Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford ~ The Many Faceted Jewel of the Early Stuart Court

by Linda Root

A painting believed to be Lucy Russell

I have a growing list of books to write before I die—my personal bucket list. I am past the midpoint in my eighth decade, so I’d best hurry. Most are parts of a series.

Before I began this post, I had no plan to delve into the research for a piece of standalone historical fiction centered on an actual character about whom much is suspected, but little proved. I am not speaking of Elizabeth Tudor, who etched something of that sort on a glass windowpane at Woodstock. I am speaking of Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford, one of the 17th century’s most compelling non-conformists. I stumbled upon Lucy quite by accident.  She appears as a minor character in my recent book.  Her role merits no more than two paragraphs. A quick trip to Wikimedia should have sufficed.  Then I stumbled upon a piece of information, and I was hooked.  More works of poetry and drama were dedicated or inspired by Lucy Russell than any women living in her day, including the Queen, Anne of Denmark, a well-known patron of the arts.

Who is Lucy Russell?

I had not expected the Countess to be a courtesan.  In using that definition, I am attaching the meaning given the term in the Italian Renaissance, from which the word was adopted by the English. Its original meaning lacked the sexual implications attached to it by historians. Lucy was certainly not a prostitute or mistress, but she was very much a high profile attraction at the Stuart Court. Somehow I had associated her with her husband’s holdings at Berwick-on-Tweed, not exactly a backwater, but certainly not London.  She was the daughter of Sir John Harington, Earl of Exton. Her husband Edward, 3rd Earl of Bedford, was nine years older than she was. She married him in 1594 when she was thirteen. Some sources refer to him as an invalid and advance that as the reason he and Lucy led separate lives.

Attributing the unusual living arrangement of the Earl and Countess of Bedford to Edward’s health lacks credibility. Infirmity did not keep him from taking up arms against his aging queen during the Essex Rebellion of 1601.  It seems he was sufficiently robust to get himself in serious trouble long before he suffered a horseback riding accident in 1612 which left him partially paralyzed and with impaired speech.  He and Lucy had been living separately for most of their married lives.

At the time of Essex’s treason in 1601, Lucy’s loyalties would have been as suspect as her husband.  She had been a member of the Sidney-Essex Inner Circle by virtue of her birth. The Sidneys were her father Baron Harington's first cousins and were firmly in the Essex camp. Her best friends included Robert Devereux’s sisters, Dorothy Percy, Countess of Northumberland and her sister Penelope, Lady Rich. The latter was implicated by Devereux in a statement he made before his beheading.

The Devereux sisters
Dorothy was innocent of any part in her brother's treachery, but she got into trouble on her own by marrying her first husband without the Queen's permission. Her second marriage to Henry Percy was  arranged by the Queen, but it did not entirely erase the stigma of Lady Dorothy’s history, and it did not insulate her close friend Lucy from Elizabeth’s distain. Small wonder the Countess of Bedford and her husband were out of favor during the waning days of Elizabeth Tudor’s reign. Then, in February 1603, Elizabeth Tudor died, and the Harington and Bedford fortunes changed.

Lucy Russell in Stuart England

Lucy Russell’s lot in life improved with the ascension of King James. As soon as word of Elizabeth Tudor’s death reached the family estates at Coombes Abbey,  Lucy’s mother Anne took off for Edinburgh with her daughter in tow. Lady Harington was only one of several ladies to head north to prostrate herself before the King and Queen of Scotland, but she was among the first. Soon her daughter Lucy was fast friends with James of Scotland's colorful consort Anne of Denmark and had become a Lady of the Queen's bedchamber.

Her father, John Harington of Exton, had a distinguished and varied career during Elizabeth Tudor’s reign. His mother was a Sidney, and he had an on-going association with the Dudleys. He had served in the Netherlands with Elizabeth's favorite Robert Dudley,  Earl of Leicester.  His family was reputed to be the most extensive landholders in Rutland. He served several terms as sheriff and was an M.P. from both Rutland and from Warwick. In one of his official capacities in Warwickshire, he was appointed to escort  Marie Stuart on her sad journey to Fotheringhay in 1586.  He apparently had come to the attention of King James before his ascension. The new King James I of England granted him the earldom of Exton on the day of the king’s coronation. What is more, he was made the guardian of Princess Elizabeth upon her arrival in England in the summer of 1603.

Young Princess Elizabeth Stuart
Lucy’s  brother John ( later 2nd Earl of Exton) was Prince Henry Frederick’s closest friend.

They appear in one of the most widely viewed paintings of the Prince in which the Prince is shown sheathing his sword rather than killing the stag he has wounded while his friend John Harington watches.

Henry Frederick 
with Master John Harington
Early in the reign of James I, Lucy was a frequent visitor at her family estates at Coombe Abbey where the princess was ensconced. She appears in my novel while visiting there at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. 

Lucy Russell was  unusually well-educated for a woman of her era and was literate in French, Spanish, and Italian as well as English. She likely played a role in schooling the princess. She would have been in an ideal position to assist in both the academic and spiritual guidance of a Stuart royal. Both Lucy and Princess Elizabeth, like Henry Frederick, were avid Calvinists. It is in that role I paint her in my novel In the Shadow of the Gallows.

Coombe Abbey

Lucy Russell as a Patron

But Lucy was much more than a companion and educator of the princess, and it was this part of her life for which she is best known. Within a year of Queen Anne’s settling in at Somerset House and renaming it Denmark House, the Countess of Bedford was dancing in the Queen’s extravagant masques. She starred in many of Inigo Jones' productions, and although she apparently appeared topless in one or more the extravaganzas presented by Queen Anne, she remained a committed Calvinist and a borderline Puritan.

Inigo Jones, a man of many talents

Anne of Denmark
Producing and performing in Queen Anne’s masques was only one of Lucy’s many talents. To many of the most noteworthy names in Jacobean poetry and music, she was a patron and a goddess. As for patronage, she did not give her client artists money or financial support. Her gift was her incredible influence, and not just with the Queen. The king and his advisers took note. Her patronage often conveyed royal favor. 
The list of luminaries who benefited from her sponsorship included Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, and John Donne, to name three of the better-known recipients of her sponsorship and friendship.
Woman in Masquing Costume
believed to be Lucy Russell
John Donne
Ben Jonson

It is said more works were dedicated to Lucy Russell than any other woman of her era. Donne spoke of her as "The first good Angell... That ever did in womans shape appeare."…for whom "morning breaks at night".  Most of the poems he wrote during his middle years are believed to be about her.  In Drayton's play Endimion and Phobe, he is Endimion, and she is his Phoebe. These are but a few examples of the many works in which she appears. The list is long, and the implication is that at the very least, John Donne and  Michael Drayton were in her thrall.

During this phase of her life, her husband acquired a magnificent residence for her in a suburb called Twickenham Park where she lived in exquisite splendor. She maintained a grand salon, but most of her guests were only visitors, and not all of them received her enduring favor. She shared her soul with men like Donne, but not her home. Michael Drayton, for one, soon disappeared from gatherings at Twickenham. Historians speculate he may have bored her. It is equally arguable that his devotion may have become tedious. As strange as it seems, there is no evidence she wished to replace her husband.

While Lucy’s friend and benefactor Queen Anne is famous for her excesses, her lady was not to be outdone. The 18th century antiquarian Thomas Pennant accused her of being a woman "whose vanity and extravagance knew no check."

To some degree, in time, her excesses were tempered by necessity. She and her husband were both saddled with mind-boggling debts. Edward Russell had been impaired since 1612. Then, in 1619, Lucy contracted a severe case of smallpox which left her face disfigured and very likely nearly blind in one eye. That and the death of Queen Anne curtailed the most colorful of her activities, but it did not stop her from exerting influence, primarily in the political sphere. During her later life, she became an activist in support of the Princess Elizabeth Stuart, ousted Queen of Bohemia’s effort to regain her throne. Both Lucy and her husband died during May 1627, each deeply in debt. None of her children survived infancy. Her legacy is found in the words of the poems men like Donne and in the music of John Dowland, who dedicated his Second Book of Songs to her.

John Dowland
According to writer Margaret M. Byard in The Trade of Courtierhsip: The Countess of Bedford, there is a dark side to the countess’s story. Recently, documents called the Bedford Memorials have become available for review. Apparently they had been sealed at the time of the Earl of Bedford's death and are yet to be studied. In the interests of time and the economics of acquiring scholarly words, I shall leave that for another post, or perhaps for the book I did not intend to write but which I find a tempting delicacy.

For now, I prefer to let the Lucy Russell of this post appear as Donne described her, as the "First good Angell... That ever did in womans shape appeare." There are indeed some qualities commending her to that role.

She was a loyal loving daughter, and a steadfast friend to Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, the tragic Winter Queen. Whatever their relationship, she and her husband were sensitive to the needs of one another. Like her kinswoman by marriage, Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney, she was a great beauty whose face was ruined by smallpox during the same year she  lost her close friend Anne of Denmark to an untimely death.  Yet, she did not yield.

Nor did she avoid the brush of portraitists. She merely covered part of her face with her hand and struck a different, more pensive pose.

At the time of her death, she was contemplating selling the estates at Coombe Abbey to pay her debts and moving on. She ends her one extant poem, which follows the format of Donne’s poems and addresses 1 Corinthians 5:15.

Calm the rough seas, by which she sayles to rest,
From sorrowes here, to a kingdom ever blest;
And teach this hymne of her with joy, and sing,
The grave no conquest gets, Death hath no sting.

Thank you for joining me in a brief glimpse at a most intriguing woman.

~Linda Root

References of note
The Trade of Courtiership: The Countess of Bedford by Margaret M. Byard, Published in History Today Volume 29 Issue 1 January 1979
And: 4. Lucy, Countess of Bedford: Images of a Jacobean Courtier, Barbara K.Lewalski
Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-century England by Kevin Sharpe
Illustrations from  Wikimedia Commons, Public domain.

LINDA Root is the author of The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, The Midwife’s Secret:The Mystery of the Hidden Princess: The Midwife’s Secret II,  The Other Daughter, 1603: The Queen’s Revenge, and In the Shadow of the Gallows. The latter four are in the Legacy of the Queen of Scots series. She is a contributing author in the anthology Castle, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Vol II, coming this autumn. Her books are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle e-books.  Root is a member of the State Bar of California (inactive) and the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.She is a member of the Marie Stuart Society, a member and frequent contributor to the English Historical Fiction Author’s blog and Facebook Page, a review team member of The Review Blog and Facebook page and a Board Member of the M.M. Bennetts Award. She lives in Yucca Valley, California with her husband Chris. 


  1. This is very interesting, although I think/hope you meant 'courtier' rather than 'courtesan'!


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