Dr Sara Read

Dr Sara Read

Academic, Novelist, Grandma, Dog Walker

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Maladies and Medicine

Maladies and Medicine

Health and Healing in History

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‘The Cavendishes and War’

I have talked about noblewomen and the English Civil Wars on this blog before, particularly with reference to Brilliana, Lady Harley who defended her castle against the royalists. This time we are looking at a noblewoman on the other side of the political divide. Namely, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623-73) an extraordinary woman. An English aristocrat, she was also a published philosopher, poet, scientist, who amongst these writings also a science-fiction novel, her husband’s official biography, and some plays. The Cavendishes were loyal Royalists and lived in exile during the main years of the wars.


This is the first time we have had a guest writer for this blog, and I am delighted that it is by my Loughborough University colleague Dr Catie Gill. Catie has chapter in the forthcoming  book A Research Companion to the Cavendishes 1500-1700, edited by Lisa Hopkins and Tom Rutter (Arc Humanities Press), and below offers a fascinating glimpse of what readers can expect from her chapter.  It’s a long read, so maybe put the kettle on, make a brew, and then settle in.

‘The Cavendishes and War’

For a woman of her time, Margaret Cavendish’s access to the intellectual networks of Royalism was exceptional. During the civil wars, Margaret had first served in the court of Charles I as one of the Queen consort, Henrietta Maria’s maids of honour. Later, mingling with displaced royalists in Paris, she met, and married, a man almost thirty years older than herself – William Cavendish.


He was a seasoned councillor who had acted as guide to Charles (later Charles II), and had led the charge against the Parliamentarian forces at Marsden Moor, albeit unsuccessfully. Later still, when the couple moved on from Paris to Antwerp, in Flanders, she lived in a house which boasted Peter Paul Reubens as a former resident, and mixed with some of the architects of a new wave of political and philosophical thinking that was emerging in the salons of Europe, moving in the same circles as Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes.

Margaret Cavendish, though exceptionally well connected, was nevertheless still an exile. She described her flight from England as ‘banishment’, which puts the stamp on her experiences (Natures Pictures, 1656, p. 93). She missed out on one of the early modern period’s greatest transformations by being on the continent during the execution of Charles I, and, at a personal level, was unable to find consolation for her losses in the war, feeling the death of a much beloved brother particularly intensely (Natures Pictures, 1656, pp. 90-92). But Cavendish did experience the Commonwealth, though briefly.

In early 1650s, she and her brother-in-law travelled back to England from the continent in order to press the parliament to make a deal that would secure the return of some of their money or property. Margaret was unsuccessful, though her brother-in-law fared better. William and she had to set aside their property claims until the eve of the Restoration, until such time as they were able to return to England once more.

Grounds of Natural Philosophy, 1668, Frontispiece. Credit

During the fertile period of 1653-60, Margaret Cavendish established herself as a writer of great range, and she would make direct reference to these war-time and post-war experiences in her works. She began her publishing career in 1653 with two volumes, one of philosophy and one of poetry, Philosophical Fancies and Poems and Fancies, respectively. Even, and especially, when remembrances of the war could evoke partisan feeling, because the memories were still fresh, warfare exerts itself as an ever-present theme, perhaps not in the quantity of words she devoted to it, but certainly in the fact that it cropped up repeatedly. Poems and Fancies, for example, features verse about a ‘ruined’ country that has been devastated by war, and additionally, figures the horror at the regicide using the standard poetic figure for kingship – the a hunted stag (‘The Ruine of the Island’, ‘The Hunting of the Stag’, pp. 118-120, 113-116). Cavendish did little to conceal her reactions to the changes that swept through England, which she viewed as unfortunate examples of rebellion against the rightful monarch.

My essay in the forthcoming volume A Research Companion to the Cavendishes, 1500-1700 takes these events in Margaret’s biography as background, since there is little question that in her actions, and in her most direct references to the civil war, her loyalty was wholly with the royalist party. This clear allegiance to monarchical rule establishes that critical concern need not confirm where she was placed on the spectrum of Royalist to Parliamentarian, but rather, what it meant to write to a group of people who, throughout the 1650s, were very likely to feel less powerful than at any other time, and might be struggling to adapt to a new order, now that monarchy had collapsed.

Very astutely, Cavendish was to use the prefaces to her works of the 1650s to ‘strengthen fading patience’, as she put it, in a volume published when the Protectorate was in full sway (Natures Pictures, 1656, ‘Preface’). Cavendish therefore recognised that traditionalists and monarchists might need to be encouraged to look to the future with hope, or to the past with pride. In short, she seemed to take it upon herself to deliver the message that it was too soon to give up hope of a longed-for restoration.

Lois Potter has written of Commonwealth Royalists seeking to unite not only around political ideas that broadly defined them, but also through aristocratic values, such as finding enjoyment in the companionship of peers (Secret Rites, 1989). In Natures Pictures, this model of sociability is built into the structure of the work, which is like Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in giving multiple stories, each from the perspective of a different character. In one such tale, there is a concise example of how Cavendish interpreted her self-directed aim to ‘strengthen fading patience’. In one of her most unguardedly Royalist passages, Cavendish’s character-narrator looked back to a golden era, a ‘blessed time’ when ‘the Nobles liv’d in state, and high degree, / All happy, even to the Peasantry’ (Natures Pictures, 1656, p. 90). The condition that generated such contentedness was, of course, Monarchy.

While it is necessary in my essay to establish what was at stake for Cavendish when she outspokenly expressed her royalist sympathies, when I stop thinking about her as a Royalist, outlining an agenda, and start to work on how she depicts Royalty in her prose fiction, I find a much more complex picture. Once concepts – monarchism – are replaced with subjects – Kings, Queens, Princes – the matters of power and authority are no longer abstract, but personal. This means that prose fiction has the ability to make readers feel as though they understand the dilemmas that the Kings and Queens, or other sorts of rulers, such as Empresses, underwent. With that, the decisions they make are spotlighted as well as their values. In some of Cavendish’s stories, the rulers’ decisions lead to war. By setting this within fiction, it is of course possible to sympathise with characters who have the burden of power and who have to make a decision to commit to conflict, even with the knowledge of the inevitability of casualties. It is, in other words, possible to praise the virtue and honour of the beneficent ruler. However, stories rarely present only one side to power. In humanising it, the author of a fictional narrative will often reveal the folly or frailty of those in charge.

This is, ultimately, what Margaret Cavendish does in her story ‘Assaulted and Pursued Chastity’, which is a narrative about a war between the kingdom of Amity and the kingdom of Amour. Cavendish adopts a common coda of the narrative form she is deploying – Romance –  in comparing and contrasting different kinds of ruler. One of the rulers (a woman) inspires loyal love because she cares for her people, and they for her; another ruler (a man) seeks to act possessively, and out of self-interest, abusing his position of power. Romance strives to idealise those characters that can be idealised, but is pretty unflinching in drawing attention to unrestrained rulers, swayed by vice. Cavendish adds to this genre’s specificities a very developed sympathy to women characters. So, as it is the case that her female leader is warred-on by a male leader, and as this draws out the reader’s sympathies to the plight of women, the King does not emerge from the story well. It is only when the characters agree to forgive each other, and move on, that new unions are forged through marriages between the previously warring parties.

In the course of my essay, I try to give full weight to the fact that Cavendish was both Royalist and sympathetic to women. This means that I seek to represent some of the dilemmas of this text as essentially irresolvable, even though a lot of the plot lines appear to be tied up once a marriage union has been forged. I think that Cavendish is not only the Royalist who seeks to uphold the traditional order by supporting the concept of monarchy, but is also an individualist who understands when women, in particular, are suborned. I am not as interested in showing how her story ‘Assaulted and Pursued Chastity’ concludes ‘happily’, as in problematizing the ending. What I find most compelling about Cavendish’s story, then, is the fact that she searches for resolution in a political system (monarchy) and in a personal relationship (marriage), but ends up finding little support for the fact that either can deliver a wholly satisfactory conclusion. By the end of the essay, what I am trying to show is how far short Cavendish comes of idealising kings, and men.

(c) Dr Catie Gill, correspondence to c.j.gill@lboro.ac.uk


Cavendish, Margaret, Natures Pictures (London: J. Martin and J. Allestrye, 1656)

—————, Poems and Fancies (London: T. R.  for J. Martin and J. Allestrye, 1653)

Potter, Lois, Secret Rites and Secret Writing: Royalist Literature 1641-1660 (Cambridge: CUP, 1989)


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