Elizabethan Roots of the Kick-Ass Heroine

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, with a post for Women’s History Month. Some years back, as Kathy, I attended the annual Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo in the guise of an “independent scholar” (read that as “I went to promote my novels set in the sixteenth century”), and presented a paper (that’s what you do at scholarly conventions) titled “Elizabethan Roots of the Kick-Ass Heroine.” This seems an appropriate occasion to revisit some of the women I talked about then. Believe me when I say I could have included many, many more extraordinary women who lived all or part of their lives during the years 1558-1603.

Elizabeth Cooke (1540-1609) led a phenomenal life. So well educated that scholars from the universities consulted her on matters of mathematics, a prodigious writer of letters and poetry, she married twice and was twice widowed. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth appointed her Keeper of the Queen’s castle at Donnington and Bailiff of the Honor, Lordship, and Manor of Donnington. That this appointment was given to a woman was unusual, and not without controversy. She arrived there one day in 1592 to find the door locked against her. She ordered it broken open and found two men within. They’d been left to guard the place by a fellow named Lovelace, one of the Lord Admiral’s retainers. He claimed the queen had granted him the right to live there. Elizabeth set them “by the heels in her porter’s lodge: saying she would teach them to come within her liberties and keep possession against her.” A short time later, Lovelace showed up with sixteen armed men and freed the prisoners. Elizabeth took the case to law but while everyone agreed that she had been “abused” by the invasion of her home, her “stocking and imprisonment” of the men was deemed “not justifiable in law.”

By her second marriage, Elizabeth became Lady John Russell. An aside here—the Elizabethans seem to have been quite flexible about forms of address and she is always called Lady Russell, although properly she should be Lady John. They had two daughters, both of whom became maids of honor to the queen. One, Ann, was given permission to marry Lord Herbert and the queen declared she wished to attend the wedding. This was a good thing . . . except that it meant the queen would also set the date. When she had failed to do so for some considerable time, Lady Russell lost patience. She took the direct approach. Gathering up all the wedding guests, she set out for Greenwich to fetch her daughter. Her boldness was rewarded. The wedding took place on June 16, 1600.

Then there was the business of keeping a company of players out of the exclusive Blackfriars neighborhood. “Not in my back yard” also has sixteenth-century roots!

Ellen Flodder (x.1616) was the leader of a band of outlaws operating in Norfolk, Kent, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. She was not exactly robbing the rich to give to the poor, and in 1616 she was executed for burning the town of Windham in Norfolk, but she certainly made a name for herself.

Grace O’Malley (1530-c.1603) the Irish pirate was even more famous. In 1593, Sir Richard Bingham, who tried her for plundering Aran Island in 1586, called her “a notable traitress and nurse to all rebellions in the province for forty years.” Although she came close to being executed more than once, she died a natural death. Her statue is at Westport House in Ireland.

Mary Wolverston (d. before 1617) married Thomas Knyvett (d.c.1553), by whom she had a son, Henry. Her second husband was Sir John Killigrew of Arwennack, Cornwall (d. March 5, 1584), one of a family long engaged in piracy in that area. Lady Killigrew was said to keep open house for the more respectable pirates at Arwennack House. On January 1, 1582/3, the Marie of San Sebastian was forced to drop anchor in Falmouth harbor. At midnight on January 7, as part of a plan conceived by Lady Killigrew, a band of local sailors and fishermen boarded the vessel, murdered the crew, and sailed the ship to Ireland to be plundered. Two Killigrew servants, Kendal and Hawkins, brought bolts of Holland cloth and six leather chairs to Arwennack House—the share allotted to Lady Killigrew and others in the household. None of the women actually went on the raid, but they did receive stolen goods. Mary’s son, Henry Knyvett, played an active role. The History of Parliament entry states that Lady Killigrew presented several lengths of cloth to her servants and that a daughter of the house (“young Mistress Killigrew”) paid a debt with twenty yards of the material. A. L. Rowse, in Sir Richard Grenville and the Revenge, adds a Mistress Wolverston, who received a bolt of Holland cloth and two leather chairs, along with other details not included in the account in Sabine Baring Gould’s Cornish Characters and Strange Events (available in Kindle format), which provides most of the information given here and corrects other accounts that incorrectly identify Old Lady Killigrew as Elizabeth Trewenard, Mary’s mother-in-law, and the ship as Dutch and/or carrying gold doubloons. Given that Mistress (abbreviated Mrs.) could mean either a married or unmarried woman, Mistress Killigrew could be one of Mary’s daughters or her daughter-in-law, Dorothy Monk. With Killigrew serving on the Commission for Piracy in Cornwall, nothing was done at first when the Spanish merchants who owned the ship complained. Later, when they took their case to London, an investigation was ordered that ended with the execution of Kendal and Hawkins for murder and an accusation that Mary had been behind the plot and had buried the loot in a cask in her garden. A royal pardon saved her from punishment. Some accounts say this was due to the favor of Sir John Arundell of Tolverne and his son-in-law Sir Nicholas Hals of Pengersick. Others credit the influence of her brother-in-law, Sir Henry Killigrew, who was prominent at court. Still others say her son paid substantial bribes to secure her release from prison. Although Mary was referred to as “that old Jezebel” by Hawkins and Kendal after their arrest, her age is unknown, as is the date of her death. At around the same time as the ongoing investigation, Mary’s husband died without a will and £10,000 in debt. Mary’s grandson erected a monument to Sir John Killigrew and his wife in the church of St. Budock in 1617.

Elizabeth Cecil (1578-1646) was better known as Lady Hatton, the name she kept after she was widowed in 1597. She was one of the wealthiest women in England when she chose Sir Edward Coke as her second husband. They had two daughters, but the union was not a success. By 1617 they were quarreling openly over Coke’s plans to marry their youngest daughter, Frances, then fourteen, to Sir John Villiers. Lady Hatton took action. She spirited the girl away from her father and hid her. Unfortunately, Coke found them and took the girl away. Lady Hatton followed Coke and Frances in her coach until it lost a wheel. She continued to stalk her husband and daughter, looking for another chance to rescue the girl, until King James stepped in and ordered Lady Hatton taken into custody and held until after her daughter’s wedding took place.

Although she did not succeed in her rescue, she was relentless in her efforts to help the girl. When the marriage failed, she took Frances in and when Frances was later arrested for taking a lover, Lady Hatton devoted her entire fortune to freeing her.

Jane Howard (1537?-1593) is one of the few real people who appear in my Face Down mystery series. She appears in Face Down Before Rebel Hooves. She was the daughter of Henry Howard, the poet earl of Surrey. She and her sisters were well educated, studying Greek and Latin among other subjects. Jane also composed verses. In 1569, the earls of Northumberland, Westmorland, Cumberland, and Derby concocted a plan to rescue Mary Queen of Scots, then in captivity in England, and marry her to Jane’s brother, the duke of Norfolk, thus restoring Catholicism to England. Word of this plan leaked and when Norfolk was arrested, he urged the earls to abandon their plans.

They might well have done so, had not Lady Westmorland persuaded her husband and the earl of Northumberland to take up arms. Of her brother’s defection, she is said to have remarked: “What a simple man the duke is to begin a matter and not go through with it.” To the earls, who were considering flight or surrender, she said, “We and our country were shamed for ever, that now in the end we should seek holes to creep into.” She goaded them to proceed until, on November 14, 1569, they began the first civil war England had seen since Wyatt’s abortive rebellion in 1554.

Ultimately, the uprising failed, but not for want of Jane’s encouragement. The earl of Westmorland fled abroad, but Lady Westmorland, with more courage than sense, threw herself on the queen’s mercy. She wrote for leave to come to court, saying that “innocency and the great desire I have had to do my humble duty to her Highness . . . emboldeneth me to continue this my suit.” The queen denied her request and Jane was confined at Kenninghall for the remainder of her life.

More complete mini-biographies of the women included in this post can be found at my website, A Who’s Who of Tudor Women and I’ve reprinted each of those entries in recent Facebook posts at Biographies of Tudor Women


Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of nearly sixty traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Overkilt) and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at www.TudorWomen.com

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6 Responses to Elizabethan Roots of the Kick-Ass Heroine

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Love these ladies! Thanks for sharing their stories!


  2. kaitlynkathy says:

    My pleasure.


  3. bethc2015 says:

    What a great post for Women’s History Month. I have read about many American women, but it is a treat to have this bit of British history and adventure. .


  4. Reen says:

    Kaitlyn, I enjoyed this very much with the focus on women. The Howards are a family I’ve been studying for several years with a family history interest in the context of religion.


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      They are a fascinating family. Howard women account for a large number of entries at my TudorWomen.com website, even before you add in the women who married into the family.


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