Phil Gyford • Link
Wife of Balthasar, Pepys' brother-in-law: http://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/631/
Daily entries from the 17th century London diary
Wife of Balthasar, Pepys' brother-in-law: http://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/631/
Esther died in 1687(n.s.)Her burial entry at St Nicholas,Deptford reads: "12th February - Madam Hester wife of Balshazar St Michael Esq". Mrs Bagwell would be buried close by fifteen years later(!).
By July 1666, I was intrigued by Esther Watts St. Michel. I read all her Diary entries and wrote this synopsis – but since I haven't finished the Diary, I'm unaware of the end of Balty’s story, which would fill in missing Esther details. I hope this helps you.
In early December 1662, Balty married Esther Watts, daughter of yeoman John Watts of Northamptonshire. She claimed to come from money – he claimed to be a French nobleman. What could possibly go wrong?
By December 18 Pepys records: “They dined at her father’s today, but for ought I hear he is a wise man, and will not give anything to his daughter till he sees what her husband do put himself to, so that I doubt he has made but a bad matter of it, but I am resolved not to meddle with it.”
John Watts wasn’t thrilled to have Balty as a son-in-law -- L&M Companion describes Balty as "improvident, overbearing, and secretive." I would add immature and unskilled. He was born in 1640, so he was only 22 at this point. As there was no formal wedding, we can guess Esther was independent enough to capture Balty without her family’s assistance. They went on to have 8 children, so it was probably a love match.
I think Esther was brought up with ideas above her station: she could play the Bass Viola well enough to please Sam. Unfortunately, that’s wouldn’t bring in the extra income which she and Balty needed during the early years. Pepys never tells us about their housing, but Dorothea St. Michel kept an eye on them for many Diary years, and the St. Michel Seniors didn’t live in good places.
At first Pepys wasn’t impressed, describing Esther as "most little," "pretty old," "not handsome, nor has anything in the world pleasing". On Monday 29 December 1662 he reported “… the Duke of Monmouth with his little mistress, which is very little, and like my brother-in-law’s wife.” Lady Anne Scott was the daughter and heir of Francis, Earl of Buccleugh. On their marriage in April 1663 James, Duke of Monmouth took her surname of Scott. She was 12 and he was 13. So I gather Esther was tiny and under-developed. Not Pepys' “type.”
Pepys may go to work to avoid them, but on Tuesday 17 February 1662/63 Elizabeth took Balty and Esther to the Chelsea School to see Mary Ashwell perform. Elizabeth became ill and had to be brought home early. Esther stayed with her until Pepys came home. Thinking music might soothe the patient, Pepys sends for Esther’s viola, and was pleased by how well she played -- for a girl. He also realized he had underestimated Esther, “but my expectation is much deceived in her, not only for that, but in her spirit, she being I perceive a very subtle, witty jade, and one that will give her husband trouble enough as little as she is, whereas I took her heretofore for a very child and a simple fool.”
Being called a “jade” isn’t a compliment. But now Pepys knows he has a smart jade to deal with, who will keep Balty on his toes.
By 21 December 1663 Elizabeth tells Pepys that Esther is proving troublesome. Dorothea St. Michel had been there to keep the peace, but now “is gone back to be with her husband and leave the young couple to themselves, and great trouble, and I fear great want, will be among them. I pray keep me from being troubled with them.”
On 31 December 1663 Elizabeth tells Pepys that Balty is unhappy with Esther’s ill-disposition, and she has confessed she is no heiress. Pepys sees “none of them, at least they come not to trouble me.”
On 3 February 1663/64 Elizabeth is full of stories about her good-natured father and roguish brother. Balty has decided to go to Holland to be a soldier, and to take Esther.
On the evening of 10 February 1663/64 Pepys arrived home to find Balty with Elizabeth, waiting to take the next tide to Holland with Esther to seek his fortune. Pepys gives Elizabeth 10s. to give to him, along with “a close-bodied light-coloured cloth coat, with a gold edgeing in each seam, that was the lace of my wife’s best pettycoat that she had when I married her.”
Pepys never tells us where Balty served, and L&M only says he joined the Dutch army early in 1664. This leaves lots of room for speculation. I’m sure Esther had a hard time being an Army wife in any foreign country during those war-weary years.
By June 26, 1665 Balty and Esther are home, and Pepys notes she has become “a pretty little modest woman.” Now Balty has experience, he asks Pepys to help him find a living, and Sam observes Esther “seems a pretty discreet young thing, and humble, and he, above all things, desirous to do something to maintain her, telling me sad stories of what she endured with him in Holland.”
While they were in the Netherlands, they had had their "plague year" – and it’s reasonable to think this English/French/Huguenot couple were not made welcome. Now they are home to endure another plague year.
Pepys’ surprisingly warm welcome and willingness to help suggests Balty made some helpful observations about life in Holland.
Pepys came through with the position, and Elizabeth went out of her way to be friendly to her brother and sister-in-law. By 18 December 1665 Pepys “was a little displeased to find she is so forward all of a spurt to make much of her brother and sister since my last kindness to him in getting him a place, but all ended well presently.”
May 7, 1666 Elizabeth invites Esther to dinner, who Pepys now finds a witty woman, which is just as well as Elizabeth and Esther see each other regularly for a while.
For instance, on 21 May 1666 Sam and Elizabeth take Esther, Balty and Mercer to Islington on their evening “grand tour”. Pepys was ”pleased with Balty, his deportment in his business of Muster-Master, and hope mighty well from him, and am glad with all my heart I put him into this business.” They stayed over that night as Balty left next morning to sail with the fleet for battle and Elizabeth took Esther home.
Unfortunately, on 30 May, 1666 Elizabeth hears that Esther has had a fit or a fall, and miscarried. Pepys hopes Esther will recover, but privately thinks the loss of a child right now is probably a good thing. (According to the family tree, they go on to have eight children, so she was not seriously injured by this sad event.)
A month later Elizabeth visits Esther at her home. If Balty's income allowed for it, this is the last day of her lying in month -- if such things existed for accidents and miscarriages??? Of course, the timing of this visit might just be a coincidence.
On Thursday 19 July 1666 Balty is scheduled to go back to the fleet again, and he and Esther come to lunch to say goodbye. Pepys confides to the Diary that Balty will experience a great engagement before he is two days older.
News comes slowly, and Thursday 2 August 1666 Esther has lunch at Seething Lane, being “in pain for her husband, not hearing of him since the fight; but I understand he was not in it, going hence too late, and I am glad of it.”
The next day word comes that Balty “was safe this week, but is now going in a ship to the fleet from the buoy of the Nore, where he has been all this while, the fleet being gone before he got down.”
Friday 10 August 1666: Pepys is now calling Esther “sister Balty” when another letter arrives from Balty. He is well, at Harwich, and going to the fleet. After lunch Pepys takes Elizabeth and Esther to Paternoster Row, presumably to go shopping.
Shopping was again the agenda on Tuesday 21 August 1666, but Pepys upset Elizabeth in front of Esther by refusing to give her any money. He must have thought better of it, because they were “… good friends again, and by coach set them down at the New Exchange.”
The Great Fire upset everything. Fear of thieves caused Pepys to pack up and hide his worldly goods, and Balty and Esther stayed at Seething Lane to help.
On Wednesday 12 September 1666 they kept Elizabeth company while Sam, being Sam, had romantic encounters with Betty Martin and Mrs. Bagwell.
And the next day they all slept on the floor, “and [I] lay with my wife in my old closett upon the ground, and Balty and his wife in the best chamber, upon the ground also.”
Esther was no shrinking violet.
Balty rejoined the fleet, and on Thursday 20 September 1666 Pepys took Elizabeth out by coach through the ruins, which upset her. Balty and Esther’s house must have survived, because he set her down there.
When he picks her up, Elizabeth reports that her mother, Dorothea St. Michel, is furious with Esther. “The old woman charges her with going abroad and staying out late, and painting [her face] in the absence of her husband, and I know not what.”
Also, “they grow proud, both he and she, and do not help their father and mother out of what I help them to, which I do not like, nor my wife.” (This is the first time I’m aware of Pepys acknowledging that he has also been helping the senior St. Michels.)
Is Esther back to being the “jade” Pepys thought she was at the start of our tale?
Or did the constant want of money, comparing how Elizabeth and she lived, while her husband is away – dead for all she knew – get the better of the lonely woman? Her nosy mother-in-law probably also hints/asks for money. Esther isn’t the first or last lonely wife of a sailor to decide to explore her options.
A month later Balty is home. Elizabeth goes to see him because he is sick, and she believes is upset because of Esther’s bad behavior, which he has found out about.
Six weeks later Balty has improved enough by Thursday, 29 November, 1666 to come to lunch. Pepys observes, “looks like death, and I do fear he is in a consumption; he has not been abroad many weeks before, and hath now a well day, and a fit day of the headake in extraordinary torture.”
After dinner Pepys left Balty, Esther with their mother [Dorothea St. Michel] and Elizabeth. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation!
By Wednesday 20 February 1666/67, Balty is well, but now Elizabeth is distressed to report “her brother hath laid out much money upon himself and wife for clothes, which I am sorry to hear, it requiring great expense.”
Tuesday, 26 February, 1666/67 Sir William Coventry rattles Pepys’ confidence by complaining about the “Muster-Masters, concerning whom I had returned their small performances, which do give me a little more trouble for fear [Sir] W. Coventry should think I had a design to favor my brother Balty, and to that end to disparage all the rest. But I shall clear all very well, only it do exercise my thoughts more than I am at leisure for. At home find Balty and his wife very fine, which I did not like, for fear he do spend too much of his money that way, and lay [not] up anything.”
Living up to the standards of your rich relatives takes money.
But Balty was not one of the under-performing Muster Masters, so on Wednesday, 27 March, 1667 Pepys meets “Balty, whom I had sent for, and there did break the business of my getting him the place of going again as Muster-Master with Harman this voyage to the West Indys, which indeed I do owe to Sir W. Penn. He is mighty glad of it, and earnest to fit himself for it, but I do find, poor man, that he is troubled how to dispose of his wife, and apparently it is out of fear of her, and his honor, and I believe he hath received some cause of this his jealousy and care, and I do pity him in it, and will endeavor to find out some way to do, it for him. Having put him in a way of preparing himself for the voyage, I did go to the Swan, …”
L&M note: Sir John Harman sailed on 28 April, 1667 from Plymouth with the only squadron of men-of-war sent out into those waters in the whole of the reign. He returned a year later.
But that’s a month from now.
On 28 March 1667 Balty joins Pepys for lunch to discuss how “to dispose of his wife, and would fain have me provide a place for her, which the thoughts of what I should do with her if he should miscarry at sea makes me avoid the offering him that she should be at my house. I find he is plainly jealous of her being in any place where she may have ill company, and I do pity him for it, and would be glad to help him, and will if I can.”
Pepys was reluctant to have Esther stay with them because, if Balty dies, he would be obliged to care for her until she found a new husband. It's possible he would be obliged to provide a dowry for her to remarry. Also, Elizabeth and Esther may be friends, but two headstrong women under one roof is difficult.
Pepys discusses the problem with Elizabeth the next day. “I do wish very well to, and would be glad to advise him, for he is very sober and willing to take all pains.”
That afternoon Balty and Esther come over asking for “good advice” on her staying with Dorothea and Alexandre St. Michel for the next year.
Pepys emphasizes the need to save money, and “if I did not find they did endeavor it, I should not think fit to trouble myself for them, but I see she is utterly against being with his father and mother, and he is fond of her, and I perceive the differences between the old people and them are too great to be presently forgot, and so he do propose that it will be cheaper for him to put her to board at a place he is offered at Lee, and I, seeing that I am not like to be troubled with the finding a place, and having given him so much good advice, do leave them to stand and fall as they please, having discharged myself as a friend, and not likely to be accountable for her nor be troubled with her, if he should miscarry I mean, as to her lodging, and so broke up.”
L&M Index: Lee is what we know as Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. It is on the coast facing the Channel – and the Dutch. By the 16th century, Leigh was a busy seaport, so not the best place to sequester one's young wife for at least a year.
By the time Pepys goes to bed, Balty has told him strange stories about his mother. Among others, how she, in Alexandre’s absence in Ireland, did pawn all the things that he had saved from his service to Cromwell, and ran away to Flanders (was this in 1643 when Elizabeth and Balty were taken to live in Paris?). That is why the senior St. Michels are now reduced to money from Balty and 4s. a week from the French church. All the subsistence his parents now have is 20l. a year. Pepys vows to provide for them.
L&M: Alexandre and Dorothea St. Michel leave for Paris on March 4, Sir John Harman sailed on 28 April from Plymouth, and Balty was made Deputy-Treasurer of the fleet on June 21, 1667.
Esther goes to live in Leigh-on-Sea, but by 17 July 1667 she’s back at Seething Lane for a 2-day visit. “… and so home to supper, and there find my sister Michell come from Lee to see us; but do tattle so much of the late business of the Dutch coming thither that I was weary of it. Yet it is worth remembering what she says: that she hath heard both seamen and soldiers swear they would rather serve the Dutch than the King, for they should be better used. She saw “The Royal Charles” brought into the river by them; and how they shot off their great guns for joy, when they got her out of Chatham River. I would not forget that this very day when we had nothing to do almost but five merchantmen to man in the River, which have now been about it some weeks, I was asked at Westminster, what the matter was that there was such ado kept in pressing of men, as it seems there is thereabouts at this day.”
Did Pepys repeat at Whitehall Esther’s story of the disaffection of the seamen for Charles II?
They saw no more of her until 2 January 1667/68.
By Wednesday 22 April, 1668 Balty is home, and brought Esther to town for a visit.
It may have been a long visit, because on 4 May, 1668 Pepys introduced Balty to James, Duke of York along with a laudatory letter about him from the Navy Board.
Or it may have been a short stay because by 11 May 1668 Balty and Esther are living in Deptford.
At the end of May 1668 Pepys goes on a trip to Cambridge, and leaves Balty and Esther to look after his house. When he gets home, he finds her dressed appropriately for the role: “she mighty fine, in a new gold-laced ‘just a cour’.“
By the end of the Diary on Tuesday, 16 March, 1668/69 Pepys records that “my sister Michell coming also this day to see us, whom I left there, and I away …” My sister. Not Mrs. Balty. Not my wife’s sister. Not Balty’s wife. Esther has redeemed herself with Pepys and is a member of HIS family.
Esther Watts St. Michel died in 1687 (n.s.). Her burial entry at St. Nicholas church, Deptford reads: "12th February - Madam Hester wife of Balshazar St. Michael, Esq".
Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.
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