KATHERINE JONES / Viscountess Ranelagh


Intellectual / Patroness of science & education

1615 - 1691

Youghal / London

Katherine Jones (née Boyle), Viscountess Ranelagh was born in Youghal on 22 March 1615. She was the fifth daughter and seventh child of Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork (1566-1643) and his second wife Catherine Fenton (c.1588 - c.1630). Not much is known about Ranelagh’s educational background, as her father didn’t provide formal education for any of his daughters. In September 1624, when she was 9½ years old, Katherine left her family as she was contracted to marry Sapcott Beaumont, and thus moved to live with his family in Leicestershire. The marriage alliance broke down after Thomas Beaumont’s death when the family asked for an extra £2000 on top of the £4000 dowry already agreed. Thus, Katherine returned home for two years until at age 15 she married Arthur Jones, heir to the first Viscount Ranelagh.

Over the first ten years of their marriage, Katherine and Arthur had four children, Catherine (b. December 1633), Elizabeth (b. 1635), Frances (b. 17 August 1639), and only son Richard (b. 8 February 1641). However, the pair’s marriage was not a happy one, with there even being suggestions of infidelity on Arthur’s part. In 1641, Ranelagh and her four children were besieged in Athlone Castle for many months after the outbreak of the Irish uprising. In a letter to her father, Katherine recounts her experiences of this time, and states that the rebel leader James Dillon, not only offered, but also ensured her safe passage from Athlone to Dublin. After escaping the siege, Katherine moved to London and lived apart from her husband, forging a space for herself to become involved in many intellectual, religious and political activities.

Katherine made the most of her location and connections in London and very quickly became integrated into parliamentarian politics. In 1644, she urged Sir Edward Hyde to try to reconcile the king and parliament. In 1647, she was paid an allowance of 6s. by the House of Lords, and was later granted a pension of £4 by the House of Commons. However, by this time she was disappointed in Charles I’s actions, and expressed this disappointment in a letter to his sister (Queen of Bohemia) dated 7 August 1646. By 1648 she had no faith left in the king and now believed that he should be stripped of most of his powers and that the governance should lie with the parliament.

From 1643, Katherine was closely acquainted with the international correspondence network known as the Hartlib circle. It is believed that it was her aunt Dorothy Moore who persuaded Katherine to support Samuel Hartlib’s endeavours. Ranelagh shared his interest in education and new scientific investigations and was regarded by his circle as a patroness and was often described as the ‘incomparable’ Lady Ranelagh. Between the 1640s and 50s she was involved in Hartlib’s projects for educational reform, chemical and medical investigation and political reform in Ireland. In September 1656, Katherine left England to spend two and a half years in Ireland in order to help in the reclaiming of Boyle family estates in Ireland while also trying to pursue a settlement from her husband. Throughout this time Katherine continued to discourse with Hartlib and his associates, and struck up friendships with Irish based members of the network including William Petty, Miles Symner, and Robert Wood. Katherine returned to England on 15 February 1659 with two of her daughters and upon her arrival in London she continued to pursue her complaints against her husband, and was almost successful until parliament was brought to a premature end.

After the Restoration, Katherine moved to the Pall Mall where she was assigned two houses on the south side by her brother-in-law Charles Rich. In 1668, her youngest brother Robert Boyle (the famous physicist) moved into Katherine’s Pall Mall home, where the pair would live together for the last 23 years of their lives. During Robert’s formative years as a scholar, his sister is said to have guided him in many ways. Arguably her most important intervention was her convincing him not to join Charles I’s Royalist army, but she also guided his academic career by reading drafts of his manuscripts and offering constructive criticism. Thus, it is no surprise that after his move to London, they continued to collaborate on various projects, and her importance to her brother is evidenced by the fact the he appointed her one of the executors of his will, bequeathing her a ring for her to wear in memory of him.  He also intended to give to her his collection of medical recipes in order to ensure that they did not enter the hands of those whom he would not want to have them. However, she predeceased him by one week on 23 December 1691, and both are buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

Throughout her life, various people celebrated Ranelagh’s actions, but none more than Gilbert Burnet, who was the Bishop of Salisbury from 1689 until his death in 1715, was able to encapsulate the impact she had on those she was connected to. While giving the sermon at Robert’s funeral, Burnet took the time to also lament Lady Ranelagh’s recent passing. While Burnet celebrated the pair’s connection by stating that, ‘such a sister became such a brother,’ he also elaborated on Ranelagh’s reputation separate to her brother. He stated that Ranelagh had ‘lived the longest on the publickest Scene, she made the greatest Figure in all the Revolutions of these Kingdoms for above fifty Years, of any Woman of our Age’.  He celebrated her charitable nature and asserted that she went about her endeavours ‘with the greatest Zeal and most Success that [he had] ever known.’ It is clear from his oration that he agreed with those who had described Ranelagh as ‘incomparable.’

Many thanks to Evan Bourke for this herstory.

Image credit: Michelle DiMeo

Primary Sources:

Gilbert Burnet, A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Honorable Robert Boyle (London, 1692).

Letter, Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh to her father Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, 26 December 1642, National Library of Ireland, Ms 43266/20.

Letter, Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh to Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, 3 March 1644, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Clarendon State Papers MSS 23 fol.114.

Letter, Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, 7 August 1647, National Archives London, TS/21/1/43.

The Hartlib Papers Online: https://www.dhi.ac.uk/hartlib/context

Secondary Sources:

Evan Bourke, “A Godly Sybilla, an Erudite Wife and a Burdensome Sister: The Formation and Representation of Women’s Reputations within the Hartlib Circle 1641-1661” (doctoral thesis, National University of Ireland, Galway, 2018).

Evan Bourke, “Female Involvement, Membership and Centrality: A Social Network Analysis of the Hartlib Circle,” Literature Compass 14:4 (2017): 1-17.

Ruth Connolly, “‘A Wise and Godly Sybilla’: Viscountess Ranelagh and the Politics of International Protestantism”, in Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe , ed. by Sylvia Brown (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 285-306.

Ruth Connolly, “A Proselytising Protestant Commonwealth: The Religious and Political Ideals of Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh”, The Seventeenth Century 23 (2008): 244-64.

13 Gilbert Burnet, A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Honorable Robert Boyle (London, 1692).

Ruth Connolly, ‘Viscountess Ranelagh and the Authorisation of Women’s Knowledge in the Hartlib Circle,’ in The Intellectual Culture of Puritan Women, ed.

Johanna Harris and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010): 150-61.

Ruth Connolly, “The Politics of Honor in Lady Ranelagh’s Ireland”, in Women’s Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland, ed. Julie A. Eckerle and Naomi McAreavey (Lincoln: Nebraska, 2019), 137-158.

Michelle DiMeo, “Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (1615-91): Science and Medicine in a Seventeenth-Century Englishwoman’s Writing” (doctoral thesis, University of Warwick, 2009).

Michelle DiMeo, “Openness vs. Secrecy in the Hartlib Circle: Revisiting ‘Democratic Baconianism’ in Interregnum England”, in Secrets and Knowledge: Medicine, Science and Commerce 1500-1800, ed. Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 105-24.

Michelle DiMeo, “‘Such a Sister Became Such a Brother’: Lady Ranelagh’s Influence on Robert Boyle”, Intellectual History Review 25 (2015): 21-36.

Sarah Hutton, “Jones [née Boyle], Katherine, Viscountess Ranelagh (1615–1691), noblewoman associated with the Hartlib circle.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Carol Pal, Republic of Women: Rethinking the Republic of Letters in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).