I was asked at a recent talk if I had any favorites amongst the early modern women I research and write about, and Brilliana Conway, later Lady Harley (c 1600-1643) sprang to mind. We included a selection from her commonplace book written in 1622 and from her personal letters in our anthology Flesh and Spirit (MUP, 2014), but I first began working on her letters for my PhD.
I wrote the biographical entry for her in the recently published volume, A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen: Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts, 1500-1650 (Routledge, 2016)
It seems that Brilliana suffered from menstrual disorders and received a lot of medical attention for this over the years. She was particularly ill after a miscarriage she experienced and described her experience in a letter to her son (once she was sure she was on the mend, so as not to worry him). Her unusual name stems from the town of her birth Brill in the Netherlands, where her father was stationed. Her letters give an amazing insight into her life and times and what is especially touching is her correspondence with her eldest son Ned (1624-1700, later Sir Edward Harley, a politician). Ned had left home to study at Oxford as a fourteen-year-old, as was customary for young men of his rank, and his mother fretted over whether he was eating enough and whether he was keeping his head down and applying himself to his studies in ways which parents will be all to familiar with today. I wrote about this in one of the early posts over on the Early Modern Medicine blog, which you can read here.
During the English Civil Wars, Brilliana defended her husband’s castle, Brampton Bryan, in Herefordshire, while he and her father worked for Parliament in London. You can read more about Hereford and the Civil Wars by following this link. The castle was destroyed in the siege of 1643. The castle is still in the hands of the family and while a grade 1 listed building, it is on private lands and only open to the public on one day a year, usually in August. A few years ago, in August 2012, my husband and I traveled up to see the place since Brilliana is so important to me and my work. It was absolutely pouring down all day but we got some great photos.
It is thought that the upper window that you can see in the middle photo belongs to Brilliana’s study. Next to the castle ruins is a church which was built by Brilliana’s husband in the 1650s. He considered building the church to be a greater priority than restoring his castle.
The image on the right is the inside view of St Barnabas, at Brampton Bryan.
Copyright Sara Read 2017, all images may be reproduced with credit and link back to this page.