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Rachel, Lady Russell

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

 ‘She wore no less a loving face, Because so broken-hearted.

    Among the many bright examples of virtue to be found in the ranks of the great houses of our country, few shine with a purer luster than Rachel, Lady Russell. She is known as the wife, and, unhappily for herself, the widow, of the patriot William, Lord Russell, who fell a victim to the spite and cruelty of a Stuart sovereign on the scaffold in Lincoln's Inn Fields. He had been long marked out as one of the leaders of the popular party for the revenge of the court, and he was accused, though falsely, of having had a hand in the Rye House Plot. He was convicted on false evidence, and executed in 1683. His wife, who was tenderly attached to him, mourned her lord most affectionately; she clung to his memory for forty years with most perfect loyalty, and never entered again the gay world, which had lost all its charms for her. She said, with Dido of old, only with greater truth:

‘Ille meos, qui me sibi junxit, amores Abstulit, ille habeat secum servetque sepulchro.'

      The lady of whom I write was by birth a Wriothesley, the second daughter, and ultimately heir of Thomas, Earl of Southampton, Lord High Treasurer, whose father was the friend of Shakespeare. As she did not die till September 29, 1723, and was in her eighty-eighth year, she must have been born in or about 1636, whilst the kingdom was distracted by the Civil War. Little is known of the details of her early life, except that she lost her mother when quite young, and that in her childhood and girlhood she was the constant companion of her father, from whose lips she learned more of her education than from books. Her early years were spent either at Southampton House, in the pleasant suburb of Bloomsbury, or at her father's country seat at Titchfield, in Hampshire; and almost the only that she records at this date is a 'sharp sickness and danger at Chelsea.'
          In those ‘Letters’ which have made her famous, there are few allusions to her childish days; but in one she writes in self-reproaching terms, as though she had been wild and giddy, and too fond of balls, dinners, the park, and plays, and of life at the fashionable resorts of Tunbridge Wells and Bath. She also accuses herself of frequent absence from church and sermons. But these reproaches must be taken with several ‘grains of salt,’ for at seventeen she was married to the youthful Lord Vaughan, son of the Earl of Carbery a matter, as she styles it, ‘rather of acceptance than of choice.'  Still she seems to have spent two or three happy years at her father-in-law's pleasant seat of Golden Grove, in Carmarthenshire, which were brought to an end by the death of her infant as soon as it was baptized, and, a few weeks after, by that of her husband.
     Left a widow at little more than twenty, handsome, wealthy, and childless, we may easily suppose that the Lady Vaughan had no dearth of suitors. But she was in no hurry to make a ‘choice.’  Again she took up her abode with her father at Titchfield; when he died she removed to Stratton, in the same neighborhood, a place which apparently came to her as his heir. Her life was now spent partly in the quiet rural scenes of her Hampshire home, and partly at Southampton House, already mentioned. When she married a second time, it was at the mature age of thirty-three, and when William Russell, a younger son of the Earl of Bedford, had been well known to her for at least two years. In this choice she would seem to have been peculiarly happy, for Mr. Russell was a man of high personal honor and public and private worth; and, though he was only a younger son, yet his elder brother was so great an invalid that it was almost certain that one day or other he would succeed to the earldom of Bedford and the ownership of the princely domain of Woburn Abbey.
          Her husband, though still young in fact, three years younger than herself had already made his mark in the House of Commons, and was one of the acknowledged leaders of the popular party. He was the bosom friend, too, of Algernon Sidney. What more need be said in his favor Incapable, however, as he was of such mean conduct as conspiring to assassinate his sovereign, yet in 1683 he was committed to the Tower, nominally on the charge of complicity in the Rye House Plot. This was on the 26th of June; and so rapid were the strides of the myrmidons of the law, that his trial followed on the 13th of July, and his execution eight days later. The wife's bearing in this rapid passage from joy to grief has so high a place in the annals of female heroism, and has been so often described, that I need not dwell upon it here. From the moment of his committal she worked with the industry of a practiced lawyer, collecting evidence for his case and information as to the course likely to be pursued against him, and adopting every precaution. Her appearance in court on the day of his trial may well have sent a thrill through the assemblage; and when her lord was asked if he would have a clerk to take notes, and he replied, ‘My lords, my wife is here  to do it,' that thrill must have been re-doubled.
     Pass over the details of the scene; the unjust verdict, the unrelenting cruelty of the king, and still more of the Duke of York, who urged that the execution should take place in the front of Lord and Lady Russell's much loved home in Bloomsbury. But, dear as was her husband's life to her, still dearer was truth; she would not have allowed him, even if he had been willing, to save his life by declaring that it is unlawful to resist a king; and she even rebuked Dr. Tillotson, who advised him to subscribe that doctrine with a view to her husband's preservation.
     Indeed, on becoming aware that plans were being made to effect her husband's rescue by an act of deceit, she refused to urge him to avail himself of them, though Lord Cavendish offered to exchange clothes with the prisoner in his cell; and then, at her final parting, she so restrained her feelings as not to unman him for the scene that would arrive so speedily. She parted with him calm and collected, went back to her home without openly shedding a tear, and thenceforth sought strength and comfort from a source higher than human.
     Once, and, so far as we learn, once only, she made a pilgrimage to Chenies, to see the tomb of her beloved husband, a year or so after his death. Her children and their grandfather, the old Earl of Bedford, were now her special care. Her letters show that she had trials to bear in her sister's family, and others in such public affairs as the cruel revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which she lamented all the more because her mother, a daughter of the Baron de Ruvigny, was a Frenchman and a Protestant. Being on terms of friendship with the Princess of Orange, she hailed with joy the dawn of the Revolution of 1688, and doubtless rejoiced in the elevation of the head of the Russells to that ducal rank which ought also to have been her own. Her son was somewhat wild as a youth, but she exerted all a mother's influence on him, and so effectively, that he became an honor to the House of Peers.
     She had the satisfaction, such as it was, of seeing the craven-hearted James, now king, a suppliant at her father's knee for help against the bolder members of his House of Lords. The story is thus told ‘My lord,' said James to the Earl of Bedford, you are a good man, and you have influence with the peers. You could do me good service with them to-day.'
     I am old, sir, and feeble,' replied the earl; ‘but I once had a son who -- ' The rest of the sentence was lost in sobs; but the scene must have cut even James to the quick.
          Six years had scarcely passed by after the execution of Lord Russell, ere his widow had the satisfaction of hailing King William as king, and of seeing her lord's attainder reversed by a joint vote of both parties in the Commons;1 and later still, an incident is recorded by Macaulay, which shows the magic influence of her heroic character. In 1698, Lord Clancarty was sent to the Tower, being found guilty of treason, Macaulay writes:
     ‘Devonshire and Bedford joined with Ormond to ask for mercy. The aid of a still more powerful intercession was called in. Lady Russell was esteemed by the king as a valuable friend. She was venerated by the nation generally as a saint, the widow of a martyr, and when she deigned to solicit favor, it was scarcely possible that she should solicit in vain. She naturally felt a strong sympathy for the unhappy couple who were parted by the walls of that gloomy old fortress in which she had herself exchanged the last endearments with one whose image was never absent from her. .She took Lady Clancarty with her to the palace, obtained access to King William, and put a petition in his hand.' This saved the life of the traitor, who was pardoned on condition of leaving the kingdom, never to return.
     As she approached old age she suffered from blindness, which was said to arise from constant weeping; but this was relieved by couching, and in her last years she was carefully attended by her only surviving child, the Duchess of Devonshire. She died calmly and peacefully on the anniversary of her husband's birthday, and her eyes were closed by her daughter's hand. From Southampton House her remains were carried, on October 12th following, to be placed by the side of her murdered husband in the north aisle of the parish church of Chenies, where all the Russell family have their last home.
          Two daughters and a son were born during the fourteen happy years of her union with Lord Russell. The daughters both lived to become duchesses, the one of Rutland, and the other of Devonshire, and her son was the second Duke of Bedford, that title having been conferred on her husband's father soon after the Revolution partly as a recompense for the legal murder' of that father's son. It was this duke who married the heiress of the Howlands of Streatham, who brought to the Russells a splendid dowry in the shape of broad acres on the Surrey side of the Thames. He died in his mother's lifetime, but handed on both title and estates to his children.
Lady Russell, says one of her friends, I united the character of a heroine to the conduct of a saint: And, in like manner, a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1854, mentioning her virtues in detail, avows his opinion that the name of Rachel Russell is one for which, Protestants as we are, we are well-nigh tempted to demand canonisation;' and asks, ‘Who is there whose character, take it for all in all, is richer in qualities which seldom meet in one and the same person? Neither soured nor spoiled, nor deadened in her perceptions by trials, ready for every emergency, humble, but not to be diverted from any right purpose, quiet, brave, simple, just, and loving, can this picture be overcharged? To us, indeed, every trace of this woman is sacred; . . . and the confidential outpourings of Rachel Russell, the loving wife and mourning widow, are the rich inheritance of every Englishman and Englishwoman.' Can words of higher praise be uttered?
     Bishop Burnet says that ‘Lady Rachel's letters are written with an elegant simplicity, with truth and nature which can flow only from the heart; the tenderness and constancy of her affection for her murdered lord present an image to melt the soul.' Even Horace Walpole, in writing to Sir Horace Mann, remarking how much better women write than men, pays her the following compliment: 'I have before me a volume of letters written by the widow of the beheaded Lord Russell, which :ire full of the most moving and expressive eloquence. I want,' he adds, 'the Duke of Bedford to let me have them printed.' Possibly ill compliance with this suggestion, they were published some twenty years later, in 1773;2 they have since passed through several editions here, and have been reprinted in America. To use the happy phrase of Allibone, these letters ' have embalmed her memory in the hearts of thousands: Her Life, and her Correspondence with her husband, were given to the world by Lord John Russell in 1820; and Guizot made her married life the subject of a volume, which was translated into English, and published by the late Mr. John Martin, the librarian at Woburn Abbey, with the sanction of the Duke of Bedford and M. Guizot himself. In a somewhat different shape, and under a different title, this work has been given also to the American world. In 1819 Miss Berry gave to the world a series of Letters addressed by Lady Rachel to her husband, and treasured among the archives of Devonshire House. These had never appeared in print before; but it was not till many years later that the Letters of the wife and the widow were brought into one series.
     In spite of some 'homely expressions and awkward phrases' the result of her imperfect education amid the strife of the civil war-Lady Rachel Russell's ‘Letters' will always be favorites with the better class of readers. They will see that, though the manner may not be all that can be wished, the matter is above praise. The writer inherited a noble nature. Her father, though an advocate of the popular cause, would have no hand in the war against the king, and, equally disapproving the tyranny of Strafford and the Stuarts, retired from Court, survived the Civil Wars, and was pronounced ‘the most honest man ever known to be in the service of Charles the Second.' Her grandfather was Shakespeare's friend-the earl whom Nash commemorates as I a dear lover and cherisher as well of the lovers of poets as of poets themselves;' the same earl to whom Shakespeare dedicates his ‘Lucrece,' and who is thus apostrophized by Gervais Markham:

 'Thou glorious laurel of the muse's hill,
Whose eye does crown the most victorious pen
Bright lamp of virtue.'

      Her letters fully prove that she had inherited a part, at least, of her father's and her grandfather's high character. It is true that a wail of anguish is wrung from her sometimes, for the iron had entered into her soul. But piously and patiently she bears up for the sake of her children and of their father's memory. I When I see my children before me, I remember the pleasure he took in them; this makes my heart shrink.' She does not, like weak-minded persons in the same circumstances, seek relief within the walls of a convent, and fly from the troubles and trials which surround her, but boldly faces them as they come. Though they have parted on that fatal morning, her lord to the scaffold, and she to that dreary house which would henceforth be her home, yet she does not give way to useless repining and reproaches, but finds her pleasure and her duty in the education of her children in the same virtuous principles which their father had cherished and taught. It is true that I grief fills the room of her absent lord;' or, as Shakespeare writes in ‘King John,'

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with her . . .
Remembers her of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.'

      But still, she does not forget herself and her children. Only two months after his execution, 'we find her a guest, and doubtless an honored guest, at Woburn, and in the following year she is again in London, and at Stratton. Is her son, Wriothesley, sick and ill? She removes with him from Woburn to Totteridge, near Barnet, for change of air, and nurses him till he is well. And, when he recovers, we find her proposing to place that son, who is destined to become the head of the Russells, with a pastor of the Huguenot refugees who, under her near relative, M. de Ruvigny, have formed a church at Greenwich. She busies herself in such womanly work as forwarding the marriages of her near relatives, especially that of her daughter to Lord Cavendish, the son of her husband's friend and would-be preserver. She can take pleasure even in such trifles is fairings,' which her sister and Lady Inchiluin has brought her from Bartlemy Fair. And yet she never forgets the sad past. She writes to a friend: ‘There are three days I like to dive up to reflection; the day on which my lord was parted from his family, that of his trial, and the day he was released from all the evils of this perishing world.' And, mixed up with such personal details, we find her calmly speaking of the coming of Death as a friend, and looking forward patiently and hopefully to the day when she shall again meet her husband in a happier and better world.

Hers was the charm of calm good sense,
            Of wholesome views of earth and heaven,
Of pity touched with reverence,
To all things freely given.3

    It is indeed strange that the life of such a Woman as Lady Rachel Russell is omitted from nearly all our biographical dictionaries, and that her name is mentioned merely as an appendage to that of her husband. She deserves to be recorded in the pages of history for her own personal virtues. Well indeed may the late Lord Stanhope (better known as an historian by his former title of Lord Mahon) ask impassionedly in his Report, as a Commissioner of the Fine Arts, whether there I could be a nobler figure for an artist,' be he sculptor or painter, than the scene so well described by Samuel Rogers in his ‘Human Life':

Then, on that awful day,
Counsel of friends, all human help, denied
All, but from her who sits his pen to guide,
Like that sweet saint who sate by Russell's side
Under the judgment seat.'

1 In the bill for reversing the attainder, the execution of Lord Russell is styled a 'murder.'
2 On their appearance, Horace Walpole mentions them only with a heartless sneer, asking I whether there is anything worth reading in them?
3 Owen Meredith, ‘The Wanderer.'

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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