Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford

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Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford, in peeress's robes

Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford (née Harington) (1580–1627) was a major aristocratic patron of the arts and literature in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, the primary non-royal performer in contemporary court masques, a letter-writer, and a poet. She was an adventurer (shareholder) in the Somers Isles Company, investing in Bermuda,[1] where Harrington Sound is named after her.[2][3]

Parentage and marriage[edit]

Lucy Harington was the daughter of Sir John Harington of Exton, and Anne Kelway. She was well-educated for a woman in her era, and knew French, Spanish, and Italian. She was a member of the Sidney/Essex circle from birth, through her father, first cousin to Sir Robert Sidney and Mary, Countess of Pembroke; she was a close friend of Essex's sisters Penelope Rich and Dorothy Percy, Countess of Northumberland, and the latter named one of her daughters Lucy after her.

Lucy Harington married Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford, on 12 December 1594, when she was thirteen years old and he was twenty-two, at St Dunstan's on Stepney Green. She miscarried her first child in February 1596 at Bedford House on the Strand in London.[4]

The Earl of Bedford got himself into serious trouble in 1601 when he rode with the Earl of Essex in rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. The Bedford fortunes revived when the reign of James I began in 1603. Several English nobles secretly sent representatives into Scotland to try to gain favour and court appointments.[5] The Countess of Bedford audaciously skipped the late queen's funeral and rode hard to the Scottish border, ahead of a party of gentlewomen appointed by the Privy Council, and got an audience in Scotland with the new king's wife Anne of Denmark. The new queen immediately made her a Lady of the Bedchamber and she became a trusted confidant.[6] The queen came from Stirling Castle to Holyrood Palace with a convoy of English ladies who had come seeking attendance and on 31 May 1603 attended church in Edinburgh accompanied by these would-be companions.[7] Some of the ladies stayed at John Kinloch's house in Edinburgh.[8]

The Countess of Bedford travelled south with Anne of Denmark and Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth. At Dingley, Northamptonshire she rode south to meet Lady Anne Clifford, perhaps at Wymondley Priory, and brought her to Dingley on 24 June.[9][10]


Bedford performed in several of the masques staged at Court in the early 17th century, including The Masque of Blackness, Hymenaei, The Masque of Beauty, The Masque of Queens, and The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses. On two occasions in 1617, she functioned as a theatrical producer, instigating and organising the 1617 Court performance of Robert White's masque Cupid's Banishment, acted by students from the first English girls' school, the Ladies Hall in Deptford. In February 1617 the masque by Ben Jonson presented by Lord Hay to the French ambassador Baron de Tour, the Lovers Made Men, was staged by the Countess of Bedford.[11]


She was a noted patron of Ben Jonson, who dedicated his play Cynthia's Revels (1600) to her and addressed several of his Epigrams to her, extolling her patronage. By his own admission, Jonson portrayed her as Ethra in his lost pastoral, The May Lord — though he may also have depicted her as Lady Haughty, president of the Collegiates in Epicene (1609). When Jonson was imprisoned in 1605 for his role in the Eastward Ho scandal, he wrote a letter to an unknown lady, who is thought by some scholars to have been the Countess of Bedford.[12]

In addition to Jonson, Bedford supported other significant poets of her era, including Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, George Chapman, and John Donne. She might be the "Idea" of Drayton's pastoral Idea: The Shepherd's Garland (1593) and of his sonnet sequence Idea's Mirror (1594). Drayton dedicated his Mortimeriados (1594) to her, as Daniel did his Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604). Bedford patronised a range of lesser writers of her era, including the translator John Florio, who credited her help in his translation of the essays of Montaigne. She "received more dedications than any other woman associated with the drama" in her era.[13]

Bedford was the godmother of Donne's second daughter, also named Lucy, and the namesake of Sir Henry Goodere's daughter (later wife of Sir Francis Nethersole). Donne seems to have been deeply involved with her on a psychological level — "Most of the poems of Donne's middle years relate, in one way or another, to this glamorous and intriguing woman."[14] Her contradictions could be provocative: the Countess was a dedicated Calvinist, and supported many Calvinist authors and thinkers – yet she allegedly performed bare-breasted in Court masques. Her relationships with some of her poets, including Donne and Drayton, were sometimes uneven; poets who dedicated their works to her could also complain of the loss of her favour.

She was also receptive to women poets, such as her cousin Cecily Bulstrode. Bedford occasionally wrote poems herself, including a poem Donne claims he saw in the garden of her Twickenham estate. Only one of her poems is extant, "Death be not proud, thy hand gave not this blow", an epitaph on Bulstrode. This poem has been attributed to Donne, and suggestively shares an opening clause with his Holy Sonnet X; nevertheless, it is now considered much more likely to be Bedford's poem. The elegy has an image of Bulstrode's breast as a crystal palace and the repository of her soul, clearer than the crystal;

From out the Christall Pallace of her brest
The clearer soule was call'd to endlesse rest.[15][16]

Bedford certainly wrote an elegy on the death of her cousin Bridget Markham at Twickenham Park in 1609.[17]

While best remembered for her patronage of writers, Bedford also supported musicians, John Dowland being a noteworthy example. She is the dedicatee of Dowland's Second Book of Songs (1600).

A few scholars have identified the Earl and Countess of Bedford as the allegorised couple in Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle, who left "no posterity" (line 59) — yet since the poem was published in 1601, when the Countess was only twenty years old, the identification has struck others as unlikely.

She was a significant figure in the development of English country-house and garden design, centering on her estates at Twickenham Park and Moor Park. An Italian writer Giacomo Castelvetro dedicated a book on fruit and vegetables to her.[18] She described her building and improvements at Moor Park in a letter to a friend; "my works att the More, whear I have been a patcher this sommer and I am still adding some trifles of pleasure to that place I am so much love with, as I were so fond of any man I were in hard case."[19]


As one of the most influential women at James's court, she was also involved in a range of political issues; in the later part of the reign she was among the most prominent supporters of Elizabeth of Bohemia, who had been brought up in her father's household at Coombe Abbey.

Her husband, the Earl of Bedford fell from his horse in July 1613 and was seriously injured.[20] The Countess gave up a plan to travel to Spa, Belgium for her health. John Chamberlain wrote that she came back to the royal court, but affected by grief she used less cosmetics than the other women at court, "Marry, she is somewhat reformed in her attire, and forebears painting, which they say makes her somewhat strange among so many vizards, which together with their frizzled powdered hair makes them look all alike, so you can scant know one from another at first view."[21]

In August 1616 she was with the court at Woodstock Palace, the only countess present, when George Villiers was created Viscount Buckingham.[22] She visited Anne of Denmark at Nonsuch Palace in July 1617.[23] In 1617 she was godmother of Elizabeth Gordon, daughter of Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun and Louisa Gordon whose mother Geneviève Petau de Maulette is said to have taught French to Elizabeth of Bohemia. The other godparents were the Earl of Hertford and Jean Drummond, Countess of Roxburghe.[24]

Prominent as she was, both Bedford and her husband had serious financial problems throughout their lives. Lady Bedford reportedly had debts of £50,000 in 1619, apart from the Earl's massive indebtedness.

The court physician Théodore de Mayerne noted she had "podagra" or gout.[25] In 1619 he treated her for the smallpox that blinded her in one eye, and in 1620 treated her for depression which he recorded as "hypochondriacus".[26]

Lucy, Countess of Bedford died in the same month as her husband, May 1627. None of their children survived infancy.

In fiction[edit]

  • Lucy Russell is the subject of The Noble Assassin (2011), a historical novel by Christie Dickason.
  • Vivian Bearing refers to herself as Lucy, Countess of Bedford on one occasion in Margaret Edson's play Wit.


  1. ^ John Henry Lefroy, Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of The Bermudas or Somers Islands, vol. 1 (London, 1877), p. 99.
  2. ^ Bermuda Online" Bermuda's Hamilton Parish
  3. ^ Hamilton Parish Council
  4. ^ Lesley Lawson, Out of the Shadows (London, 2007), pp. 19, 28.
  5. ^ Journal of Sir Roger Wilbraham (London, 1902), p. 55.
  6. ^ John Leeds Barroll, Anna of Denmark, Queen of England (Philadelphia, 2001), pp. 43-45.
  7. ^ 'The Diarey (sic) of Robert Birrell', in John Graham Dalyell, Fragments of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1798), pp. 59-60
  8. ^ Dawson Turner, Descriptive Index, p. 134 no. 90, now British Library Add. MS 19401 f.185.
  9. ^ John Nichols, Progresses of James the First, vol. 1 (London, 1828), p. 174.
  10. ^ Jessica L. Malay, Anne Clifford's Autobiographical Writing, 1590-1676 (Manchester, 2018), pp. 18-20: Katherine Acheson, The Memoir of 1603 and the Diary of 1616-1619 (Broadview, Toronto, 2006), pp. 50-1.
  11. ^ Norman Egbert McClure, The Letters of John Chamberlain, vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1939), pp. 51, 55, 57.
  12. ^ Joseph, p. 98.
  13. ^ Bergeron, p. 82.
  14. ^ Carey, p. xxvii.
  15. ^ Michelle O'Callaghan, 'Lucy Russell: British Library Harley 4064', Early Modern Women Research Network.
  16. ^ Bedford's Elegy
  17. ^ See external links.
  18. ^ Joan Thirsk,Food in Early Modern England (London, 2007), p. 67.
  19. ^ Lord Braybrooke, The Private Correspondence of Jane Lady Cornwallis (London, 1842), p. 48.
  20. ^ Lesley Lawson, Out of the Shadows (London, 2007), pp. 121-2.
  21. ^ Thomas Birch & Robert Folkestone Williams, The Court and times of James the First, vol. 1 (London, 1848), p. 262.
  22. ^ William Shaw & G. Dyfnallt Owen, HMC 77 Viscount De L'Isle Penshurst, vol. 5 (London, 1961), p. 408.
  23. ^ William Shaw & G. Dyfnallt Owen, HMC 77 Viscount De L'Isle Penshurst, vol. 5 (London, 1961), p. 411-2.
  24. ^ Robert Gordon, Genealogical history of the Earldom of Sutherland (Edinburgh, 1813), p. 343.
  25. ^ Henry Ellis, Original Letters, 2nd series vol. 3 (London, 1827), p. 247.
  26. ^ Lesley Lawson, Out of the Shadows (London, 2007), pp. 149-51, 155.


  • Barroll, John Leeds. Anne of Denmark, Queen of England: A Cultural Biography. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
  • Bergeron, David Moore. Textual Patronage in English Drama, 1570–1640. London, Ashgate, 2006.
  • Carey, John, ed. John Donne: The Major Works.
  • Davidson, Peter, and Jane Stevenson, eds. Early Modern Women Poets: An Anthology. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Lesley Lawson, Out of the Shadows: The Life of Lucy, Countess of Bedford. London, Continuum, 2007.
  • Joseph, T., ed. Ben Jonson: A Critical Study. New Delhi, Anmol, 2002.
  • Lewalski, Barbara. "Lucy, Countess of Bedford: Images of a Jacobean Courtier and Patroness." In Politics of Discourse, ed. by Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1987.

External links[edit]