Saturday, 11 June 2016

#13 Mary Gifford - Three times a Lady.

Sometimes in the course of my research, an ancestor seems to emerge from the past and draw attention to themself, almost as if to say "Don't forget about me!" Mary Gifford has been spotted waving at me from the 16th century several times in the last couple of months, so I am acquiescing to her demands to be noticed.

Mary Gifford was born in about 1550, a daughter of John Gifford and Elizabeth Throckmorton, making her my first cousin 13x removed. I'm always happy to include first cousins in my family lines, as growing up I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a plethora of cousins who added so much to my life that it would seems surly and ungrateful not to recognize cousins just because they happened to be born 13 generations earlier!

At this stage, I have 6 siblings for Mary, some of whom have amazing stories of their own, but they will keep for another day.

In about 1572, Mary married Richard Baker of Sissinghurst in Kent. When I discovered the marriage, I already had Richard Baker in the family tree. His father Sir John Baker was peripherally associated with the Courthoppes and Sheafs in Cranbrook, Kent. I even suspect that Sir John's grandmother was Benet Sheaf, but I have no concrete evidence of that....yet! Richard and Mary had 4 children John, Thomas, Chyrosgena (sometimes recorded as Grisgone) and Cicely. Chrysogena was named after one of Mary's sisters. Richard was responsible for enlarging Sissinghurst into a fine Tudor residence. In fact so fine was it, that in 1573, Queen Elizabeth spent three days there on her summer progress. One can only imagine the anxiety (and the cost!) to Richard and Mary at hosting the Queen and her court, even though it did result in a knighthood for Richard.

Sissinghurst castle
Sissingurst, now famous for its Vita Sackville-West gardens, with the remains of the Tudor buildings in the background. Photo by Klaus D Peter, Germany.

Sir Richard Baker died in 1594, but Mary did not long remain a widow, for later in that same year she married Richard Fletcher, newly made Bishop of London. Fletcher was also a man with connections to the Sheaf family and Cranbrook. His brother Giles had married Joan Sheaf and his father Richard, who had been Vicar of Cranbrook, officiated at the 'hatching, matching and dispatching' of many other Sheaf family members.

Unfortunately for Mary, her somewhat precipitous second marriage was not universally approved of. Both she and her ecclesiastical husband were in conspicuous disfavour with Queen Elizabeth for marrying without her express consent. The Queen objected to the marriage of all bishops, and thought it especially indecorous in one only two years a widower. Fletcher was forbidden the court and suspended from performing all episcopal functions.

Mary was described as a handsome woman, a 'fine lady' but her reputation was tarnished and she was ridiculed by satirists of the day as a whore and "my Lady Lecher", which conveniently rhymed with Fletcher! Poor Richard died soon after on the 15th June 1596; still largely in disfavour, debt ridden and surrounded by a fug of tobacco smoke. It is most likely that at this point Mary returned to Sissinghurst to be near the children of her first marriage, especially to her two daughters Chrysogena and Cicely who were then in their twenties and who were said to be especially devoted to her.

In about 1597, Mary Gifford married for the third and last time. Her new husband was Sir Stephen Thornehurst of Forde in the Isle of Thanet, Kent. They were together about thirteen years, until Mary died in 1609. Her husband buried her in the St Michael Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral under a splendid monument. Lady Mary reclines somewhat jauntily at the feet of Sir Stephen, not looking in the slightest bit pious or repentant, dressed in her Tudor finest; for all the world as if to say "Well yes, here I am! What took you so long?"

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