Two remarkable 17th Century women for International Women’s Day



As it’s International Women’s Day today let’s take a look at two very different but equally remarkable 17th Century women – Brilliana, Lady Harley and Nzinga Mbandi, the Queen of Ndongo and Matamba – who should be remembered for their strength and fortitude in the face of great hardship and prejudice.

Brilliana, Lady Harley

Brilliana, Lady Harley was a 17th Century heroine in the English Civil War who defended her home at Brampton Bryan from Royalist forces.

Born in 1598, Brilliana Conway became the fourth wife of Sir Robert Harley in 1623. Her father, Sir Edward Conway, was Secretary of State of England and her husband was his aide.

A deeply religious woman, she was a devote Puritan and when the English Civil War broke out in 1642, she and her family sided with the cause of Parliament.

Unable to return home, Sir Robert ordered his wife to leave for her own safety, but she refused. It was her duty, she said, to uphold her husband’s rights in the county.

A detachment of Royalist troops from nearby Gloucester besieged her home, Brampton Bryan Castle in northwest Herefordshire, but she refused to surrender and defended the castle for months.

From her letters we know many details of what went on in her daily life during the siege – sheep and cattle were plundered and fortifications were dug in her gardens. When the Royalists stole the bells from the town’s church tower during what should have been a truce, Brilliana was quick to order a repulse: ‘We sent some of his Majesty’s good subjects to old Nick for their sacrilege,’ she wrote.

Reluctant to treat her harshly due to her gender, the Royalists tried in vain to get her to yield. Even when a personal letter from King Charles arrived, she was not to be moved. Although relief finally arrived and the siege was lifted – she not only organised her tenants to level the Royalists earthworks but also dispatched 40 troops to raid a local Royalist camp – Royalist forces continued to threaten her safety.

Sadly, Lady Harley died of a cold on 29 October 1643, probably as a result of hardships endured during the siege.

Early in 1644 Brampton Bryan finally surrendered. Brilliana’s younger children, baby Tom and his little sisters Dorothy and Margaret, 11 and 13, were taken into custody but were well treated by the Governor of Ludlow Castle.

Brilliana was a courageous woman who steadfastly refused to conform to her society’s view of women as weak and passive. Her name lives on thanks to her position as a celebrated English letter-writer. As an educated woman versed in several languages, she wrote prodigiously, intelligently, and passionately to her husband and son, keeping Robert informed of local political affairs when he was absent from home.

Nzinga Mbandi, the Queen of Ndongo and Matamba

While the English Civil War was raging in Britain, 4,300 miles away in what would become the African nation of Angola, a woman was also steadfastly protecting her home – but on a remarkable scale.

The story Nzinga Mbandi, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba, is simply incredible. A key figure in African resistance to colonialism, she defined much of the 17th Century history of Angola and is now recognised internationally as a key figure in the period – outstandingly talented in warfare, espionage, trade, alliance-building, and religious matters she held off Portuguese colonialism and defended her country steadfastly until her death in 1663 at the age of 82.

With their slave trade threatened by England and France, the Portuguese shifted down to The Congo and south west Africa. Establishing a fort in 1618 at Ambaca, now in northern Angola, Nzinga’s brother sent her to try to negotiate a Portuguese withdrawal and the return of some of his subjects who had been taken captive.

A famous story says that when meeting with the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Sousa, he did not offer a chair to sit on during the negotiations, instead placing a floor mat for her to sit. Not willing to accept this, Nzinga ordered one of her servants to get down on the ground and sat on the servant’s back during negotiations. By doing this, she asserted her status was equal to the governor, proving her worth as a brave and confident individual.

Nzinga refused to allow Ndongo to become a vassal of Portugal and De Sousa agreed to her terms. She did convert to Christianity, possibly to strengthen the treaty.

But the Portuguese never honoured the treaty. Nzinga’s brother apparently committed suicide shortly afterwards and she assumed control – first as regent of his young son, Kaza, and then in her own right when the child died (she is alleged to have had him killed, but this may have been propaganda distributed by her enemies).

Forging an alliance with the Dutch in 1641, Nzinga defeated the Portuguese in 1644 at Ngoleme. Unable to follow up on the victory, her forces were defeated two years later at Kavanga but she rallied and, with Dutch reinforcements, routed a Portuguese army in 1647 before laying siege to the Portuguese capital of Masangano. Using troops from Brazil, the Portuguese then recaptured Luanda and forced Nzinga back to Matamba in 1648, from where she resisted the Portuguese well into her sixties and personally leading troops into battle.

In 1657, Nzinga signed a peace treaty with Portugal and attempted to rebuild her nation, resettling former slaves and allowing women to bear children.

Legends of Nzinga extend outside of her brilliant military tactics and political strategy. In Philosophy in the Boudoir, the Marquis de Sade wrote that Nzinga “immolated her lovers,” obtaining a large, all-male harem after she became queen and having each man she slept with killed after their carnal encounter. Though there is no way of knowing if there is truth to these rumors, there is no denying Nzinga was a ruthless ruler, unafraid of sacrificing men who came in her way. – Atlas Obscura

Despite numerous efforts to dethrone her, Nzinga died a peaceful death at the age of eighty on 17 December 1663 in Matamba.

Today, she is remembered in Angola for her political and diplomatic acumen, great wit and intelligence, as well as her brilliant military tactics. In time, Portugal and most of Europe would come to respect her. A major street in Luanda is named after her, and a statue of her was placed in Kinaxixi on an impressive square in 2002, dedicated by President Santos to celebrate the 27th anniversary of independence. Angolan women are often married near the statue, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. – Wikipedia


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