Single Parent History: Lady Anne Clifford – historic legal battles, philanthropy and independence

Posted 21 February 2022

By Dr Sue Jones. Sue has taught at Birkbeck, University of London and University of Plymouth. She lives a double life, researching seventeenth century piracy and working in the Gingerbread advice team.

As you enter Brougham Castle in Cumbria you see a memorial. This was erected in 1656 by Lady Anne Clifford in commemoration of the last time she saw her mother, Margaret. As a single parent Margaret raised her daughter, Anne, to be educated, strong and independent. Lady Anne Clifford went on to become one of the most formidable women in England, but she never forgot her mother’s love and support and credited her for the immense determination which led to her eventual success.

Margaret Clifford, countess of Cumberland (1560–1616), by unknown artist, 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Margaret Russell was seventeen when, in 1577, she was married to George Clifford, the earl of Cumberland. They had two sons and a daughter, Anne. An admiral and a regular at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, George took full advantage of his absences from home and, due to his numerous affairs and mounting gambling debts, the couple separated when Anne was just a baby. Both sons died before reaching the age of five, leaving Margaret understandably devastated. Left alone with Anne, she devoted herself to her care and upbringing.

Unusually for the time, Margaret believed it was important for Anne to be an educated and independent woman. She arranged for Anne to learn history, literature, music and classics, and Anne became known for her intelligence and quick wit. On the death of her father in 1605 Anne expected to inherit his estate. She was his only surviving child and the law stated that property should pass to the eldest heir, whether male or female. Her father, however, left all his property – including five castles – to his brother Francis.

Lady Anne Clifford (1590 – 1676), by William Larkin, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Encouraged and supported by her mother, Anne began an unprecedented legal battle to recover her inheritance which would last almost forty years. During this time Anne was made repeated offers of settlements to withdraw her claim to her father’s estate.

She remained adamant that she was entitled to the whole of her inheritance even when King James I intervened to try and force her to accept a settlement. Anne refused to back down, and in 1643 she was eventually successful. Even then, the civil war prevented her from travelling to the estates she had worked so hard to acquire and she was almost 60 when she was finally able to visit the land she had inherited.
Margaret died in 1616 and never saw her daughter’s success.

The last years of Anne’s life were incredibly busy. She restored all five castles, some of which had been left in ruins, and built alms houses for the poor, chapels, and hospitals throughout the land she had fought so hard to win.
She had gathered a mass of information about her family history as part of her case for her inheritance and from this she wrote a history of the Clifford family which remains an essential source for historians today.

Lady Anne Clifford never forgot the love, strength, and education she had received from her mother, the only person who had unwaveringly supported her in her legal battle, and in 1656 she erected the Countess Pillar as a memorial to her mother at the place where, on 2nd April 1616, they had said their last farewell.

The Countess Pillar, Brougham

The monument is inscribed with Anne’s wishes that money should be given annually to the poor of the area in memory of her mother, and this is still commemorated on 2nd April every year.