Born Elizabeth Tanfield in Oxfordshire to the lawyer Laurence Tanfield, Elizabeth Cary was by all accounts remarkably precocious. She mastered French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Hebrew independently, and reportedly read and disputed Calvin’s Institutes at the age of twelve. Her first surviving work is a manuscript translation of Abraham Oretelius’s Le Miroir du Monde (1598). At the age of seventeen, Elizabeth was married in an arranged match to Sir Henry Cary, Viscount of Falkland. Soon after her marriage, Elizabeth read Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Policy but, instead of finding it an exemplary defense of the Anglican Church, found herself unconvinced of its persuasiveness and turned instead to the writings of the early Church fathers and the counsel of Richard Neale, Dean of Westminster. Her play The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, acknowledged as the first play written in English by a woman, was written at some point between 1603 and 1612.
Cary’s sympathy with the Catholic Church was a source of much contention between herself and her husband, who, in aspiring toward the role of courtier, recognized the political danger of having a wife who often refused to attend Anglican services and who spoke publicly of the superiority of the Catholic Church. Falkland’s appointment as Viceregent of Ireland in 1622 was a cause of further contention, as his duties entailed the enforcement of Anglican authority over the Catholic Irish. Unable to reconcile her community projects in Ireland (including training children in trades) with her husband’s political oppressiveness, Elizabeth returned to England in 1625 without her husband. In 1626, after a year’s separation, Cary converted publicly to Catholicism, and Falkland wrote letters to the king and members of the Privy Council claiming his disillusionment with and separation from his wife. At the time, Elizabeth Cary managed to secure the favor of several prominent women at court, including the Duchess of Buckingham and Queen Henrietta Maria, to whom she dedicated her translation of the French Catholic Jacques Davy du Perron’s