The expression 'formidable female' could have been coined with Lady Anne Clifford in mind. From an early age she kept detailed diaries, one of the first women to provide a proper autobiographical record of her life. From these we can trace the emotions and tribulations she endured in her long fight for equality. When this dimunitive but long-lived Countess finally took posession of her inheritance she set about restoring the estates to their full glory. Without her endeavours the register of historic buildings of Westmorland and North Yorkshire would be far thinner.
But to go back to the beginning: Anne was the daughter of the Earl of Cumberland. Her brothers died young and she grew up an only child, well-educated in the classics, religous works and history at her mother Margaret's insistence. As a young noblewoman Anne was expected to spend long childhood spells at the Court of Elizabeth the First. There she witnessed the Queen's reign as living proof of the potential power of independent women. After the monarch's death, Anne observed and recorded the barge conveying the royal corpse from Richmond to Whitehall and the formal mourning.
When Anne was 15, her father George died. Anne expected to inherit the Clifford family's extensive Northern estates and titles but discovered that George planned to leave them to his brother Francis. Instead of overseeing the mighty castles at Skipton, Appleby, Brough and Brougham and 90,000 acres of land Anne was condescendingly left £15,000 compensation. Nowadays that would make her a millionaire, but was a trivial sum when set against the estate's true value and anyway, Anne was more interested in agency and justice than financial security. She was certain that the law was on her side and with the support of her mother began a battle to obtain what was rightfully hers.
The essence of Anne's case was that the original entail dating back three hundred years to King Edward II required that the ancient title should pass to the 'heir of the body, lawfully begotten' — in other words to George's child with no mention of its gender. An entail was a legal constraint on inheritance designed to ensure that estates remained within particular families. On the face of it, Anne's claim on the Clifford estate was indisputably stronger than her uncle's.
But in England's early seventeenth century patriarchy this represented a direct challenge to the men in power. King James himself made clear that Anne should put her case aside. George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, urged her to accept the settlement offered and even her new husband, Richard Sackville, pressured her to give way. Her marriage created further obstacles to Anne's challenge. While an unmarried woman or a widow could act in their own right, a married woman was legally subservient to her husband. Richard took charge of directing Anne's legal affairs and, caring little for her, was not disposed to prolong the fight.
The one person Anne could depend upon was her mother. In 1616, in contravention of her husband's wishes Anne set out on the long road north to visit her rightful estates and take maternal counsel. The pair spent precious time together at Brougham Castle where Margaret lived. When the time came for Anne's departure she travelled with her mother along the eastbound road from Brougham. A quarter of a mile further on they parted at the point where today's A66 meets the castle drive. Anne's diary recounts that they 'had a grievous and heavy parting.' She perhaps already knew that her mother was ailing. Margaret died just a month later.
Her opponents redoubled their efforts thinking that her mother's death would weaken Anne's will. The king's courtiers mounted a sustained campaign of pressure. In 1617 at King James' instruction her husband accepted a settlement of £17,000 on Anne's behalf, taking the money for himself. The cash would have been useful given his infamy as 'one of the 17th century’s most accomplished gamblers and wastrels.'
The legal system itself was slanted in her uncle's favour. The Earl Marshal's court and the court of Common Pleas ruled against her in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. Even when the Court of Wards ruled in her favour, determining that Skipton castle was rightfully Anne's, her uncle simply refused to give up occupation.
Throughout this struggle Anne perhaps cast her mind back to her time at Elizabeth's Court. The queen herself had faced implacable opposition to her claim to a rightful inheritance. This strengthened Anne's righteous resolve. If a woman could inherit sovereignty over England, on what grounds could she herself be denied her birthright?
Anne's husband died in 1624, and six years later she wed for a second time, to Philip Herbert, the 4th Earl of Pembroke. She and Philip spent little time together as his responsibilities as Lord Chamberlain, Governor of the Isle of Wight, and Chancellor of Oxford University took much of his time. It appears that this may have been a marriage of convenience and one that others tried to undermine. Indeed Anne wrote that there was no want of 'divers malicious illwillers to blow and foment the coals of discontent between us.' The marriage enabled her to make further legal claims on her estate in 1632 and 1637. After 1637 there was no opportunity for a further claim, 'for then the Civil wars broke out' and Anne could do nothing except wait.
Perhaps Anne now despaired of ever succeeding in her claim but her lengthy wait came to an end as her uncle died in 1641, followed two years later by his son Henry, Anne's cousin. There were no other male children in the Clifford line and, aged Anne could finally claim her inheritance.
A frustrating few years passed as the ongoing Civil War prevented Anne from travelling north but she wasted no time in celebrating her victory by commissioning Dutch artist Jan van Belcamp to create the Great Picture of the Clifford Family which now hangs proudly in Kendal's Abbot Hall Art Gallery. The painting is a huge, impressive work of art presenting Anne's accomplishments and family history across three panels, using portraiture, text and symbolism.
The Great Picture sits alongside The Great Books of the Clifford Family as a powerful record of Anne's contribution to history. The Great Books are Anne's extensive and detailed personal record of her story and those of her ancestors. A recurrent theme throughout Anne's writing is her confident belief in the significance of women in assuring the success of noble families. This confidence, fulfilled in her ultimate inheritance, overflowed into Anne's assured rejection of the conventions of the day. She had her hair cut short and smoked a pipe.
Once the Civil War hostilities cooled Anne began her long-awaited project of restoring the family estates. She had anticipated this opportunity for so long that she had no intention of wasting her remaining years. At a time when few people lived past sixty, Anne's determination to begin her life's work at that age was quite remarkable.
The list of works she commissioned and oversaw is inspiringly extensive, starting with the refurbishment of Skipton, Brough, Brougham, Appleby and Pendragon castles and extending to building or repairing numerous churches, almshouses and hospitals. She marked the spot where she said farewell to her mother with a proud stone column, The Countess' Pillar, that stands proud to this day. Although shrewd and firm with her tenants she was also generous and fair, earning great respect across her estates.
Anne drew her last breath at Brougham, in the same room in which her father had been born. But her favourite residence was Appleby Castle and it was to Appleby that her eighty-six year old body was brought to rest. There, in St Lawrence's chuch she was interred in a closefitting lead shroud that to this day has protected her remains from numerous floods.
Her legacy is clearly visible today in her writing, art work and architecture. Today's visitor can walk a hundred miles in her footsteps from Skipton to Brougham along Lady Anne's Way or follow the shorter Westmorland Heritage Trail.