Last time we heard about Margaret’s leap into the unknown, in search of adventure, enlightenment and education; and found herself instead in a mind-numbing nightmare of faction, boredom and servitude. Despite a thrilling escape across the sea, with the parliamentary enemy snapping at her heels, the court in France was reall yno better – in fact it was rather worse. It was also not only purgatory, but purgatory in French. Not that I am diss’ing the manifold beauties of the French language. Let me hastily reassure you, j’adore le Francais and all that, it’s just that Margaret didn’t speak it.
As she sank into despair and melancholy, one day while sitting in those interminable sessions in the presence chamber, there was a bit of a fuss, a thrill of excitement, a stir of interest and gossip rustled around the court. Because outside a massive gilded coach had appeared, ornate and decadent, and pulled by 9 magnificent Holsteiner horses. I am told your Holsteiner is the oldest of the warmblood breeds, originating in the 13th century, and nowadays still dominate the horse jumping world. I was amused and interested to learn of warmbloods, and assume by implication there must be coldblooded horses, which is interesting to me, and not something I’d heard of outside Harry Potter.
Anyway, out of this extravagant equipage strode a man of middling height, a very grand man, one of the king’s Privy Councillors, William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle. He’s 52 at this time – Margaret being 22 for point of reference – He had come to HM’s court in exile to join the resistance, and he had come with 9 Holsteiners not because he could afford them, but because he realised that on the stage of life it is important to cut stuff, principally a dash. And so, although he’d placed himself heavily in debt to buy those gee gees, he ostentatiously gifted seven of them to his Queen – and he was in. On that, and a personal note, I once had the privilege to work with an educational consultant called Fouza, and we trod the boards in the middle east. I never met anyone better at commanding a room better than Fouza, and I learned that if you believe yourself to be significant and important, and demand people believe it, they probably will – until proven otherwise. This slightly double edged truth, if such it is, lay at the heart of William Cavendish’s philosophy. Among the Maids of Honour was Margaret, who knew herself to be full of potential, but had yet the courage and know-how to demand attention. But she would learn, mark you.
William would be a frequent visitor to court, and is very significant to Margaret’s story so we should spend a moment on him. He was from a fabulously wealthy and powerful family; even seen from the other side of the political divide, in the form of the puritan writer Lucy Hutchinson, he was a very significant man ‘A prince in the north’ she wrote. He had all the triumphs and faults of his class; in that he fully expected to display his wealth, like a duke of Buckingham, and that he was entitled to play a leading role in the affairs of the nation and at court – he was bred to it and worked hard to achieve it – whatever the cost.
‘a foolish ambition of glorious slavery carried him to the court, where he ran himself much into debt to purchase neglects of the King and Queen, and scorns of the proud courtiers’
That of course is what your great man on the 16th and 17th century did – it was in a sense expected of them. Lucy Hutchinson had too much good sense to see court as anything other than an absurdity of peacocks. While we are on the negatives, he also attracted much shade and mockery. Clarendon shared HM’s view of his essential love of frippery, and would later write
He liked the pomp, and absolute authority of a general weal, and preserved the dignity of it to the full … But the substantial part, and fatigue of a general, he did not in any degree understand
So Ok, he’s a very grand, flamboyant person, great love of a grand life and a desperately enthusiastic poet without, apparently, any notable talent but there are lots of positives. Clarenden’s neggy remark about his generalship is all very well. But he certainly deserved to be better treated by his kings – given the vast quantities of cash he forked out on their behalf. And until Marston Moor, he was more than holding his own in the North, and had to face the arrival of the Scots in 1644. – which he managed with consummate skill as it appens. He was fiercely brave in battle, everyone recognised that.
He was a very cultured man – I mean he was rich enough to be able to indulge himself, but he patronised generously, and his table was visited by luminaries such as Thomas Hobbes, he corresponded with folks such as Rene Descrates. He was a fine musician and violinist, he was a superb horseman and would write books on the subject. So he’s a bit of a polymath, and also seems to have been a thoroughly nice guy – maybe too nice to really succeed in the cut throat world of court politics. His Whitecoats, the army he raised, admired and fought hard for him, and loved his generosity; a biographer describes him as ‘a hugely likeable man who took delight in pleasing other people’, and he’s a warm and loving sort of bloke to boot. So he will marry twice, both for love – though fair do’s, his first wife had a pile as well.
Just to leaven the bread of all this approval, warmth and nicey-nicey stuff, he was also a man thoroughly of his time and class; not for him the Puritan desire to educate the masses, to inculcate literacy into the tongues people so they could read the bible. Nope, he argued in 1648 that the common people had become too educated – presumably why they’d got so uppity as to rise up against royal tyranny – so he proposed a state of affairs where the ordinary people were provided with regular entertainment – but had no access to newspapers. A sort of bread and circuses strategy I suppose.
But look, that aside; he’s flamboyant, extravagant, thoroughly arty and diva-ish, and therefore to my jaundiced, 21st century East Midlands eye, he’s a faintly ridiculous, wildly privileged man and possibly a bit of a plonker; but he’s a talented, engaged and likeable man too. And he will come out very well from Margaret’s story.
And as he came continually to court, Margaret would write that he began
To take some particular notice of me
William would write a lot of love poetry to Margaret – and I mean a LOT of love poetry, and I guess love poetry isn’t noted for understatement, and it’s clear William found her a bit of a looker. But also of course there’s a meeting of minds too. Margaret had a great, unsatisfied interest in the arts, and in natural philosophy, and although so far she’d had no outlet or opportunity to develop her talent, she soon would. For the moment her interest and thirst for knowledge meant she and William had many shared interests; William did have the knowledge, and longed to share it.
When Margaret and the court moved from Paris to St Germain in August 1645, William kept his servants busy delivering messages of love. Margaret of course, in the mores of the time, had to be a little cautious; at one point she wrote to him
Though I love you extremely well yet I never feared my modesty so small as it would give me leave to court any man
But the real situation was soon, as she again wrote, that
My affections were fixed on him and he was the only person I was ever in love with
However, it was not just shyness and social convention holding Margaret back. She, and many others like her of course, were aware that despite the weight of social pressure to get married, have children, become useful and productive members of society etc etc, getting married was to give up a lot as well as to gain. ‘I did dread marriage’ she wrote, and later in her writings she will have a pretty 24 carat go at the institution from a woman’s perspective. She recognised it as a kind of slavery; and indeed will one time write that
“death is far the happier condition than marriage”
Which would seem to put quite a fine point on it; but then the rules were much quoted, from St Paul I think
Wives submit unto your husbands as unto the Lord…it is sinful that a woman should usurp the man’s authority
In a legal sense of course women became subordinate to the man. So the choice of partner was no small decision, as she wrote to her sister Anne
I cannot advise you to marry unless men’s souls, minds and appetites were as visible to your knowledge as their persons to your eyes
Because once you were in – there was almost no getting out. But nonetheless there was great pressure to marry
It is a kind of reproach to live unmarried, a ‘disgrace to live like old maids’
I could not, nor had power to refuse him
Because they loved each other and as they exchanged poems and talked of natural philosophy and the classics, they decided to tie the knot; and Margaret wrote to her brother John, from whom she needed permission as head of the family. There’s a thing. The response couldn’t have taken long – I imagine John could hardly have wished for such a grand match in a now relatively impoverished gentry family that would struggle to raise a dowry. Snatch the blokes hand off immediately I imagine he said.
But there was another impediment; anyone employed at court required the Queen’s permission, and Queens were notoriously reluctant to let their servants go. And so it seems here; I mean William dithered until Margaret’s letters telling him to get on with it begin to get desperate, and their arrangements for the wedding were so advanced everyone at court began to assume they’d go married in secret.
But At last he popped the question – meaning he wrote to the Queen, and Margaret was in an agony of worry – ‘she takes no notice of me’. At last the summons came; it sounds like a rather stormy interview with HM
“I hope the queen and I are friends; she sayeth she will seem so at least, but I find, if it had been in her power, she would have crossed us”.
Rather delightfully, HM also told Margaret she wanted to know nothing of the wedding. Is that allowable? Sounds tremendous.
Anyway, before the end of December 1646, in a private chapel in Paris, the knot was tied, and Margaret had risen almost to the very top of the social tree in a stroke.
She had also joined a new family. William had 8 children in this previous marriage, 5 of whom survived from infancy. There were no strong objections from the wider family it appears, but there was some anxiety from the step children. William’s eldest, Jane, was actually older than Margaret; she, and other of the children would later object to the way Margaret would manage the Cavendish property. Jane was herself fully involved in the literary intellectual world; she would write a play with a friend called ‘Concealed fancies; and it’s suggested this was a comment on their father’s new wife; there’s a character called Lady Tranquility, who is vain, scheming and social climbing. Ouch. But Others diss the idea, arguing that the character doesn’t match Margaret in many ways, and surely the daughters would have known they’d upset their absent father.
But it must have been worrying; especially as Jane and her younger sister Frances were still at the family home at Welbeck Abbey, under house arrest, struggling to protect the property from sequestration and sell off from a government that had declared William Cavendish a traitor. Margaret would never be close to the stepdaughters, and would also fall foul of the youngest son, Henry. William’s eldest son and heir, Charles, however, was with him in Exile, and also William’s younger brother Charles, was noted as an intellectual – ‘a great philosopher and an excellent mathematician’ as he was described. He and Margaret would also share many interests, and become close.
Though this marriage, Margaret not only joined a new family, not only joined the social elite; but she had also joined the intellectual elite. William as I have said was connected to the leading intellectual and artistic figures of the 17th century. He had known the likes of Ben Johnson who had written two masques for the family; I’ve mentioned Hobbes and Descartes, the poet William Davenant had been his Lieutenant General of Ordinance. He was a meticulous collector of literary works as well as being a patron and collector, and of course he wrote plays and poetry too.
This was the ideal launch pad for Margaret, she couldn’t have written it better, and her mind was, as she wrote, ‘swarming with bees’. As Margaet joined William’s household, obviously her first responsibility would be to have children – William had expressed much flowery interest and passion for the process involved, but also considerable interest in the output. But more importantly to Margaret, maybe now would be the time she could develop the interests she’d always held dear. Maybe she could discover, explore, learn – and write.
We will hear about news from home as Margat and Cavendish set up a home in Paris. Until then, thanks to all of you for listening, thank you always for being members, good luck – and have a great week.