Elizabeth was born in Wiltshire, the eldest daughter of Raufe Freke and Cicely, a cousin of the famous Nicolas Culpeper (who wrote the London Dispensatory). After her mother’s early death, she and her sisters were raised by her father and a maternal aunt. When 30, she eloped with her second cousin Percy to London. She had a child, a son, and then went to Ireland, where Percy’s father lived at Rathbarry in County Cork, leaving the boy with her father.
In subsequent years, Freke travelled back and forth, quarrelling with her husband, about money and about where they should live. And while her father kept providing her with funds, her husband kept spending them. Ultimately, her father bought her an estate at West Bilney, in Norfolk, which she managed to keep for herself, and to where she eventually retired after leaving Ireland for the last time. Percy came to Norfolk when he was ill, and died there, causing Elizabeth much stress. Later, she suffered from asthma and pleurisy, and died in Westminster on 7 April 1714 while visiting London. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Elizebeth Freke is only remembered today because of her autobiographical writings - recorded in two separate manuscripts - and the historical and social interest of those writings. Some of these were first edited by Mary Carbery and published in 1913, by the Journal of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society, as Mrs. Elizabeth Freke Her Diary, 1671 to 1714. Although the term ‘diary’ was used - presumably because many of the autobiographical entries left by Freke were dated in diary format - it is clear from the content that the bulk of them were written much later on. Melosina Lenox-Conyngham included some of Freke’s so-called diary entries in her Diaries of Ireland (published by Lilliput Press, Dublin in 1998).
Much more recently, a US professor, Raymond Anselment, re-examined the Freke papers in the British library, and produced a more detailed and considered version of Freke’s literary legacy. This was published by Cambridge University Press in 2001 as The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, 1671–1714. Some pages can be read online at Googlebooks and at Amazon.
In his introduction, Anselment discusses the two manuscripts left behind by Freke, i.e. the two versions of her autobiographical writings, and how Carbery ‘cut, conflated, and rearranged’ them. Although he says that the composition of neither manuscript can be dated precisely, he does conclude that Freke began writing her remembrances in 1702, aged 60, ‘perhaps relying on earlier notes for the specific details of her first thirty years of marriage’. From then on, he also concludes, Freke’s increasingly substantial entries were written ‘fairly soon after the entry dates’.
‘In writing and then rewriting autobiographical remembrances recalling three decades of marriage and ensuing years of widowhood,’ the publisher’s blurb says, ‘Elizabeth Freke strikingly redefines the relationships among self, family, and patriarchy characteristic of early modern women’s autobiography. Suffering and sacrifice dominate an extensive ledger of disappointment and bitterness that reveals over time the complex emotions of a Norfolk gentry woman seeking significance and even vindication in her hardships and frustrations. [. . .] By making available both versions of the remembrances in their entirety, this new, multiple-text edition clarifies the refashioning inherent in each stage of writing and rewriting, recovering with unusual immediacy Freke’s late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century domestic world.’
Dr Amy Erickson, in a review of Anselment’s book for the Institute of Historical Research, says this: ‘Elizabeth Freke has the distinction among my autobiographical acquaintance of being the memoirist I would least like to meet. This is not because she was toothless, lame, blind and probably bald and, as she said in 1711, ‘a diseased criple with a rhumatisme and tisick confined to a chair for this eighteen months past’. It is because she wields her resentment like an iron ball swung round her head ready to let fly.’
And Erickson goes on to explain further: ‘These are not remembrances in the sense of reminiscences. They are not a record of family or piety or maternal devotion, as many early modern women’s memoirs might be categorised. They are explicitly ‘remembrances of my misfortuns ... since I were marryed’. The bitterness is directed primarily, but by no means exclusively, at her husband and son, and with good reason. Her sister, her cousin (who is her financial agent), her tenants, and the Bishop of Norwich also mistreat her to varying degrees. All of these relationships are described in terms of property - in relation to gifts (the cash value of which is always recorded), ingratitude or theft.’
Here are a few extracts from the early pages of The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, 1671–1714.
14 November 1671
‘I was privately married to Mr Percy Frek by Doctter Johnson in Coven Garden, my Lord Russells chaplain, in London, to my second cosine, eldest son to Captain Arthur Frek and grandson to Mr William Frek, the only brother of Sir Thomas Frek of Dorsettshiere, who was my grandfather, and his son Mr Ralph Frek my deer father. And my mother was Sir Thomas Cullpepers daughter of Hollingburne in Kentt; her name was Cicelia Cullpeper. Affter being six or 7 years engaged to Mr Percy Freke, I was in a most grievous rainy, wet day married without the knowledg or consent of my father or any friend in London, as above.’
26 July 1672
‘Being Thursday, I were again remarried by me deer father by Doctter Uttram att St Margaretts Church in Westminster by a licence att least four years in Mr Freks pocttett and in a grievous tempestuous, stormy day for wind as the above for raigne. I were given by me deer father, Ralph Frek, Esqr, and the eldest of his four daughters and the last married, being contracted to him by promise for five years before, butt unwilling to give my sisters any president of my misfortunes prognosticated to mee by the two tempestuous and dreadful days I were married on and which I looked on as fatal emblems to me. Eliza. Freke.’
26 August 1672
‘Mr Frek, Agust 26 coming over St James Parke about 12 a clock att night, challenged my lord of Roscomon either to fight him in St James Parke presently or to pay him down a thousand pounds my lord has long owed Mr Freke. Butt the 26 of Agust att three a clock in the morning ten men of the lifeguard came and fetched Mr Freke out of his bed from me and immediatly hurryed him to Whit Hall before Secretary Coventry, I nott knowing what itt was for more then words spoken. This was the begining of my troubles for my disobedience in marrying as I did. Eliz Freke’
4 March 1690
‘Mr Frek left me and went away again for Ireland, I nott knowing of itt above two days before, to endeavour the getting of his estat, tho given away by King James to Owen Maccarty. My Husband being then outtlawed for an absentee had all his estate of above 700 pounds a yeare with all his stock and good given away by the said kinge and his greatt house att Rathbarry burnt down by the Irish to preventt its being made a garrison, as itt had held outt on nine months for King Charls the First by Captaine Arthur Frek, my husbands father.’
30 March 1692
‘Mr Frek, haveing now left me to shifft for my selfe above two years, never lett me have any quiett butt commanded me to leave all my affairs att Billney and come over to Ireland. Wher, affter halfe a years concideration I forced my selfe to undertak againe a jorney to Ireland, and in order to itt wentt with my son and servants to London in my deer sister Nortons coach and left my house and goods in the care of Jams Wallbutt, then my servantt and affter my cheating tenant.’