Bishop Burnet, described by Elizabeth’s biographer, Doreen Cripps as ‘that spiteful old busybody’, left a sketch of her character coloured with his prejudice and personal malice.
She was a woman of great beauty, but of far greater parts. She had a wonderful quickness of apprehension, and an amazing vivacity in conversation. She had studied not only divinity and history, but mathematics and philosophy. She was violent in every thing she set about, a violent friend, but a much more violent enemy. She had a restless ambition, lived at a vast expense, and was ravenously covetous; and would have stuck at nothing by which she might compass her ends. She had blemishes of another kind, which she seemed to despise, and to take little care of the decencies of her sex.
Elizabeth's mother, Catherine Bruce Murray, took seventeen-year-old Elizabeth and her three younger sisters to the exiled Court at Oxford during the winter of 1643/1644, where Charles I had fled after the Battle of Edgehill, where they most likely saw first hand how difficult life had become for many followers of the king.
|Catherine Bruce Murray|
Elizabeth’s father, William Murray, Earl Dysart, a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to King Charles I and one of his closest friends, was once his ‘whipping boy’, and received chastisement for the young royal. Murray was Charles I’s envoy and made many dangerous trips across country and the continent for his master.
On his return to England in February 1646 he was seized as a spy in Canterbury and sent to the Tower of London, where he remained through the summer. With the help of the Scottish Lords, amongst them Earl Lauderdale, he was released on condition he did all in his power to induce his master to yield to the conditions of the Parliament. [And we all know well how that turned out!]
Parliament decided Murray, who had Scots Covenanter relatives, was a bad influence on the king and banished him to Queen Henrietta Maria’s court outside Paris. Despite this dangerous disgrace, Elizabeth’s formidable mother, Catherine Bruce Murray, allegedly invited Cromwell to dine at Ham House when King Charles I was under house arrest at Hampton Court, five miles downriver.
The young Elizabeth charmed Oliver Cromwell with her wit and intelligence, and they remained in contact, even through King Charles II’s exile in the 1650’s, when Elizabeth was reputedly a member of The Sealed Knot carrying money and information to the exiled king.
That meeting between the Royalist girl and the Lord General of the Roundhead army must have been a difficult one, for several attempts had been made by the Surrey Sequestration Committee to seize Ham House and the family's estate, threatening to leave them all homeless.
Cromwell was well known to despise Earl Lauderdale, and when he was captured after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, it was a tribute to Elizabeth's diplomacy, that when she pleaded for mercy for Lauderdale, Cromwell commuted his sentence to imprisonment.
Elizabeth married Sir Lionel Tollemache 2nd Bart when she was twenty-one, a non political Suffolk landowner who attracted neither Royalist or Parliamentary attention. The marriage was a successful one, and secured Ham House for Elizabeth and her three sisters, and she bore him eleven children in twenty-two years, five of whom lived to adulthood. Elizabeth maintained contact with Earl Lauderdale, who spent seven years in prison, and when Lionel died in 1669, Lady Mary Lauderdale went to Paris, apparently to distance herself from the burgeoning friendship between her husband and Elizabeth.
Mary died in 1672 and six weeks later, to the outrage of London society, John Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale and Lady Elizabeth Tollemache were married.
Sir Lionel and Earl Lauderdale were both early Freemasons and Ham House was the scene of many lodge meetings. It wasn’t until her forties, when Elizabeth’s political manoeuvrings as Duchess Lauderdale were frowned upon, that she was rumoured to have been not only Earl Lauderdale's mistress when they were both married to other people, but also Cromwell's mistress, suspected of spying for both sides during the Interregnum:
She is Besse of my heart, she was Besse of old Noll;
She was once Fleetwood’s Besse, now she’s Bess of Atholle;
She’s Besse of the Church, and Besse of the State,
She plots with her tail, and her lord with his pate.
With a head on one side, and a hand lifted hie,
She kills us with frowning and makes us to die.
|Ham House North Front|
Elizabeth died at Ham in 1698, aged seventy two, having outlived her sisters and two of her adult children.
‘Royalist Rebel’, The biographical novel of Elizabeth’s youth will be released in paperback by Claymore Books, an imprint of Pen and Sword Publishing on January 31st 2013.