Monday, 10 June 2019

Excellent Women

In a fascinating post, Patrick Kurp today quotes a typically pithy, gossipy life from John Aubrey's Brief Lives. It reminded me of a passage from Aubrey that I came across while researching my book. This was his thumbnail sketch of a kinswoman of his, Elizabeth Danvers (née Neville), who had 'prodigeous parts for a Woman. I have heard my father’s mother say that she had Chaucer at her fingers' ends. A great Politician; great Witt and spirit, but revengeful: knew how to manage her estate as well as any man; understood Jewels as well as any Jeweller. Very Beautiful, but only short-sighted. To obtain Pardons for her Sonnes she maryed Sir Edmund Carey, cosen-german to Queen Elizabeth, but kept him to hard meate.'
  The last phrase, I guess, means that her marriage to Sir Edmund was a mariage blanc. The sons whose lives she saved by this alliance had been obliged to flee the country after a feud with a local family ended in murder. One of them was later beheaded for his part in the Essex rebellion. Lady Carey died in 1630 at an advanced age, having already secured herself one of the most beautiful monuments of its time, carved by the great Nicholas Stone. (It stands in St Michael's, Church Stowe, in Northamptonshire, and is well worth seeking out.)


  The early seventeenth century seems to have been remarkably rich in women of great talent and practical ability. As I researched my book, I kept coming across them. One was another, later Elizabeth Carey (Lady Berkeley), who also has a notably beautiful monument by Stone. This Lady Elizabeth was a scholar, poet and patron of the arts from an early age – and proved also to be a woman of great practical ability, taking over the running of her wildly extravagant husband's estates and managing to pay off his huge debts. She died on her estate as Cranford, Middlesex (where she is buried), having lived her latter years 'amongst her thousands of books'.


Then there is Mary Browne, the much misused wife of the Second Earl of Southampton (who seems to have preferred men to women), who cut her out of his will and decreed that her children be taken from her. Mary, refusing to take this lying down, fought a successful battle to have this will overturned, regaining her status and rights, and having her children returned to her. What's more, she ignored her late husband's expressed wish to have his own monument, with a separate one for his parents (and no trace at all of his wife). Mary ensured that a single monument was built (at Titchfield in Hampshire), with her mother-in-law in pride of place, and her own name and lineage conspicuously displayed.
  One of Mary's sons was Henry, who became the Third Earl of Southampton, dedicatee of Shakespeare's narrative poems and very probably the Fair Youth of the Sonnets. It was to him, as it happens, that Elizabeth Danvers' sons fled after the murder, claiming his protection before they crossed to the Continent. And it was he who commissioned one of the most touching monuments to a dead child – his daughter, Lady Mary Wriothesley, who died in 1615 aged four years and four months. This monument (also at Titchfield) is unusual for its time in showing a child who looks like a child rather than a miniature adult, and might well have been made by the legendary Epiphanius Evesham.

  Mention of Evesham leads us to another redoubtable woman, Lady Frances St Pol, who, having been widowed, was relentlessly courted by the odious Third Baron Rich (they are both portrayed in a memorial tondo by Evesham at Snarford in Lincolnshire). Rich had divorced his first wife, the beautiful and gifted Lady Penelope Devereux, whom he married by force, and now he intended to get his hands on the wealth of Lady Frances, 'a person of shining conversation and eminent beauty' who was also one of the richest women in the county. Happily, by the time Rich married her, the resourceful Lady Frances had so arranged her affairs as to put her wealth beyond the reach of her avaricious husband. He died, disappointed, within three years of the marriage, and she spent the rest of her life doing good works in Snarford and farther afield. Another excellent woman.

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