Lady of Spain: A Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria

Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria

Country Life

This book plunges you into the dark, confusing mindset of a 16th-century Europe divided between two antagonistic belief systems. Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I were the first British women to rule as crowned monarchs in their own right, overseeing the brutal execution of hundreds of their own subjects for professing the rival faith. The principal difference between the Catholic and Protestant persecutions was slight: during Elizabeth’s reign, Catholic martyrs were hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn crossroads; during Mary’s reign, leading Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake at Smithfield’s meat market. The actions of the Queens’ various councillors and spy-masters remain fascinatingly opaque, although both fake conspiracies and real plots informed the final chill decisions of state. Which is why this life of an obscure Spanish duchess brings such unexpected enchantment.

Jane Dormer, who was English through and through, was one of those rare souls who rose above the murderous passions of her age. She clearly married her bluff Spanish soldier husband for love; their wedding was held in secret, after the death of Mary had removed any political advantage from the match. However, she had the good manners to take her formal leave of Elizabeth as she left England.

Sir John Hawkins in 1581, aged 44. (National Maritime Museum.) Jane Dormer helped him escape the clutches of the Inquisition.

Jane clearly listened to some mad plots in her long life, but was wise enough to never put anything down in writing. She concerned herself with getting hostages returned, releasing prisoners of war and delicately chiding monarchs into paying promised pensions. She was invariably more successful in getting things done as a genuine Catholic exile trusted by the King of Spain than any of England’s official ambassadors, but even with them she found something in common, if only how to liven up her Spanish kitchen with English cheese and butter, imported with the aid of a bureaucrat working for the Spanish Inquisition.

Simon Courtauld is the perfect narrator, intimate with both the landscapes of Spain and the dense tapestry of English dynastic politics.

The English lady exiled in Spain out of love

Duchess of Feria

The Daily Telegraph

A slow train used to take all day from Madrid to reach the little town of Zafra in Extremadura. The indefatigable hispanophile Simon Courtauld told me about it 30 years ago or more, enthusing about the Plaza Grande and the Plaza Chica, not then marred by loud music from bars.

A 17th c. view of Zafra by Israël Silvestre

Zafra has a curious connection with England because Jane Dormer, a lady in waiting to Queen Mary Tudor, married a Spaniard in the entourage of the Queen’s king-consort Philip. She left England in a ship stuffed with relations, retainers and horses in 1559, never to return. But she lived until 1612, the last 40 of her 74 years as a widow administering huge estates and negotiating the tangle of exiled Catholic politics.

Her steward Henry Clifford wrote a life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, but it is vague on dates and gives no explanations. Now Simon Courtauld has delved away to produce a proper biography, Lady of Spain.

Clifford didn’t exaggerate her standing, for Courtauld reproduces a letter from Queen Elizabeth, half in her own hand, remonstrating at her absence from England but calling herself her “friend and sovereign”.

The Duchess even wrote to James VI before he came to the English throne, telling him to become a Catholic, following it up with another friendly letter as though she had not committed lese-majesty.

Almost a monarch on her estates, she dealt with the machinations of spies, zealots, popes and kings. An English ambassador brought her cheese, on the grounds that they both hated Spanish food, though a recipe book she left showed a liking for bizcochos (sponge fingers) and marmolet of quinces.

I’d thought she’d presided over events mostly at Zafra, but Courtauld cites a secondary source saying she kept to her Madrid house. Her husband planned the Renaissance transformation of Zafra castle as a miniature Escorial, work on which he had inspected with Philip II. The rebuilding was finished by her son.

Her body returned to Zafra at Candlemas 1612, the patronal day of the parish church. There it narrowly escaped a body-snatching plot by the nuns of the convent of Santa Marina, which she had built next to the castle. They reasoned their founder deserved to be buried in their chapel. Only a lock on the coffin and the insistence of the Abbess of Santa Clara, her destined burial place, that it be opened to prove she lay within, ensured that the plot was thwarted.

Courtauld is sympathetic to the woman, but sees the world from a very different angle. He quotes J A Froude (1818-94), whose History of England ends with the defeat of the Armada and Catholicism, declaring that Philip II had a “heart to which an iceberg was warm”, as a man ” to whom love was an unmeaning word”. That’s not my picture of Philip, walking affectionately in the bright private galleries of the Escorial with his children.

No matter. The author fills every page with the people whom Jane Dormer knew, or might have. You need a genealogist’s brain to keep them all in play. The great problem is that the Duchess left tantalisingly little trace. Where there are letters there may be no reply. But there are vivid scenes, such as her visits to the sick in old age, leaving money done up in paper under their pillows.

Courtauld concludes: “Neither Sir Francis Walsingham nor Lord Burley was ever able to pin anything significant on her.” That may be because, while favouring Mary Queen of Scots, she plotted no treason. Or it might be that those spymasters preferred to monitor her contacts. In a kaleidoscopic world of double agents, Jane Dormer had made her choice and let events blow round her.

The reign in Spain

Jane Dormer in the habit of a nun

The Oldie

Every summer, the English in their millions jet off to Spain, swelling the hundreds of thousands already living out their retirement in the Spanish sun.

In the 16th century, a visit to Spain was a rather less enticing prospect for residents of England, even before the two countries went to war. It wasn’t just the absence of air-conditioning and the stomach-churning passage across the Bay of Biscay. There was also the danger that your beach reading might not get past the bloodhounds of the Inquisition, who nosed through the luggage of new arrivals for unsound texts.

It isn’t surprising that few English men and women at this time voluntarily went to Spain. Those who had no choice in the matter – merchants, sailors, diplomats – made haste to depart at the earliest opportunity (Henry VIII’s ambassador to the Spanish court, Sir Thomas Wyatt, even composed a poem celebrating his recall to England). Yet, for one small group, Spain presented a haven: Catholics unwilling to conform to England’s new Protestant order.

Foremost among these was Jane Dormer, wife of the Duke of Feria, the Spanish grandee who left England shortly after Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne and died in Madrid a full half-century later.

Simon Courtauld’s short new life of Jane not only memorialises this largely forgotten figure, but also casts a sidelight on the motley collection of traditionalists, zealots and chancers who abandoned England for the Spain of Philip II.

Dormer was born into a Catholic gentry family from Buckinghamshire. Then as now, the expectation was that she would marry a suitable Englishman of similar breeding. But a more exotic destiny awaited her. Through family connections, she entered the household of Mary Tudor as lady-in-waiting.

Shortly after becoming queen, her mistress married Prince Philip of Spain (later Philip II). Jane caught the eye of his confidant, the Count of Feria, a blunt yet dutiful aristocrat 15 years her senior.

Gomez Suárez de Figueroa y Córdoba, 5th Count and 1st Duke of Feria

Courtauld considers it to have been a love match: Jane, a contemporary wrote, was ‘of shuche lively hewe that who so fedes his eyes on her may sone her bewte vue’, and Feria was duly smitten.

Yet, while the marriage brought Feria no financial gain, Jane did possess one crucial asset: information. Philip was absent from England for most of his four-year marriage to Mary and depended on Feria, whom he left behind for periods at Mary’s court, to supply him with intelligence about his wife. Few were better placed to procure it than Jane.

Jane and Feria (who was raised to the rank of duke in 1567) married shortly after Mary’s death in November 1558, before the possibility of a Catholic wedding was ruled out. Feria remained briefly in England as Philip’s ambassador to Elizabeth I, but his irascible, plain-speaking style ill suited him for such a role and he was soon replaced. With Jane in tow, he returned to Spain via Flanders and France, where the newly-weds were sumptuously entertained by Mary Stuart and her husband Francis II.

They were accompanied by two dozen attendants and a train of refugee monks, for whom there seemed no future in England. En route, Jane gave birth to their first son.

The book’s most novel parts deal with Jane’s years in Spain, where she lived between her husband’s estate in Extremadura and Philip II’s court in Madrid. At first, she struggled with the weather and the food – she requested consignments of herring, salmon and Shropshire cheese from England – but within a few decades she was producing recipes for Spanish cakes and biscuits.

She became an important figure at Philip II’s court, where the king treated her as an oracle on the inscrutable English queen and she in turn acted as spokeswoman for England’s increasingly downtrodden Catholics.

Although the 16th century is commonly regarded as an era of polarisation, Courtauld shows how Jane was able to a degree to straddle divisions of religion and politics. She remained a pious Catholic throughout her life and provided succour to Catholic exiles in Spain, yet also served as unofficial consul general for English Protestant visitors to the country. She involved herself in intrigues against Elizabeth I, but never formally renounced her allegiance to the queen.

Occasionally, Courtauld exaggerates Jane’s influence. She was never, for instance, a serious candidate to become Philip’s Governor of Flanders after the death in 1571 of her husband (who had been due to take up that office), however noisily the Catholic exiles championed her cause. Dynamic Jane may have been, but in the i6th century women not of the blood royal were still required to operate in the shadows.

Yet, overall, this is a balanced, colourful and revealing biography of a pioneer of Anglo-Spanish living.

“A darline of lively hewe” – Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria

Lady of Spain cover

The Field

Few modern writers know and understand the historical complexities of Spain as well as Simon Courtauld. His Footprints in Spain is a must for anyone wanting a detailed insight into Spanish culture, Catholicism, countryside and the corrida.

Now he brings Spain to the court of Mary Tudor with a biography of Buckinghamshire landed beauty Jane Dormer, who married the leery Duke of Feria, twice her youthful age. “She was a darline of lively hewe,” court poet Richard Edwards recorded.

Here are stories of influential Protestants against Catholics, intrigue, diplomatic missions, even an abortive attempt by a ‘dishonourable adventurer’ called Stukley for the Spanish to invade Ireland. Throughout her life in Spain, Jane Feria championed Catholicism. ‘Her saintly reputation drew many to her deathbed.’ Not so a recent Duke of Feria, imprisoned, so Courtauld tells us in one of many fascinating and amusing asides, ‘for kidnapping and corrupting a young girl’.