The Unhidden Faith of Lady Falkland

While plenty of scholars continue to debate Shakespeare’s Catholicity (or lack thereof), there are other English Renaissance dramatists whose Catholicism is less conjectural. One such Catholic is Elizabeth Cary (Lady Falkland, officially), the first known woman to publish an original play in English with the Tragedy of Miriam the Fair Queen of Jewry in 1613. Raised a Protestant, she was something of a celebrity convert in her day.

Despite the intervening four hundred years of history, aspects of Cary’s life after her conversion will seem familiar to modern Catholics. Reportedly, she gave up sugar for Lent; her Protestant husband had to remind her not to eat fish on Fridays, and she was perpetually worried about her children’s faith while raising them in a country that was openly hostile to her religious beliefs.

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Yet much of her life also seems quite alien. Perhaps a few of us have been estranged from our families on account of our faith; fewer have kidnapped our own children to prevent them from falling under the influence of Protestant wards. Fewer still have had the king of England place them under house arrest for converting to papism.

That we can say so much about her personal life gives Cary a distinct advantage over Shakespeare in these religious debates. Whereas Shakespeare’s biography is largely lost to time and confined to a few legal documents, Cary’s biography has been preserved for us in a manuscript — The Lady Falkland: Her Life — purportedly composed by her own daughter, another Catholic convert and a Benedictine nun.

The manuscript not only recounts Cary’s conversion to Catholicism, it also offers a kind of how-to guide for inspiring faith in a new generation of Catholics through “indirect evangelization.”


Cary’s conversion appears to have been primarily motivated by two forces, neither of which involved direct confrontation with Catholic proselytizers. The first was books. Cary was a voracious and judicious reader. Her mother had even forbidden the house servants to let Elizabeth have candles– otherwise she would spend the whole night reading. As an adult, Cary allegedly tore through tomes while trying to understand her own Protestant faith, only to be left dissatisfied. Eventually, she discovered the Church Fathers and found them more conducive to Romish doctrine than English reform. Originating in her own readerly initiatives, her ability to interpret and analyze religious debates formed a fertile ground for conversion and later provided inspiration for converting her own children.

The second force, and the more providential one, was the death of her oldest daughter, Catherine. On her deathbed, the daughter reported an apparition of the Virgin and, as Cary believed, a vision of purgatory. Cary’s daughter professed the vision of Mary while still a Protestant, and yet they left a profound psychological impression on a woman who had already begun to question the Church of England. Thus, Cary’s biography depicts her conversion as a largely organic process, arising through personal reflection and potentially miraculous intervention — not through aggressive recruitment efforts by an underground Catholic movement (though such a movement was waiting in the wings to welcome her).

After Cary officially reconciled herself with the Catholic Church, her posh aristocratic lifestyle came crumbling down around her. Her husband left her in the lurch and stripped her of her children; her parents disinherited her; the state put her under house arrest. During the last of these, she lived alone with a single housemaid, who had taken it upon herself to steal food so that her mistress could eat.

Although Cary’s husband eventually reunited with her, she continued to be preoccupied with the spiritual welfare of her children. She wanted to ignite her zeal for the Church in them, but she needed a way to let them discover their own convictions, just as she had. She did not want to convert them; she wanted them to convert themselves.

So she hosted dinner parties and invited loquacious guests:

Their discourse [at the table] was frequently religion, there being those that were very capable on both sides, and she believed this discourse being mingled with others, and from those that were able to make any pleasant, would draw her daughters’ attentions, whose conversion she sought in all; and indeed it did in some of them (by the grace of God) work imperceivably some disposition more than they made show, and all of them found matter to reflect on after, though then they marked it not much….

Cary believed that bluntly proselytizing to her children would repulse them from her faith. By inviting Protestant and Catholic friends to dinner and letting the conversation naturally turn to their religious differences — conversations hard to imagine in today’s politically correct culture, let alone in a culture where being Catholic was a crime –she allowed her children to overhear these disputes, draw their own conclusions, and take their own actions. Cary held that a well-educated, rational mind would be able to identify what is true and good on its own — and, perhaps, she realized that forbidden fruits are sweeter than compulsory medicines.


But just as Cary’s efforts began to pay off, a new dramatic conflict emerged. The biographer records the failed efforts of a conveniently named villain, Mr. Chillingworth, a family friend who (as the story goes) pretended to be a Catholic with Jesuit connections. Chillingworth attempted to sabotage Cary’s plans by providing the children with intentionally weak defenses of Catholicism, undermining papal authority, and preying upon their inquisitive nature. He comes off as rather creepy in the account — a bit like any number of modern “religious studies” professors who delight more in pointing out the seeming discrepancies in faith than in helping students resolve them.

But Cary’s efforts to train her children in theological argument paid off: After the children were relocated to their brother’s house, Chillingworth reprised his role as antagonist, and Cary’s children soundly thwarted his renewed attempts to confuse them. So drawn were the children to dinner-table Catholicism that four of her daughters eventually became Benedictine nuns, while one of her sons became a priest.

The biographer assures us that Cary’s indirect approach extended to these vocations as well. Although the mother had dedicated one of her daughters to the Blessed Virgin, Cary apparently saw her role as only opening the path to her children’s vocations — never to drive her children toward them:

But so well did she esteem a vocation to religion was to be the work of God that she never went about to incline that daughter to it…esteeming the discharge of her promise to be in performing her part, which…she conceived to consist only in procuring her all means for it and removing impediments, if God should please to give her a vocation, which she believed to be his part and not hers….

For Cary, the mother’s task in evangelization is not to serve as a matchmaking service between her children and God. Nobody wants to be stuck in an arranged marriage. Rather, she saw herself as an evangelical trailblazer — opening channels for God and paths for her children, but making sure she didn’t block the road by loitering in the middle of it herself.


In our modern age, with its call for civil discourse in the midst of heated polemics, figures such as Elizabeth Cary can offer us hope in genuine civility and sincere evangelization. They also offer us hope that the next generation will respond to what is good and what is true, if we can find some way of showing it to them. And they remind us that, while we are called to shout the gospel from the rooftops, sometimes the most important missionary work happens around the dining room tabletop.

Cary’s daughter concludes her mother’s biography with the following: “For what may yet be wanting to her to suffer in purgatory, may it please God to inspire his servants to assist her with their prayers and sacrifices, and of his mercy give rest to her soul.”

While teaching Renaissance literature requires objectivity, this Catholic scholar has difficulty not feeling sympathy when stumbling across a four-hundred-year-old invitation from a fellow Catholic to pray for her deceased mother. One stops thinking about author, text, and criticism, instead putting down the book and praying for a sister in Christ. Even four hundred years after her death, Cary continues to indirectly inspire zeal for the faith


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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