Which Elizabeth? Elizabeth Knollys Leighton, the Court of Admiralty, and the British Library Archive

One of the challenges in studying early modern elite women is simply figuring out which woman is which. It was a common practice for children born to elite families to name their children after the monarch or other powerful individual whether or not that person was a relative or god parent. (More on godparents in a future post.)


So in the early 1500s there were tons of Henrys for King Henry VII and King Henry VIII. And in the late 1500s, there were tons of Elizabeths.


Elizabeth Knollys. Painted in 1577 the year before she married Thomas Leighton.


Because of the way archives are organized, identifying early modern women, aside from monarchs or famous courtesans, starts with identifying the men in their lives; their fathers, brothers, husbands. and sons. But, even that can be tricky.

The Many Names of Elite Men

In the Tudor century, an elite man might be referred to by multiple last names. There was of course his first name and his family’s last name. But, if he also had an aristocratic title he might be known simply by his first initial and his estate’s name or location. For example when William Cecil was created a baron, he was Baron Burghley as that was where his property was located - although not every barony was attached to specific land with the same name as the title.

Men might also be referred to by their job title. William Cecil, Baron Burghley was secretary to the queen and Privy Council and then later became the Treasurer. Depending on which year it was, letters might be addressed to him as W. Cecil, W. Burghley, Mr. Secretary, or Mr. Treasurer.

To add even more confusion, all male members of the aristocracy whether they be barons, earls, viscounts, or sometimes even dukes could be addressed as ‘Lord’. So William Cecil, Baron Burghley, Secretary to the queen and Privy Council might also receive letters addressed to Lord Burghley, or L. Burghley.

It was a matter of social and political import to know which name to use when referring to any elite male with multiple landed and official titles. The rule of thumb was to use the most important term rather that be an aristocratic title or a job title.

Now to the Women

In the Tudor century (as it still is today), although not a law, it was common for a woman to take her husband's name upon marriage. It was also common for women to be referred to by their maiden, or birth family name even after marriage. Thus, in addition to dealing with all the female versions of landed honorifics and titles these women had from their husbands (for example Lady Burghley as opposed to Lord Burghley), as historians we must also sort through yet one more possible surname to the list she might adopt from her husband - her birth name.

And although there were many men sharing the first name Henry, or the name of a family patriarch or patron, the plethora of women named Elizabeth is overwhelming. Queen Elizabeth Tudor was monarch for forty-four years. But before she became queen, those who wanted to express support for the princess’s plight, or otherwise align themselves with what the Princess Elizabeth represented, might name their daughters Elizabeth. So, multiple generations of elite little girls were named in honor of Elizabeth Tudor both before and after she came to the throne. In the Carey-Knollys family alone, there were fifteen Elizabeths living during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. While parents may have found it beneficial to pay homage to the queen in this manner, the confusion to historians has been lasting.

One of my earliest research trips to the British Library Manuscripts room, the only place in the library where you can read original manuscripts from the Tudor time period, I searched the online index for the last names of men within the Carey-Knollys family network. These include Carey and Knollys, obviously, but also the last names of the men that the Carey and Knollys daughters married such as Howard, Leighton, Scrope, and West.

One of the online catalog listings included multiple names from the family network. So I submitted a request to see the collection, sending archivists off into the vault to hunt it down and bring it into the soft light of the reading room depositing it on a desk within view of the staff and other researchers where I could gently lift and turn the pages. In archive-speak, pages are called folios.


The online catalog listing for the British Library Manuscripts Additional MS 12506.

But WHICH Elizabeth Leighton?

The item is referred to in the catalog index as Additional Manuscript 12506 and it includes a few hundred letters on original parchment bound into a large book. About one third of the letters are from elite women to the Court of Admiralty. Two of the letters on two different pages, folios, (numbers 421 and 452) were written by the same woman - Elizabeth Leighton.

The description in the library’s catalog says the author of these two letters was the daughter of William Gerard and the wife of Edward Leighton.


Online catalog listing from the British Library Manuscripts Additional MS 12506 , folios (pages) 421 and 452 listing the wrong Elizabeth Leighton.


However, the first letter, dated 1593, was written from the court at Windsor, Queen Elizabeth’s court, where a different Elizabeth Leighton - this one the daughter of Katherine Carey and Sir Francis Knollys, and wife to Thomas Leighton - was serving in the privy chamber as a lady-in-waiting. It is signed E. Leighton.


The second letter, dated 1604, discusses political unrest on the island of Guernsey. Both Thomas and Edward Leighton, his nephew, married women named Elizabeth, but not the same Elizabeth. Edward Leighton died four years before this second letter was written. Thomas Leighton, his uncle, however was appointed governor of Guernsey in 1570 and held the post till his death forty years later in 1616. Within this second letter, the author, E. Leighton, writes of unrest on Guernsey and seditious speech against her husband “Mr. Leighton” - very much alive in 1604.


Given the date, place and content of both letters, it seems safe to identify the author as Elizabeth Knollys Leighton and not Elizabeth Gerard Leighton as the catalog does. Inclusion of the woman’s birth family, Knollys and not Gerard, name helps us distinguish between the two.


I brought my ideas on which Elizabeth was the author of the letters to the archivist on duty, walking him through my analysis while looking at the documents. He agreed with me that the online catalog and index identified the wrong Elizabeth. He also told me that when the library’s catalogs were transferred from paper 3x5-style note cards to a computer data base, the text was copied directly and no attempt was made to correct any errors, like this one, because of time and money. Admittedly, a person responsible for data entry of such a vast amount of data like that held at the British Library would not have had the time, or likely the specific historical knowledge to realize the wrong Elizabeth was being named.


British Library, Additional Manuscripts, 12506, folio 421 old, folio 436 new. Letter to Doctor Julius Caesar, Judge at the Court of Admiralty, from Elizabeth Knollys Leighton at the court at Windsor, 21 August 1593.

When I asked if the archivist wanted to make a note about this error so that it could be corrected in the future, he politely declined indicating that there were no plans to make corrections to the online manuscripts catalog in the foreseeable future. Which Elizabeth is the author of these letters will not be cleared up by the British Library any time in the foreseeable future.


The lady in question in the British Library folios, Elizabeth Knollys Leighton, daughter of Sir Francis Knollys and his wife Lady Katherine Carey Knollys, married Thomas Leighton on May 10, 1578 in the Chapel Royal with Queen Elizabeth, her godmother, in attendance. Two weeks before the marriage, Thomas was made Governor of Guernsey.


From these two letters alone, it is clear that Elizabeth was a true partner with her husband negotiating with the Court of Admiralty on behalf of sailors from the island, her husband’s governorship, shipping, and political unrest. Recognizing which women is which and placing them within the correct kinship network can change the way we view political agency for elite women and for their wider family. This Elizabeth was identified by knowing her husband’s grants and titles, her job as a lady-in-waiting to the queen, and the death dates for both her and her husband. And true to the custom of her time and family, she named one of her daughters Elizabeth, Elizabeth Leighton.