The Mothers Blessing by Dorothy Leigh
First published in 1616, Dorothy Leigh--a Puritan mother and widow--wrote the instructive devotional work The Mothers Blessing. Filled with admonitions for personal comportment and injunctions to pray, Leigh’s work struck a chord with early modern audiences. Along with the dedication of her work to her three sons, Leigh also dedicated the tract to one of the most famous mothers of her day: Elizabeth of Bohemia. This article will provide details of Leigh’s life, the one hundred year print and publication history of her book and focus on the holdings of three editions of The Mothers Blessing held by the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Dorothy Leigh [née Kempe], (d. in or before 1616), writer of the Puritan devotional work The Mothers Blessing, was the daughter of William Kempe of Finchingfield, Essex. She married Ralph Leigh (d. before 1616), a gentleman of Cheshire who served under the earl of Essex at Cadiz. They had three sons, George, John, and William.
The Mothers Blessing was first published in 1616 and regularly reprinted twenty-eight times until 1729. Because of the regular reprinting of The Mothers Blessing, Leigh’s book belongs among Protestant (specifically Puritan) devotional steady-sellers. As Ian Green defines it, a book which was a steady-seller “sold best and most consistently over a period of decades” and these books “are best understood through numbers of editions; and these numbers far outweigh editions of poetry or drama published in the period.” The sheer magnitude of editions kept The Mothers Blessing in the public’s consciousness long after its initial print run. In order to begin to understand the reasons behind the longevity of Leigh’s work, a short study of the stationers responsible for the success of The Mothers Blessing is in order.
Print and publication history
The title page of the first edition (1616) edition reads as follows:
THE ǀ MOTHERS ǀ BLESSING ǀ OR ǀ The godly counsel of a ǀ Gentle-woman, not long since de- ǀ ceased, left behinde her for her ǀ CHILDREN: ǀ Containing many good exhortati- ǀ ons, and godly admonitions, profi- ǀ table for all Parents to leave as a Le- ǀ gacy to their Children but especially ǀ for those, who by reason of their ǀ young yeeres stand most in ǀ need of instruction.
On 26 February 1616, John Budge (freed 21 January 1606) entered “a booke called, the mothers blessing written by Mistris Dorathy Leighe” into the Stationers’ Register. Budge sold books out of his shop at the sign of the Green Dragon by the great South door in the churchyard at St. Paul’s Cathedral and at Britain’s Burse, otherwise known as the New Exchange. Both shop positions were in high-traffic areas frequented by male and increasingly female shoppers of all classes, providing a prominent place for the display of Leigh’s book. Budge produced six editions of The Mothers Blessing in as many years.
He then signed over the right to print the book to Master Robert Allott, a publisher whose shop, the Black Bear, stood four stalls apart from the Green Dragon. Allott purchased the rights to print The Mothers Blessing, along with thirty-nine other titles, on 4 September 1626. According to the Record of the Court of the Stationers’ Company, on that same date, 4 September, “Mr Parker having resigned his estat in mr Budges Copies they are to be entred to mr Allott.”Because Parker no longer wanted his interest in John Budge’s business, Robert Allott took over the forty titles in which Parker held stakes. Allott then proceeded to publish four editions of The Mothers Blessing in 1629, 1630, 1633, and 1634.
After he had finished his round of printing Leigh’s book, Allott signed it over to Thomas Lambert, a noted ballad seller, on 26 April 1634. Lambert only published one edition of the book in 1636, from the Horseshoe at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital gate, most likely because the text did not fit the purview or location of his business. Therefore, on 12 April 1639, Thomas Lambert signed the license over to Master Thomas Dainty, who did not choose to print the book. Instead, he reassigned it to Master Andrew Crooke (freed 26 March 1629) on 2 September 1639.
When Andrew Crooke began as a freedman in the Stationers’ Company, he took over Robert Allott’s shop, the Black Bear, from his widow Mary. He ran the shop from 1632 to 1639 and was its final occupant. Crooke then moved to the sign of the Green Dragon and published from there after 1640. Over the next 30 years, Crooke put out six editions of The Mothers Blessing in 1640, 1641, 1656, 1663, 1667, and 1674. The book was sold from the same two shops throughout the majority of its print history. The position of the book at the New Exchange and within the churchyard of St. Paul’s as well as its location within the same few stalls in the churchyard seems to have added to the book’s status as a steady-seller. Readers would always know where to find the book and would be able to purchase it at the humming center of commerce and worship at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The 1685 chapbook of The Mothers Blessing was published by William Thackeray and his partners Wright, Clarke, and Passinger—men known for publishing a collection of Protestant chapbooks called Penny Godlinesses. The genre of “penny godlinesses” was defined by books which were twenty-four pages or less and were printed in either octavo or duodecimo size. These books often contained rough woodcuts—The Mothers Blessing chapbook has six woodcuts in twenty-one pages. The book included the addition of pictures and the simplification of the text into rhyming verse, in a version more suitable to reach a young audience.
Late 17th and early 18th century editions
The Mothers Blessing was printed five more times after 1640, with four of the editions published in the eighteenth century (1707, 1712, 1718, 1729). The most striking aspect of the many editions of the book is how surprisingly stable the text remained over the course of its one hundred year history. It appears that no printers or publishers tried their hands at editing Leigh’s text in a substantive way—in fact, exactly the opposite. The men involved with the production of The Mothers Blessing preserved the text quite carefully.
Leigh’s readers and the Folger
The earliest printed copy of the book held at the Folger is a stunning incarnation of Leigh’s instruction to her sons to keep the message of her book alive through the generations and her title page imperative to parents to leave the book as a legacy to their children. In the 1634 copy of The Mothers Blessing (Folger Shakespeare Library STC 15407.2), there is a pastedown on the front flyleaf which reads, “William Millard His Booke 1707 Great-Great-Great Uncle, [maternal], of Christopher Tripp George.” Leigh’s book was passed from generation to generation for seventy-three years between the first owner, William Millard and his great-great-great nephew Christopher Tripp George.
The other example of family use of The Mothers Blessing appears in the 1640 edition (Folger Shakespeare Library STC 15408). All of the volumes of this book are duodecimos with cramped text and very little blank space. In the largest blank area, a girl named Elizabeth Bewe composed a short prayer after the dedicatory epistle to Elizabeth of Bohemia. The young girl gives her own dedication through a short prayer she composes in the little space left in the book, a great example of the early use of the Folger’s conduct book collection: Elizabeth Bewe her Booke God Give Grace therin to looke and when the bell for her doth toll Lord Jesus Christ Receve her Soule Amen
The final copy of The Mothers Blessing (Folger Shakespeare Library STC 15407) shows signs of use but no provenance.
Green, Ian. Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Leigh, Dorothy. The mothers blessing. Or, The godly counsell of a gentle-woman, not long since deceased, left behinde her for her children. Containing many good exhortations, and good admonitions profitable for all parents to leaue as a legacy to their children. London: John Budge, 1616. Early English Books Online. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:13955 (accessed August 5, 2013).
The mothers blessing. Or, The godly counsell of a gentle-woman, not long since deceased, left behinde her for her children. Containing many good exhortations, and good admonitions profitable for all parents to leaue as a legacy to their children. London: Robert Allot, 1634. (Held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 15407.2).
The mothers blessing. Or, The godly counsell of a gentle-woman, not long since deceased, left behinde her for her children. Containing many good exhortations, and good admonitions profitable for all parents to leaue as a legacy to their children. London: Tho[mas] Cotes for Andrew Crooke, 1640. (Held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 15408).
The mothers blessing being several godly admonitions given by a mother unto her children upon her death-bed, a little before her departure. [London] Printed by I.M. for I. Clarke, W. Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1685. Early English Books Online. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:110497 (accessed August 5, 2013).
The Mothers Blessing in Women’s Writing in Stuart England: The Mothers’ Legacies of Dorothy Leigh, Elizabeth Joscelin, and Elizabeth Richardson, ed. Sylvia Brown. Thrupp, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999, pp. 15-76.
Spufford, Margaret. Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and Its Readership in Seventeenth-Century England. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1981.
Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
“Leigh, Dorothy (d. in or before 1616),” Jocelyn Catty in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OED online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, Oxford: OUP,http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/45499 (accessed June 26, 2013).
- “Leigh, Dorothy (d. in or before 1616),” Jocelyn Catty in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OED online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, Oxford: OUP, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/45499 (accessed June 26, 2013).
- Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 637. Green includes Dorothy Leigh’s book in his comprehensive list of steady-sellers.
- Ibid, viii.
- Edward Arber, ed. A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London 1554-1640, Volume III. London, 1876, 269.
- A.W. Pollard and G.R. Redgrave, A Short Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475-1640, Volume III. London: The Bibliographic Society, 1991, pp. 232-259.
- Jean E. Howard, Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 36-38.
- Peter W. M. Blayney, “The Bookshops in Paul’s Cross Churchyard” in Occasional Papers of the Bibliographical Society, no. 5. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1990, 77. Budge printed The Mothers Blessing again in 1617, twice in 1618, 1621, and 1622 (ESTC).
- Arber, 129-130.
- William A. Jackson, ed. Record of the Court of the Stationers’ Company. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1957, 189.
- Arber, 291.
- Ibid, 437.
- Pollard and Redgrave, 232.
- Arber, 448.
- Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and Its Readership in Seventeenth-Century England. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1981, 201.
- Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 272-273.