Friday, March 9, 2018

Ralph Josselin: A 17th Century Vicar

by Cryssa Bazos

Every diarist leaves a little of themselves behind for the next generation. Samuel Pepys gave us insight into his city diversions and business in the shipyards, John Evelyn a political perspective, and Lady Fanshawe, her love for her husband. All three were political insiders, with a privileged front row seat to the royal entanglements and comings and goings. But from Ralph Josselin’s diary, we see a different aspect of 17th century Stuart society: the life of a middle class country vicar and family man.

Life and Times

Ralph Josselin - unknown artist
Ralph Josselin was born at Roxwell in Essex on January 26, 1617. About his beginnings, he wrote:
"I was the eldest son in our whole Family and yet possessed not a foot of land in which yet I praise god I have not felt inward discontent and grudging, god has given me himself, and he is [all] and will make up all other things to me."
Though his grandfather was a wealthy yeoman who left an estate valued at £1,000, Josselin’s father did a poor job of farming and whittled his inheritance away. But the elder Josselin did leave his son something more valuable—an education.

Ralph Josselin entered Cambridge in 1633 and earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1637 and his Masters three years later. It took him longer than most to complete his education as he had to juggle shortages in funds and take on various posts, including a stint as a schoolmaster. During this time, he discovered an aptitude for sermons which spoke to his keen spirituality. After graduating, he became a curate in Olney.

Now that Josselin had a living and was set for his life’s work, he looked to starting a family. A local Olney girl, Jane Constable, attracted his attention and on October 28, 1640, the young couple married. They eventually settled in Earls Colne where Josselin served as vicar for the rest of his life. Over the next twenty-three years, Ralph and Jane welcomed ten children into their family, six girls and four boys. Two of their children were infants when they died, and their oldest, Mary, died at the age of 8. Only five of their children survived him.

Earls Colne Church
Josselin sided with Parliament during the English Civil War and in 1645 he joined as a chaplain. He was a moderate in his politics and looked upon the more revolutionary factions, like the Levellers and the Quakers, with concern. When Charles II was restored to throne in 1660, he obtained the King’s pardon, which allowed him to continue living in peace.

Historical Anthropologist, Alan MacFarlane, conducted a thorough analysis of Josselin’s diary by recording quantifiable details about his sources of income and his wealth during the years of the diary and even more intriguing, qualitative information about his attitudes toward his life, society and his children. The study is fascinating and invaluable.


It was the norm during Stuart England for middle class couples to marry on average between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-five, far later than their aristocratic counterparts. Most men would not even consider getting married until they had their career firmly established.

Contrary to modern assumptions, marriage was not expected to be a loveless transaction. It was expected, even hoped, that couples would find a good match in personality and temperament. Ralph and Jane shared a loving marriage, though not without their ups and downs.
“You can consider, here I was won’t to see my dear Wife; here to enjoy her delightsome imbraces [sic]; her counsel, spiritual Discourses, furtherance, encouragement in the waves of God, I was won’t to fine her an help to ease me of the burthen and trouble of household-affaires, whose countenance welcomed me home with joy.”
Nor was theirs a one-sided marriage with Ralph making all the decisions and Jane merely obeying. The couple consulted over important decisions, such when they needed to consider suitors for their daughters. There was one situation where one young man came calling, and while Ralph favoured him, Jane didn’t agree. In the end, the suitor was turned away and their daughter ended up marrying someone else.


Josselin was a Puritan and that alone conjures up images of a stern and authoritarian father, however his relationship with his children, even his daughters, was warm and caring, not to mention involved. Josselin worried over their welfare and their health, grieving as much as his wife over their premature deaths. Even after they married, he did not stop worrying about their welfare.

Curiously, Josselin did not limit his observations to his children after they were born. He diligently recorded the progress of his wife’s pregnancy, when she weaned their children and most of her miscarriages. Breastfeeding ranged between twelve and nineteen months and often weaning perfectly coincided with the onset of the next pregnancy.

Apprenticeship and Education

Education was not limited to the boys. Josselin was at one time the schoolmaster at Earls Colne school and ensured all his children received a good education. The Josselin children were taught there between the ages of 4 to 10, and their education included numbers and reading, though writing appeared to be a skill taught later in their education. For instance, Josselin received his daughter’s first letter when she was fourteen.

It was a common practice to send away children to be educated (including apprenticeship) around the time of adolescence, girls included. Most of them were sent to London either as apprentices or in the case of the daughters, to serve in a household, and rarely to relatives. These arrangements can be seen as an extension of their education and not as a way to shift the financial obligation to his children’s care to someone else. For Josselin reciprocated this arrangement and took in apprentices from other families, providing them food and shelter. He approached his duties very seriously accepting the boys as part of his extended family. This was a highly efficient and affective way to expand social reach and alliances to beyond one’s family.


Not only did Josselin serve as a vicar, he was also a yeoman farmer and kept very detailed records of his income, expenditures and sources of wealth. The weather was the greatest source of worry and concern, and his diary also addresses the growing season, the weather conditions and the crop yields. February and September were the two months where he commented the most about the weather. The worst years for his crops were between 1646 to 1648 due to excessive rain. Interestingly, this happened between the first and second civil war, following years of food shortages due to free quarter by both Royalist and Parliamentarian armies.

Jocelyn’s source of income was varied. Income earned as a vicar provided a steady living, but he was able to supplement this through the rents he received on leased land (which he had either purchased over the years or had inherited), his farming, and for a brief time, his position as schoolmaster. Based on his diary notes, over the course of his working lifetime, approximately half of his income was derived from his ecclesiastical duties and just over a third from land (leases and farming).

Ralf Josselin’s diary gives us a much-needed insight into the personal life of a middle class family in the 17th century, and through his observations, the life of the women in his family.  I’ve only scratched a thin surface of what we can glean from his writings. If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend the historical anthropological study, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin: A Seventeenth-Century Clergyman, by Alan MacFarlane.


East Colne Church: 'Plate 108: Church Towers', in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 3, North East (London, 1922), p. 108. British History Online.


Cryssa Bazos is historical fiction author and 17th century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the Romantic Novelist Association and is a co-editor and contributor of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Her award winning debut novel, Traitor's Knot, is published by Endeavour Media.

Connect with Cryssa through her blog, Facebook, Twitter (@CryssaBazos), and Instagram (@cryssabazos). Traitor's Knot is available through Amazon.


  1. Very interesting post. Thank you for introducing
    me to Rev.Josselin !

  2. Thanks, Cryssa ... I have been introduced to Rev. Ralph through Pepys' Diary on-line, and since it deals with 1660-1669 I read his angst when he expected to be fired as an Anglican minister in 1661. The ax did not fall. and he continued to tend his flock at Earls Colne for many years. Compared to Pepys, he's rather uninformative, but his sighting of the pesky 1665 comet conveyed the fear felt in the country. I also found it interesting seeing how long it took the news to be reported by well-connected Pepys, and the rural vicar. It was usually about 3 days. It takes the gossip that long today! Anyways, thanks for filling in my understanding of the good Rev. Ralph.

    1. Thanks Sally. While Josselin's diary isn't as entertaining as Pepys, it does give us a different view on Stuart society which is very helpful.

  3. Yes, I find the details of daily life most interesting. This glimpse is greatly appreciated.