Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Death of Blanche Parry

A photo of a now-lost portrait of Blanche Parry. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1590, Blanche Parry died. Along with Katherine Champernowne-Ashley, Blanche, or Mistress Parry, was one of Queen Elizabeth I's most loyal servants and a life-long friend. Blanche was both Keeper of Her Majesty's Jewels and Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, positions that required both discretion and meticulous organization.

A portrait in the collection of Lord Hastings, purported to be of Katherine Champernowne-Ashley, Blanche's colleague and friend. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Blanche was born in either 1507 or 1508 to a Welsh father, Harry Myles, and an English mother, Alice Milbourne. Blanche anglicized her given Welsh surname before traveling with her aunt, Lady Troy, to serve in the English court of Henry VIII. Lady Troy was entrusted to serve as Lady Mistress to two of Henry VIII's children, Elizabeth and Edward. Aged about 25, Blanche worked alongside her aunt in the royal nursery, and would later write in her own epitaph that she was the future Queen Elizabeth I's cradle-rocker. When the Princess Mary was in residence, Lady Troy supervised her as well (Richardson). Few personalities from the Tudor period could claim the distinction of having personally interacted with the last three Tudor monarchs.

Henry VIII and his three children (and his fool, Will Sommers!) by an unknown artist. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Blanche remained in Princess Elizabeth's household, and along with Katherine Champernowne-Ashley, shared in the many perils of Elizabeth Tudor's young and adolescent life. Blanche may have accompanied Elizabeth to the Tower of London when she was imprisoned by her sister, Mary Tudor, on suspicion of giving support to the Wyatt Rebellion, though we do not know for sure. We do know that she was with Elizabeth after she was released from prison and confined to Woodstock, and then Hatfield. She was also with Elizabeth when she received the news that Mary had died and had declared her her successor.

The Old Palace at Hatfield. Picture acquired through That Boleyn Girl's Flickr.

When, against seemingly insurmountable odds, Elizabeth succeeded to the throne of England, she did not forget those who had not forsaken her. Blanche was one of the first people to receive an appointment in Elizabeth I's household; as Keeper of Her Majesty's Jewels, Blanche maintained the Queen's priceless baubles, as well as her other most personal belongings, like books, letters and papers, linens and furs.

When Katherine Ashley died in 1565, Blanche took over her duties as Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. As the woman in charge of Queen Elizabeth I's inner-sanctum, Blanche was sought out by those who wished to petition the queen or seek her advice or favor, and even to help push parliamentary bills. As one who effectively controlled access to the Queen, Blanche Parry was acknowledged at court as a powerful woman to have on your side (Borman, 346). Blanche was trusted by Queen Elizabeth to use her discretion in determining what letters, gifts of money, and requests were worthy of being brought forth to her. Another aspect of her duties that demonstrates the enormous trust that Queen Elizabeth had in Blanche was that she allowed her to write some minor correspondences on her behalf, when necessary (Richardson, 75-78). 

Queen Elizabeth I receives ambassadors, possibly by female court painter Levina Teerlinc. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

According Parry's definitive biographer, R.E. Richardson, Parry also cared for the Queen's "musk cat"-most likely a ferret. Anyone familiar with ferrets will agree that this is an apt description, as weasels are very similar in their behavior to felines, and they do indeed smell!  In addition to caring for the Queen's menagerie, which also included a monkey, dogs, and guinea pigs, both Queen Elizabeth and Blanche enjoyed the company of horses, and they often rode and hunted together.

Blanche, who remained unmarried like her mistress, became independently wealthy through the rewards she earned for her tireless service to the Queen. Elizabeth I granted her wardships, as well as estates in Herefordshire, Yorkshire, and Wales. As head of her own estates, Blanche also assisted in a legal battle in 1584 concerning Llangorse Lake, something most 16th century women, even unmarried ones, did not do (Richardson).

Long before her death, between 1576-77, Blanche wrote her first will, which was supervised by her cousin, the incomparable William Cecil, Lord Burghley. She also commissioned her own monument in Bacton Church, Herefordshire; Blanche and her sisters had worshiped at St. Faith's, Bacton as children (Richardson). This monument is important for two reasons: one, that it is symbol of a woman who knew her own self worth, and in the absence of her own family, arranged for her own memorial; and two, because it includes the first depiction of Queen Elizabeth I as the semi-mythical Gloriana. The tomb is glorious, uniting both the loyal servant and friend with her appreciative mistress and Queen for eternity. The inscription on the monument includes the phrase, "with maiden Queen a maid did end my life".

Blanche Parry kneeling beside Queen Elizabeth I, in the guise of Gloriana, in her memorial at St.Faith's, Bacton Church in Herefordshire. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

A full view of Blanche Parry's monument in Bacton Church. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons and shared for public use by photographer Derek Voller.

Blanche began to lose her eyesight in age, and though this certainly affected her work performance to some degree, a grateful Queen Elizabeth retained Blanche in her positions.

When Blanche Parry passed on February 12th in 1590 at the age of 82, she had served Elizabeth Tudor for an extraordinary 56 years. She was not to be laid to rest in St. Faith's in Bacton as she had intended. Instead, Queen Elizabeth paid for her funeral expenses in full, laying her to rest in St. Margaret's, Westminster. Her monument in Bacton remains a tourist attraction, as does her donation of a beautiful altar-cloth made from an old court dress, which may have been a gift to her from Queen Elizabeth I. It is of interest that the pattern on the cloth is very similar to the material of the bodice and sleeves worn by Queen Elizabeth I in her Rainbow Portrait (Richardson) though this is not to suggest that they are one and the same.

The altar-cloth, possibly made from a dress of Queen Elizabeth I and donated by Blanche Parry, at St. Faith's, Bacton Church. Picture shared for public use by Derek Voller under Creative Commons licensing.

Blanche Parry knew Queen Elizabeth I longer that most, a total of 56 out of her 70 years! What I would give to have been in her shoes...

A side view of Blanche Parry's tomb in St. Margaret's Church, Westminster. Photo by Terry and R.E. Richardson and shared for public use through R.E. Richardson's site, Mistress Blanche, Queen Elizabeth I’s Confidante.


Borman, Tracy. Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals and Foes who Shaped the Virgin Queen. New York: Bantam Books,
     2009. Print. 

Richardson, Ruth Elizabeth. Mistress Blanche, Queen Elizabeth I's Confidante. Logaston Press, 2007.

Richardson, Ruth Elizabeth. Blanche Parry & Queen Elizabeth I Calendar. Bacton Parish, 2012. (blancheparry.co.uk)