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Found Feminism: Jael Boscawen (1647-1730)

2012 September 24

This isn’t ghoulish, I promise you. Although it does involve graveyards. In a cool, feminist way though, right?

This plaque is in St Mary Abbots Parish Church in Kensington, and is a slice of history I thought worth sharing.

A marble plaque with engraved black script dedicated to the life of Jael Boscawen, born Jael Godolphin.

An epic tale. Set in stone.

Let me introduce you to someone I didn’t know existed until a couple of weeks ago. Jael Boscawen. She was born Jael Godolphin in 1647, a revolutionary year in which King Charles I was captured by Cromwell,  the Levellers published their manifesto and the New Model Army marched on London.

Challenging times. And a challenging lady, it seems.

Before we get down to details, the case for the defence.

Why is a bit of stone in a church and a woman long dead a relevant Found Feminism?

Well, it’s about history and culture. We know that there has been a problem with women in history – as in, there often don’t seem to be as good, or rich, or as many records for the ladies of the house as the menfolk. Despite it being almost certain that there were as many women in the past as men. There’s an underlying collective shoulder shrug of “well, that’s because women generally didn’t really ever do anything of any note.”  With the snide sidenote of “and generally never will”.

Which is sexism at its most toxic, and history at its most lazy.

When we do find written documentation about women like this one, it’s even more important and valuable to dive into it. Seeking out these women and their history is part of the feminist project. Writing the history of women, and telling it, is part of that project too. The more women we can find from the past, the more confident we will be at reminding ourselves that being a woman does not confine you to being a helpmeet. Then or now.

This is especially true when the women are not quite what we might expect. And such is the case of Jael Godolphin.

What struck me about this plaque in particular is that it seems to be the only record I can find of her. She’s a mystery. A quick Google of her name doesn’t reveal an awful lot. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. Her life, as far as we savvy internet creatures are concerned, was no life at all. She was born, she married, she had children, she died. The same bland story of so many women in the past, it seems.

Finding a history written in stone is significant because it indicates how important she must have been (this kind of dedication, with its prominent place by the church door, would not have been cheap). But more significant,  perhaps, is how she is described. The stereotypical view of a “good” woman from this time period would have her as a dutiful wife, daughter, mother, etc.

Not so with Jael Godolphin. The words written about her are about, well… her.

She was adorned with rare faculties of the mind, singular acuteness, sagacity and judgement, with a generous heart.

Let’s be clear. There’s no prattle about how meek, mild and akin to the Virgin Mary she was. No, this woman from the 17th century is immortalised in an expensive chunk of stone, by people who loved and respected her for her mind. Her brain. Her ability to make decisions. To make good decisions, certainly – she had a kind heart, but the brain came first. Exactly the sort of text you might expect to see on the grave of a (male) patron.

Now this is the bit where it gets even better.

Confessedly the ornament and at the same time the tacit reproach of a wicked Age.

Not only was she smart, she was also complicated. I would add her to a fantasy dinner table guest list in a heartbeat, if only to be able to unpick that sentence. What does it mean? In my head she is an Elizabeth I figure, who used the perceptions of her gender to her advantage, self-aware and very canny. But all I have are these words. Not even a picture. However, given all the problems with women and images, perhaps these words are better?

I’m going to end on a shoutout for events such as National Women’s History Month and resource gathering projects such as Wikipedia’s Women’s History. This post was done with love, but not a lot of technical know-how on the whole history front. I stopped doing the subject at 14 when it became clear I was not getting much out of endless, collective-guilt-inducing rehashes of the bombing of Dresden.

If there are any historians out there inspired by this and better at research than me, I’d love to know more about her.

  • Found Feminism: an ongoing series of images, videos, photos, comics, posters or excerpts – anything really, which shows feminist ideas at work in the everyday world. What’s brightened your day, or made you stop and think? Share it here – send your finds to [email protected]!
5 Responses leave one →
  1. Simon Trafford permalink
    September 24, 2012

    Excellent piece and thoroughly intriguing. A quick glance at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography shows that she doesn’t have an entry there, either, although she could almost certainly be chased using the biographies and source materials given in the DNB entries for her brother Sydney and her son Hugh, both of whom have entries (as they do in Wikipedia). (Entirely typical to be able to see historical women only through their relationships with historical men, incidentally.) But the DNB entry for her son notes that Jael was a friend of Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, which shows that there must be at least some trace of her in the records. She’s of a level in society and period where it would be no surprise if there were indeed quite decent information recorded on her somewhere.

    Oh, and hi, Sarah: I don’t know if you’ll remember but we met ages and ages ago at Planet Angel. :-)

    • September 27, 2012

      Hi Simon,

      Yes, it’s very strange how little there is about her – probably why I find her so fascinating.

      And I do remember you (and the dancing!)

  2. Ann Clegg permalink
    October 12, 2012

    Hi – Jael Boscawen was the wife of Edward the First Earl of Falmouth. She was the daughter of Sir Francis Godolphin ( 1605 – 1667) of Godolphin in Cornwall and his wife Dorothy Berkeley ofYyarlington in Somerset. A great Royalist household. They had 16 children of whom 13 survived infancy. The most notable being Sir William MP, Sidney, National Statesman 1645 – 1712,Henry, Provost of Eton and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Charles MP who married his cousin Elizabeth who founded Godolphin School for Girls.
    Jael helped to bring up Sidney’s only child Francis ( later 2nd Earl) when his mother Margaret Blagge died immediately following his birth. Margaret was the muse of John Evelyn. John Evelyn later engineered with Sidney Godolphin, the sponsorship of Evelyn’s grandson Jack and the marriage of jack to Jael’s daugher Anne Boscawen. Hope this is useful.

    I am a historian and secretary of the Friends of Godolphin, a National Trust Supporter Group, researching the history of the Godolphin family. Sorry to disappoint you – they were great Royalists not Parliamentarians! Ann Clegg

  3. Eithne Bearden permalink
    April 9, 2013

    Just wanted to point out that there is one error in Ann Clegg’s otherwise excellent response. Jael Boscawen’s husband was Edward Boscawen, the son of Hugh Boscawen of Tregothnan, Cornwall. He was never raised to the peerage (hence Jael’s title of “Mrs. Boscawen” – otherwise she’d be the Countess of Falmouth. ) He died in 1685, and it seems that the widowed Jael and her widowed brother Sidney combined households. They seem to have helped each other and he was close to her.

    Her son Hugh became the first Viscount Falmouth.

    She described herself in later years as “‘very simple* and ‘a worn out insignificant old creature’.”, but she was able to gently take Sarah Duchess of Marlborough to task in later years when she got a bit out of hand in her dealings with her children. (But like all Godolphins – with tact!)

  4. Ann Clegg permalink
    May 29, 2013

    Thanks Eithne – my mistake.
    One other bit of info to add to the story of Jael. At the time of Margaret’s (nee Blagge) death, when Jael and John Evelyn took charge of Sidney’s household and made the funeral arrangements, Jael was unable to travel with the coffin to Cornwall as not just was she looking after Margaret’s new born child Francis but she was nursing her own child Peggie who died in London while the rest of the family were in Cornwall. Sidney wrote this to Jael on 13 Oct 1678 –
    “God Almighty is able to send us comforts equall to those he takes from us if he sees fit, butb tis better not to have our portion in this life; people are too apt in prosperity to forget to whome they owe it. Affliction is easier to beare & keep one’s duty. I hope you and I shall always endeavour to doe ours & I pray every day that wee may succeed in it, I doubt not but you doe so too”.
    quoted in Transformations of Love by Frances Harris. Oxford UP 2002

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