top of page
  • Writer's picturePARLIAMENT NEWS


By Tyne O’Connell Historian and Archivist

Normally, history is told by and about men, women appearing only in the footnotes and shadows as the help-meets, sisters and wives of Great Men. It is only by exploring the history of British and Irish Salon Culture solely based on source archives that the lie becomes clear. The prejudice of Victorian historians has seen most of the once celebrated women disappear from the pages of history books. The Victorian historiography crafted by straight Anglo- Saxon men; Thomas Carlyle and Babington Macauley deliberately erased the Iconic women and eccentrics of history, in an attempt to create a heroic linear narrative based on Calvinist morality and dominated by men like themselves. British Salons provided women with a voice and ushered in an age of visibility for women that influenced the Stuart monarchy and powerful men in a position to effect change.

Lady Elizabeth Montagu (b.1668/1669)

Mention salon culture in Britain and it is the famous Regency salon hosted on this very square by Elizabeth Montagu (b. 1718 - d.1800), or “Queen of the Blues” as she was known by her detractors. By the end of the 1750’s the Montagu Circle established itself as the cultural and intellectual backdrop of the Regency.

The Montague Circle was originally hosted in her house on Hill Street, Mayfair but as demand grew, Elizabeth built a grand palace on the N.E. corner of Portman Square. It was here that her weekly salons hosted in her famous peacock feather lined bedroom, drew crowds of up to two hundred and sometimes more. These lively salons were attended by eccentrics from across the arts, sciences, banking and royalty. They came to take the pulse on the latest trends, quaff saucers of champagne and sip cups of tea whilst listening to the new ideas of the beau monde, listening to discussions about the latest discoveries, fashions and social trends and enjoying the latest opera singers. Salons offered the possibility for artists and scientists to meet patrons and for patrons to take part in lively cultural and intellectual discussions.

(King George III c 1765: Allan Ramsay| Queen Charlotte 1781: Thomas Gainsborough)

Mixing the leading figures of the arts with philosophers, historians, and scientists enabled the different spheres to inspire and nurture one another. The Montagu Salon’s attendance list reads like a whose who of the age; Madame De Stael, Fanny Burney, Queen Charlotte, Elizabeth Carter, Ignatius Sancho, Thomas Coutts, Angelica Kauffman RA, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds RA, David Garrick, Horace Warpole and the famed collector the Duchess of Portland, the richest woman in Britain. As chairs ran out, guests lounged on the floor, not that this deterred celebrities and royals attending as guests including Lord Byron, Beau Brummell and on at least one occasion, King George III attest.

Unlike European Salons, British and Irish Salons (which were referred to as Circles) were open to eccentric thinkers, artists and philosophers regardless of class, gender, religion, sexuality and race. It was this unique mix that kept the tradition of salon culture alive for centuries. in the pursuit of the new ideas and talent which had shaped the Modern Age from 1603, through to the contemporary.

For the Montagu Circle, though dynamic and crucial in impacting change throughout society, was not the first salon in Britain but rather part of a continuum tradition of salons hosted by extraordinary women, spanning centuries. Eccentric Salons such as the Montagu Circle have been the crucible for new ideas, discoveries and the latest artistic movements, shaping British society for centuries.

The influence of British and Irish salons gave them the power to effect real social change in the emancipation of women, the emancipation of Ireland, the abolition of slavery, the education of women, free co-education schools for all, feminism and the birth of the anti-vivisection movement in the 1650s.

The start of Salon Culture was triggered in the late Elizabethan Era, following Elizabeth’s closure of theatres, her harsh censorship laws and criminalisation of cross-dressing, undertaken following pressure from the powerful, rich, Puritan minority. As a result playwrights and players were forced out of London and other major towns to seek a living, fuelling the birth of cultural and scientific salons in the great noble houses of Britain and Ireland. Salons were hosted by eccentric women patrons, who were both patrons and accomplished participants in the arts and sciences in their own right. As well as the players and playwrights, salons welcomed an array of artists, musicians, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, writers, and eccentrics seeking a safe environment and patronage in which they were free to pursue or perform their scientific investigations, invigorate new ideas, philosophical discussions, music, opera and ballet.

Wilton House - The Double Cube Room. The 9th Earl placed the painting by van Dyck of Charles I’s children Credit: Will Pryce/Country Life

The first famous salon was the Wilton Circle, hosted at Wilton House near Salisbury by Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (27 October 1561 – 25 September 1621)who was a celebrated mathematician, scientist and poet herself. The Wilton Circle set the tone for the salons that followed. It remains the most famous of all the salons throughout history and was attended by all the leading figures of the Early Modern Era. It’s attendance included the world’s first author of a full length work of prose fiction; Mary Wroth, playwright; Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s muse and the first transgender celebrity; Mall Frith, the first woman to publish her own plays under her own name; Elizabeth Carey, architect; Inigo Jones and the father of Science; Sir Francis Bacon along with the other leading figures of the day.

The reason the Wilton Circle became famous throughout Europe and Africa is due to its huge impact in shaping the enormous changes and progress of the Early Modern Era and the revolutionary impact it had in progressing the visibility and voice of women.

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, 24th March 1603, Britain and Ireland’s first openly gay King James VI of Scotland was declared King James I - the first monarch to rule over England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The news sheets pronounced him “Arthur Retborn!” Announcing, “The Queen is Dead! Long Live Queen James.”

His colourful court travelled from Edinburgh, lead by 1000 white horses as Merlin predicted King Arthur would return to unite all four kingdoms. The king made rest stops at the noble houses along the way to London where he experienced Salon Culture for the first time. Scotland was a puritan country then and James was impressed and delighted by the lively discourse, scientific experiments and especially the theatrical entertainments he experienced. His journey was documented by the news sheets and Chronicles, published throughout the kingdom.

Upon hearing the king was being entertained by her youngest son in Salisbury, Mary Herbert wrote to him, telling her son to bring the new king and his court to Wilton House. In case further inducement was needed, and knowing of the new king’s passion for theatre, Mary Herbert ended her missive with the words; “tell him we have the man Shakespeare with us.”

That Shakespeare should happen to be at Wilton House was not unusual given it was commonly known that her son, William Herbert was the Bard’s lover and Mary herself his patron. Shakespeare even dedicated two thirds of his 154 Love Sonnets published in 1609 to W.H - William Herbert. The remaining third were dedicated to another Wilton Circle regular and Shakespeares, close friend, the playwright and poet, Lady Mary Wroth who was also Sir William Herbert’s Lover. Mary Herbert Countess of Pembroke’s Wilton Circle became the hub of the The Arts and new ideas in the Early

Modern Era as women, eccentrics and LGBTQ thinkers and artists emerged from the shadows to hold starring roles. The Wilton Circle set the format for the cultural and intellectual salons that nurtured the cultural and scientific advances, ideas and discoveries of the eccentric women and LGBTQs who pioneered the New Modern Era.

Salons provided a safe place for women, LGBTQs, subversive thinkers and eccentrics to explore new ideas, the arts and fashion over saucers of champagne and later cups of tea.

Furthermore, salons eschewed the divisive topics of religion and politics to focus on the arts, philosophy and pleasure, discussions remained free-flowing and unrestricted. Coffee Shops on the otherhand were steeped in hardline Calvinist principles and focused on Religion and Politics, banned women and alcohol, deeming both as ungodly and over the first forty years of the century were the source of much propaganda against salons and the more liberal changes and progressive direction of society.

It was in 1603 at Wilton House that King James I witnessed the first staging of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It; which like most plays had been banned

(staid) by the Stationers Register under Elizabeth. James put an end to the censorship of plays altogether through his first proclamation as monarch on 15th May 1603. He absolved playwrights from censorship of their work in order to stage it and the obligation to register their plays with the Stationers Register until they were ready to publish their work.

Unlike public theatres in which all rolls were performed by men, the plays staged in the great houses enabled women to act alongside men. As part of the hands-on tradition of the Wilton Circle, King James I and Queen Anna joined in with Inigo Jones and the other artisans, actors and aristocrats in creating the lavish sets and costumes for plays and performances. The new

King and Queen delighted in performing too, often taking the lead alongside other luminaries of the age.

The time King James and his court spent immersed in the salon culture of Wilton House, where talent and eccentricity were afforded an intrinsic value beyond class or gender, greatly affected the wider social changes of 17th Century society such as the visibility of women, fashion across all classes, women putting their work to their own writing and discoveries, the birth of celebrity, the invention of champagne, high-heel shoes, fashion and the eccentric.

James VI and I (1566-1625) - RCIN 401186 - Royal Collection

King James I, his first act as monarch was the abolition of the Sumptuary Laws which had rigidly controlled what colours, textiles and styles people could and couldn’t wear based on class and gender. For centuries, Fashion Police had roamed the streets of the kingdom, issuing fines for transgressions. This had a revolutionising impact on society and signified the birth of Fashion as an art-form and the celebration of individuality. Fashion became a means to express oneself and identify one’s ideas. One of the big trends of the abolition of Sumptuary Laws was the rise in cross-dressing as women used apparel to defy the restrictions imposed on women. It would be a hundred years before other European countries dispensed with their Sumptuary Laws.

One of Mary Herbert’s scientific breakthroughs in the Wilton Circle was the invention of “disappearing ink” which would prove useful not only to spies but for women to communicate their subversive ideas to one another without detection by husbands and fathers.

In the first half of the 17th Century, science was still a revolutionary branch of

philosophy, and due to salons, women were at the forefront of the new

discoveries of the Scientific Revolution.

Salons became incubators for a plethora of significant achievements that would shape the traditions and character of the United Kingdom and its people. Many of these achievements signify the start of women emerging from the darkness of the Medieval into the light of the Early Modern Era.

Two of the significant achievements were made by women who went on to be celebrated figures of the 17th Century and beyond, yet both these women and their achievements were ghosted by Victorian historians.

Mary Wroth (1587 - c 1652)

Mary Wroth (1587 - c 1652) was a prolific writer and close friend of Shakespeare, the two sharing a lover in William Herbert, Mary Wroth is believed to be the Dark Lady to whom he dedicated a third of his sonnets. Her most famous work is histories first, full-length work of romantic prose- fiction, Urania published in two volumes. She scandalously published in 1621 Urania under her own name - another first.

Elizabeth Cary (née Tanfield; 1585–1639) Countess of Falkland another member of the Wilton Circle was only 17 when she published her full length play in 1611, The Tragedie of Mariam, performed in the same year by Shakespeare and the King's Men. Cary was not the first woman to write a play but she was to the first woman to publish her play under her own name which caused a puritan frenzy throughout the kingdom when she finally registered The Tragedie of Mariam with the Stationers Registry which triggered a bombardment of puritan pamphlets calling for the banning of Cary’s play and her imprisonment. They attacked her viscously for shaming her husband with her writing and her audacity of publishing the text under her own name. Even her own husband wanted her imprisoned in the tower but after a day she was released and more women were emboldened by her example.

Cary was fluent in several European languages and a talented Classics

scholar; translating Ancient Latin and Greek texts. Her play, The Tragedie of Mariam was widely circulated throughout her lifetime and remained popular for over a century thanks largely to her daughters who ensured its continued publication.

Unfortunately, the wealthy hardline puritan minority became increasingly angered by the growing visibility and boldness of women. They retaliated with endless pamphlets and publications warning of the threat to decency posed by the growing freedoms, new ideas and specifically the ungodly behaviour of women and the debauchery of theatres.

By 1642 the freedoms brought by James I and Charles I, the prevalence of theatres which were spread throughout the city and ran day and night. The rising visibility of women and tolerance for cross-dressing and transgenderism would eventually immerse the kingdom in a Civil War between Anglicans and Puritans joined by hard-line Protestants. This ultimately resulted in the execution of King Charles I and creation of the Puritan Military Dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. Salons along with theatres, fashion, taverns, alcohol, opera, singing dancing children’s toys along with Christmas were criminalised. The population were forced to wear the Puritan uniform and women were silenced and confined once more to the shadows.

During the Civil Wars, British and Irish Salon culture relocated to Europe. By 1649 after Cromwell’s execution of Charles I, 20,000 exiles had fled to Europe to seek refuge during the decade of Oliver Cromwell’s abolition of democracy until they returned with the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Henceforth salon culture continued in Britain and Ireland without pause, throughout the centuries. One of the last famous salons being the early 20th Century Bloomsbury Circle of Virginia Woolf.

Margaret Cavendish, 1665

One of these royalists was the scientist, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (b1623-1673), a literary and scientific celebrity who first made headlines with her outlandish fashions. Puritans in Britain were outraged by her outlandish costumes and she was known to go about bear breasted with her nipples painted red. Margaret Cavendish spearheaded the leading ideas of the Scientific Revolution, including her essays on atoms and her argument against the tradition of science being framed in theological principles. Her scientific discoveries secured her place as one of Britain’s greatest literary celebrities following her publication of the first dystopian novel of history, The Blazing World in 1666 which remains a classic today.

After the 22 year old Margaret Lucas, head of the exiled Dowager Queen Henri’s bedchamber, married the 52-year-old Marquis William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle in 1645 in Versailles, she set up her own salon in Paris where the Royal Court of King Charles II resided, and later when King Charles II and his court moved, in Antwerp.

The Newcastle Circle became the most famous salon of Europe, attracting other Royalist exiles as well as the greatest European thinkers of the day, attended by Descartes, Digby and Locke, and numerous others. The Newcastle Circle kept the flame of the British and Irish salons burning throughout the Puritan Military Dictatorship in which Cromwell. Why is her name no longer in the science textbooks inspiring future generations of women in science to dare?

Sir Kenelm Digby

One of her salon regulars was Sir Kenelm Digby who was the scientist, glass- maker, poet and fencer who had created the méthode champenoise by adapting the method for cider making. In 1633 he had created the hardened glass able to withstand the second fermentation process and designed the champagne-wine bottle and the champagne coupe and flutes we use today.

Anthony van Dyck, Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby

In 1632 while grieving his beloved wife Venetia whose dying had prompted the famous Van Dyck to paint his famous portrait as she lay her dying on bed.

Digby had invented the method of adding sugar in the second fermentation process to ensure the bubbles that the French were still working to eradicate, believing bubbles spoilt the integrity and taste of wine.

From 1633 sparkling champagne had became the drink of the British and Irish Salons even whilst exiled in Europe where it was known as vin Anglais. It would be over a century before the French began to appreciate the bubbles of champagne.

Margaret Cavendish’s scientific work is important in that anticipated the later work of Thomas Hobbs and David Hume. A patron of Descartes, Hooke & other philosophical luminaries, Margaret Cavendish was a leading scientific influencer in her own right. She was the first to argue for the rights of animals and demand anti-vivisection laws, arguing a man was only as noble as how well he treated his least loved horse or dog.

She was the first person to write about atoms in her 1653 book Poems and Fancies and Philosophical Fancies. Her publisher was Martin and Allestyre, at the Bell in St. Paul’s Churchyard, a well-regarded publisher of the age. Ultimately, they became the official publisher for the Royal Society which closed its doors to women entirely after Margaret Cavendish’s first and last visit in 1664.

The first fifty pages of her book were devoted to expounding her atomic theory of nature.

“Small Atomes of themselves a World may make, As being subde, and of every shape:

And as they dance about, fit places finde, Such Formes as best agree, make every kinde. ... Severall Figur'd Atomes well agreeing.

When joyn'd, do give another Figure being. For as those Figures ioyned, severall waies. The Fabrick of each severall Creature raise.”

The scandal her book created wasn’t based on her gender alone. Poems and Fancies was a highly individual work at odds with the prevailing taste for mannered, artful writing. Margaret's prose was impassioned and deeply personal. Her shocking love scenes such as when amorous Night persuades the Earth to commit adultery with him were full of the fierce boldness of a true poet.

"For God's sake, if you meet with it, send it me," one young woman begged her fiancé upon the books publication. She inspired the women of Cromwell’s Puritan Dictatorship to dare to dream beyond their lives as men’s chattels.

Fascinated, readers rushed to buy copies. Publication of her work violated a mass of conventions about feminine propriety under Cromwell’s new moral laws which forbade women the increasing liberty they had enjoyed under Charles I and his father James 1603-1649.

Margaret's first volume of English poetry required no publicity, for word spread that the outrageous aristocrat's writing was "ten times more extravagant than her dress!” Thousands of column inches were devoted to the extraordinary eccentricity of her costumes. From a young age she had used fashion as a means to express her ideas treating clothing as a form of sartorial literature. Her costumes were often as wide as they were tall and caused women to faint and in the case of Pepys, “ejaculate”. Any one of her costumes would cause a sensation today even as a conceptual art installation.

Finally after centuries of women appearing only in the footnotes of history as the help-meets and chattels of men and having their work appropriated by men, women were finally emerging as the leading figures of the 17th Century. Known as “The Century That Wrote Itself”, the mass spread of print machines enabled women to finally step out of the shadows and into the spotlight of history.

The scandal her book created wasn’t based on her gender alone. Poems and Fancies was a highly individual work at odds with the prevailing taste for mannered, artful writing. Margaret's prose was impassioned and deeply personal. Her shocking love scenes, such as when amorous Night persuades the Earth to commit adultery with him, were full of the fierce boldness of a true poet.

After the Restoration in 1660 the Royal Society and other fledgling scientific institutions were established, firmly locking the ideas of science behind male only fortresses into which only the ideas and discoveries of gentlemen were allowed. Nevertheless even the Royal Society welcomed Margaret Cavendish who was too important a figure in science to be snubbed. She was invited to visit the society but after the furore her visit created it would be 1949 before another woman was deemed intelligent enough to join the men in the investigations and discoveries of science.

Far from killing off salon culture, the eccentric salons hosted by women became more important than ever in the Restoration, even for the “gentlemen” of the Royal Society. For Salons offered something the institutions couldn’t due to the rich interplay salons offered between the arts, philosophy and science that was responsible for spearheading new art-forms, new ideas, discoveries and inventions

Aphra Behn nee Amis Aphra Behn (1640-1689)

Another extraordinary women to emerge from the salons of the Restoration was the famous lesbian writer, Aphra Behn nee Amis Aphra Behn (1640-1689) who was a celebrity and household name for her bravery in leading a slave rebellion in Surinam during the early years of the Restoration of 1660 before she became the greatest playwright of the Restoration.

In Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room Of One’s Own, she declared. “All women ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it is she who earned all women the right to speak our mind”

From age 19, Aphra was a spy in Surinam and later Antwerp. With her fluency in European languages, Agent 160, Codename: Astrea spied for the Stuarts with the cover of a fake husband (to provide a cloak of propriety) before she eventually became a playwright and the first writer of history to manage to make a living through writing.

Aphra was the first author of a full length novel in 1689. Oronooko was a best seller for centuries and remains in print today. Despite being buried in 1689 in Westminster under her chosen code name Astrea, this was later seen as unseemly by Victorians and her gravestone was altered to the name of a Dutch husband who had never existed, merely invented as part of her spy cover in Antwerp because it was considered improper for a spinster to be buried in Westminster.


“Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.”

Sometime in the 18th Century Thomas Waine assed these lines.

“Great Poetess, O thy stupendous lays The world admires and the Muses praise.

Surely these great women and LGBTQ figures of the Eccentric Salons who shaped the British and Irish character customs and traditions should be celebrated by historians to inspire future generations of women, LGBTQ and eccentrics?

Where is Lady Elinor Fettiplace whose recipe for clotted cream first published in 1604 remains an essential part of British Tea?

Mall Frith

Where is Mall Frith, the first transgender celebrity and Shakespheare’s muse who became Mal as a child and whose eccentric lifestyle inspired many plays about his life, one of which has survived and is regularly performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Roaring Girl 1610. Written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. Mal played the lead role and the play toured

all of Britain and Ireland, turning Mal into a household name throughout the kingdoms inspiring 25% of women to cross-dress.

Why is the Mother of Modern Science, Margaret Cavendish nee Lucas (1623-1677), the woman who spearheaded the Scientific Revolution through her bold insistence that scientific discovery and theory should not be framed in theology, not featured in the scientific textbooks today?

Despite the celebrity status of these eccentrics in their time, they suffered endless verbal and physical attacks by Puritan terrorists for their fresh ideas and achievements. Armed with the bravery of their ideas, these women and Eccentric Salons changed the shape of history by inspiring women and eccentrics to cut a line of their own, defying gender stereotypes. It is this that makes salon culture so important, for it keeps the flame of eccentricity burning, whilst keeping history honest.


bottom of page