Elizabeth Dormer, the Tragic Countess of Carnarvon

Elizabeth Dormer was a woman who lived through the English Civil Wars in the seventeenth century. Although she didn't man a siege or defend a castle like Lady Mary Bankes, her life was influenced by the wars in a number of other ways. Her story highlights the bloody effects of the Civil Wars on children and families, as well as the challenges faced in society at the time. 

Born in 1633, Elizabeth was welcomed into a family that were seeing a rapid rise in status. Her father, Arthur Capell, was First Baron Capell of Hadham, and they lived in Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth's mother,  Elizabeth Morrison, was a wealthy heiress who brought lands to the family including the beautiful Cassiobury House in Watford. Historians generally believe that Capell chose to live with his family at Hadham rather than Cassiobury, partly because he commissioned extensive renovations there in the early 1630s. 

As Elizabeth lay tucked up in her cradle, the Capells were in a good position. Aged just twenty-nine, Arthur had recently become heir to his grandfather. In 1639 he would become MP for Hertfordshire and is recorded in the Short and Long Parliaments in the run up to Civil War. Elizabeth would have grown up with her siblings, father and mother and their servants at the home at Hadham. A family portrait, which William Minet dates to around 1640, gives us a glimpse into the family at the cusp of the war, and also how the gardens at Hadham might have looked. Visible at the right of the painting, they are shown decorated with paths, statues and fountains. Arthur had, from 1634, commissioned the building of a new banqueting hall, a terrace and other renovations and it is tempting to imagine that this portrait was commissioned to celebrate the completion of his home for the future of his young family.

Minet identified Elizabeth as the figure second from right, standing next to her older sister Mary. Her brothers Arthur and Henry (Henry is leaning on his father's knee) are depicted along with her sister Theodosia, sitting on her mother's lap. At the time the portrait was painted, Elizabeth was around seven or eight years old, and must have excitedly explored the new home and its manicured gardens.

The Capell Family, National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Any concept of domestic bliss was broken however just two years later, in 1642, when her father was impeached for his support of the king. On 29 August of that year Hadham was searched and Parliamentarians recovered weapons which they assessed could equip a thousand men along with horses, saddles and pistols. Did Elizabeth remember cartloads of these weapons being removed from her home on that warm day, aged around twelve years old? Was she anxious for her father's fate? 

Arthur's destiny would catch up with him at Colchester when he was captured with other Royalists on 27 August 1648 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Managing to escape, he was quickly recaptured and locked up again on 2 February 1649. By now, Charles I had been beheaded, and the Royalist cause was lost. On 9 March, Arthur shared the king's fate. He was beheaded at Palace Yard in Westminster, London. Arrangements were made to bring his body, along with its head, to Hadham for burial. 

There is no record of Elizabeth's feelings about the sudden loss of her father, but she certainly would have relied on her mother and siblings for support. Probably in an effort to have her children provided for, her mother arranged a marriage for Elizabeth to the 20-year old Earl of Carnarvon Charles Dormer. Charles had lost his own father, Robert Dormer, to the Civil War during the Battle of Newbury in 1643. Husband and wife by 1653, it's possible the newlyweds lived at the Dormer's estate, Ascott House in Hertfordshire. Historic England do state that it was probably not lived in after Robert's death and had begun to turn into a ruin by the late seventeenth century. However the house is often offered as the place of Charles' death, and so if the couple did live here, Elizabeth would have known the large house, rabbit warrens and deer parks. The house, built by Charles' family in the mid-sixteenth century no longer survives. 

After their marriage, Elizabeth sat for a portrait by the famous Dutch artist Peter Lely. She wears a satin dress, her hair curled in the tight ringlets of the period, gazing thoughtfully at something in the distance to her right. The painting is undated, but it's possible it was created to celebrate her new status as Countess of Carnarvon, her title written at the right of the painting on the block that supports her back. 

Elizabeth Capell, Countess of Carnarvon by Peter Lely, Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth's husband Charles was said to have been a good communicator and was known for his wit. He knew the future Queen Anne and the famous diarist Samuel Pepys. As his wife, Elizabeth bore the earl seven children. From what we can tell from the dates of their baptisms, the couple tried desperately to create a brood of heirs to inherit Charles' earldom. Tragically, most of them died before they reached adulthood, some within days of their birth. Elizabeth would have lived through the Great Plague of 1665 and been heavily pregnant during the Great Fire of London in 1666, her son William baptised on 4 November that year in Covent Garden. He was sadly buried at Wing just two years later. We often look at dates and names in history, but the emotional impact of losing children from multiple, successive pregnancies must have been huge for Elizabeth as she tried to secure an heir for the family, putting her own health and strength potentially at risk. Child mortality was higher in the seventeenth century than now, but Elizabeth's experience suggests something else was influencing events, perhaps a genetic condition although there is of course no evidence for this. In 1661 she would have also grieved for her mother who died on 26 January and was buried at Hadham with Arthur. Elizabeth's final pregnancy, in 1671 when she was thirty-eight years old, resulted in a healthy birth: that of a daughter, Anna Sophia, who was born on Christmas Eve. She died aged twenty-two, in 1694, of smallpox and was buried at Wing. 

Charles Dormer, Earl of Carnarvon. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth did not live to see Anna Sophia enter adulthood. She died when her daughter was just six years old, on 15 July 1678. She was buried at Wing the following month. Her husband remarried on her death, and died, the site of his death often offered as Ascott House in Hertfordshire, in 1709. 

Elizabeth Dormer, Countess of Carnarvon, Yale Center of British Art, Public Domain.
This painting dates to 1665, around the time of the Great Plague of London

Elizabeth's story is a tragic one, on so many different levels. Initially, she was born into influence and wealth, with a father known in royal circles and influential in politics. The family posing for their portrait in their newly refurbished home would not know, but soon afterwards their lives would change suddenly. Her father was captured, imprisoned and beheaded. Marrying an earl and becoming a countess, Elizabeth tried relentlessly to provide her husband with an heir, and suffered the loss of her children. She is an example of a forgotten woman of the English Civil War, affected by its politics, war and the social problems of the age. She was also an eyewitness to the end of Parliamentarian rule and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, as well as the Plague and Great Fire of London. We so rarely stop to learn more about people like Elizabeth, but their stories give us context and a greater understanding of the period of the English Civil War. 

Liked this? You might also like London's Historic Coffee Houses of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Sir Peter Vanlore: Jeweller, Merchant, Moneylender and Lady Mary Bankes and the 1643 Siege of Corfe Castle

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Cokayne, The Complete Peerage, edition 1, volume 2. p158, p136. 

Minet, William. Hadham Hall and the manor of Bawdes alias Hadham Parva in the County of Hertfordshire (1914)

Historic England, Ascott House

Wing One-Place-Study, Charles Dormer.