Last time we heard about Margaret’s escape from court, into a new life as a Housekeeper, wife and potentially mother; and maybe also author? It’s not quite clear when that thought will occur to her, but it will knock on the door.
First of all though, Peg, as William called her perpetually, a quiet and shy young woman, had to become the head of a grand household. Now – there is a story here and over the next 14 years or so, where the ‘P’ word is used by biographers – I refer to the word Poverty. The picture is of a couple really struggling to make ends meet cut off from their income, and suffering great hardship and poverty. And indeed some of the émigré community were increasingly desperate; Endymion Porter could no longer afford to go to the court at the Louvre, had just one set of clothes and genuinely worried about starving.
I think the story needs putting in a bit of context for the Newcastles though, and I might make the point that this is only relative poverty. William’s household had a steward to manage it, a gentleman of the horse and 2 ushers, and there are other folk around – 3 middle aged men are mentioned.
Now true enough this is a come down for an aristocrat; horror of horrors, the household was in a suite on rooms in a shared building, not a complete house; when William wrote home to the Lucases for Margaret’s dowry of £2,000, and told they had none to give for the moment. Their income is very hit and miss and unreliable, and without doubt financial worries is an appropriate phrase. I don’t think poverty is though. In 1648 HM forks out £2,000 to him, which is more than £200,000 in today’s money; of course they go and blow it all on a big house. They will move to Antwerp to save money – and rent Paul Peter Reubens house, and it’s a pretty nice gaff. At one stage later they bemoan the fact that William can only raise credit of £200 – in 1658 I think – which William then spends to make sure of a nice stable of horses. I’m not saying that they don’t have money worries – they obviously do; but it’s not poverty as a wage labourer on the Welbeck estates or Colchester in hard times would understand it.
Margaret herself says calmly that she never worried they would starve; they do have some income from home also. What happens in the civil war is that parliament take away the estates from royalist malignants. However, there is then a process of compounding; that means you can apply to have 20% of your estates back to keep the wolf from the door – unless you are one of those who have held high command and are considered an incorrigible traitor. So back home. Jane Cavendish is like a tiger, and she makes sure 20% of the Welbeck estate is kept to maintain them, albeit the traitor status of their Dad. And then there’s credit; if you were a wage labourer on the Welbeck estate fallen on hard times, no one would lend you money; you were not a good investment. Sure you’d get charity, but only to keep body and soul together. If you are a staggeringly well landed noblemen with swagger and fine clothes, you’ll find tradesmen to take a risk and give you credit, and you’ll have rich friends too. So – financial worries will haunt them, but not consume them.
In fact the story of these first few years are really rather lovely. Essentially, Margaret leans into the intellectual world she had married, and her husband thoroughly revelled in the experience; here he had someone he loved, who was desperate to catch up on the education denied her, and a full set of resources to help; she described William as her ‘only tutor’;
My lord was the master and I the prentice so I do daily learn knowledge and understanding, wit and the purity of my language
Nor was this just about the classics; some of their valuable money went almost immediately on telescopes, the mania of the time, with which they peered at and studied the heavens and read the latest writings in the growing debate of natural philosophy. As it happens William was not her only tutor, because William’s brother Charles was close by. Both struggled to follow Charles Cavendish into the world of mathematics, but they all participated in the experimentation that was becoming the hallmark for understanding the world. Margaret talks about experimentation with mercury, with chemical distillation. This must have been an astounding time to be alive; I read a book on old Thomas Hobbsey recently, wherein the author reminded us that young schoolchildren of today are better prepared in scientific knowledge than your 17th century natural Philosopher with a brain the size of the Wolverhampton ring road. Everything was new, experimentation and mathematics were revealing the secrets of the universe bit by bit – and Margaret was part of that.
The occasion at which I would most have wanted to be a fly on the wall was a dinner party while they were in Paris. The Cavendishs set up a sort of mini academy, and invited people round. At one dinner party, they entertained Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and a French priest and philosopher Pierre Gassendi. Hobbes had published his work De Cive in 1642; Descartes had published his meditations in 1641, and his Principles of Philosophy in 1644; both Hobbes and Gassendi took issue with large parts of his work. So the dinner party could have been quite a fractious affair. Though whether or not the dinner was the source for Bruces’ Philosopher’s Song that Hobbes was fond of a dram and that and Descartes was a drunken fart I drink therefore I am – is unknown. But if it was it wouldn’t have come from Margaret for she spoke no French, and Descartes spoke no English.
This is something that will become important later on, when some people don’t quite believe Margaret’s works could have been created by a woman; and that she must have stolen the ideas from Descartes. She was able to point out that she’d understood not a word. However she was drinking in all this learning and exploration, making full use of it all
I have heard the opinions of most philosophers in general…I have gathered more piecemeal than from a full relation of a methodical education
Despite all the loveliness of these years, there were tragedies also. One was recurring illness, for both of them. For Margaret it was compounded by the absence of pregnancy, year after year, until it became clear that Margaret would not have children. There are small indications that Margaret felt the loss; after all, in these times, infertility was both blamed on women, and seen as providence, a judgement of God, so it must have been hard to take it stoically. Margaret at one stage writes of Williams’ desire for a child and his reaction
… but God (it seems) had ordered it other-wise, and frustrated his designs by making me barren, which yet did never lessen his love and affection for me.
Other than that, Margaret turned the lack of children into a virtue; after all it left her free to write; she claimed her books were her children, and celebrates her freedom; and begins to go further, and argue that children are no comfort for women; if they are boys they take their father’s name and as for girls, well
“Daughters are to be accounted as movable goods or furniture”,
She gets quite bitter against women who she accuses of making a great fuss out of pregnancy, who she says
“take more pride in being with child, than in having a child”
You interpret it as you think really; relief that her husband, though sad, at least already had heirs and she would rather have the freedom that came without children; or a sense of tragedy and bitterness at the hand fate had dealt her.
The other tragedy concerned her beloved family, specifically her brother Charles Lucas. To bring you up to date with the civil war. The battle of Naseby in 1645 basically removes any stuffing remaining in the royalist cause, though there is a bunch of mopping up operations. Charles starts playing one group off against the other, he flees Oxford to the Scots, the Scots tire of his intransigence and so sell him to the English basically; I think he costs £100,000 quid, a bit more than the 100,000 marks it cost to buy Richard the Lionheart. That’s inflation for you. Charles bargains with parliament, plays them off against the army and all sorts; but the point is the fighting is over. The war is finished, everyone can go back to their valleys and their farms. God has spoken. Providence dictates that parliament was right and the king wrong, and he must make amends.
The Second Civil war, then, that breaks out in a few regions of England – Kent, Essex and South Wales is, to the men of the New Model Army an offense against God. So much blood has been spilled to uncover the word of God, and God had spoken. And yet in his arrogance, Charles must stir up discord and more blood must be spilled. Increasingly, Charles I acquires a new name: Charles, the man of Blood.
Charles Lucas had fought for the king’s cause with courage, conviction loyalty – and increasing brutality; at Gloucester, he’s reported to have killed 20 prisoners of war with the words
Why should they have any more quarter than we have had.
Although he had given his parole to Fairfax at Stow not to fight again, he takes up the fight again. General Fairfax and his Lieutenant General Cromwell in particular put down the various rebellions, and Cromwell and Lambert defeat an invading Scottish army, who have now wrung enough concessions from Charles to try and put him back on the throne. And it is Fairfax who comes to besiege one of the centres of rebellion – which is at Colchester ironically. As the siege wears on month after month the poor townspeople make their distress at being dragged into this clear to the governor, but the royalist soldiers ignore them and fight on until there is simply nothing left to eat. And then they sue for surrender.
Now after this amount of time, Colchester might well have expected a sack – the European wide convention of three days of slaughter and pillage in payment for the blood spilled by the garrison that refused the initial terms offered. But this time Fairfax offers terms; the ordinary soldiers can go free, the townspeople also as long as they pay a fine. But the officers must give themselves up to the General’s mercy without conditions. Fairfax’s mercy, if that’s the word, was that three officers must be tried by a court martial, the rest could go free. The Three men were Bernard Gascoigne, George Lisle – and Charles Lucas. Charles Lucas was included because in Fairfax’s words
for that he, … being his prisoner upon his Parole of Honour, and having appear’d in Arms contrary to the Rules of War, had forfeited his Honour and faith, and was not capable of command or trust in Martial affairs.
Charles can’t have been that surprised to be chosen; he knew what to expect; plus at the court martial the news about what had happened at Gloucester came out. Still Charles argued with the head of the court, Henry Ireton, that he was fighting with the king’s commission so was acting legally at which point presumably Ireton asked him what on earth he thought the war had been about. Lucas was condemned, taken out to be shot, where he stood and said boldly to his firing squad
See I am ready for you; and now rebels, do your worst.
So they shot him, which they might have considered their best.
Charles Lucas instantly became a royalist martyr, and obviously so he was to his sister, who wrote of
My dear brother. So inhumanly murdered.
Next year, her brother Thomas also died of a head wound; family was important to Margaret, she admired her brothers and felt their deaths keenly
They loved virtue, endeavoured merit, practised justice, and spoke truth
She wrote. The deaths bore heavily on her, and she worried about her own
Death seems terrible, I am sure it doth to me, there is nothing I dread more than death
The terror of being obliterated in life and memory, with lives that were
But like a flash of lightening that continues not and for the most part leaves black oblivion behind it,
encouraged Margaret’s determination that at very least her name could live for ever, even if her body could not; it drove on her determination to learn, explore, and to write.
That is it for this episode of Margaret Cavendish’s life. And with a bit of luck, she will put pen to paper next, and we’ll see what she’s made of. Until then thank you everyone for being members, for you comments on Facebook and emails. Good luck everyone, and have a great week.