Renaissance and Reformation Eleanor Davies
by
Teresa Feroli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0360

Introduction

Lady Eleanor Davies (b. 1590–d. 1652), for some twenty-six years following her calling in 1625, identified as a prophet and, as a result, published some sixty-nine tracts, spent years in jail, and made astonishing predictions on subjects ranging from the end of time to the death of her first husband, the poet and lawyer Sir John Davies. Hers was an age of prophecy, and one that featured a significant number of female prophets, but she stands out for her aristocratic lineage—she was the daughter of the eleventh Baron Audley—and her embrace of elements of Puritan and Anglican theology. Stylistically, her writings contain dense webs of scriptural and topical allusions, anagrams, and repeated justifications of authority predicated upon her noble patronymic. By combining scriptural exegesis and cultural commentary, she produced a kind of satire of the follies of her age, which she considered to be nearing the last days. Important milestones in her apocalyptic vision of history included the rise of Parliament and the New Model Army; the execution of the powerful William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury; and the defeat and execution of Charles I. Likewise, she attributed cosmic significance to the events of her own life, in particular her tribulations as a prophet, her difficulties regaining inherited properties after being widowed, and her outrage over the execution in 1631 of her brother Mervin, Earl of Castlehaven, on charges of rape and sodomy. Certain that the last days approached, she offered her readers, after the early Christian but heterodox theologian Origen, the comforting promise of universal redemption. Beyond her writings, Lady Eleanor is known for her acts of civil disobedience. In 1633, unable to obtain a license to publish her pamphlets in England, she traveled to Amsterdam and found a willing printer. She returned and distributed her publication, for which she was sentenced to prison. She was jailed again in late 1636 or early 1637 for occupying the bishop’s throne at Litchfield Cathedral and declaring herself the primate. For this latter action, she gained a reputation for madness in her own day and in early scholarship. She married twice: first to Davies, with whom she had three children, and then to Sir Archibald Douglas. She outlived both men. Her only surviving child, Lucy, penned a moving epitaph upon Lady Eleanor’s death at the age of sixty-two.

General Overviews

The only book-length study of Lady Eleanor is Cope 1992. After Cope, Watt 1997 presents the most detailed overview, and one particularly attuned to the intellectual traditions that underscore Lady Eleanor’s writings. Nelson 1985 provides a cursory overview with some useful insights into Lady Eleanor’s theology. Wright 1932–1934 and Spencer 1938, writing in advance of contemporary feminist approaches, regard her as a curiosity whose life and work offer insight into a fractious historical era.

  • Cope, Esther S. Handmaid of the Holy Spirit: Dame Eleanor Davies, Never Soe Mad a Ladie. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Cope’s biography places Lady Eleanor’s life and writings in their early modern context. She presents a thorough analysis of each tract—an enormous boon to those trying to decipher Lady Eleanor’s densely allusive prose. She also provides important discussions of Lady Eleanor’s reputed madness and of her distinctive prose style.

  • Nelson, Beth. “Lady Elinor Davies: The Prophet as Publisher.” Women’s Studies International Forum 8.5 (1985): 403–409.

    DOI: 10.1016/0277-5395(85)90072-XE-mail Citation »

    Nelson is particularly informative on the subject of Lady Eleanor’s appropriation of the biblical genres of prophecy and apocalypse.

  • Spencer, Theodore. “The History of an Unfortunate Lady.” Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 20 (1938): 43–59.

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    Spencer presents a lyrical account of Lady Eleanor, whose prophetic career he views as illustrating the character of her times: “mad, violent and proud, obsessed by religious delusions, intimately concerned with politics, furiously anxious to justify itself in print.”

  • Watt, Diane. “Alpha and Omega: Eleanor Davies, Civil War Prophet.” In Secretaries of God: Women Prophets in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. By Diane Watt, 118–154. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    Watt emphasizes Lady Eleanor’s connections to medieval female mystics such as Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, to the Ranter prophet Abiezer Coppe, and to the 16th-century satirist Thomas Nashe. Of particular note are her discussions of Lady Eleanor’s universalism—the idea that all will ultimately be redeemed—and her use of Marian imagery.

  • Wright, S. G. “Dougle Fooleries.” Bodleian Quarterly Record 7.75 (1932–1934): 95–98.

    E-mail Citation »

    Wright provides a short overview of Lady Eleanor’s life. His essay is often cited for its suggestion that Lady Eleanor’s prose style compares with that of “moderns” such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

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