editorial feature

The Real Housewives of English Castles

Influential mistresses, powerful duchesses, and rebellious servants

Who did you learn about in history class? Henry VIII? George Washington? Robespierre? Julius Caesar? Abraham Lincoln? Mostly men, right? Perhaps you covered Queen Victoria, maybe even Queen Elizabeth I. But for every one woman, there are probably 10 more famous, more covered, more valued men taking up the pages of the history books.

This missing side of history is especially important for English Heritage when looking after the houses, castles and stately homes that the nation has entrusted to them. "How can we give a truly representative history of the places that we take care of if we don’t include women?" asks English Heritage historian Megan Leyland. “Although they weren’t necessarily the famous politicians or architects of the age, that doesn’t mean women did not shape English Heritage sites or history more generally. You can't tell history through just one half of the population.“

Lady Charlotte Webster (1795-1867), by Pierre Nicolas Le Grand, c.1788 (From the collection of English Heritage)

As well as the famous queens, Megan believes it’s important to look at some of the lesser-known women who have called English Heritage sites their home. She’s interested in “the impact of gender on the lives and experiences of people from all walks of life.” She’s quick to note that, as well as the impactful stories of the unusual or extraordinary women who were the political 'movers and shakers' of the time, there’s also a significant value in rethinking how we see other, more ‘normal’ historical women. “We often hear about women as wives or mothers or servants who are somehow less important – but their stories are just as interesting and significant. Take women running large and complex households – this came with considerable responsibility and could also result in considerable influence. All of these women were fascinating and the inclusion of their stories can shed new light on the histories of historic properties.”

From businesswomen to writers, from powerful political figures to domestic servants, here are 7 of these history-making women you should know. They are the ordinary and extraordinary figures, who worked, married, fought, and imagined their ways to better lives for themselves and, in some cases, better lives for all of us.

1. Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick rose from a modest background to become one of the most rich and powerful women of her time. She built the grand and impressive Hardwick Hall, leaving her mark on the country forever, although she's equally remembered for having survived no less than four husbands.

Bess used her marriages to accumulate property and land, cleverly forging a life for herself as an independent woman, and using her enormous wealth to fund her building projects. At Hardwick she remodelled her old childhood home, Hardwick Old Hall, and soon after began constructing Hardwick New Hall just yards away. It is known as one of the finest buildings of the Elizabethan age. She put her stamp on the place quite literally, with her own initials positioned imposingly on the tops of the towers.

Top Euro Bri E Derbyshire Hardwick Hall (From LIFE Photo Collection)
Top Euro Bri E Derbyshire Hardwick Hall (From LIFE Photo Collection)

2. Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish – also known as 'Mad Madge' – was one of the most prolific female authors and philosophers of the 17th century. A maid of honor to Queen Henrietta Maria, Margaret was forced to flee England during the politically turbulent Civil War, but returned after the restoration of the monarchy to help her husband run the estate at Bolsover Castle. She wrote all the while, producing pioneering works of literature, philosophy, and even some VERY early science fiction and studies of gender inequality.

A strong-minded and strong-willed character, Margaret received her 'Mad Madge' moniker for her obscene language, outrageous dress sense, and outgoing personality, which today makes her seem less 'mad' and more badass.


3. Eleanor Coade

At a time when industry was dominated by men, Eleanor Coade ran her own business, inventing a type of artificial stone that became one of the most widely used materials of the 18th century. Born in 1733 as the daughter of a wool merchant, Eleanor bought her first business in 1769, where she began to experiment with her own formula for artificial stone. Coade's ceramic invention was so high-quality that many of her sculptures remain in pristine condition today.

An example of Coade Stone: Coade stone statue of Father Thames, Ham House, Richmond upon Thames, Greater London, by William James Day, 1890/1910 (From the collection of Historic England)

4. Dido Elizabeth Belle

In the 18th century, there were up to 15,000 black people living in London, mostly as domestic servants, with few legal protections and little wealth or property. But there was one very notable exception: Dido Elizabeth Belle.

Dido Elizabeth Belle lived at Kenwood House with her great uncle, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Despite the adversity she faced as an illegitimate, mixed-race child, Dido was raised as a lady and was taught to read, write, play music, and engage in high society. Meanwhile, her uncle was presiding over many court judgments regarding the slave trade at the time. Many believe that his fondness for Dido influenced his opinions of slavery, and many of his court judgments would go on to be key moments in the gradual eradication of the transatlantic slave trade.


5. Henrietta Howard

Henrietta Howard overcame personal adversity to become a powerful figure in Georgian society and an important patron of the arts. After losing her father to a duel and her mother to illness, Henrietta was left destitute, and trapped in a disastrous marriage. But with intelligence and determination she found a way out of poverty. She sought favor with the royal family, and secured a position in the royal household as Woman of the Bedchamber to Caroline, Princess of Wales. Soon after, she also became the mistress to George the Prince of Wales (later George II).

At this time, the position of mistress was a powerful and important one, and her home at Marble Hill became the center of an illustrious circle of writers, poets, and politicians. Marble Hill remains today as a testament to her legacy as a patron of the arts and architecture.

View of the Thames near Marble Hill, Twickenham, by Richard Wilson, c.1762 (From the collection of English Heritage)

6. Avis Crocombe

Avis Crocombe became the cook at Audley End in 1880, replacing a male French chef. She was talented and experienced, frequently catering for the lavish banquets at the house, the details of which we now know about as her manuscript cookbook has survived to the present day. Avis left Audley End to marry a lodging house keeper and, following her husband's death, she continued to run the lodging house near Hyde Park, which gave her financial independence. Through her hard work and skill, Avis rose through the ranks to become a professional at the top of her game.

7. Lady Anne Clifford

The last member of one of England’s most important dynasties, Lady Anne Clifford was manipulated out of her rightful lands and estates by her uncle. And so began Anne's bitter legal fight to win back what was rightfully hers. After finally winning her 40-year battle for her right to inherit her father’s estates, she devoted herself to repairing and restoring the castles and buildings on her lands that had been neglected by her uncle, becoming a legendary and well-known figure in the process.

The Great Picture, which depicts Lady Anne Clifford in the left and center panels, Attributed to Jan van Belcamp, 1646 (From the collection of Lakeland Arts - Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum)
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