‘Bringing up a chicken to peck out their eye’: A niece’s betrayal
Alice Thornton (1626–1707), a Yorkshire gentlewoman, made sure that her life didn’t go untold by writing at least four versions of it in the 1660s to 1690s, two of which were acquired by the British Library in 2009. But why was she so keen to record her life and what was the significance of a chick-induced eye injury which she included?
Flyleaf of Add MS 88897/2, with Thornton’s monogram (AWT), the date of her husband’s death and a later inscription by her grandson.
Halfway through Thornton’s final autobiographical account, she tells a story about the writing of an earlier book:
‘About March 25, 1669, I was writing of my first book of my life to enter the sad sicknesses and death of my dear husband, together with all those afflictions befell me that year, with the remarks of God’s dealing with myself, husband and children until my widowed condition… There happened [to] me then a very strange and dangerous accident… as I was writing in my said book, I took out this poor chicken, out of my pocket, to feed it with bread and set it on the table besides me. It, picking about the bread innocently, did peep up at my left eye … [and] picked one pick at the white of my left eye … which did so extremely smart and ache that I could not look up or see.’
Thornton recounts the incident with the chick, below the line: Add MS 88897/2, page 177.
This story about her pet chicken, though, soon turns into an account of why she never forgave her niece, Anne Danby, for spreading rumours about her and her family, a topic that much consumes her in this final book. Danby – like the chick – had been taken in, fed and looked after by Thornton. This connection is explicitly made by Thornton:
‘There was some who jested with me and said they had heard of an old saying of bringing up a chicken to peck out their eye. But now they saw I had made good that old saying both in this bird and [in] what harm I had suffered from Mrs Danby of whom I had been so careful and preserved her and hers from starving.’
‘Upon my sad condition and sickness that befell me by the slanders raised against me, July 20th 1668’: Add MS 88897/1, page 246.
It seems likely from internal evidence that Thornton was writing this final book in the 1690s, after the death of her only adult son. This loss might explain why Thornton writes so much about Danby’s earlier betrayal. Thornton’s main heir was now her daughter, also named Alice, who was married to Thomas Comber. Thornton’s close relationship with Comber was one of the topics of Danby’s gossip, as was his marriage to Thornton’s daughter (then only fourteen) in late 1668. Thornton was perhaps keen to set the record straight about this match a quarter of a century later, when the Thornton name was dying out and being succeeded by that of the Combers.
The motives behind Thornton’s writing four versions of her life are being tackled by an AHRC-funded project, ‘Alice Thornton’s Books’, which will also make freely available an online edition of all four manuscripts.
Detail of a chicken pecking the ground, from a music score, 1650. British Library shelfmark: 59.e.19, between pages 30-31.
We haven’t been able to trace the saying about the chicken and the eye – have you heard it before?
Professor of Women’s and Gender History, University of Edinburgh
Cordelia Beattie, Suzanne Trill, Joanne Edge, Sharon Howard. 'The Four Books By Alice Thornton'. Alice Thornton's Books [accessed 23 April 2023]
Charles Jackson. Ed. The Autobiography of Mrs. Alice Thornton of East Newton, Co. York. Durham: Surtees Society, 1875
Alice Thornton, My First Booke of My Life, ed. Raymond A. Anselment (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014)