Lady Elizabeth Dysart by Peter Lely circa 1654
Elizabeth Murray, Lady Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale, gained greater power and position than any other woman not of royal blood in the history of Scotland. Of her private life, and her real ambitions, we learn little from the writings of her contemporaries. Bishop Burnet left a full sketch of her character as it appeared to him, but his words tend to be coloured with his prejudice and personal spite.
She was a woman of great beauty, but of far greater parts. She had a wonderful quickness of apprehension, and an amazing vivacity in conversation. She had studied not only divinity and history, but mathematics and philosophy. She was violent in every thing she set about, a violent friend, but a much more violent enemy. She had a restless ambition, lived at a vast expense, and was ravenously covetous; and would have stuck at nothing by which she might compass her ends. She had blemishes of another kind, which she seemed to despise, and to take little care of the decencies of her sex.
Elizabeth Murray was, in some ways, the Mata Hari of the 17th Century, she courted Cromwell and was reputedly a member of The Sealed Knot, dedicated to restore Charles II to his throne. As King Charles I 'whipping boy' in his youth, her father, William Murray was in constant attendance on the king, so Elizabeth was brought up with the royal children and her allegience formed at a young age.
She spent the winter of 1643/1644 at the Oxford Court with her parents and three sisters, where Charles I had fled after the Battle of Edgehill. At seventeen, Elizabeth saw first hand how difficult life had become for many followers of the king.
When Oliver Cromwell set up his headquarters at Kingston Upon Thames in 1647, despite the fact her father, now Earl Dysart, had been arrested for spying for the Royalist cause the previous year, and was acquitted after months in the Tower of London, her mother, Catherine Bruce Murray, invited Cromwell to dine at Ham House, their Jacobite mansion on the River Thames.
The meeting must have been a difficult one, Elizabeth having always been scornful and afraid of the Roundhead army who made several attempts to seize Ham House and the family's estate, thus threatening to leave them all homeless. During the same month, King Charles I was under guard at Hampton Court, and it stands to reason Elizabeth and her mother would have been in contact with him as Ham was only five miles down river.
There is no evidence that Elizabeth or her family were involved in the plan to help Charles I escape Hampton Court, but a conspiracy certainly exsted and he did in fact escape, not to the continent as many urged, but the Isle of Wight. Some of their friends were involved, including William Murray and the Earl of Lauderdale, and yet no arrests of any Murrays were made, despite Roundhead soldiers flooding the neighbourhood afterwards in search of the king.
It was a tribute to Catherine Bruce and Elizabeth's diplomacy, that Elizabeth not only charmed Cromwell, but when she pleaded with him for the life of John Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale who had been captured after his participation in the Battle of Worcester in 1651, it surprised many when his sentence of death was commuted to imprisonment.
At various times during the wars and the Interregnum, Elizabeth was rumoured to have been not only Earl Lauderdale's mistress when they were both married to other people, but Cromwell's mistress too. Suspected of being a spy for both sides, she was lampooned in the pamphlets:
“She is Besse of my heart, she was Besse of old Noll;
She was once Fleetwood’s Besse, now she’s Bess of Atholle;
She’s Besse of the Church, and Besse of the State,
She plots with her tail, and her lord with his pate.
With a head on one side, and a hand lifted hie,
She kills us with frowning and makes us to die.
Elizabeth marrried Sir Lionel Tollemache 3rd Bart in 1648, a non political Suffolk Landowner with a large estate of his own who didn't attract either Royalist or Parliamentary attention. The choice was most likely a clever plot by Catherine Bruce to secure the Ham Estate, for part of their marriage contract was to make over the house and lands to Elizabeth.
The marriage was a successful one, and Elizabeth bore him eleven children in twenty two years, five of whom lived to adulthood. Lionel died in 1669, and three years later, in 1672, Mary Lauderdale passed away in Paris, where, gossip said, she had fled to distance herself from the burgeoning friendship between her husband and Elizabeth.
Six weeks later, to the outrage of London society, John Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale and Elizabeth Tollemache were married. Elizabeth then came into her own as Duchess of Lauderdale, her husband was a member of Charles II's CABAL ministry and they lived at Ham like royalty, extending and refurbishing the house and grounds to its magnificent height.
Unfortunately, as with many fairytales, the old widowed queen gets left alone in her castle which becomes her prison as her resources, and friends, drift away or die. She outlived her second husband by seventeen years and was buried in Petersham Church with no marking on her resting place. From what I have read about her, I think she would have been furious!