Frances Jennings could have lived a life much like that of many other women born into elite society. But she most certainly did not! Hers is a dramatic story of marriage, widowhood, court life, political success and failure, financial hardship, exile and faith, all marked by tough independence and determination. Why, we ask, have we not heard more of her before?! Frances Nolan’s article introduces us to the fascinating subject of her new book.
Frances Jennings is an undoubtedly compelling subject for a biography. Born in 1649, to an indebted gentry family with a Parliamentarian pedigree, she rose to become a lady of the bedchamber to James II’s queen, Mary Beatrice, as well as vicereine of Ireland and duchess of Tyrconnell in the Jacobite peerage. Her early success at Charles II’s Restoration court provided a foundation for the career of her younger sister, Sarah, who was later elevated (with her husband John Churchill) to the dukedom of Marlborough. Like her sister, Tyrconnell was a political animal who was ambitious and uncompromising in her actions. Unlike the duchess of Marlborough, however, she backed the wrong king after the Revolution of 1688. Frances’s eventual Jacobitism was, fundamentally, a consequence of her choice of husbands – a circumstance that illustrates the formative impact of the life cycle and life course, in confluence with social, cultural and political events and contexts.
In 1666, she married George Hamilton, a Catholic Irish officer and nephew of the powerful duke of Ormonde, whose connections and unquestionably Royalist pedigree made him a good choice of husband following Charles II’s restoration. The marriage changed Frances’s life in unexpected ways, however, as the expulsion of Catholics from the English army in 1668 forced the Hamiltons into France. There, George became an officer in the French army, while Frances worked to establish herself at Louis XIV’s court and among the English émigré community in Paris. Her conversion to Catholicism in the 1670s helped her cause, as she deliberately cultivated links with religious houses, including the Blue Nuns in Paris.
Widowed in 1675, Frances remained in Paris, where she relied on the English émigré network and the coffers of the French king to provide for her three daughters. She married for a second time in 1681, to Richard Talbot, a Catholic Irish exile who had been one of her early suitors at the Restoration court. Their marriage precipitated a remarkable ascent to power under James II. Richard took charge of the Irish army in 1685 and, two years later, he was appointed lord deputy. The Talbots were also ennobled in 1685, becoming earl and countess of Tyrconnell, before being elevated to a Jacobite dukedom in 1689. In the ascendant, the Tyrconnells cast around to find suitable husbands for Frances’s daughters; their endeavours were a success, materially if not personally, as Elizabeth, Frances and Mary became Viscountesses Rosse, Dillon and Kingsland, respectively.
As well as promoting the interests of her family, Tyrconnell used her position as vicereine to re-establish Catholic hegemony in Ireland. She was highly active in the foundation of a Benedictine community in Dublin and a failed attempt to establish an Irish filiation of the Blue Nuns, and she was also a prominent attendant at the reconsecration of Christ Church Cathedral in 1689. She also proved a valuable asset to her husband at the court of James II, where her position in Queen Mary Beatrice’s household allowed her to gather intelligence, run interference and promote the Tyrconnellite agenda. Her Catholicism and her political activity during her time as vicereine earned her numerous enemies. She was detested by many among Ireland’s Protestant population, who accused her of using her position to enrich herself and her family. This was not without foundation, as she secured fees and profits from civil posts for her family and earned a reputation for paying her debts in worthless Jacobite gun money.
While there was substance to the allegations that Tyrconnell engaged in corrupt practice, her actions were not unusual among the contemporary political elite; instead, she was made exceptional by her gender. Her womanhood made her a target for other Jacobites, too, most notably the earl of Melfort, who wrote to James II to disparage the Tyrconnells in 1689. Complaining of her activities at the viceregal court, Melfort claimed the duchess had ‘a caballing humour, which has very ill effects’, before asking that she be sent into France, ‘for her health’. She remained in Ireland until 1690, however, receiving James II at Dublin Castle after he fled the Battle of the Boyne. She followed the king into France in the late summer of 1690 and settled at the exiled Jacobite court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Tyrconnell was widowed again one year later, when Richard Talbot died in Limerick on the eve of the second Williamite siege that brought the War of the Two Kings in Ireland (1689-91) to a close. Throughout the 1690s, she continued to live at the exiled Stuart court. Her poor reputation among Protestants in Ireland resulted in her attainder for high treason in 1694. From that point on, her fortunes were tied closely to those of her sister and brother-in-law; having taken the other side in the Revolution of 1688 and Irish war, the Marlboroughs experienced a remarkable rise in the reign of Queen Anne and their success provided the duchess with a path back to her Irish estate in 1702. She returned to Ireland for a brief period before travelling to the Low Countries, where her close relation to the Allied Commander, the duke of Marlborough, made her a useful Jacobite agent during the War of the Spanish Succession.
Tyrconnell returned to Ireland in 1708 and her life from that point has typically been presented as one of pious retirement. This is a product of traditional assumptions of old age – particularly women’s old age – and a tendency to look away from the archive once all the men of consequence have departed the scene. In fact, the duchess was highly active in her later life; she held investments in Ireland, England and France, owned a house in London from 1719 and leased a house on Dublin’s Grafton Street, where she was outwardly content to live among Protestant élite until her death in 1731.
For much of the twentieth century, the Tyrconnells’ ill-reputation endured in Whig historiography, while they were largely ignored in an Irish historiography that was profoundly shaped by Nationalist perspectives. Excepting an overly sympathetic joint-biography published in 1913, little enquiry has been made into the duchess’s life and legacy. This is a result of a combination of factors, including her gender; religious, political and imprecise ‘national’ identity; transnational existence; and (not unrelated) fragmentary presence in the archive. The Jacobite Duchess uses these frameworks tointerrogate and contextualise Tyrconnell’s long life and career and – hopefully – provide some much-needed dimensionality to a woman who has been, more often than not, a historical footnote.
This guest post was written by Frances Nolan, an IRC Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Department of History at Maynooth University.