Murray, Elizabeth (1626–1698)

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Murray, Elizabeth (1626–1698)

Countess of Dysart and duchess of Lauderdale. Name variations: Bess; Elizabeth Maitland; Lady Lauderdale. Born on September 28, 1626, in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, England; died on June 5, 1698 (some sources cite 1697), in Richmond, England; daughter of William Murray, 1st earl of Dysart, and Catherine Bruce; married Lionel Tollemache, in 1648; married John Maitland, duke of Lauderdale, in 1672; children: (first marriage) Lionel (b. 1649); Thomas (b. 1651); Elizabeth Tollemache (b. 1659); Catherine Tollemache (b. 1661); William (b. 1662).

Accused of witchcraft by her enemies because of her political influence, Elizabeth Murray was active during the civil turmoil of 17th-century England. Of Scottish descent, she was one of five daughters of William Murray, close friend and courtier to King Charles I of England. She grew up in Ham House, the Murray country manor near Richmond, as well as at the royal court. Better educated than most girls of her rank, Elizabeth was even taught mathematics, history, and philosophy. In the years of her childhood, her parents were deeply involved in supporting Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria in their growing religious and political conflicts with Parliament as the English civil war approached. Their devotion, along with their resilience when the king's opponents tried repeatedly to confiscate their property, profoundly affected Elizabeth's character, creating in her intense royalism and a determination to retain her rights at all costs.

At age 22, she married Sir Lionel Tollemache. A wealthy baronet two years her senior, Tollemache was at the time uninvolved in the ongoing civil strife, making him an ideal husband in the eyes of the Murrays. After a private Anglican ceremony, the couple settled in the Tollemache manor in Suffolk. It proved an affectionate marriage, and together they would have eleven children, although only five would survive infancy.

In 1649, her mother Catherine Bruce died, and Elizabeth took her younger sisters into her home; the next year William Murray fled England to join the exiled Prince Charles, returning only briefly to England before his death in 1655. At that time Elizabeth and her husband moved to Ham House, which Elizabeth had inherited, along with the title countess of Dysart. In the early 1650s, the royalist countess began an unusual friendship with Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan military leader of the parliamentary opposition to the king who was quickly becoming the most powerful man in England. She was widely rumored by Cromwell's enemies to be his mistress, but no evidence supports it, and Elizabeth's happy marriage and Cromwell's marriage to Elizabeth Cromwell argue against it. Elizabeth Murray seems to have cultivated the friendship out of both a genuine admiration for Cromwell and as a means of protecting her inheritance from the continued threat of confiscation by Parliament. Her influence can be seen in the fact that in 1651, at her request, Cromwell spared the life of a condemned royalist supporter, John Maitland, earl of Lauderdale. After Cromwell was named Lord Protector in 1653, Elizabeth was savvy enough to display outward signs of loyalty to the Puritan Party, while retaining her desire to see Prince Charles brought to the throne as Charles II.

As a leading social hostess with Cromwell's trust, she was not considered a political threat by Parliament, who did not interfere with her frequent travels to the Continent, or her correspondence as they did with other suspected royalists. Therefore the countess was able to continue her secret political activities with those working to bring back the monarchy, a group of nobles calling themselves the Sealed Knot. Elizabeth's associates did not advocate the violent overthrow of Cromwell's protectorate but instead worked to raise popular support for the exiled Charles II. Cromwell viewed Elizabeth as an important ally as he tried to win over the allegiance of the royalist party to consolidate his power.

Her work was coupled with the increasing burdens of motherhood through the 1650s and 1660s, but she was in excellent health and her frequent pregnancies did not slow down her political activities. Following Cromwell's death in 1658 and the return of Charles II in 1660, Elizabeth's efforts on behalf of the monarchy were recognized and financially rewarded by the new king. Thus she skillfully made the transition from public ally of Cromwell to loyal supporter of the king.

By the late 1660s, her marriage with Tollemache had broken down as she became attracted to John Maitland, the earl whose life she had saved in 1651. He was now secretary of state for Scotland and its high commissioner. Unlike Tollemache, Maitland shared Elizabeth's belief in a strong monarchical, authoritarian government. The earl respected Elizabeth's political acumen and she became a major influence on his decisions. He stayed at Ham House often, especially after Lionel Tollemache moved to France due to poor health. Rumors about the affair intensified after Tollemache's death in January 1671; Elizabeth's influence on Maitland caused much resentment among Scottish officials.

She moved to London, where she appeared frequently with Maitland at court. In December 1671, Maitland's wife died; three months later the earl and Elizabeth married. Shortly afterwards Charles II named the couple as duke and duchess of Lauderdale in reward for their loyal service. They spent some time in Edinburgh in late 1672, but returned to England to work on refurbishing and enlarging their preferred home, Elizabeth's Ham House. Both were interested in architecture and interior design, and spent lavishly on improvements to the manor.

In 1680, John Maitland resigned his offices due to failing health and a weakening of his authority in Scotland. Changes in the English political climate led Charles II to abandon his former friendship with Elizabeth and Maitland, a loss of favor which effectively ended their years of political activity, and he subsequently terminated their pensions. Coupled with the duke and duchess' extravagance, this loss of income ruined their fortunes. When Maitland died in August 1682, he left his widow deeply in debt. Elizabeth spent years trying to get Maitland's brother, the new earl of Lauderdale, to pay off her husband's debts, even filing suit against him in 1688. She seldom left Ham House after that, although she kept up a voluminous correspondence with her children. The duchess of Lauderdale died June 5, 1698, at age 72. She was buried in the Murray family vault in Petersham Church near Ham House.


Cripps, Doreen. Elizabeth of the Sealed Knot: A Biography of Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart. Kineton, England: Roundwood Press, 1975.

Laura York , Riverside, California

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Murray, Elizabeth (1626–1698)

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