To celebrate International Women’s Day, this year we explore the life and work of Elinor James (1644-1719), a printer and polemicist who earned the nickname “the London City Godmother” for her prolific and outspoken political writing. She is notable for being one of a small number of early modern printers who were also authors, and wrote and published over ninety pamphlets under her own name – one of only a few women at the time to do so.
Little is known about Elinor’s childhood, but she was married at the age of seventeen to Thomas James, a journeyman printer eighteen years her senior. By 1675, Thomas had risen to the role of ‘master printer’ with his own printing shop, where he could choose and distribute what works to publish. Elinor raised their five children and later began working alongside him, eventually composing, printing and distributing her own work. John Dunton, a contemporary author and publisher, described Thomas as being “‘something the better known for being husband to that She-State Politician Mrs. Elianor James”, suggesting that she was the more outspoken and politically active partner in the relationship.
Elinor James inherited the business upon her husband’s death in 1709, and her writing demonstrates that she was closely involved in and deeply knowledgeable about the day-to-day running of the printing business. She was a particularly prolific author of ‘petitions’, formal documents requesting favours or expressing grievances. They could be addressed to monarchs or Members of Parliament, as well as private organisations or individuals, and it was common for writers to personally deliver a freshly-printed petition to their intended recipient – travelling to chapel was a popular opportunity to do so. Petitions were in theory an egalitarian form of media, but they were much more accessible when, like James, one was able to publish them oneself.
A volume of tracts in the collection of the Old Library at Magdalene College contains three of Elinor James’ petitions, all of which demonstrate her outspoken style and her confidence discussing a wide range of religious political topics. In the pamphlets, we see that James saw herself as a significant contributor to the public conversations taking place in the late 1680s and that her femininity gave her valuable and unique insight.
The first pamphlet dates from 1685 and challenges the new monarch James II on his Catholicism. Elinor James does not attempt to hide or excuse her femininity, stating proudly that she has “had many Children, and have Nurs’d them all my self … and none to help me neither in sickness or Health”. Indeed, she even claims that her experiences as a mother makes her uniquely positioned to care about the spiritual wellbeing of her Catholic monarch, suggesting that his Catholicism and enjoyment of worldly pleasures “Corrupts my Children” and that, as a mother, “it is all my Care that they … may not only be Happy in this World, but eternally Happy in the World to come”. Elinor James is so convinced of the truth of Anglicanism that she challenges any professing Catholic to lock themselves in a room with her and fast alongside her, confident that God will vindicate her faith and demonstrate the supremacy of the Church of England.
The second pamphlet is also published in 1685 and is addressed to “the Kings Most Excellent Majesty”. Another vehement refutation of Catholicism, the pamphlet argues that Catholicism is “Worship that is not True neither in Faith nor Practice” and identifies the veneration of Mary and the doctrine of transubstantiation as particularly dangerous. Elinor James warns the monarch that his Catholic faith amounts to “Ingratitude to the most High, since his Providence hath Defended you from all your Dangers, and hath Anointed you King”.
The third pamphlet, published in 1688, is addressed to “the Honourable House of COMMONS” and focuses on the issues that ultimately led to the Glorious Revolution at the end of that year. James II’s Catholicism and suspension of parliament in 1685 had already caused significant tension, and the birth of his first son in June 1688 displaced his Anglican daughter Mary from the line of succession, exacerbating fears that England would become a Catholic nation. Elinor James’ pamphlet warns Parliament about the danger of going to war, and asserts that “it is Christ’s Kingdom, and when it is his Will, that you should trouble your self about an Heir, he will direct you.” Emphasising her connections to Charles II, she says that he told her personally that “he was never Married to his [the Duke of Monmouth’s] Mother” and that she unsuccessfully tried to reconcile James II and the Duke of Monmouth when they were in dispute with one another, likely referring to the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Elinor’s opposition to William III continued after his coronation and she was imprisoned and fined in 1689 for publishing a pamphlet declaring his reign to be illegitimate.
Along with her own writing, Elinor James has an impressive literary legacy. Her husband (Thomas James Jr.) had inherited an excellent library but his will stipulated that his wife would only inherit the printing house on condition that she had no access to his library. Despite this, she managed to gain control of his library and donated a collection of 3000 books to the library at Sion College, an institution for the education and fellowship of Anglican priests, reflecting her staunch and vocal support for the Church of England that she held throughout her life.
By Josie Day
Library Assistant and Invigilator (Pepys Library and Special Collections)
Lambeth Palace. (n.d.) Sion College Library – Lambeth Palace Library. [Online]. 23 Feb. 2022. https://lambethpalacelibrary.org/collections/sion-college-library/
McDowell, P. (1998). The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678-1730. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
McDowell, P. (2007). ‘“On the Behalf of the Printers”: A Late Stuart Printer-Author and Her Causes’. In: S. Alcorn Baron, E.N. Lindquist and E.F. Shevlin, eds., Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, pp.125–139.