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Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge

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LADY RACHEL RUSSELL (1636-1723)

[69]

E
NGLAND was in a troubled state when Lady Rachel Russell was born.

Charles I. was king, but the people were not happy under his rule. England became divided into two parties—some for him, and some against him. Among the king's firmest and most staunch supporters was the Earl of Southampton, Rachel Russell's father. He was a loyal Englishman, and when affairs came to a crisis, and civil war broke out—though he saw what must be the result—he stuck to his king, and fought manfully for him. He married a French lady of noble birth, and had two daughters, Elizabeth and Rachel.

When Rachel was yet a baby, her mother died. She never had much education, perhaps because her father was a great deal away, and she had no mother to watch over it; perhaps because the country was in too disturbed a state for any progress in learning; and the result is, that her letters are full of mistakes in spelling. She must have heard a great deal about politics as a child; for her father took his seat in the Long Parliament when his little daughter was only six; she must have heard him talk of the battle of Edgehill and the bravery of Prince Rupert; she must have heard about Oliver Cromwell; and when she was [70] thirteen, all England rang with the news that Charles the king was beheaded. Her father was one of those faithful four, who, on that snowy winter day, bore the coffin of the king to the royal tomb at Windsor. Then he took his family away into Hampshire, while Oliver Cromwell was at the head of the English government.

When she was seventeen, her father chose her a husband in Lord Vaughan.

"It was acceptance rather than choosing on either side," she said in after life. However, the young couple went to live in Wales, and were very happy, and everyone loved her and respected her.

"All that know you are forced to honour you," wrote a friend to her one day, "neither are you to thank them for it, because they cannot do otherwise."

Fourteen happy years passed away, and then Lady Vaughan was left a widow. She went to live with her elder sister Elizabeth, now Elizabeth Noel, whom she loved very dearly. Her father was dead, and Elizabeth had inherited his seat in Hampshire; so, in the home where they had played as children, the two sisters now lived together.

In 1669 she married William Russell, a young nobleman. Having travelled abroad, he had returned to England in time to become a member of the House of Commons which restored Charles II. to the throne, and from this time he took a prominent part in the politics of the day. He consulted his wife about everything; he was guided by her advice in moments of extreme difficulty; he depended on her judgment, and he found it just and good. On the other hand, she watched every event in which her husband's interest [71] was concerned, with unwearying love; his happiness and success were hers, his sorrows and defeats were shared by her too. They were not often parted during the fourteen years of their married life, but when they were separated their letters show how long the time seemed, and how drearily the days passed.

"The few hours we have been parted seem too many to me to let this first post-night pass without giving my dear man a little talk," she wrote to him, when he had been obliged to be present at the parliament, just called together again. She tells him about their little child named after her mother, Rachel, how she "fetched but one sleep last night," and how "very good she was this morning;" how she is writing in the nursery with "little Fubs," as they generally called her, and how she knew the father would be rejoiced to hear that Fubs "was breeding her teeth so well," and beginning to talk.

The letters are badly written, bad grammar is used, and the spelling neglected, but they are so homely and happy, they are written with such ease and enjoyment, that we forget that the writer was never really educated, though an earl's daughter.

In 1679 Elizabeth Noel died. This was no common loss to Lady Rachel Russell; it was her only sister, her beloved, the person whom, next to her husband, she loved most dearly in all the world. Though she writes to her husband of her loss, she does not fill her letters with her own feelings; she tries to rouse herself to public affairs, which will interest him more, and chats about the three little children and their doings and sayings. She taught the children herself, and [72] their happiness and welfare was her great object in life; she liked "Fubs" to write to her father whenever he went away, and the conscientious little girl used to bring a tiny letter to be enclosed, though sometimes tears were shed when the spelling and writing would not come right.

Nevertheless, very anxious times were hovering over England, and Lady Rachel Russell was not blind to her husband's danger.

Lord Russell had been in the parliament that called Charles II. to the throne; but slowly he and many others awoke to the fact that they had blundered. Charles was weak, selfish, unfit to rule England, unsettled as she was then, and a few years after the Restoration Lord Russell, together with others, joined the country party against the court. He was a generous, kind hearted man, "raised by birth and fortune high above his fellows," and he soon became one of the most powerful opponents of the court, one of the most influential leaders of the country party. By the Whigs he was honoured as a chief; he was one of those who wished to exclude the Duke of York, brother to Charles II., from the throne on account of his religion.

In 1678 Lord Russell was supporting a bitter measure against the court party. Lady Russell was very much alarmed; she wrote to him in the House, and begged him not to support it.

"If you do, I am most assured you will repent it; if I have any interest, I use it to beg you to be silent in this case, at least to-day."

In 1681 a crisis arrived. The king and parliament [73] could no longer act together, and when parliament was dissolved, two men were at the head of the struggle. One of these was Lord Russell. Meetings were held; some proposed to overthrow the king and set up a new ruler; others wished to rise and murder Charles II. But they were discovered, and Lord Russell was arrested. The messenger waited about the door for many hours, so that Lord Russell might have escaped, for the back door was open, but he would not; "he had done nothing," he said, "which caused him to dread the justice of the country." Lady Russell consulted his friends, and they agreed he ought not to fly.

Then he was sent to the Tower. It was the 26th of June. During the fortnight that elapsed between his arrest and trial, Lady Russell spared neither pains nor energy in finding supporters to defend her husband. She was constantly with him, she wrote for him, she encouraged his timid friends, she strengthened his firm ones, she left not a stone unturned to provide against the charges which would be brought forward to crush him whom she loved so dearly.

At last the trial came. The night before, Lady Russell wrote a few lines to her husband; she told him that she was going to be present, for friends thought she might be of use; she begged him to keep up heart for her  sake as well as his own. The court was densely filled; as Lady Russell entered, her pale face calm and brave, a thrill of anguish ran through the crowd.

"We have no room to sit down," said the counsel. Lord Russell asked for pen, ink, paper, and the use of [74] any papers he had, adding, "May I have somebody to write for me?"

"Any of your servants shall assist you in writing anything you please," said the Chief Justice.

"My wife," said Lord Russell, "is here to do it." And Lady Russell stood up in the midst of that crowded court to show that she was willing, more than willing, to fulfil this almost sacred office for her husband.

"If my lady will give herself that trouble," said the judge, carelessly.

Trouble! It was no trouble to her. The resolute wife took her seat beside her husband, took up the pen, and during the whole long trial sat there, his only secretary and adviser.

Even when the sentence of death was pronounced, Lady Russell did not give way. She tried later to move the heart of the king, but in vain; though she was the daughter of one of his oldest and most faithful servants, he refused pardon, unless Lord Russell would change his opinions.

"It is all true," said the king when Russell's innocence was pleaded; "but it is true that, if I do not take his life, he will take mine."

Slowly all hope disappeared, and the fatal day approached. Lord Russell wrote to the king, "I hope your majesty's displeasure against me will end with my life, and that no part of it shall fall on my wife and children."

His last thoughts were for his wife; he dreaded the blow for her more than for himself. The parting with her was the hardest thing he had to do, for he was afraid [75] she would hardly be able to bear it, he said to Burnet, the bishop who was allowed to be with him the last few days.

Tears came into his eyes when he spoke of her. The last day came, and Lady Russell brought the three little children to say good-bye for ever to their father. "Little Fubs" was only nine, her sister Catherine seven, and the baby three years old, too young to realize his loss. He kissed them all calmly, and sent them away.

"Stay and sup with me," he said to his wife. She stayed, and they ate their last meal together. Then they kissed in silence, and silently she left him. When she had gone, Lord Russell broke down completely.

"Oh, what a blessing she has been to me!" he cried. "It is a great comfort to me to leave my children in such a mother's care; she has promised me to take care of herself for their sakes; she will do it," he added resolutely.

Lady Russell returned heavy-hearted to the sad home to which she would never welcome him again, there to count the wretched hours till the fatal stroke was given.

On July 21st, 1683, she was a widow, and her children fatherless. They left their dreary London house, and went to an old abbey in the country, where Lady Russell gave herself up to the education of her children. She never neglected this duty she had taken upon herself, and her daughters never had any other teacher but their mother. She tried to dismiss her sorrow for their sakes, and interest herself in their pleasures. Politics still interested her, and it was with [76] troubled feelings she saw James II. mount the throne of England.

In 1688 her eldest daughter Rachel was married. The same year the Great Revolution began.

In 1689, William and Mary were crowned; one of their first acts was to annul the sentence against Lord Russell. When the parchment which effected this was laid on the table of that assembly in which, eight years before, his face and his voice had been so well known, the excitement was great. One old Whig member tried to speak, but could not. "I cannot," he faltered, "name my Lord Russell without disorder. It is enough to name him. I am not able to say more."

Lady Russell's health was broken, and she was threatened with blindness. It has been said that she wept herself blind, but this is hardly true. It was discovered she had cataract, and must give up writing by candlelight and reading.

Soon after her son, Lord Tavistock, was married at fifteen to a rich heiress, and her daughter Catherine to a nobleman.

An amusing account is given of Catherine and her husband, which shows what favour the family was in at this time.

When they drew near Belvoir, where they were going to stay, verses were presented them on the occasion of their happy marriage; at the gate stood "four-and-twenty fiddlers all in a row; four-and-twenty trumpeters with their tan-tara-ra-ra's; four-and-twenty ladies, and as many parsons."

Her son was only just married when Lady Russell [77] was requested to let him stand to be elected to the House of Commons. He was just going to Cambridge to study, a mere boy, and his mother, feeling it would ruin his future, and turn his head, to enter parliament so young, refused, though the offer was a tempting one.

In 1701 she was called to the deathbed of that son, who had caught small pox, which was raging at that time. His wife and little children had been obliged to flee from it, and his mother was left to comfort his last hours.

"I did not know the greatness of my love to him, till I could see him no more," she cried, when he had gone. She was confused and stunned by the suddenness of his death, but she had need of all her strength, for another blow was close at hand.

Six months after, her second daughter Catherine died. Rachel, Duchess of Devonshire, was very ill at the time, but, knowing of her sister's illness, she constantly enquired for her. It was all the poor mother could do to keep up herself, and conceal from Rachel the death of her sister for a time.

The last years of Lady Russell's life were calm, but very sad;—her husband, her son and daughter, were all gone, and she longed to follow them.

At last, on a September day in 1723, she died in the arms of her daughter Rachel, the little "Fubs" of by-gone days, and she was buried beside the husband whom she had loved and served so devotedly during the few happy years of their married life.


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