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Reading Across Borders: The Case of Anne Clifford’s “Popish” Books

  • Leah Knight
Couverture de                Volume 25, numéro 2, 2014, p. 1-338, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Corps de l’article

Anne Clifford (1590–1676), countess of Pembroke, Dorset, and Montgomery, read a great deal over a long lifetime spent entirely within England’s borders; and by reading books from beyond those borders — both geographical and ideological — Clifford’s intellectual world was opened to matters that might not otherwise have come within her ken. Among such books were three notable titles that moved north from France before finding themselves in Clifford’s hands. These were the anonymous libel most often called Leicester’s Commonwealth; the Jesuit devotional treatise known as Parsons’ Resolution; and François De Sales’ Introduction to a Devout Life. Sometime after their arrival in England, all three met with hostile receptions that led to their confiscation and subsequent covert circulation. Clifford’s choice of such apparently subversive reading material jars with some long-standing prejudices about what an orthodox early modern English woman could, would, or did read, since all three titles were “popish” in origin and often in intent, at least one was distinctly seditious, and two were banned and saw many copies burned before Clifford obtained her own. Some of the wider possibilities of early modern women’s reading practices across intellectual borders may therefore be illuminated by examining these books in conjunction with this particular reader.

The evidence of Clifford’s encounters with these and other books, controversial and otherwise, presents a valuable case study primarily because such a remarkable amount is known about her personal circumstances, owing both to her social prominence and her extensive surviving life-writings. Texts by, about, and owned by Clifford provide a significant if scattered record of her great variety of experiences as a reader, which I am elsewhere attempting to document and represent as fully as possible. This paper therefore aims to contextualize the “popish” books Clifford read within her broader habits, values, and motives as a reader. Here, I only have space to consider elements of the content and contemporary reception of selected items as a basis for inferring what led Clifford to attend to such controversial materials and to leave a record of her encounters with them. This paper, as an element of my larger project, aims to transform errant data into a rich account of a single historical figure’s lifetime of reading in order to enhance our understanding of early modern women’s experiences of literacy, the problematic nature of historical evidence for reading, the dovetailing of institutions and individuals at the nexus of a read text, and the meanings that may arise from books which form a unique corpus owing to their shared treatment by a single known reader.

While the evidence for Clifford’s engagement with the “popish” books in question is slight, it is part of the burden of this paper to suggest that, when studying early modern women’s reading, no evidence should be dismissed on that basis. The historiography of reading, after all, is no criminal court with an evidentiary bar beneath which cases should be dismissed. Since evidence for the reading of early modern women is much harder to locate than that for their male contemporaries — owing to factors such as the asymmetrical gendering of phenomena ranging from educational opportunities to property laws — any amount of proof matters disproportionately more than it might in better circumstances. With this in mind, my argument takes up the counsel of Heidi Brayman Hackel and Catherine E. Kelly who note that the documentation of feminine reading habits in this period and place differs, both in quantity and kind, from that for men, such that scholars in the field must “think creatively about sources and evidence.” [1] In my full study of Clifford’s reading, evidence is accordingly drawn from sources situated along a spectrum of reliability, from unassailable marginalia in copies once owned by Clifford to intertextual allusions that may be detected in Clifford’s writings, as well as the names of authors and titles painted on books portrayed in The Great Picture, a massive triptych Clifford commissioned and displayed for a quarter of a century in two of her places of residence. [2] I do not mean to debate that a bit of paint can guarantee that Clifford actually read all the tomes represented; but it does tell us that she was acquainted with those texts and willing to associate herself with them in a fashion that was extraordinarily public, given the number and variety of Clifford’s visitors. [3] Such proof, if treated with care, can reveal much we would not otherwise learn. As in earlier feminist recoveries of women’s writing, in the history of reading it is equally important to marshal whatever evidence has so far survived the predations of time and patriarchy. In my larger project on Clifford, the range of evidence for her reading will be assessed for what it can and cannot tell us about the uses of reading and meanings of texts available to a particular reader at a time when the development of women’s literacy was becoming a shaping cultural and economic force. [4] The present article is a necessary, if preliminary, step in that direction. It begins by outlining pertinent biographical details and the corpus of evidence for Clifford’s reading — especially of controversial materials — before examining her encounters with three banned Catholic texts and her motives for reading them when and as she did.

Biographical and Evidentiary Background

The story of Anne Clifford’s life has, over the last quarter century, become relatively well known. [5] Born in 1590 to George Clifford (1558–1605) and Margaret Russell (1560–1616), respectively the earl and countess of Cumberland, Clifford survived two brothers to remain an only child. From the age of 15, when her father died, she became involved in lawsuits instigated by her mother who sought to overturn her estranged husband’s will, which excluded their daughter from inheriting considerable lands and titles in favour of the male line; the estates would, by the terms of this will, revert to Clifford only if that line, beginning with her paternal uncle, failed. After years of effort and upon her mother’s death, the cause was decided against Clifford; but in 1643 she nonetheless inherited the disputed estates upon the death of her last male cousin. From then until her death at the age of 86, Clifford actively led the management of these interests, not least by building and rebuilding half a dozen castles and at least as many churches, almshouses, schools, bridges, and mills in northern England. More relevant here is the fact that in the midst of these energetic endeavours, Clifford also devoted a great deal of time and care to reading, as considerable proof suggests she always had done.

While Clifford’s library does not survive intact, her reading is attested by evidence that is remarkably extensive for a woman in early modern England; perhaps for this reason, it has been of interest at least since her eulogy was prepared by the Bishop of Carlisle, Edward Rainbowe. [6] In her own diaries, memoirs, and letters too, Clifford mentions reading (or listening to others read to her) several dozen identifiable printed books and other documents, not least the letters to which she was often replying in her own letters, many of which survive with endorsements in her hand. [7] A few association copies (volumes once owned by Clifford) — including Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, which in a diary she mentions “hearing” read — are dispersed in public and private collections; a number are annotated, some quite thoroughly, either in her hand or her voice as it was captured by scribes, whose hands are often identifiable with particular household officers. [8] Some diary references and association copies also match titles in The Great Picture, in which two depictions of Clifford — one teenaged and one middle-aged, in the left and right panels, respectively — stand surrounded by the representation of four dozen legibly identified books. [9] The painting’s two distinct virtual libraries proffer a tantalizing, if obviously inexact, perspective on Clifford’s actual reading; but cross-references among painted titles, her writings, and association copies corroborate the probative value of both portrait and self-reportage, even if neither can offer the definitive insights of marginalia. [10] Financial accounts from Clifford’s northern estates (which, since they are signed by her, also belong to her reading experience) itemize some books she bought, although, of course, books bought are not always read by their buyers, and Clifford was in the habit of distributing books to her servants for their spiritual edification. [11] The manuscript compilation known as the Great Books of Record (comprising three sets of three large volumes of genealogical records and biographies of her ancestors, as well as autobiographical accounts, both summative and annual) was completed under Clifford’s supervision, with many marginal notes evincing her critical reading of the volumes. [12] The range of reading experiences preserved in such documents offers robust evidence for the growing historiography of early modern reading and women’s reading in particular. [13] Yet the available evidence on Clifford, while well-known and periodically studied in various batches, has never been assembled and studied in-depth as a corpus.

Toward such a comprehensive study, I have found it helpful to bracket such of Clifford’s choices of reading material as appear to form a pattern: in the present case, of her engagement with books having origins, contents, and intentions that were overtly and indisputably offensive to many of her countrymen in her time. Clifford’s eulogist, however, provides a clue to the unobjectionable way in which Clifford approached other, similarly contentious texts:

Authors of several kinds of Learning, some of Controuersies very abstruse, were not unknown to her. She much commended one Book, William Barklay’s Dispute with Bellarmine, both, as she knew, of the Popish perswasion, but the former less Papal; and who, she said, had well stated a main Point, and opposed that Learned Cardinal, for giving too much power, even in Temporals, to the Pope, over Kings and Secular Princes ... [14]

Here, Clifford’s interpretation of materials “of the Popish perswasion” appears altogether orthodox, since she values the work of the Catholic Barclay (1546–1608) not for his defence of his faith but for his refutation of another more ardent defender of it. Her orientation here is also toward the worldly side of the day’s politico-religious complex, in which she remained a staunch royalist all through the civil wars that divided England on the limits of monarchic power. Clifford was apparently interested in distinguishing among relatively fine degrees of ideological difference, and might have taken particular pleasure in finding arguments agreeable to her perspective expressed by those otherwise at odds with it.

Elsewhere, however, Clifford took up controversial Catholic books without overtly engaging with either their political or religious sensitivity. The William Barclay she commended above, for instance, fathered another author to whom Clifford responded to with gusto: John Barclay (1582–1621), whose Argenis (1621) was a Latin romance encoding an allegory of sixteenth-century French civil embroilments. Although taken up enthusiastically by both James I and Charles I, Argenis was informally banned from female eyes in England — not, however, before Clifford undertook a thorough reading of her copy, hot off the press in 1625. [15] But her extensive marginalia show Clifford responding mildly, if at all, to its controversial aspect; as the scholar who has most closely studied its marginalia concludes, “the contemporary politics of the text do not seem to have especially attracted her. Rather, Clifford seems to have been primarily interested in the narrative itself and its moralizing rhetoric,” and perhaps even to have identified personally with its eponymous main character, an only child and a “spirited well-educated princess negotiating a perilous, male-dominated political realm.” [16] Of course, in the cases of both the princess Argenis and lady Anne, the personal was always already political; to delimit Clifford’s reading as one or the other is to imagine distinctions less easily sustained in her experience of early modern England.

However breezily Clifford read her Barclay, she was alive to the perils of participating in the more divisive aspects of the textual culture of the day; so much is clear from a remark she makes in her diary about a book called Balaam’s Ass. In the first section below, I contextualize Clifford’s attention to this item — a work which so offended James I as to lead to its author’s execution — in relation to her related contention with the king. In the same diary that notices Balaam’s Ass, Clifford records reading two similarly if less lethally controversial books: Leicester’s Commonwealth and Parsons’ Resolution. These books were related both in provenance and subject, since Robert Dudley (1532/3–1588), the first earl of Leicester, was attacked both in the anonymous Commonwealth and in a contemporary pamphlet by Robert Parsons (1546–1610), his De Persecutione Anglicana (1582). By century’s end, moreover, Leicester’s Commonwealth was frequently attributed to Parsons, the day’s leading English Jesuit controversialist, who in 1581 had fled for safety to France; although he was not likely the book’s maker, he at least acted as its emissary into England by sending an agent from France with copies which were confiscated, while their bearer was imprisoned and interrogated. [17]

In separate sections below, I examine Leicester’s Commonwealth and Parsons’ Resolution along with another Jesuit production at one point banned in England — François De Sales’ Introduction to a Devout Life — in order to understand what might have led a resolutely orthodox woman to take up such heterodox and even illicit works. In each case, I argue that the nature of the pertinent controversies had diminished by the time Clifford encountered the texts or in the editions she read, and that what motivated Clifford’s reading may have ranged from wholly orthodox spiritual purposes (with Parsons’ Resolution), to purely secular genealogical research (with Leicester’s Commonwealth), and possibly even, in the case of De Sales, mere nostalgia for or nosiness about the circumstances of a book’s production. Clifford’s attention to these “popish” works cannot, therefore, be seen as evidence of her interest in, let alone attachment to, Catholicism itself; instead, her reading appears to have had a diversity of motives that cannot be inferred from a text’s most obvious or notorious aspect. Clifford’s readings “of the Popish perswasion” were thus likely far “less Papal,” in the words of Bishop Rainbowe, than the Pope might have hoped.

The Trials of Balaam’s Asses

In reflecting on 3 May 1619, Clifford found just two events worthy of record in her diary. [18] The first: “about two or three o’clock in the morning Sir Arthur Lake’s wife died, having been grievously tormented a long time with pains and sores which broke out in blotches so that it was commonly reported that she died of the French disease” — that is, of syphilis. [19] The second event was as follows:

This day one Williams a lawyer was arraigned and condemned at the King’s Bench of treason and adjudged to be hanged, drawn and quartered for a certain book he had made and entitled Balaam’s ass, for which book one Mr Cotton was committed to the Tower and long time kept prisoner there upon a suspicion to have made it but of late he was gotten out upon bail and now well quitted. Williams being condemned was carried to Newgate and the 5th of this month was hanged, drawn and quartered, according to his sentence, at Charing Cross. [20]

Clifford records this judicial killing (and Cotton’s near miss) almost in the same breath as her speculations upon a fellow gentlewoman’s fatal sexually transmitted disease. The juxtaposition shows that, while Clifford may fairly be remembered as a distinctly dry stylist, her appetite for scandal was typical enough. But her inclusion here — in an otherwise spare diary that is mainly attentive to the concerns and activities of her extended family and their peers — of an account of the mutilation and death of a controversial author shows that Clifford was acutely attuned to the dangers of writing, as of reading, the wrong things in Jacobean England.

The wrong thing in this case was directly aimed at James I — and in more than one sense, according to a contemporary letter-writer: “a scandalous, libellous book, entitled Balaam’s Ass, … was let fall in the gallery at Whitehall, bearing a subscription to the king.” [21] According to Williams himself, he had enclosed his book in a box, so one can see how it made such an impact. [22] Although I have not yet examined the manuscript, that fact does not affect this analysis of Clifford’s response to it, since nothing suggests that Clifford read beyond its title, either; so much did not, however, prevent her response. It is even possible that the book’s title — Balaam’s Asse, or A Free Discourse Touching the Murmurs and Fearefull Discontents of the Tyme — might prove its most illuminating aspect in the present argument: with its alliterated antitheses between freedom and fear, as between discourse and discontents, the title neatly emphasizes the book’s operation as a self-reflexive discourse about discourse, an example of free expression on the subject of free expression. The biblical story of Balaam’s ass, moreover (a story with which Clifford, as an avid Bible reader, would have been intimately familiar) clarifies the relationship between the alternative titles. [23] The original ass is beaten by her rider for refusing to go where she is told, although it turns out that she disobeys for good reason: she sees, as the rider does not, God’s messenger blocking the way. Balaam, in the Bible, abuses the ass until the angel intervenes and begins, in turn, to abuse Balaam. In the allegory Williams developed, his Free Discourse is the beast of burden, while the blind rider is the king. As it turned out, Williams read (or prophesied, as he would have said) quite well: the king did proceed to abuse him and his discourse, although no evidence survives of angelic intervention. Also unlike the ass, Williams eventually apologized: according to the same letter-writer, before he was hanged, Williams “prayed for the king and prince, and said he was sorry he had written so saucily and unreverently, but pretended he had an inward warrant and particular illumination … which made him adventure so far.” [24]

That Clifford should interest herself in Williams’ trial is an exception in the records she left of her daily life: it is the only trial of a commoner mentioned in the diaries, although titled figures come and go often enough to and from the Tower of London. To interpret what this trial meant for Clifford, it is important to understand that a considerable portion of her life-writings appear to have been shaped in order to document and narrate her own trials, judicial and personal, in relation to the inheritance claims she maintained. These trials included her own letting-fall of some surprisingly free discourse before the person of James I. On 18 January 1617, she records that she kneeled with her husband in the presence of the king as he “persuaded us both to peace and to put the matter [of the disputed inheritance] wholly into his hands” — to let him take the reins, as it were — “which my Lord consented to, but I beseeched His Majesty to pardon me for that I would never part with Westmorland while I lived upon any condition whatsoever. Sometimes he used fair means and persuasions, and sometimes foul means but I was resolved before so as nothing would move me.” [25] Clifford’s donkey-like resolve, her refusal to “move” at another’s behest, has long and often been regarded as her hallmark trait. [26] Acheson characterizes her in terms that echo Williams’ humbly boastful self-characterization above: “Clifford stands out as … indubitably and even aggressively bold in her depiction of herself as the one who has been trusted to deliver certain truths to her people.” [27] Clifford’s sense of herself as a solitary prophet is illustrated by the fact that, two days after the scene at court described above, even after all pertinent male relations (uncle, cousin, and husband) had agreed to the king’s demand for submission, Clifford remained the lone hold-out. She defied the king, as the ass did Balaam, and likewise saw her behaviour as divinely directed: she adds in a smug postscript, “This day I may say I was led miraculously by God’s providence.” [28] Even so, Clifford might well have seen in Williams’ case some allusion to the danger she had courted in defying the king with her free discourse; yet her cognizance of the limits and dangers of such freedom and such discourse did not stop her from hearing, before the end of the same year, a cover-to-cover recitation of another book that had seditiously courted a monarch’s displeasure.

Clifford’s Leicester’s Commonwealth

In her first diary entry for December of 1619, Clifford notes that “Upon the 2nd Wat Conniston [her attendant] made an end of reading a book called Leicester’s Commonwealth in which there are many things of the Queen of Scots concerning her arraignment and her death which was all read to me.” [29] Clifford’s distinctive phrase — “made an end of reading” — is her typical way of describing reading a book through, as in this case appears to be confirmed by her conclusion that it was “all read” to her. That Clifford did not dip into and skip discontinuously among passages but listened to the book from start to finish makes it all the more puzzling that she recalls the Commonwealth primarily for details of the trial and execution of Mary Stuart (1542–1587). It neither contains any such details, nor could it, since the book was first printed in 1584, some years before those events took place. [30] One explanation for Clifford’s mistake might be that, if she at some later point edited her diary to yield the copy that survives, she added material based on a faulty memory. [31] Alternatively, perhaps Conniston, at another time, read a different text featuring the details she associates with Leicester’s Commonwealth; after all, she herself records Conniston reading more than one lengthy tome aloud, so the mistake might arise from blurring similar occasions. [32] A third possibility is that Conniston interpellated remarks regarding Mary Stuart’s trial and execution into their discussion of the text and Clifford’s memory of the book became imbricated with these unscripted interjections. Finally, Clifford could have heard a manuscript featuring the pertinent additions, although its modern editor, who has examined variants in 58 manuscripts, knows no such version. [33]

The oddity of Clifford’s characterization of the work, which has not to my knowledge been noted elsewhere, testifies to the challenges of working even with such fragmentary evidence as remains of the historical experience of reading. Whatever the explanation, though, it is unlikely that her misleading remark should be taken to indicate that Clifford at no point heard a recital of Leicester’s Commonwealth. Uncertainty about the rationale for her remark need not lead to scepticism about its authenticity, since Clifford could hardly have used the nickname of such a notorious tract in error. She must have been at least as familiar with it as were her contemporaries, many of whom became well-versed in its scurrility in the decades following its initial publication; its editor has characterized it as “one of the most entertaining pieces of defamatory writing ever seen in English,” which rapidly achieved widespread popularity despite successive bans, and which accomplished at least one of its aims in lastingly tarnishing the reputation of Robert Dudley. [34]

When the book first appeared, Dudley had long been known and widely resented for his precipitous elevation to an earldom based on the favouritism of Elizabeth I; he was also hated by some, especially Catholics, for informally leading the Puritan faction that had become so active in Elizabethan political culture. Although the book was perhaps best loved for the sheer nastiness of its slander, another of its broader aims was, somewhat incompatibly, to improve the toleration of English recusants (those covertly loyal to the Catholic church after the Elizabethan church settlement) by means of rational arguments that appear utterly at odds with its rabid libels. The book had, however, a third goal: to advance the Stuart claim to England’s throne when the succession had yet to be resolved. [35] By 1619, with James Stuart long on the throne, the argument was moot; but Clifford, by 1619, could have felt little personal fondness for that family’s rule, not least since James I had so conclusively dismissed her claims for her own inheritance. More generally, she and other members of her clan had received from the Stuart court less favourable treatment than what they had anticipated and hoped for. As Clifford noted in her 1603 memoir, Elizabeth I intended her for a lady-in-waiting, but this destiny was not fulfilled after the regime change, and she alleges that she was not alone in such disappointment, with “every man,” according to Clifford, “expecting mountains and finding molehills” in the new Stuart court. Moreover, she adds with quiet but incisive hostility, “we all saw a great change between the fashion of the court as it is now, and of that in the Queen’s, for we were all lousy by sitting in Sir Thomas Erskine’s chamber” — that is, she and her peers were infested with lice from associating with one of the king’s favourites. [36] Clifford may thus have indulged her personal resentment of the Stuarts by enjoying the recitation of a tract that connected support for that regime with the treacherous heresy of its Roman Catholic authors — the very sort of heresy with which James, too, was at times associated by Puritan critics. [37] That Clifford read the tract from this jaded perspective seems supported by the error embedded in her record of the experience, that is, in her mistaken memory of the book as featuring the trial and execution of the king’s Catholic mother for treason against Elizabeth I.

Clifford may also, or instead, have taken far less controversial interest in the book, as with her engagement with Barclay’s Argenis half a dozen years later. Robert Dudley was, after all, a family relation (with Clifford’s maternal aunt being married to his older brother, Ambrose) who had arranged for her own parents’ ill-fated marriage; Clifford’s immediate ancestors, moreover, feature briefly in the tract. [38] Her attention may thus have been primarily genealogical — which is not, however, to say that it was therefore uncontroversial, since Clifford’s tracking of her ancestry played a significant role in her claim to her father’s lands. Genealogy was one of Clifford’s most significant life-long interests, as appears both in adjacent diary entries to the reference to Leicester’s Commonwealth and, writ large, in her manuscript Great Books of Record[39] Even if it was Clifford’s familial historiography that impelled her to read even scurrilous reports of her relations, her erroneous characterization of the book’s focus on Mary Stuart’s fate suggests that her attention to the book was also stimulated by other motives. Even then, though, that motivation could still be said to have been based on her single-minded obsession with matters of familial inheritance.

Clifford’s, Parsons’, and Bunny’s Resolutions

About six months prior to listening to Leicester’s Commonwealth, Clifford made a note parallel to her entries for June 1619: “About this time my cousin Mary made an end of reading Parsons’ resolution and Burney’s resolution all over to me.” [40] The phrase “made an end” again implies that Clifford absorbed the material in question from start to finish. As often with Clifford’s reading material, including Leicester’s Commonwealth, a familial connection may be discerned: when Parsons left Oxford to study medicine in Italy, he may have been patronized by Thomas Sackville (1536–1608), grandfather of Clifford’s first husband and author of some of the best-known parts of A Mirovr for Magistrates, another book Clifford owned and read. [41] Again as with Leicester’s Commonwealth, a suggestive link may be made with the tricky transition from Tudor to Stuart rule, since Parsons was at one time seriously involved in continental plans to invade England and replace Elizabeth with either Mary Stuart or her son James. Parsons spent his later life in France after narrowly escaping the fate of his fellow Jesuit Edmund Campion, who was executed by English authorities for treason.

The book known as Parsons’ Resolution (1582), which simplified Jesuit spiritual exercises for lay readers, was its author’s most influential work; while the author’s other plans to subvert the English state failed, his prose was comparatively effective in converting readers to his cause. To counter the book’s effects on the English, the Calvinist cleric Edmund Bunny responded with a 1584 adaptation in which he assiduously eliminated all Catholic phrasing and thinking. [42] Parsons, appalled, stopped the presses on his 1585 edition to insert a passage railing against Bunny’s “infinite corruptions, maymes, and ma[u]lings” and ramp up the Catholic elements to prevent their being bent to Anglican purposes. [43] In 1589, Bunny dismissed Parsons’ objections in another elaboration of the original text with Bunny’s additions. [44] It is not possible to know, based on her brief report, which version of these texts Clifford heard in 1619, since they appeared in print again and again over many decades in various versions. [45] But Clifford was clearly — again, as with her choice of Leicester’s Commonwealth — far from alone in perusing this border-crossing book, with its authors shouting at each other across the Channel.

While the writers may have been at loggerheads, Bunny did at least attempt to bridge the intellectual border between them with what has been described as “among the first of the protestant controversial works to allow that the Church of Rome was indeed a true church.” [46] Clifford was well positioned to appreciate such a tolerant position, since recusancy remained at its highest in England among the nobility, particularly in the north where Clifford had her most substantial roots and insistently saw her future. [47] Clifford may even for some time have entertained conversion, since she wrote in her diary with respect to August 1617, “About this time I began to think much of religion and do persuade myself that this religion in which my mother brought me up is the true and undoubted religion so as I am steadfastly purposed never to be a papist.”  [48] That Clifford felt the need to “think much” and “persuade” herself of such matters suggests she had been less steadfastly purposed before this period of contemplation, which concluded with so emphatic a declaration in favour of her mother’s Calvinist-tinted allegiance to the Church of England. If Clifford’s purpose subsequently held, as it appears to have done, then its very steadfastness might explain why she felt no compunction about studying such potentially divisive material in 1619, and doing so with a female cousin rather than with the tacit sanction offered by masculine supervision such as that Wat Conniston provided in reciting Leicester’s Commonwealth. But there is one important difference between that “popish” book and this one: while Leicester’s Commonwealth offered unmitigated sedition, aimed at bringing about Catholic rule in England, Parsons’ papistry reached Clifford only in conjunction with Bunny’s buffered version, which she represents, in her phrasing, as a separate text available for detached, perhaps studious, comparison: “Parson’s resolution and Burney’s resolution.” Bunny, on paper, could thus have served as the authorizing male reader elsewhere found in Clifford’s flesh-and-blood servants. [49]

Clifford’s Introduction to a Devout Life

As with Leicester’s Commonwealth, Clifford read the final border- crossing book of interest here with support from masculine members of the household. Unlike with the other controversial works examined here, however, evidence of her reading François De Sales’ Introduction to a Devout Life appears solely in a list of “Memoranda” appended to an early twentieth-century biography after the main text had been typeset. Of his late-breaking find, the author remarks,

At Bill Hill [a country house in Berkshire] in the Library is one of the books that belonged to Lady Anne. It is St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to a Devout Life 1648, bound in red Morocco and contains the following inscription. ‘This Book was begun to be read to your Ladyship in Brougham Castle the 9 day of March, 1664–1665 by Messrs Geo. Sedgwick, Thos. Strickland and John Taylor. And they made an end of reading it to you in the same Castle the 15th day of the same month.’ [50]

The copy has since vanished from view; it is neither at Bill Hill, which has changed owners, nor traced by any other catalogue, record, or person I have consulted. [51] The authenticity of the inscription, however, is supported by echoes in the phrasing of similar notes in other association copies, none of which Williamson appears to have seen: Clifford’s copies of Sidney’s Arcadia (1605), A Mirovr for Magistrates (1610), Barclay’s Argenis (1625), and Selden’s Titles of Honor (1631) each feature a similarly precise inscription with respect to when, and often where, Clifford’s reading began and ended and by whom it was conducted. [52] There is little reason to doubt Williamson read what he did, even if we cannot do so now.

The 1648 edition of De Sales that Clifford read survives in few copies, a fact that may reflect continued controversy around the title a decade after a different version was called in by the king to be “publikely burnt” for its brazen inclusion of Catholic doctrine. [53] The book correlates with Parsons’ Resolution in its controversialist nature in several ways: the author was a Jesuit proffering spiritual advice; the first English version appeared in France; it rapidly found success through many editions; and, as a religious work, it participated in the best-selling genre of the time. [54] It was also, like Parsons’ book, one of the many early modern Catholic works adapted freely by and for Protestants. [55] But Clifford’s 1648 edition was different from its earlier English appearances in print, since it had been re-translated for greater fidelity to the original by English Jesuits on the continent, as is proudly declared on the title page: the book is Set Forth by the EnglishPriestsofTourney Colledge at Paris. While it might not be surprising that Clifford did not read the confiscated 1637 edition, it does seem odd that someone of her declared steadfast Protestantism should not choose one of the seventeenth-century versions adapted to suit that faith, as with Bunny’s treatment of Parson’s Resolution. The fact that Clifford’s version was openly “popish,” however, might explain why not one but three male readers read it with her. Then again, they may well have read it in sequence rather than acting as a supervisory committee; these were, after all, secular household officers, hardly possessed of the authority of the chaplain required during her Bible-reading days at Knole. [56]

If we cannot know what led Clifford to read in the 1660s a book banned and burned almost a generation earlier, we can infer how she might have become aware of the title in the first place, and through that inference contextualize her choice of reading material. Clifford’s second husband, Philip Herbert (1584–1650), the earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, was closely involved in the events that led to the prohibition of the 1637 translation. According to the Puritan William Prynne (1600–1679), Pembroke had been among the courtiers who had first complained of the book’s uncensored papistry; the complaint, coming when it did, resonated such that the book “would become an item (albeit a small one) in a succession of events in the later 1630s that desperately worried English Protestants, who became increasingly convinced that the court was strongly promoting Catholicism.” [57] Although Clifford was estranged from her husband by 1637, her recollection of his involvement in the title’s confiscation and the surrounding atmosphere of scandal could not but have affected her response to the book. Unless the copy Clifford annotated reappears, it will remain unclear, however, as to why she chose to consult an edition reworked by Jesuits when she might have turned to a Protestant adaptation in better keeping with her own religious principles.


How did Clifford read her “popish” books? When she turned such pages, did Clifford experience the frisson of entering forbidden ground, or was it more like looking at your great-grandfather’s pin-ups? In trying to determine how Clifford approached these texts, it is worth remembering that a book banned in one generation might be bland in the next, as may have been the case by the time Clifford took up her copy of De Sales’ Devout Life. Book bans are apt to have a half-life, however: even once they have lost their teeth, they continue (if in a decreasingly dramatic fashion) to inform how readers respond to the books in question. In sum, though, the evidence above suggests that to read books banned and burned is not to break the same rules that the books in question did, intentionally or otherwise. A controversial book may, after all, be read for quite straightforward reasons: a characteristic bout of genealogical research, for instance, adequately rationalizes Clifford’s turn to Leicester’s Commonwealth at a point when her obsession with family history was taking hold. Familial connections, indeed, can account for Clifford’s encounters with all “popish” texts considered here: Leicester’s Commonwealth portrayed her relatives, Robert Parsons may have been sponsored by her grandfather-in-law, and Devout Life was publicly condemned by her second husband. On the other hand, even familial connections and genealogical research have their own ideological force, as in Clifford’s contentious response to another of her many reading materials: her father’s gendered will.

Evidence of Clifford’s determined character and staunch intellectual commitments — such as Rainbowe’s repetition of her defence of the moderately popish William Barclay against the more extreme cardinal Bellarmine and her own resolution “never to be a papist” — suggests Clifford was sufficiently confident of her views to peruse authors holding very different ones, including views offensive to the church and state to which she was (despite her dispute with James I) continuously and emphatically loyal. The fact that Protestants were generally accustomed to appropriating and adapting Catholic works (which is one way to describe the Reformation), as in Bunny’s Resolution and various editions of De Sales’ Devout Life, would have helped to ease her uptake of such works. For this reason, adaptation theory might help to extend the interpretation of such interconfessional texts, just as the historiography of censorship might in turn contribute usefully to adaptation studies. [58]

Unless her annotated copy is found, however, no one can state conclusively if Clifford turned to Leicester’s Commonwealth, for instance, with an eye to its salacious gossip or her own familial historiography; but on balance it appears that her approach to such contentious materials was probably less than controversial. It is salient that Clifford heard a recitation of the seditious Commonwealth some decades after its ban, long after its major players were dead, while Parsons’ work was perhaps less popish than Protestant in the version she encountered, and De Sales’ book might have been sufficiently neutered by prior Protestant adaptations. No evidence suggests that Clifford’s attention to these books reflected her divergence from her avowed orthodoxy. Instead, her willingness to read works infused with risk and challenge might confirm the untroubled state of her faith, as she characterized it in August of 1617: she sensed no danger of being taken in. Such confidence is, moreover, of a piece with what is generally understood of Clifford’s resolute nature. Like Balaam’s admirable ass, she felt she saw what others could not, and so proved herself an extremely critical reader of everything from her father’s will to the king’s ruling that eventually confirmed it. Although her copies of Leicester’s Commonwealth, Parsons’ (and Bunny’s) Resolution, and De Sales’ Devout Life may have disappeared, there is every reason to suspect that she was just as resistant a reader of these three books as well.

Parties annexes

Parties annexes