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An Incident in the House of Radcliffe

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     In the chancel of the old parish church of Elstow, near Bedford--so famous for its associations with the childhood of John Bunyan*--- a monument recording Sir Humphry Radcliffe of that place, and his wife, Dame Isabella Radcliffe. As the name of the latter is not even mentioned in the extinct peerage of fir Bernard Burke, perhaps a short account of a little episode in the history of this worthy pair may not be without interest to my readers. It is hardly needful to say more about the Radcliffes or Ratcliffes--for the word was spelt both ways indifferently when writing was rare and printing was almost unknown--than that they are of undoubted Saxon origin, and that they took their name from the village of Radcliffe, near Bury, in Lancashire. We read that one, Richard de Radcliffe, of Radcliffe Tower, seneschal and minister of the royal forests in the neighborhood of Blackburn, accompanied Edward I. to Scotland, and received from that sovereign, towards the end of his reign, 'a grant of free warren and free phase in all his demesne lands of Radcliffe.'From him were descended a variety of noble houses--as the Radclyffes, Lords Fitzwalter, and Earls of Sussex; those of Foxdenton, and of Hitchin; and the unfortunate Earls of Derwentwater, who forfeited their Northumbrian castle of Dilston, as well as their lives, in the cause of the 'young Chevalier,' and the luckless house of the Stuarts.
     One of his descendants, Sir John Radcliffe, was summoned to Parliament by Henry VII., in right of his mother, as Baron Fitzwalter; he was also steward of the Royal Household, and acted jointly with Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, as High Steward of England at the coronation of Henry's queen, Elizabeth Plantagenet. But afterwards, being involved in the wild conspiracy of Perkin Warbeck, he was attainted, and lost his head on the scaffold at Calais.
     His son, however, found so much favor with Henry VIII that he was restored in blood, and, having held the command of the van of the army sent to France under the Earl of Surrey, he was created Viscount Fitzwalter and Earl of Susses.  He was a zealous supporter of the king in his quarrel with Wolsey and the Pope, and he found his reward in a life-patent of the office of Lord High Chamberlain, together with a grant of the noble abbey of Cleve, in Somerset, the ruins of which to the present day form one of the most beautiful features of the country near Minehead, and Watchet, and Dunster. He was thrice married, and on each occasion his wife was a noble dame; his first choice being a daughter of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, his second a Stanley, and his third an Arundell of Lanherne. The earl desired that Humphrey, the youngest son of his first marriage, should marry a wealthy heiress of a county family; but the son took a different view of the matter from that taken by his parents for him. Very naturally and very pardonably he said that he preferred to choose for himself.
     King Henry had announced his intention of being present at a tournament in the tilt-yard at Hampton, and great preparations had been made for the occasion. As the king rode along the way from London, the windows and the balconies about Kensington were all hung with colored cloths and silks. Among the crowd of spectators in the balconies was a plain citizen of London, Edmund Harvey, along with his wife and their daughter Isabel. The ladies in the neighboring windows thought the latter nice looking, and even pretty; but no one 'knew who she could be,' as the old folks were but commonplace in appearance, and clearly had not been brought up in the regions of courts and cities. The father, as may be imagined, pointed out the nobles as they passed by with their trains and retinues; but Isabel had no ears for her father, and her eyes scanned each new arrival for the face of a youth whom she had met on a chance occasion, and who had professed an attachment to her, in spite of the fact that she was not the daughter of a courtier or a noble.
     At length there rode along a body of knights, with their lances borne aloft and their colors flying in the wind; they were headed by the Earl of Sussex, who was attended by his son Humphrey, a fair and well-favored youth, who looked little more than twenty years of age. Isabel, however, had no difficulty in recognizing him and the black steed on which he sat, and which champed the bit and foamed beneath his rein.
    The truth is that they had met before at another tourney, when Sir Humphrey had incurred the scorn and displeasure of some of the king's courtiers because of a slight civility and courtesy which he had shown to herself, her father, and her mother, whom none of the gallants knew by sight or by name, their names not having been entered by the Heralds on the rolls of the  ‘College of Arms.' Eagerly did Isabel lean over the balcony in the hope of catching his eye, and grateful did she feel for a sudden halt, which was occasioned by the pressure of the crowd.
     The young knight, however, was too deeply engaged in thought to take notice of the gay and smiling occupants of the balconies above his head, for he little imagined that Isabel Harvey would be among the company. But as they moved on a few steps he was roused from his reverie by a start of his horse, caused by the fall of a glove from one of the balconies. Gallantry prompted him to pick up the glove and to return it to its fair owner. Upon looking up, his eyes met those of the fair Isabel; and as he returned to her the glove on the point of his lance, and she bowed her thanks, he felt that she was not insensible to his regard for he. He quietly watched his opportunity to fall back from the gay procession as it moved along, and guided his horse down a narrow side lane, where he remained till the pageant had passed by. His object in so doing was to prevent his father, the earl, from noticing Isabel; for he well knew the haughtiness of his temper, and his zeal for the dignity of his order, and his inflexible ambition to ally his son to the heiress of some noble house or other.
     Having emerged from his retreat, the young knight came again beneath the window, and, after bowing in a courtly manner, addressed the father of Isabel, who was just about to leave the balcony. On their descending into the street, the young knight dismounted, and accompanied them back to the city, leading his horse, and entertaining them, as they passed along the Strand and through Fleet Street, by his lively and elegant conversation. On reaching their home near Cheapside, Edmund Harvey pressed the knight to join them at their meal, and he gladly closed with the invitation. So well indeed did be succeed in gaining the confidence of his newly-found friend, that ere they parted the knight confessed to him his love for the fair Isabel, and received her father's permission to ask her band, if she had no objection. 
     The rest of this story may be easily imagined. On the morrow the knight accompanied them back into the country, and, representing himself to be only one of the gentlemen of the earl's retinue, he espoused the fair Isabel a few days afterwards in the priory church of Elstow. For many months-indeed, it may have been years- -he did not disclose the full secret of his rank, nor did the fair Isabel know that she had a claim to be styled 'My Lady; The secret, however, oozed out at length ; and in due course of time their union was blessed by the birth of sons and daughters, the eldest of whom became one of the special favorites of Queen Elizabeth.
     Immediately on the accession of `her highness' she made Humphrey Radcliffe a knight, and gave him a post at court near her person, and took his eldest daughter, Mary, as her 'Mayden of Honor and Gentelwoman of the Privie Chamber'--a post which she filled `honorably, virtuously, and faithfully for forty years,' as her monument tells us.
     It was in the year 1566, on the 13th day of August, that Sir Humphrey Radcliffe died at Elstow, and he was buried a week later in the chancel, as stated above, by the side of his affectionate and faithful wife Isabel, and soon afterwards one of his sons erected to their memory the memorial already mentioned.
     As for Mary Radcliffe, she suffered less than perhaps any other person about the Court from the whims and caprices of her royal mistress. Being possessed of great penetration and judgment, together with a high sense of honor and unshaken fidelity, she could not fail to command the esteem even of 'the Maiden Queen.' Although remarkable for her personal beauty, she was inaccessible to the flatteries of the fops and gallants by whom Elizabeth was surrounded, and many a smart repartee and rebuff was received by the courtiers who tried to turn the head and the heart of Mary Radcliffe. On one occasion, indeed, writes Sir Nicholas Le Strange in an anecdote communicated by Lady Hobart, ‘Mistress Radcliffe, an old courtier in Queen Elizabeth's time, told a lord whose conversation and discourse she did not like, that his wit was like a custard, having nothing good in it but the soppe, and, when that was eaten, you might throw away the rest.`*
     Throughout the long period of her services at Court, Mistress Radcliffe bore a character unblemished by a spot of evil fame or reproach. She looked upon herself, she would say, as a New Year's gift, for it was on that day in 1561-2 that she was first presented by her father to the Queen's Majesty, and accepted by her ; and never afterwards, to the end of her days, did she fail to give the Queen--who loved all sorts of  presents, and did not think it ‘more blessed to give than to receive'--some kind of annual remembrance of that eventful morning.
     As she was still living to make her yearly present on the new year of 1600, Mistress Isabel Radcliffe might very justly be called an old courtier of the jealous Queen, who was not very firm in her friendships, or very scrupulous about discharging those who failed to please her. The actual date of her death is not recorded by 'the unlettered muse' of Elstow.

* See 'The Pilgrim at Home,' by E. Walford, 1886, p. 118
* See Harleian MSS., 6395

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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