John Norris

I was having a wander through my family tree, trying to find an ancestor or family to share with you. I was reminded, on my father’s mother’s side of the Norris family of Collingbourne Kingston, Wiltshire, and after reacquainting myself with the line found a rather surprising association.

Emily Alice Palmer has been mentioned before – and her less than ‘traditional’ life that she lived. Her maternal grandmother was named Priscilla Brine. Her great-grandmother was Mary Norris. Her great-great-grandfather was John Norris. (Are you still with me, generation fans? We’re back to my 10 x great-grandfather now!) He had been made vicar of Collingbourne Kingston in 1647 and in August 1660 moved to Aldbourne in Wiltshire. It was here that he died on 18 March 1682, and was survived by his wife, Elizabeth.

Searching the Clergy of the Church of England Database (CCEd), John obtained his BA from Pembroke College, Cambridge on 17 June 1636 and his MA on 2 May 1639. What little evidence there is seems to show that he was a Calvinist (that is, a form of Protestantism based on the Reformation-era teachings of John Calvin). He and his wife Elizabeth had 5 children, 3 of whom survived into adulthood.

I am descended from his son Henry, who seems to have remained in Collingbourne Ducis, marrying Catherine Hellyard on 16 October 1674 and having at least five children.

Henry’s brother John – born on 2 January 1657 in Collingbourne Kingston – seems to have taken a quite different turn with his life. Educated first at Winchester College, he entered Exeter College, Oxford in 1676. He read classical literature widely, but was drawn to the writings of Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle and was drawn to various metaphysical and mystical teachings. He obtained his BA in 1680 and became an elected fellow of All Souls. He also discovered the works of the rationalist philosopher Nicolas Malebranche and his work Search after Truth (aka ‘Concerning the Search after Truth. In which is treated the nature of the human mind and the use that must be made of it to avoid error in the sciences’ – which I think we can agree is a most snappy title …). In 1684 he took his MA and was ordained.

St Andrew's Old Church, Bemerton in 1994. © Copyright Nick Macneill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

St Andrew’s Old Church, Bemerton in 1994. © Copyright Nick Macneill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In 1689 he left Oxford and married his wife, Elizabeth. They moved to Newton St Loe near Bath in Somerset where he was the vicar. It was here that he wrote a critique to John Locke’s An Essay on Human Understanding. In 1692 the Norris family moved to Bemerton, Wiltshire (just outside Salisbury) – a position that Locke had recommended him for. The two Johns (as it were) had a mutual friend in Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham, a philosopher and feminist in her own right. She argued that mothers were essential to the well-being of political society and also advocated women’s participation in disciplines long dominated by men: sciences and philosophy.

Although the friendship between John Norris and John Locke and Lady Masham didn’t last (and Locke dismissed him from serious consideration, describing him as “an obscure, enthusiastic man”), he was a close friend and supporter of other learned ladies, such as Elizabeth Thomas and Lady Mary Chudleigh. His closest friendship here was, however, with Mary Astell.

Title page from the third edition of A Serious Proposal

Title page from the third edition of A Serious Proposal

Mary had received an informal education from her uncle, who had left the clergy due to bouts of alcoholism, but introduced her to the works of Plato and Aristotle. Following the death of her father, mother and aunt, she moved to London and came under the patronage of various women, including Lady Elizabeth Hastings, the daughter of the 7th Earl of Huntingdon (Elizabeth and Mary would both die after having a mastectomy following breast cancer). It was under their aegis that she was able to develop and publish her works on the importance of marriage equality and education for women – so much so that she presented an idea of women having the same religious and secular education as men, ideally in a protected environment. Jonathan Swift (he of Gulliver’s Travels fame) mocked her, and Daniel Defoe (yes, Robinson Crusoe) called them “impracticable” – but this didn’t stop him from using almost the exact same idea in a later essay of his.

The more I read about Mary Astell, what she overcame and how she managed to debate freely with some of the most learned men and women of her age, the more I wonder why more isn’t known about her, and other like her. (The answer is, I feel, somewhat obvious.)

One of her key quotes is the following, from her book Some Reflections Upon Marriage:

If all Men are born Free, why are all Women born Slaves?

She had a great many good things to say about John Norris, including the following:

…though some morose Gentleman wou’d perhaps remit me to the Distaff or the Kitchin … yet expecting better things from the more Equitable and ingenious Mr. Norris, who is not so narrow-Soul’d as to confine Learning to his own Sex, or to envy it in ours, I presume to beg his Attention a little to the Impertinencies of a Woman’s Pen.

She wrote in 1694: “Women are from their very Infancy debar’d those Advantages, with the want of which they are afterwards reproached …They are] nursed up in those Vices which will hereafter be upbraided to them. So partial are Men as to expect Brick where they afford no Straw. … How can you be content to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden, to make a fine shew and be good for nothing?”

She urged women to be scholars and poets and to strive for excellence, arguing that the life of the mind was “a Matter infinitely more worthy your Debates, than what Colours are most agreeable, or what’s the Dress becomes you best”. She encouraged women to aspire to higher things than “to attract the Eyes of Men. We value them too much, and ourselves too little, if we place any part of our desert in their Opinion; and don’t think our selves capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of some worthless heart.”

#YesAllWomen indeed.

For my own part, and as non-religious as I am, I have to say that I am proud of John and his cultivation of not only his own education but also the support of the notion that women are – shock, horror – just as capable of rational thought as men. In their correspondence, he and Mary agree that as bodies have motion, so minds have love.

I’m not sure I can add anything to that.

 “How fading are the joys we dote upon!

Like apparitions seen and gone.

But those which soonest take their flight

Are the most exquisite and strong—

Like angels’ visits, short and bright;

Mortality’s too weak to bear them long.”

John Norris, The Parting (1678)

For more on John Norris:

Encyclopaedia Londinensis entry

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry

Wikipedia

For more on Mary Astell:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry

Wikipedia

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