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Response to Review of Love, Lust, and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility

First, I would like to thank Ingrid Tague for a very thorough and thoughtful discussion of my book. I have only a minor factual correction to make. In her summary of chapter four, Tague states that neither Mary Wroth nor William Herbert were married during their affair. While Mary indeed was widowed when she gave birth to her cousin’s children, Herbert was married to Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Apparently, the spouses did not spend much time together: while Herbert made a successful career for himself at court and participated in the pleasures of courtly life with great gusto, his wife usually remained sequestered in the country. However, the couple did not have children until late in their marriage and those children did not survive past infancy, so there were no legitimate children to lay claim to Herbert’s inheritance after his death.

When it comes to the discussion of the courtly love ideal, I believe Tague makes a valid point, but I would like to interject a more nuanced view. I do hold that the courtly love ideal was indeed in operation among Elizabethan and Jacobean noblewomen. Elite women who were perceived as beautiful, who were witty, brave, and able to command, were often praised for those particular qualities, even though they were in stark contrast to the religious ideal of female silence, obedience, and humility. These women, especially if they were married, usually had a remarkable freedom of action and speech. The majority of the women in the case studies I present in the book (Penelope Rich, Mary Wroth, and Frances Villiers, for example) were celebrated beauties, and their contemporaries lauded them for their intelligence, charm, bravery, and social position. Often, the praise came in the form of literary dedications, as in the poetic expressions of Philip Sidney regarding Penelope Rich. The fact that these women were thus seen as praiseworthy partly ensured them their positions within their noble circles, and thus partly ensured them support when they became involved in illicit relationships. Pragmatism and personal, social, and political considerations still tended to be the most important reasons behind tacit acceptance of, or negative reaction to, illicit sex.

Tague argues that the correspondence on which I rely does not bear out my claim that the courtly love ideal played a role in excusing illicit sex and that the letters rather mostly talk about the pragmatic side of the cases. While I think that she has a legitimate point and that she has definitely hit on an area of my evidence that needs to be further bolstered, I do discuss a few direct examples of women receiving support partly because of their fulfillment of the courtly love ideal. For example, Sir Kenelm Digby’s passionate defense of Frances Villiers includes references to her ‘honor and bravery’ and her ‘natural endowments’, which had been ‘polished, refined, and heightened’ by her ‘afflictions’ and that she thus deserved support from her peers (p. 198).

I very much appreciate and agree with Tague’s perceptive remark regarding the need for an even more detailed understanding of the political, religious, and cultural affiliations of the various noble circles. I do believe that those studies would require additional books, however. Tague’s remark also brought to mind a bit of a mystery that I encountered during my research and writing, that, as of yet, I have been unable to solve. Many of the women and men in the cases that I studied had ties with Catholicism in various ways. For example, Penelope Rich toyed with the idea of conversion to Catholicism at one point, but her lover persuaded her not to go through with it. Frances Villiers and her lover Robert Howard did both convert to Catholicism, as did Sir Robert Dudley and the maid-of-honor who illegally absconded with him. There are other examples besides these, but as much as I have racked my brain to try to understand what this Catholic link might mean, I have not come up with a satisfactory answer. Perhaps, it is only a coincidence. I very much would like to invite the ideas of other scholars.