Kentigh (I may have mis-transcribed his name), but apparently Samuel Slater was minister at St Katharines by the Tower (see this post) for forty years and was the author of a ‘Treatise on Growth in Grace’. Obviously a Puritan, his son, another Samuel, would become minister at Bury St Edmonds, where he was arrested for nonconformity. As for ‘Master [William] Greenhill’, he was an Independent and Congregationalist who apparently was present at the foundation of the Stepney chapel and was appointed its first pastor. In 1649, after the death of King Charles, he was appointed as chaplain to three of the executed king’s children. Oliver Cromwell appointed him to a number of prestigious offices, and under the Commonwealth he became became vicar of St Dunstan’s, Stepney (not St Dunstan-in-the-East, as Wikipedia mistakenly has it), while continuing as pastor of the independent church. After the Restoration of 1666, Greenhill was ejected from St Dunstan’s but continued to serve at the chapel until his death in 1671.

Elizabeth Greene’s will was, of course, written during the Commonwealth period (note once again the lack of the standard reference to the reigning monarch), when those who had formerly been (and would soon be again) religious ‘dissenters’ became, briefly, the Establishment. It’s clear from Elizabeth’s bequest that the Greenes were prominent members of the Stepney independent, congregationalist community, and were thus firmly of the Puritan persuasion.

Henry Smith, Elizabethan Puritan preacher (Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth confirms her personal Puritan affiliation elsewhere in the will, when she bequeathes to ‘Mistris Chirt’ her book ‘called Master Smiths Sermons’ . This was almost certainly a volume by Master Henry Smith ‘the most important Puritan preacher of Elizabethan London’: apparently the collected sermons of ‘Silver Tongued’ Smith were amongst the most frequently reprinted religious publications of the Elizabethan age.

Coopers' Company Almshouses, Ratcliffe, Stepney

From her family connections, the amount of money she bequeaths and her inventory of possessions, it’s clear that Elizabeth occupied a relatively comfortable social position in mid-17th century Stepney. She is sufficiently wealthy, and presumably motivated by her sense of Christian charity, to leave considerable sums of money to those less fortunate. The Coopers Almshouses mentioned in the will were founded in Ratcliffe by the Coopers Company of London.

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