Lady of the Butterflies: Behind the Scenes 

Scroll Down

The seventeenth century is wonderful period to write about - a turbulent, savage, vibrant age that provides the most fascinating backdrop for historical fiction.

 

Madness and the Mysterious Lady Glanville
Lady Eleanor Glanville is now recognized as a distinguished entomologist.

Her life and work have been the subject of much research by historians,

yet she remains as she is often referred to - the 'mysterious Lady Glanville,

who gained happiness from natural history in the midst of great fear and sorrow.’

 

Her ancestors are part of a distinguished Yorkshire family, descended from

Alfred the Great. Eleanor's father was a Roundhead major who received the King's pardon for his part in the Civil War and her mother inherited the medieval manor of Tickenham Court, in Somerset, where Eleanor was born. 

 

When her relations, led by her son, Forest, tried to seize control of her estate it became a cause celebré.

 

Eleanor Glanville is known to have collected butterflies extensively at a time when it was unusual for anyone, let alone a woman to pursue entomology. She kept accurate records of lepidopterous larvae and food plants and reared a number of species which are still identifiable from her careful descriptions. Startling as it was for any woman to collect butterflies at all, for her to match the experts with rarities and even unknown species was unique.

 

Her surviving collections and some of her correspondence with leading entomologist James Petiver are preserved in the Natural History Museum.

 

James Petiver (1663-1718) is known as the 'father of entomology'. He was the first to give butterflies English names, many of which - Brimstones, Admirals, Agues, Tortoiseshells - are still used to this today and it is with his catalogues and preserved specimens that the documented history of butterflies begins.

 

Science and Superstition

The intellectual changes which occurred during the second half of the Seventeenth Century have become known as the Scientific Revolution. The Royal Society was founded in 1662 and 'natural philosophers' gathered to discussed astronomy, physics, alchemy and mathematics. Country mansions were filled with 'curios' and there was a great desire to collect, categorise and catalogue and bring order out of the chaos of the natural world.

 

Magic and Metamorphosis

As such, the Seventeenth Century was an age of entomological pioneering. With every parish containing ancient woods of warm, sheltered, flower-filled glades, there was a far greater abundance of butterflies than today, with many species as yet unnamed. But it was nowhere near the fashionable pursuit it would become in the 1700s and during the reign of Queen Victoria.

 

The earliest collectors like James Petiver, John Ray and Hans Sloane were amongst the first fellows of the Royal Society but still, in the Stuart Age, a butterfly net was a badge of oddness, with male collectors being accused of going bug hunting because he hadn't the spirit to follow the fox. 

 

Anyone who took an interest in butterflies was the subject of pity and derision and often misunderstood, or worse - one of Petiver's hunters was suspected of practising witchcraft and necromancy, since butterflies were thought to represent the souls of the dead. The process of metamorphosis was still a mystery, and was cause for much speculation. It was put forward as proof that alchemy was possible, that werewolves existed, and that God, the creator, did not, since it was generally believed that caterpillars were 'birthed' by leaves, by way of 'spontaneous generation’.

 

The isolated, mist-shrouded, half-drowned villages of Somerset - named Land of the Summer people, on account of the fact that much of it was flooded during the winter months - often seethed with resentments, grudges, suspicion and prejudice. And a woman who dared to forsake domesticity in favour of learning and science and what were considered 'masculine' pursuits', was especially prey to ridicule and superstition.

 

Civil War, Riot and Rebellion

The years of Lady Eleanor Glanville's life (1654 - 1709) encompasses a time of great change, instability and conflict in England. When Eleanor was born the country had been torn apart by bloody civil, Cromwell ruled the land as Lord Protector and Christmas was forbidden. Four years later, King Charles II was restored to the throne and presided over a court that puritans despised for its debauchery and decadence. The period until his death and the accession of James II in 1685 was almost as turbulent as the previous decades, marked by hatred and fear of Catholics that resulted in the Popish Plot and the Rye House Plot. There were two Dutch wars, the Great Plague and the Fire of London. Then, in 1688, came more upheaval and what is now termed the Glorious Revolution, which saw King James overthrown and the joint rule of William and Mary.

 

In Eleanor's home county of Somerset, wars continued late into the century, and brother turned once more against brother in the Monmouth Rebellion, which ended in the slaughter that was the Battle of Sedgemoor. Traditionally regarded as the last hand-to-hand battle to be fought on English soil, it resulted in what became known as the Bloody Assizes, the retribution of Judge Jefferies, which saw hundreds put to death at gallows all across the west country.

©2019 by Fiona Mountain.