Lady Brilliana Harley (1598-1643)
Read all about the fascinating life of this feisty civil war heroine, as depicted in Channel 4's new TV series Blood on our Hands in Jacqueline Eales, Puritans and Roundheads: The Harleys of Brampton Bryan and the Outbreak of the English Civil War (Hardinge Simpole, 2002). In this book Dr Eales, Reader in History at Canterbury Christ Church University College and an acknowledged expert on the English Civil War, traces the story of one of the most appealing figures in civil war history including Brilliana's resistance to a fierce royalist siege of her home.
Brilliana was born in 1598 at the English garrison at Brill, in the Netherlands, hence her highly unusual christian name. She married Sir Robert Harley of Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, in July 1623. Little is known about Lady Harley's life before then, but the survival of her letters provides a rich illustration of her married life. The letters have been widely cited as evidence of her domestic and maternal concerns, but as a staunch puritan and parliamentarian, Lady Harley was also engaged in the religious and political debates of the time. Her letters are one of the most detailed surviving sources of information about the outbreak of the Civil War. They also record the active political role that she played as the senior representative of the Harley family in the county during the early 1640s. As the civil war progressed, she played an active part in maintaining the Harley estates and family influence in the county, including her successful resistance to the royalist siege of her home in the summer of 1643, which lasted for nearly seven weeks. She died tragically from pneumonia a few weeks after the siege was lifted. In one of her last letters to her husband in October 1643, Lady Harley described the foundation of her resistance to the royalists as the desire to defend Harley property and to preserve the influence of the godly in Herefordshire. Lady Harley's actions were a response to the demands of civil war in the mid-seventeenth century, but they were also an integral part of the political and social role of elite women, which can be traced back to the later middle ages, if not earlier.