Honour, more than life: Lady Elizabeth Russell, part 2

My goal in this post is to craft a coherent narrative of Elizabeth’s importance to the world she lived Hatfield_Housein. I’m relying on Chris Laoutaris’s book, Shakespeare and the Countess, which is a great read, if you just want to sit down and read an interesting book. It’s very difficult to chart a clear course through it, however, if your goal is to summarize some aspect of this complicated woman’s life. But it’s the only source there is, as far as I know, apart from letters in archives in England.

I want to look at two things: Elizabeth’s her lifelong effort to transform the official religion of England to suit her Calvinist beliefs, and her lifelong effort to assert her rights as a major landowner and putative member of the nobility. She was constantly on the alert for slights based on her sex, but it would be a mistake to view her as some kind of proto-feminist. I don’t get any whiff of that from the letters quoted. She fought for her rights, not rights in general. She did stand up for other widows from time to time, mainly to make some key point about widows’ prerogatives that supported her personal goals. She wanted to be a countess, not a Member of Parliament. On the other hand, just because she wasn’t an ideologue — not on the feminist front, at any rate — doesn’t mean we can’t remember and admire her as a women who stood up for herself in an age when all the laws were against her.

The full Reformation


Robert Cecil

Elizabeth never held an official post, other than her short tenure as Keeper of Donnington Castle, discussed below. But she and her sister Anne, Francis Bacon’s mother, were deeply involved in religious politics. Evidence for this comes from their letters to their sons and nephews, especially letters from Elizabeth to her nephew Robert Cecil, presumably from the archives at Hatfield House, pictured above. The Cecils continued in public service through the ages, a tradition that continues to this day. They still live in Hatfield House and have preserved their priceless collections of letters, which were made accessible to researchers in the 80s, I think, through some Acts whose details I don’t remember and can’t seem to find easily. If you know, please leave a comment!

These letters reveal the vital role played by intelligent, educated, powerful, engaged women like Anne Bacon and Elizabeth Russell. They wrote to their male relatives constantly — daily, in some cases — to share their views and advice. The men listened to them and took their advice seriously, recognizing that they would need the support of these women to further their own aims. At least for as long as there was a queen on the throne; things changed with James, as we shall see at the end.

Elizabeth and Anne were ardent Calvinists, always on the look-out for ways to advance the full reformation of the Church of England, as they saw it. They wanted every trace of Rome eradicated. They wanted councils of elders, not hierarchies of bishops; plain churches, not incense and fancy trinkets. They wanted military support for the Huguenots in France and the Protestant Low Countries. They wanted men who agreed with them to be appointed to every position in the realm with any kind of influence and they pushed their favorite candidates relentlessly. Elizabeth had children through whom to build an extended alliance of like-minded families. Anne’s sons, unfortunately, did not turn out to be the marrying kind, but she did what she could.

Religious conflict isn’t a theme in Laoutaris’s book, so he gives it short shrift, but here’s one example. Elizabeth wanted William Day, a Puritan prelate and former Provost of Eton (where her sons went to school), to move up to positions of greater importance. The queen, however, disliked Puritans and ordered him to move from the Royal Chapel at Windsor to that of the Bishop of Worcester. That’s in the west Midlands, many day’s ride from the center of power. Elizabeth pushed hard, writing many letters to Robert Cecil, who by this time (1594) was taking over his father’s work. The queen learned of Lady Russell’s attempt to undermine her wishes and barred her from the upcoming New Year’s celebrations. Her Majesty allowed the Russell daughters to remain at court, however, and through judicious giving of gifts, Elizabeth was able to repair the breach.

This is a small thing, but only one of many such cases. Elizabeth registered her approval or disapproval for nearly every appointment proposed, I suspect, usually through letters to Robert Cecil or his father, Lord Burghley. The queen supported the effort, at least, never exacting much more than a token punishment for pushing too hard. She disagreed with these women about religion and war, but must have felt more in common with them than with her male Privy Council.

A dangerous connection

Both Anne and Elizabeth tried to prevent the Bacon brothers, Francis and Anthony, from becoming entangled with the ambitious Earl of Essex. Unsuccessfully, as we know. I don’t want to tell the story of the rise and fall of Essex here, although Laoutaris spends many pages on it. But I will note a few bits relating to Elizabeth Russell.

By 1595, the earl was becoming a major force in Elizabethan politics. At 30 years old, he had Essex House, Strand, Londonreturned a hero from Battle of Cadiz. Anthony Bacon returned to England from his long sojourn in the south of France in 1592. Unlike Francis, Anthony swiftly decided that the Cecils would never help them, and gave his allegiance to the rising star, becoming Essex’s chief intelligence officer and effective secretary of state. A sickly man, Anthony found it convenient to move into rooms in Essex House, which he rarely left. If you wanted to talk to him, you had to go there.

Anne Bacon warned her son against taking up residence in Essex House. It would cause “some increase of suspicion and disagreement, which may hurt you privately if not publicly.” Far more independently minded than Francis, Anthony never listened to her. He’s an interesting man. I wrote about him earlier and will write more when I get to the book in which he comes home (which should be book 6, so should come out June 2019.)

Elizabeth paid a call on Anthony in 1596, in an effort to “prise Bacon away from Essex’s grasp,” as Laoutaris puts it. The Cooke sisters must have been alarmed at the peril Anne’s sons were in. Anthony made a record of this visit for the earl, which is how we know about it. He basically played his aunt like a well-tuned violin, persuading her, at least temporarily, that the real villain was Robert Cecil, who regarded Anthony as a mortal enemy and sought to do him harm whenever he could.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. We only get glimpses of that rivalry — the effects, not the causes. I wish there were more. Anyway, Anthony wrote his report and sent it to both aunt and earl. She wrote back, “This letter of yours doth nothing answer my expectation.” She didn’t like it, in other words, neither the style nor the implications. The earl, on the other hand, approved. “I do find your letter to my Lady Russell to be a very good and a wise letter.”


The Earl of Essex in about 1597, by Isaac Oliver

One more case involving conflict with the Bacons and Essex. Anthony tried to help a cousin named Robert Bacon, who must have been one of the elder step-brothers’ sons, pursue a case in Chancery. In those days, you tried to influence the outcome of your lawsuits by putting pressure on the justices. The case had to do with the wardship of Robert’s niece’s children. “The petitioner, it seems, wanted to enjoy the revenues from the wardship but evade the responsibility of providing for their mother, who had been left with L1,400 in debts… and only a meagre revenue from a leased property.” I don’t know who the petitioner was. Robert, perhaps.

Elizabeth took the opposite side, writing eloquently in defense of the widow, thwarting both Robert Bacon and Robert Cecil and pissing off Anthony for good measure. The Earl of Essex got his nose into the business as well, paying a call on Elizabeth at Blackfriars to try to persuade her to support their cause, or at least not to oppose it.

I don’t know how this conflict worked out, but it’s interesting that Elizabeth Russell’s support and good will were considered so vital to the case that all these important men wrote to her and the earl himself travelled down the river to plead with her in person. You’d think an earl could crook his finger and summon her to his house, but no, not if the woman in question was Lady Russell.

Keeper of the Castle


Donnington Castle gatehouse

Elizabeth Russell was the only woman in this period, or perhaps any other until modern times, to become the official Keeper of a castle. After John Russell’s death, Elizabeth leased Donnington Castle in Berkshire from the queen. (The Wikipedia article, undoubtedly drawn from the old Encyclopedia Britannica, skips right past the years of Russell’s tenure. Typical!) Elizabeth wanted to gather the related manors and estates into her capable hands as well, so she made a bid to the College of Arms in 1588 to be made Keeper, offering the queen “huge bribes” to encourage a positive response: “a canopy of tissue [gold], with curtains of crimson taffeta embroidered with gold; two hats, each set with a dazzling jewel…” You get the picture.

Elizabeth enlisted the help of Frances Brooke, Blackfriars neighbor and wife of William Brooke, Lord Cobham (part of the Puritan alliance). That did the trick. The queen granted Elizabeth’s request on 17 March 1590. The Keepership carried other offices: Keeper and Paler of the Park of Donnington, Bailiff of the Manor of Donnington and all other manors in the county of Berkshire, and Master of the drift of wild animals of Donnington Park, and Warden and Paymaster of the local almshouses. There were still more perks, including the right to collect rents from all the tenants leasing properties on the castle grounds. 

Elizabeth had lost her noble husband, but had no intention of letting that stop her from stepping into the role of major landowner. She would have managed such vast estates from behind John’s shoulder, had he lived. Why shouldn’t she step forward and do it in her own persona? It must have amused the queen to grant this right. Perhaps she meant it as a blow for women’s rights, if an isolated one. The full relationship among the powerful women in Elizabeth’s England has yet to be properly explored, I think.

Laoutaris tells a long, complicated story about a conflict between Elizabeth and one of her tenants, Anne Lovelace, daughter of long-standing Berkshire neighbor Richard Lovelace. Anne held a copyhold from Elizabeth to a property she leased out; a common practice in those days. We can think about the queen as the holding company, the nobility as trans-regional real estate corporations, and the tenants as a descending ladder of landlords and renters.

You’ll have to read the book to get the whole story. The juicy part comes when Anne’s tenant refuses to vacate the property, with her encouragement. Elizabeth sent her men to drag the said tenant out of the house along with the extra bodyguards Anne supplied, bringing them to Bisham Abbey and locking them up in her private prison in the gatehouse. She held them until Anne’s father appeared with 30 armed men and broke them out.

Naturally, they ended up in court. Elizabeth claimed that the Lovelaces were engaged in a concerted effort to drive her out of her properties in Berkshire, at the command of Lord Admiral Charles Howard, a very powerful man and rival landowner in the area.

The conflict grew. Elizabeth put her own man into the disputed property. The Lovelaces obtained a writ of latitat, requiring the new tenant to present himself at the King’s Bench in Westminster. When the bailiff arrived to bring him in, Elizabeth clapped him into her prison, refusing to release him until at last the conflict rose to the queen’s ears and she commanded it.

The tide turns and everything changes


Charles Howard. Doesn’t he remind you of Tywin Lannister? Equally nasty, I assure you.

Charles Howard continued to harass Elizabeth over her properties in Berkshire for the next decade. He petitioned the queen to grant him the Keepership of Donnington Castle, succeeding at last in 1601. He had played a major part in protecting England from the Spanish invasion in 1588, after all, and perhaps as her life drew to a close, the queen saw less point in supporting another old woman.

Who knows? Elizabeth characteristically refused to accept the demotion. She rallied her tenants to her support, a goodly number of them, to descend upon the queen to plead for her possession of the castle. I’ll bet she was good landlady, concerning herself with her tenants’ well-being at a level of close detail.

More battles over individual properties in Berkshire county ensued, often several at once, most involving the Lovelaces or other Howard proxies. Elizabeth, now in her sixties, defended herself with vigor. Her back problems had grown worse with age, along with her migraines, but her mental acuity and her determination to maintain her rights were undiminished, to the surprise of no one who knows a woman in her sixties (yours truly included.)

Queen Elizabeth the Great died in 1603, bringing in King James the Inadequate. Howard presses his advantage again, demanding that Elizabeth turn over Donnington Castle to him. An impending visit from the new king made the matter more urgent. Unfortunately, the old queen had been vague when granting a change in Keeper. Had she meant for Howard to take charge only after Elizabeth Russell’s death? That was a common practice in those days — granting the reversion of an office, meaning you get the office when the current holder dies. Elizabeth naturally pressed that interpretation; Howard pressed the other — immediate possession.


Henry Howard

More drama, more barricading and kidnapping of servants and armed men confronting one another, letting livestock out of pastures, even illegally harvesting whole acres of wheat under armed guard. This is the sort of thing that happens when there’s no real governmental law enforcement. Elizabeth was forcibly evicted from the castle, literally driven out into the night, leaving her personal possessions behind, which she never recovered. The new king sided with Howard, refusing to hear her appeal himself.

She brought the case to King’s Bench, suing “for custody of the castle and park.” The judges refused to rule, so she brought the case to Star Chamber, the court of the Privy Council. Her persistence became a public scandal, but I don’t blame her. If her husband were still alive, none of this would have happened. Those horrible old men knew it too. They mocked her, Henry Howard and his cousin Charles, reminding the court that she wasn’t really a dowager, stressing her illegitimacy, poking at her pride.

Beasts! I never like Henry Howard, slippery slime-devil that he was. Now Charles Howard has earned a seat on my Bench of Shame as well.


Laoutaris, Chris. 2015. Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. London: Penguin Books.

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