Portrait of Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford

Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford (c.1581-1627)

     Distinguished as well for her learning and taste as her courtly manners, Lucy Harrington is interesting as being the companion of the early days of Elizabeth Stuart, at Combe Abbey, before the cares of state had pressed on that fair brow the seal of sorrow. When still very young, she showed her love of pomp and expense, and a fondness for gorgeous decoration and elegant erections, which, in after-life, became a source of vexation and disappointment, carried as the pleasure was by her to a ruinous extreme. In the masques of Queen Anne, of Denmark, to whom she was lady of the bedchamber, none appeared with greater splendour than Lucy Harrington, and no pageant or revel was complete without her.

     The death of her brother, the friend and companion of Prince Henry, taken untimely from his sorrowing family as suddenly as the hope of England himself, conferred on her his large fortune and inheritance; and when she became the bride of the Earl of Bedford, she was one of the richest heiresses of the kingdom. Her extreme profusion, however, the vice of her time, soon made itself felt, though others profited by her liberality, particularly the professors of the gaie science, for poets were ever welcome with her, and to the arts she was a munificent patroness.

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     Drayton, Daniel, Donne, and Jonson, all sung the praises of their patroness, inverse, more or less harmonious. That of the last is often quoted, and is, at least, ingenious and enthusiastic, though not entirely free from the faults his taste condemned.

This morning, timely rapt with holy fire,
    I thought to form unto my zealous muse
What kind of creature I could most desire,
    To honour, serve, and love—as poets use.
I meant to make her fair, and free, and wise,
    Of greatest blood, and yet more good than great,
I meant the day-star should not brighter rise
    Nor lend like influence from his lucent seat:
I meant she should be courteous, facile, sweet,
    Hating that solemn vice of greatness, pride;
I meant each softest virtue, there should meet,
    Fit in that softer bosom to reside.
Only a learned and a manly soul
    I purposed her, that should, with even powers,
The rock, the spindle, and the shears control
    Of Destiny, and spin her own free hours.
Such, when I meant to feign, and wished to see,
    My muse bade —Bedford— write, and that was she.

     Sir Thomas Roe, the learned ambassador, who collected so many treasures abroad, and made a fine museum of medals for himself, sent a catalogue of them to the Countess of Bedford, accompanied by a dissertation which, as Miss Aikins observes, could only be addressed with propriety to a respectable proficient, both in numismatic science and the Latin language.

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     The very erudite and superior education of Lucy Harrington, and many of her contemporaries, seems to have frightened the strict and simplicity-loving writers of the period; and all those who had been long accustomed to consider the female mind as unworthy of cultivation, were startled at the rapid strides made by women, who threatened to overtake "their masters" in learning.

*     *     *     *     *

     In a tract, published in 1636, called "The Art of Thriving," which has in it a vein of satire that somewhat contradicts the author's professed recommendations, it is said of the daughters of the gentry:

     " I would have their breeding, like the Dutchwoman's clothing, tending to profit only and comeliness. And though she never have a dancing schoolmaster, a French tutor, nor a Scotch tailor, it makes no matter.

     " For working in curious Italian purles, or French borders, it is not worth the while. Let them learn plain works of all kinds. Instead of song and music, let them learn cookery and laundry, and instead of reading Sir Philip Sidney's 'Arcadia,' let them read the grounds of good huswifery. I like not a female Poëtresse at any hand."

     Alas! for poor Sir Philip's charming sister, and all who followed her dangerous steps; there was no promotion for them if their safety dependend on this uncompromising gentleman!

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     The Countess Lucy happily escaped such an education.... Amongst her elegant tastes, that of ornamental gardening was conspicuous, as Sir William Temple has recorded in his description: her friend, the Queen of Bohemia, had the same; and they had, probably, studied the art together:

     " The perfectest figure of a garden I ever saw, either at home or abroad, was that of Moor Park, when I knew it about thirty years ago. It was made by the Countess of Bedford, esteemed amongst the greatest wits of her time, and celebrated by Dr. Donne, and with very great care, excellent contrivance, and much cost."

     It is melancholy to recount that, like so many others who give way to expensive tastes, the creator of these enchanted gardens was unable long to enjoy the delights they offered. Her resources were incompetent to support the charges she had called forth; and Lucy, Countess of Bedford, was forced to banish herself from her paradise of dainty devices!  Moor Park was sold, and a proprietor, no less prodigal and magnificent than herself, took possession of her groves and flowers: William, Earl of Pembroke, called it his for a brief space, and it then passed into other hands.

     Beyond these gorgeous propensities, there is nothing striking in the life of the early friend of the Queen of Bohemia—the generous lady who was the theme of so many grateful poets. She continued to correspond with her royal and unfortunate friend till her death, which happened in 1627.

      Excerpted from:

      Costello, Louisa Stuart. Memoirs of Eminent Englishwomen, Vol II.
      London: Richard Bentley, 1844. 172-185.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Stevenson, Jane and Peter Davidson, eds. Early Modern Women Poets: An Anthology.
           Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lucy, Countess of Bedford, on the Web:

Backto John Donne
Backto Early 17th-century English Literature
Backto Luminarium Encyclopedia

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Created by Anniina Jokinen on November 16, 2006.

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