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Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick - A Good Woman and a Great Lady

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'Bold is the man that dare engage For Piety in such an age' wrote a seventeenth-century poet. Yet, as Antonia Fraser shows here, the aristocratic Puritan, Mary Rich, sought to serve God as much by her tenacious moral example as by her prayers.

'My friend,... I have really found more satisfaction in serving God, than ever I found in all the good things of the world, of which you know I have had my share': the tone is that of a great lady who has renounced the world – an aristocratic mother superior of a convent perhaps, had the letter derived from Catholic times. But their author, Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick, addressing one she estimated – probably correctly – in danger of corruption by Restoration morals, had by no means eschewed the world. She viewed the salacious antics of the court of Charles II with disapproval based on knowledge and when the trumpets sounded within the Whitehall banqueting house, they sounded in her own ears – for they put her in mind of a more ominous resonance to come, that of the Last Trump.

Mary Boyle was born in November, 1625, one of the eleven children of Richard 'the Great Earl of Cork, and thus a member of a vast and powerful Anglo-Irish clan (Robert Hoyle was her brother and Catherine Countess of Ranelagh, one of the few women of whom Milton actually approved, her elder sister). She married, via the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria where she was a maid of honour, into another great family, that of Rich, headed by the Earl of Warwick. Her husband, although a younger son, finally succeeded to the Earldom, and the family properties of Warwick House in London and Leighs Priory in Essex, Mary then inherited from her husband in his turn at his (heirless) death; at which point she conceived it her duty 'to live splendidly'. Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick, remained to the end of her days a great lady.

She was also a good woman. Her life story, that of a passionately committed and articulate Puritan, illustrates the fascinating dichotomy which existed for spiritually-minded Protestant women in the seventeenth century between their known duties to this world and their imagined ones to the next. Mary's experiences, unusually chronicled in an autobiography, diary and other writings, as well as notes by her religious adviser, Dr. Anthony Walker, also stand for those of numerous English women of good birth who would follow her. Goodness of soul for them had to be sought – or rather preserved – at the head of great and demanding households.

Of course the conduct of such establishments was not a purely secular activity: the spiritual welfare of its members was considered to be one of' the prime duties of a head of household, while one of the advances in the position of women provided by Puritanism was marked by the fact that a Puritan woman might well conduct family prayers in her husband's absence. The daily round of Mary Rich at Leighs Priory makes it clear what a prominent part the spiritual as well as the material and physical welfare of her servants played in her concerns; and it should be further remarked that the 'catechising' of the women servants was often the only form of education such females would receive in a lifetime.

Yet further active proselytisation, in which such ladies passionately believed, had to be by personal argument with their own circle. This is the earnest voice n1 Mary: 'Come, come, my friend, you must be good, you shall be good; I cannot be so unkind, nay, so unfaithful to the laws of friendship, as to let you persist and perish in a way you know as well as I, leads down to hell'. If interrupted, she would exclaim: 'Have patience, hear me out; I know, or guess at least, what you would say, and I would not have you say it'. In her sternly platonic relationship with the courtier and writer, Lord Berkeley, for example, she was Harmonia to his Constans. This involved a series of lectures from Harmonia to Constans on the subject of gaming and its concomitant, staying up all night (very bad for prayer, quite apart from anything else, since the morning 'is certainly the best time for God'). Much better to go into one's closet first thing in the morning, and reflect how one's bed might well have became one's grave during the past night.

Bold is the man that dare engage

For Piety in such an age

wrote the poet Waller of Berkeley's own Historical Applications and Occasional Meditations (the 1670 edition was dedicated to Mary Warwick). But bolder still, surely, the lady who maintained that contact with the court her position demanded, yet argued at length with Lord Fitzwalter on his excessive drinking, and who, when Lady Cranborne maintained her gaming and dicing, although halt: paralysed, wondered that anyone could ignore such a clear sign from heaven. Mary agonised privately over an encounter with Catherine Sedley, the witty mistress of the Duke of York. She was nevertheless part of a court where in general the destiny of a mistress was regarded as a glorious one, starting with the King's own ladies.

Her longing for privacy and peace for quiet meditation – to hear 'the still voice of God' – is evident throughout her writings. In particular Mary conceived a passion for praying out of doors, either in her favourite ‘Wilderness' at Leighs Priory, or in Sir Hans Sloane's Gardens at Chelsea when in London. The word Wilderness in the seventeenth century, in a reverse of its present meaning, was often applied to an artificial creation within a park or garden, of planted trees and possibly including a labyrinth: hence the apparently paradoxical term 'a pretty Wilderness'. A serious-minded lady would also have recourse to a Wilderness for the sake of the isolation it offered. At Leighs, Mary had a wooden stand erected amid the tops of the pollarded trees, and here she would pray for as much as two hours at a time before breakfast – that precious dawn period before the duties of the day commenced, which women busy with families have snatched ever since. Indeed in view of the total lack of physical privacy within even the grandest house at this time, it is easy to appreciate Mary's attachment to her 'sweet place': Mary Rich's Wilderness was the seventeenth-century equivalent of the twentieth-century 'room of one's own'.

But while Mary yearned for privacy, she never doubted that it was God's intention for her to live actively in the world (unlike, for example, Margaret Godolphin, John Evelyn's admired friend, who yearned after some Anglican retreat). The third side to her work, as she saw it, consisted in conversion by her personal example; and to this end, it is a relief to record, she believed as strongly as the Catholic nun, Mary Ward, in 'the gaiety of goodness'. Indeed, she made the point very strongly, that if people were to be brought to religion, they must be presented with the effects of the religious way of life as 'affable and taking'. Dr. Anthony Walker, and other contemporaries, made the point that there was nothing self'-righteous about her.

There is a charming personal and domestic flavour to the spiritual writings of Mary Rich. For all her Christian piety, Mary displays an appreciation of the small mercies of life, as well as the small beauties of nature, which recalls the style of those very different court ladies of the Japanese Heian period – Lady Murasaki and Lady Shonagon. 'Upon walking in autumn among dead leaves'... 'Upon seeing a silk worm spin'... 'Upon seeing a hog lie under an acorn tree, and eat the acorns, but never look up from the ground to the tree from which they fell' ... some of the titles of her meditations have a haiku -like quality about them. Fish, mowers, her pet dog, canary birds and linnets who learnt to sing like canaries, a looking-glass, a mother kissing a baby, a grateful hen, all these provoked admonitory meditations from Mary. Looking out of her window in Chelsea upon the 'sweet river' Thames, Mary watched its surface disturbed by a sudden squall. Shutting the window, she was instantly reminded of the charm of 'quiet untroubled people'.

Nevertheless Mary Rich was not destined to spend her life in particularly soothing surroundings. Her autobiographical writings have to be put together with her remarkable, not undramatic life story, to understand her character as a whole. From the combination of the two emerges not a 'late espoused saint' in Milton's phrase, but a wilful passionate girl, who, when she chose the path of goodness, was well aware of the other paths there were to follow. From extreme youth Mary Rich made a series of unconventional, even rebellious gestures, by the standards of the time.

First, she rejected the rich suitor provided by her father. It is true that with seventeenth-century match-making the theory – the absolute power of the parents – was not always at one with the practice – the absolute obedience of the children. Nevertheless Mary herself, in her own account of the affair, was the child of her own age in that she did not regard the fact that her 'aversion for him was extraordinary' as in any way a valid reason for rejecting the wealthy Mr. Hamilton 'who professed a great passion' for her. On the contrary, far from justifying her conduct, she took refuge in observing that her refusal had been 'a good providence of God' since the young gentleman concerned subsequently lost his fortune! (The logic of this was that since she would have married him purely for the sake of this fortune, it would have been disastrous for him to have lost it.)

Having rejected one suitor for not coming up to her romantic standards, Mary proceeded to do even worse by the standards of the time – and once again, as she confessed, by her own. For she went and married a younger son, against her father's wishes, and as if that were not bad enough, she married him for romantic love. The ardent condemnation which the whole notion of romantic love received in the seventeenth century, from both sexes, all ages and all classes, cannot be stressed too strongly. Even those whom we now regard from afar as 'romantic' figures had scarcely a good word to say for it; certainly nobody preached romantic love as a suitable foundation for marriage. Even the Puritans, who were generally more advanced in their social teaching, and thus advocated marriages based on affection rather than pure worldly advantage, did not have what we should now call romantic love in mind.

Yet here was young Mary Boyle so thoroughly taken with the charms of Charles Rich – his 'very cheerful, and handsome, well-bred and fashioned person' – that she quite overlooked the fact that he was penniless. 'My duty and my reason having frequent combats within me with my passion', as she wrote later of this uncomfortable but exciting period, passion won. While Mary lay abed with measles (one of the dangerous diseases of the time) Charles proved his devotion by coming secretly to her side and promising to make up for 'the smallness of his fortune by the kindness he would have still to me'. So the young couple were secretly pledged, and although Lord Cork eventually gave way and endowed Mary with a handsome dowry, they still denied the Great Earl his last social expectation from an unmarried daughter, the chance of a ceremonial wedding: for Mary and Charles got married quite privately in July, 1641. She was fifteen years old.

Six months later, on the eve of the Civil War, Charles I and his court left London forever. Having married into a prominent Puritan – and therefore Parliamentarian – family, Mary soon found herself at natural odds with the predominantly Royalist Cork connection. Her experience was certainly not unique in a Civil War which frequently cut across families: nevertheless when her brother-in-law, the egregious Royalist commander Lord Goring, found Mary, supported only by a steward, at the Warwick property of Leighs Priory in Essex, he clearly expected her to favour her father's house rather than her husband's. He sent a message saying that he would first take dinner with her, and then help himself to the Warwick armaments stored at Leighs. Mary on the contrary did her level best, with the steward's aid, to preserve the hidden store from Royalist depradation.

It would be satisfying to report that after the war the marriage of Charles and Mary Rich defied the gloomy prognostications generally made about those who gave their father an 'ill and horribly disobedient answer' where husbands were concerned, as Mary herself termed it. It is true that in two respects, absolutely central by the standards of the time, the union was a success. Mammon in the end was unexpectedly served: a series of deaths in 1657, 1658 and 1659, carrying away Charles' nephew, his elder brother and finally his father, transformed him into the Earl of Warwick. Far more important for Mary herself – who could rightly point to the fact that she had accepted Charles without any estate whatsoever – was the wonderful 'providence' which brought her into the Puritan Warwick household. There she underwent the all-important conversion, the new birth, which was the essential experience for Puritans of the time, be they Oliver Cromwell, John Winthrop, or a girl bride. It was this 'providence', which consoled Mary for flouting her father's authority 'given me in His [God's] sacred oracles'. As Ruth to Boaz amid the alien corn, Mary the passionate pleasure-loving girl, she who had laughed and chattered and attended plays and read romances with her flighty sister-in-law, Betty Killigrew, put herself and her soul in the hands of her new family, and became 'a new creature'.

A spiritual transformation and eventual material gain, following on marriage where the heart led her, might seem to cover quite amply the possibilities for seventeenth-century female happiness. Mary's ordeals were however the kind of trials from which no woman within the secular world, however subservient to the will of God, can count herself immune. Both her children, born one after the other immediately after marriage, died; Elizabeth as a baby, 'tossed' between two careless nursemaids; her only son, a more ghastly blow, at the age of twenty-one, shortly after his marriage. Mary, at thirty-seven, was still young enough in theory to bear her husband further heirs. Immediate attempts were made to start a new family.

From Mary's guilty self-reproaches in her writings about the limitation of her family when she had been in her teens, it is clear that it had been in some manner deliberate (although the subject remains obscure, the absence of any artificial contraceptive aids in England at this date, even in court circles, suggests the widespread use of coitus interruptus). Then, Mary herself, at seventeen not yet 'a new creature', had worried that if she 'childed so thick' it would ruin her appearance. Charles Rich, still very much the younger son, had worried that if he had 'many to provide for they must be poor'.

Now they tried to remedy the situation: unfortunately the efforts of the distraught couple were unsuccessful: hence Mary's eventual inheritance after her husband's death. Mary consoled herself by bringing up the three young daughters of her father-in-law's third marriage, the Ladies Ann, Mary and Essex Rich. Incidentally Mary Warwick's attitude to their future spouses bore scarcely a mark of the old impetuosity. It is true that she listened kindly to any protests against disagreeable persons (in the 1660s in any case this tolerance was becoming more general); however when Lady Essex received a suitor 'not sufficiently viceless' – at any rate in Mary's view – Mary bustled him away in favour of the more godly Daniel Finch. When Mary's 'niece Jones' (daughter of the admirable Lady Ranelagh) cast herself away by marrying 'a very mean person', Mary was full of disapproval.

The true ordeal of Mary's maturity proved to be, ironically enough, the appallingly difficult temperament of her husband. Another transformation, less agreeable than that of Charles Rich to Earl of Warwick, had taken place. Gone was the engaging and cheerful young man: by middle age Lord Warwick was something of a monster when aroused. The charitable view was that the peculiar sufferings inflicted by gout were responsible for his frightful rages, to which Mary's diary bears constant witness. Her own references, although frequent, are restrained: 'my lord was passionate to me without occasion' is one of the strongest. The subject was amplified by her chaplain after her death. Every now and then she admits to answering back and then regrets it; on occasion however, as when Lord Warwick had the trees of her own beloved Wilderness cut down deliberately, her sheer unhappiness at her lot breaks through.

He died, in 1671, slowly, his body wracked, but his spirit at least consoled by being read to 'of Eternity' by his wife. His broken words – 'I do, I do', when she asked him whether he believed in grace, were a further reassurance. The splendid and unexpected legacy of his estate – an amazing honour for a woman at the time – was the last proof that she had been, as she had always hoped to be, a good wife as well as a good woman. For if Mary had merely saved her own soul, she would not have fulfilled her proper worldly duty as she pictured it.

As it was, when the family vault was opened shortly before her husband's death, she was able to contemplate her own eventual resting there with equanimity: 'I had very moving thoughts of my lying down in a bed of darkness.... I found the thought of my lying in my cold bed, and of the worms feeding upon me, and my turning to dust, to be a little frightful and amazing to me, but it pleased God to let me of a sudden find an extraordinary and a reviving joy to think that nothing died finally and totally in a child of God but sin, and that my vile body should be raised and made a glorious one.'

Mary herself died six years later in 1677, at the age of fifty-one. In her obsequies, as laid down in her will, she finally threw off the mantle of the great lady, evidently feeling that the claims upon her in that respect had ceased with her death. Once more, therefore, Mary flouted custom: for she ordered a modest funeral, without any of the customary escutcheons. Otherwise her will consisted of legacies to her numerous servants which were detailed, thoughtful and highly generous. Freed at last of worldly responsibilities, Mary Rich was able to die purely and simply as a good woman.

Historical dictionary: Charles II


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