#WomeninHistory The printing widows of Elizabethan London

For Kate Mosse's #WomeninHistory campaign, Kate Morrison author of A Book of Secrets highlights women's role in one of history's world-changing technologies: the printing press. 

Susan Charlewood, the Ghanaian heroine of A Book of Secrets, is married to a London printer who secretly produces Catholic texts. Arriving in John Charlewood’s Cripplegate home in 1580, she finds herself at the heart of a rambunctious, brawling world filled with big characters – both men and women – and quickly becomes deeply involved in her husband’s secret work.

I based Susan’s character on a number of women printers operating in London in the late 16th century, all widows who inherited their husbands’ businesses.  Women were not permitted to run printing businesses in their own right at this time but if their husband died, they could take charge until they remarried another member of the Stationers’ Company (at which point all rights passed over to the new husband) or until their son came of age and could take over.

Contrary to perceptions that women during this period did not work, these printing widows were managing teams of workmen to produce fine and detailed texts, investing in the business’s future and making their work profitable. Printing presses often operated from the family home, so we can imagine that the job of managing a household could co-exist with taking a hand in the business and even learning some of the technical skills involved such as composition.

Susan’s husband in the book, John Charlewood, was a real person who began his printing career in the 1560s. One of a cluster of men who illegally printed work that had been registered for copyright by other people, he was a thorn in the side of the guild of Stationers and possibly a secret Catholic.

Charlewood’s real wife, Alice (who was not African but who could have been, as African people were living and working in London at this time and marrying English people), inherited his printing business when he died in April 1593, including the right to print all theatre bills for the players of the city.

She remained a widow for only around six months before marrying another printer, James Roberts. Detective work by Sarah Neville in her essay Female Stationers and their Second-plus Husbands from the collection Women’s Labour and the History of the Book in Early Modern England (ed Valerie Wayne), shows that she did far more than just keep the business ticking over during her widowhood.

Alice made a canny investment in registering the copyright to a book by popular author Thomas Nashe, which would have sold well. She made efficiencies such as cutting paper use in the printing of a book for another publisher, thus saving her client money. Four of the texts she printed during this time were first editions, which required more skill to compose and correct as they had to be produced from handwritten manuscripts.

This is all evidence that Alice Charlewood was an experienced businesswoman and as Neville describes her, a master printer. There were several other women in the city operating in the same way including Joan Jugge, widow of former Queen’s Printer Richard Jugge, who continued printing after his death in 1577 until at least 1584, and Joan Orwin who printed 68 titles under her own name after her third husband Thomas Orwin died.

In A Book of Secrets I took the liberty of making both John and Susan Charlewood secretly Catholic. Charlewood was certainly suspected of printing the works of Catholic poet Robert Southwell from a secret press, and his printing history is very interesting. He was the printer for the works of Giordano Bruno, the Italian philosopher whose writing questions the resurrection and posits the idea of a world formed from tiny atoms and free from either eternal damnation or salvation. Bruno’s thoughts were so radical and dangerous that he was executed as an heretic in 1600 by Pope Clement VIII.

Did Alice Charlewood read any of Bruno’s work? It would be unlikely, but not impossible, for a woman of her class to speak or read Italian. Could she understand the dangerous and radical texts her husband was producing? If so, what did she think of them? Did she meet Bruno, if he came to the house to discuss the work with her husband? Did she play any part in the dissemination of such radical ideas to other people?

Alice’s second husband, James Roberts, printed the first and second quartos of The Merchant of Venice in 1600 – so perhaps Shakespeare also visited the print room to hand over the manuscript and print out corrections. Did Alice know Shakespeare through this connection, or through the Charlewood copyright to print out playbills?

We have no answer to these questions, but we can trace the concrete evidence of Alice Charlewood’s print output through the Stationer’s Company records. The records give some insight into the lives of Elizabethan women printers: women who were making decisions about which books to print and what would sell and taking an active part in the Stationers Company. They played a role in one of the most exciting and world-changing technologies, at a time when people still tend to think that women’s only occupation was raising children.

For that reason, I would like to nominate Alice Charlewood as a #womaninhistory who should be better known, as a representative of these early modern women printers.


Helen Smith: Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England

Sarah Werner (blog): Finding Women in the Printing Shop and Early Modern Women Printers


Written by Kate Morrison