Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh
Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (22 March 1615 – 3 December 1691) was a female scientist in seventeenth century Britain. She was also a political and religious philosopher, and a member of many intellectual circles including the Hartlib Circle, the Great Tew circle, and the Invisible college. Her correspondents included Samuel Hartlib, Edward Hyde, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Hyde, and John Milton. She was the sister of Robert Boyle and is thought to have been a great influence on his work in chemistry. In her own right she was a political and social figure closely connected to the Hartlib Circle.
Early life and marriage
Katherine Boyle was born in Youghal, Ireland to Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork, and Catherine Fenton, on March 22, 1615. She was the seventh child of fifteen. Her siblings included the scientist, Robert Boyle, and the spiritual diarist, her sister, Lady Mary Rich, later Countess of Warwick. It is not clear how much education she received, although, it is known that her brothers received an extensive education. She may have been tutored privately by the family’s chaplains and received an education in religion and manners. As a wealthy man, her father Richard made sure that his sons were well educated and that he secured politically advantageous marriages for his daughters.
When Katherine Boyle was nine and a half years old, she moved in with the Beaumont family because she was to be wed to one of their sons, Sapcott Beaumont. When she was thirteen, Thomas Beaumont, father of Sapcott Beaumont died, this event caused the marriage arrangements between Katherine and Sapcott to dissolve. She moved back home and two years later married Arthur Jones, heir to Viscount Ranelagh at the age of 15 and she became known as Katherine Jones. It was common for noble women to get married at a younger age, but normally women of this time would not get married until their twenties. As evidenced through letters to her father from her husband, it is insinuated that Arthur Jones was unfaithful to Katherine. Their marriage was not a good one. They spent most of their time living apart, Katherine moved back and forth between Ireland and London, and Arthur spent much of his time traveling. They had four children, three daughters and one son: Catherine, Elizabeth, Frances, and Richard. Katherine lived in Ireland until 1642 when she was trapped in Athlone Castle for four months due to the rebellions in Ireland. Frustrated, she moved to London with her four children in tow.
In the mid-1640s in London, having left Ireland after the rebellion of 1641, she came to be a friend and supporter of John Milton, sending him as pupil her nephew Richard Barry in 1645. Barry was followed some time later by her son Richard.
Apart from Samuel Hartlib himself and his closest ally John Dury, she knew John Beale, Arnold Boate and Gerard Boate, Sir Cheney Culpeper, Theodore Haak, William Petty, Robert Wood and Benjamin Worsley. Christopher Hill suggested that her house may have been the meeting place of the "Invisible College" of the later 1640s. From 1656 Henry Oldenburg was tutor to her son Richard. In the 1650s her brother Robert Boyle had a laboratory in her London house, as well as in Oxford, and they experimented together. She was also prominent in the Hartlib Circle of correspondents. She commissioned Robert Hooke in 1676, to modify her house to include a laboratory for her brother Robert Boyle.
Her letters suggest that her influence and encouragement on Boyle's work were considerable. His contemporaries widely acknowledged Katherine's influence on his work, but later historiographies dropped her from the record. Theirs was "a lifelong intellectual partnership, where brother and sister shared medical remedies, promoted each other’s scientific ideas, and edited each other’s manuscripts."
In 1656, she went to Ireland on family business, staying several years. With Arthur Annesley and William Morice she interceded for Milton, arrested after the English Restoration of 1660. In 1668 her brother Robert Boyle came to live with her on Pall Mall. They lived together for the last 23 years of their lives and both died in 1691 within a short period of time. They are buried in the south chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
Her children were:
- Catherine, born 1633, who married Sir William Parsons and then in 1660 Hugh Montgomery, 1st Earl of Mount Alexander.
- Frances, born 1639
- Richard Jones, 1st Earl of Ranelagh, born 1640.
Katherine Jones was involved in a number of intellectual circles including the Great Tew Circle, the Hartlib Circle, and the Invisible college. These intellectual circles were precursors to the Royal society and included natural philosophers and experimenters. The Invisible college included many of Robert Boyle’s acquaintances who were geographically spread out. The Great Tew circle, was started by Katherine’s friend Lucius Cary, the Viscount of Falkland. Members of the Great Tew Circle included Edward Hyde, William Chillingworth, Gilbert Sheldon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Hobbes, Henry Hammond, Nicolas Culpeper and many others.
Among Katherine Jones’ intellectual acquaintances was Samuel Hartlib, creator of the Hartlib circle group. She was introduced to Hartlib by her aunt Dorothy Moore when she first arrived in London in 1642. Samuel Hartlib collected correspondence from many intellectuals including John Milton, Rene Descartes, John Dury, Lady Barrington, Benjamin Worsley, and Katherine Jones. It is known that Hartlib and Lady Ranelagh were very close. Among the collected letters of Samuel Hartlib is one in which Katherine gives real estate advice to the Butlers. Samuel Hartlib even used Lady Ranelagh’s address in London to receive letters. Katherine’s house often became a meeting place for people of many different political and religious backgrounds to discuss ideas. It is even rumored that the Invisible College may have been centered at her house.
Another one of Katherine Jones’ friends was Thomas Willis, a writer and physician and member of the Oxford circle. Thomas Willis used Mayerne’s Pharmacopoeia in his work of chemical experiments. Willis and Katherine worked closely together on medical recipes and a few of her recipes even found their way into Willis’ book, Pharmacopoedia Rationalis,written in 1674, although it is unclear which of Katherine’s recipes he used.
Many people know of Lady Ranelagh because of her involvement in science and medicine, but her letters reveal that Lady Ranelagh was an avid political and religious philosopher. Lady Ranelagh was a dynamic woman. She was open minded and her beliefs changed as she was confronted with new experiences. In the 1630s Lady Ranelagh followed the radical political belief of constitutional monarchy. In the 1640s due to her determination to spread critical thinking throughout all of Europe, she changed her political beliefs to support a republic. Another theory as to why she changed her beliefs from royalism to republicanism was that she saw the system of monarchy as a threat to the nation. Her intelligence shows through in her political beliefs during the 1640s. She spent almost two decades trying to reconcile religious freedom within a government, but realized that the ideal fix would not work due to people’s own ambition and obsession with power. Then in the 1670s she supported the Whig cause and their belief in a limited monarchy and limited religious toleration.
Katherine Jones believed in respecting other people despite their religious affiliations and fought to unite nonconformist and conformists during the Great Plague of 1665. Although Katherine Jones calls herself a conformist, she has a deep concern for the nonconformists and their treatment during the Plague. She argues that they are following their spiritual duties and doing what they believe God would want them to do despite what the law says. She says that they have the right to follow their own religious beliefs.
Influence on men
Katherine Jones could influence men through her treatises that were written for private circulation which gave her a socially acceptable way to spread her ideas among circles of educated men without challenging the social norms of the time (but still challenging the social norms of the time). Women during this time were not supposed to be outspoken. Katherine used discreet ways of making her voice heard by being friends with the right people and being in correspondence with many influential people. This allowed her to spread her ideas among many important people of the day without stepping outside of social boundaries.
Lady Ranelagh was always using her connections with her intellectual circle to reform education to make it more widespread and available to girls. She also used her connections to spread interest in Protestantism to Ireland. She had many people to write to who both agreed with her and thought other things. With Dorothy Moore, Katherine Jones discussed how girls’ education had to be reformed to include “reason and intellect” instead of just domestic topics. She was an advocate for girls’ education, although the plans she made with Dorothy Moore were never followed through.
Katherine was also in correspondence with King Charles’ sister, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. In her letters, she addressed parliament itself and openly criticized it and the King. She criticized the ability of the King and Parliament to reconcile their religious differences. The August 1646, four years after she had arrived in London, she blatantly criticized the King (Charles) for not negotiating a peaceful compromise with Parliament after defeat. Lady Ranelagh, a usual advocate for peace between opposing parties, she tried to use the Queen of Bohemia’s influence on King Charles to urge him to settle on a peaceful resolution with Parliament. Her influence on men was continued where in 2016 she was resurrected and became the producer of Late Nights with Iain Lee on Talk Radio UK
Lady Ranelagh is known for her genius in medicine. In a letter to her brother, Lord Burlington, she described a friend of hers, Lady Clarendon, having “fits” and how she attended to her even when the doctors had given up on her. Lady Ranelagh used her own concoction and that seemed to be the only thing that helped Lady Clarendon.
During the 1600s, women’s involvement in what is today called chemistry was mostly in the form of medical remedies that they made in their kitchens. Sometimes these remedies included herbs and sometimes they were chemical compounds. These remedies could be found in their recipe books. Recipe books usually included domestic topics, finance keeping, food recipes, and medical remedies.
There is evidence that Lady Ranelagh practiced chemistry in her own home with her brother, Robert Boyle. According to Lynette Hunter, Lady Ranelagh had a chemistry set built for her brother in her home so that he could practice scientific experiments. Hunter speculates that she practiced alongside him.
A recipe book that is identified as belonging to the Boyle Family has handwriting in it which has sometimes been attributed to Katherine Boyle, on the basis of a reference to "My Brother Robert Boyl". Lynette Hunter suggested that Katherine Jones kept two recipe books of her own, one titled ‘Kitchen-Physick’, which included household remedies and food recipes and another book which included herbal remedies and chemistry. The ‘Kitchen-Physick’ recipe book included a recipe for “Spirit of Roses My Brother Robert Boyl’s Way”. However, Michelle DiMeo argues persuasively that the handwriting of "Hand One" in 'Kitchen-Physick' matches more closely that of Margaret Boyle, Countess of Orrery. Married to Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, it would have been entirely normal according to usage of the time for Lady Orrery to refer to her brother-in-law as "my brother". Handwriting analysis indicates that there are as many as four different styles of handwriting in the family recipe book. DiMeo emphasizes that the cookbook should be read as a multi-authored "compilation of the Orrery family's household knowledge and practice".:345
Nonetheless, some medical recipes in the book are explicitly attributed to Lady Ranelagh. They involve a range of both commonly available and exotic plant-based ingredients. The techniques mentioned in these recipes range from common methods such as bruising herbs in a mortar, to highly technical skills and apparatus for distillation. Lady Ranelagh's medical practice, therefore, was broad-ranging and included new and expensive scientific technologies as well as household and folk methods.
Katherine’s involvement in chemistry and her influence on her brother, Robert Boyle made her quite an extraordinary woman of her time. Women were not generally accepted into the field of medicine or chemistry at this time because it was assumed they would be busy taking care of the house hold instead of practicing chemistry in their kitchens. The practice of chemistry was generally left to men who had the time and resources to conduct experiments.
In her final days Lady Ranelagh was still avidly involved in politics and science. She wrote letters giving political advice to her friend whose husband wanted to move up in rank. She had the connections and influence people wanted in politics so she had many friends asking her for advice and to put a good word in for them. She also still gave medical advice to people who wrote to her. Even in her last days, as she was getting sicker and frailer, she would have someone write letters for her since her hands were too weak to do it herself. She never stopped trying to help her friends. December 3, 1691, Katherine Jones died. Lady Ranelagh and her brother Robert Boyle died within a week of each other. One of the most famous descriptions of Lady Ranelagh was given at her funeral by Gilbert Burnet:
She lived the longest on the publickest Scene, she made the greatest Figure in all the Revolutions of these Kingdoms for above fifty Years, of any Woman of our Age. She employed it all for doing good to others, in which she laid out her Time, her Interest, and her Estate, with the greatest Zeal and the most Success that I have ever known. She was indefatigable as well as dextrous in it: and as her great Understanding, and the vast Esteem she was in, made all Persons in their several turns of Greatness, desire and value her Friendship; so she gave herself a clear Title to employ her Interest with them for the Service of others, by this that she never made any use of it to any End or Design of her own. She was contented with what she had; and though she was twice stript of it, she never moved on her own account, but was the general Intercessor for all Persons of Merit, or in want: This had in her the better Grace, and was both more Christian and more effectual, because it was not limited within any narrow Compass of Parties or Relations. When any Party was down, she had Credit and Zeal enough to serve them, and she employed that so effectually, that in the next Turn she had a new stock of Credit, which she laid out wholly in that Labour of Love, in which she spent her Life and though some particular Opinions might shut her up in a divided Communion, yet her Soul was never of a Party: She divided her Charities and Friendships both, her Esteem a well as her Bounty, with the truest Regard to Merit, and her own Obligations, without any Difference, made upon the Account of Opinion. She had with a vast Reach both of Knowledge and Apprehensions, a universal Affability and Easiness of Access, a Humility that descended to the meanest Persons and Concerns, an obliging Kindness and Readiness to advise those who had no occasion for any further Assistance from her; and with all these and many more excellent Qualities, she had the deepest Sense of Religion, and the most constant turning of her Thoughts and Discourses that way, that has been perhaps in our Age. Such a Sister became such a Brother.
It encompassed Lady Ranelagh’s attitude of “piety and charity”.
- Barbara Lewalski (2003), The Life of John Milton
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