Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Undaunted Eliza Roper, Dowager Lady Vaux of Harrowden

by Linda Root
(C) R.Neil Marshman, re Wikimedia, Creative Commons

When the Gunpowder Treason unraveled in 1605, although the initial action took place in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament, the drama played out in the English Midlands, which was where it all had started. The names we associate with the historical event belong to men like Catesby and Percy, and of course, the scapegoat Guido Fawkes. Among the most fascinating of the principals in the story were aristocratic women of recusant families, not the least of which was Eliza Roper, known to history as the Dowager Lady Vaux.

Some earlier historians have mistakenly conjectured the Vaux women of Harrowden were related to Guy (aka Guido) Fawkes, but that is not true; they were far more prominent in Midland society than the soldier caught red-handed in the cellar below the House of Lords. The confusion comes in the pronunciation of the name Vaux, which rhymes with Fawkes, and therefore sounds like 'vox'. Also, the well-known recusant Anne Vaux's Italianate cursive displayed 'V's that look very much like 'f's, just as Elizabeth Tudor's written 's' appears as an 'f.' The speculation that aristocratic Anne had taken Fawkes's name is utterly absurd. Almost everyone living in the Midlands knew Anne Vaux. She would not have given Guido Fawkes a second glance.

Roper Tomb Effigy-Elizabeth
and one of her sisters, PD
While Anne Vaux's association with the Jesuit Superior Henry Garnet made her a suspect in the events of November 1605, she was not the only female Vaux of Great Harrowden Hall, who became a suspect in the conspiracy. Her sister-in-law Elizabeth, the self-styled Dowager Lady Vaux, was of equal mettle and perhaps, even greater complicity. In today's language, she would be described as an 'amazing piece of work.' Courage, defiance, loyalty to those who shared her views and religious zeal were among her attributes. She was also surprisingly rich, considering the frequency with which both her father Sir John Roper, Baron Teynham; her father-in-law Lord Henry Vaux; and her husband  George were imprisoned and fined for their recusancy.

One of many Midlands coaching inns where mass was said,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (pubic domain)

Midland England was not exclusively a Catholic enclave, but an area of old wealth and considerable splendor. The landed gentry and titled nobles tended to get along with their neighbors, regardless of their religions. Even after King James disappointed Midland Catholics after his ascension by failing to remove restrictions on the celebration of Mass, he did not consider well-behaved Catholic land barons as hostiles. In August 1603, three short months before the Gunpowder was set to ignite, the king visited Harrowden Hall for a hunt. While there is no evidence to support the conjecture, one wonders who else might have been hiding in the house while he was there. The handsome English Jesuit John Gerard had lived there off and on for a large part of six years, retreating into one of Harrowden's several hidey holes when strangers visited, but more often, living openly under one of his several aliases. He is said to have been especially well-received by Lady Vaux's female friends.

During the months preceding November 5, 1605, the vast estates of Harrowden were managed by the Dowager Lady Vaux, Eliza Roper. While her sisters-in-law Eleanore Brokesby and Anne Vaux are better known because of their link to the Jesuit Superior, the martyred Father Henry Garnet and their possible involvement in the English Jesuit mission, Eliza Roper was just as bold in her championship of the flamboyant young Jesuit Father John Gerard, and equally willing to take life-threatening risks.
Father John Gerard, Wikimedia (Public Domain Art)

Eliza R, as she often signed her name, was a daughter of Sir John Roper, First Baron Teynham, and his wife Elizabeth Parke, aristocrats living in Kent. However, her marriage to George Vaux, the second oldest son of Lord Vaux of Harrowden was not contracted between the families. It is said that on the day of their marriage, George’s older brother died, although that is probably off by a month of more. But because of his defiance of the protocol of sixteenth-century marriages of children of the titled, he forfeited his claim to the barony to his younger brother Ambrose.  Elizabeth Tudor was not the only one offended by the marriage.  Lord Vaux was quoted commenting on his daughter-in-law's 'creditless carriage when she went for a maiden.'

In addition to a dowry of 1,500 pounds and 400 pounds worth of clothes and jewels, Eliza brought her strong-willed ways to Harrowden and soon was in command of the mansion and everyone who lived there. Her in-laws moved to their smaller manor house at Irthlingborough, which some writers assert was at Eliza’s insistence. The couple had six children, and Eliza treated her brother-in-law Ambrose as if he were the seventh. Other family members reported he was entirely under her thumb. When her husband George reconciled with his father in 1594, Ambrose cheerfully ceded his claim to the barony back to his brother.

The following year, George Vaux died suddenly, and his father, Lord Vaux, died shortly after that. The title to the barony passed to George and Eliza’s young son Edward, who at the time of his father and grandfather's deaths was a ward of the Queen. His mother sued for his guardianship and won. According to both the Jesuit Priest John Gerard and Eliza’s son, Eliza was devastated by her husband’s death and kept to her room for more than a year. For at least four more years, she rarely ventured into the areas of the house George had occupied before his death. Although the title to the barony had never been conferred on George, Eliza styled herself as the Dowager Lady Vaux, and no one contradicted her. Those who did apparently did not fare well.

Even though the Ropers of Kent and the Vauxes of Great Harrowden were known recusants, their transgressions were often overlooked. The Vaux Barony had been a statutory creation, to the First Baron Vaux, Nicholas, for his personal loyalty and military service to Henry VII. Thus, the Lords Vaux and their families escaped the harsher punishment meted out to many known recusants. The family history of giving sanctuary to hunted priests was treated lightly they openly supported the cause of the martyred Jesuit, Edmund Campion. Apparently they had come under the religious and political sway of  Sir Thomas Tresham, whose son Francis became a familiar name to those who are students of the Gunpowder Treason.

The Gunpower Conspirators, Wikimedia Commons

In the years before her husband’s sudden death, George Vaux's association with militant recusant Tresham could no longer be overlooked. Both he and Tresham were imprisoned as Non-Conformists and heavily fined. Some sources indicate the family was on the brink of financial ruin. Eliza must have been an astute money manager, because before the ascension of James VI to the English throne as James I, she was a real estate magnate of considerable acumen, with farms and properties in the Midlands and residential properties scattered about metropolitan London, most with hidey holes designed by the Jesuit craftsman-turned-Jesuit-priest, the martyred Jesuit, Saint Nicholas Owens.

Tresham disliked Eliza and considered her a negative influence on his wife. Apparently she had also filed a lawsuit against him for embezzling funds of her father-in-law. Much of the negative information about her character comes from him. To the contrary, information found in the journals of Jesuit historians takes a different view. Not long after George's death, she converted Great Harrowden Hall into a makeshift Jesuit college, aiming to educate the sons of recusants until they were old enough to leave England for Cardinal Allen's Jesuit College in Douai. Many Catholic sources consider her a heroine of the counter-Reformation.

In the year in which she recovered the guardianship of her son, Eliza moved the flamboyant priest, Father John Gerard, into her household. Many Catholic sources say she vowed never to remarry and devoted the remainder of her life to the restoration of the Catholic Religion in England. Other sources indicate that for at least the next decade, the focus of her devotion was directed to serving and protecting the dashing John Gerard, who spent most of the next ten years living in her house and acting as her confessor. But those were not his only duties. Gerard was also at the forefront of the Jesuit mission to England. When his presence was needed in London, Eliza often followed and provided the funding and the room and board required to advance his cause. Gerard was known as getting on well with aristocratic ladies, but unlike his Superior Father Henry Garnet's relationship with Eliza's more famous sister Anne Vaux whose mutual devotion subjected them to slander, the relationship between Eliza and Gerard was free of sexual innuendo. While he may have behaved like a gentleman, he was not humble. His memoirs are sprinkled with accounts of how easily he converted members of the fair sex who visited at Harrowden.
Great Harrowden Hall in modern times,  a prestigious golf club
Wikimedia, (C) R.Neil Marshman, Creative Commons.

Eliza's brush with life imprisonment or possible death came at the hands of one of her neighbors, Lady Anne Markham, a Catholic double agent in the service of the Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil. When Cecil decided to subvert the Gunpowder Treason to serve his own designs and use it to rid England of its Jesuits. Lady Markham offered to lead Cecil's Watchers to Father Gerard. Because of his aristocratic background and his high profile, he had joined Father Garnet on Cecil's 'Hit List.' On November 12, Lady Markham and a band of Cecil's men arrived at Harrowden House with a warrant for Father Gerard's arrest in hand, but after a thorough search, he was not found. Nevertheless, on November 15, while the search was still in progress, the Dowager Lady Vaux was herded off to London to face Salisbury's tribunal. Additional suspicion had fallen upon her based on language in a letter she had written to a cousin who was also being investigated by Cecil's henchmen. It and Lady Markham's assertions were enough to haul Eliza before Cecil's interrogators, but not enough to convict her of anything more than insolence. When at least one among them, probably her family friend Northampton, urged her to give up Gerard, her response was, in essence, that she did not know Gerard or where he might be hiding, and if she did, she would not tell them, an outright bold-faced lie. Then she is quoted as saying, "I would rather die first."  In spite of strong circumstantial evidence that she had knowledge of the plot and often harbored priests, she was never charged.

Rather than going to the Tower like her sister-in-law Anne Vaux, she was placed under house arrest in the home of Sir William Swinnerton, a local alderman, and the king's wine steward. By early 1606, she was generally unsupervised although probably watched. She remained in London overseeing her properties and enterprises without interference. From the autumn of 1605 to May 1606, at least two of her London houses were leased to a charming, tall and handsome English aristocratic gentleman, visiting London under one of the several aliases he used. His true name, of course, was John Gerard.

On May 3, 1606, the same day as Father Henry Garnet's execution, Gerard, dressed in Spanish livery and disguised as a footman, was smuggled onto a ship of Hapsburg diplomats heading home to the Spanish Netherlands after having visited the Court of James I, to congratulate him for having thwarted the Gunpowder Conspirators. Eliza Roper had participated in the arrangements and given him more than a thousand florins as spending money for the trip.

The  Westminster Gatehouse, Wikimedia, Public Domain
Eliza Roper, Dowager Lady Vaux, never saw John Gerard again, but it was not her last arrest. In 1611, she spent time in the notorious Westminster Gatehouse, and the following year was sentenced to life imprisonment and housed at Newgate, but within months, she was back on the family estate in the Midlands. She is known to have established a second school on the premises for aristocratic English boys who wished to follow in the footsteps of Father John Gerard and the other Jesuits she had harbored.

In his memoirs, Gerard refers to her fondly but never names her, and he insulates her from any wrongdoing in the Gunpowder Treason. There is no record of where she is buried or when she died, but records show her living into the reign of Charles I.

Sources include but are not limited to The Advent, citing Godfrey Anstruther, Vaux of Harrowden and Jessie Childs, God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, as well as the books seen above, including Biography of a Hidden Priest, and God's Secret Agents.


Historical novelist Linda Root left a position as a senior prosecutor and Supervising Deputy District Attorney anticipating a career writing True Crime Fiction. She began by compiling a Murder Book, seeking to convict Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, of her husband Lord Darnley’s murder. Instead of the book she planned, her research inspired her to write a novel. The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, first published in 2011. Since then, she has written The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and four stand-alone books in the series The Legacy of the Queen of Scots, with more to come. They are 1) Unknown Princess ( formerly The Midwife's Secret; 2) The Last Knight’s Daughter,(formerly the Other Daughter); 3) 1603 The Queen’s Revenge, 4: In the Shadow of the Gallows; and an adult historical fantasy, The Green Woman, written as J.D.Root. Visit her Author’s Page on Amazon for a complete list.


  1. Fascinating post! It's remarkable we don't know when or how such a prominent person died. One would think deeds would be able to give clues since she owned a good amount of property! Thank you for posting.

    1. Like other Catholic women of the time, Elizabeth refused the Protestant burial service and was buried privately, outside any cemetery. This was her choice.

  2. I forgot to ask...Roper was the name of Thomas Moore's son in law...any connection? Thanks

    1. What evidence was there of her knowledge of the Gunpowder Plot? I have not read of anything to indicate it, although it was certainly people related to the Vaux family.

  3. Oh, by the way, the name of the hide-builder is Owen, not Owens. Just a minor typo.


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