Anne Clifford Biography

Anne Clifford (1590–1676) fought to amend English inheritance laws that prevented her from assuming the aristocratic titles to vast lands in Cumbria, in the north of England, that had been in her family for several centuries. Her legal battle was unsuccessful, but she eventually came into her inheritance merely by outliving all the males in the family. Her voluminous journals detailed this struggle as well as other aspects of her fascinating life, and the surviving diaries provide a rich glimpse of life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

Clifford was born on January 29, 1590, though some sources cite 1591 as the year of her birth. She came from a prominent family that possessed hundreds of acres of land in the north of England, anchored by immense castles, that had been passed down for more than three centuries by the time she was born. These properties included Skipton Castle in North Yorkshire, which had been built around 1100 by Robert de Romillé, a figure of historical importance as part of the French Norman contingent that invaded England in 1066 under the leadership of William the Conqueror (c. 1027–1087). The Cliffords were given that castle and ownership of its adjacent lands in 1310 by decree of King Edward II (1284–1327). By that point they already held Brough Castle in Cumbria, which in its original construction dated back to the 1090s and is thought to be one of the first stone castles in England. There was also another castle in Cumbria, this one called Brougham, which had been built on the site of an old Roman fortification.

Descended from Eminent Forebears

Clifford was born at Skipton Castle to Margaret Russell, daughter of Francis Russell, the 2nd Earl of Bedford. Clifford's maternal grandfather held important diplomatic posts under Elizabeth I (1533–1603) as well as serving as Privy Councillor, one of the monarch's closest advisors. Young Anne was the third child born to Margaret, also known as the Countess of Cumberland, but the first daughter and the first to survive her childhood. The lack of male heirs troubled her father, George Clifford, who was the 3rd Earl of Cumberland and 14th Baron de Clifford of Westmorland. He had inherited Skipton and Brough castles as well as four properties from his father, and this line of Clifford's heritage included some illustrious and even infamous figures in English history. They included John "The Butcher" Clifford, who allegedly beheaded the Duke of York in one notorious battle in 1460 that was a turning point in the War of the Roses, a civil conflict of the mid-fifteenth century that pitted the houses of Lancaster and York against one another in a battle for the throne.

Like his father-in-law, George Clifford was also a well-known figure in the court of Elizabeth. He was the most famous jouster among the queen's highly competitive courtiers, and was made a naval commander during the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604). In the first years of that conflict, he nearly captured the island of Puerto Rico for England when he seized the citadel La Fortaleza, but he was forced to flee when his forces were outnumbered. Like most sea captains of the era, George Clifford trod a shifting line between legitimate seizure of enemy ships and outright piracy, and probably earned small fortune from looting Spanish cargo. He was known to have lost money on horse racing and jousting contests, however, and was forced to sell some of his lands.

Because her father was away at sea or at court for much of her childhood, Clifford was raised in a household dominated by women. She was given a tutor, which was somewhat unusual for a young woman of her time, and hers was the poet Samuel Daniel, (1562–1619), who held the post of poet laureate of England for a time. Daniel was part of Queen Elizabeth's retinue, and in her teen years Clifford spent time at court, like other well-born young men and women whose families were connected to the regime. Daniel penned masques that Clifford and a future queen of England, Anne of Denmark, took part in; these were lavish stage spectacles performed for the queen. The other Anne married James I, who ascended to the English throne following the death of Elizabeth in 1603.

Eyewitness to History

That was a momentous year in English history, and Clifford spent it at court. She chronicled it the earliest of her extant diaries, which is one of the first examples of an English woman's autobiographical writing. In it she wrote of the death of Elizabeth, noting that the "corpse came by night in a barge from Richmond to Whitehall, my Mother and a great company of ladies attending it, where it continued a great while standing in the Drawing Chamber, where it was watched all night by several lords and ladies, my Mother sitting up with it two or three nights, but my lady would not give me leave to watch, by reason that I was held too young."

After James's ascendancy, however, Clifford and her mother found themselves somewhat out of favor, and spent far less time at court. In 1605 George Clifford died, with Anne his sole offspring. His will specified that all titles and properties of his were to pass to his brother, Francis Clifford, and from then on to all other living male heirs. If there were no more Clifford men, only then would his daughter inherit the land and peerages. She was left a sum of 15,000 pounds instead. But Clifford and her mother knew that the original deed from Edward II stated that the baronies would pass to an "heir of the body"—a biological child, that is—with no mention of its gender. Believing that George Clifford's will broke that clause, Anne entered into a long legal battle to take possession of what she believed was rightfully due her as a Clifford.

Clifford's mother encouraged her lawsuit, but those opposed to it were well known and influential figures. They included King James and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged her to accept the cash settlement her uncle offered her and to let the matter rest, as well as Richard Sackville, whom she married in 1609, the year she turned 19. Sackville was the third Earl of Dorset, and had inherited his own famous property, Knole House, an immense home in northwest Kent completed in the 1480s. The couple had five children, but only two survived to adulthood: Margaret, born in 1614, and Isabella, born in 1622.

Urged to Abandon Cause

Clifford detailed the most difficult years of her lawsuit, from 1616 to 1619, in a journal that became known as her Knole Diary . In it she wrote of the late Queen Elizabeth, and had undoubtedly been influenced by the strongwilled monarch during her years at court as an impressionable teenager. Elizabeth had also battled to claim her rightful inheritance—in this case, the throne—against immense and united opposition. Clifford wondered why, if it was possible for an English woman to inherit sovereignty over a nation, was she barred from inheriting the Clifford baronies? In one passage she asserted that "if Queen Elizabeth had lived she intended to prefer me to be of the Privy Chamber, for at that time there was much hope and expectation of me as of any other yong Ladie whatsoever," according to a scholarly article Mihoko Suzuki published in the journal Clio .

Richard Sackville died in 1624, and six years later his widow wed Philip Herbert, the 4th Earl of Pembroke and a favorite of King James. Her second husband also served as Lord Chamberlain under King Charles I (1600–1649), as governor of the Isle of Wight, and chancellor of Oxford University; each of these positions meant the two lived apart for much of their marriage. Finally, in 1643 the last of the male Cliffords died, and Clifford inherited at the age of 53 what she had hoped to receive as a teenager. The titles formally passed to her in 1646, but England was enmeshed in a bloody civil war, and she was forced to remain in London for the next few years.

Clifford headed north in the early 1650s when hostilities ceased. She began a series of costly renovations on her castles and the buildings on her land, beginning with the church at Skipton. The small fortune she spent to renovate Skipton Castle helped make it one of best-preserved castles in Britain more than three hundred years later. The other important home, Brough Castle, had not been inhabited since a fire in 1521, and had fallen into a state of disrepair in the intervening 130 years. Clifford fixed much of it and lived there herself for a time, but it was permanently uninhabited after her death and fell again into ruin. Nearby she had a memorial to her mother erected which remained one of the local landmarks three centuries later. Called the Countess Pillar, the 14-foot-high stone column sits at the intersection of the drive from Brough Castle to the main roads, and was the junction where Clifford said good-bye to her mother for the last time before the Countess's death in 1616. Like her mother, Clifford carried on the tradition of charitable giving, or alms, to the poorest of those who lived on the family lands. She established aid centers at Beamsley, near Skipton, and at Dolestone, near Brough, to provide help for impoverished widows in the area. She also established St. Anne's Hospital, a retirement home for the female servants on her estates.

Left Important Historical Record

Even later in her life, Clifford displayed a rebellious streak; she sported a close-cropped head at times, and was known to smoke a pipe. Several images of her, at various stages of her life, are featured in an immense family portrait she commissioned, the Great Picture of the Clifford Family , probably painted by Jan van Belcamp around 1647. With it, she sought to affirm her rightful place in the history of her family, as she had done in The Great Books of the Clifford Family , a multi-volume chronicle of the line that includes legal documents she and her mother assembled, papers from her own inheritance lawsuit, and biographies of her ancestors that she wrote herself. The last diary entry of her life was written on March 21, 1676, the day before she died at the age of 86 at Brougham Castle, in the same room in which her father had been born.

Clifford's colorful life and determined personality have fascinated subsequent generations. The poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) was a descendant of Edward Sackville, the brother of Clifford's first husband, and wrote of her own life at Knole House as a young woman; she also served as editor of a 1923 reprint of The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford . The iconoclastic Sackville-West, who was married but bisexual, was also close to the writer Virginia Woolf, who reportedly based some aspects of her 1928 transgender-themed novel Orlando on Sackville-West. Scholar Nicky Hallett posited that Woolf modeled the Elizabethan-era character on Clifford herself. The novel was made into a 1992 film that starred Tilda Swinton in the title role.


The Diary of Anne Clifford , edited by Victoria Sackville-West, Doran, 1923.

Dictionary of Literary Biography , Volume 151: British Prose Writers of the Early Seventeenth Century , edited by Clayton D. Lein, Gale, 1995.


Clio , Winter 2001.

English Historical Review , February 1999.

Guardian (London, England), May 3, 2003.

History Today , July 1998.

Journal (Newcastle, England), September 5, 2003.

Renaissance Quarterly , Winter 1997.

Times (London, England), August 4, 1924.

Women's History Review , December 1995.

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