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MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN WOMEN

Part 2: Household Books, Correspondence and Manuscripts owned by women from the British Library, London

Brief Notes on Personages

Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) (1533-1603)
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Elizabeth I was born in 1533 at Greenwich Palace to Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, who was executed on charges of incest and adultery in 1536. On her mother’s death and the marriage of Henry to Jane Seymour Elizabeth and her half sister Mary were declared illegitimate and deprived of their places in the line of succession.

Elizabeth was highly educated and especially talented in languages, reputedly being fluent in five by the time she reached adulthood.

When Henry VIII died in 1547 she became a political pawn. Edward was too young to rule and his uncle Edward Seymour became Protector of England. Edward’s younger brother, Thomas Seymour was implicated in a plot to overthrow him and as he had made it obvious he wanted to marry Elizabeth she too was involved. Elizabeth had to persuade the interrogators that she knew nothing of the plot and fortunately she succeeded in proving her innocence.

Elizabeth found herself implicated again in treason after the Wyatt Rebellion of 1554 but again managed to extricate herself, in spite of being arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. Elizabeth finally succeeded to the throne in 1558 and was determined to live life to the full with a constant round of sports, music and dancing and the theatre. She avoided marriage playing her suitors off against each other although she did have two she was very fond of, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Francis, Duke of Alencon/Anjou, heir to the French throne. There were two major threats during her reign – her half sister Mary Tudor and her Catholic followers which eventually led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scotts in 1587 and the Spanish Armada which was sent to invade England but through a combination of factors was defeated.

Elizabeth was a very intelligent and politically astute woman who changed England from an impoverished country torn apart by religious squabbles to one of the most prosperous and powerful countries in the world.

Katharine Parr (1512-1548)
Royal 7 D ix, King’s 10 Reel 17

Katharine Parr was born in 1512 at Kendal Castle, Westmorland and was the daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and Maud Green. Her father was Controller of the Household of King Henry VIII at the beginning of his reign. Katharine and her brother, William received a very good education and she became one of the most learned ladies of her time. She was twice married before her marriage to Henry VIII in 1543, the first time to Sir Edward Borough who died in 1529 and the second to John Neville, Lord Latimer who died in 1543. She was instrumental in restoring to royal rank the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth and she cared for Henry in his old age. After Henry’s death she married her old lover Thomas Seymour, now Lord Seymour of Sudeley, but the marriage was unhappy and she died at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire in 1548.

Margaret Beaufort (1441-1509)
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The Countess of Richmond and Derby, but usually referred to as Lady Margaret Beaufort, was the daughter of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and Margaret Beauchamp. She was born in 1441 at Bletsoe, Bedfordshire and at the age of seven became the child bride of John De La Pole, 2nd Duke of Suffolk, a union which was later dissolved. In 1455 she married Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond who was the maternal half-brother of Henry VI. Her son, who was to become Henry VII, was born in 1456 and her husband died the same year. Soon afterwards she married Henry Stafford, the second son of the Duke of Buckingham, who was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Her third husband was the Yorkist, Thomas, Lord Stanley, later Earl of Derby but his defection at the Battle of Bosworth gave the victory to his stepson, Henry VII.

Throughout the reign of Henry VII Lady Margaret remained his constant adviser. She took the vows of a nun in 1504 but did not choose to live in a nunnery, although she founded several. She is best known for founding two colleges at Cambridge - Christ’s College and St John’s College, for her sponsorship of the Lady Margaret professorships of Divinity at the colleges and for her patronship of the early English press. She died in 1509.

Elizabeth of York (1466-1503)
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Elizabeth of York, born in 1466 was the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville and the sister of Edward and Richard, Duke of York. When the two princes disappeared from the Tower, Richard, brother of the late Edward IV became Richard III. After his defeat by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field Elizabeth of York became Henry VII’s wife in 1485 and their marriage brought an end to the War of the Roses. She had four surviving children, Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary. She died in 1503 on her 37th birthday and was buried in Westminster Abbey in the chapel Henry had built.

Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554)
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Lady Jane Grey was born in 1537 in Leicestershire. Her father was Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset, later Duke of Suffolk and her mother was Lady Frances Brandon, the daughter of Princess Mary of England and her second husband, Charles Brandon.

Lady Jane was well educated and became the ward of Thomas Seymour, second husband of Catherine (Katharine) Parr. After he was executed for treason in 1549 she returned to her parents’ home. In May 1553 she was married off to Guildford Dudley, son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland who had become head of the council advising and ruling for the young King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.


Northumberland thought that Edward’s successor, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII would make Lady Jane and her male heirs successors to the throne. When Edward VI died in July 1553 Northumberland had Lady Jane Grey declared Queen but there was little support for her and Mary, daughter of Henry VIII claimed the throne. Mary was declared Queen later that month and Lady Jane, her husband and Northumberland were executed for treason in February 1554.

Lady Arabella Stuart (1575-1615)
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Lady Arabella Stuart was the cousin of James I and was next after him in line of succession. She was a highly educated and political woman and against James I’ s edict secretly married William Seymour, Marquess of Hertford in 1610. She tried to flee to France but was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She was a fluent writer who used her verbal skills to plead her cause after her imprisonment.

Lady Anne Finch Conway (1631-1679)
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Lady Anne Finch Conway, of Ragley Hall, Warwickshire, was the daughter of Sir Heneage Finch, Speaker of the House of Commons. She was extremely well educated, being fluent in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and was a profound influence on modern science, as well as being a cabalist, philosopher,
alchemist, Rosicrucian and artist. She corresponded on the philosophy of Descartes with the Platonist, Henry More who had been the tutor of one of her brothers at Cambridge. She continued this correspondence after her marriage to Edward, Earl of Conway in 1651 and More stated that he had

scarce ever met with any Person, Man or Woman, of better Natural parts than Lady Conway”.

From Cartesian philosophy she went on to study the Lurianic cabbala and eventually converted to Quakerism. She founded the first psychical research society at Ragley Hall, the gardens of which are designed in accordance with strict occult principles and her home became a centre for intellectual life with visitors such as Gottlieb Wilhelm von Liebniz, Thomas Vaughan, Fellow of King’s College, Henry More, Ezechiel Foxcroft, lecturer in Mathematics at King’s College, Elizabeth of Bohemia and Francis Mercury von Helmont and Baron Rosenroth who were co-authors of major cabalistic works.

In her writings she attempted to reconcile the existence of a benevolent God with the existence of suffering and other evils in the world. She died in 1679 and her only work was published posthumously – “The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy”, first published in a Latin translation in 1690. It was a critical appraisal of the work of Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza and influenced the work of Leibniz.

Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Pembroke (1590-1676)
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Lady Anne Clifford was born at Skipton Castle in 1590, during the reign of Elizabeth I. She was the only surviving child of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland and his wife Margaret Russell. When on her father’s death her uncle inherited the family estate she was determined to regain her inheritance, but her first husband did not support her in her endeavours. When he died and she married Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke she found a staunch supporter and she eventually inherited the estate in 1643. After the Civil War, in her role as a devout Christian, she paid for the rebuilding and restoration of many churches and almshouses in the north of England. She died at Brougham Castle in 1676 at the age of 86.

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