Christened: 26 Jan 1573, Manchester Church, Lancashire, England

Died: 10 Nov 1599, Richmond Palace

Buried: Church of St. Margaret, Westminster

Father: John RADCLIFFE of Ordsall (Sir)

Mother: Anne ASSHAWE

Radcliffe,Margaret01.jpg (25067 bytes)

The dau. of Sir John Radcliffe of Ordsall Hall, by his wife Anne Asshawe, Margaret was twin to Alexander Radcliffe, and their natural relationship was reinforced by a strong bond of mutual affection. As children they were inseparable companions, and when Alexander came to Court he brought his sister with him. The arrival of the two young people so wondrously alike in their striking physical beauty created something of a mild sensation at the Palace of Whitehall, famous as it was for the excellence of its gallants and the radiance of its ladies. Margaret was immediately claimed by the Queen Elizabeth to adorn the privy chamber as a Maid of Honour. The girl's ready wit and shrewd judgment allied to her exquisite grace commanded her strongly to her royal mistress, an aging woman nearing her sixtieth year and seeing perhaps in the accomplished and vivacious maid a reincarnation of the splendour of her own lost youth. Margaret was elevated above all other ladies of the Court as the Queen's prime favourite, and all who would sue for Gloriana's favours sought the aid of merry Margaret as their intermediary. Her brother kept her well supplied with money and her dresses were the envy of her friends, as one of the courtiers bears witness:

'Yesterday did Mistress Ratcliffe weare a whyte satten gown, all embroidered, rich cutt upon cloth of silver that cost one hundred and eighty pounds' (Sidney Papers)

Her bosom friend was Anne Russell, granddaughter of the Francis, Earl of Bedford, and later married to Lord Herbert, son of the fourth Earl of Worcester. The two girls joyed in an intimate companionship, laughing and dancing their way through the gay world of intrigue and romance in which their lives were set. They were both fine horsewomen and spent some part of every day riding out for exercise on their own horses, Margaret on 'Bay Compton' and Anne on 'Bay Dormer'.

Margaret had many suitors, but of them all she preferred the heir of Lord Cobham. Henry Brooke, however, was a nobleman of fickle mind, alternating his favours between Margaret Radcliffe and Frances Howard, the attractive widow of Henry, twelfth Earl of Kildare, and playing off both by a passionate flirtation with Elizabeth Russell, sister of Anne.

When Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and Walter Raleigh quarreled and the courtiers began to take sides, Margaret was strongly for Essex and used her influence with the Queen on his behalf. His enemies might temporarily triumph, she declared, but sooner or later 'the pack will break'. When Essex was recalled to favour and given command of the expedition against Tyrone, Alexander Radcliffe was one of his gallant company. Margaret bade good-bye to her beloved brother, little realising then the finality of the parting, and hoped to find solace with Cobham. His fickle lordship at that time was preferring Lady Kildare, whom he eventually married. Five months went by, and one day in late Aug a courier came riding to Court bearing news from Ireland. The English army had suffered a severe defeat and Sir Alexander Radcliffe was amongst the slain. The Queen would not suffer anyone but herself to bear the news to Margaret. The girl's grief was terrible to behold. Nothing would comfort her, and when her sobbing had subsided she lay on her bed in a state of complete exhaustion. The royal physicians whom the Queen summoned to attend her reported that her malady was of the heart, not of the body, and their medicines would be unavailing. When the Court moved to Nonsuch, Margaret returned to Ordsall, bereft of her smile and lively charm, her sad heart breaking with great sorrow, to be alone with her grief in the home of her fathers, where the undimmed happiness of a childhood with her brother had been spent. Here she languished amidst scenes fraught with tender memories. News of her condition was sent regularly to the Queen, whose anxiety for her dearly loved friend insisted on Margaret being brought to Richmond Palace that she might tend her in person. It was a ghost who obeyed the Queen's command, and the courtiers were shocked to see the change which had come upon the former merry maid. Even the ministrations Elizabeth and of dear Anne Russell could not rouse Margaret to an interest in life, and on the morning of 10 Nov 1599 she died. Her tragic passing was the sole topic of conversation for days. In one of Phillip Gaudy's Letters he writes:

'There is newes besides of the tragycall death of Mistress Ratcliffe the Mayde of honor, who ever synce the death of Sir Alexander her brother hathe pined in such strange manner, as volunterily she later hathe gone about to starve herself, and by the two days together hathe receivved no sustinence, which meeting with extreame griefe hathe made an end of her Mayden modest days at Richmond uppon Saterdays last, her Majestie being present, who commanded her body to be opened and found it all well and sound, saving certyne strings striped all over her harte'

The Court went into mourning and by the Queen's command Margaret was buried with all the ceremonies of a great lady's obsequies in the Church of St. Margaret at Westminster. A magnificent monument was erected over her grave at the Queen's expense, and Ben Jonson wrote the inscription for it.

When, and for what reason, this monument was removed it has been impossible to discover, but no trace of it now remains in the church. The record of Jonson's tribute has, however, been preserved:

Marble weep, for thou dost cover
A dead beauty underneath thee,
Rich as nature could bequeath thee:
Grant, then, no rude hand remove her.
All the gazers on the skies
Read not in fair heaven's story
Expresser truth or truer glory,
Than they might in her bright eyes.

Rare as wonder was her wit;
And like nectar ever flowing:
Till time, strong by her bestowing,
Conquered have both life and it.
Life whose grief was out of fashion
In these times. Few have so rued
Fate in a brother. To conclude,
For wit, feature, and true passion
Earth, thou hast not such another.

The marble, alas, has vanished, but these lines of the Poet Laureate indicate the tender regard in which the Maid of Sorrows, sweet, gentle-hearted Margaret, flower of the flock, was held by the fashionable world of the Great Queen's Court.

For more information, see:

Ordsall Hall, a Tudor Manor House

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