Renaissance and Reformation Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell
Patricia Phillippy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0217


Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell (b. 1540–d. 1609) was the seventh child and fourth daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke and his wife, Anne Fitzwilliam. With the ascension of Edward VI in 1547, Cooke became tutor to the nine-year-old king, a position he held until Edward’s death in 1553. Cooke also dedicated himself to the education of his children, both male and female. The Cooke sisters, as they became known to contemporaries, benefited with their brothers from a humanist education grounded in Greek and Latin languages and texts. By the age of twelve, Elizabeth Cooke was fluent in Latin, Greek, and French. Mildred, her eldest sister, was a noted Greek scholar and the wife of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I throughout most of her reign. Anne Cooke married Sir Nicholas Bacon, the queen’s keeper of the Great Seal. She translated fourteen Italian sermons by Bernardino Ochino, as well as Bishop John Jewel’s Latin Apology for the Church of England. Katherine married Sir Henry Killigrew and was the author of Latin poems that circulated in manuscript, and of her own Latin epitaph, inscribed on her tomb, where Greek and Latin verses by her sister Elizabeth were also engraved. Russell was sister-in-law to William Cecil and Nicholas Bacon, aunt to Robert Cecil and Francis Bacon, and wife first to Sir Thomas Hoby and second to Lord John Russell, son and heir of the Earl of Bedford. Her family connections put her in close proximity to the center of power in her day, while her intelligence and tenacity enabled her to negotiate the political, social, and religious complexities of Elizabethan culture. Russell’s literary reputation emerges from three related forms of early modern publication. First, her fame spread through the circulation of her manuscript works, including poems in Greek and Latin and most likely a manuscript copy of her English translation of John Ponet’s treatise on the Eucharist, A Way of Reconciliation of a Good and Learned Man (Russell 2001, cited under Printed Texts). Second, Russell was renowned in her lifetime as the author of funerary epitaphs in three languages, engraved upon tombs that she designed and commissioned for members of her family. Finally, Russell’s reputation was established through the joint endeavors of the Cooke sisters and the works that praised them. The Cooke sisters’ shared erudition underwrites Russell’s self-representation and self-defense as a woman of learning, culture, and literary achievement. By foregrounding her role as co-heir with her sisters of their father’s intellectual legacy, Russell’s writings challenge her period’s frequent dismissal of educated women as anomalous and endorse a pedagogy that would educate girls as well as boys.

General Overviews

Criticism on Russell, like that devoted to many early modern women writers, is indebted to the recovery of texts long neglected by critics and excluded from the traditional literary canon. Recent scholarship attending to manuscript production and writing in media other than print has promoted a view and an appreciation of Russell as an author working in a wide variety of genres and materials. Her writings include unpublished letters, manuscript poems, monumental inscriptions and elegies, sculptural images, court testimonies, ceremonial performances, and a single printed translation. Beilin 1987, a groundbreaking study, predicted an alternative canon of Renaissance literature by identifying a group of women in the period, including the Cooke sisters, primarily as “writers.” Just over a decade later, Ezell 1999 set forth the cogent and persuasive theory of “social authorship” to describe the alternative means of publication through manuscript circulation and other material forms practiced by a surprisingly large number of Renaissance writers, both male and female. While Beilin surveys primarily texts published in print to establish a women’s canon, Ezell demonstrates that valorizing print above other forms of publication limits and distorts the critical reading of early modern women’s writing. From the late 1960s to the 1980s, critical interest in recovering details of Renaissance women’s lives and making available a larger sample of their writings resulted in four extraordinary dissertations on Russell and her sisters. Harvey 1981 and McIntosh 1967 both offer contextual histories, derived from extensive archival research, of the Cooke family and its female members. Farber 1977 edits fifty-five of Russell’s letters using microfilm copies of manuscript sources, prefaced by a valuable biographical introduction and accompanied by detailed introductions and annotations to each letter. Gladstone 1989 examines Russell’s funeral monuments from an art-historical perspective, set within an insightful discussion of Russell’s life and works based on archival records and the evidence of the tombs themselves. None of these studies was printed by an academic press, yet each has had an enduring influence on later research, a fact which argues—as does Russell’s writing—that textual circulation in forms other than the printed volume is a powerful vehicle for public speech. Critical analyses by a second generation of feminist scholars has built upon the insights of earlier criticism and continues to flesh out the implications of reading Renaissance women’s authorship not only in traditional forms and media, but in cultural and social genres as well. This trend is exemplified in Malay 2006, which studies Russell’s self-authored “performances” across the varied corpus of her writings, and Phillippy 2011, which offers a composite edition of Russell’s writings in all genres and media, alongside supplementary archival sources that gloss her life and works.

  • Beilin, Elaine V. Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    An early but still standard discussion of thirty English women writers, many of whom have now become canonical. An inclusive and accessible introduction to the field, including a “List of Works by Women, 1521–1624” (pp. 335–338). Beilin’s chapter on the Cooke sisters is a good starting place for study of Russell’s writings in their immediate context.

  • Ezell, Margaret J. M. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

    A valuable follow-up to Ezell’s groundbreaking volumes in feminist literary theory, The Patriarch’s Wife (1987) and Writing Women’s Literary History (1993), this study demonstrates that the widespread circulation of manuscripts, especially by women writers, was an alternative form of publication to print. Invites exploration of cultural texts in various media.

  • Farber, Elizabeth. “The Letters of Elizabeth Russell, 1540–1609.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1977.

    An excellent edition of fifty-five of Russell’s letters, transcribed mostly from microfilm copies housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library of original manuscripts. Introduction offers a good overview of Russell’s life and works. Prefaces and copious notes helpfully locate individual letters in their social and cultural contexts. [ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 1977. 7924881.]

  • Gladstone, Helen C. “Building an Identity: Two Noblewomen in England, 1566–1666.” PhD diss., Open University, 1989.

    An expansive and incisive study of the monuments erected by two female patrons, Russell and Lady Anne Clifford, between 1566 and 1666. Demonstrates that monumental projects and texts were used by women to promote their identities in the public spaces of churches. A model for interdisciplinary scholarship on Renaissance material texts. [ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 1990. U030248.]

  • Harvey, Sheridan. “The Cooke Sisters: A Study of Tudor Gentlewomen.” PhD diss., Indiana University, 1981.

    A study of the lives of the Cooke sisters in their domestic, familial roles, which further demonstrates their influence and participation in the public sphere. Extended discussion of Russell’s activities as a mother argues that she exploited this orthodox role to expand her family’s wealth, social status, and power. [ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 1981. 8202949.]

  • Malay, Jessica L. “Elizabeth Russell’s Textual Performances of Self.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 37 (2006): 146–168.

    A reading of Russell’s self-representation in her royal entertainment at Bisham, the paratexts of her printed translation, and her funeral monuments, documenting her textual strategy of employing privileged cultural discourses as a means to construct a narrative of self. An excellent introduction to the study of Russell’s varied corpus.

  • McIntosh, Marjorie. “The Cooke Family of Gidea Hall, Essex, 1460–1661.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1967.

    A meticulous archival study of the rise and fall of the Cooke family across two centuries. This careful reading of the life and activities of Sir Anthony Cooke locates Russell’s humanism and reformed religious convictions as central features of her self-conscious identity as the bearer of her father’s legacy. [ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 1967. 0242856.]

  • Phillippy, Patricia, ed. The Writings of an English Sappho. With translations from Greek and Latin by Jaime Goodrich. Toronto: CRRS/Iter, 2011.

    A composite edition of Russell’s complete writings, transcribed from original holograph manuscript sources and extant material artifacts. The edition prints fully annotated texts of sixty-four letters, Russell’s printed texts, manuscript poems, monumental inscriptions, and ceremonial and legal performances. Useful for undergraduate and graduate study and for scholars of English Renaissance culture.

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