‘Death-bed disinherison by so foul a practice’: Parliament, the Vanlore heiresses and an early modern whodunnit

In Women’s History month, Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-1660 section, looks at how petitions to Parliament can lift the lid on the private lives of privileged women and, in the struggle to secure property rights, reveal a dark underside of manipulation, prejudice, violence, the desperation of the childless and even murder …

Throughout the turmoil of the civil wars and interregnum, a significant proportion of Parliament’s business involved, as it had always done, the hearing of private petitions. These often related to the disposition of property or to family disputes and thereby shed light on the lives of women. One dispute which detained MPs in several Parliaments has all the ingredients for an Agatha Christie dramatisation: a will, exotic foreigners, domestic abuse, kidnapping, the supernatural, a hint of glamour, and (alleged) murder.

Centre stage were female members of a notable immigrant clan. Playing subsidiary roles were their cousins and spouses, while a large supporting cast included MPs, corrupt officials, cunning lawyers, celebrity doctors, conniving servants and a delinquent clergyman. The women were co-heiresses of Sir Peter Vanlore, 1st baronet (c.1547-1627), the Utrecht-born jewel merchant who had made a spectacular fortune supplying the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts, and acquired extensive estates in south central England, and of his only son Sir Peter Vanlore, 2nd baronet (d.1645). The latter left three daughters: Jacoba, wife of Henry Zinzan (of Italian extraction, and son of Sir Sigismund, equerry to Elizabeth I and – somewhat appropriately – briefly owner of the Globe Theatre); Susanna, wife of exchequer official and former MP Robert Croke; and the youngest, but by no means least, Mary, wife of Henry Alexander, 3rd earl of Stirling. Meanwhile, the only one of the first baronet’s five daughters still living was Mary, the childless wife of Sir Edward Powell, but her sisters had left offspring: Anne, daughter of Sir Charles Caesar (Master of the Rolls and himself grandson of Elizabethan physician Cesare Adelmare) and wife of barrister and former MP Thomas Levingston; and her cousins Peter and Sackville Glemham (sons of Sir Thomas Glemham), and Abraham Vandenbempde.

Complaints that the Levingstons and William Powell or Hinson, nephew and heir of Sir Edward Powell, had plotted to secure Mary Powell’s estate as she lay on her deathbed in 1651, surfaced in the Rump and the Nominated Parliament, but made no headway. Perhaps for this reason, when in the wake of bitter litigation both sides petitioned Parliament again in 1654, each published their submissions. Leading the accusers was the countess of Stirling, assigned social pre-eminence despite her re-marriage to (mere) Lieutenant-colonel John Blount. She, Blount, the Crokes, the Zinzans and the Glemhams, claimed that, according to their grandfather’s will, when Lady Powell died about 6 October 1651, her portion of the great inheritance should have been shared between the other co-heirs. Years previously, Sir Edward Powell had ‘in many wayes abused, and evil intreated’ his wife into settling her estate on his own family; when he failed, ‘differences betwixt them grew implacable’ and they lived apart, ‘keeping each a several house and family’. Enter the Levingstons, who conspired on their own account. Anne was accused of ‘tampering with a Witch, and delivery of … Lady Powels hair, and paring of her nails, to be made use of in unlawfull ways’; being herself childless, she had ‘counterfeited herself to be with child, and bought a dead child, and solemnly lay in therewith’. But, when informed of the birth of a prospective new ‘heir’, Lady Powell was not deceived and refused to receive the Levingstons. Thwarted, they and the Powells joined forces. As Lady Powell lay ‘dangerously sick of her last sickness’, they ‘forcibly’ entered her house in Chelsea, ‘guarded it with divers desperate persons hired … for that purpose’, replaced her servants and her ‘Apothecary (employed by Sir Theodore [de Mayerne] her physitian) and brought her a new physitian and Apothecary (whom she never saw before)’. A former judge ‘who knew not Lady Powell’ was summoned to draw up documents conveying to themselves ‘a personal estate, to the value of forty thousand pounds’, contrary to the lady’s publicly expressed wishes. ‘To put a mask of Godliness upon their wicked designs’ they installed ‘a sequestered divine of Mr Levingston’s acquaintance’ to keep the local minister away and eventually to preach a misleading funeral sermon, while in order to complete the legal conveyances, they concealed the body for some time.

A fashionable lady of the mid 17th century (Wenceslaus Hollar, 1640) Cleveland Museum of Art, CCO via Wikimedia Commons

In response, the Levingstons proffered Some considerations, not only pointing to court judgements that Lady Powell’s settlement in their favour had been achieved ‘willingly, and without constraint’, but also – quoting several biblical passages – questioning the authority of ‘the legislative power’ (Parliament) to determine such matters. Furthermore, the demand of its committee for receiving petitions to see Anne’s deeds of title to the estate ‘may be of very evill consequence’ in giving their adversaries sight of evidence before another trial. ‘Clear in their own consciences’, the Levingstons produced a new villain: ‘one Crump, otherwise Crompton … a mean menial servant unto Lady Powell’s husband’.

This narrative was expanded greatly in the sensational A true narrative of the case, which drew in an astonishing range of players. Crompton, steward and executor to the first Lady Vanlore and not above ‘tampering with sorcerers’, had manoeuvred to grasp the Vanlore inheritance for himself and ‘procure a divorce’ between the Powells, drawing into his schemes Vandenbempde and Chelsea resident Sir John Danvers. But, after mediation involving the current Master of the Rolls (William Lenthall) and Lieutenant-general Edmund Ludlowe, the couple had been reconciled. Lady Powell, who loved Anne Levingston ‘as her own child’, had made a perfectly legal conveyance to her niece, as she had long promised. After her death, however, Anne had been accused of effecting this by ‘sorcery, witchcraft and love powder’. Yet she had been acquitted of all this in court, as also of ‘poyson[ing] Lady Powel to death’, by the latter’s physicians (including onetime MP Jonathan Goddard and the eminent immigrant Jean Colladon), her apothecary and ‘the surgeons that dissected her’. As they testified, she died from ‘the Dropsie, Scurvy, Jaundies and two Cancers in her Liver’.

There was a great deal more in this vein, so it is unsurprising that the case resurfaced in subsequent Parliaments. By June 1660, when the 4th earl of Stirling pursued his mother’s claims against the Levingstons in the Lords, peers were confronted with a book of more than 600 pages of evidence taken in the cause. They appear no more successful than previous parliamentarians in disentangling the story. ‘Vexatious suits’ between the heiresses and their supporting actors continued well into the 1670s.


Further reading

To the right honourable the Parliament … the humble Petition of Mary Countess of Stirling (1654, BL 669.f.19.31)

Some considerations humbly proposed … by Thomas Levingston esquire and Anne his wife (1654)

The State of the case … between the Countess of Sterlin … by Petition in Parliament (1654, BL 669.f.19.43)

A true Narrative of the Case so much Controverted between Mistress Anne Levingston (1655.)

Journal of the House of Commons, vii

Journal of the House of Lords, xi

Biographies or further biographies of Robert Croke, Sir John Danvers, Dr Jonathan Goddard, William Lenthall, Thomas Levingston and Edmund Ludlowe are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

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