Boyle, Elizabeth (1613–1691), countess of Cork and Burlington, was born at Skipton Castle in Yorkshire on 17 September 1613. She was the only surviving child of Henry Clifford (d. 1643) and Frances Cecil (d. 1644), 5th earl and countess of Cumberland. Little evidence is available about her upbringing, but her extant letters, which span a period of sixty years, suggest that she kept up a busy correspondence in her various roles within the family, as the mistress of several large households, and as a countess and landed heiress. She also notably wrote and received letters in the French language. Her surviving inscription in a number of books makes clear that her reading habits were congruent with a traditional form of protestantism. These books include material on sermons, meditations and the psalms. Boyle also had an interest in the literature and culture of the period, from an Italian chivalric romance by Sir Giovanni Francesco Biondi (1572–1644) to a personally inscribed copy of the 1667 edition of Katherine Philips’s (qv) Poems and the Pompey and Horace tragedies. It seems that she was also sent an early version of one of Sir Charles Sedley’s (1639–1701) plays, all of which suggests that Elizabeth was an eclectic reader with wide-ranging tastes and writerly connections.
Elizabeth married Richard Boyle (qv), Viscount Dungarvan, eldest son and heir of the 1st earl and countess of Cork, on 3 July 1634 at Skipton Castle. Surviving correspondence reveals how the couple had got to know each other several years before the wedding, and this extended courtship may have helped to foster the mutual affection and companionship which characterised the Dungarvan’s relationship. One measure of the harmonious nature of their marriage was the birth of their seven children, and later on the close ties which were maintained with their numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Elizabeth and Richard had two sons and five daughters: Frances was born in Dublin on 14 March 1636; Katherine at Skipton on 10 October 1637 (but she died in 1639); Charles in London at the Savoy on 17 November 1639; Richard at Newington Green near London on 6 September 1641; Elizabeth at the Piazza in London’s Covent Garden on 22 January 1643; Anne at the Red Lodge, Bristol, on 29 September 1644; and Henrietta at Londesborough in Yorkshire on 20 August 1647. The geographic spread of birthplaces mirrors the peripatetic quality of Elizabeth’s life as she combined her various responsibilities and duties – moving between her ancestral properties in Yorkshire; attending the court and transacting business in London; visiting the 1st earl of Cork’s country seat in Dorset; socialising at the baths in the south of England; and shuttling between the Boyles’ Irish homes. While the marriage marked the Boyles’ entry into one of the oldest and longest-established aristocratic families in England, Elizabeth was also advantageously connected as the niece of Sir Thomas Wentworth (qv), who had been appointed lord deputy of Ireland in 1631. That kinship tie did not, however, insulate Elizabeth’s father-in-law, the earl of Cork, from Wentworth’s campaign (1634–8) to curb the self-aggrandising practices of protestant planters, and Cork was forced to pay a large fine and submit to a surrender and (delayed) regrant of his Youghal property. The public embarrassment which ensued prompted Cork, with almost all of his family (including Elizabeth and her husband), to depart from Ireland in 1638 and relocate to England for a period of three years.
Cork and a retinue of his relations landed back in Ireland on 17 October 1641 – just before the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion in Ulster, but Elizabeth Dungarvan remained in London for several more years, thus avoiding the sieges which many of the other Boyle women had to endure in their homes. The death of the 1st earl of Cork on 15 September 1643 brought added responsibilities as well as advancement for Elizabeth and Richard Boyle, but, as the civil war situation worsened in England, the new countess of Cork spent most of her time moving from York to Bolton and Londesborough, staying one step ahead of the fighting while also trying to keep a watchful eye on her hereditary lands. Notwithstanding her husband, the 2nd earl of Cork’s brief involvement as a royalist officer in those wars, the Corks still suffered the imposition of a fine and the confiscation of their English estates. During that period of sequestration, Elizabeth was entitled to claim one fifth of the income from the lands which she had inherited directly from her father. This revenue source helped to sustain the family until the fine was paid and, in 1651, they were able to recover their Yorkshire estates. Yet the family would have to wait another seven years before they fully regained control of their more valuable Irish lands.
Elizabeth’s vigilance regarding her inherited lands and her careful safeguarding of the related papers and titles likely stems from her personal experience of conflict and losses suffered as a result of a prolonged legal battle. This battle, initiated by her cousin, the famous diarist, Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676), contested the terms of her father’s will, which endowed the family’s vast Cumberland and Yorkshire estates to his closest male relatives, Francis and Henry Clifford (Elizabeth’s grandfather and father). In the aftermath of Henry Clifford’s death in 1643, Anne Clifford became the unopposed heir of the Cumberland patrimony, but she continued to mount challenges against the Boyles into the 1650s, eventually forcing them into litigation in order to defend their legitimate rights through the paternal line.
In spite of the personal and political stakes in Yorkshire at the time, Elizabeth Boyle returned to Ireland in 1648 and remained there until May 1650. This period also coincided with her husband’s departure into royalist exile on the continent. The Corks’ Munster interests may have been afforded some immediate protection by hosting Oliver Cromwell at College House in Youghal over the winter of 1648/9 (additionally Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, the soldier/politician, Roger Boyle (qv), also switched allegiance to the Cromwellian side in 1649). Evidence shows that the countess of Cork spent her time updating tenancy agreements and renewing leases, which would also have signalled to the local population that the Boyles were still in charge of their lands.
These experiences – which embraced managing the estates in Munster and Yorkshire while also dealing with her litigious Clifford cousin – likely shaped Elizabeth Boyle’s record-keeping habits. In 1659 she commenced a memorandum book which she maintained for over thirty years. Starting retrospectively with her marriage to Richard Boyle in 1634, Elizabeth constructed a narrative of the family’s history, documenting milestone events including the births, marriages and deaths of her immediate relatives and the wider kinship network. Matters concerning the family along with local and public happenings are also recorded, including outbreaks of plague and smallpox, changing weather conditions, and news of the royal family and other members of the nobility. One memorandum entry describes how, on 13 March 1665, Elizabeth Boyle was the first to receive (from Henrietta Maria) the news that her husband was to be made an English earl, and the following day the Burlington title was awarded in remembrance of the queen’s landing near Londesborough in 1643, where she received safe onward passage. Throughout the memorandum book, Elizabeth recounts journeys which the family undertook. Much detail can be gleaned from her descriptions about modes of transport, timings and conditions of travel, especially in relation to the Irish Sea crossings, and the seasonal imperatives which prompted moves from the town residence in Youghal to the viceregal court in Dublin and the rural retreat of Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford. A consistent feature of the memorandum book is Elizabeth’s preoccupation with will and legacy-making, therein reminding future readers of her identity as a wealthy Clifford heiress. Samuel Pepys noted his impressions of Elizabeth on 28 September 1668, describing her as ‘a very fine-speaking lady, and a good woman, [---] old, and not handsome; but a brave woman in her parts’ (Diary of Samuel Pepys, viii, 111). The fact that she lived until 6 January 1691 is perhaps a final sign of that enduring spirit. Elizabeth Boyle was buried at All Saints Church in Londesborough, and her will was proven on 23 March 1691.