Renaissance and Reformation Hester Pulter
Leah Knight
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0521


In the seventeenth century, Hester Pulter wrote over one hundred poems and an unfinished prose romance; despite this remarkable achievement, her work was not noticed for centuries, with the first public discussions appearing in the late 1990s. In being lost for so long, the manuscript joins many writings by early modern women that were long unknown or undervalued before feminist scholarship redirected attention and resources to their study. Subsequent interest in Pulter has led to multiple complete and partial editions, in print and online. Her work is preserved in a single bound manuscript with a few associated loose papers; the romance begins at one end of the volume and the verse at the other, with the poems divided into two main sections. The first section of verse features primarily meditative, devotional, occasional, and elegiac poems engaged in rich conversation with contemporary poetry and poetics, treating topics ranging from personal experiences and familial concerns to conflicts in and commitments to contemporary politics and religion, as well as natural history and natural philosophy. The second section of verse is the only book of emblems in English by a woman. Pulter’s emblems, as well as many of her other poems, develop vivid images from biblical, classical, and natural exempla in order to explore moral and political problems and their often theological resolution. Many poems conclude with an eager anticipation of her own transformation after death as enabling reunion with God. The verse also demonstrates an intense interest in earthly life forms of all kinds, supported by the author’s attention to the natural world around her and considerable reading in both ancient and contemporary works on animals and plants. Other poems evince her informed fascination with recent scientific work in fields including astronomy and alchemy. In poems treating current events, the speaker often endorses a vehemently royalist response to events and figureheads in the English Civil Wars, Interregnum, and Restoration. The romance, The Unfortunate Florinda, has been read primarily for its heroines’ resistance to violent patriarchal authority, which is seen by some to shadow Pulter’s response to Oliver Cromwell’s regime. Much of the verse is similarly politically inflected, in its royalist paeans and elegies and its trenchant critiques of tyranny and those who enable it. The range and complexity of Pulter’s contributions to lyric verse and prose fiction have led to an equally rich and rapid growth in critical responses to it.


Born Hester Ley (b. 1605–d. 1678; discrepancies about her birth date are now resolved [see Eardley 2010 and Knight 2021]), Pulter was daughter to James Ley and Mary Pettie. At her birth, her father, knighted in 1603, was Chief Justice in Ireland. The family returned early in her childhood to the south of England, where her father served in the privy council of James I and was in 1626 made the first earl of Marlborough. In 1620, Hester married the gentleman Arthur Pulter, who came from a prosperous Hertfordshire family. He figures little in her writings, unlike their children—of whom fifteen were born between 1624 and 1648—and, in particular, her daughters, several of whom are named, addressed, and given voice in the poems. Most of her married life was spent at her husband’s country estate, Broadfield; several poems feature speakers who decry their isolation, but Pulter was likely not entirely without sustaining intellectual connections throughout her life. Her father had antiquarian interests; her mother was the niece of an Elizabethan romance writer, George Pettie; two sisters had London literary connections (including John Milton, who dedicates a sonnet to one); and a network of erudite neighbors was within walking distance of her home (see Britland 2018). Robson 2019 (originally published in 2004) offers a brief factual account of her life, while Eardley 2014 provides richer contextualization, as does Christian 2012. The most detailed study is Eardley 2008a; it was only released from embargo in 2022 so is rarely cited in earlier publications. Eardley 2008b offers an early overview of Pulter’s self-presentation in the manuscript.

  • Britland, Karen. “Conspiring with ‘Friends’: Hester Pulter’s Poetry and the Stanley Family at Cumberlow Green.” Review of English Studies 69.292 (2018): 832–854.

    DOI: 10.1093/res/hgy058

    Establishes proximity of Pulter’s home to a network of literary and science-minded neighbors, the Stanleys, with overlapping intellectual concerns and political inclinations; assesses likelihood of intellectual influences in both directions (including the possibility of Pulter influencing Andrew Marvell and Abraham Cowley). Argues that awareness of and sensitivity to women’s lives is essential to understanding literary culture. Available online by subscription.

  • Christian, Stefan Graham. “Introduction.” In “The Poems of Lady Hester Pulter (1605?–1678): An Annotated Edition.” By Stefan Graham Christian, 1–79. PhD diss., University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2012.

    Detailed biography of Pulter, her family, poetic persona, social circumstances, and reading.

  • Eardley, Alice. “Biography.”  In “An Edition of Lady Hester Pulter’s Book of ‘Emblemes.’” Vol. 1. By Alice Eardley, 25–101. PhD diss., University of Warwick (United Kingdom), 2008a.

    The most detailed and scrupulously well-sourced biography of Pulter, featuring extensive archival evidence triangulated to provide the fullest account of Pulter’s life in her natal family, connections through marriage, and immediate descendants, as well as her broader social, political, and intellectual circle.

  • Eardley, Alice. “‘Saturn (whose aspects soe sads my soule)’: Lady Hester Pulter’s Feminine Melancholic Genius.” In New Ways of Looking at Old Texts, IV: Papers of the Renaissance English Text Society, 2002–2006. Edited by Michael Denbo, 239–254. Tempe: Arizona State University, 2008b.

    An early overview of Pulter’s poetic achievement and melancholic literary persona, which is argued to legitimate a feminine grief otherwise subject to censure in her era, when scholarly melancholic men were associated with genius, while women were excluded from such characterizations. Connects Pulter’s self-fashioning of an intellectual persona to the elegant and learned presentation of the manuscript and its marginalia.

  • Eardley, Alice. “Lady Hester Pulter’s Date of Birth.” Notes and Queries 57.4 (December 2010): 498–501.

    DOI: 10.1093/notesj/gjq153

    Consults primary sources, including James Ley’s manuscript account of his family, to address previously vexed dating of Pulter’s birth. Available online by subscription.

  • Eardley, Alice. “Introduction.” In Poems, Emblems, and The Unfortunate Florinda. Edited by Alice Eardley, 1–21. Toronto: Iter: Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance and Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2014.

    Contextualizes personal aspects of Pulter’s life and works in relation to the civil wars, religious tensions, and scientific culture.

  • Knight, Leah. “A Difficult Labor.” In The Pulter Project: Poet in the Making. Edited by Leah Knight and Wendy Wall. 2021.

    Traces variant claims about Pulter’s date of birth with a view to untangling conflicts in primary and secondary sources.

  • Robson, Mark. “Pulter [née Ley], Lady Hester.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    Outlines key facts about Pulter and her families by birth and marriage. Available online by subscription.

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