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Three Very Fair Seymours

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     The recent death of the Duchess of Somerset,* who was one of three very beautiful, witty, and accomplished sisters, and who, as Lady Seymour, presided with grace and elegance over the Eglinton Tournament in August, 1839, may serve to remind the reader of history that the noble house of Seymour has, from a very early date, been celebrated for the beauty of its daughters; and the truth of the tradition may be proved by the many portraits in our great public and private galleries, painted by the hands of Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller.
     But probably there was never a fairer triplet of daughters to be seen than the Ladies Anne, Margaret, and Jane Seymour, daughters of a certain nobleman, who is described on a family tomb in Westminster Abbey as ‘The renowned prince, Edward, Duke of Somerset, Earl of Hertford, Viscount Beauchamp, and Baron Seymour.' Their mother was Anne, daughter of Sir William Stanhope, of Rampton in Nottinghamshire, and sister of Sir Michael Stanhope, of Sudbourne Hall, Suffolk, and heiress of her mother, Elizabeth, sister of John Bourchier, Earl of Bath; so that their blood was on both sides of the very bluest possible hue.
     This trio of sisters were as accomplished in mind as they were beautiful in person. They were famous, we are told, for their learning, even in an age when young ladies were not ashamed to study the classical writers of antiquity, and to imitate their style in prose and in verse. Thus we are told by Mr. G. Ballard in his ‘Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain,' published at Oxford in 1752, that ' they wrote four hundred Latin distiches upon the death of the Queen of France, Margaret de Valois, sister of Francis L.,' and that these verses were translated soon after into Greek, French, and Italian, and were printed in Paris in 1551, under the title of ‘Tombeau de Marguerite de Valois, Royne de Navarre.' From the same work we learn that one Nicholas Denisot, who had been preceptor to these learned ladies, made a collection of their distiches and some other verses, as well in honor of them as in commemoration of the queen, and dedicated it to another Marguerite de Valois, Duchess de Berrie, sister of Henry II. of France. They have been praised, he adds, by several authors, particularly by Ronsard, whose ode pays these three fair Seymours the compliment of suggesting that ‘if Orpheus had only heard them, he would have been safe to become their pupil!'
     It is delightful to read the gushing words of the Frenchman himself: ' If that famous writer heard the song of these sirens who sing upon the foamy shores of their sandy Albion, he would surely break his pagan lyre and become their scholar, in order to learn their Christian song, as their voices excelled his own!' He adds, in the same hyperbolic strain: 'Learning, which so long resided in the East, has at last by degrees advanced into the West, and never stopped, till it arrived at that unknown land, whither she came to engage the affections of these young virgins, the only ones of our age; and she succeeded so well with them that we hear them singing their many distiches, which we blush to find superior to our own.’ And, further, the learned translator of Amadis de Gaule spoke in terms equally enthusiastic of the talents and learning of these ladies, in a letter which he addressed to them, and which was prefixed to a collection of epitaphs on Queen Margaret herself. It is, therefore, surprising that their names were always and are so little known, if not in France, yet in their own country. Thus Monsieur Bayle says that he has questioned some Englishmen of great learning, and well versed in the knowledge of books and of authors, but can find little or nothing known about them. And apparently their names were unknown even to Leland, the royal antiquary; though this maybe accounted for by the fact that he became insane before he had reached middle life, and so probably their names escaped the knowledge of the many biographers who copied and reproduced Leland's stores of information.
     It would seem, from the slight sketch of these young ladies given by Mr. Ballard---whose work likewise deserves to be better known than it is---that they were the three eldest daughters of their parents, and that they had three younger sisters, who proved to be by no means their equals in devotion to the Muses, though the author is at the pains to tell us that they were all ' bred up to learning.' They were all quite young, and the third was probably little more than a child when their fame made its sudden blaze in 1551. They were brought up carefully at home and away from the court; and, besides their ‘preceptor' for the Latin tongue, they had other professors to ' teach them music and the sciences.' Of their skill in broidery and needlework there is no record; possibly Mr. Ballard did not lay much stress on that branch of feminine accomplishments. One of them, however, sang divinely, and another played with great skill on the virginals.’
     Of their subsequent life there is very little to say. Possibly the young men about the Court and in high society in those days did not care for such qualities as a taste for composing Latin verses in the ladies among whom they looked for wives, and were rather alarmed at the possibility of finding in them any touches of the ‘blue-stocking.' At all events, two of them, Marguerite and Jane, died young and unmarried. It is true that a suitor was found for Lady Marguerite, for, if we may believe Strype,* she was sought in marriage by Lord Strange, son of the Earl of Derby; and the king appears to have smiled graciously on the proposed alliance. But somehow or other the marriage never came off, for the disgrace and misfortunes which soon after overtook the Duke of Somerset probably caused the match to be postponed and ultimately set aside, and the young lady did not long survive the affair. The third of the trio, Lady Jane, also was carried to her tomb in Westminster Abbey when only in her twentieth year. She was one of the maids-of-honor to Queen Elizabeth, and, we are told, , in great favor with her royal mistress;' but she was carried off by a fever, and died on the 19th of March 1560.
     The Lady Anne, however, made up for her sisters by marrying twice; her first husband was John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and after his death she married Sir Edward Unton, Knight of the Bath. The date of her death is not recorded in the Peerages, nor is it known whether she left any children behind her. As for the three youngest sisters whom I have mentioned incidentally above, the name of one is not given by Sir Bernard Burke and the heralds; but the two others, as being less learned, found husbands, the Lady Mary marrying, firstly, Mr. Andrew Rogers, and, secondly,  Sir Henry Peyton, of Peyton Hall; while her sister, the Lady Elizabeth, became the wife of Sir Richard Knightley, of Norton and Fawsley, the owner of many broad acres and manors in Northamptonshire and the other midland counties, and an mcestor of the present baronet of that name.

 *Her Grace died December 14, 1884.  

* Ecclesiastical Memoirs vol. ii, p. 358.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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