Lady Fanshawe - a Brave and Persistent Wife

Ruth Herman

Lady Anne Fanshawe (1625 – 1680)

It might be considered slightly old-fashioned to heap praise on the memory of woman who appears to have dedicated her life to being a devoted mother and widow with almost no thought for herself.   But when you look at the life of Lady Anne Fanshawe who followed her husband throughout Europe, experienced the Civil Wars in England first hand and all the while giving birth to sixteen children and suffering multiple miscarriages, I would ask you to think again.  You have to concede that a degree of stoicism has been displayed that deserves the metaphorical medal.  She told her own story in her memoirs and it is an exhilarating one involving kings and pirates, and above all a dogged determination to gain what was rightfully hers in the lax and devious court of Charles II.

Although Lady Ann was born in London her family was rooted securely in Hertfordshire soil.  Her family seat was Balls Park in Hertford, her cousin was the famous Lady Katherine Ferrers and another cousin married into the Lytton family in Knebworth.   She married Sir Richard Fanshawe, a committed Royalist, a member of the Privy Council and ambassador, also with strong Hertfordshire connections; the family owned Ware Park eventually being forced to sell it having ruined themselves fighting for the king against Cromwell.  The Fanshawes of this tale are buried in St Mary’s Church in Ware. Lady Fanshawe’s mother is buried in Hertford.

She describes her upbringing as ‘wild’ but only in the sense that in addition to her sewing and music she loved riding and running, referring to herself as a ‘hoyting’ girl.  The family were wealthy when she was born but ruined in the civil war having lent large sums of money to the king and also having their house plundered.  And so she accompanied her father to the Oxford Parliament where he sat as a member. She talks about the experience as she came from:  “as good a house as any gentleman of England had, we came to a baker’s house in an obscure street, and from rooms well furnished, to lie in a very bad bed in a garret, to one dish of meat, and that not the best ordered, no money, for we were as poor as Job.”

But impecunious as she was in 1644 she married Sir Richard Fanshawe, Secretary of War to the future Charles II.  Despite this high office, and even higher financial expectations, the couple were as poor as church mice, with only twenty pounds between them (fifteen hundred pounds in today’s money).  The marriage was attended only by a few family members but she was given her mother’s wedding ring for the ceremony. It is tempting to speculate that this was partly because they could not afford to buy a new one.

The first tragedy of their life together came soon; her first child died shortly after birth with her husband away in Bristol on the king’s business. Next, she was nearly killed by a stray bullet.  This was followed by an incident when she had to defend her house against the theft of some royal jewels which she had in safe keeping.  In her roller coaster life we see her travelling to the Scilly Isles to join her husband. While on board her luggage was plundered by the crew.  As though this disaster was not enough while she was away she was relieved of possessions to the value of £200 (£150,000 today) by the trusted friend who was looking after them. All this happened while she was heavily pregnant and the scene in the Scilly Isles did little to cheer her up, waking up in her mean rooms with her “bed … near swimming with the sea, which the owner told us afterwards it never did so but at spring tide. With this, we were destitute of clothes,—and meat, and fuel, for half the Court to serve them a month was not to be had in the whole island ; and truly we begged our daily bread of God, for we thought every meal our last”.

It was now 1650. The couple’s next adventure sees them wandering through Europe on the king’s business going to St Neot’s, Jersey, Southampton and Paris. Lady Anne was then sent back to London to raise money for the King’s cause.   She survived a ship wreck raised some funds and went to Ireland to join her husband. Tragedy struck yet again and she heard of the death of her second son. Surely this would have broken anyone’s spirit.  The doughty Lady Ann however, pregnant again, fell off a horse, breaking her wrist.  In the meantime Cromwell arrived in Ireland and she was forced to escape with all her worldly goods in the dead of night to be reunited with her husband.

Escaping the Parliamentary forces Sir Richard and his family were sent to the Spanish court to seek support.  They took ship and Lady Ann’s luck did not improve. As they went through the Straits of Gibraltar they saw “coming towards us, with full sails, a Turkish galley well manned”.  The heroine in Ann now really came to the fore.  Despite being locked in her cabin while the sailors and male passengers manned the decks she bribed a cabin boy with half a crown and borrowing his clothes went up on deck to stand by her husband. To everyone’s relief the outcome was a stand-off and they continued safely to Malaga.

Having arrived at Madrid safely their next child arrived, a girl, who only lived 15 days.  The Spanish court, without a contribution from the impoverished exiled Charles II declined to assist him.  So the Fanshawes returned to France; Sir Richard continued to Scotland and Ann went to London with two children in tow and once again heavily pregnant.  No doubt for some peace of mind she repaired to Ware Park while her brother went to neighbouring Balls Park in Hertford.

A little later after an anxious wait for news of her husband who had been captured in the battle of Worcester she met up with him under house arrest in London. She took herself to Cromwell himself to plead for his release on the grounds of ill health and he was bailed for £4000.  For a while the happy couple lived life quietly taking time in Benington and Much Hadham in Hertfordshire interspersed with periods in Yorkshire. By now they had four children but sadly lost one of them, a daughter to smallpox.  Two more daughters followed while Sir Richard was ordered to stay close to London.  Then another child was delivered and the family seem to have been very sick and took the country air in Hertfordshire.

Their luck seemed to change on the death of Cromwell but alas they remained on the wrong side of the new government.  While Sir Richard was allowed to go to Paris Lady Ann was kept in London with her children.  Ever ingenious, she got round this setback by forging a pass in her maiden name, Harrison.  Meeting up with her husband a while later, tragedy struck again with the loss of her only son from smallpox. Trips to Holland and London gathering funds kept Lady Ann busy until the glorious news arrived that King Charles II had been restored to the throne. They were part of the joyous fleet that accompanied the King.

Trouble was already in the offing as Sir Richard was blocked from taking up a promised place as Secretary of State.  He still took his ceremonial place at the Coronation and other state occasions including the marriage of the King to the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza. However, powerful enemies worked against him and he was removed from the centre of government to Lisbon and the little family travelled to take up their residency.

Lady Anne’s memoirs are a little short on content here but tragically she lost another child. Despite this it seems she enjoyed an excellent social life with both Portuguese and English women.  Upon recall to London in 1663 they made their way to London and Hertfordshire, staying at one point in St Albans, and a round of social engagements including meetings with the King and his Portuguese Queen (who no doubt wanted news from home).  They had very little rest, however, as they were posted to Spain almost immediately. They arrived shortly after to great ceremony which Lady Ann describes in detail.  All appeared to be well and just before he was due to return to England Sir Richard was suddenly taken ill and after a very short illness died.  The couple had been married twenty-two years and produced 16 children, only a few of whom survived.

The sad little family consisting of the widow Ann, four daughters and a son made plans to leave Spain. The date was 1666 and their popularity was such that the Spanish queen offered Ann a pension if she would stay in Spain, the only proviso being that she change her religion from Anglican to Catholicism.  Not surprisingly this was refused and the party left Bilbao on 3 October having sold what they did not want to keep and sent everything else on before. The grieving widow who had sent her husband’s embalmed body on before remarks in her memoirs that during the journey home she heard the sad news of the burning of London.  Arriving in November 1666 she sent her husband’s body to be laid to rest in Hertford in her family vault in Allhallows Church.

Now came the battle to procure the “arrears of my husband’s pay, which was two thousand pounds, and to reimburse me five thousand eight hundred and fifteen pounds my husband had laid out in his Majesty’s service”. (Worth nearly £700,000 in today’s money – clearly a sum worth pursuing).  It took two years of constant badgering to get the £5,000 paid to her.  In the meantime she was forced to sell gifts that had come from the Spanish court. At this point she was looking after her 12 month old son and four daughters, the eldest of whom was thirteen.  These were the remaining children of the sixteen live births and six miscarriages that Lady Ann had suffered.

The widow must have felt cursed as her world fell about her.  She took a house in Hertingfordbury to be near her father who died shortly thereafter, and her memoirs are little more than a list of her friends and family who were dying around her.  She herself died in 1680 aged 55, probably worn out by pregnancy and child birth, money worries and the sheer toll taken by a life of travel in mid seventeenth century conditions.  The memoirs she leaves behind are pious, as the age in which she wrote them demanded but they also show a woman with a core of pure steel who was able to put up with physical and mental challenges that would break the strongest will.  To my mind she is a heroine simply because she carried on where lesser women would have given up. She deserves to be remembered.

This page was added on 28/07/2017.

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  • What a lady, I am recently widowed and reading her life story has given me encouragement to look ahead and be strong. The series on TV doesn’t do her the justice she deserves, though it is an excellent reproduction even the detail of the Kings silver handles falling and no one picked it up for him was so significant.

    By Jean Allen (01/07/2022)
  • There is more about Lady Fanshawe under the Civil War heading.

    By Ruth Herman (09/08/2017)