The Duchess of Botany

Under the supervision of Professor Simon Hiscock and Dr Richard Coulton (QMUL), India Cole is undertaking an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) project examining Mary Somerset, the first Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715). Somerset pursued botany at her gardens at Beaufort House in London, and at Badminton, her stately home in Gloucestershire. Somerset was a vital part of a wider network of contemporary botanists, with whom she regularly corresponded.

While scholars have acknowledged Somerset’s patronage of botany and horticulture, there has been little engagement on a deeper level, and there are still many archival sources and specific plant specimens that are largely unexamined located between Oxford University Herbaria, the Natural History Museum, the British Library, and Badminton Muniments. This project will rectify that scholarly omission, conscious of Mark Laird’s instructive observation that without such work, we possess ‘only a preliminary and conjectural history of a very significant patron in the realm of flowers’1. Additionally, this project will serve to emphasise the roles of women in the formation of botanical networks and knowledge. Although Somerset was unusually privileged in social and economic terms, she functions as a valuable case-study for uncovering how women during the period engaged as contributors to natural science. Additionally, this project will demonstrate that correspondence, herbaria, and other botanic miscellanea are exceptionally meaningful in their ability to offer timely and crucial historical insights into the roles of natural historians who have previously been overlooked or omitted.

1 Mark Laird, A Natural History of English Gardening (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015).