Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

A Proselytising Protestant Commonwealth: The Religious and Political Ideals of Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1614-1691)

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

A Proselytising Protestant Commonwealth: The Religious and Political Ideals of Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1614-1691)

Article excerpt

Recent work has opened up stimulating new avenues through which to explore women's political agency in early modern England.1 This research argues convincingly that exclusion from institutionalised power in the Houses of Parliament and in the established church constitutes a limit for women within a larger political culture rather than completely excluding them from politics. The consequence of this scholarship is to reconstitute early modern politics as a disparate field of competing interests between networks affiliated by ties of kinship, religion or shared intellectual endeavour, rather than a simple binary between the public realm of office and the private, apolitical realm of the household to which women are perceived to be relegated. This in turn offers a means to frame and understand women's political agency in early modern culture and to analyse their motivations and methods.

But few such studies from the period are able to draw on material in which early modern women explicitly theorise the political structure of their society. Whilst early modern women frequently refracted political analyses through poetry and drama, and their religious writings have offered exceptionally fertile ground for critical exploration of this issue, relatively few texts can be described as directly intervening in ongoing political events. Katherine Boyle Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1614-1691), however, intends her letters to have a powerful and immediate influence on political actors. She perceives in the ideological ferment of the 1640s the template for a new architecture of state, and her own incisive analysis of the weaknesses inherent in the constitutional arrangements of Stuart England inform her search for a new form of political government, one which could reconcile the imperatives of civil government with her religious goal of liberty of conscience for all Protestants.


Ranelagh was born in 1614, the fifth daughter and seventh child of Richard Boyle, a minor Kentish gentleman who found the natural outlet for his entrepreneurial talents in the turbulent world of late sixteenth-century ireland.2 according to his own narrative, his triumphal ascent to the peak of the Earldom of cork and membership of the English Privy council in 1640 was primarily a matter of God's providential interventions on his behalf. But Boyle recognised early on the importance of self-fashioning and his memoir cloaks the combination of criminality and enterprise with which he eventually established himself as the wealthiest man in ireland.3

From the point of view of Ranelagh's career, her father's key achievement was his capacity to create and maintain the network of allies with which he intended to safeguard the family fortunes in ireland and advance them in England. He consolidated his contacts with the most influential men of the day through a strategic marriage policy. He spread his net wide so as to encompass families of all political stripes, and married his children into the Howard, Rich, goring, Killigrew and feilding families in England and into old English and new English families in ireland.4 crucially he promoted family loyalty between the siblings, creating what Patrick little describes as a 'Boyle affinity', in which Ranelagh took the pre-eminent place.5

Ranelagh also forged her own alliances. She enjoyed a close friendship with Viscount falkland, and her ongoing contact with several other men associated with him like Edward Hyde, gilbert Sheldon, Henry Hammond and Edmund Waller suggests that she belonged to the loose intellectual affinity referred to as the great Tew circle; and as we shall see many of the ideas associated with this group are implicit in her political analyses.6 The second generation of the Boyle family eventually split their political allegiances: both Ranelagh and Roger Boyle, lord Broghill supported the Protectorate while their brothers Richard, later Earl of Burlington, and francis, Viscount Shannon spent time in exile with charles ii. …

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