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Tue 18 Jun 2019
Winifred Constable : Unmarried Matriarch & Supportive Sister
Philippa Wood // Curator
Philippa Wood
Difficult Women: Winifred Constable

Difficult Women

Those who fail to meet society’s expectations have always been seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘meddlesome’. Our 2019 exhibition looks at the fascinating independent women of Burton Constable. and invites visitors to decide: are they difficult? Or are they different?

Traditionally, women of the English gentry have been expected to marry, have children, and be subservient to their husbands. Their strengths and personalities have often been forgotten.

Winifred, an intelligent and well-educated lady who never married and followed her own path, forms a fascinating part of this historic hall's story.

A young Winifred in 1733, painted by Richard van Bleek. © The Constable Family
School Days

Winifred was sent to York’s Bar Convent school at just 12 years old. This is a sharp contrast to her mother, who was 14 when she married!

Bar Convent’s nuns and students formed a hidden society, flouting laws against Catholicism. Subjects taught included sciences, philosophy and classical languages, as well as art and French. The school is believed by some to have equalled the top boys’ schools, and boasted that its pupils were conversant in Latin and Hebrew by age 14.

Winifred would also have received a practical education in gardening, and in providing medical care to the city’s poor. Trips to balls and parties at the city’s Assembly Rooms would have trained her for high society.

A Learned Lady

William Constable considered himself a scientist and a man of learning. Letters show that Winifred may have been similar in this regard. She attempted to breed rare exotic birds in the aviary, and bought books by key philosophers such as Voltaire. While William collected plants for his herbarium Winifred studied art with Mr Ehret, a key botanical artist, and kept her own garden.

Like many other ladies at Burton Constable, Winifred played an active role in furnishing the house. She commissioned furniture and sculpture, often influenced by classical culture. A purchase of a way-wiser by Winifred indicates that she may have been helping to measure out spaces within the house and grounds as part of the redesign of these spaces.

Winifred helped manage Burton Constable’s household of 60 people.

No small task!

William Winifred in Antique Costume as Cato and Marcia © Burton Constable Foundation

Independent Woman

Winifred was financially independent, having been left £4000 by her father, Cuthbert. We have records of many of her purchases, including books by Voltaire, magazines, parchment, fabrics and art supplies. One of her largest purchases was a marble chimneypiece tablet of Aesculapius/Asclepius and Hygeia sacrificing to the Gods purchased in 1768 and carved by William Collins (fl. 1721-1793). As aesclepius was the Greek god of medicine, this plaque may have been a subtle reminder from Winifred to her gouty brother to be careful what he consumed in this grand and opulent space!

In her early twenties Winifred travelled independently to visit family and attend events in Scarborough. From 1762 to 1763 she and William rented a house in York for the ‘Season’.

Adventures Abroad

William and Winifred met famed philosopher and writer Rousseau at Lyons in 1770. Rousseau appears to have been enormously impressed by Winifred, whom he ‘gallanted’ and whose ‘complaisancy and conversation’ earned high praise. William appears to have felt somewhat overshadowed; in a letter to his brother Marmaduke, he wrote that 'of her character he judged right, not so mine'. William's letters to Rousseau are an invaluable resource, giving further hints about Winifred's education (which allowed her to understand spoken French but not speak it) and about her interests ('neither the Great Character of Monsieur Rousseau nor several of his Masterpieces are unknown to her'). Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of these letters is, however, the direct expression of William's regard for his beloved sister. He describes Winifred to Rousseau as 'my Sister who attached herself to my Destiny, from my ardent Youth with a Fidelity, Constance and Love which have no Example'. 

After touring France and Italy, William and Winifred went to Rome, where William busied himself buying art and antiquities. Rome was both a scholarly and a fashionable city in the 18th century. William described Winifred as looking ‘wonderous wise & somewhat happy’ having won £23 in cards- £2000 today! Rome in the 1770s was also home to the men of the failed Scottish Jacobite uprising of 1745, whose presence William seemed to scorn. He said he had ‘often seen the men of the 45, the Baron de Renfrew, the Pretender. He came up to your sister at a masked ball, a contemptible poor creature. His brother worse, narrow-minded, mean, dirty.’  Clearly, not the sort of titled acquaintance William was seeking!

The Grand Tour ended in 1770, with huge amounts of artwork shipped back to Britain. Unfortunately, Winifred died of smallpox soon after, before the painting of herself and William as Cato and Marcia had even been shipped back to England.

William, inconsolable, left Burton Constable and all his improvements and went to stay with his brother Marmaduke in London.



Sylvia Gallagher, Linda Marshall & Mike Brooks (Research Volunteers)

Dr Hannah Thomas (Special Collections Manager and Research Fellow at The Bar Convent)

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Did you know?
Afternoon tea was created by the Duchess of Bedford in the late 18th century. She invited friends to join her for an afternoon meal of small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, sweets and, of course, tea. The practice was so popular that it was quickly adopted by other social hostesses 

The Burton Constable Whale is featured in Herman Melville's famous novel Moby Dick. 

Today the Burton Constable Whale is nicknamed 'Constable Moby'

Over 80 different species of birds have been spotted at Burton Constable, from the smallest British bird, the Goldcrest, to large birds of prey such as Buzzards and Barn Owls