Courtship with the Ferrars

For Valentine’s day, we are taking a look at some of Reverend Thomas Ferrar’s notebooks, part of the Ferrar Papers collection.  In these notebooks Reverend Ferrar recorded his progress in finding a wife, with particular reference to his courtship with Martha Goddard.

Thomas Ferrar (1663-1739) was the great-grandson of Nicholas Ferrar Senior (d. 1620), prominent merchant in London and member of the Virginia Company.  In addition to their Virginia Company connections, the Ferrars are well known for their purchase of the manor house at Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, and for setting up an Anglican religious community there.  Thomas Ferrar, after gaining both a BA and MA at Pembroke College, Cambridge, was ordained and inherited the manor of Little Gidding from his brother.

Thomas Ferrar was well into his thirties when he was recording his thoughts of marrying Martha Goddard.  On the first leaf he states:


Old Library FP 1575

This I am to apply mys[elf] to – to take one of ye mollia tempora fandi, to declare my aff[ecti[on] toward her, and acq[ui]t mys[elf] w[i]th her sentim[en]t… an affair of this nature is a thing of the greatest consequence in the world…

‘Mollia tempora fandi’ was a motto used by both Horace and Virgil, meaning ‘favourable occasions for speaking’.

He bolsters his resolve further on in the notebook by penning his plan of  action:

Obs[erve] words – looks – actions for finding out her temp[eramant] & inclinations

Speak kindly to her and of her

Briskly take an opportunity

The Clergyman looking for a wife, and making notes on his progress, does conjure up images of Jane Austen’s ‘Mr Collins’ character of some 100 years later –  though Rev. Ferrar does stop short of pre-planning specific complements to give Martha Goddard.  He did pen some verses for her in April 1697 (Ferrar Paper 1582).  It is possible that Thomas Ferrar could have copied them from another source.  An extract reads:


Old Library FP 1582

Unhappy drops, why fell you from above

Unless, with all things else, you nourisht love

Sure twas some Rebel-cloud, y[e]t disobeyed

That K[ing]doms Laws where marriages are made

There was plenty of light hearted chapbooks and ballads on the theme of courtship in the 17th century, but if a gentleman was after a serious study of the subject, there was not so much to choose from.  However, a book published in 1644 entitled The godly mans choice, or, A direction how single godly persons, who intend marriage, may make choice of a fit and meet yoak-fellow did offer extensive advice on selecting a wife.  There are only a handful of copies still extant, of which Magdalene holds the only one in an academic institution.


Old Library B.17.52.  Grantham, Caleb: “The Godly Mans Choice”.  London: Printed by Matthew Simmons for Henry Overton…, 1644.

Anna Beer, in her book Milton : Poet, pamphleteer and patriot, suggests that The godly mans choice is an example of readers being ‘interested in strange disasters and self-help as they were in the crisis in episcopacy.  Alongside sermons and political/military tracts, there also appeared sensationalist accounts of violent death and advice for the single man.  Writers, printers and book-sellers competed with each other, both for their share of the new market and for the hearts and minds of their readers’.


Old Library B.17.52, p.12

In Godly mans choice the author instructs the reader to use prayer in courtship, as illustrated in the image of page 12 above.  Thomas Ferrar makes use of prayer in his notebooks, perhaps inspired by Matthew Chapter 7 verses 7-8:


Old Library FP 1575

O God thou hast made a gracious promise

by thy son, [that] if we ask we shall have

I humbly implore at [the] gate of heaven for

mercy in this affair

The story ends well: Thomas Ferrar married Martha Goddard, most likely in 1697.  Sadly, their first child died in infancy, but they went on to have three more children.  In 1714, Thomas’s brother John married Martha Goddard’s sister, Elizabeth.  Reverend Thomas’s son, also Thomas, inherited the manor at Little Gidding in 1739.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections


Beer, A. (2008). Milton : Poet, pamphleteer and patriot. London: Bloomsbury.

Stone, J. (2005). The Routledge dictionary of Latin quotations : The illiterati’s guide to Latin maxims, mottoes, proverbs and sayings. New York ; London: Routledge.

Ransome, J. (2011). Web of friendship : Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding. Cambridge: James Clarke And Co.

Thanks to David Ransome, Tilda Watson and Ellie Swire for assisting with paleography and transcription.


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