Margaret Cavendish (nee Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle

I first came across Margaret’s story during my volunteering at Bolsover Castle. I admired her determination to be what we would view as a modern woman, which during the seventeenth century, was an incredibly difficult thing to do. The saddest thing is that she was often nicknamed ‘Mad Madge’, when really, the exact opposite was true. Margaret was a highly intelligent woman who was interested in science, art, laboratories, and literature.[1] She was a prolific writer of books and essays on these topics and much more, including a biography of her husband, William Cavendish, poetry, and plays which often reflected her life experience. Best of all, William actively encouraged these interests his wife, who was 30 years younger than himself, had. He often spoke out about the reasons her being criticised as being unladylike and socially inappropriate in her pursuits, as pure sexism.[2] In Margaret he saw an intellectual equal, which it a very unique relationship for the times. I completely commend them for it. They received a huge amount of criticism for this, meaning they often spent long periods away from court, but that didn’t stop them from showing genuine love and acceptance of each other’s talents.

P. Lely, Margaret Cavendish, Wikimedia Commons

Margaret was born Margaret Lucas in 1623 to a respectable, royalist leaning family, in Colchester. We know little as to how she became interested in the usually male reserved topic of science and literature, but it is probable that she accessed these during her private tutoring at home.[3] What is clear is that she had an innate understanding of these topics. It was this that probably attracted William Cavendish when they met at the exiled court of Henrietta Maria in 1645. By this time, Margaret was a lady-in-waiting to the exiled Queen of England and William’s first wife, Elizabeth, had died. This first marriage, although is deemed to have eventually become a love match, was more a typical match of convenience, despite it producing 8 children. In Margaret, William had found his equal in all things, other than age and status.  

The couple’s early courtship was full of romance, despite the unhappiness that Henrietta Maria felt about the match.[4] From these letters we can clearly see the emotions that William felt for Margaret. They often referenced the large age gap between them, hoping that it would not hinder their love.

“I know that I’m old, it is too true,

Yet love, nay, I am in love with you.

Do not dispise me, or be cruell

For thus I am loues best fuell

No man can love more, or loves higher

Old, and dry wood, makes the best fier.”[5]

Even more touching is the references made to the lack of financial stability during his time in exile on the continent, following on from the Battle of Marston Moor and the English Civil War.

“The Princess Mary, marrys Kinge of Poland,

And you my Deer, do marry Prince of Noland”[6]

These letters offer us an incite into what appears to have been a genuine love between William and Margaret. It would appear that William didn’t hide his faults at this time, but he certainly made it no secret that he had a true love for Margaret, despite the small differences between them. However, they also had a lot in common.

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne by Peter van Lisebetten, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The exile they endured until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 didn’t hinder their enthusiastic collecting of books and scientific instruments, amongst other things, a hobby they often shared together. The couple amassed a large collection of microscopes and telescopes during this period. Margaret even had her own ones to use personally, which was why she later went on to critique the use of them in the Royal Society. Many at the time used this to rubbish her opinion, believing that them as childlike. However, as she used such instruments herself, she knew very well that the instruments could offer imprecise readings, especially as the grinding of lenses was a common problem.[7] These critiques of microscopes would later be reflected in the work of John Locke and Thomas Sydenham, but were largely brushed off.[8] These were not the only dealings Margaret had with the Royal Society, she often attended their public experiments, much to the comment of others. Sadly, this meant that after Margaret, women were excluded from the Royal Society until 1945.[9]

Science wasn’t the only interest Margaret had. She also published a lot of material, starting with Poems and Fancies in 1653. At the time, as William also was a writer, they believed it was truly her husband, using his wife’s name as a pen name. William always supported his wife, claiming it was always her own work. Margaret did the same but did credit William as a writing mentor. As Billing suggests, the pair actually relied on each other in print, in order to maintain a certain reputation in the public sphere: William as a supportive husband and loyal subject to the king, Margaret as a dutiful wife and writer in her own right.[10] It was for this that Margaret so wished to be remembered. Instead, society wished to rubbish her as a woman whose opinion on usually male dominated topics wasn’t required.

Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne by Pieter Louis van Schuppen, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The relationship she had with William’s children and household also proved to be a rocky affair, probably not helped by the fact her marriage proved childless. Margaret blamed Henry, William’s longest surviving son, for abandoning his father during the exile. This alongside her unusual approach to societal norms caused a lot of tension within the family.[11] In October 1670, not long before the death of both William and Margaret, these tensions came to a head. William wrote over more of his lands to Margaret in the hope of sustaining her during her widowhood, believing he would die first (although sadly that was not to be the case).[12] This move angered William’s children, especially Henry, who believed she had had enough lands and was now stealing the inheritance. At the same time, William’s steward, Andrew Clayton, began to spread malicious rumours about Margaret, suggesting she was being unfaithful, and was purposefully stockpiling money and land to fund a second marriage after William’s death.[13] However, Margaret herself died on the 15th of December 1673 at their main house of Welbeck Abbey, nearly 3 years before William himself. Probably still hurt by the turn of events in 1670, William instead used the money he had saved for Margaret to begin reworking Nottingham Castle.[14]

Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, England from Jones’s Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, 1829

Sadly, I don’t have enough time or words to go into depth about the many works published by Margaret, or the influence they had. If you would like to know more, I would recommend looking into The Blazing World, often referenced as a proto-science fiction novel, almost Jules Verne in character. For now though, I hope this post has managed to highlight the unfair attitude that Margaret Cavendish was treated with in her own time. During the Seventeenth Century, intelligence in a woman, whilst accepted to a small degree, was often seen as far too dangerous, and in the case of Margaret, was dismissed as childish. However, she did have similar views to men in her field, but she was always excluded. From this, it is no surprise that she advocated for better education for women and believed that women were being forced to obey men.[15] That is why I am glad she married William, because without his support and understanding her as an equal to him, she wouldn’t have been allowed to follow her interests and talents. This can be seen in the epitaph he gave her tomb:

This Dutches was a wife wittie and learned lady, which her many books do well testifie. She was a most virtuous and a louieng and careful wife and was with her lord all the time of his banishment and miseries and when he came home never parted from him in his solitary retirements.[16]


[1] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy (London: Fabor and Faber Ltd, 2007), p. 219.

[2] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 223.

[3] British Library, Margaret Cavendish, https://www.bl.uk/people/margaret-cavendish

[4] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 177.

[5] BL Add MS 32497, f. 11or, cited in Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 178.

[6] BL Add MS 32497, f. 11or, cited in Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 179.

[7] Wilkins, E., ‘Margaret Cavendish and the Royal Society’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 68.3 (2014), p. 247.

[8] Wilkins, E., ‘Margaret Cavendish and the Royal Society’, p. 248.

[9] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook (London: English Heritage, Revised Edition, 2016), p. 43.

[10] Billing, V., ‘”Treble marriage”: Margaret Cavendish, William Newcastle, and Collaborative Authorship’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 11.2 (2011), p. 95.

[11] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, pp. 229-230.

[12] Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 230.

[13] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 43; Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 230.

[14] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 43.

[15] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 43; Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 223.

[16] Lees, L. E., ‘Introduction: A Glorious Resurrection’ in Lees, L. E. (ed), Margaret Cavendish (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 1.

6 thoughts on “Margaret Cavendish (nee Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle

  1. This is a fascinating piece about an unusual woman who pushed the boundaries for her time. When I visited Bolsover I was disappointed that she barely rated a mention despite her writing and other activities. Maybe we ought to campaign for her rediscovery!

    Like

    1. I think now they are trying a bit to talk about her. I purposefully talk about her as much as I can when I’m there. She was a large part of the place, and probably wrote some of her things there after all! Sadly I didn’t have the time to mention all of the things she was brilliant at.

      Liked by 1 person

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