Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Lucy Harington Russell, Countess of Bedford (1580–1627)

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Lucy Harrington Russell, Countess of Bedford

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Lucy Harrington Russell, Countess of Bedford, was born in 1580 and died in 1627 at 47 years old. Bedford is known for her patronage, courtier status, horticultural talent and her multiple roles as a commissioner, designer, dedicatee, and performer of literary texts (Hackett 369). In the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, she was known as one of the most powerful influential patronesses of her day (Early Modern Women Research Network).


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Bedford was very well educated, speaking four languages; French, Spanish, English and Italian. Her wit was praised by John Florio in his dedication to her in 1598 within his English-Italian dictionary, ‘A World of Wordes’ (Early Modern Women Research Network). Bedford was the primary non-royal performer in contemporary Masques performed at court, including the ‘Masque of Blackness’, in which the ladies came dressed in African attire and black face. During the performance, the women were “cleansed” of their blackness by King James (“Masque of Blackness”). However, this stage direction was impossible to perform in front of an audience, so a sequel was created; ‘The Masque of Beauty’. This sequel involved the women returning cleansed of their black pigment (“The Masque of Beauty”). As well as performing, Bedford also acted as a theatrical producer on two occasions in 1617 (“Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford”).

Anne of Denmark, the Queen of Scotland, made Bedford one of her chief gentlewomen and First Lady of the Bedchamber from 1604 to 1619; providing her with the prestige and sums to act as a patronage broker (Early Modern Women Research Network). Bedford was the patron of an array of significant poets and musicians in her era, including John Donne and John Dowland. As a result of this, Bedford “received more dedications than any other woman” (“Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford”)  in her era. Bedford’s most famous patron-client relationship was with the writer John Donne, with whom Bedford seemed to have shared a close connection, as she was eventually named Donne’s second daughter’s godmother. This friendship seemed to have especially belonged to 1608/1609, with regular correspondence and visits to her home (Brown 67).


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Bedford was a member of the Sidney/Essex circle from birth. On the twelfth of December 1594, at the age of thirteen, Bedford married twenty-two-year-old Edward Russel, the third Earl of Bedford (“Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford”).  Edwards Father was killed hours before his grandfather; the second Earl of Bedford. This resulted in Edward inheriting the title at fourteen years old. Edward’s Grandfather had died heavily in debt, passing this onto Edward, who also ran up large debt with Bedford in Queen Elizabeth’s court in the early years of their marriage; resultant of their extravagant lifestyle (Early Modern Women Research Network). However, this luxury was soon ripped from them as Edward Russel was found in association with the Essex Rebellion in 1601. The earl was imprisoned in the Tower, disgraced, fined exceedingly (£10,000) (Early Modern Women Research Network), and upon his release, confined to his estate and exiled from the court (Papazian 183). Lucy was henceforth required to make her own way up the social ladder. Her success in this feat, despite her husbands’ predicament, is a testament to her intelligence, resourcefulness, wit and charm (Papazian, 183). From here onward, Bedford largely lead her own life. Her husband had a bad fall from his horse in 1612, which left him partially paralysed and with impaired speech (Root).  He remained at the country estate, rather than trifling in the affairs of life at court.


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In 1609, Bedford’s luck in the court began to falter. At Twickenham, Bedford surrounded herself with male and female poets (Lewalski 799). Two of her kinswomen and coterie members; Lady Bridget Markham and Cecilia Bulstrode passed away three months between one another. Bedford is only known to have written a few poems, and only one has survived the years; an epitaph titled “Death be not proud, thy hand gave not this blow,” attributed to Bulstrode and part of a paired elegy written with John Donne. John Donne’s elegies were titled  "Death I recant" and "Death be not proud", which were part of a scribal publication project that included eleven elegies and epitaphs. This Coterie publication event was organised within the literary group, George Gerrard, a close friend of Bulstrode; took on the role of soliciting verses from those within circle (Early Modern Women Research Network). In the 1620s and 30s, these elegies were copied into manuscript miscellanies, the remnants of these suggest that these works were circulated widely (Early Modern Women Research Network). Within these Miscellanies, Bedford’s authorship was completely occluded as her poem was copied directly after Donne’s “Death I recant”, without any indication of it being a separate verse (Early Modern Women Research Network). This poem being attributed to Donne was further influenced by the shared opening line of Bedford’s work and Donne’s “Holy Sonnet X.” Bedford was the recipient of the verse tributes within this publication project and was the primary reader of the elegies (Early Modern Women Research Network).  The only two copies of Bedford’s verse that exist both attribute the verse to Lady Markham in the headnote, rather than Bulstrode. The interchangeability of the subject highlights the centrality of Bedford in the writing, the dead being only relevant in relation to her (Early Modern Women Research Network).


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Within Queen Anna’s court, Bedford presided over a circle of female wits that were active in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign and into the formation of Anna’s. Sir John Roe praised her for her wit in a love elegy he dedicated to her (Early Modern Women Research Network). In her later life, Bedford became an activist in support of Princess Elizabeth Stuart to regain her throne as the Queen of Bohemia (Root). She was one of the most influential women at James’ court, however, she had serious financial problems. In 1619, Bedford had debts of £50,000, completely separate from her husband’s massive indebtedness (“Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford”). Theodore de Mayerne, the court physician, recorded treating Bedford for gout, smallpox that deformed her face and blinded one eye and then depression in the 1620s (“Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford”).  None of Bedford’s children survived infancy. She died in May 1627 in the same month as her husband and is recorded as dying "having no belongings" (“Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford”).  Bedford’s legacy is found in the remnants of her verse, through the words of her clients such as John Donne, and through the music of John Dowland, who dedicated his Second Book of Songs to her (Root).

Further Reading/ Future study

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The Private Correspondence of Jane, Lady Cornwallis: 1613-1644 written by Lady Jane Meautys Cornwallis Bacon, 1581-1659; edited by Richard Griffin, 3rd Baron Braybrooke, 1783-1858 (London, England, 1842), 305 page(s). Accessible at ‘Alexander Street: A ProQuest Company’.