Republished from The Conversation

Briony McDonagh, University of Hull @BrionyMcDonagh

We tend to think of the landowners, architects and builders of the past as men, just as we do its politicians, rulers and artists. Women rarely get a look in. But research is uncovering more and more historical examples of women who played a leading role in society, politics or the arts – and the public, it seems, are fascinated. Take Amanda Vickery’s recent series on The Story of Women and Art for example, or the idea that Bach’s wife composed some of his finest works.

Likewise, research on the histories of the British landscape is suggesting that women owned far more land than was once thought – and this despite the fact that before the late 19th century the law made it difficult for married women to own property of any sort. As a result, we’re also recognising that women played a far greater role in designing, commissioning and building country houses, gardens and parklands than was once imagined.

The nature of surviving historical sources means that women’s contributions are often poorly recorded, but there are exceptions – and we’re uncovering ever more of them. So as the National Trust and English Heritage open their properties to the public for the summer, why not pop along and visit a country house where the influence of a woman in its past is plain to see? Here are a few suggestions to get you going.

Temple Newsam

This vast Tudor/Jacobean house stands in grounds near Leeds that were landscaped by Capability Brown. Originally built for Thomas, Lord Darcy (who came to a grizzly end after rebelling against Henry VIII), the house was remodelled in the late 18th century by Frances Ingram, Viscountess Irwin, a highly involved female patron.

Her whopping £60,000 dowry – worth more than £7m in today’s money – had been used to fund improvements to the house and grounds in her husband’s lifetime, but it was only after his death that she was really bitten by the building bug. As a widow, she demolished and rebuilt the entire south wing “for the sole pleasure in building [it] up again” – as she put it – and redecorated much of the rest of the house.

Temple Newsam.
theracephotographer, CC BY-SA

Weston Park

Weston Park is a Palladian-style mansion in Staffordshire largely designed and built by Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham in the 1670s. Weston was her childhood home and while her husband was the legal owner, Wilbraham seems to have retained considerable control of the property during her marriage. We know she was heavily involved in both the design of the new hall and the financial management of the building work, and she’s often hailed as the architect of the house.

A la Ronde

An unusual 16-sided house near Exmouth, A la Ronde was designed by cousins Jane and Mary Parminter in the 1790s. Somewhat unusually for women at the time, the Parminters had spent nearly a decade travelling in Europe and were apparently inspired by a visit to the octagonal chapel of San Vitale at Ravenna (Italy). The Exmouth property was small and there was no tenanted agricultural land, but the cousins also designed and built a chapel, almshouses and school in the grounds just as much wealthier women did on their estates.

A la Ronde.
charliedave, CC BY

Hardwick Hall

Built by Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury (better known as Bess of Hardwick) Hardwick Hall is perhaps the most well-known country house in Britain built by a female landowner. Bess was born into a minor gentry family in Derbyshire, but was a woman of great ambition: she married four times, and the property left to her by her four dead husbands eventually made her the richest woman in England.

She oversaw the building of Chatsworth Hall from about 1550 onwards, and later built not one, but two, grand houses at Hardwick. Soon after finishing the Old Hall in 1591, she began to build the adjacent New Hall, a vast house known for its glittering glass façade and unusual floor plan. Visitors should look out for Bess’s initials “ES”, highlighted for posterity in parapets of the towers and elsewhere in the house.

Belvoir Castle

Elizabeth Manners, fifth duchess of Rutland, was credited by contemporaries both as the driving force behind the rebuilding of Belvoir Castle in the 1820s and the principal manager of the family’s Leicestershire estate. As one friend noted at the duchess’s death in 1825, the duke “did nothing for himself, and his estates, his horses, his family, everything was under her rule”.

While it’s unclear how far this was a fair assessment of the duke’s contribution, the duchess certainly oversaw landscaping works to the castle grounds and took an active interest in the agricultural aspects of the property, including designing a model farm. She also made improvements to Cheveley Park (Suffolk) in the early 1800s, oversaw the building works at York House on the Mall for her lover the Duke of York and drew up designs for a new palace for George IV.

The list of such houses is growing. So, while undoubtedly disadvantaged both by the law and by societal expectations of their gender, the wives, widows and single women of the past could – and did – build grand country houses. Not all female landowners had access to the money and resources necessary to re-build or significantly extend their country residence of course, but others re-planned gardens and parklands or improved the large agricultural estates which lay beyond the park boundaries. In doing so, these women and others like them had a far greater impact on the landscapes of early modern and Georgian England than history has so far acknowledged.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Conversation

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Conference programme announced

Women, Land and the Making of the British Landscape, 1300-1900

 A two-day interdisciplinary conference

29th-30th June 2015, University of Hull

Sponsored by the University of Hull and the Arts & Humanities Research Council

Provisional programme

Monday 29th June 2015

9:00        Registration, coffee & welcome

9:15        Session 1: The medieval landscape

Sheila Sweetinburgh (University of Kent) Religious women in the landscape: their roles in medieval Canterbury and its hinterland

Miriam Muller (University of Birmingham) Women in the medieval landscape: space, work and gender

Elizabeth Salter (University of Hull) Hull’s Medieval Lives c1400-1550

10:45     Coffee

11:00     Session 2: Early modern women

Jessica Malay (University of Huddersfield) Becoming Anne Clifford: encounters in text and place

Amanda Capern (University of Hull) Landscape and female sensibility in early modern England

Jane Whittle (University of Exeter) Women and farming in early modern England, c. 1550-1700

Amanda Flather (University of Essex) Women, work and land: the spatial dynamics of gender relations in early modern England 1550-1750

12:45     Lunch

13:45     Session 3: Women & landholding

Judith Spicksley (University of York) Spinsters with land in seventeenth-century England

Jennifer Holt (independent scholar) Tenantright, and the possession of land by women in northern England

Joan Heggie (Teesside University) Exploring women’s involvement with property in the North Riding of Yorkshire in the 18th and 19th centuries: a pilot study using the Register of Deeds

Janet Casson (independent scholar) Women and property reconsidered: new evidence on the ownership of land by women during the nineteenth century

15:45     Sophie Gerrard, Drawn to the Land: Women Working the Scottish Landscape (an exhibition).

16:15     Afternoon tea

17:15     Session 4: Keynote. Anne Laurence (Open University) Women, land and these islands 1550-1750

18:15     Drinks reception, followed by conference dinner

Tuesday 30th June 2015

9:00        Session 5: Property, landscape, gender

Elizabeth Griffiths (University of Exeter) The life and legacy of Alice le Strange

Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University) From magnificent houses to disagreeable country: Lady Sophia Newdigate’s tour of Southern England, 1748

Briony McDonagh (University of Hull) Beyond the (park) pale: gender and landscape in Georgian England

Stephen Bending (University of Southampton) Negotiating men: Elizabeth Montagu and the construction of pastoral

10:45     Coffee

11:15     Session 6: PhD round-table

Izzy Armstrong-Frost (University of York) Finding the women of the North: male status and female connections at Raby Castle

Ann-Maria Walsh (University College Dublin) The Boyle women and their relationship with ‘this bleeding and well neere ruined Commonwealth’

Helena Kaznowska (University of Oxford) ‘She builds it with her hands, and beares it up by her shoulders’: metaphor and the making of the early modern home

Charlotte Garside (University of Hull) Property Rights of Yorkshire Women in the Court of Chancery, 1680-1700

Fern Pullan (Leeds Beckett University) ‘Marriage had bastilled me for life’: the propertied woman as property in the novels of Richardson, Wollstonecraft and Collins

Erin Trahey (University of Cambridge) Elizabeth Virgo Scarlett: a Jamaican female absentee proprietor, plantation management and the British Atlantic economy

13:15     Lunch

14:15     Session 7: Modern perspectives

Sarah Carter (University of Alberta) Imperial plots: British women, land and agriculture in Prairie Canada 1870s-1914

Janet Smith (independent historian) Reshaping the landscape: Helen Taylor’s campaign for land nationalisation in Great Britain and Ireland 1880-1907

Nicola Verdon (Sheffield Hallam University) ‘The work is grand and the life is just what I have always longed for’: British women’s experiences of working on the land in the Great War

Catherine Flinn Goldie (Bodleian Library) British planning: the significance of Evelyn Sharp

16:00     Coffee & cake

16:30     Session 8: Keynote. Amy Erickson (University of Cambridge) Rethinking the significance of inheritance and marriage in landholding

17:30     Concluding comments and end of conference


Registration for the conference will open in mid-April on the University of Hull website. Costs are likely to be £55 per delegate including lunch, refreshments and the conference dinner. If you’d like to be notified when registration opens, please email and ask to join the mailing list.

Accommodation details will be available shortly via the blog and the University of Hull website.


Thanks to sponsorship from the University of Hull and the Arts & Humanities Research Council, a limited number of bursaries (fee waivers plus a contribution towards travel/accommodation) are available to postgraduate and early career researchers. To apply, please email with your name, university affiliation, details of your PhD or post-doctoral research, and a short statement (of no more than 150 words) outlining how you’d benefit from attending the conference. This should reach the conference organisers no later than Friday 8th May 2015.

Please note, bursary applicants are asked not to register with the online system until after the outcome of the bursary competition is announced. Successful applicants will then be supplied with a code for fee-free registration.

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PhD opportunity in women’s history/historical geography

Fully-funded PhD opportunity in the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Science, University of Hull

Project Title: Maid, wife and widow: women’s life-course and property ownership, 1550-1800.

Supervisors:  Dr. Briony McDonagh (Geography, University of Hull) and Dr. Amanda Capern (History, University of Hull).

Project summary:

This project explores the impact of life-course and marital status on women’s experience as property owners, a topic which has so far received little in the way of sustained academic attention. Erickson (1995) and others have demonstrated that women across the social hierarchy actually controlled significant amounts of land in early modern and 18th-century England, and this despite the restrictions imposed by coverture and primogeniture. We know, moreover, that many women were actively involved in the transmission and management of landed property – and this not only as widows, but also as wives and single women (McDonagh 2009; Capern 2002, 2008/10; Spicksley 2012; Larsen 2007). Yet we know surprisingly little about the impact age, health, maternity and even marital status had on women’s experiences of property ownership and management, nor about how women’s involvement in estate management varied over life-course. How did the experience of young unmarried female landowners differ from that of their married sisters and widowed mothers? Was it possible to juggle both child-rearing and estate management? And how did age, gender and life experience affect women’s attitudes to risk and decisions regarding the transmission of their property?

The project addresses these and other related research questions through a long dureé analysis, drawing on a range of archival materials from county record offices and national archival repositories in order to critically examine how age, gender, maternity and marital status impacted on women’s involvement in and attitudes to land and property in England in the period c.1550-1800. In doing so, the project brings together two distinct literatures and approaches – on early modern women and property, and on women’s experiences of motherhood, widowhood and other key life-stages – in order to reflect critically on women’s place within, and contribution to, early modern society. It thus adds value to an exciting new field of research as well as contributes to wider cultural debates about women’s place in the environmental, social and economic history of the English countryside.

Applicants should have a good undergraduate degree in Geography, History or a related discipline. A master’s degree and experience working with archival materials is desirable.

Informal enquiries about the studentship can be directed to Briony McDonagh ( More information about the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Science can be found here and about the Department of History here. To apply, go to the University of Hull’s studentships pages here.

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Call for Papers: Women, land and the making of the British Landscape, 1300-1900

Women, land and the making of the British Landscape, 1300-1900.

A two-day interdisciplinary conference, 29-30 June 2015, University of Hull.

Organised by Dr Briony McDonagh (Dept of Geography) and Dr Amanda Capern (Dept of History)

This two-day interdisciplinary conference seeks to bring together historians, geographers, archaeologists, legal scholars, art historians and literary scholars to reflect on women’s contribution to the making of the British landscape over the six centuries between c. 1300 and c. 1900. Recent work by historians has done much to expand our understanding of women’s relations with property of all kinds, particularly in the early modern and Georgian eras. This has included important work on the ways legal doctrines and devices like primogeniture, coverture and strict settlement impacted on the ownership of land by women from across the social hierarchy. Yet we know comparatively little about women’s day-to-day involvement in managing, improving and transmitting land, or about the ways landownership and landholding – whether the property in question was a large landed estate or tiny cottage – provided opportunities for women to shape the landscape around them. More generally, histories and geographies of the British landscape have too often written both elite and more ordinary women out of the story, focusing on the contribution of male landowners, farmers and innovators, but saying little about the involvement of their mothers, wives and daughters.

The conference aims to redress this gap in the literature, asking a series of important questions about the relationships between women, land and landscape over the long durée. Possible themes include (but are not limited to):

  • Women’s landholding and landownership across the medieval, early modern and modern period.
  • Women and farming throughout the period 1300-1900 and including both peasant/smallholder agriculture and farming on large landed estates.
  • Women as landowners, builders, gardeners and patrons.
  • Women’s contribution to other spheres of activity, particularly those with the potential to dramatically reshape the landscape (for example mining, silviculture and urban development).
  • Women’s legal rights, including the legal dimensions of property ownership and transmission.
  • Women’s experiences of landownership and/or landlessness.
  • Land, life-cycle and the family.
  • Gendered experiences of space, place, land, landscape and memory.
  • Work and leisure in the landscape.
  • Women’s intellectual and emotional responses to land and landscape (as represented in archival sources, art, literature etc).
  • Reflections on the sources and methodologies available to those researching women, land and landscape in medieval, early modern and modern Britain.

Contributors may address these themes in rural or urban contexts in any period from the high medieval to c. 1900 and in any region of England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland. Comparative papers exploring women’s experience in Britain and Ireland in relation to other places would also be welcomed. Please send titles and abstracts (of up to 400 words) to Briony McDonagh ( by 31 January 2015, along with details of any special audio-visual requirements or mobility requirements.

Twitter: @women_and_land          Blog:

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