Friday 2 September 2022

'Defiant to the End' by Karen Maitland

Remains of the Novices Dormitory in Battle Abbey
Photo: Giogo, Wikimedia Commons
There are many infamous people in history I am thankful I never had to encounter, but some historical characters I would love to have met. One of those is the redoubtable dowager Lady Magdalen, Viscountess Montague, (1538-1608), mistress of Battle Abbey. Alhough I think, in life, she might have been just as intimidating as the fictional dowager Countess of Grantham, immortalised by Maggie Smith in ‘Downton Abbey’.

For even in her 70th year, Lady Magdalen was still bravely defying King James I and his ministers by hiding Catholic priests disguised as servants in her house and hosting forbidden Masses for as many as 120 people in her secret chapel, right under the noses of the men sent to trap her. She also allowed an underground Catholic printing press to operate from one of her houses. The authorities believed she was using Battle Abbey to smuggle priests into England from Europe and helping fugitives to escape from England. But though the notorious spy-master, Robert Cecil, tried repeatedly, he never managed to bring her to trial.

Mary of England (1516-58)
 & Felipe II of Spain (1527-1598)
Painting - 16th Century
Royal Museums Greenwich

Magdalen Dacre was born at Naworth Castle, Cumbria. At 13 she was sent as gentlewoman to the Countess of Bedford. At 16, she joined Queen Mary’s household, and became the Queen’s great friend and confidante. In 1554, when Mary married Felipe II of Spain, Magdalen was one of the bridesmaids. Magdalen was unusually tall and pretty, but was very religious, spending much time in prayer and wearing a coarse linen smock under her court clothes.

In 1558, Magdalen married widower, Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague. Montague owned three estates, including Cowdray House in East Sussex and Battle Abbey. Magdalen, raised Montague’s twin children from his first marriage, his first wife having died in childbirth, and bore ten children of her own.

In February 1555, her husband went to Rome on Queen Mary’s behalf to try to persuade Pope Julius III to actively back the restoration of Catholicism in England. In 1557, he joined the Privy Council. He was an executor of Queen Mary’s will and chief mourner at her funeral. After Elizabeth became Queen in 1558, Montague publicly denounced proposals to elevate the status of the Protestant religion and was replaced on the Privy Council.

In 1569, Viscount Montague, together with his son-in-law, the Earl of Southampton, and Magdalen’s brother, was implicated in the ‘Rising of the North’, a plot by Catholics to depose Elizabeth, but escaped punishment.

Part of the ruins of Cowdray House
Photo: Simon Burchill, Wikipedia Commons

In 1586, Montague proved his loyalty to Elizabeth as one of the peers who tried Mary, Queen of Scots, King James' mother. In 1588, Montague prepared to defend England against the approaching Spanish Armada, raising a troop of cavalry. 

In August 1591, Elizabeth visited Montague at Cowdray House, where he entertained her lavishly for a week whilst hiding his Catholic priests and servants within the house throughout her visit. But though he was favoured by Elizabeth, he was also kept under close watch, not least because his estates were so close to the coast, where foreign spies could easily come and go.

The 1st Viscount Montague died suddenly in October 1592 and his widow, Magdalen, afterwards lived mainly in Battle Abbey until her death. Battle Abbey was said to contain a subterranean passage through which priests were smuggled into England and it would have been easy for her to move fugitives between her three properties.

Anthony-Maria Browne
2nd Viscount Montague
Circa 1592
Artist: Unknown.
Source: Christie's

Under Elizabeth, Magdalen’s house was searched only twice, and only one of the priests she was hiding was discovered and arrested. But she always refused to aid treasonous plots. However, Guy Fawkes was for short periods in both her husband’s and grandson’s employ, and after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, her grandson, Anthony-Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount of Montague, was arrested because of this association, but released for lack of evidence.

Whereas under Elizabeth, Magdalen’s ‘crimes’ had been largely ignored, King James and spy-master, Robert Cecil, were determined to close down what had come to be known as ‘Little Rome’ and have Lady Magdalen arrested. She drew the particular attention of the notorious pursuivant, Richard Topcliff, who claimed to have discovered a holy well in Battle Abbey grounds to which she led women ‘as if on pilgrimage’. Three men were sent to try to get proof that Lady Magdalen’s servants were priests in disguise, but all three failed. Two she managed to get imprisoned themselves on various charges and the third, Master N. Benet, mysteriously fell into a shallow pit at the end of the town and was killed. This was bizarrely deemed to be ‘suicide’ by the local coroner and Magdalen’s chaplain, Father Richard Smith, records gleefully that as a result Benet ‘was buried like a dog at the roadside’.

In 1607, the Privy Council announced Lady Magdalen should not be sentenced for her refusal to attend Protestant services, because of her age, status and former loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. It was decision which infuriated both Robert Cecil and King James, because ‘age and status’ certainly hadn’t prevented many others being fined, imprisoned or their property confiscated. The influence of a family friend, Lord Buckhurst in the Privy Council probably helped to prevent her from being prosecuted for recusancy in 1607, but after his death, she was left without a protector.

Effigy of Lady Magdalen, 
now in Easebourne Church, Sussex
Source: Tudor Effigies

Lady Magdalen died at Battle Abbey, Sussex on 8th April 1608 at the aged 70. Five priests came to her house the day before to say Masses for her. It wasn’t until after the death of this remarkable woman, that the Privy Council actively pursued and punished her tenants and servants.

Writing as KJ Maitland, her new novel, 'Traitor in the Ice', the 2nd in her Jacobean crime thriller series, is set at Battle Abbey in 1607 when Daniel Pursglove tries to infiltrate Lady Magdalen’s household. 'Traitor in the Ice' is published by Headline, 2022.


Sue Purkiss said...

What a redoubtable lady! Look forward to reading your book.

Karen Maitland said...

Thanks so much, Sue. She was a quietly strong woman and I think a good many people owed their lives and safety to her.