Russell, Rachel (1636–1723)

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Russell, Rachel (1636–1723)

English aristocrat. Name variations: Rachel Wriothesley; Rachel Vaughan; Lady Russell. Born in September 1636 (some sources cite 1637) in Hampshire, England; died on September 29, 1723, in Southampton; daughter of Thomas Wriothesley (1607–1667), 5th earl of Southampton (r. 1624–1667), and Rachel Massuy de Ruvigny also seen as Rachel de Massue (b. 1603); married Francis Vaughan, Lord Vaughan, in October 1654 (died 1667); married William Russell, Lord Russell, in August 1669 (beheaded 1683); children: (first marriage) two who died young; (second marriage) Rachel Russell (1674–1725, who married William Cavendish, 2nd duke of Devonshire), Catherine Russell (1676–1711, who married John Manners, 2nd duke of Rutland), Wriothesley Russell (b. 1680), duke of Bedford.

The life of Rachel Russell is preserved in hundreds of her letters and in the numerous treatises she composed. She was one of four surviving children of Thomas Wriothesley, 5th earl of Southampton, and his aristocratic French wife Rachel de Massue . The years of Rachel's childhood on her father's country estate in Hampshire correspond to the period of the English Civil War of the 1640s and early 1650s. Rachel

grew up without close attachment to either of her parents; her mother died in childbirth when Rachel was three, and her father was absent from his children for months at a time, serving as a moderate Royalist leader in the House of Lords in London. As a result, Rachel formed extremely close lifelong relationships with her sisters, Elizabeth and Magdalene Wriothesley . The Wriothesley children were raised in the Anglican Church, but their religious upbringing was strongly influenced by Puritan piety as well. However, piety would not play much of a role in Rachel's personal life until many years later.

In 1654, Thomas Wriothesley arranged a marriage for Rachel, then aged 16, with Francis Vaughan, son of the earl of Carbery, also 16. It was an unhappy marriage from the beginning. She had two children who each survived only a few days. In her later autobiographical writings, Rachel passes over the years of this youthful first marriage with little comment. She makes no direct mention of her husband, who died of the plague in March 1667.

Widowed and childless at age 30, Rachel returned to her family estates, where her father died only two months after her husband. With no surviving sons, Thomas left his vast fortune and estates to be divided among his daughters. Along with a large income, Rachel inherited Southampton House, her father's favorite country estate. She divided her time between Southampton and her home in London, where she eventually met and fell in love with William Russell, a wealthy but not noble member of Parliament.

Rachel married William in August 1669. The couple had similar personalities—genial, warmhearted, intelligent, with a deep interest in politics—and shared Anglican religious beliefs tolerant of dissenters. Rachel's many letters to and about her husband show that they were passionately in love throughout their marriage. She had three children, all of whom lived to adulthood, to whom she and William were loving and affectionate parents. With William's encouragement Rachel became involved in current affairs and in the management of the Wriothesley and Russell estates. Religious devotion also began to play a more important role in her life at this time.

The couple shared reform-minded Whig politics as well. They both feared King Charles II would re-establish Catholicism and create an absolutist state, but William was drawn to more extreme reformist policies than was his more moderate wife. As William rose in political importance to become leader of the House of Commons, Rachel played an increasingly important role as his unofficial advisor. She used her social connections and family members highly placed in Parliament and the royal court to gather information on William's political opponents, reporting to her husband on political events and gossip when he was away from London. This intrigue became more dangerous after William emerged as the head of parliamentary opposition to King Charles II. Despite Rachel's many warnings, after 1681 William became involved in conspiracies to dethrone the king.

In 1683, William was arrested and tried for treason. Rachel and their children were allowed to visit him in the Tower of London, where he and Rachel devised plans for his defense. She did everything in her power before and during the trial to get him released, including appealing to the king, procuring the best lawyers, and petitioning every highly placed official she could. She even appeared at the trial herself, although it was extremely unusual for a woman to be allowed into a courtroom. Despite her best efforts, William was convicted for his plots with the French against the king, and, although Rachel made personal appeals to Charles to pardon him, William was executed as a traitor on July 21.

Rachel's correspondence from the months following the execution reveal how deeply she mourned. To her husband's supporters, she became a political symbol, the grieving widow of a patriotic martyr. Rachel contributed to this image, struggling with the administration to get William's final speech published, and continuing to support those who wanted to reform the government. They finally succeeded in 1688, when James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution by the Protestant William of Orange. One of William's first acts as king was agreeing to Rachel's petition to have her husband's conviction overturned posthumously and to reverse the attainder that had denied the Russells their legal and property rights.

This restored the Russell family honor and legal rights, and, combined with the friendship of the king, it also restored Rachel's social status among the aristocracy. She now could expand her previous role as a mother into that of the widowed matriarch of an important family. She used this new status to the political and financial benefit of herself and her children—expanding and managing her properties in London and Hampshire, negotiating marriages for her children, and conducting business ventures. She also used her status at the royal court to influence royal and church appointments for the benefit of her extended family.

Lady Russell's health and eyesight began to fail around 1702, when she was 65, but she continued her many business affairs and maintained an active social life well into her 70s. She then retired to her estate at Southampton House, where she died at age 85 in 1723.


Schwoerer, Lois G. Lady Rachel Russell. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Russell, John. The life of William, Lord Russell; with some account of the times in which he lived. London: Longman, 1820.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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