Today’s topic is a woman I was not familiar with until I started poking around the Boleyn family tree, which is FULL OF AMAZING WOMEN just FYI. And one of these Boleyn descendants was Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle.
Lucy Hay fits into things is like this: Anne Boleyn‘s sister Mary had a bunch of kids, who went on to have even more kids, who then had even more kids, and at the end of that branch of the family tree is Lady Dorothy Percy, who has a bunch of kids that includes our heroine, Lucy. This makes Lucy Hay the great-great-grandniece of Anne Boleyn, and the granddaughter of Lettice Knollys, and the life Lucy lived was so spectacular that it’s inconceivable to me that there isn’t an authoritative biography written just about her yet? Get on that, historians.
Pick up any decent book about the English Civil War and you’ll find a bunch of wildly juicy subject headings next to “Hay, Lucy” that hint at her widely diverse life experiences. Honestly, even just googling her should lead you to the information that she was the inspiration behind the original femme fatale, Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers. Lucy Hay was AMAZING and I hope to do her justice here by touching on only a few of the coolest things she ever did.
Lucy was born in 1599 to Lady Dorothy Devereux (the great-granddaughter of Mary Boleyn) and her husband, Henry, Earl of Northumberland. If you thought that it would take awhile for Lucy’s life to become incredible, au contraire, because her father Henry was known as the Wizard Earl because of his interest in alchemy and scientific experiments. So it’s sort of like a 16th century Belle-and-her-Dad-from-Beauty-and-the-Beast scenario, but with her mother still alive.
When Lucy was about six years old, her father was implicated in this thing called the Gunpowder Plot where a bunch of guys tried to overthrow Parliament and kill the King, and so the Wizard Earl was sent to the Tower of London where he made the best of things, continuing on with his Wizard-y experiments, etc., only now I guess using ground up rocks and capturing sunlight through a cracked glasses lens, or whatever.
Following her father’s arrest, Lucy would have seen her mother, Lady Dorothy, do her best to try and convince the King to release the Wizard. After all, there wasn’t proof that he himself had been involved with the Gunpowder Plot, he was just unlucky enough to be related to some people who were. Dorothy wasn’t successful with her appeals (largely because the Wizard had a lot of unpaid debts to the King), but her commitment to this cause likely helped to show Lucy the importance of perseverance and also what kind of power was available to women at this time.
So, when Lucy was about 18 years old and decided she wanted to marry James Hay, she appealed to her mother for permission. Back in jail, the Wizard Earl was very opposed to the match mostly because James was Scottish. Amazingly, the Wizard apparently was quoted as saying, “I cannot endure that my daughter should dance any Scottish jig.”
But Wizards who are in jail can’t stop highly driven daughters from marrying rich and powerful old Scottish men, and the 18-year-old Lucy probably danced a Scottish jig at her wedding to James. In becoming the second wife of the wildly charismatic James, Lucy managed to exchange the notoriety of being the Wizard Earl’s daughter for a new role as a woman of society.
James was one of the favourites of King James I, serving as one of the King’s councillors and also in the I-swear-it’s-a-very-prestigious-position role of Groom of the Stool. (When you’re Groom of the Stool you get to be alone with the King, is the thing, so it was a role that went just to someone the King absolutely trusted, and also meant that whoever had the role would be able to speak privately with the King on a regular basis.) The King was so pleased with James’s service that, five years after the marriage, he named James Hay the Earl of Carlisle, which made Lucy a Countess.
Basically, Lucy and James were the main power couple of English court at this time. While James was successful in diplomacy, Lucy was a star in her own right. She was more or less worshipped by everybody for her intelligence, clever wit, and immense beauty.
As had been the case with her Boleyn ancestors, literally every poet and musician she ever met decided she would be their muse, and they all wrote poems and/or painted images in tribute to her. At one point, Lucy contracted smallpox and everybody freaked out that she might become slightly less beautiful. As she recovered from the illness, she took to wearing a mask to hide her scars, and like in that scene in Mean Girls, wearing a mask during your day to day life became a huge new fashion trend. Much to the relief of all her fans, when she finally took the mask off, she hadn’t been disfigured at all by the disease.
King James I died in 1625, and his son Charles I took over. The new King was just as much a fan of Lucy and James as his father had been, partly because James had been instrumental in arranging the new King’s marriage to the French princess Henrietta Maria. Lucy was likely by this point the mistress of a man named George Villiers, who was Charles I’s closest friend and confidante. It was perhaps due George’s influence that Lucy then wound up named Henrietta Maria’s Lady of the Bedchamber (this was like the female version of Groom of the Stool, and was just about the highest role a woman could have at court).
Why would George have wanted her in that role? Probably so that Lucy could keep an eye on what Henrietta Maria was up to and reporting back to him. But, plot twist: Henrietta Maria was not a fan of this situation, mainly because she knew Lucy was sleeping with George, and she knew George was a slimy double-dealer, and she suspected the arrangement was just Step One in George’s plan to institute Lucy as the King’s mistress as a way for George to gain yet more influence. After all, Lucy was vibrantly beautiful and charming and no man could ever refuse her.
So, Henrietta Maria went so far as to present a petition to get rid of Lucy, which Charles refused. Know what else he refused? Lucy’s charms and possible advances; they did not become lovers. And so, eventually, Henrietta Maria stopped being so wildly jealous and came to grow fond of Lucy. In fact, the two women became very close friends. And, being the Queen’s best friend mean that Lucy continued to be the shining star of court, the most popular girl in town, inspiring yet more poets and musicians to wrote odes to her and adore her.
But eventually, Henrietta Maria decided to sever their relationship. Why? Possibly because Lucy was a Protestant, and Henrietta Maria was a Catholic; possibly because Lucy was a libertine, living a wild and glorious life of debauchery, where Henrietta Maria was more conservative. Or maybe, Henrietta Maria realized that when she and Lucy were in a room together, Lucy overshadowed everyone else, and maybe Henrietta Maria wanted the spotlight for once.
Or maybe she noticed that Lucy was spying on her for George.
Now, the things we know for sure about Lucy are what was written in court documents and attendance at balls and other events. But some other sources for info about her are contemporaneous diaries written by people who knew her, and one of these people wrote a very salacious story we’ll call “Lucy in the sky with the French Queen’s Diamonds.”
It goes like this: Lucy’s lover, George, had a huge crush on the French Queen, a woman confusingly named Anne of Austria. Anne of Austria, flattered by his attention, gave George a pair of diamond earrings, because she’s the French Queen and that’s what she felt like doing. Lucy, jealous and out for revenge against the woman she saw as supplanting her in George’s affection, stole the earrings from him. Later, Anne of Austria wanted the earrings back and so Lucy had to scheme to secretly get them back to her without anyone realizing they’d been stolen. And, wouldn’t you know, she managed to do just that. More than 200 years later, this act would inspire the character of Milady de Winter in Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Three Musketeers.
James Hay died in 1636, leaving Lucy a gorgeous and resilient and wealthy widow. She chose not to remarry, but rather to take on a series of lovers, because that’s just the way she rolled. Among these lucky men was a man named Thomas Wentworth, who served in Parliament. At this time, everyone was either pro-Parliament or pro-royals. Thomas started out as the former, but eventually became the latter. Unfortunately, being pro-royals was an increasingly highly unpopular way to be and eventually Thomas was arrested and sentenced to death. Lucy delicately removed herself from this situation; she’d seen how being associated with a doomed person sent the Wizard Earl to jail, and she wasn’t going to let Thomas bring her down.
And not only did she moonwalk her way out of Thomas’s life, Lucy finagled her way into the affections of Thomas’s nemesis, the pro-Parliament Parliamentarian John Pym. And it’s at this point that Lucy’s career as a secret double agent courtier/spy kicked into high gear. She shared the King’s secrets to Pym and the other Parliamentarians, including at one point alerting him and his co-conspirators that the King was onto them and was going to arrest them. Her advance warning allowed them to escape; one week later, Pym returned even more powerful than before. Partly due to Lucy having helped them evade capture, the English Civil War broke out in 1642 with the Parliamentarians against the royal family.
Lucy was very much caught in the middle of this situation. She was more on #TeamParliament than #TeamRoyals, but she didn’t want to be seen to commit one way or the other, because like the best players on Survivor, she needed to leave her options open. As the War progressed, however, the pro-Parliament side was being sort of devoured from within by a bonkers Puritan faction of whom Lucy was not a fan. And so, Lucy being Lucy, she decided to switch teams and become a spy for #TeamRoyals.
As the English Civil War progressed (it happened in three stages, apparently? Again, this is not a time period with which I am super-familiar), Lucy continued to play a leading role. She helped raise funds for the royal family by, among other things, selling an immensely expensive pearl necklace. She also took on a role as a messenger between her frenemy Queen Henrietta Maria in exile, and the royalists who supported their side, which is just a very interesting situation to think about given the dramatic history between the two women. The Parliamentarians ended up winning this stage, capturing and executing King Charles I in 1649. Two months later, Lucy was arrested for her work on the royalist cause.
She was imprisoned in the Tower of London, the same place where her father, the Wizard Earl, had been detained for seventeen years. Also, of course, the place where her great-great-great-aunt Anne Boleyn had been kept prior to her execution. Lucy had every reason to break down but instead, she persisted in demonstrating her resiliency and toughness. She wrote secret letters (in code!!!) back and forth with Charles’s heir, Prince Charles, using her brother as an intermediary. Her jailers were desperate to learn the pro-royalist secrets Lucy clearly was keeping, but even being threatened with torture wasn’t enough to break her. And after eighteen months, she was released from prison on parole.
The country was still under the control of the Parliamentarians, but Lucy remained firm in her support for the monarchy. She became an agent of the royalist cause, helping to restore Prince Charles to the throne. Charles re-claimed the throne in May 1660; just six months later, Lucy passed away of natural causes.
Want to learn more? Well, there aren’t many books written about Lucy Hay which is a TRAVESTY, but you can likely find some great info about her in basically any book about the English Civil War and the Restoration, since Lucy was incredibly important at that time. The one book I’ve been able to find about Lucy, which is actually a shared biography with her also-very-cool sister Dorothy, is called Court Lady and Country Wife: Royal Privilege and Civil War: Two Noble Sisters in 17th century England, by Lita-Rose Betcherman. And maybe one day I’ll write a book about Dorothy, too.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter