Not quite a countess: Lady Elizabeth Russell

This is a short biography of one my favorite Elizabethans, Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell. Shelady elizabeth russell was the youngest sister of Francis Bacon’s mother. This post is derived chiefly from Chris Laoutaris’s excellent book, Shakespeare and the Countess.

The book is so full of goodness and Elizabeth is such an interesting person, I’ll have to do two posts about her. This one will give the basic biography; the next one will talk about her intense engagement in religious politics and in defending and elevating the status of herself and her daughters.


Elizabeth was born in 1540, the youngest of the famous Cooke sisters. I wrote more about these exceptional women in my post about Anne, Francis Bacon’s mother.

Her father, humanist scholar Sir Anthony Cooke, descended from lesser gentry on his mother’s side and wealthy drapers on his father’s. He rose to find his place in history through education.

The Cooke sisters were educated in the same intellectual circle as Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, whose tutors were chosen by Queen Catherine Parr, “patroness to the most renowned humanist scholars in Europe.”

The girls devoured the Latin classics. Elizabeth particularly enjoyed Horace, a lyric poet with a sly wit. All the girls played the lute, which is hard to imagine of the older women about whom we know the most.

First marriage: Thomas Hoby

Elizabeth married Thomas Hoby on the 27 June, 1558, at Bisham Abbey, in Berkshire. On the same day, her elder sister Margaret married Thomas Rowlett, Knight. Thomas was born in 1530 to a gentle, but apparently undistinguished, family in Herefordshire.

Thomas traveled extensively in France and Italy, becoming fluent in those languages. Wikipedia says he wrote about it in an autobiography, which would be astonishing for the time. I can’t findbook-of-courtier such a thing, nor even a diary. Lady Margaret Hoby, the future wife of his future son, kept a diary, like the good Puritan woman she was.

Thomas’s greatest claim to fame is his translation of The Book of the Courtier, perhaps the most essential book in the sixteenth century, written by Baldasare Castiglione. This etiquette book “placed the humanist ethos at the very heart of the courtier’s civic responsibilities and, more radically, it did not exclude women.” (Laoutaris, p.24) It’s very readable and still popular. Get yours for $0.99 in ebook form at Amazon.

Hoby inherited his half-brother’s major estates: Bisham Abbey, Evesham, another in Worcestershire, and the property in the Blackfriars, a liberty inside the walls of London. Blackfriars will get its own post later.

After much urging, the queen finally persuaded Hoby to serve as her ambassador to France. She knighted him to sweeten the deal on 9 March, 1566. His wife Elizabeth was four months pregnant when they began their journey. Alas, Thomas fell ill not long after they arrived and died on the 13th of July. 26-year-old Elizabeth, now very pregnant, organized the return trip for the large household, which included 20 horses that had be transported across the Channel.

Elizabeth wrote a poem expressing her grief, for private circulation only.

“O beloved consort, O husband most sweet,
If it had been permitted, since my thought was fixed,
Wretched me, to follow after you in your entombment,
On that journey which everyone fears,
Dismal, loathed by others, welcome to me, 
I would have already followed you down that path,
Either as a fellow traveller in death, or as surety in exchange for your return….”
(Laoutaris, p. 70.)


The Hoby children

Edward Hoby was born at Bisham Abbey in 1560, making him one year older than Francis Bacon (the star around which all my histories turn.) He had little to do with Blackfriars and the theater conflicts, so Laoutaris rarely mentions him. I’m getting these bits from Wikipedia.

edward_hoby_1583Edward went to both Eton and Oxford. The Dictionary of National Biography (the source for all such Wikipedia articles) says Edward was favored by his uncle, the Lord Treasurer, and “frequently employed on confidential missions.” Hm. He married the daughter of the first Marquess of Winchester, who must have died soon after, because he married an even better-connected daughter in 1582: Margaret, daughter of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, cousin of Queen Elizabeth. Edward was knighted soon after the wedding.

I have long suspected that had Francis Bacon been a more conventional man — able to travel and willing to marry — that he would have received greater favor from Elizabeth. She liked knightly men, manly men. So it wasn’t only Lord Burghley’s fear that Francis would outshine his own son, Robert Cecil, that held Francis back. He must have known all this.

Edward did all the usual things a gentleman of his lineage did. He served as a Member of Parliament and gave well-received speeches. He served his county as a justice of the peace. He oversaw his share of the preparations to defend England against the Spanish Armada. He served in a variety of posts under both Elizabeth and James I, dying in Queenborough Castle, Kent, in 1617, nine years before his brilliant cousin, Francis. He had no legitimate issue, but adopted a by-blow named Peregrine Hoby, making him his heir.

Thomas Posthumous Hoby was born in 1566, shortly after that grief-stricken journey home from France. Thomas was small and slight, like his cousin Robert Cecil, but not crook-shouldered. He also attended Eton and Oxford, not taking a degree like a lowly cleric, but acquiring that fluent Latin facility that every gentleman needed.

Malvolio from Twelfth Night


Thomas has no portrait and few memorable deeds. Laoutaris mainly presents him as a pawn in his mother’s power struggles, in which she pressed him to marry a woman who would advance the family in religious politics. Thomas was willing; he was the very pattern of a Puritan gentleman. In fact, scholars believe he was the model for Shakespeare’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night, not a flattering portrait. (You know you can get all the Shakespeare plays on DVD from Netflix, right? Wonderful performances, never dated, from the 80s, mostly.)

This is the story I want to tell about Thomas Posthumous (from Wikipedia): “in 1600 Hoby brought a legal action against William Eure (1579–1646) and several of his other neighbours, alleging that they had entered his house, taken drink, played cards, ridiculed Puritanism, and threatened to ravish his wife.” Hoby must have been spectacularly irritating. His wife was more puritanical than he was; I’m sure no real ravishment would ever have been effected. And what an insight into life in Elizabethan neighborhoods! Nobody ever barges into my house to play cards and ridicule Francis Bacon.

Elizabeth and Thomas also had two daughters, named Elizabeth (b. 1562) and Anne (b. 1564.) These girls died in 1571, presumably of some infectious disease. Their grieving mother buried them in the Holy Chapel of All Saints Church in Bisham, where the worn floor slab still remains. Their mother designed a simple monument — an urn topped by a capital — and wrote an elegy in Latin.

“My Elizabeth, you lie dead (alas! my own flesh) fated,
Scarcely ripened, to be cast down a tender virgin.
Dear to me when you lived, your mother’s daughter,
Dear to God hereafter, live on, your father’s daughter…” (Laoutaris, p. 91)


Second marriage: John Russell

John was many rungs up the social ladder from Thomas Hoby, being the eldest son of Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. John was Baron Russell; when Elizabeth married him in 1574, she became a baroness. He was 21 and she was 34, but both were members of prominent, active Puritan families. That would have mattered as much to Elizabeth as his prospects and his estates. Besides, she was a beautiful, brilliant redhead. The portrait shown at the top was painted around 1595, long after John’s death. She was a striking woman.

Their first child was a daughter, born in 1575 and named Elizabeth, but called Bess to avoid confusion. Daughter Anne, known as Nan, was born in 1577.They had one son, Francis, born in 1579, died in 1580. Then John died in 1584, apparently of unknown causes. A lot of death. We must always remember that in spite of their cultural and political sophistication, these people were helpless in the face of disease.


Charles de Maigny

Bess and Nan were made wards of the Crown when their father died, relieving Elizabeth Sr. of the chore of managing the Russell estates — very much against her wishes. Another barrier was erected when the old earl and his second son, Francis, died within hours of each other, leaving Francis’s minor child Edward to inherit the coronet. He also became a ward of the Crown and thus “an instant bone of contention,” tugged between two powerful and determined aunts-in-law: Elizabeth Russell and Anne Dudley, wife of the 3rd Earl of Warwick.

Elizabeth insisted on the prerogatives of a dowager countess from this time forward, dickering hotly with the College of Arms over every detail of her husband’s funeral rites. Her daughters walked directly behind their father’s hearse, usurping the prize position from the designated male cousin.

Bess and Nan lived and prospered. Bess was made a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber in 1594 (age 19) and Nan became a maid of honor in 1595 (age 18.) Elizabeth thus had two daughters in daily attendance upon the queen. Laoutaris tells us (p. 212) that Bess “had grown into a vivacious, and somewhat reckless, young woman. She relished the extravagance and sexual intrigue of the court.”

Elizabeth wanted her eldest daughter to marry Henry Brooke, son of her Blackfriars neighbor Lord Cobham, whose daughter had married Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s nephew, in 1589. The webs of kinship among the upper classes were densely woven, at least within the frame of religious allegiance. As we shall hear next time, Elizabeth Russell actively pushed the Puritan agenda — complete reformation of the English church — all her life, by every means available to her, including the marriages of her children.

Henry eventually married Frances Howard, falling out of our story.


Elizabeth the Younger

Bess “was caught in the crossfire” of a scandal around Elizabeth Brydges and the Earl of Essex in 1597. This sort of hanky-panky raised the virgin queen’s ire. She expected the earl to pretend to adore only her (and perhaps his wife, a little) and she expected her maids to be chaste. Rumors intimated that Bess Russell had fallen prey to the dashing earl’s charms as well. I hope she did, because she died in 1600, age 25, still unmarried, cause unrecorded.

Her mother designed this monument, my absolute favorite sculpture from this period. It rests eternally in St. Edmund’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. It was the first seated effigy of its type in England and inspired a new fashion, especially for grieving mothers. Elizabeth herself was inspired by the memorial of Charles de Maigny by Pierre Bontemps in Paris, shown above.


Henry Somerset, Marquess of Worcester

Nan Russell married Henry Somerset, 1st Marquess of Worcester, on 16 June, 1600. They were both 23. Henry was the son of the 4th Earl of Worcester. Wikipedia claims Henry converted to Catholicism “as a young man,” which would make him a most unlikely ally for Lady Russell. Then again, his father was an earl, and one who had been far too friendly with the downward-spiraling Earl of Essex. Worcester needed to repair his family name. Forming an alliance with the stalwart clan of Russells and Cecils was a good way to achieve that.

This was the most extravagant and well-attended wedding of the age, at St. Martin’s Church in Ludgate, near her mother’s home in Blackfriars. Laoutaris does justice to this grant event; I can only give you a taste. The queen attended, arriving at Blackfriars Stairs in the royal barge. She was carried thence in a gilded chair of state borne by six knights. She was entertained at the wedding feast by a masque performed by eight ladies, probably written by Elizabeth Russell.

Anne made up for all the losses her mother had suffered, giving birth to nine sons and four daughters. I don’t know how many of them lived, but the title descended through male heirs to Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort, who died without legitimate issue in 1745.

All good things must come to an end

elizabeth_russell_hilliardElizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell died at Bisham Abbey in 1609. She is remembered for her poetry, her sculptural designs, and her unflagging insistence that she and her daughters be treated as the peers of their husbands and neighbors. She had a profound, if largely unacknowledged, impact on the religious politics of her time. In our time, she would have been a prime minister or a supreme court justice. She outlived three sisters, two husbands, four children, and one queen. (Lady Anne Bacon survived one year longer.)

She had this last portrait painted by Nicholas Hilliard sometime during her final years. She’s wearing the widow’s cowl, symbol of her status, and lying in her bed. I finagled this image from ArtNet by means of pdf and photoshop, without permission, fiend that I am. I couldn’t find a better or more legitimate version.

The painting at the bottom depicts the procession carrying Queen Elizabeth I to the church for the wedding of Anna Russell and Henry Somerset, negotiated and organized by the unredoubtable Elizabeth Hoby Russell. I’ve been looking at it for years, studying the costumes and the postures, without realizing what the event was all about. You can see a bigger one at Wikipedia.

The painting is by Robert Peake the Elder. That’s Nan, the bride in white, right behind the queen. The man in front of the queen is the groom’s father, Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester. The groom is the happy fellow in white, at the corner of the chair nearest his bride. Lord Admiral Charles Howard is on the left with the white outfit and the white beard. This is the very height of fashion in 1600, y’all. I’m sorry Lady Russell isn’t in the picture, but she’s the one who made it all happen — and she knew it.


Procession to Blackfriars, by Robert Peake the Elder



Laoutaris, Chris. 2014, Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. Penguin Books.

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