Boyle, Margaret (1623–1689), 1st countess of Orrery, was one of ten children of Theophilus Howard (d. 1640), 2nd earl of Suffolk and Elizabeth Home (daughter of the 1st earl of Dunbar). Margaret was baptised on 11 February 1623 at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, London, and, though not much else is known about her early life, she was one of the named dancers who participated, along with Charles I and Henrietta Maria, in William Davenant’s masque, Salmacida Spolia, performed at Whitehall Palace in London on 21 January 1640. She may have met Sir Roger Boyle (qv) , Baron Broghill during this period while they were both attending court in London. Following negotiations, Margaret married Boyle on 27 January 1641 at Lord d’Aubigny’s house at Queen Street in Covent Garden, London. A portion of £5,000 was settled on condition that Broghill’s father, Richard Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Cork would match that sum so that an English property could be acquired for the young couple. In September 1641, the estate of Marston Bigott in Somerset was purchased for £10,350, and the Broghills were also given significant Irish lands in Limerick, Kerry and in north Cork.
Aside from her aristocratic Howard pedigree, Margaret was also related to a powerful set of English and Scottish nobles, some of whom were opponents and others supporters of the crown, which afforded the Boyles links with both political camps as the royalist crisis began to escalate. In the interim, having departed from London with her marital family, Lady Broghill visited her new home at Marston Bigott around the 8 October 1641, before sailing to Ireland and eventually arriving at Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford, on 19 October, just before the Irish Rebellion spread from Ulster to the other provinces. By early spring of 1642 many of the Boyle properties were under siege, including Margaret’s home at Lismore where she was confined in late pregnancy. She suffered the loss of that child, but the Broghills went on to have two sons and four daughters, all of whom lived into adulthood: Roger (1646–82); Henry (1648–93); Margaret (d. 1683); Katherine (d. 1681); Barbara (d. 1682); and Elizabeth (d. 1709).
While Broghill was often absent and preoccupied in his various roles as soldier, politician and administrator, financial records and letters show that Margaret was proactive in her approach to running the household at Lismore and later at Castlemartyr, Ballymaloe and Charleville, and in managing the estates. As the Cromwellian protectorate began its decline, Margaret’s cultivation of familial connections with senior royalists in the exiled court may have smoothed the way for Broghill to participate in planning the Restoration. Those efforts were rewarded on 5 September 1660, when Roger and Margaret Boyle were created 1st earl and countess of Orrery. Yet, while Roger Boyle enjoyed many successes, his political career was also dogged by antagonisms and controversy. Careful analysis of records extant in discrete archives reveals the subtle ways in which Margaret, exercising her diplomatic skills and availing of back channels, sought to ease tensions and maintain contact with those in power. This was the case, for example, with Arthur Capel (qv), earl of Essex and lord lieutenant of Ireland.
A number of recipe books and letters reveal Margaret Boyle’s interest in medicine and her facility for developing curative remedies and treating the sick, not least her husband who was frequently afflicted with gout. He died at Castlemartyr on 16 October 1679 and, while the earldom passed to the eldest son, Roger, the family papers indicate that, as executrix, the dowager countess remained closely involved in the day-to-day running of the estates. Margaret Boyle’s widowhood lasted ten years. However, much of that time was taken up with a dispute initiated by her daughter-in-law, Mary Boyle (née Sackville), 2nd countess of Orrery (1648–1710), regarding her Irish jointure lands and financial provision. The dispute escalated into a bitter legal battle, eventually concluding on 16 May 1688 with a finding in Mary’s favour. The early death of the 2nd earl on 29 March 1682 further exacerbated tensions between the two dowager countesses, particularly after the appointment of Margaret Boyle and her brother-in-law, Richard Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Burlington, as co-guardians of the 3rd earl, Lionel Boyle (1670–1703). Nonetheless, correspondence and detailed financial accounts attest to Margaret’s sense of care and responsibility in ensuring that, even with limited funds, the 3rd earl received a standard of education and training consistent with his rank, including a four-year grand tour of the continent.
The voluminous size of the Orrery archive is, in part, a sign of Margaret Boyle’s fastidious record-keeping, which included maintaining books of accounts and incoming correspondence and retaining drafts of both her own and her husband’s outgoing letters. A number of letters also reveal that the dowager countess withheld important and sensitive papers from those whom she deemed untrustworthy, indicative, perhaps, of a will to safeguard the family’s future reputation. Over and above matters relating to the estates, personal insights can be gleaned from the extant letters, illuminating Margaret Boyle’s strong protestant faith and the resilience she displayed during widowhood and following the deaths of four of her children between 1681 and 1683. Her long-standing involvement with the estates in Munster and Somerset provided a sense of continuity for the stewards and tenants, while the younger generations of the family also benefited from her reassuring presence. Margaret Boyle maintained close ties with her natal family throughout her life, particularly with her sister, Elizabeth Percy, countess of Northumberland, with whom she spent most of her final years. The range of correspondence exchanged with Boyle in-laws testify to the mutual warmth of those relationships and such familial intimacy is exemplified in the countess of Burlington’s last entry in her memorandum book, which reads: ‘My Sister Orrerye Dyed at Syon House on Wednesday the 21st of August 1689’, after which she describes the burial that took place three days later at Isleworth Church, Middlesex.