Celebrated Ladies of Great Britain

Memoirs Great_BritainI’ve already mentioned the treasures to be found in the three volumes of John Walker’s Letters Written by Eminent Persons in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1813). In Volume 2 part 1, mention is made (in a 1749 letter) of a forthcoming work: George Ballard’s Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, who have been celebrated for their writings, or skill in the learned Languages, Arts, and Sciences, first published at Oxford in 1752, and reissued in 1775.

A footnote by Walker helpfully suggests that ‘Perhaps the following alphabetical list of the lives contained in this accurate work may not be unacceptable to the reader’. I’ve patched the list of ladies together somewhat crudely (sorry, but it saves typing it out!), and you can see that there is a gratifying number of them, some well known (Catherine of Aragon, Catherine Parr, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth I, Mary Sidney (‘the subject of all verse’), Anne Finch), other much less so.


Ladies 1Ladies 2

Ladies 3

Among those new to me are Elizabeth Burnet (1661–1709, wife of Gilbert Burnet, historian and bishop of Salisbury in very difficult times): a widow, she was chosen by Burnet’s first wife as her potential successor and stepmother to her children. Mary Burnet died of smallpox in 1698, and Gilbert and Elizabeth were married in 1700. Although she disapproved of widows remarrying, she felt that the naive Gilbert needed her help in surviving the intricacies of the late Stuart court, whereas she would be able to pre-empt ‘sometimes too hasty impressions of others, or errors of inconsideration which ill-designing men might unwarily engage him in’.

She sadly died after only eight years of the marriage (her two children predeceased her). Shortly before her death, she had published A Method of Devotion, written in her earlier widowhood, but the reputation for piety which this engendered seems rather to have masked a vigorous mover and shaker in the Whig interest. Her portrait by Kneller in the NPG collection shows a forthright woman with a rather amused expression, and her belief that she could manage worldly and political affairs rather better than her husband seems to have been justified.

Constantia Grierson (1704–32) was a quite extraordinary woman. Born in poverty in County Kilkenny, she was educated by her local vicar in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, and French, was good at mathematics, and (at her mother’s insistence) a skilled needlewoman. Aged eighteen, she went to Dublin, studying midwifery under the father of Laetitia Pilkington (friend of Jonathan Swift, writer, and scandalous divorcee (which ended the Swift friendship)) who described her learning as ‘like the intuitive Knowledge of Angels’.

She gave up the midwifery when she met George Grierson, a publisher, and became an editor for him of classical authors – Virgil, Terence and Tacitus – for his series of pocket editions, her work meeting the approval of Swift himself. She married Grierson in 1726, after the death of his first wife, and pregnant with her first child, who tragically died because of the carelessness of his nurse. (Two daughters also died in infancy, and another son survived.) It was on the basis of her as well as her husband’s skill that the Griersons were granted the patent of King’s Printer in Ireland: the ODNB quotes their petition:

‘Petitioner Constantia hath, in a more particular manner, applied herself to the correcting of the Press, which she has performed to general satisfaction; in so much, that the Editions corrected by her have been approved of, not only in this Kingdom, but in Great Britain, Holland and elsewhere, and the Art of Printing, through her care and assistance, has been brought to greater perfection than has been hitherto in this Kingdom.’

Grierson's colophon as king's printer in Ireland

Grierson’s colophon as King’s Printer in Ireland


At the time of her death in 1732, Constantia was working on an edition of Sallust: four children, poetry, classical editions and the running of a busy household and business, patronised largely because of her reputation by the nobility and gentry – and she was only twenty-seven. Sadly, no portrait of her seems to have survived.

I could (as so often) go on: but I did just want to mention Anne Bacon (c.1528–1610), mother of the more famous Francis. Born Anne Cooke, one of the nine children and five daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, tutor to Edward VI, she and her sisters had a thorough education from their father which, according to Thomas Fuller, made them ‘all most eminent scholars, (the honour of their own and the shame of our sex)’. She married the widowed Sir Nicholas Bacon in 1553 (she was 25, he 43), and Francis, her second son, was born in 1561.

This unsatisfactory image is a portrait of Lady Bacon aged 51, attributed to George Gower

This unsatisfactory image is a portrait of Lady Bacon aged 51, attributed to George Gower

There is no doubt about her learning, and she was a formidable supporter of ‘right reformation’, urging her brother-in-law William Cecil to protect non-conformists against Archbishop Whitgift’s articles on preachers, supporting Puritans, and telling off the earl of Essex for ‘carnal dalliance’, while impoverishing herself to pay the debts of her two surviving sons. (I had wondered if Fuchsia magellanica ‘Lady Bacon’ was named after her, but it was discovered in Chile by a much later (and very distantly related) Lady Bacon, Priscilla.)

My 'Lady Bacon', irrelevant in this context, but pretty.

My ‘Lady Bacon’, irrelevant in this context, but pretty.

The first part of Ballard’s book is dedicated to the wife of the Revd William Talbot – who discovered him as a self-educated women’s tailor or staymaker in Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, and recommended him (at the age of 44) to Magdalen College, Oxford – ‘as a small testimony of gratitude for extraordinary favours’ which she and her husband had bestowed on him; the second part is dedicated to Mary Delany, ‘the truest judge and brightest pattern of all the accomplishments which adorn her sex’.

It was probably Ballard who helped rescue Elizabeth Elstob from penury in Evesham, by recommending her to Sarah Chapone – did he know these ladies from his scholarly circle, or from his earlier career? He died in 1755, from ‘too intense application to his studies’, according to Nichols’ Literary Anecdotes, vol. 2, though he probably suffered from ‘the stone’ (kidney or bladder stones). This study of the celebrated ladies is his memorial, but also the means by which knowledge of many of them has been preserved.


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1 Response to Celebrated Ladies of Great Britain

  1. Pingback: Mr Kick and Mr Frankcom | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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