Monday, October 17, 2016

Eleanor Glanville 17thC Entomologist

by Deborah Swift

Eleanor Glanville, born in 1654, was a 17th century entomologist who lived in Lincolnshire, and later Somerset. She is renowned for collecting many butterfly specimens, many of which are the earliest specimens kept in the British Museum. The Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia) was named after her.

The Glanville Fritillary
This fly took its name from the ingenious Lady Glanvil, 
whose memory had like to have suffered for her curiosity 
Moses Harris 1776

In fact, although referred to as `Lady Glanville', Eleanor actually bore no title, the honorary title of `Lady` was bestowed upon her simply because she was a gentlewoman. But the honorific stuck, and she is still called by that in documents about the study of butterflies.

Eleanor was the elder of the two daughters of Major William Goodricke (d. 1666) and his wife, also called Eleanor. On his death, her father left a thousand pounds to Mary, his younger daughter, but to Eleanor he left his estate, which included Tickenham Court in Somerset, a medieval hall dating back to 1200, and there she took up residence. Her wealth made her an attractive marriage proposition, so on 14th April 1676 she married Edmund Ashfield, an artist from Lincolnshire, with whom she had three children, Forest, a boy, and twin girls Mary and Katherine, who unfortunately died at birth.

Tickenham Court

Unfortunately her artist husband died in 1690, and she was soon sought out by Richard Glanville. This time Eleanor was unlucky in love, for Glanville turned out to be a violent bully, who more than once threatened to shoot her dead. The marriage was such a disaster that they became estranged in 1698, with Glanville angling to get his hands on her estates the whole while.

It was then that Eleanor began to take solace in the natural world and renew her love for butterflies.

Petiver illustration of butterflies

She corresponded regularly with James Petiver (1660–1718), a London pharmacist who was at that time a well-known naturalist and insect collector. He was the man who first coined the name “fritillary”, after the Latin word fritillus - a chequered dice box, and was the first man to give butterflies their English names, such as Admiral, Tortoishell and Brimstone. She also had long association with Joseph Dandridge, a silk-screen printer and owner of one of the finest butterfly collections of the time, and also the botanist Adam Buddle, an Essex rector from whom we get the flower name Buddleia. After Petiver's death his collection was purchased by Hans Sloan, and from there it made its way to the British Museum (Natural History Museum).

For Eleanor, collecting insects became a complete obsession - so much so that she often paid her servants 6d or a shilling (good money in those days) to net butterflies and collect specimens for her. She also gave them lessons on how to carry them safely and how to pack them in brown paper to send them off to Petiver. Petiver documented many of Eleanor’s specimens and her first-hand observations in compiling his ‘Gazophylacium naturae artis’, an illustrated catalogue of British insects.

from the Petiver Collection

When she went to London in 1703 taking with her a large collection of butterflies, her visit caused some excitement among naturalists in the capital.

Whilst this was going on, her husband Glanville was intent only on securing his ownership of her property and cared nothing for her as a person. Glanville also organised a plot to kidnap one of her sons, Richard, from Aldersgate where he was apprenticed to Petiver. He wanted to blackmail him into rescinding any claim against the property that he stood to inherit upon Eleanor's death. With the violent Glanville, Eleanor had two more surviving children, Richard (b. 1687) and Eleanor (b. 1688). but because of the erratic behaviour of her estranged husband, she separated from him completely in 1698.

Fearing he would take her inheritance after her death, she arranged for her estate to be dealt with by a board of trustees should she die, and she bequeathed her estate to her second cousin Sir Henry Goodricke, except for some small legacies to her children.

Eleanor Glanville died in 1709 at Tickenham Court, but Glanville had turned her son, Forest, against her, and the battle for her inheritance still was not over. When her will was published, and he found she had left everything to a second cousin, her eldest son, Forest Glanville sought to contest it on the grounds that his mother had gone mad.
Some relations that was disappointed by her Will, attempted to let it aside by Acts of Lunacy, for they suggested that none but those who were deprived of their senses, would go in Pursuit of butterflies.
Moses Harris
Unfortunately the ploy worked, and in 1712 he won his case. Forest then sold off his mother's home, the Manor at Tickenham.

It seems unusual to us that someone could be considered mad merely for hunting butterflies, however, in this period in history, shortly after the English Civil Wars, women who embraced the natural world with too much enthusiasm were still accused of witchcraft. In the seventeenth century entomology was largely limited to the study of useful insects like bees and silkworms. Butterflies, according to popular belief, could be witches or spirits in disguise, out to curdle cream and butter, hence their name “buttervögel” in German and “butterfly” in English. No doubt Eleanor would have heard of, or even witnessed, women who were hanged for similar harmless occupations. Her neighbours claimed incredulously that she beat the hedges for a parcel of wormes, thinking this crazy, but of course they were only the caterpillars she was studying. Nature Study, for a seventeenth century woman, was a very dangerous occupation.
Mr Rae defended her character. This last gentleman went to Exeter, and on the trial satisfied the judge and jury of the lady's laudable inquiry into the wonderful works of Creation, and established her will." 
Moses Harris
Her other son Richard seemed to have remained loyal too, for he is quoted on record as saying he had the best of mothers and the worst of fathers.

Illustration by Maria Sybilla Merian

I wonder if Eleanor Glanville ever heard of Maria Sibylla Merian, a butterfly illustrator who published her book, Caterpillars, Their Wonderous Transformations and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers in 1679.  Not only was Merian a woman who would have understood completely Eleanor's passion, but she was another woman in the male-dominated field of science. Read my post on Merian here.

Once widespread on open grassland in England, Eleanor's Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia) is now one of Britain’s rarest butterflies. It is rare because it lives only on ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and because the caterpillars need the warmth of direct sun on bare ground. Such sites are now rare in England.

Fiona Mountain has written a delighful novel, Lady of the Butterflies which fictionalises Eleanor's life. Do give it a look. And why not listen this beautiful zither tune composed especially to honour Eleanor Glanville's life.


Deborah Swift is the author of seven books, most set in the 17th century. Her first novel has just been re-released with a new cover, and tells the story of another seventeenth century woman, contemporary with Eleanor, who was also obsessed by nature.

Find Deborah on Twitter @swiftstory and on her blog

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful--the essay, the pictures, the music. Thank you.


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