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  Elizabeth Cary (1585–1639), by Paul van Somer, c.1620 Elizabeth Cary (1585–1639), by Paul van Somer, c.1620
Cary [née Tanfield], Elizabeth, Viscountess Falkland (1585–1639), writer and translator, was born at Burford Priory, Oxfordshire, the only child of , lawyer, and his wife, Elizabeth (d. 1629), daughter of Giles Symonds and Catherine, née Lee. Much of what is known of her derives from a manuscript life written about 1650 by one of her daughters, Lucy, then a nun at Cambrai. She was educated at home, proving adept at foreign languages. It is possible that she was taught by both Michael Drayton and John Davies (1565?–1618). Her fluency in French and Italian was praised by Drayton when he dedicated to her two of his Englands Heroicall Epistles (1597); the fact that he addresses her as ‘my honoured Mistres’ suggests that he may have been employed in her father's household. Davies referred with pride to his ‘pupill’ when he made her a joint dedicatee of his The Muses Sacrifice (1612). Her precocious talent is revealed in her earliest extant work, which predates her marriage, ‘The mirror of the world’, a translation of Abraham Ortelius's Le mirroir du monde (1598), dedicated to her great-uncle Sir Henry Lee, champion of Elizabeth I.

In October 1602 Elizabeth married , son of Sir Edward Cary and his wife, Catherine Knyvett. According to John Chamberlain, Cary was to receive £2000 upon marriage, £2000 after two years, and either £3000 on Lawrence Tanfield's death (should Tanfield have other children in the meantime) or his entire estate as heir. The biography of Elizabeth suggests that this handsome financial package was the primary attraction of the marriage for Cary, an ambitious but impoverished courtier: ‘he married her only for being an heir, for he had no acquaintance with her (she scarce ever having spoken to him) and she was nothing handsome, though then very fair’ (Weller and Ferguson, 188). The fact that there are no known records of her taking part in court masques, even though she had a great interest in them, suggests that she did not fulfil the requisite aesthetic criteria. She was not particularly interested in her own physical adornment, although she allowed herself to be dressed finely to please her husband; besides, nearly twenty years of constant pregnancy and nursing, short stature, and a tendency to obesity, coupled with a possible rheumatic condition, were hardly conducive to performance in courtly theatricals.

In the first few years after their marriage Sir Henry pursued his career at court and as a soldier in the Low Countries, and the couple did not set up home together until 1606. Lady Cary first became pregnant in 1608, giving birth to a daughter, Catherine, in 1609. Ten more children followed: , Lorenzo (b. 1613), , Edward (b. 1616), Elizabeth (b. 1617), Lucy (b. 1619), Victoria (b. 1620), Mary (b. 1622), and Henry and .

Throughout Lady Cary sustained her literary activities. The first female author to write original drama in English, her first play, a tragedy set in Syracuse and dedicated to her husband, was probably written about 1604, although the manuscript has not been recovered. Her second play, The Tragedy of Mariam, probably composed between 1604 and 1608, was published in 1613, possibly as a result of John Davies's very public encouragement. It was not offered for performance in the public playhouses and is linked generically with the body of drama produced within the group of writers associated with Mary Herbert, countess of Pembroke. However, it is striking for its well-rounded characters and energetic dialogue, both of which render it entirely suitable for representation on stage. The plot is based upon stories surrounding the death of Mariam, the last of the Hasmoneans, the Jewish royal dynasty, as related in Thomas Lodge's 1602 translation of the works of the Jewish historian Josephus. Additionally Elizabeth's biography bears witness to a variety of manuscript works as yet unrecovered, including a verse life of Tamburlaine, verses to the Virgin Mary, the lives of St Agnes, St Elizabeth of Portugal, and St Mary Magdalene, and translations of Seneca and Blosius. Elizabeth was also the first female to attempt a literary narrative of events in English history: hers is the hand behind ‘Edwarde the Seconde: his raigne and deathe’ (Northants. RO, Finch-Hatton papers FH1), dated 1626 and published in 1680 as The History of the Life, Reign and Death of Edward II and The History of the most Unfortunate Prince, King Edward II, previously attributed to her husband. Like The Tragedy of Mariam it contains strikingly sympathetic portrayals of transgressive women. That her literary and linguistic skills were none the less widely recognized is evident from others' dedication of their works to her—for instance Englands Helicon, or, The Muses Harmony (1614), A Sixthe Booke to the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1624), and The Workes of Mr John Marston (1633).

On 14 November 1620 Cary was created Viscount Falkland in the Scottish peerage. Lady Falkland went to Ireland following her husband's appointment in 1622 to the post of lord deputy, and her two youngest children were born there. When part of her jointure was mortgaged to meet expenses incurred in taking up the deputyship her father was so displeased that he disinherited her in favour of her eldest son, Lucius. From this point the Falklands were constantly in financial difficulties. Elizabeth tried to establish various schemes in Ireland, which failed owing to her lack of acumen. She returned to England in 1625 and set about trying to settle her husband's financial affairs, efforts that were a source of embarrassment to him. In the following year she embarked upon another course of action, which was to cause even more embarrassment to her staunchly protestant husband: she converted publicly to Catholicism, taking the additional name Maria.

Elizabeth's conversion incurred the displeasure of Charles I also, who placed her under house arrest. His anger seems to have been short-lived because when she requested her liberty, after a period of six weeks, he seemed to have quite forgotten about her and granted her freedom with a comment that he had not meant her to be incarcerated for so long. Falkland was less forgiving; he wrote to the king demanding a separation a mensa et thoro; furthermore he refused to give his wife any financial support and demanded that she rejoin her mother's household, but Lady Tanfield was extremely unwilling to receive her recusant daughter. Lady Falkland lived alone and in dire poverty for some time, while her husband was bent upon a course of virtually starving her into recanting her faith. She petitioned the king with her desperate circumstances and on 4 October 1627 the privy council ordered Falkland to pay her £500 a year in maintenance. He never fulfilled this obligation despite further orders, in 1628 and 1630, to do so. It is possible that relations between the couple gradually became more cordial after his recall from Ireland in 1629, although the two were never reconciled as husband and wife. Lady Falkland's high-profile religious stance remained a barrier. Her Reply of the most Illustrious Cardinal of Perron (1630) proved to be her most controversial work; an overt piece of Catholic propaganda, it was dedicated—publicly via the printed text, and privately via presentation volumes inscribed with an autograph verse—to Queen Henrietta Maria, identifying her as an ambassador for the Catholic faith in England. The book was printed at Douai and is reputed to have been burnt upon arrival in England; several copies have survived, however, including three inscribed presentation volumes.

Lady Falkland's poverty and marital troubles necessarily rendered her peripheral to court society. Nevertheless she forged links with some of the most influential women of the age, notably fellow Roman Catholic converts Mary, countess of Buckingham; Susan, countess of Denbigh; and Katherine, duchess of Buckingham—the mother, sister, and wife, respectively, of the king's favourite, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. The duchess of Buckingham, for instance, tried to intercede on Elizabeth's behalf in the ongoing dispute between the Falklands. Furthermore the queen herself lent her support to her efforts to gain a place for her daughter Anne at the Spanish court, although this plan did not come to fruition.

In the aftermath of a leg injury sustained at Theobalds, Falkland suffered gangrene and died in September 1633, his wife at his bedside. Lady Falkland thereupon determined that six of her children (Anne, Lucy, Mary, Elizabeth, Patrick, and Henry) be sent to the continent to be received into the Catholic faith. The children had been living with their eldest brother, Lucius, now second Viscount Falkland, partly owing to their mother's impecunious state, partly as a result of the fear of her influence upon their religious leanings. While Lady Falkland regained possession of her daughters with relative ease, and ensured their conversion to Catholicism and reception into a convent at Cambrai before her death, access to her sons was more difficult. In 1636 she daringly arranged for them to be kidnapped from their brother's house, and then kept them moving around London to avoid detection. She was called to account for her actions, undergoing examination first by Lord Chief Justice Sir John Bramston and second in the Star Chamber. Her questioners assumed that the boys were already abroad, and she was content to let them think so since this would facilitate their subsequent escape to the continent; she therefore gave elusive and unhelpful answers to her questioners, which resulted in a threat of imprisonment in the Tower, although there is no evidence that this threat was carried out.

Elizabeth Cary died in London in October 1639 and was buried in Henrietta Maria's chapel in Somerset House. Until comparatively recently she was viewed principally as the mother of the poet and royalist hero Lucius Cary, although it was her recusant activity that rendered her of interest to Catholic historians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; no less than three biographical works appeared between 1861 and 1939. These works were largely based upon her daughter's biography, which, though rather hagiographical in tone, testifies to her remarkable steadfastness and integrity in the face of poverty and persecution; her personal motto was ‘Be and seem’. However, the growth in feminist literary scholarship has demonstrated Lady Falkland's significance within her cultural milieu. Her earliest work, ‘The mirror of the worlde’, was first published in 2012.

Stephanie Hodgson-Wright


CSP dom., 1602–40 · CSP Ire., 1625–32 · biography of Lady Falkland, Archives Departementales du Nord, Lille, MS xx (c.1650) · G. Fullerton, The life of Elisabeth Lady Falkland (1883) · Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain, 1603–1624: Jacobean letters, ed. M. Lee (1972) · The letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. E. McClure, 2 vols. (1939) · K. B. Murdock, The sun at noon (1939) · B. Newdigate, Michael Drayton and his circle (1941) · R. B. Simpson, The Lady Falkland: her life (1861) · B. Weller and M. W. Ferguson, eds., The tragedy of Mariam, the fair queen of Jewry, with The Lady Falkland: her life, by one of her daughters (1994) · E. T. Cary, The mirror of the worlde, ed. L. Peterson (2012)


P. van Somer, oils, c.1620, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, Texas [see illus.] · T. Athow, engraving (after P. Van Somer, c.1621), AM Oxf., Sutherland collection · T. Athow, wash drawing, AM Oxf. · marble tomb effigy (on Sir Lawrence and Lady Tanfield's tomb), Burford church, Oxfordshire