Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland (née Tanfield; 1585–1639), was an English poet, translator and dramatist. Precocious and studious, she was known from a young age for her learning and knowledge of languages.
Elizabeth was born in 1585 at Burford Priory in Oxfordshire, the only child of Sir Lawrence Tanfield and his wife Elizabeth Symondes. Her father was a lawyer, who eventually became a judge and Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. Her parents were very supportive of their daughter's love for reading and learning, which was so great that her mother forbade the servants from giving Elizabeth candles to read by at night.
Elizabeth's parents employed a French instructor for her when she was five years old. Five weeks later, she was speaking fluently. After excelling in French, she insisted on learning Spanish, Italian, Latin, Hebrew, and Transylvanian on her own, without an instructor. Later on at the age of ten, she also helped exonerate a woman accused of witchcraft after noticing that the accused woman was just answering "yes" to every question she was asked, without thinking about what she was admitting to.
At the age of fifteen, her father arranged her marriage to Sir Henry Cary, later made Viscount Falkland, who married her because she was an heiress. When she finally moved into her husband's home, her mother-in-law informed Elizabeth that she was forbidden to read, so Elizabeth instead chose to write poetry in her spare time.
It was not until seven years after they were married that Lord and Lady Falkland had children; they would go on to have a total of eleven: Catherine (1609–1625), Lucius (1610–1643; became the second Viscount Falkland), Lorenzo (1613–1642), Anne (1614–?), Edward (1616–1616), Elizabeth (1617–1683), Lucy (1619–1650), Victoria (1620–1692), Mary (1621–1693), Henry (1622–?), and Patrick (1623–1657).
At the age of twenty, Elizabeth began doubting her Protestant upbringing. Her brother-in-law helped her find Catholicism by telling her stories of his travels and recommending books for her to read.
Five of her children (Anne, Elizabeth, Lucy, Mary, and Henry) joined the church in their lifetime.
By 1625 Elizabeth was disinherited by her father just before he died for using part of her jointure to meet expenses. The money that was initially meant for her had gone instead to her eldest son, Lucius, who was strapped with debt. The disinheritance came after she had tried to fiscally boost her husband, who had been struggling to pay for his lands in Ireland. This same year she returned from Ireland and Elizabeth publicly announced her conversion to Catholicism in 1626, which resulted in her husband's attempted and unsuccessful divorce, although he did deny her access to their children. Despite several orders of the Privy Council, he refused her a maintenance in an apparent effort to force her to recant.Her motivations for conversion are not thought to have stemmed from proselytizers of the religion, but more from her own personal reflections and experiences. One can say that her process was very much organic and natural.
Her husband died in 1633, and she sought to regain custody of her children. She was questioned in the Star Chamber for kidnapping her sons (she had previously, and more easily, gained custody of her daughters), but although she was threatened with imprisonment there is no record of any punishment.
Elizabeth was an avid and secretive reader from a young age, in part due to her attempt to understand the Protestantism that she was constantly surrounded by, but was never satisfied until she found solace in Catholicism. Part of her understanding of religious texts was directly influenced by her understanding of literature; if she had not been a natural close reader, she may not have realised the full potential of the Catholic religion and may never have converted. Once fully in-step with Catholicism, she dedicated herself to guiding her children towards the Roman Catholic Church by "opening channels for God and paths for her children, but making sure she didn't block the road by loitering in the middle of it herself". Her eldest daughter, Catherine, reported an apparition of the Virgin Mary while on her deathbed. This apparent sighting deeply moved Elizabeth and only furthered her mission to convert all of her children, as Catherine had still been a Protestant at the time of her death. By the end of Elizabeth's life her mission had become partially successful; four of her daughters went on to become Benedictine nuns, and one of her sons joined the priesthood.
In 1639, Lady Falkland died in London, poor, but rich in her generosity, talent and strength. She is buried in Henrietta Maria's Chapel in Somerset House.
According to the biography written by her daughter, the Viscountess believed that poetry was the highest literary form. Many of her poems have been lost over time but her dedication to poetry is evident throughout her plays. Her first (or possibly her second) play The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry (1613) was written in iambic pentameter with the use of couplets throughout as well as the use of irony. The change in pattern and rhyme scheme show multiple sonnets throughout the play, and the irony is a traditional element of the sonnet. The Tragedy of Mariam was progressive for its time because it was the first English play to be written by a woman. Her social commentary discussed divorce and female agency, which was innovative for the time. The play discusses revenge, scheming, and plotting as core elements which all aid in Falkland’s critique about patriarchal tyranny.
Falkland then wrote The History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II (1626/1627) which was a political fable based on historical events. The History was not published until 1680, but Falkland had written it much earlier. The text uses the story of King Edward II and his powerful favorites Gaveston and Spencer as an analogy for King Charles, who in the 1620s was in conflict with Parliament about the power granted to the Duke of Buckingham. Falkland was in constant contact with Buckingham and his family and writing The History may have been her way to cope with having to constantly rely on Buckingham and his family. Falkland focuses on the idea of favouritism much throughout the piece and how it can lead to disastrous outcomes. Other than the Tragedy of Mariam and the History, much of Falkland’s original work has been lost, including most of her poetry.
- The mirror of the world, a translation of Abraham Ortelius's Le mirroir du monde (1598)
- The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry (pub. 1613)
- Reply of the most Illustrious Cardinal of Perron (1630)
- The History of the Life, Reign and Death of Edward II, or The History of the most Unfortunate Prince, King Edward II (pub. 1680)