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Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     A short account of the life and career of this lady may not, perhaps, be wholly void of interest.  That she was a learned lady may be inferred from the fact that she was the author of thirteen published volumes of prose and poetry; among these is her Autobiography; and it is only right to say that I have drawn largely on its contents in compiling the present paper.  Those who make a pilgrimage to Westminster Abbey, will see in the north transept a magnificent tomb of alabaster and marble, with the recumbent figure of a cavalier and his lady, the former grasping in his hand a truncheon, while she holds a book in hers. Below they will read the following inscription: 'Here lyes the Loyall Duke of Newcastle and his Dutches, his second wife, by whome he had noe issue; her name was Margarett Lucas, youngest sister to the Lord Lucas of Colchester, a noble familie ; for all the brothers were valiant, and the sisters virtuous. This Dutches was a wise, wittie, and learned lady, which her many books doe well testifie. She was a most virtuous and a loving and careful wife, and was with her lord all the time of his banishment and miseries; and when he came home never parted from him in his solitary confinement.'  This refers to William, first Duke of Newcastle, and his duchess, the youngest daughter of Sir Charles Lisle (who was killed at the siege of Colchester). The lady seems to have been a 'blue-stocking' from her earliest years; at all events she writes: 'It pleased God to command his servant nature to endue me with a poetical and philosophical genius even from my birth: for I did write some books of that kind before I was twelve years of age, which, for want of good order and method, I would never divulge.'
     In 1643 she entered the court of Queen Henrietta Maria; but her bashfulness and reticent nature, her gravity, and her timidity, but ill-assorted with courtly manners then.  She soon expressed a wish to return home; but this desire was overruled by her mother, and she accordingly remained nearly two years, attending her royal mistress in her flight to France.
     It was at this time, in 1615, that the Marquis of Newcastle, living in exile on the Continent, saw her at Paris, and chose her as his second wife. Agitated with apprehensions that the royal cause was hopelessly lost after the battle of Marston Moor, aware that for himself there was little to be expected from the enemy, and mortified by the treatment which he had
experienced from Prince Rupert, the marquis left England with his sons and a small company of friends for Hamburg. Only ninety pounds remained to him of all his vast wealth, and with this, in the words of the duchess, 'he resolved to seek his fortune.' Upon the Continent, we are told, she was everywhere respectfully received and entertained, as well as for the grandeur of his former estate as for his noble gallantry of demeanor.'  The duchess narrates that:
     'After my lord was married, having no estate or means left him to maintain himself and his family, he was necessitated to seek for credit and live upon the courtesy of those that were pleased to trust him, which, although they did for some while, and showed themselves very civil to my lord, yet they grew weary at length, insomuch that his steward was forced one time to tell him that he was not able to provide a dinner for him, for his creditors were resolved to trust him no longer. My lord, being always a great master of his passions, was-at least showed himself-not in any manner troubled at it, but in a pleasant humor told me that I must of necessity pawn my clothes to make so much money as would procure a dinner.'
     After they had been married some two or three years, the marquis and marchioness quitted Paris, and travelled into Holland, making short stays at Rotterdam and Brabant, and finally settling down at Antwerp. It was from
this place that her ladyship came to England to seek relief, but to no purpose. During her stay in England on this occasion, the marchioness
wrote a book of poems, and also a little volume entitled 'Philosophical Fancies.'
     Notwithstanding their vicissitudes, they seem to have lived very happily together, cherishing similar pursuits, and enjoying as often as possible the quiet pleasures of country life.  'Howsoever our fortunes are,' writes her ladyship, 'we are both content, spending our time harmlessly ; for my lord pleaseth himself with the management of some few horses and exercises himself with the use of the sword, which two arts he has brought by his studious thoughts, rational experience, and industrious practice to
an absolute perfection.'
     The humor and disposition of the lady are thus set forth in her own words in the memoir above referred to:
     'As for my humor, I was from childhood given to contemplation, being more taken . and delighted with thoughts than in conversation with society, insomuch as I would walk two or three hours, and never rest, in a musing, considering, contemplating manner, reasoning with myself of everything my senses did present; but when I was in the company of my natural friends I was very attentive of what. they said and did. For strangers I regarded not much what they said; but I observed their actions, whereupon my reason as judge, my thoughts as accusers or excusers, or approvers and commanders did plead or appeal or complain thereto. Also I never took delight in closets or cabinets of toys, but in the variety of fine clothes and such toys only as were to adorn my person. Likewise I had a natural stupidity towards the learning of any other language than my native tongue ; for I could sooner, and with more, facility understand the sense, than remember the words, and the want of such memory makes me so unlearned in foreign languages as I am.'
     With regard to her habits of life, she writes:
     I was never very active, by reason I was given so much to contemplation; besides, my brothers and sisters were for the most part serious and staid in their actions, not given to sport or play, or dancing about, whose company, I keeping, became so too . . . . As for my study of books, it was little; yet I chose rather to read than to employ my time in any other work or practice. But my serious study could not be much, by reason I took great delight in attiring, fine dressing, and such fashions especially fashions as I did invent myself, not taking that pleasure in such fashions as were invented by others. I did dislike that any should follow my fashions for I always took delight in a singularity, even in accoutrements of habits.  But whatsoever I was addicted to, either in fashions of clothes, contemplation of thought, actions of life-- they, were lawful, honest, honorable, and modest, which I can avouch to the world with a great confidence, because it is a pure truth.'.
     We can hardly wonder that she formed a lofty estimate of her own poems when she was flattered by such men as Digby, Pearson, to Hobbes, and Bishop to say nothing of sundry high-flown praises which were addressed Dons of Cambridge, who seem to have regarded her as a goddess. In an epistle to the duke, her husband, she says that, when her books first came out, the world would not give her credit of having written them, thinking 'that those conceptions and fancies transcended her capacity,' and that she had 'plucked feathers from the Universities.' 
Her husband was among the first to repair to the Hague to congratulate King Charles II, on the Restoration. Soon after this he retired into the country and set himself to the work of repairing his estates. The duchess computed his losses at 941,303. But the wisdom and economy of the duke enabled him, before he died, to recover in some measure his former magnificence. He was raised to the dukedom in 1661, and died in 1676, having survived his celebrated duchess about three years.
     The very few persons who have read the 'Autobiography of Margaret, Marchioness, and afterwards Duchess, of Newcastle,' will feel disposed to accord to that lady a very distinguished place among the female worthies of the seventeenth century, though her prose and her poetry are alike forgotten now. In an age of great public and private laxity, she 'kept the even tenor of the way' in the most exalted position, excellent alike in her capacity as daughter, sister, wife, and mother; while, by her writings, she has shown the world that, without talents of the very highest order, she could adorn her high station with the graces of a cultivated taste and educated mind; and even in a gloomy period of sorrow, danger, and distress she could influence those around her no less by her example than by precept, in favour of all that was noble and generous in itself, and sustain the spirits and the hopes of her lord, when exile and ruin stared
him in the face.
     The records of her life are scanty enough. They consist of two small volumes, printed by the late Sir Egerton Brydges, at his private printing press at Lee Priory, gent; the one consisting of thirty-six pages, and the other of only twenty-five; and of one work only twenty-five copies were printed, and only fifty of the other. Both volumes are now exceedingly rare, and I presume that I might seek in vain for the original manuscript in the library of the Cavendishes at Chatsworth, or in that of the present Duke of Newcastle at Clumber. The one volume is entitled, 'A true Relation of the Birth, Breeding, and Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Written by Herselfe;' and the other, Select Poems, by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.' Sir E. Brydges tells us in his 'Advertisement' to the former, that it is taken from the Duchesse's folio volume entitled, "Nature's Pictures drape by fancy's Pencil," 'which volume,' he adds, 'is accompanied by the celebrated, very rare, and exquisite print of the, Duke and his family, by Diepenberg.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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