Margaret Lucas, the youngest of eight, was born to Elizabeth and Thomas Lucas in the year 1623. The Lucases, an aristocratic family, lived just outside Colchester, England in a converted abbey called St. John’s Abbey. Margaret’s father, Thomas, died when Margaret was very young. Still, she admired him a great deal. Margaret’s mother, Elizabeth, was devoted to her husband until her death, remembering him as a great hero. Margaret considered her brothers to be heroes as well. Two of her brothers were soldiers in the King’s army. Her oldest brother, John, was a scholar and skilled businessman. He helped his mother manage the estate and was like a father to Margaret. Margaret was close to her sisters, spending most of her time with them, drinking in their stories and gossip. Margaret was a shy and quiet child. She felt most comfortable in the company of her family.
The Lucases spent the summer at St. John’s, but traveled to London for the winter. There they, like other nobility, were active in the Royal Court. Margaret attended lavish celebrations and mingled with nobility. Although she was quite shy, she paid careful attention to the people around her. Margaret remembers her time at the Royal Court fondly, and her experiences would influence her later writings.
The English Civil War upended Margaret’s peaceful life with her family. A rebel insurgency ransacked St. John’s in 1641 (Whitaker, p. 37). The Lucas family was thrown in jail, their home looted, and belongings taken by angry townspeople. After the violence subdued, the Lucases joined other Royalists in London. Amidst the turmoil of war, losing their family home, and the increasing attacks on the aristocracy, Margaret grew to admire Queen Henrietta Maria. Queen Henrietta Maria was active in the fight against the rebel Parliamentarians. Like Margaret’s mother, Queen Henrietta Maria took on more responsibility than typical of a woman at her time. Margaret begged her mother to let her join the Queen’s Court. When her mother refused her request, Margaret ignored her wishes and joined the Queen’s Court anyway. However, attending to the Queen was not what Margaret envisioned. Spending the majority of her day with the other ladies in waiting, in the Queen’s quarters, Margaret longed for the company of her family. Margaret had always been shy and felt out of place in the Queen’s court. She claimed not to be skilled in the art of conversation or wit. Despite her misery, Margaret was unable to leave the Queen’s court—neither the Queen nor her mother permitted it.
The Civil War dragged on. It was no longer safe for the Queen, a French Catholic, to remain in England. In 1644, The Queen and her Court, including Margaret, made a harrowing journey across land and sea, escaping the blood-thirsty rebels and arriving safely in France (Whitaker, p. 56-57). They traveled to Paris and there the Queen settled into her new home. In the face of adversity, Queen Henrietta Maria acted bravely and heroically. Her actions, and the tumultuous journey undertaken, would influence Margaret’s later writings.
Margaret met William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle, at the Queen’s Court in Paris. William was a wealthy and powerful ally of the King. Like Queen Henrietta Maria, William was forced to flee England by rebel forces. William was thirty years older than Margaret. He had several adult children. His wife, whom he loved dearly, had recently passed. He had a reputation as a womanizer, but after he met Margaret, he only had eyes for her. He wrote passionate love poems for Margaret, and she loved him too. Their relationship inspired nasty rumors at Court. The lovers were discouraged from being together by friends and nobility. Despite malicious attempts to keep them apart, and the disapproval of the Queen, Margaret and William were married in 1645 (Whitaker, p. 80).
Marriage brought another upheaval of Margaret’s life. Margaret left the Queen’s court, accompanied only by her maid and lifelong friend, Elizabeth, and joined the Cavendish household. Margaret, significantly younger than William, struggled to adjust to life as a Marchioness. William was a scholar and an avid writer, like Margaret. William was close friends with Thomas Hobbes and hosted some of the most influential scholars of the time at his Parisian home. Margaret met and listened to these influential scholars and began to develop her own theories of natural philosophy. Though, it would be some time before they were published.
Margaret and William left Paris and arrived in Antwerp in 1648. There Margaret continued her informal studies with William and his brother Charles. Living in exile, William had acquired a great debt in order to maintain his household and noble way of life. Fearing financial ruin, William sent his brother Charles and his wife Margaret to England to petition Parliament to recover the wealth and property he had lost in the war. Margaret was unsuccessful in her petitioning. Charles, however, was able to recover some of his wealth and belongings—finding himself in higher favor with Parliament than his brother, William. While she was in England, Margaret published her first book; a collection of poems titled Poems and Fancies. Margaret delineates her own theory of atomism—inspired by the theories of natural philosophy to which she was exposed in Paris. Before Poems and Fancies had been published, while it was still at the printer’s, Margaret began working on Philosophical Fancies. Margaret abandons the idea of atomism in Philosophical Fancies, proposing her theory of Infinite Matter instead. Philosophical Fancies was published the same year as Poems and Fancies, 1653, before Margaret left London for Antwerp.
When Margaret returned to Antwerp, she began to prepare a collection of essays for the publishing. The World’s Olio was published in 1654. She also started to expand on her ideas in Philosophical Fancies in a new book, Philosophical and Physical Opinions. All of these works were met by attacks by her readers. There were rumors that Margaret’s husband, William, had written them. In a prefatory epistle to Philosophical and Physical Opinions, William defended his wife, declaring that her words were own and free from his influence (Whitaker, p. 185). After Philosophical and Physical Opinions, Margaret began working on Nature’s Pictures, a collection of stories of huge variety and range (Whitaker, p. 188). Nature’s Pictures, more than any of her other works, displays Margaret’s versatility as a writer.
In the year 1660, the royalists regained control over the English parliament (Whitaker, p. 226). With the monarchy restored, the Cavendish’s could return to England. They travelled from Antwerp to London. William petitioned the king to restore his title and his fortune. With his fortune secured, the Cavendish’s retired to the country to rebuild William’s estates. Their manor in Welbeck would be their home until their death. Margaret’s first publication after their return to Welbeck was a book of plays, she had finished several years prior in Antwerp (Whitaker, p. 243). Plays was published in 1662, immediately followed by a collection of speeches, Orations of Divers Sorts, also published in 1662. Margaret then began revisions on her earlier publications. After consulting the works of her contemporary philosophers, Margaret made major changes to her own philosophical theory. She published a new and revised edition of Philosophical and Physical Opinions in 1663, followed by a second edition of her Poems and Fancies in 1664. Despite Margaret’s efforts, her books continued to be met with controversy. Still, her confidence in her work was growing. That same year, she published two collections of letters, CCXI Sociable Letters and Philosophical Letters. Margaret provides what is believed to be the first critique of Shakespeare in CCXIU Sociable Letters (Whitaker, p. 258). She critiques her contemporary philosophers in Philosophical Letters.
To settle an old war debt, King Charles the I awarded William Cavendish the title of Duke of Newcastle in 1665. Margaret became the Duchess of Newcastle. Margaret continued to work on her philosophical theory. She published Observations upon Experimental Philosophy with her science-fiction dystopian novel, The Blazing World, as an appendix in the year 1666. The following year, 1667, she published a biography of William. The year after that, 1668, she published Grounds of Natural Philosophy. The rest of her life she dedicated to revising and republishing her books, until her death in 1673. She is buried alongside her husband, William, at Westminster Abbey in London. Margaret never had children, but her legacy lives on in her works; Margaret is the Queen of the Philosophers.
Written by Rachel A. Henderson
Information from Whitaker, K. (2002). Mad Madge : The extraordinary life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, the first woman to live by her pen. New York: Basic Books.