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Thu 22 Oct 2020
Maids and Mistresses
Philippa Wood // Curator
Philippa Wood
Ever wonder about the women who lived in historic country houses? Curator Philippa Wood rediscovers the partnership exhibition that was run by Burton Constable with the Yorkshire Country House Partnership, celebrating 300 years of Women and the Yorkshire Country House.


In 2004 Burton Constable participated in a series of interlinked exhibitions across seven of Yorkshire's greatest country houses, in partnership with the Yorkshire Country House Partnership.

Titled Maids and Mistresses, this exhibition by then-curator Gerardine Mulcahy explored the lives of some of the colourful and highly individual women who helped shape the history of this great country house between the Elizabethan and Edwardian eras. This female perspective of life on a country house estate is here presented through the diverse experiences and accomplishments of its women. 

In this blog post, current curator Philippa Wood delves into the archives to rediscover the text panels from this fascinating exhibition - with some additional highlights from research completed since the display was hosted at the Hall.

Want to find out more? Information from the guidebook for this exhibition and those for the other great houses that participated in this phenomenal undertaking can be found on the Yorkshire Country House Partnership website, together with together with research, resources and highlights from all the partner organisations. Simply search for to explore further!

Careless Creatures or Forces for Change?

The role of women within the country house is often sidelined - these hidden figures are often seen as drifting listlessly through life accompishing little (despite their many artistic accomplishments) and playing a relatively small part in the upkeep and progress of these great 'Power Houses' of the English countryside.

Even during their own lifetimes, the ladies of stately homes were often seen as lazy, selfish and overly extravagant, often being portrayed as idle 'shopaholics'. Mary Wollstonecraft, an eighteenth-century writer and (ironically) an advocate of women's rights, criticised and attacked wealthy and fashionable women. In one exerpt from 1792, she wrote that ‘women in particular all want to be ladies, which is simply to have nothing to do, but listlessly to go they scarcely care where for they cannot tell what.’1

With views like these expressed so openly even at the time, it is perhaps little wonder that such narratives have continued to be used by 20th Century historians. It is certainly true that the women who have lived here at Burton Constable have spent a great deal of time sketching, sewing, painting, reading and playing music - pastimes which today would often be seen merely as pleasant hobbies. However, a closer look reveals that the women were also working to manage their households, to care for their families (often heartbreaking task at a time when infant mortality was high) and to support their local communities through patronising charities, helping with events and instituting or donating to institutions such as hospitals, almshouses for the poor or (in Marianne Constable's case) being instrumental in founding a new convent here in Hull.

The majority of elite women, then, were not merely the careless and cossetted social butterflies portrayed by writers of their own times and ours, but central figures in the upkeep of their domestic setting, in the support of their own communities and often in political and economic matters both at home and abroad.

The panel Liberty and Independence below reveals two small insights into the strong willed and forceful mistresses of Burton Constable - and perhaps two of the most 'difficult' women to have taken on this vast household! Both the Maids and Mistresses exhibition of 2011 and the Difficult Women2 exhibition hosted at the Hall in 2019 worked to reveal the impact that these dynamic and resourceful ladies have had on the shaping of the historic house they governed and on the wider areas they influenced.

Read on to discover more!



We are fortunate to have in our collections many of Mary Barbara's sketchbooks from her international travels as well as letters to and from her husband and family. This remarkable women, who seems to have been remarkably free from the racial prejudices of her time and genuinely concerned about the local people of the various countries that her husband and herself inhabited, chronicled her time at home abroad closely. 

Her marriage to her husband (and cousin) was clearly a love match formed from many years of affection. As the couple had relatively little fortune his need to rely on career advancement to provide for his wife and family (they married in 1826, the year that Charles was promoted to Major in the military) meant that the couple were often apart for months. In the first years of their marriage Charles served in North America. Ill following childbirth and deprived of the her own household while she recuperated at her familial home, Mary also had to cope with the loss of her first child (of the couple's 11 children, only 5 lived to adulthood).

Despite a brief spell at home between 1831 and 1835, Charles decided in 1835 that he was 'tired to death of... idle life'3, and enlisted to fight in the Carlist war in Spain in 1835. Herself an experienced traveller - one of her diaries from 1822 records her own travels around Europe with her father, a botanist and topographer who died during their travels while they were visiting Ghent in 1823 - Mary moved to Pau in the north of the Pyrenees so that she could be closer to his station. The wait for news must have once again tested her strength of character sorely - as Charles lost no fewer than 3 horses during his battles, presumably narrowly escaping death himself each time, this must have been a rather tense time!

These travels likely meant that Mary Barbara was less anxious when the opportunity presented itself to join her husband on his return to the colonies, with the couple eventually living in the United States, Canada, Trinidad, Venezuela and Antigua, before returning to Canada. It was while in Canada that Mary took the unusual step of writing in her husband's diary rather than her own, with the bereft message 'May the most Holy Will of God be done! I am left alone to continue this journal'4. Charles had passed away on 6th April 1847 after four days of severe abdominal pain.

Mary moved back to England, taking on the family's house of Wood Hall, near Burton Constable, and running that household independently as her base. Solitude and isolation do not appear to have suited her, however - by Autumn of that year however she had moved to Paris with her daughters Constance and Amy, and once they had grown up she continued to travel the continent until her own death in 1876.

It is a life a world away from the genteel and static existence in a stately drawing room often painted as being the norm for ladies of the English Aristocracy

Life was not all needlework and knitting, however. An education for women of the aristocracy did, it is true, often focus on domestic tasks such as managing a household, maintaining domestic bliss and improving one's artistic skills in design, sketching, painting and writing.

Burton Constable can, however, count some extremely well-educated women among it's mistresses. Perhaps one notable instance of this is Winifred Constable, who was educated at the secretive Catholic school at Bar Convent in York during the 18th Century. Although no certain curriculum can be found that she might have followed, we do knw that girls at this school were taught subjects such as Hebrew, Greek, astronomy, philosophy, gardening, mathematics, Latin and other European languages such as Italian, in addition to the more 'feminine' accomplishments such as handwriting, music, dancing, painting and dressmaking.

Winifred never married but remained at Burton Constable to manage the household for her brother William. Given that we have records of renowned botanical artist Mr Ehret being hired to tutor her during the period when William was collecting his herbarium, and that a waywiser (a measuring device used in architecture) was purchased for her during William's alterations to the house, there seems to be little doubt that Winifred was anything but 'the idle..dame, ever gadding, ever gossiping and tattling’.5


There can be no doubt that Lady Marianne's artistic flair and desire to improve the decor a Burton Constable is responsible in large part for the appearance of many of Burton Constable's most splendid rooms today. 

This is perhaps why it's so very strange that we have so little evidence for Winifred Constable's additions to the house and its furnishings during her time at the Hall. Admittedly, most purchases at that time would have gone through the household accounts and therefore would appear in the records as having been ordered by William - a frequent obstacle to research encountered by all those attempting to uncover the very real influence of women in the design and decoration of historic houses. Lady Marianne and her sister Eliza are most unusual in this regard due to the fact that their independent fortunes allowed them to purchase items in their own name, without recourse to the Hall's accountbook. Eliza, in fact, had the most freedom of them all - as a 'spinster' with her own small fortune and with shares in the booming Victorian railway industry, she is a most remarkable figure.

The more remarkable thing about Winifred in Burton Constable's archives is, sadly, her absence from them. No sketchbooks, letters, or journals survive, with the exception of only one diary - that which she kept during her travels with her brother William which, frustratingly, focus so entirely on journalling his ill-health that the character, wishes and observations of the writer on personal things are few indeed. While a splendid document, it tells so much about a well-known male figure, while keeping the female writer firmly in the shadows. Scarcely in line with the note by Georgian period writer William Alexander in 1779 that female nature "loves better to sport away time amid the flowers that strow [sic] the path of pleasure, than to be entangled among the briars and thorns which perplex the path of care."6

To Be Continued...

As you can see above, the stories of the women who have inhabited Burton Constable, and all historic houses, can easily be veiled by circumstance and indeed by prejudice based upon the clouded perceptions present even during the periods in which they lived.

Any scholar studying these overshadowed but undeniably strongwilled, intelligent and active mistresses of the country house will find however that there is more and more evidence to be revealed, showing the hidden depths and vast influences of these aristocratic women and of the hardships and triumphs they experienced.

Here at Burton Constable this is an area of research in which we still feel we have a lot to accomplish - and many exciting discoveries yet to reveal!



Lady Marianne and her sister Eliza will form key figures in Burton Constable's next exhibition Drink, Dance and Decadence: the Gilded Age, exploring the life and times of Burton Constable's inhabitants 1830 - 1870. The exhibition will launch in April 2021

References and Acknowledgements


1. Wollstonecraft, M. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Oxford, 1993), p. 229.

2. HUL, DDCH/75, Diary of Sir Charles Chichester 1835-7, 17 July 1835.

3. HUL, DDCH/85, Diary of Sir Charles Chichester,6 April 1847

4. Mendelson, S.H., and P. Crawford, Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720 (Oxford, 1998), p. 67.

5. Alexander,W., The History of Women, From the Earliest Antiquity, to the Present Time; Giving Some Account of Almost Every Interesting Particular Concerning That Sex,Among All Nations, Ancient and Modern (Dublin,1779), i, p. 105.



The Maids and Mistresses Project was managed by the Yorkshire Country Houses Partnership, co-chaired by Christopher Ridgway and Allen Warren. The Yorkshire Country House Partnership was formed in 1999 when the University of York and seven of the houses in the region (Brodsworth Hall, Burton Constable, Castle Howard, Harewood House, Lotherton Hall, Nostell Priory and Temple Newsam) established a programme of interdisciplinary research into the history, families, collections, archives and estates
connected with these great houses. The partnership has seen extensive collaborative research carried out by scholars from the Departments of History, Archaeology, Art History, and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, instrumental in building our existing understanding of this interesting topic; among this research should be particularly noted that of Dr Ruth Larsen, whose research has been invaluable on this topic and who edited the book of essays resulting from the project.

Burton Constable's exhibition was researched and created by Gerardine M. Mulcahy, who researched and created the panels in this article.