Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

Today (15th December) is the anniversary of the death of the remarkable Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in 1673. She was born Margaret Lucas in about 1623, at the Lucas house (the former St John’s abbey) in Colchester. Her father Sir Thomas Lucas owned St John’s abbey and it was the family home; at that time it included a large residence in the southern part of the walled precinct. Margaret was the youngest of eight children. Her brothers included Sir John Lucas, who inherited St John’s abbey, and the English Civil War soldiers Sir Charles Lucas and Sir Thomas Lucas. Sir John was, apparently, a scholar and a founding member of the Royal Society of London.

Margaret’s childhood seems to have been divided between St John’s abbey and the family house in London. On the 22nd August 1642, a pro-Parliament ‘multitude’ seized Sir John Lucas as he attempted to leave Colchester with horses and weapons to join the king’s army. The multitude then rioted and ransacked the Lucas house. Sir John and his wife Lady Lucas were put in the town gaol overnight and, the next day, Sir John Lucas and the town clerk were taken by order of Parliament to the Tower of London and temporarily imprisoned. The Lucas family were Royalists and also, apparently, not liked in the town, and there was a long feud between Sir John Lucas and the borough. Sir John was released and served in the Royalist army with his two brothers during the Civil War. Sir Charles Lucas is well known for bringing destruction to Colchester by causing the Siege here in 1648. At the end of the Siege, the victorious Parliamentarians executed Sir Charles outside the castle and ransacked the Lucas family tombs in St Giles’ church, adjacent to St John’s abbey.

In 1642, Margaret had been sent to Oxford to live with one of her sisters. The royal court was in residence there, and Margaret became a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria in 1643. In 1644, during the Civil War, Margaret accompanied the queen into exile in Paris. There she met the much older William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, a scholar, courtier and then Royalist general, who was also in exile. By the end of 1645 they had married in Paris. They lived in exile in Rotterdam and then Antwerp. At the Restoration (of the monarchy in Britain), in 1660, the Duke and Duchess returned to Britain and reclaimed their estates. In London, the Duchess was at the centre of the ‘Newcastle circle’ of philosophers, playwrights, poets and musicians. In 1667, she was the first woman to attend a Royal Society of London lecture. The Duchess was a prolific writer and she published works in many genres, including poetry, fiction, letters, biography and autobiography, drama, science, and even science fiction. She was a well-known figure in London and at the royal court, nicknamed ‘Mad Madge’, and she even appears in Pepys’ diary. She seems to have been seen as a curiosity, as were her works, but she is now taken very seriously, for several reasons – for example, as an early woman author and for writing in many genres. She now also has a place in the history of philosophy: she is considered to have set out an early version of naturalism, which is found in modern philosophy and science, and also to anticipate some of the ideas of later philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and, even, contemporary philosophers. For a list of her works, go to .

The Duchess died on the 15th December 1673 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

St John’s abbey was confiscated by Parliament during the Civil War. The Lucas house was used as a Royalist outpost during the Siege of Colchester in 1648 and it suffered considerable damage. The gateway was blown up in 1648 (later rebuilt). Surviving buildings were damaged by Dutch prisoners held there in the 1660s. The Lucas house itself seems to have disappeared by 1748. The Abbey Gardens and St John’s Farm were bought by the War Office for the Army in 1860. What survives now is the area of the precinct, some of the precinct wall, the main gateway and two walls of a porter’s lodge, and St Giles’ church. The Trust is now based at Roman Circus House, a former Army building within the old garrison, on land which once formed part of the abbey farm. St John’s abbey gateway is just round the corner from us. We have undertaken several projects within the precinct of the abbey in the past few years and uncovered some very interesting evidence: most importantly, we have identified the site of the abbey church.

The image shows a portrait of the Duchess which was used as the frontispiece in three of her books, ie The description of a new world (1666), Grounds of natural philosophy (1668) and Plays, never before printed  (1668).