Modern feminists pooh-pooh their ancestors and assume because they didn't dress in bulky pantsuits, women were somehow meek and timid.

Not at all. A three-year study of the manuscripts compiled and written by one of Britain’s earliest known feminist figures, Lady Anne Clifford, shows that women challenged male authority plenty in the 17th century.  Basically, women of the Renaissance were not one-dimensional stereotypes, and neither were men - for allowing it. Clifford’s 600,000-word "Great Books of Record" documents the family dynasty over six centuries and her bitter battle to inherit castles and villages across northern England.

Lady Anne (1590-1676) became fatherless at 15 but, contrary to an agreement dated to the time of Edward II (
the sixth Plantagenet king, deposed by his wife in 1327 in another example of women not being as timid as modern women want to believe they were), which said that the Clifford’s vast estates in Cumbria and Yorkshire would pass to the eldest heir, male or female, her father, George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland,  bequeathed the lands to her uncle.  She was still Baroness Clifford, she was not out on the street, but she was landless. 

She engaged in an epic legal struggle, only won when her uncle
Francis' only legal heir Henry died without male progeny in 1643. She did it while defying both her husbands, a King (James I) and whatever historians are calling that radical Puritan Oliver Cromwell; Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England or something like that.  She persevered and Lady Anne finally took possession of the estates, which included the five castles of Skipton, where she was born, in the same year that Cromwell had the head of King Charles I removed. 

Why isn't anyone making that movie?  Keira Knightley is born to play this role.

Clifford family triptych. Link: Wikipedia

Dr. Jessica Malay, a Reader in English Literature at the University of Huddersfield, is publishing a new edition of Lady Anne’s "Great Books of Record" and the best parts, she believes, are those hints of narrative evidence showing how women circumvented male authority in order to participate more fully in society.  “Lady Anne’s Great Books of Record challenge the notion that women in the 16th and 17th centuries lacked any power or control over their own lives. There is this misplaced idea that the feminist movement is predominantly a 1960s invention but debates and campaigns over women’s rights and equality stretch back to the Middle Ages.” 

The Great Books of Record comprise three volumes, the last of which came up for auction in 2003. The Cumbria Archives bought the third set and now house all three. In 2010, Malay secured a £158,000 grant from the Leverhulme Trust to study the texts.  Malay says, “Virginia Woolf argued that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts during the Renaissance Period would have been denied the opportunity to develop her talents due to the social barriers restricting women. 
But Lady Anne is regarded as a literary figure in her own right and when I started studying the Great Books of Record I realised there is a lot more to her writing than we were led to believe. 

“I was struck by how much they revealed about the role of women, the importance of family networks and the interaction between lords and tenants over 500 years of social and political life in Britain.”

In fairness to men and society at the time, if it was as paternally autocratic as we are led to believe, Lady Anne could never have won her case.  Clearly she did, though lesser-willed people would have  given up.  Still, the legal system worked.  Anyway, Malay notes the works present the case that Clifford successfully lobbied for women to be accepted as inheritors of wealth.  Lady Anne argued that since many men in the 16th and 17th centuries had inherited their titles of honor from their mothers or grandmothers, it was only right that titles of honor could be passed down to female heirs as well. She also contended that women were well suited to the title of Baron since a key duty of office was to provide counsel in Parliament, where women were not allowed. While men were better at fighting wars, women excelled in giving measured advice, she said. 

“Her foregrounding of the key contributions of the female to the success of the Clifford dynasty work to support both her own claims to the lands of her inheritance and her decision to resist cultural imperatives that demanded female subservience to male authority,"
Malay said.  "Elizabeth I was a strong role model for Lady Anne in her youth. While she was monarch, women had a level of access to the royal court that men could only dream of, which spawned a new sense of confidence among aristocratic women.” 

Elizabeth I is more evidence that, at least in England, things were not as patriarchal as modern critics want to contend.  Malay says her research into the Great Books of Record, which contain material from the early 12th century to the early 18th century, also reveal the importance of family alliances in forming influential political networks.  Women were integral to the construction of these networks, both regionally and nationally. 

“The Great Books explain the legal avenues open to women. Married women could call on male friends to act on their behalf. As part of marriage settlements many women had trusts set up to allow them access to their own money which they could in turn use in a variety of business enterprises or to help develop a wide network of social contacts. Men would often rely on their wives to access wider familial networks, leading to wives gaining higher prestige in the family.” 

Lady Anne was married twice and widowed twice, which bolstered her case in a legal sense. Malay notes, “Widows enjoyed the same legal rights as men. While the husband was alive then the wife would require his permission to do anything. Widows were free to act on their own without any male guardianship.” 

The Great Books also provide a valuable insight into Medieval and Renaissance society, with one document describing a six-year-old girl from the Clifford family being carried to the chapel at Skipton on her wedding day.  Lady Anne also recounted her father’s voyages to the Caribbean and she kept a diary of her own life, which includes summaries of each year from her birth until her death at the age of 86 in 1676. 

Malay’s "Anne Clifford Project, the Great Books of Record" was the catalyst for an exhibition of the Great Books of Record, which are, for the first time, being exhibited in public alongside The Great Picture at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal.