Lady Jane Cavendish + the Civil War with Laura Sherburn

Detail of a portrait of Jane Cavendish

Watch our online talk with Laura Sherburn, and discover the story of Lady Jane Cavendish who safeguarded Welbeck Abbey during the Civil War, and throughout Cromwell’s governance of England.

Lady Jane Cavendish (1621-1669) remained at Welbeck Abbey while her father, William Cavendish, was in exile. While living under house arrest, she worked to protect the family’s possessions – including famously burying their silver in the grounds.

Lady Jane Cavendish is relatively unknown in terms of history’s women, but it is thanks to her that Welbeck largely survived the civil war period. Unravelling Jane’s story has been quite tricky as little source material survives and there are quite large gaps in her life where we can only guess what she was doing.

We start the story of Jane with her birth in 1621 at Welbeck Abbey. Jane’s parents, William Cavendish and Elizabeth Basset, already had 2 children at this stage, but sadly they had both died before the age of 2. Jane was the first of their children that would survive past infancy. At the time of her birth, Jane’s family was a very established one. Her father, William, who would later become Duke of Newcastle, was the grandson of the great land magnate Bess of Hardwick, and had inherited 2 great houses in the Midlands from his father Sir Charles Cavendish. These houses were Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, and Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, with Welbeck being the main family seat.

Jane would end up being 1 of 5 siblings that lived into adulthood: including her 2 brothers Charles and Henry, and her 2 sisters Elizabeth and Frances.

As a child Jane would have likely been raised by her mother as well as the genteel women of the household. Jane’s father, William Cavendish, was renowned for his abilities as a horseman and scholar. He was a huge patron of the arts and supported both authors and musicians, including the playwright Ben Jonson. William also wrote many plays and poems himself. During Jane’s early years, William would have been mostly away at court, but in 1633 and 1634 he hosted 2 royal visits to his estates in the Midlands in the hope of securing his most desired position at court – the Master of the Royal Horse.

In 1634, William spent over £14,000 on hosting a spectacular series of royal entertainments for Charles I and his queen Henrietta Maria. Festivities included a 6 day feast and the presentation of Ben Jonson’s masque titled ‘Loves Welcome at Bolsover’, which had been commissioned especially for the occasion.

It is unclear whether Jane would have actually witnessed her father’s entertainments for Charles I, but she certainly would have been aware of the masque that had been performed because the manuscript for it was in her father’s library. Jane grew up surrounded by a large literary culture at Welbeck, and from an early age was encouraged to write by her father. Surviving letters show that Jane was an active participant in her father’s literary activities and seemed to be the most enthusiastic writer out of all her siblings.

Soon however, Jane’s life would change dramatically and instead of writing rhyming couplets, she would be writing to Parliamentarian generals asking for favours – as after constant clashes between Charles I and Parliament the English Civil War broke out.

The Civil War

Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham in August 1642 and formally declared war on his rebellious subjects. Jane’s father William was, again, away from Welbeck, recruiting volunteers for the Royalist forces and providing them with basic training in warfare. He was in charge of the king’s army in the North and travelled across the country with around 8,000 cavalier soldiers. Jane’s brothers Charles and Henry were by William’s side, despite being teenagers, and travelled the country with William and their tutor. This meant that the women of the family were left behind at Welbeck Abbey without a male head.

Life would become even more turbulent for Jane when her mother Elizabeth died in April 1643. She had been ill for a while, writing her will in November 1642. Jane and her sisters Elizabeth and Frances were by their mother’s bedside as she passed away. Jane was now de-facto head of her household in a country that was being ravaged by war. She was only 22 years old at the time so you can imagine how scary it must have been for her to have this immense responsibility thrust upon her shoulders.

William Cavendish was able to make a fleeting return to Welbeck for the funeral of his wife but was soon back fighting for the Royalist cause. Jane and her sisters were left in charge of a small Royalist garrison at Welbeck Abbey and Jane took over the day-to-day management of both Welbeck and Bolsover. Few sources survive from this time, however, her job would have been to keep the household operational by managing the servants and encouraging them to do their work despite the difficult conditions. She would have been integral for keeping up the spirits of those living in and around Welbeck as news from the war was uncertain and scattered. Surviving letters show that she was integral in helping spread news about her father’s whereabouts to other Royalists. It must have been really worrying for Jane to not know the condition of her father and brothers, so keeping up this correspondence may have been a way of making her feel more involved.

At first the war seemed to be going well for William, he won a major victory at Adwalton Moor in June 1643. Jane must have received the good news as she wrote a poem titled ‘On the 30th of June to God’ in which she thanks God for saving William from the enemy’s charge. However, this good news would soon change.

July 1644 was disastrous for William and his ‘whitecoat’ soldiers. The Battle of Marston Moor crushed the Royalists with around 4,000 Royalist soldiers dead in comparison to the Parliamentarian’s 300. This huge defeat meant that the Royalists effectively lost control of the North of England. William’s soldiers had suffered a devastating loss but William himself survived. He however did not want to face the “laughter of the court” and fled the country soon after. He sailed to the continent with both his sons and essentially abandoned his daughters who were awaiting his return at Welbeck – we can only imagine how they felt bless them – Jane was now alone in leading what was left of her household with no hope of relief.

The Battle of Marston Moor was a turning point in the war in which the Parliamentarians would come to win. With no strong Northern stronghold, the Parliamentarians began to move through the country. Many of the Royalist garrisons fell to the Parliamentarians, including Welbeck Abbey. Since the armies plundered local houses as they passed through the districts, Welbeck and its possessions were now a prime target. Jane wasted no time in trying to save her family’s possessions however and inventory accounts show that on her instruction, Welbeck’s silver plate was “put into 2 hogsheads and placed deep in the ground within the brewhouse” at Welbeck.

Welbeck was in Parliamentary hands by August 1644 and Bolsover wasn’t far behind. Soon the money in the Cavendish treasury was seized and other treasures were pillaged and taken away. The Royalist garrison that had been stationed there did not put up a fight and the Parliamentarian Earl of Manchester allowed the soldiers to march away from the house unscathed with ‘all their arms and colours flying’. The Earl of Manchester left a garrison of around 200 soldiers to guard Welbeck, and Jane and her sisters were now under virtual house arrest and living alongside their father’s enemies.

It’s fair to that that this situation would have been very, very scary for them, and we cannot know for sure how they were treated by the Parliamentarians. However, in a letter to Lord Fairfax, the Parliamentary commander in chief, Jane shows that she and her sisters were treated well during their confinement. She writes that his “favours” are great “comforts” and his “care” of them is “much beyond their merit”. Obviously, she could have written in this way even if they were being treated harshly, but with little other source evidence, it’s hard to draw an accurate picture.

Jane’s correspondence also shows how she had the tact to negotiate with the Parliamentarians so that they would allow her to be “admitted” to Bolsover castle. Although the details of her visit are unclear, records show that with “care and industry” she managed to save “some few hangings and pictures”. Jane also sold her own jewels and silver that she had inherited from her grandmother, Katherine Ogle, and sent the money to help support her father’s household abroad.

Jane must have found solace in her writing as it was during this time that she co-wrote the play ‘The Concealed Fancies’ with her sister Elizabeth. The play can be seen as semi auto-biographical as it tells the story of 3 ‘lady cousins’ imprisoned in their home, longing for their father’s return while enemy soldiers occupy ‘Ballamo’ which seems to be a fictional Welbeck Abbey. The play also mocks the character of ‘Lady Tranquilty’ who has widely been interpreted as being William Cavendish’s second wife Margaret Lucas, who he had met and married while in exile. Margaret was born in 1623 and was therefore 2 years younger than Jane herself so you can see why she was mocked in this play. The play concludes with the safe return of “Monsieur Calsindow” who we can take to represent William. The play clearly reflects Jane and Elizabeth’s own desires to have their father back with them at Welbeck and perhaps allowed them to assert some authority over what was happening to them by writing their own outcome of their situation.

Re-taking Welbeck

It’s hard to know exactly what happened to Jane and her sisters during the Parliamentarian’s take over of Welbeck. What we do know is that, in July 1645, after 11 months, Welbeck was back in Royalist hands. It was re-taken during a raid in which 250 horseman, led by Sir Richard Willis, took up position in a nearby wood and waited for their enemy to open the gates. Once open, they grabbed hold of the drawbridge and got into the grounds. After a stiff fight they took the Abbey and it became under the control of Colonel John Frescheville. Jane and her sisters must have watched this fight as it took place hoping for a Royalist win. They must have been so relieved when they realised the Royalists were back in control. However, Jane did show enormous humanity as upon the Royalist’s arrival, Jane pleaded with her rescuers for the lives of the Parliamentarian jailers who had kept her and her sister captive.

This period of the Royalist garrison saw Charles I return, this time though the king was trying to outrun his pursuers and stayed at Welbeck for only 2 days – so was very different to his lavish visits in the 1630s. This Royalist garrison was not to last however as by November 1645, an agreement was drawn up between the 2 sides to de-garrison Welbeck and Bolsover, in which both houses were evacuated and slighted (so deliberately damaged).

Little is known about what exactly happened to Jane after this time. Her sister Elizabeth had married and gone to live with her husband in Hertfordshire, but it seems that Jane and Frances remained behind at Welbeck. Jane had petitioned to Parliament and been granted a 5th of the income of William’s lands which was the legal entitlement of family members of Royalist delinquents. By cutting down on expenses as much as possible, Jane was able to use this money to look after Welbeck to the best of her ability. It is also possible that at some stage Jane stayed with her sister Elizabeth at her new home at Ashridge in Hertfordshire. An entry in Jane’s account book notes how she had 2 pairs of linen sheets which she used to “lie in at Welbeck” and then brought them to “Ashridge” and “from then to Chelsea”.

She was perhaps living there by 1652, as Jane’s brothers Charles and Henry had returned to England and were able to take back control of Welbeck. Charles the elder brother had petitioned to Parliament and managed to repossess his own inheritance, stating that he had only accompanied his father to war as a minor and had taken no active part in the fighting. With Charles now head of the Cavendish family in England, Jane was able to step down from her role as Welbeck’s leader.

Lady Cheyne

Our next insight into Jane’s life is when she married Charles Cheyne in 1654 in Chelsea, we can see a portrait of Charles here. Jane had resolved to “match with no family which had ill treated her king and father”. Charles seemed a perfect candidate as he was born into a landed gentry family in Buckinghamshire, and had travelled in Spain and Italy from 1643 to 1650 and thus had avoided any direct involvement in the civil war. Upon his return to England he served as Justice of the Peace for Buckinghamshire and it is around this time that he must have met Jane, who may have been staying with her sister Elizabeth at her husband’s London home.

Jane and Charles’s marriage was a loving one, and although Jane wrote that she preferred “the solitary walks of Welbeck” than the “crowd and dust of Hyde park”, she found great happiness in her new London life. Charles was able to successfully petition to the Committee of Compounding on Jane’s behalf to claim the income from the sequestered manors of Lurbottle and Middleton that her grandmother, Katherine Ogle, had left to her in her will. Also, Jane’s brother Charles had sold off some family land and was able to pay for Jane’s dowry. With this money Jane and Charles Cheyne purchased the Manor House of Chelsea and became key figures in the community. They contributed to the development of the area which still bears the Cheyne name. Most notably Jane paid for the huge reconstruction of Chelsea Old Church.

Despite marrying so late for the age, she was 33 at the time, Jane and Charles had 3 children – a son and 2 daughters.

Jane’s father, William Cavendish, eventually returned from exile in 1660 upon the Restoration of Charles II. He set about trying to restore Welbeck to what it once was. Despite Jane’s longing for her father’s return, Margaret, her now step-mother, was an unwelcome addition to the family and Jane wrote several letters to other members of the family discussing the control that Margaret was exercising over William’s property. Jane even lost her income from the Lurbottle and Middleton estates which her grandmother had left directly to her as William had them both transferred to Margaret.

Within this landscape of domestic power struggles of lands and income, Jane unfortunately died. In 1669 she succumbed to a sudden series of epileptic seizures. She was 48 years old. Her husband Charles commissioned an elaborate monument to his wife which can still be seen within Chelsea Old Church today.

Welbeck Abbey was in a sorry state when William returned to live in it during the restoration – but without Jane’s constant care during the decade of his absence, there would have undoubtedly been even less of it to return to.


Laura Sherburn

Laura Sherburn works Front of House at the Portland Collection.

She is a historian with a specialist interest in William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (1593 – 1676) and the social history of the English Civil War. Laura is currently studying for a Masters degree in Early Modern History.