Brent, Margaret

views updated May 23 2018

Brent, Margaret


Gloucester, England



Landowner and business agent

" . . . it was better for the Collonys safety at the time in her hands then in any mans else in the whole Province. . . . "

The Maryland Assembly.

Margaret Brent was a unique figure in seventeenth-century Maryland. An independent, wealthy woman, she was actively involved in the legal and political affairs of the colony at a time when women had little or no power. Brent is remembered today as a feminist because she demanded the right to vote in Maryland, even though she knew she would be denied the privilege because of her gender. It is believed that she was the first practicing female attorney in America. Some historians point out, however, that Brent was not actually advocating equality for women in general, and she was never licensed as a lawyer. Nonetheless, she was an exceptional woman for her day: she owned and managed a large estate, she was the executor (one appointed to carry out a will) of the Maryland governor's estate, and at one point she managed the supply and payment of an army.

Acquires land in Maryland

Margaret Brent was born around 1601, in Gloucester, England. Her father, Richard Brent, was Lord of Admington and Lark Stoke in the county of Gloucester. Her mother, Elizabeth (Reed) Brent, was a descendant of King Edward III. Very little is known about her early life except that she received some education and that she was raised a Roman Catholic (Christian religion based in Rome, Italy, and headed by a pope who is the supreme authority in all church affairs).

On November 22, 1638, Brent emigrated (moved from one country to another) to St. Mary's, the capital of the Maryland colony in North America. She moved there with her sister Mary, her brothers Giles and Fulke, and several servants. Maryland was founded in 1632 by Cecilius Calvert, Second Baron Baltimore (also known as Lord Baltimore), who had received the grant from King Charles II. The Calverts were Roman Catholic, as were many of the Maryland settlers. When the Brents left England, they carried a letter from Cecilius Calvert. Although he was the proprietor (one granted ownership of a colony) of Maryland, he remained in England and governed the colony through deputies (officials representing the proprietor). In his letter Calvert recommended that the Brent family be given land according to the same terms that were granted the first settlers of Maryland. The Brent family, like many other settlers in the New World (a European term for North America and South America), hoped to take advantage of opportunities in the thriving American colonies.

If the Brents were to be afforded the same rights as previous settlers, this meant the Brent sisters would have the same right to own land as men. They were granted 70.5 acres of land in St. Mary's, calling their new property "Sisters Freehold." In 1642 Brent acquired even more land from her brother Giles in return for payment of a debt. She also received land from her brother Fulke. Within a year of arriving in Maryland, Fulke returned to England and bestowed upon his sister full power of attorney (authority to handle legal affairs) over his property. This was only the first of many responsibilities for Brent, who eventually became a highly influential figure in the colony.

Becomes executor of estate

Having obtained power of attorney, Brent now had the authority to represent Fulke in all legal and financial matters concerning his Maryland property. From a historical perspective this may seem unusual because Brent was a woman, and women had only limited freedom during colonial times. Nevertheless,

The Calverts in Maryland

The founding of Maryland began with George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore (also known as Lord Baltimore), who declared himself a Roman Catholic in 1625. He had close ties with the Virginia Company and the New England Company, groups of investors who were starting colonies in North America. Nevertheless, Calvert wanted to found his own settlement. At that time investors were granted charters (titles to land) in North America by the British king or queen. These investors, called proprietors, were permitted to found and govern colonies as private enterprises. In 1623 Calvert was given the peninsula of Avalon in Newfoundland, but because of the extremely cold climate, the colony failed. Six years later, Calvert was granted territory north of the Potomac River on the Atlantic coast in North America. He prepared a charter for a colony, but he died shortly before it was approved. In 1632 his son Cecilius, Second Baron Baltimore, received the charter and founded the colony of Maryland. Cecilius Calvert never visited Maryland himself. Instead, he remained in England. However, he governed through a series of deputies, including his brother Leonard. The last deputy governor of Maryland was Cecilius's son Charles Calvert, Third Baron Baltimore. Charles was sent to govern the colony in 1661 and was appointed proprietor upon the death of Cecilius in 1675.

The Roman Catholic Calverts faced constant opposition from Protestants, who increasingly became the majority of the population in Maryland. Charles Calvert tried to protect Catholic interests by depriving Protestants of the right to vote and by filling offices with his allies. New pressures on the colony resulted from Calvert's dispute with William Penn (see entry), the Quaker proprietor of Pennsylvania, over the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania. (Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends that believe that the individual can receive divine truth from the Holy Spirit through his or her own "inner light" without the guidance of a minister or priest.) In 1684 Calvert traveled to England to defend his position. He found himself charged with favoring Catholics and preventing the collection of taxes on commercial goods. Calvert never returned to Maryland. His charter was overturned during the 1689 Protestant revolt in England. Three years later the royal government of Britain took direct control of the colony.

there were very few professional lawyers in Maryland in the 1640s. People who needed legal guidance often repre sented themselves before the courts. Because there were no strict guidelines determining who could be a lawyer, it was possible for Brent to handle her own legal matters. Of all the amateur lawyers (those not licensed to practice law), she was perhaps the most successful of her day.

While it is clear that the Brent family was influential in Maryland, some historians believe that a large part of this power came from their connections with the Calverts. It was Cecilius Calvert that had granted them their Maryland property. The Brents' power may have been further strengthened when Governor Leonard Calvert married Brent's sister Anne. He was greatly impressed by Brent's actions as an amateur lawyer. She and Leonard Calvert also shared the guardianship (one who has the care of a person) of Mary Kitomaquund, the daughter of the chief of the Piscataway tribe.

Brent had made such an impression on Calvert, in fact, that before he died in 1647 he named her the executor of his will. In this position Brent handled claims made against the late governor's estate and collected debts owed to him. Not only did she assume responsibility for Leonard Calvert's property, but the Maryland court also put her in charge of the estate of Cecilius Calvert. This action made Brent the most powerful woman in the colony and propelled her to the forefront of Maryland politics.

Arranges pay for soldiers

When Brent took over the Calvert estates, Maryland was going through a period of crisis. In 1645 Protestants led by Richard Ingle, an English seaman and tobacco trader, revolted against the Catholic government of the colony. Known as Ingle's Rebellion (1645–47), the uprising lasted for two years. In order to put down the revolt, Leonard Calvert hired soldiers from Virginia and promised to pay them with money raised from the Calvert estates. Unfortunately, Calvert died before he could pay the army of soldiers and Brent was left in charge of reimbursing the men. This was a large responsibility, considering the limited power Brent had as a woman. Calvert could have made Brent's brother Giles the executor of his will, but Giles had been captured during the rebellion and taken to England as a prisoner. He did not return to Maryland until after the governor's death.

As it turned out, Brent was a capable executor. In fact, subsequent events proved her to be highly resourceful. Her

Claiborne Rebellion

The Claiborne Rebellion (1645–47) was led by William Claiborne, who had emigrated to Virginia from England in 1621. He established a settlement with a fort on Kent Island in Chesapeake Bay. Problems arose when he violently opposed the granting of Maryland to Cecilius Calvert, Second Baron Baltimore. (Claiborne was a Protestant, and he did not want his settlement to come under the rule of Calvert, who was a Roman Catholic.) After Claiborne was arrested and sent to England in 1637, he argued his case, but the issue was eventually decided in favor of Calvert. Nevertheless, Claiborne returned to Virginia, and in 1642 he was elected treasurer of the colony. For several years he continued to invade Maryland. After driving out Governor Leonard Calvert, Claiborne briefly gained control of the colony. Although Calvert returned in 1646 and put down the uprising, he died the following year. Claiborne controlled Maryland for several years after Calvert's death and served on the governing commission of the colony.

duties included not only paying the soldiers but also feeding them. In order to accomplish this task, Brent was allowed to use Cecilius Calvert's estate if Leonard's property did not yield enough resources. When a food shortage forced her to import supplies from Virginia, she discovered that Leonard's estate did not have enough money to cover all the expenses. Therefore, she was forced to draw money from Cecilius's estate. Brent then sold off some of the proprietor's cattle in order to pay the soldiers their wages. Although this bold act drew criticism from Cecilius Calvert in England, Brent's handling of the affair preserved order in Maryland after Ingle's Rebellion had been subdued. The new governor, Thomas Greene, was consequently able to make a peaceful transition.

Requests right to vote

During her struggle to provide for the Virginia soldiers, Brent showed considerable abilities. Nevertheless, she continued to be discriminated against because of her gender. Then on January 21, 1647 (or 1648), Brent earned a place in history by asking the Maryland assembly for the right to vote. This power would have enabled her to make decisions equally with landowning men in the colony. She requested two votes: one because she was a landowner (all male landowners were given a vote) and the other because she was the proprietor's attorney. Evidently, Brent believed that if she was exercising so much responsibility she should be granted voting rights. Although Greene denied her request, she was commended by the Maryland assembly for successfully managing the compensation of the Virginia soldiers.

Moves from Maryland to Virginia

In 1651 Brent moved with her family to Virginia, where she acquired a plantation that she named "Peace." Historians cite her gender as the reason for her limited success in Maryland. However, other factors were involved. For instance, Cecilius Calvert was upset that Brent had used his cattle to raise money for the soldiers. Furthermore, because Protestants were gaining power in England, Calvert found it increasingly difficult to support other Roman Catholics like Brent. Her brother Giles also had a negative impact on her position in Maryland because he was a Jesuit (a member of the Roman Catholic Society). Despite these obstacles, Brent did very well for herself. In her will, which she wrote in 1663, she gave up her rights to the land in Maryland. Brent died in Virginia around 1671.

For further research

James, Edward T., and others, eds. Notable American Women, 1607–1950, Volume I. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 236–37.

Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1946–1958, pp. 18–19.

Brent, Margaret (1601-1671?)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Margaret Brent (1601-1671?)

Attorney and landowner


Early Settler. Margaret Brent was born in Gloucester, England, the daughter of Lord Admington and Lark Stoke. Little is known of her mother. Brent was reared a Roman Catholic and given an education. She arrived in Maryland in 1638 with a sister, two brothers, and several servants. The Brents were well connected and had a letter from Cecilius Calvert, the proprietor of Maryland, which recommended they be given land.

Land Grant. Men usually received land grants, but Margaret and Mary Brent were also accorded land independently, a 70.5-acre property called the Sisters Freehold in St. Marys City. In 1642 Margaret acquired one thousand acres, including a house, mill, and livestock, from her brother Giles in payment of a debt. Her brother Fulke returned to England and bestowed upon her full power of attorney, making her able to represent him in all legal and economic matters concerning his Maryland property. Few professional lawyers were to be found in Maryland in the 1640s, and individuals represented their own interests before the courts. Of these amateur lawyers Margaret Brent was perhaps the most successful of her day, and she often appeared in court representing her brothers or her own interests. Brent had connections in the elite circles of Lord Baltimore, and she came to advise the governor on all sorts of political and legal matters.

Important Task. When Gov. Leonard Calvert died unexpectedly in 1647, Margaret Brent became the executrix of his will, making her responsible for seeing that his estates financial affairs were settled and his final wishes were fulfilled. The court declared her to be his Lordships attorney, and as such she handled all the claims made against his estate as well as all the debts owed to the deceased governor. More important, in her capacity as attorney she had a responsibility not only to Leonard Calvert but also to his brother, the lord proprietor. These duties included maintaining order after a rebellion had been put down by troops imported from Virginia. Her shrewd handling of the situation gave the new governor the necessary time to get things in order. And while Cecilius Calvert later criticized her conductshe had sold much of his cattle to pay the soldiers salariesthe Maryland assembly defended her, saying that the Colony was safer in her hands than any mans in the Province.

Limits of Gender. While Margaret Brent was a major landowner and in some ways acting governor, she was still discriminated against because of her gender. In 1647 she demanded two votes in the assembly, but the request was denied. Brents influence became limited because, following the English Civil War in 1648, Puritans started discriminating against Roman Catholics. Moreover, her brother Giles was an outspoken Jesuit. As a result Brent and her family moved to Virginia; there she died around 1671, an unmarried, independent woman.


Rosalyn Baxandall, Linda Gordon, and Susan Reverby, eds., Americas Working Women: A Documentary History, 1600-Present (New York: Vintage, 1976);

Elisabeth W. Dexter, Colonial Women of Affairs: Women in Business and the Professions in America Before 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931).

Brent, Margaret

views updated May 18 2018


Maryland pioneer; b. England, c. 1601; d. Virginia, c. 1671. Her parents, Richard, Lord of Admington and Larkstoke, Gloucester, England, and his wife, Elizabeth (Reed), had 13 children. With her sister Mary and her brothers Giles and Foulke, Margaret immigrated to St. Mary's, Md., in November of 1638, bringing letters from Lord Baltimore ordering Gov. Leonard Calvert to grant them as large a portion of land and as great privileges as had been given to the first settlers. To the initial grant of 70 1/2 acres of townland and 1,000 acres outside the town, Margaret gradually added extensive holdings; she was the first woman in Maryland to hold land in her own right, and she played an important part in the affairs of the colony. During Claiborne's rebellion she raised a small body of volunteers in defense of the Calvert government and property. Subsequently, as executrix of Governor Calvert and as attorney for the proprietary interests, she engaged in a multiplicity of lawsuits. In January of 1648 she asked the Maryland assembly to give her voice and vote in her double capacity as executrix and attorney. Although her request was refused, the assembly later came to her defense when the heirs contested her handling of the Calvert estates. Her brother Giles, an ardent royalist, made over his Maryland property to her (1642); and when he moved to Virginia (1646), he made her his attorney. Margaret stayed in Maryland until 1650, when, having made George Manners attorney for her own and her brother's interests, she joined Giles in Virginia. Her will, dated Dec. 26, 1663, and admitted to probate on May 19, 1671, left her land in Maryland and Virginia to her brother Giles and his heirs.

Bibliography: Maryland Historical Society, Transcripts from the Public Records: References to Mistress Margaret Brent, 16381644. Archives of Maryland (1883) v. 1, 4, passim. w. b. chilton, "The Brent Family," Virginia Magazine 1321 (190313), passim. a. repplier, "The Elusive Lady of Maryland," Catholic World 138 (193334) 660669.

[j. de l. leonard]

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