Delilah Beasley: Pioneering Black Journalist and Historian

As we reach the end of black history month, I thought it would be a good time to share a rather inspiring woman that I only found out about recently. Delilah Beasley was a black female journalist and historian who never gave up on her goal to promote improved inter-racial relations, alongside her Christian faith. Her story is one of hope and determination but as one recent article in the New York Times wrote, despite her efforts to write black history back into the history books, she herself has also been brushed out.[1] For this reason, I hope this blog post goes some way towards sharing Delilah’s story and the effort she put into creating a positive outlook on black history and unity in not just California, where she spent over twenty years of her life, but across America.

Photograph of Deliliah Bearsley from the Frontispiece of her book, Negro Trailblazers of California (1919), Wikimedia Commons

Delilah Leontium Beasley was born on 9 September 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to parents Daniel and Margaret Beasley. At the age of 12, Delilah began to write short pieces about local church activities for the Cleveland Gazette newspaper, as well some other local newspapers.[2] With these small pieces, she grew to dream of becoming a professional journalist. When she was high school age, she began to learn about journalism by working for a newspaper called the Coloured Catholic Tribune, which once again mixed her love of journalism with her Christian faith.[3] However, this would soon change as in the 1880s, both of her parents died, leaving Deliliah an orphaned teenager. The death of her parents separated her from her siblings, as all of them had to now find work to fend for themselves. Sadly, it looked as if her dream of becoming a journalist would be over without the support of her parents.

Delilah initially became a maid, before moving to Chicago to train to be a hairdresser. However, she  eventually decided that nursing would be more suited to her caring nature. Once she was trained, she moved across various parts of America to find work at sanitoriums, which were a type of convalescent hospital. In 1910, she moved to Oakland in California to care for a former patient.[4] Whilst there, she decided that during her spare time, she should to get back into researching. She researched black history and became a member of various different societies and associations that promoted issues such as black rights, black women and black Christianity. Despite not finishing her formal schooling, she enrolled onto history courses so she could understand how to research black history, as well as conducting oral interviews of elderly black residents in the local area. Her aim was to learn about those that had been left out of the history books and to right the wrongs of that.

Cover of The Negro Trail-Blazers of California (1919), California State University Northridge University Library, F870.N38 B3

Delilah’s research was very meticulous. She became well known for her archival research and ability to track down personal letters and diaries.[5] All of this research conducted did not go to waste as she successfully did manage to write about pioneering black people of California in her book, Negro Trail Blazers of California, which was published in 1919. The book gave examples of black pioneers dating back to the Spanish exploration of the Americas.[6] It was a success and proved a platform to positively influence the way the black community was perceived.[7] After writing this, she also travelled around giving talks on her research and her beliefs about black rights, peace and the hope of positive inter-racial relations at a time when America was still segregated. All of these trips, whether for research purposes, or to hold events and talks, was always paid for at her own expense. It was this determination that allowed her to make some high powered friends.

Heading of Deliliah’s column for the Oakland Tribune, https://www.newspapers.com/

Following the publication of Negro Trail Blazers of California, Delilah came to know William Knowland, a white man who was a Californian politician and the assistant publisher for the Oakland Tribune newspaper. The pair knew each other well and Knowland invited Delilah to write a column for the newspaper. She accepted and the column became known as Activities Among Negroes, which promoted outstanding black people. This was a popular column and one which Deliliah would write until her death in 1934. Her friendship with William Knowland also allowed the first anti-lynching bill to passed in California.[8]

Delilah’s faith played a huge role in her life. She regularly attended the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales in Oakland, where she was noted for her attitude of others first and self last.[9] It was this attitude that saw drove her missions as she believed she could help the plight of suffering that all black people across America had to endure. As Deliliah herself put it, she always thought she was doing God’s work, which explains why nearly all of her talks were given in churches.[10] Many of the organisations she was a member of also overlapped with the church, so it is fitting that her funeral, held at St Francis de Sales, was well attended by presidents of these organisations.[11]

Historic American Buildings Survey, C. (1933) St. Francis de Sales Church, Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Oakland, Alameda County, CA. Oakland California Alameda County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ca1797/

I hope this post has gone someway to showing just what a remarkable woman Deliliah Beasley really was. It is a shame that since her death, she herself as been somewhat removed from the history books, even though she tried to counteract this of other black pioneers who had gone before her. Hopefully one day that can be remedied. For that reason, I feel it very fitting to end with a quote from Deliliah herself, taken from a letter she wrote in 1932 to Dr W. E. B. Du Bois, a fellow black historian and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:

“We are deserving of receiving not only human treatment, but equal rights with other United States Citizens”.[12]


[1] Jill Cowan, ‘The Pioneering Black Historian Who Was Almost Erased From History’, The New York Times, 7 February 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/us/black-history-month-delilah-beasley.html

[2] ‘Deliliah L. Beasley and the Trail She Blazed’, California State University, Northridge, 19 February 2019, https://library.csun.edu/SCA/Peek-in-the-Stacks/delilah-beasley; ‘Deliliah Beasley’, Arts in Oakland, http://artsinoakland.org/articles/delilah-beasley/

[3] ‘Deliliah L. Beasley and the Trail She Blazed’

[4] Ibid; Lena M. Wysinger, ‘In Memoriam- Miss Delilah L. Beasley’, Oakland Tribune, 14 Oct 1934

[5] Deliliah Beasley’, Arts in Oakland

[6] ‘Deliliah L. Beasley and the Trail She Blazed’

[7] ‘Deliliah Beasley’, Arts in Oakland

[8] Ibid

[9] Lena M. Wysinger, ‘In Memoriam- Miss Delilah L. Beasley’

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid; ‘Deliliah Beasley’, Arts in Oakland

[12] Beasley, Delilah L. (Delilah Leontium), 1871-1934. Letter from Delilah L. Beasley to W. E. B. Du Bois, May 16, 1932. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Isabel and Hamelin de Warenne: a 12th century power couple, Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly

In this latest guest post, I am very excited to welcome author and medieval historian, Sharon Bennett Connolly. You can view her own history blog by clicking the following link

Isabel de Warenne was the only surviving child of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and his wife Ela de Talvas. When her father died on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, in around 1148, Isabel became 4th Countess of Surrey in her own right and one of the greatest heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire, Norfolk and Sussex.

Isabel was born during a period of civil war in England, a time known as The Anarchy (c.1135-54), when King Stephen fought against Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, for the right to rule England. Isabel’s father, William, was a staunch supporter of the king and had fought at the Battle of Lincoln in February 1141, though without distinction; his men were routed early on in the battle and William was among a number of earls who fled the field. He later redeemed himself that summer by capturing Empress Matilda’s brother and senior general, Robert Earl of Gloucester, at Winchester.

the Warenne coat of arms at Trinity Church Southover, author’s own image

The earl appears to have tired of the civil war in 1147 and departed on Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, and their cousin, King Louis VII of France. In the same year, in order to guarantee the Warenne lands for King Stephen’s cause, Earl Warenne’s only daughter, Isabel, was married to Stephen’s younger son, William of Blois, who would become Earl by right of his wife, following the 3rd earl’s death on Crusade in 1148; he was killed fighting in the doomed rearguard at the Battle of Mount Cadmus near Laodicea in January 1148.

The young couple were of a similar age, being about 10 or 11 years old. During the 3rd earl’s absence, and while the new earl and countess were still only children, the vast Warenne lands were administered by the 3rd earl’s youngest brother, Reginald de Warenne, Baron Wormegay, who was a renowned and accomplished administrator and estate manager. A charter issued in c.1148, in the name of William of Blois as earl of Surrey, had the proviso ‘that if God should bring back the earl [from the crusade] he [Reginald] would do his best to obtain the earl’s confirmation, or otherwise that of his lord earl William, the king’s son.’1 We do not know when news reached England of the earl’s death, the tidings may have arrived before the return of the earl’s half-brother, Waleran, later in the year. However, the future of the earldom was already secure with the succession of Isabel and her young husband, carefully watched over by Isabel’s uncle, Reginald.

In 1154 the young couple’s future prospects could have changed drastically when William’s elder brother Eustace, their father’s heir, died. As a consequence, William inherited his mother’s County of Boulogne from his brother, adding to his already substantial domains. He may also have expected to inherit his brother’s position as heir to the throne However, the young man was removed from the succession by his own father, in the interests of peace. Stephen made a deal with Empress Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, that the crown would go to him on Stephen’s death, thus restoring the rightful line of succession.

William seems to have been reluctant to accept this as there is some suggestion of his involvement in a plot against Henry later in 1154, during which William suffered a broken leg. In the event of Henry’s accession, though, William served Henry loyally, until his death, returning from the king’s campaign in Toulouse, in 1159.

Now in her mid-20s, and as their marriage had been childless, Isabel was once again a prize heiress. Although she seems to have had a little respite from the marriage market, by 1162 Henry II’s youngest brother, William X, Count of Poitou, was seeking a dispensation to marry her. The dispensation was refused by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of consanguinity; the archbishop’s objection was not that Isabel and William were too closely related, but that William and Isabel’s first husband had been cousins. William died shortly after the archbishop refused to sanction the marriage – it is said, of a broken heart.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, author’s own image

King Henry was not to be thwarted so easily in his plans to bring the Warenne lands into the royal family, proposing his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin. The natural son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, Hamelin was born sometime around 1130, when Geoffrey was estranged from his wife, Empress Matilda. His mother was, possibly, Adelaide of Angers, though this is by no means certain. Geoffrey had a second illegitimate child, Emma, who may have been Hamelin’s full sister. Emma married the Welsh prince, Davydd ap Owain of Gwynedd.

Hamelin and Isabel married in April 1164; Isabel’s trousseau cost an impressive £41 10s 8d. In an unusual step, Hamelin took his wife’s surname and bore the titles Earl of Warenne and Surrey in her right, though was more habitually called Earl Warenne. Hamelin was incredibly loyal to Henry and his marriage to an heiress was reward for his support, whilst at the same time giving him position and influence within England.

Hamelin supported his brother the king in the contest of wills that Henry was engaged in with his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. When Henry called for the archbishop to appear at a great council at Northampton Castle on 12 October 1164, to answer to the charges laid against him, Hamelin was at the trial and spoke in support of his brother. Indeed, the new earl and the archbishop appear to have started a war of words; Hamelin defended Henry’s dignity and called Becket a traitor. The archbishop’s retort was ‘Were I a knight instead of a priest, my fist would prove you a liar!’ Ironically, it is thought that Hamelin’s denunciation of Becket was motivated by the injury caused to the royal family in Becket’s refusal to allow Henry’s brother, William – Hamelin’s half-brother – to marry Isabel de Warenne; who was now Hamelin’s wife.

Hamelin’s animosity to Becket was not to survive the archbishop’s martyrdom and he actively participated in the cult that grew up around Thomas Becket after his violent death. In later life, the earl claimed that the cloth covering Becket’s tomb had cured his blindness, caused by a cataract, in one eye.

Hamelin was an influential and active member of the English barony. He supported Henry during his sons’ rebellion in 1173 and formed part of the entourage which escorted the king’s daughter, Joanna, to Sicily for her marriage to King William. Hamelin remained close to the crown even after Henry’s death, supporting his nephew, Richard I. Hamelin was among the earls present at Richard’s first coronation in September 1189; and carried one of the three swords at his second coronation in April 1194. During Richard’s absence on Crusade, Hamelin sided with the Regent, William Longchamp, against the intrigues of Richard’s brother John. Hamelin held great store in the rule of law, attested by the legend on his seal, ‘pro lege, per lege’ (for the law, by the law). This adherence to the law explains Hamelin’s support for Longchamp against that of his own nephew, John, and even as the justiciar’s overzealous actions alienated others. Later, Hamelin was one of only two magnates entrusted by Eleanor of Aquitaine with the collection and storage of the king’s ransom, after he was captured by Duke Leopold of  Austria; the other was William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel. Hamelin’s involvement with the court continued into the reign of King John; he was present at John’s coronation and at Lincoln when William, King of Scots, gave his oath of homage in November 1200.

Conisbrough Castle, author’s own image

Away from court, Hamelin appears to have been an avid builder; he built a cylindrical keep at his manor of Mortemer in Normandy. He then constructed a larger and improved version, using all the latest techniques of castle design, at his manor of Conisbrough, South Yorkshire. He may also have been the one to build Peel Castle at Thorne, a hunting lodge which had a 3-sided donjon that was of smaller, but similar, design to Conisbrough. Hamelin spent a lot of time and money on Conisbrough Castle, which took almost 10 years to complete, and it appears to have been a favourite family residence. King John visited there in 1201, and two of Hamelin’s daughters married landowners from the nearby manors of Tickhill and Sprotborough.

Hamelin was also involved in a famous dispute with Hugh, abbot of Cluny, over the appointment of a new prior to St Pancras Priory, Lewes. Abbot Hugh was known as a man of great piety and honour; he had been prior of Lewes but became abbot of Cluny in 1199. In 1200, Abbot Hugh appointed one Alexander to the vacant position of prior of Lewes, but Hamelin refused to accept the nomination. In establishing the priory at Lewes, the abbots of Cluny had apparently reserved the right to appoint the prior, and to admit all monks seeking entry into the order; however, Hamelin claimed that the patronage of the priory belonged to him, and it was his right to appoint the prior.

The dispute dragged on, and it was only after intervention from King John that agreement was eventually reached whereby, should the position of prior become vacant, the earl and the monks should send representatives to the abbot, who would nominate two candidates, of whom the earl’s proctors should choose one to be appointed prior.

St Pancras Priory, Lewes, author’s own image

The marriage of Hamelin and Isabel appears to have been highly successful. They had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Matilda Marshal, eldest daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, regent for King Henry III. Ela married twice, firstly to a Robert de Newburn, of whom nothing else is known, and secondly to William Fitzwilliam of Sprotborough, a village just a few miles from Conisbrough. Isabel was married, firstly, to Robert de Lascy, who died in 1193, and secondly, no later than the spring of 1196, to Gilbert de Laigle, Lord of Pevensey.

Matilda married Henry, Count of Eu, who died around 1190; by Henry, she was the mother of Alice de Lusignan, who struggled to maintain her inheritance during the reign of King John, when another lord asserted his hereditary rights to her castle at Tickhill. Matilda then married Henry d’Estouteville, a Norman lord. One of the daughters – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, Baron Chilham, who was born, possibly, around 1190, by her cousin, John (the future King John). This must have caused considerable family tensions!

Hamelin died on 7th May 1202, in his early 70s and was buried in the chapter house at the family mausoleum of Lewes Priory, in Sussex. Isabel died in her mid-60s, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin. In 1202, Countess Isabel had granted ‘for the soul of her husband earl Hamelin, to the priory of St Katherine, Lincoln, of similar easements for 60 beasts, namely for 40 as of his gift and 20 as of hers.’2 Together, Hamelin and Isabel had played important roles in English politics for almost 40 years, all while raising a family and managing their vast estates which stretched from Yorkshire in the north to the south coast, and into Normandy.

Footnotes: Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenneibid

Author bio:

Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS is the best-selling author of 4 non-fiction history books, her latest being Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Sharon also writes the popular history blog, www.historytheinterestingbits.com and is a feature writer for All About History magazine. Her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘.

Links:

Blog: https://historytheinterestingbits.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Thehistorybits/

Twitter: @Thehistorybits

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sharonbennettconnolly/?hl=en

Amazon: http://viewauthor.at/SharonBennettConnolly

Margaret Tryon: Wife of a North Carolina Governor

I recently took a short holiday to Norfolk. It’s full of history and as where I come from is the furthest away from the sea you can get, I love to be by the sea. For one day, we went into the city of Norwich, famous for it’s historical buildings. The city was once one of the largest in England, largely due to the wealth Norfolk got from its farming and wool trades. Of course, I also went because of its links to Anthony Woodville. Little did I expect when I’d booked to go round the Stranger’s Hall, a merchant’s house dating back to the 1200s, that there would be a connection to one of my favourite period dramas, Outlander. In the very lovely Georgian dining room, there was a portrait of Margaret Tryon, the wife of William Tryon, Governor of North Carolina, who features in series four and five of the drama. I would like to thank Cathy Terry, the Senior Curator of Social History at Norwich Museums, who left a copy of her research into Margaret near her portrait, who it turns out, was an amazing woman in her own right.

Portrait of Margaret Tryon by an unknown artist in the 1750s at the Stranger’s Hall in Norwich, Author’s own image

Margaret was born in London in around 1732 as the daughter of William Wake and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth claimed descent from John Rolfe and his wife, Pocahontas, whereas William, was a wealthy merchant for the East India Company, who went on to be the Governor of Mumbai (then known as Bombay) between 1742 and 1750.[1] She went on to marry William Tryon in 1757, who was an aristocratic army officer. Margaret’s dowry was £30,000, which is around £3 million today, which showed just how wealthy her father had become.[2] It would seem that Margaret would be just any other military wife, but she had very different ideas about that. Not only was she a talented organ and spinet player, she was fascinated by all sorts of intellectual topics aspects of government, military strategy and religion.[3] These topics would keep her in good stead for the next aspect of family life, which saw the Tryons move to America.

William had been injured during a raid on Cherbourg in the Seven Years War, so a less physical role was needed for him. Thankfully, Margaret’s relations were able to help with this. One of her relatives was Lord Hillsborough, who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies, which explains why William’s next position was as Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina, which he took up in 1764.[4] The couple, along with their young daughter, also called Margaret, moved to Wilmington in North Carolina.

1769 Map of Willmington, North Carolina by Joseph Claude Sauthier. Map reproduction courtesy of the British Library’s King’s Topographical Collection.

Within a year, the existing Governor died, leaving William to take the promotion to Governor himself. Whilst in Wilmington, the family lived in a house on the Cape Fear River. It was there that a boy was born, but he sadly died in infancy. The couple often held social events inviting the upper classes from Wilmington and throughout the area. Margaret was known to seek out male, rather than female, company due to her masculine interests. On this, a friend known as Mrs Janet Montgomery wrote of her that:

‘Her mind was masculine. She studied everything difficult…. She published a book on fortifications and I fancy I could have won her heart if she could have given me a taste for such useful arts. The many called her mad; she certainly was eccentric. As trifling amusements had been beneath her lofty mind, and as they were essential to please the town, she found a substitute in me to amuse the circle and make the parties at the card tables.’[5]

She was also known to insist she be addressed as Your Excellency, a title which should have only been addressed to her husband, William.[6] William himself has been seen as a controversial man, and there is not enough time to go into the whys in this post, but he was known for his bad temper and he did isolate the people of Wilmington. Rebellions led by men called The Regulators dominated the area, blaming the Governor’s corruption and unwillingness to listen to grievances. The building of a new Governor’s Palace, known as Tryon’s Palace, in New Burn, nearly 100 miles away, was the last straw. Tryon had brought over an English designer and no expense was spared on the build, which was paid for by the citizens of Wilmington.[7] The Regulators were eventually stamped out by Tryon’s forces, but the damage was done. In order to get out of the situation, William accepted the Governorship of New York. Tryon Palace had only been lived in for a year before the family moved in 1771.

Photo of the reconstructed Tryon’s Palace in New Bern, North Carolina (2020), Wikimedia Commons

When William took up this post, the family moved into another richly decorated house at Fort George. They had little luck there either as the house burned down in 1773 after a fire lit in the council chamber got out of control.[8] The fire was so great that all of their possessions were lost. The estimated loss was £6,000 in possessions (around £523,000 in today’s money), and £900 in cash (around £78,500).[9] In order to claim compensation, detailed inventories of the contents of each of the 16 rooms of the house were required. These still survive and show just how richly the Tryon family lived. No wonder the family briefly returned to England in 1774.

The family did return to America following the outbreak of the American War of Independence. This was an awkward time for William Tryon, who’s duty was to the British Crown. Forces under Tryon were known for their brutality against civilians.[10] He also had a particular animosity towards George Washington, which led to him being embroiled in plot to assassinate Washington.[11] The Tryons did eventually return to England again in 1780, when William’s health began to deteriorate. They moved to Mayfair, a wealthy part of London that was seen to fit their status. Despite concerns for his health, Tryon was still given military duties, this time back in East Anglia. He was appointed to command the fortifications at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and also placed at Somerleyton Hall, his headquarters, where he was also in charge of forces from American and Canadian from.[12] William died in 1788 and left the bulk of his estate to Margaret. Tragically, their daughter, Margaret, died only 3 years after her father, when she fell onto railings outside the London home, when climbing down from a rope in an attempt to elope with her army officer sweetheart.[13] Margaret herself died on 16 February 1819 in Great Yarmouth, where she had retired to a respectable lodging house on the famous Yarmouth Rows, used by families as a holiday home.[14]

Tim Downie and Melanie Gray as William and Margaret Tryon in Series 4 of the Starz series, Outlander

No one is really sure just how long she lived in those lodgings for, but what is known is that she was buried alongside her husband and daughter at St Mary’s Church in Twickenham, London. Her memory, and that of her husband’s (whether deserved or not in his case), is continued by Tryon’s Palace in New Burn. This curious museum is not the original home of the Tryon’s, as that was seized by rebels at the start of the American War of Independence and burned down in 1798. Instead, it is a modern recreation based on the original plans, which opened in 1959. Still, it is used to remember a turbulent period of the history of North Carolina, of which Margaret Tryon, with all her masculine ways, played a part in.


[1] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon c. 1732 – 1819’, Journal of the Great Yarmouth Archaeology and Local History Society, 2020, p. 63

[2] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon’, p. 64; B. D. Bargar, ‘Governor Tryon’s House in Fort George’, New York History, 35.3 (1954), p. 297

[5] Extract from Janet Montgomery’s Memoir, page 5

[6] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[7] Ibid

[8] B. D. Bargar, ‘Governor Tryon’s House in Fort George’, p. 299

[9] Ibid, p. 298

[10] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon’, p. 61

Elizabeth Linley: The Sensational Life of a Georgian Woman

Elizabeth Linley was a famous singer in the late eighteenth century, not only for the remarkable music abilities of her own family, dubbed the Nest of Nightingales, but also for the tumultuous marriage to the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.[1] Despite both of their connections to Bath, which I have visited a view times now, I hadn’t heard of them until recently. The BBC programme Britain’s Lost Masterpieces featured a painting, supposedly of her, painted by the famous Georgian portrait painter, and a personal favourite of mine, Joshua Reynolds. That programme showed a story of celebrity not unlike those known today.

Thomas Gainsborough, Elizabeth and Mary Linley (c.1772), Dulwich Picture Gallery via Art UK

Elizabeth was one of twelve siblings born to Thomas and Mary Linley, most of whom were musically capable, a trait they had clearly inherited from their father. Thomas was a famed harpsicord player and a musical director at the Bath Assembly Rooms. Elizabeth’s brother, Thomas Junior, was compared to Mozart, and her sister, Mary, was also an accomplished singer. For Elizabeth herself, she made her public debut at the age of twelve, a very young age to be performing, but with her elder siblings already in the spotlight, it was seen as normal for the Linley family. The family’s pre-eminence in Bath was noted by painter, Thomas Gainsborough, who bad become friends with the family after moving to Bath in 1759.[2] Between the late 1760s and 1789, he had painted a number of portraits of the family, including one of Elizabeth and Mary (see above image), which was altered later on, as Mary had been unhappy with the original version.[3]

With her beauty and talent, Elizabeth became sort after by many suitors. In 1769, when she was sixteen, Elizabeth’s parents had betrothed her to Walter Long, a man who was around sixty. This engagement was ended in 1771 when Elizabeth claimed she was in love with another. Walter paid £3,000, or around £270,000 in today’s money, to Elizabeth’s father and let her keep the jewels and gifts he had already given her.[4] At the same time, a married family friend, Captain Thomas Mathews, had been harassing Elizabeth for a while by trying to force her to become his mistress. He tried any tactic he could from threatening her reputation to threating to commit suicide if she continued to ignore his advances.[5] The playwright, Samuel Foote wrote a play called The Maid of Bath about the situation. The play, which opened in Haymarket, London, in 1771, insinuated that Elizabeth’s engagement had been called off because she had had an affair with Mathews.[6] The only thing that was accurate about the play was the depiction of Elizabeth as a mixture of spirited and dutiful, but this was also a popular trope for heroines at the time.[7]

Hubert von Herkomer (after Joshua Reynolds), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1880), Russel-Coates Art Gallery & Museum via Art UK

The situation with Mathews, alongside the popularity of The Maid of Bath, only appeared to make Elizabeth’s worries grow. She confided with her friends, Lissy and Betsy Sheridan, the sisters of her future husband. Between them, they concocted a plan for their brother, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to escort her to France, where she could stay until she became of age.[8] Whilst on their way, Sheridan admitted his feelings for Elizabeth and the pair were married in a village near Calais in March 1772. As this was a Catholic ceremony, the marriage was not deemed legal under English law, meaning that when the couple were persuaded to return to England, they were not seen as married.[9]

Both Elizabeth and Richard’s family didn’t accept the match and were forced apart. However, Sheridan did leave love notes at a grotto in Bath for her to find, but it’s uncertain whether she ever saw them.[10] Captain Mathews was also unwilling to give up his feelings for Elizabeth and challenged Sheridan to a duel over her. This was fought in London and Sheridan won, with the demand that Mathews retract an unflattering article he had published about Sheridan in the newspapers.[11] That was not to be the last duel as Mathews failed to keep his side of the bargain and spread rumours that it was him that had one the previous duel, not Sheridan. The second duel was fought just outside of Bath. Sheridan was injured and when reports later came about the outcome of the duel, stories were told that he had been saved from death by a miniature of Elizabeth.[12]

Sheridan still didn’t give up in his pursuit for love. When he came of age in October 1772, he followed Thomas Linley around, begging him to let his daughter marry him. He even went to nearly every, if not every, concert hall Elizabeth performed at to pester for her hand in marriage.[13] Elizabeth and Sheridan were finally able to marry in London on 13 April 1773 but it would not be the happy ever after you would expect. After their marriage, Sheridan refused to let his wife perform for fear of his own reputation if she continued. Instead, she helped her husband to write his play, The Rivals, which premiered in January 1775, which was only fair when Elizabeth’s dowry had helped pay for Sheridan’s theatrical ambitions.[14] Eventually Elizabeth was allowed to perform for exclusive functions, but this was mainly to pay for the enormous debts her husband had racked up.[15] Sheridan also began to have numerous affairs, which Elizabeth was aware of. In retaliation, she also had affairs, which produced an illegitimate daughter, as well as the legitimate children she had with Sheridan.

Thomas Rowlandson, Comforts of Bath, Plate 2 (1798), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth was known to have suffered bouts of ill health throughout her life, many of which were reported to a public who were eager to have any update possible about the celebrity couple. These became even more sort after when she had all but retired from public life after a stillbirth in May 1777 and the death of her brother, Thomas, in a boating accident in August 1778.[16] She finally died from tuberculosis on 28 June 1792 at the age of 38 at Bristol Hot Wells, where she had moved to from London for health reasons. She was buried alongside her sister, Mary, at Wells Cathedral.

Whilst Elizabeth’s life may have been short, there is no denying that it had been eventful. Both her and her husband, Richard, showed that whilst we understand celebrity as a relatively modern phenomenon, it did have its infancy in the Georgian period. Many of the celebrities of the day were of musical and theatrical backgrounds, just like Elizabeth, her family, and her husband. A plaque dedicated to her can still be seen at 11 Bath Crescent, where she had lived before her marriage. When I go back to Bath later on in the year, I will now look on it with a better understanding and appreciation for the woman who it commemorates.


[1] Dulwich Picture Gallery, ‘Elizabeth and Mary Linley’, https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/explore-the-collection/301-350/elizabeth-and-mary-linley/

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[5] Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Polly Honeycombe George Colman the Elder (Ontario, Canada: Broadview Editions, 2012), p. 36

[6] Ibid, p. 36; ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[7] Aspden, Suzanne, ‘”Sancta Caecilia Rediviva” Elizabeth Linley: Repertoire, Reputation and the English Voice’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 27.3 (2015), p. 265.

[8] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/; Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  36.

[9] Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  37.

[10] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/

[11] Ibid; Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  37.

[12] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/

[13] Ibid

[14] ‘Scandal in the Making’, https://georgianjunkie.wordpress.com/tag/elizabeth-linley/

[15] ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[16] Ibid