Brilliana Harley – Wife, Mother, and Fighter

"My trust is only in my God, who never yet failed me."

Her convictions were not blind adherence to her family’s teachings. She was well educated, well read, fluent in both Latin and French (in fact, more at ease with French than English), and eager to examine different opinions. For example, in response to the Roman Catholic objections that Luther was simply moved by ambition and taught new doctrines with no foundation in the church’s tradition, she studied a biography of the Reformer and formulated her own conclusions.

 

In March 1643, Lady Brilliana Harley received a formal demand to surrender her castle to the royalists. Her husband, Sir Robert Harley, was in London. He had been there since the start of the civil war, leaving her to administer Brampton Bryan Castle and all their goods. Their elder sons, Edward and Robert, were fighting against the royalists in the west of England.

As a parliamentarian in a predominantly royalist county (Herefordshire), Brilliana could not depend on her neighbors for help, but found enough support inside the castle, where she had been offering refuge to other like-minded people and kept a 50-men army.

She asked her husband for advice. “I hear there are 600 soulders appointed to come against me,”[1] she wrote. Eventually, she decided to stand firm, even the royalist army of Sir William Vavasour besieged her castle in July, bombarding the building, plundering her cattle, and destroying her gardens.  She continued to resist when the order to surrender came from the king himself, knowing full well that she would be considered a traitor. “My trust is only in my God, who never yet failed me,”[2] she said.

In September, she enjoyed a brief cease-fire when Vavasour transferred his men to a different siege. Sir Robert advised her to leave Brampton, but she was not sure her journey would be any safer than her properties. Instead, she ordered her troops to dismantle the barriers Vavasour’s men had raised around her castle and to plunder her royalist neighbors for supplies. She then sent 40 of her men to attack a royalist camp four miles away. By October, she was again threatened as Vavasour’s troops gave signs of an imminent return.

All For God’s Glory

As many people in her day, Brilliana interpreted the civil war as a religious struggle. Charles I’s leniency toward Roman Catholicism was troubling. Besides marrying a Catholic princess, he sought help from the Catholic Irish against the Presbyterian Scots. His religious views, backed by Archbishop William Laud, were, from a Puritan standpoint, much too consonant to Roman Catholicism. Besides, memories of Mary Tudor’s reign and, most recently, of the Gunpowder Plot and the Anglo-Spanish war were still fresh in people’s minds.

Many of her letters to her husband and her oldest son Edward (Ned) reflect her preoccupation for the preservation of the gospel, in view both of the Roman Catholic threat and of the rise of Arminianism. She mentions the Protestation taken by the House of Commons in 1641, which includes the promise “to maintain and defend, as far as lawfully I may, with my Life, Pover, and Estate, the true, reformed, Protestant Religion, expressed in the Doctrine of the Church of England, against all Popery and Popish Innovations.”[3]

Her convictions were not blind adherence to her family’s teachings. She was well educated, well read, fluent in both Latin and French (in fact, more at ease with French than English), and eager to examine different opinions. For example, in response to the Roman Catholic objections that Luther was simply moved by ambition and taught new doctrines with no foundation in the church’s tradition, she studied a biography of the Reformer and formulated her own conclusions.

Her letters, as well as her library inventory, are a testimony to the wide range of her reading, from classic authors like Seneca and Cicero to Reformers like Erasmus, Beza, Musculus, Calvin, and Perkins. She didn’t disdain Roman Catholic devotionals, such as The Holy Court by Jesuit Nicholas Caussin, nor popular fiction, such as Francis Goodwin’s Man in the Moon and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

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