The “Incomparable Lady Ranelagh”

“UNESCO puts philosophy forward as a force for individual and collective emancipation”, as their statement for World Philosophy Day 2015 states. Historically, many have been locked out from philosophy due to their class or gender, and only had access to philosophical discussion through family or informal networks. One such was Katherine Jones, née Boyle.

Katherine Boyle was born 400 years ago this year, on the 22nd March, 1615 in Youghal. Her father, Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, saw no point in education for daughters beyond fitting them for the marriage market. It’s been suggested that Katherine obtained her education when she was sent at the age of nine and a half to live with the family of her prospective husband, Sapcott Beaumont. When she was thirteen Beaumont’s father died and the marriage contract fell through. After two years at home in Ireland she was married off to Arthur Jones, heir to Viscount Ranelagh in 1630 when she was fifteen.

The Old Custom House in Youghal From Rev. Richard J. Hodges (1911) Cork and County Cork in the twentieth century
The Old Custom House in Youghal
From Rev. Richard J. Hodges (1911) Cork and County Cork in the twentieth century

The marriage was not a happy one. A contemporary described Jones as a boor whose one good quality was “he seldom cometh sober to bedd” (Verney, 1892). “The Earl of Clarendon and the Duke of Ormond agreed that he was ‘the worst man in the world’ who ‘oppressed’ his wife and children and failed to provide for them.” (Ohlmeyer, p. 204).

After the birth of their son in 1640 (born after three girls), Katherine and Arthur Jones effectively lived separate lives. In 1643 the death of the First Viscount meant the title Viscount Ranelagh passed to Arthur Jones. Katherine was commonly referred to as “Lady Ranelagh” in her circle. “‘The incomparable'” is a recurring sobriquet among those who knew her” (Hutton). She even garnered praise from Milton, who did not make a habit of praising women.

From 1643 Lady Ranelagh was closely associated with the Hartlib Circle, especially with Samuel Hartlib, Sir Cheney Culpeper, John Durie, John Beale, Benjamin Worsley, Robert Wood, William Petty and Gerald and Arnold Boate. She was persuaded into supporting Hartlib by Dorothy Moore, later Dorothy Durie (Hutton). She was not just a patron however. She was involved with debates (as indeed Dorothy Durie was), and treated as an equal member of the Circle (DiMeo, pp. 88-131). Her receipt books and letters reveal her research into and practice of medicine and there is also evidence for her active interest in chemistry/alchemy (DiMeo, 2009, p. 101-111)

Her one surviving treatise, however, deals with philosophy rather than natural philosophy. ‘A Discourse on the Plague of 1665’ is held in the Boyle Papers in the Royal Society Library. It was provoked by the plight of nonconformists who fell foul of the Conventicle Act of 1664, which imprisoned any participating in a prayer group of five or more without using the Anglican Prayer Book. The plague converted this imprisonment into a potential death sentence, which physical peril, Ranelagh insists, was never the intention of the Act (Connolly, 2006).

She goes on to argue that the nonconformists pray as they do since their consciences and the spirit of God within them command them to. Insisting they ignore their conscience is to insist they imperil their souls. It also sets the law above God, since the nonconformists are forced to choose between the two. This is underlined by the fact the nonconformists are willing to be imprisoned rather than go against their beliefs.

Given that, is it just to imprison them? Ranelagh outlines the common principles that underlie both conformist (Anglican) and nonconformist worship, and shows that the differences (for example whether a sect has bishops or not) is based on conscience. Protestants are of the one nation. Anglicanism does not define ones nationality or loyalty and the conventicles are not an act of rebellion or resistance against the state.

Much like Ussher, Ranelagh looks for unity within Protestantism. The 18th century campaign of Presbyterians in Ireland against the Test Acts drew on similar arguments: that more united the different strands of Protestantism than divided them.

This treatise was in manuscript and clearly meant for private circulation. This was common in the Hartlib Circle, and was also “a socially acceptable method for women to influence the opinions of powerful men” (Connolly, 2006, p. 172). While Ranelagh displays no diffidence about discussing political matters, staying out of the expanding public sphere of print allows her to keep her high social reputation. It also meant that later generations were unaware of her abilities.

Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh: portrait in Lismore Castle Picture courtesy of Michelle DiMeo
Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh: portrait in Lismore Castle
Picture courtesy of Michelle DiMeo

Her confidence is also reflected in her letters on political matters. Lady Ranelagh’s beliefs evolved over time. Originally she was an advocate of constitutional monarchy (monarchy bound by law), a radical position at the time. She was against Roman Catholicism and absolutism seeing both as undermining liberty of conscience. Through the 1640s her beliefs shifted as she saw monarchy in England, and specifically the actions of Charles I, as a growing threat to the nation. Ranelagh’s concern was reflected in her 1646 letter to Elizabeth of Bohemia, attempting to encourage the queen to exercise her influence her brother the king. In the letter Ranelagh argued that the king rules by contract with his people, not by divine right, and highlighted what she saw as the core issue with constitutional monarchy – its reliance on the willingness of the king to work with parliament (Connolly, 2008, p. 251).

Within the Hartlib Circle in 1647 Ranelagh started a debate about the relationship of monarchy and parliament based on this weakness (The Culpepper Questions). In these Ranelagh covers a range of constitutional issues including the possibility of republicanism. Culpepper’s replies are rooted in natural law – no responses from Ranelagh exist (Connolly, 2008, pp 254-5).

While admiring Cromwell as an individual she identified the same issue applying to his rule: that it was overdependent on the abilities of one man. In 1656 and 1657 she diagnosed the key political problem as a focus on political victories instead of taking on the difficult task of promoting true religion and remedying social ills. “These letters offer her political and religious ideal: a society designed so that liberty of conscience and the liberty of the subject are intended to co-exist” (Connolly, 2008, p. 256.)

In the Restoration Ranelagh supported the Whig cause of limited monarchy and limited religious toleration (Connolly, 2006, p. 170). Despite her links to the Parliamentarians, she retained her influence in Restoration society, using it to protect the Duke of Ormonde and her brother Lord Broghill (later Lord Orrery), who had been on the Parliamentarian side. The Duke wrote of her in 1681:

In my way hither and here all requisite observance and duty is paid to the King’s authority and yet there remains visibly some lines of my Lord of Orrery’s projection, and these tracings are kept as fresh as my Lady Ranelagh his sister can by her correspondence and influence on her family, which is great, even with her brother of Cork; as for the other branches she governs them very absolutely.

Even allowing for hyperbole, this suggests Lady Ranelagh retained great influence within her extended family and outside it. Her influence on Robert Boyle is well known. She encouraged him to work on questions of ethics when he first returned from Europe, and they developed a parallel interest in chemistry in the 1640s. They lived together in London from 1668 until their deaths within a few days of each other in 1691.

At Robert Boyle’s funeral, Gilbert Burnet included accolades to Lady Ranelagh, calling her ‘intercessor for all persons of merit’, and ‘the greatest figure in all the revolutions of these kingdoms for about fifty years’. He concluded that ‘such a sister became such a brother’. Betsey Taylor Fitzsimon suggests “[he] would have been as accurate to have asserted that such a brother became such a sister.”

Katherine Boyle only received an education through good luck. She had no choice in who she married, and the mores of the time meant she could not study or write for publication as her brother did. But she still could discuss and develop her thoughts through informal networks. Perhaps the rise of philosophy groups will give that chance to those locked out of formal philosophy today.

The Boyle Monument: the boy in the middle is Robert Boyle, the leftmost kneeling woman is probably intended to represent Katherine. (c) Andreas F. Borchert/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
The Boyle Monument: the boy in the middle is Robert Boyle, the leftmost kneeling woman is probably intended to represent Katherine (c) Andreas F. Borchert/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

References and Further Reading

Sarah Hutton (2004) ‘Jones , Katherine, Viscountess Ranelagh (1615–1691)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. [online, subscription required]

Betsey Taylor Fitzsimon (2009) “Jones, Lady Katherine Viscountess Ranelagh Boyle”. in James McGuire, James Quinn (eds) Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press. [online, subscription required]

Frances Verney (ed.) (1892) Memoirs of the Verney Family (2 vols., London), I, p. 206. cited in Ohlmeyer, p. 204.

Ohlmeyer, Jane. Making Ireland English: The Irish Aristocracy in the Seventeenth Century. Cumberland, RI, USA: Yale University Press, 2012.

DiMeo, Michelle (2009) Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (1615-91) [thesis] University of Warwick Publications (pdf)

DiMeo, Michelle (2015) “‘Such a Sister Became Such a Brother’: Lady Ranelagh’s Influence on Robert Boyle”. in Intellectual History Review, Vol. 25.1, pp. 21-36.

Michelle DiMeo’s website – Research (features a picture of Lady Ranelagh).

Duke of Ormonde, letter to Lord Arlington, 24 August 1681, HMC, Calendar of
the Ormonde Papers ns VI (London, HMSO, 1911 ), p. 138, cited in Connolly, 2008, pp. 245-6.

Connolly R. (2008) “A Proselytising Protestant Commonwealth: The Religious and Political Ideals of Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1614-1691)”. In The Seventeenth Century, 23(2), pp. 244-264.

Connolly R. (2006) “A Manuscript Treatise of Viscountess Ranelagh (1614-1691)” in Notes and Queries, 53(2), pp. 170-172.

St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin The Boyle Family Monument. Also see a detailed picture of the entire monument on Wikimedia.

Lady Ranelagh at the Robert Boyle Summer School

Sarah Jane Murphy (2015) “Schoolgirl commemorates 400th anniversary of local historical figure with memorial plaque” in Irish Independent (9 Jul 2015)

Robert Boyle Summer School:

Antimatter blog: Robert Boyle Summer School 2015

Scroll to Top