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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Frances Kildare's Letter to Dr. Julius Caesar

The letter that changed the course of my research was written in 1589, by a newly-married 16-year old girl. It starts -

Good Mr Doctor Caesar,

During the 16th century, ‘Good’ was a standard salutation, much as we use ‘Dear’ today when writing a letter. Caesar held many degrees, including a doctorate of canon law from Oxford, hence the ‘Doctor’ as part of the address. And, his first name was Julius. Dr. Julius Caesar was a judge of the Court of Admiralty from the mid-1580s through 1605.

The letter is dated 7 July from the court of Nonsuch - a palace that no longer exists -  built by Henry VIII to demonstrate wealth and power as a response to King Francis I’s Chateau de Chambord in the Loire valley of France.

The letter is signed:

F Ho F Kildare

The author of the letter was Frances Howard, daughter of Charles Howard and his wife Katherine Carey Howard, the Elizabethan power couple who started married life as Baron and Baroness of Effingham and later were created Earl and Countess of Nottingham. Charles was appointed Lord High Admiral (start singing Gilbert & Sullivan if you like) in 1585, four years before this letter was written.

Frances Howard Fitzgerald, Countess of Kildare subsequently married to Henry Brooke, Baron Cobham in 1601 - the year of this painting.

The 16-year-old Frances Howard had just recently married the 27-year-old Henry FitzGerald, 12th Earl of Kildare. The marriage was so new that she was not yet in the habit of writing her new territorial name, Kildare. 

There’s something charming about seeing the young bride starting to write her natal family name Howard but then remembering her new name and having to cross out the Ho, for Howard, much like when we write the date early in January and out of habit write down last year and have to cross it out.

But the reason this letter sent me scurrying out of the Manuscripts room of the British Library to ring my supervisor was the contents (I’ve modernized the spelling):

Having procured my father’s assent for granting of the office of the Admiralty of Ireland unto my Lord my husband agreeable to the instructions which I have given to the bearer my servant, I thought good to direct him unto you to see the same accordingly endorsed with as favorable and ample words to be inserted therein, as any way you can . . .

This new teenage bride had gotten her father to give her new husband an important office in his native Ireland. Not content with her father’s word on this, she had written it all down and sent it by servant to Caesar to record and endorse making it official. The judge was encouraged to add any words that might make the appointment seem more formal. 

Frances didn’t ask the judge. She told him. She didn’t wait for her father, Lord High Admiral of England, to follow through, or her husband. She did it herself. She convinced her father and then made it happen.

The letter continues:

. . .  Praying you to manifest your earnest and good meaning therein and sort as I may rest thankful of you for your courtesy. 

Detail of Georg Hoefnagel’s 1568 watercolor of the south frontage of Nonsuch Palace.

The use of the words 'praying' and the phrase 'thankful for your courtesy' were standard correspondent language, much like the salutation of ‘good’. She wasn’t pleading for a favor or hoping he might have time to see to her request. She assumed he would do as she asked. Further, the phrase ‘as I may rest thankful of you’ is pretty close to a threat as in ‘do this and I will stay thankful’ if he did not follow her instructions. Imagine the confidence of a young women knowing that governmental officers would benefit from staying in her favor.

And in case the judge had any doubts, the sign off reminds him that she is at court, with the queen, at the center of power:

And even so leaving the same to your friendly care, I bid you heartily farewell, from the Courte at Nonsuch this 7 July 1589, your assured friend

I found this letter by happenstance. In previous posts, I have talked about how difficult it can be to track women down in the archives. In my experience, it is most helpful to search for the names of male relatives in order to find out what the women were up to.

This was the case the day I tripped over this letter. I was in the British Library Manuscripts room and had asked to see something called Additional Manuscripts 12507 simply because some of the names of men related to the women I was interested in were listed as being relevant. The collection carried the description ‘Original Autograph Letters, chiefly of the Nobility, addressed (with few exceptions) to Sir Julius Caesar, between the years 1579 and 1619’.

It turns out that a significant portion of the letters are from women: including the wives, daughters, and mothers within the wider Carey-Knollys kinship network. Frances Howard’s family falls in this kinship network as her maternal grandfather was Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, son of Mary Boleyn. Her mother, Katherine Carey Howard was one of Queen Elizabeth’s closest friends and served the queen throughout her reign.

Frances Howard, the daughter of Charles Howard and Katherine Carey, granddaughter of Anne Morgan and Henry Carey, great-grand-daughter of Mary Boleyn. If you believe that Mary Boleyn’s children were fathered by King Henry VIII, then Frances was half grandniece to Queen Elizabeth

What this letter tells us

The letter gives us insight into how families worked to further kinship ambitions. Specifically, it shows a daughter negotiating with her father to appoint her brand new husband to a lucrative and powerful post. Further, it shows a young woman having the idea and taking concrete steps to improve her and her family’s prospects. 

In theory, husband FitzGerald would report to his father-in-law. But he would also receive a portion of any cargo captured on any boat engaged in, or accused of, piracy within the waters of his vice-admiralty. This revenue stream was one of Charles Howard’s most lucrative, and in the eventual pecking order starting with the queen, Julius Caesar would also get his share of any captured loot. 

In turn, this would allow Frances to live in, or close to, the manner to which she had become accustomed while at court with her family when she and her new groom eventually traveled to Ireland to survey and take in hand his estates. Henry Fitzgerald had spent several years in England originally arriving as a sort of good conduct prize after his elders had been involved in rebellious activity - at least rebellious to the English crown. Marriage into the loyal and reliable Carey-Knollys family would be seen as another proof of his family’s reformed ways - a diplomatic solution so to speak.  

Notice that the queen, privy council, or even the powerful Cecil are absent from the entire transaction. It was enough to remind the judge, although I can’t imagine he needed reminding, that Frances was at court and could get others to override any objections he might have had. 

This one letter validated my theory that women took an active role in the kingdom’s politics and that while gender might mean that there were no women holding the title of privy councilor, they acted very much as councilors to the queen and her kingdom, acting on their own initiative and for their family’s interests. No meek, quiet, or obedient women here. ____________________________________________________________________ British Library Additional Manuscript 12507, fo. 239, [old fol. 122] Transcription

NOTES: A slash [ / ] indicates the end of the line in the original. \word/ means the word was inserted in the original F. Kildare 7 July 1589 from the court at Nonsuch Goode Mr. Doctor \Casar/, havinge procured my L. my fathers assent for grantinge of / the office of the Admiraltie in Irelande unto my Lorde my husbande agreeable / to the instructions which I have geven to the bearer my Servant, I thought / goode to direct him unto youe to see the same acordingly en[d]orssed with as / favourable and ample woordes to be inserted therin, as any way youe can – / Praeing youe to manifest youre earnest and goode meaninge therin an Sorte / as I may rest thanckfull of youe for youre courtesie. And even So leving / the same to youre frendly care, I bidd you heartelly farewell: / I from the Courte at Nonsuch this 7 of July 1589 youre assured frend F Ho F Kildare

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