Life and Death Among Mothers and Children

After Combermere Abbey was ‘privatised’ by Thomas Cromwell in the middle of the Sixteenth century it was gifted to the young man who ran the household of Henry VIII’s adored illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy (there will be more on that on this site soon). That very fortunate person was Sir George Cotton, and the gift brought the Cotton family out from the shadows of history.

For some time now I have been researching the family tree of the Cotton family, and despite their previous obscurity I am back into the 1200s (very proud of that!). I’ll be posting the full family tree, in all its complexity, on the Abbey’s history and restoration site soon (well, soon-ish), but a project like this throws up many fascinating side-stories, one of which is that five women who married into the Cotton family in the late-Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries had the astonishing total of sixty six children between them.

The ladies of the Cotton family could hardly be said to have shirked their duties before then. Mary Onsley, who was born in Catesby Castle, married Sir George Cotton and had five children, while the wife of her son Richard – Mary Mainwaring of Ightfield – went one better with six over twelve years (between 1563 and 1575). However the next generation really got into gear so far as reproduction was concerned.

Mary Bromley was brought up in Shifnal in Shropshire in about 1569, and she married George Cotton of Combermere Abbey (second child and elder son of Richard and Mary Cotton), who was around four years her senior. She gave birth to ten children in sixteen years, and – doubtless to the consternation of her husband – they were all girls, and they all survived childhood. You think Mrs Bennett had problems with too many daughters to marry off? Four years after the last daughter was born (so a bit of a breather there) Mary gave birth to her eleventh baby – and at last it was a son and heir, Thomas.

He lived to be 37, dying in 1646, by which time he had married and given Combermere its next master of the household. Despite spending so much time in childbirth, Mary lived to a good age. She died at the age of 78, in the same year as her husband.

Although Mary and George’s son Thomas did produce an heir (having married Frances Needham in 1624), he in turn only fathered a daughter before dying at the age of 21. Thomas’s wife had died fairly young, so he had re-married, and this second wife – Elizabeth Calveley – gave him his second son.

This was Robert Cotton, who was made a baronet (and at the moment I don’t know what he did to earn that). He married a very wealthy Welsh heiress, Hester Salusbury, who brought with her the huge Llewenny estate in Denbighshire. She provided him with all of sixteen children over a period of just 23 years. Six of those youngsters died in infancy. The eldest surviving son, Hugh Calverley Cotton, married Mary Russel from Llaugharne in Carmarthenshire (now spelt with just one ‘L’), which found fame centuries later as the home of Dylan Thomas.

Hugh and Mary had a daughter, Catherine (born about 1691), but no sons, so Robert and Hester’s child number eleven, Thomas, inherited the estates and the baronetcy. The name Salusbury also entered the Cotton family, and was used as a Christian name many times.

Thomas was born in around 1672 and lived until 1715, and he was the first Cotton to establish his main household at Llewenny rather than Combermere. We don’t know yet who occupied the Abbey, but a secondary house was often rented out; however, as there were so many siblings it is possible that another member of the family lived in the smaller house (Combermere wasn’t actually a small house at that times by any means, but Llwenney was vast, with one hundred rooms).

Sir Thomas married the wonderfully-named Philadelphia Lynch in 1689, who was then aged 24. She also lived to a good age; she died aged 83 despite having given birth to sixteen children, as her mother-in-law had. Three of them – Henry, Anne, and another Henry – died young. The heir apparent – the first-born, Thomas – died at the age of 19, and so the fourth-born, Robert, inherited.

Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton was married, aged 25, to Elizabeth Tollemache of Hellingham Hall in Norfolk (she being seven years his senior). They both lived to late-middle age, and seemed to have lived at both the family’s houses, but had no children. On Robert’s death, Thomas and Philadelphia’s tenth child, gained the title and became Sir Lynch Salusbury Cotton, master of Combermere of Llwenney.

Sir Lynch married a woman from Bellaport in Shropshire, who must have been a relative, given that her name was Elizabeth Abigail Cotton, daughter of one Rowland Cotton. During their marriage she gave birth to fourteen children, including their heir, Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton (born 1739),  one Reverend, one Vice-Admiral, and two army Captains.

The twelfth child – Hester (born 1753) – married a Shropshire gentleman of a very well-known family of that county, Sir Corbet Corbet in 1772 at Wrenbury church, close to the Abbey.

The rather more modest total of nine children was achieved by Sir Robert and his wife, Frances Stapleton, who came from Bodrhyddan near Ruthin, close to Llewenny.  I don’t know when Frances was born, but she was married to Sir Robert for all of fifty eight years, dying forty six years after her last child – Sophia – was born. So she had nine children over twenty two years; quite relaxed by Cotton standards.

All of Sir Robert and Lady Cotton’s children lived long lives. The shortest life was that of their penultimate child, Lieutenant-Colonel Lynch Cotton, who died in India in 1808, aged around 31. One daughter, Frances (1769 – 1818) married into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, becoming the bride of Robert Needham, Viscount Kilmorey in 1792.

The most distinguished child though – indeed, the most distinguished of all the Cottons – was their sixth-born, who grew up to be Field-Marshal Sir Stapleton Stapleton-Cotton, first Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore, Privy Councillor, Knight of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Hanoverian Order, and Knight Companion of the Order of the Star of India. Very much one of the great and the good then; he took the family from the gentry to the aristocracy in a single generation.

He was born at Llewenny on November 14 1773, and became one of the military heroes of Victorian Britain. He married three times, and in all fathered three children, his elder son died in 1821 at the age of nineteen, and on his death the titles and the estates passed to his second son (by the middle one of his wives, Caroline; nee Greville), Wellington Henry Stapleton-Cotton, third Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore – who was born in Barbados in 1818 and died in London in 1891.

There are several aspects to this story which are really fascinating. It is common perception that the mortality rate among both new-born babies and infants, and mothers was very high throughout these centuries. The Cotton women and their children did far better than the perceived average though.

The overall life expectancy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries was around 40 years of age, rising to 47 for men and 50 for women by the end of the Nineteenth century. Life expectancy figures are always skewed by the number of deaths at birth, or in the first five years of life. Accurate research on the figures is not easy, but it seems that in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries 20 out of 1,000 of all children born alive would die within twenty four hours, and in all 50 out of 1,000 would die within the first week.

It helped, as it does now, that the Cotton were wealthier than average. They lived in an unpolluted environment, and ate and drank well – in terms of both the quantity and the quality of their food and drink. The Cotton children would not have been pressed into dangerous occupations from an early age (such as blacksmithing, farming, tanning or any of the very many trades which very young people were used in), but they would still have been susceptible to falling from trees, falling down the stairs, drowning in the lakes (there were two rather than one at the Abbey then), being involved in domestic fires, being bitten by a dog or trampled by a larger animal. In the records which do survive the largest single cause of mortality is actually drowning – most usually in wells or baths.

Then as now, any attempt at motion faster than a walk was potentially dangerous. It isn’t hard to conjecture that , pro rata, more people were killed in accidents involving horses and coaches or carts than are killed in car accidents now.

Then of course there was disease. The great social leveller affected children equally across the social spectrum – though when ill it is possible that the children of the wealthy were better cared for, and in an environment more conducive to recovery. The lack of modern drugs and medical procedures affected all equally, just as remedies borne of ignorance which did more harm than good were also equally used. It is probably fair to say that the houses of the great and the good were cleaner than the homes of the poor, and less open to vermin, but we cannot know to what degree.

Studies of parish records (see below for caveats) have shown that the number of deaths during the first year of life equated to 140 out of every 1,000 (the figure in the UK today is 4.2 per 1,000 – in Mali it is 106 per 1,000), and that around 30% of youngsters died before they were fifteen years old. It is only a snapshot of a single house, but all the records of births in the Cotton family (not just the most fecund) defy those figures.

One advantage which the young of the Cotton family had was that, whether they lived at Combermere or Llawenny, they enjoyed a rural upbringing. Mortality was higher in urban areas because disease spread so much more easily, and probably because domestic and work accidents were more common. During the outbreaks of plaque in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries more than 50% of all the mortalities in London were of children under fifteen.

How though can we explain that in the very short period of sixteen years between 1684 and 1700 Queen Anne was pregnant no fewer than seventeen times – which is unimaginable in itself – but every single pregnancy ended in miscarriage, a still-birth or a very early death (often within hours)? Who can blame the poor woman for becoming massively corpulent in later life? It was said that when she died – aged just 49 – she was so vast she had been unable to walk, and was cube-shaped. Her mother, the commoner Anne Hyde, who became Duchess of York, saw eight live births but only two children survived to adulthood. On the other hand, half a century later, George III  – who was king between 1760 and 1820 – and his heroic wife Charlotte, had fifteen children – of whom all but two lived long lives.

There was also a considerable risk to life for the child-bearing mothers, of course – but again that has to be kept in proportion. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth century the average age of marriage for women in England was 23.5 years, so she would have a fertility span of perhaps twenty years. On average each woman gave birth about seven times. In London between 1666 and 1758, excluding years of high death rates due to epidemics, slightly fewer than 16 women out of every 100 died during childbirth or soon after. Nowadays the figure for women who die during childbirth in the UK is 8 per 100,000 – yes, eight per one hundred thousand (in Mali it is 700 per 100,000, while in the Central African Republic the figure is 1,757 per 100,000).

We have records of 14 women Cotton wives between the 1520s and the end of the Nineteenth century and the statistics are as follows:

  • The 14 wives gave birth to 98 babies. 2 had just one. 5 accounted for 66. That total equates to 7 births on average – right on the national average for the times.
  • Of those 98 babies as few as 9 and possibly as many as 12 died young; that’s a range of between 8.9% and 11.76 (against a national average of less than 16%)
  • Of the 9 wives we have birth and death dates for, they lived to be just under 60 years old – well above the national average. The youngest death was at 26 and the oldest at 83.
  • Given the dates of their deaths, only one wife could have died in childbirth. She died the same last year as her last child (of three) but she may have died from other another cause. That’s 1 in 100 rather than the 16 in 100 nationally.

There are a couple of points to bear in mind when it comes to national statistics. Firstly churches were not required to keep written records of christenings or the burial of the dead until 1593. Families of wealth, or those who owned property had kept their own records – particularly of male children – even if this was merely written inside the family bible. This meant the merchant class, and landed families from the gentry up to the aristocracy. So before the late-Seventeenth any attempt at working out the statistics on deaths at birth was skewed away from the poorer classes and towards the wealthy. ‘Bills of Mortality’ were gathered centrally, compiled from parish records, from 1665. This came about because the state needed to know the true effects of the plague, but by definition these records did not include Roman Catholics and non-Conformists. This makes exact statistics drawn from the Cotton household all the more interesting. It’s a small sample, but a well-documented one.