Grace Mildmay

on Wednesday, 23 September 2015. Posted in Other

Grace Mildmay (Grace Sharington) was the sister of Olive Sharington. The sisters had been daughters and coheirs of Sir Henry Sharington, the second owner of Lacock Abbey. Grace does not appear much in the Lacock archive because she was involved in other estates, but she was an important part of Olive’s life.

Grace Mildmay

Grace disputed her father’s nuncupative will, that he had made on his deathbed leaving almost everything he owned to her sister Olive. Once the dispute had been resolved many years later, she took possession of an equal number of estates, including nearby Bowden.

She felt very wronged by the affair over her father’s estates, particularly since in her opinion she had done Sir Henry Sharington no wrong and it was her sister who had persuaded him to let her have the better share. She managed to prove that her father’s will had not been made good and eventually successfully fight for her share. Before her father died, she married Sir Anthony Mildmay and they lived with his father Walter in Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire. Her husband was often away at court, so she was often alone but became an important local figure, performing many charitable duties locally, and she also used her time to study. She was extremely well educated and had a good knowledge of medicine from her governess, Mistress Hamblyn. She was to use this knowledge well, and concocted cures for various illnesses from plants, chemicals and minerals. She was also very good at music, playing the lute, singing and setting words to music. She wrote several journals and an autobiography: in the Lacock archive we have a copy of her journals. She was one of the first women in history to write an autobiography. Her journal was written when she was old, but it describes her life as a young girl and her values and beliefs. Part of it is “Experience I counsel unto my children” which includes advice to be knowledgeable of the scriptures, then with the histories in the Acts and Monuments of the Church, knowledge of the chronicles of the land, knowledge of the statutes and laws of the land, and understanding of the writings of philosophers. She writes “A mind thus furnished will think all times ill bestowed in books and plays of idle and all such fruitless and unprofitable matter which will pervert and carry the mind from all goodness and is an introduction unto all evil”.

In Grace’s journal she describes her upbringing as strict, both from her parents and Mistress Hamblyn, for whom she nevertheless had a lot of respect due to her wisdom and religious beliefs. Grace was brought up, as women were at the time, to do the will of others. Her marriage to Anthony seems to have been arranged, but she decided to do her duty. She married into a Puritan family and had a great deal of respect for her father-in-law and his values. Her marriage probably wasn’t very happy at first, and Anthony was often away. He also had financial difficulties, partly inherited from his father and due to a dispute between him and his brother, and life probably wasn’t very easy in the Mildmay household. When the couple’s daughter was married, Anthony couldn’t give her a portion so Grace gave her all she could of her own fortune. However, after the marriage, Anthony cut off his entail in a property which allowed him to discharge his debts and take full possession of their house at Apethorpe. This allowed Grace, now Lady Mildmay, to be mistress of the house and do her duty to charity and welfare, both with money and her extensive knowledge of medicine. The couple hosted King James I twice, first in 1603 and then in 1612. The later one indicates the first one was a success. It would appear that their marriage became happier as they got older and became used to one another, probably also helped by Anthony being at home more and having been able to sort out his father’s financial concerns.

Also in her journal, Grace spent some time reflecting on the personality of her father-in-law. Her words are carefully chosen but frank, and it is lovely to see the reflections of a woman in that time commenting on such an authoritative figure and masculine presence in her life. She can thank him for her eventual marital happiness: Anthony had wanted to travel the world rather than marry young and settle down, but his father, who liked Grace, told him “If he did not marry with me, he should never bring any other woman into his house”. She was utterly devoted to him, more so than to his wife, whom she still respected, and made sure she conformed to the expectations of a dutiful wife and woman of the household. She writes “And some great personages, ladies of my acquaintance would persuade me to go with them to the Court, to feasts, marriages and plays, saying that it was pity my youth, should be swallowed up without all pleasure of delight in the world. My answer was that God had placed me in this house, and if I found no comfort here, I would never seek it out of this house, and this was my certain resolution”.

Grace also speaks very frankly of her sister, saying that she had told Walter Mildmay that she would be drawn to pieces with wild horses before she yielded to Grace’s demands. After their mother’s death, Grace claimed that Olive “fortified the house to keep me out by force, and kept her possession of all the land but only that part of mine contained in my mother’s jointure which my husband held by force against her”. A year and many pounds later, however, Olive decided to allow Grace to have her share.

A very good article has been written on the life and journal of Grace by Rachel Weigall. A copy of that is also in the Lacock archive. Weigall praises Grace’s education, wisdom and sense of religious belief, and says that her daughter Mary was wisely brought up, writing that Grace “naturally impressed upon her daughter the importance of the religion which she had found to be the only safe guiding principle in her own life”. She was an excellent mistress and housekeeper, very organised and with great care to detail. Weigall describes a portrait of Grace which hung in Apethorpe Hall, which describes her very well: “It is easy to imagine Lady Mildmay as an ideal grandmother. The picture represents her as an elderly woman with a small face, delicate features, grave brown eyes, and lips which, though thin, show a gentle sad smile, as of one who has suffered much, but whose suffering has only made her more gentle and loving. ... So long as the picture hung in her old home, the story went that at dead of night she stepped out of the frame and passed through the house and village to see that all was well and in order, dropping sixpences for all in need”.

When Grace died, she left not only her journal but books of prescriptions and recommendations, and a list of flowers, roots and herbs to be grown in her garden for making medicines. These were copied by her daughter Mary. She died three years after her husband, having been married for about 50 years, and they are buried side by side in Apethorpe Church.

A copy of Grace's journal and the article by Rachel Weigall can be found in 2664/3/4C/1 at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre

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