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London housewife, Swiss pastor

Portrait of Elizabeth Penington
"London Housewife" from Hollar's Theatrium Mulierum (1643)
Portrait of Heinrich Hummel
Portrait of Johann Heinrich Hummel by Joseph Werner

Elizabeth Penington (born 1604-1605, died 1642-1645) was an Englishwoman who lacked formal education but wrote extraordinary letters to her former Swiss lodger and adopted "son" after Johann Heinrich Hummel (1611-1674) had returned to Bern from his educational travels abroad. Hummel eventually became "Dekan" or dean in Bern but never returned to Britain.

Elizabeth Penington was born into London's mercantile community – her father, William Risby, being a member of the Drapers' Company – but also into a pious and charitable ‘puritan' family. Her maternal uncle, Francis Bridges, a Salter, was a member of a godly group called the Feoffees for Impropriations, who bought up the patronage of church livings in order to promote Calvinist preaching until they were suppressed by Charles I and archbishop of Canterbury William Laud in 1633. In December 1624, at a church which became a focus of the Feoffees' activities, Elizabeth married Daniel Penington (d. 1665). Daniel was a member of the Fishmongers' Company, like his more celebrated brother Isaac (c.1584-1661), who was a future lord mayor of London, Member of Parliament and regicide. The brothers had commercial interests extending across the Atlantic and access to trading networks in Germany and Switzerland, which allowed Daniel to fulfil requests from friends abroad for English religious books.

Elizabeth's world was narrower than that of the Penington brothers: her horizons were confined to family and church. Yet her digests of news for Hummel and her speculations on his domestic situation and on his likely reaction to developments in England provide valuable insights, beyond gossip about friends he had made in England. Elizabeth's letters reveal how a godly woman perceived marriage customs elsewhere and came to terms with wifely subjection and with the endless discomforts and tragedies of motherhood. They also seek to explain, for a foreigner who might not initially understand it, the conscientious believer's navigation of the choppy waters of English church politics in the late 1630s and into the 1640s.

Elizabeth died young, and Daniel's correspondence with Hummel seems to have ceased after 1650. But the contact that the couple had maintained after his departure, the friend to whom they had introduced him during his stay in London, and the culture of English puritanism to which the young Swiss had been exposed, were to be key to the reception of the English regicides who sought refuge in Switzerland after 1660.

Vivienne Larminie