Research by Dr Jessica Malay into Lady Anne Clifford and her Great Books of Record has led to wide-ranging new awareness of this key figure in regional history, women’s writing and political and cultural engagement. It has also informed the broader popular debate about the period in which she lived, challenging popular conceptions about “a woman’s place.”

What was the problem?

In recent years, historians and literary scholars have become increasingly interested in the life and work of Lady Anne Clifford, the 17th-century aristocrat whose fight for equal land rights is sometimes cited as a milestone in feminism. During her lifetime – she was born in 1590 and died in 1676 – her influence was felt both nationally, through a network of relationships with leading figures, and regionally, through her administration of large parts of the North of England. Her work has since become central to the study of early modern women’s writing. However, the Great Books of Record, Clifford’s history of her family dynasty, which promised deeper insights into her life, work and mileu, had not been transcribed.

Benefits of this research

The work has informed debate about the era in which Lady Anne Clifford lived, through an exhibition, a series of public lectures and radio and newspaper pieces. It unearthed narratives that challenged cultural and gender stereotypes, generating local and national interest in her life, her achievements and her influence on literature and society. The tourism, heritage and culture industries have benefited as a result.

What did we do?

Led by Dr Jessica Malay and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, this project has made possible the transcription and editing of the Great Books of Record. They contain a 600,000 word history of the trials and triumphs of her family dynasty over six centuries and her own landmark legal struggle – in defiance of James I, Oliver Cromwell, her father and her husbands – to inherit the Cliffords’ vast estates in Cumbria and Yorkshire, including five castles and a number of villages.

Offering rich narrative evidence of how they circumvented male authority to participate more fully in society, the research has challenged the notion that women in the 16th and 17th centuries lacked any power or control over their lives. The study has also questioned standard assumptions regarding family networks, the interaction of lords and tenants and other aspects of more than 500 years of social and political life in Britain. Most specifically, it has made for a better understanding of both the culture of the period and the ways in which past social constructions continue to inform present-day cultural attitudes. The annotated transcription, Anne Clifford’s Great Books of Record, was published in 2015, giving a wider readership full access to the text for the first time.

What happened next?

The research generated renewed public interest in Lady Anne and what she always termed ‘the lands of my inheritance’ – the vast areas of Craven; Yorkshire and Westmorland; Cumbria, in which she continues to be revered in folk memory. For example, it led to the Great Books being exhibited alongside the Great Picture (a triptych commissioned by Lady Anne in 1646 to mark her final succession to her inheritance) for the first time in public. Running from May to September in 2012, the exhibition ‘Anne Clifford’s Picture and her Great Books of Record’ attracted over 8,000 visitors to the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria. Malay also delivered a number of public lectures on the project.

Malay raised awareness of Lady Anne through a number of significant media appearances. These included a segment on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, broadcast in August 2012 to an estimated audience of around three million listeners, which is still available via BBC iPlayer. Acknowledging the way that the research challenged historical stereotypes, the station previewed its feature on Lady Anne by noting: “Virginia Woolf once claimed that no woman could have become a successful writer in the time of Shakespeare, yet Dr Jessica Malay has spent the last three years transcribing the work of a very interesting Renaissance female author.”  She also appeared on ITV’s Great Houses, a programme presented by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, which attracted an audience of more than two million. The research has also received press coverage in a range of local and national outlets, from the Craven Herald (March 2011) and Ancestors Magazine (March 2010) to The Observer (March 2013). A YouTube video in which Malay discusses the research has also been viewed more than 700 times to date.

The tourism, heritage and culture industries have directly benefited from the increased public interest generated by these outreach efforts, as well as from the research itself. The administrator at Skipton Castle, North Yorkshire, where Lady Anne was born, has described Malay’s work as “of great importance in unearthing and illuminating [Lady Anne’s] life”, adding: “[It] has changed the way that she is viewed and portrayed by the heritage industry.”

The research was used to produce a free education pack for primary school children (Key stage 2), which can be downloaded from: