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Mildmay [née Sharington], Grace, Lady Mildmaylocked

(c. 1552–1620)
  • Linda A. Pollock

Grace Mildmay, Lady Mildmay (c. 1552–1620)

by unknown artist

Mildmay [née Sharington], Grace, Lady Mildmay (c. 1552–1620), memoirist and medical practitioner, was the second daughter of Sir Henry Sharington (d. 1581), of Lacock Abbey, Chippenham, Wiltshire, and his wife, Anne (d. 1607), daughter of Robert Paget, alderman of London. Her father, who was formerly from East Dereham in Norfolk, inherited Lacock Abbey from his brother William Sharington (d. 1553), vice-treasurer of the Bristol mint. Grace was the second of four children. Her younger brother William did not survive infancy and her elder sister Ursula died in 1576, leaving Grace and her younger sister Olive as coheirs.

Grace was educated at home with her two sisters by a Mistress Hamblyn, a relative of the family brought up by Lady Sharington. The governess took great pains with the character and moral training of her charges, and taught Grace some basic medical skills. Grace married in 1567 Anthony Mildmay (c. 1549–1617) [see under Mildmay, Sir Walter], eldest son of Sir Walter Mildmay, chancellor of the exchequer, and founder of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and his wife, Mary Walsingham. The couple resided at Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, and had one child, Mary (1581/2–1640), who married Francis Fane, later first earl of Westmorland, in February 1599. Sir Anthony and Lady Mildmay endured considerable financial strain in their marriage. Not only was no marriage settlement drawn up, but they also became embroiled in expensive and lengthy litigation to gain control of their respective inheritances. Lady Mildmay and her sister Olive were in dispute from early 1581 until late 1609. Lady Mildmay challenged her father's last will, a nuncupative one, which left to Olive the largest share of the estate. Olive was reluctant to relinquish any land to her sister, but eventually the estate was divided equally between the two sisters. Anthony and his younger brother Humphrey quarrelled because Anthony, wishing to provide for his wife and daughter, wanted to break the entail of their father's will, under which his brother was the heir, since Anthony had no son. Sir Anthony won the case, although his victory cost him his brother's friendship.

Anthony Mildmay had not been eager to marry, 'being then more willing to travel to get experience of the world than to marry so soon' (Pollock, 32). After the wedding Anthony was active in royal service and often away from home. Lady Mildmay divided her time between reading the Bible, praying, playing the lute, drawing, needlework, and medical activities. She was an accomplished musician, able to set songs of five parts. Her proficiency in this regard was recognized in the musical world: a galliard, 'My Lady Mildmay's Delight', attributed to the lutenist Robert Johnson, was named after her (Morrongiello). She was also an acclaimed cook. James VI of Scotland dined at Apethorpe while on his journey to take the throne of England, and enjoyed the dinner, since 'everything that was most delicious for taste proved more delicate by the art that made it seem beauteous to the eye, the lady of the house being one of the most excellent confectioners in England' (Aikin, 1.86). Now James I, he visited again in 1612; in appreciation of the Mildmays' hospitality, he gave the timber for the buildings on the east and south sides. A stone statue of James I on the south side of the courtyard at Apethorpe commemorates his generosity.

Lady Mildmay's medical activities were as sophisticated as her culinary ones and more extensive. She was not unusual in providing medical care: women were expected to be conversant with basic medical treatments, and capable of ministering to their family. However, Lady Mildmay's surviving medical papers reveal that she was engaged in far more than a family-based activity. The papers are not a jumble of cookery and simple herbal recipes, as would be typical, but contain a sophisticated analysis of the causes and treatment of various diseases, accompanied by instructions for the large-scale manufacture of medicines, many of them based on minerals and chemicals. Her understanding of the causes of illness was Galenic in orientation, based on the theory of humours, and was also derived from Christian teachings. She aimed to 'bring the body and parts thereof into an union in itself, by little and little' (Pollock, 110).

Lady Mildmay practised medicine on a large, expensive, and systematic scale. Commonly used medications, like aqua vitae or metheglin, were prepared in bulk, 10 gallons at a time. One balm required 159 different seeds, roots, spices, and gums, as well as 13 lbs of sugar and nuts and 8¼ gallons of oil, wine, and vinegar. She also practised chemical medicine of the Paracelsian kind, using metals and minerals, such as gold, pearls, turbith, sulphur, and antimony in her salves, cordials, and potions. She experimented with the manufacture and administration of the medicines until she had discovered the most effective method. Her still room had thirty-one large bottles of cordials and oils, all clearly labelled, shelves of powders and pills, a black chest full of ingredients, and sheaves of medical papers (over two thousand loose papers, as well as books, were bequeathed to her daughter, Mary). It is not known who her patients were, but she was prepared to treat individuals of either sex and any age, and she had remedies for a wide range of ailments, both mental and physical. There is no evidence that she received any payment for her work. Except that she refused to perform surgery, the type of care she offered was similar to that dispensed by licensed physicians and earned the praise of some of them. Richard Banister, in a denunciation of women who were active in the medical sphere, exempted 'the right religious and virtuous lady, the Lady Mildmay, of Apethorpe'. Her 'cures were attended with due care, and ended with true charity', and she possessed 'good judgement in many things' (Banister, no. 279).

Lady Mildmay grew up as a member of the protestant church. Her mother introduced her to the habit of meditating privately every day in order to commune with God, strengthen her faith, and remind herself of God's favours to her. In later life, convinced of her elect status, Lady Mildmay composed a work of 912 folios of spiritual meditations, which cover many topics, the most frequent themes being Christ as the resurrection and the life, and that God would never abandon the faithful. These meditations are an important source for determining what protestantism was for a lay person in post-Reformation England, and also for examining the role of religion in the life of a woman. They illustrate the doctrinal ambiguity of early protestantism, underline the importance of faith, and reveal the educated laity's understanding of key concepts.

Lady Mildmay's meditations also contain material not recorded elsewhere: on the midlands rising of 1607 and on the earl of Exeter's scheme for draining the fens in Holland, Exeter. Her husband was also involved in both these events.

Lady Mildmay's memoirs constitute one of the earliest existing autobiographies written by a woman in her own hand. A contemporary portrait depicts her as stern, with an upright bearing, plainly dressed in black, with her hand resting on her medical and musical papers. Her medical work is an example of the important contribution women made to the case of the sick in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. Following the death of her husband in 1617, Lady Mildmay was joined at Apethorpe by her daughter and family, including her granddaughter Lady Rachael Fane. Lady Mildmay died on 27 July 1620 at Apethorpe and was buried in the church there.

Sources

  • L. Pollock, With faith and physic: the life of a Tudor gentlewoman, Lady Grace Mildmay, 1552–1620 (1993)
  • R. Warnicke, ‘Lady Mildmay's journal: a study in autobiography and meditation in Reformation England’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 20 (1989), 55–68
  • R. Weigall, ‘An Elizabethan gentlewoman: the journal of Lady Mildmay, c. 1570–1617’, QR, 215 (1911), 119–38
  • K. H. Rogers, ed., Lacock Abbey charters, Wiltshire RS, 34 (1979)
  • S. E. Lehmberg, Sir Walter Mildmay and Tudor government (1964)
  • The reports of Sir Edward Coke, 2nd edn (1680) [Co Rep]
  • L. Aikin, Memoirs of the court of King James I (1822)
  • R. Banister, A treatise of one hundred and thirteene diseases of the eyes, and eye-liddes, the second time published, with some profitable additions of certaine principles and experiments (1622)
  • H. A. St John Mildmay, A brief memoir of the Mildmay family (1913)
  • T. E. Vernon, ‘Inventory of Sir Henry Sharington’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 63 (1968), 72–82
  • J. Bridges, The history and antiquities of Northamptonshire, ed. P. Whalley, 2 vols. (1791)
  • O. Barron, ‘The Fanes’, The Ancestor, 12 (1905), 4–17, esp. 5
  • C. Morrongiello, ‘Edward Collard: the complete compositions’, Lute Society Editions (1996)
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/36

Archives

  • BL, Add. MS 34218, fol. 59
  • Lacock Abbey, Chippenham, Wiltshire
  • Northants. RO, corresp., W/A vol. 55
  • Northants. RO, details of the legal dispute, W/A box 2
  • Northants. RO, medical notes and papers
  • Northants. RO, papers, W/A vols. 15, 17, 35
  • TNA: PRO, court of wards
  • BL, Lansdowne MS 991, fols. 268–272
  • TNA: PRO, petition of Sir Walter Mildmay, SP12 151/8

Likenesses

  • double portrait, marble effigy on funeral monument (with her husband Sir Anthony), Apethorpe church, Northamptonshire
  • portrait, repro. in Barron, ‘The Fanes’, 6; now destroyed
  • portrait, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

see will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/36; CSP dom., 1598–1601, 163

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