Brilliana Harley – Wife, Mother, and Fighter

           In March 1643, Lady Brilliana Harley received a formal demand to surrender her castle to the royalists. Her husband, Sir Robert Harley, was in London. He had been there since the start of the civil war, leaving her to administer Brampton Bryan Castle and all their goods. Their elder sons, Edward and Robert, were fighting against the royalists in the west of England.

            As a parliamentarian in a predominantly royalist county (Herefordshire), Brilliana could not depend on her neighbors for help, but found enough support inside the castle, where she had been offering refuge to other like-minded people and kept a 50-men army.

            She asked her husband for advice. “I hear there are 600 soulders appointed to come against me,”[1] she wrote. Eventually, she decided to stand firm, even the royalist army of Sir William Vavasour besieged her castle in July, bombarding the building, plundering her cattle, and destroying her gardens.  She continued to resist when the order to surrender came from the king himself, knowing full well that she would be considered a traitor. “My trust is only in my God, who never yet failed me,”[2] she said.

            In September, she enjoyed a brief cease-fire when Vavasour transferred his men to a different siege. Sir Robert advised her to leave Brampton, but she was not sure her journey would be any safer than her properties. Instead, she ordered her troops to dismantle the barriers Vavasour’s men had raised around her castle and to plunder her royalist neighbors for supplies. She then sent 40 of her men to attack a royalist camp four miles away. By October, she was again threatened as Vavasour’s troops gave signs of an imminent return.

All For God’s Glory

            As many people in her day, Brilliana interpreted the civil war as a religious struggle. Charles I’s leniency toward Roman Catholicism was troubling. Besides marrying a Catholic princess, he sought help from the Catholic Irish against the Presbyterian Scots. His religious views, backed by Archbishop William Laud, were, from a Puritan standpoint, much too consonant to Roman Catholicism. Besides, memories of Mary Tudor’s reign and, most recently, of the Gunpowder Plot and the Anglo-Spanish war were still fresh in people’s minds.

            Many of her letters to her husband and her oldest son Edward (Ned) reflect her preoccupation for the preservation of the gospel, in view both of the Roman Catholic threat and of the rise of Arminianism. She mentions the Protestation taken by the House of Commons in 1641, which includes the promise “to maintain and defend, as far as lawfully I may, with my Life, Pover, and Estate, the true, reformed, Protestant Religion, expressed in the Doctrine of the Church of England, against all Popery and Popish Innovations.”[3]

            Her convictions were not blind adherence to her family’s teachings. She was well educated, well read, fluent in both Latin and French (in fact, more at ease with French than English), and eager to examine different opinions. For example, in response to the Roman Catholic objections that Luther was simply moved by ambition and taught new doctrines with no foundation in the church’s tradition, she studied a biography of the Reformer and formulated her own conclusions.

            Her letters, as well as her library inventory, are a testimony to the wide range of her reading, from classic authors like Seneca and Cicero to Reformers like Erasmus, Beza, Musculus, Calvin, and Perkins. She didn’t disdain Roman Catholic devotionals, such as The Holy Court by Jesuit Nicholas Caussin, nor popular fiction, such as Francis Goodwin’s Man in the Moon and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

            She exhorted her sons to do the same. To Ned (the recipient of most of her letters), she advised to increase his knowledge whenever he found it lacking, in order to be able to give an answer for his faith. “Observe what knowledg you were abell to express, and with what affection to it, and where you finde yourself to come abort, labor to repaire that want; if it be in knowledg of any point, reade something that may informe you in what you finde you know not.”[4]

            If the problem was a drudgery towards God and religion rather than a lack of knowledge, her answer was in line with the Lutheran and Reformed confessions: don’t look inside of yourself. Rather, “go to God, beg of Him new affections to love those things which by nature we cannot love.”[5]

A Mother’s Heart

            Her letters reveal the heart of a loving wife and mother. She married Harley when she was about 25, and together they had seven children – three sons (Edward, Robert, and Thomas) and four daughters (Brilliana, Dorothy, Margaret, and Elizabeth). Her writings describe her family life, full of common and uncommon events, as well as political observations.

            They include warm expressions of love. She tells her husband she is counting the days he is away and misses him more than ever: “I hope you came well to Bristo, and I much longe to heare from you, but more a thousand times to see you, which I presume you will not beleeve, becaus you cannot possibly measure my love.”[6]

            Equally loving are her letters to Ned, her “well-beloved child”[7] and “great comfort in this life.”[8] The fact that her motherly correspondence is limited to him might have to do with the fact that he wrote back, or simply that he kept her letters. She expressed a few concerns about Robert, who was less inclined to his studies and often engaged in fights. “I hope he is now so wise to see that his stubborneness was not the way to gaine any thinge but reproufe,” she wrote.[9]

            She told Ned to exercise and eat well (not limiting himself to fish during Lent). She suggested remedies such as licorice juice for a cold and liquid gold against ague fevers. Gifts such as biscuits, apples, cheese, violet cakes, and kidney, partridge, or turkey pies, accompanied some of her letters.

            Fashion tips were not neglected: “Let your stokens be all ways of the same culler of your cloths, and I hope you now wear Spanisch leather shoues.”[10]

            Most letters to Ned include words of instruction: to keep the Sabbath and continue in prayer. “O it is a sweet thinge to haue private conferance with our God, to hom we may make knowne all our wants, all our foolyes, and discouer all our weakenes in acurance

that he will supply our wants, and will not abrade vs with our infermities.”[11]

            Besides, prayer was a sure way to lift one’s soul to God and above the daily problems. “Keepe your hart above the world,” she told Ned, “and then you will not be trubelled at the changes in it.”

Dying in Faith

            Throughout the siege, Brilliana battled frequent illnesses. Her body had always been frail, and the doctors’ remedies (which included blood-letting) might have made things worse. In October 1643, she succumbed to the complications of a “very greate cold.” “I hope the Lord will be mercifull to me in giving my health, for it is an ill time to be sike in,”[12] she wrote. The Lord had other plans, and she died 20 days later.

            The castle didn’t last long after her death. It was conquered and pillaged early in 1644. Eventually, the Harleys were able to get their properties back.

            Ned continued to fight for the parliamentary army. He was imprisoned briefly in 1685 during the Monmouth Rebellion.

            Today, Brilliana is remembered for her letters (about 375 in all) which describe in detail the life of noble families during the civil war. They are also the heart-warning testimony of a wife and mother who had to take on the role of a resistance fighter in order to defend the family’s properties.

            Most encouragingly for us, they are a testimony of a Christian’s faith and conviction that our lives are in God’s wise and loving hands, and “the time of trubell is a speciall time, in which the Lord has commanded His chillderen to seeke unto Him.” Since “the Lord dous not bide us to seeke Him in vaine.” Brilliana could look “with ioy beyond those days of trubell, considering the glory that the Lord will bring his church to.”[13]

[1] Lady Brilliana Harley, Letters of the Lady Brilliana Harley, ed. by Thomas Taylor Lewis, London: Camden Society, 1854, p. 195

[2] Ibid., p. 209

[3] Ibid., p. 222

[4] Ibid., p. 69

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 4

[7] Ibid., p.8

[8] Ibid., p. 207

[9] Ibid., p. 9

[10] Ibid., p. 50

[11] Ibid., p. 28

[12] Ibid., p. 209

[13] Ibid., pp. 102, 10


Simonetta Carr