Letters to James Butler from Elizabeth Butler, Anne Digby, and Elizabeth Mordaunt, 1660

Primary Contributors:

Department of Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; Centre for Digital Scholarship, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; and Cultures of Knowledge

Letters to James Butler, marquess (later first duke) of Ormond, written in 1660 by three women: Ormond’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Butler, marchioness of Ormond (1615–1684), Lady Anne Digby, countess of Bristol (d. 1697), and Elizabeth Mordaunt, countess of Peterborough (1603–1671).

These letters were all written in the months of April and May 1660, a period of great drama in English history. In February Monck’s army arrived in London, and soon demanded the reinstatement of the MPs excluded in Pride’s Purge, the prelude to the execution of Charles I, of 1648. The Long Parliament called for its own dissolution and for free elections in March, leading to the Convention Parliament which voted for the Restoration of Charles II on 8 May 1660. On 25 May Charles II landed at Dover, and four days later made his triumphal entry into London. This is the political background to the six letters written to Ormond, the former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who was to be reinstated in that office in 1662. All the letters allude to the manoeuverings among prominent royalists in these momentous months. Four of the letters are from Lady Anne Digby, wife of the Catholic George Digby, second earl of Bristol (1612–1677), pleading her husband’s case among other matters. Two of the letters use pseudonyms for the main persons mentioned — Mrs Brown (the King), Mrs Carlton (Hyde), Mrs Eyres (the earl of Bristol) and Mrs Frances Persifall (Ormond) — whose identities are discoverable from the index to the Calendar of the Clarendon State Papers.

The countess of Peterborough, widow of John Mordaunt, first earl of Peterborough, refers to her son’s involvement in the royalist risings of 1648. Henry Mordaunt had been a Parliamentarian at the outbreak of the Civil War, but switched sides in 1643, and in July 1648 was part of a group involved in the failed attempt to seize Reigate in Surrey for the king, being badly wounded in the process. Elizabeth Butler’s letter recommends the bearer, Captain Power, to Ormond’s favour. The ‘breaking news’ of the Restoration has reached her, ‘the good Neuse Haveinge made mee allmost as wilde, as it has Done many wisser Persons.’ The letters not only provide a window into an extraordinary moment in British history, they are in themselves interesting specimens of womens’ writing of the period. The scripts and spelling reveal that while literate and intelligent, these women have not received the formal grounding in writing that would have been provided to men of their social status.

The letters are in the collection known as the Carte papers, which comprises vast collections of original papers from various sources amassed by the historian Thomas Carte (1686–1754). More than 110 volumes of this collection comprise the papers of James Butler, first duke of Ormond (1610–1688), Lord Lieutenant of Ireland three times between 1643 and 1685, collected in preparation for Carte’s biography of the duke, published in 1735–6.

Mike Webb
Curator of Early Modern Archives and Manuscripts
Bodleian Libraries

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