Elizabeth Trevanion – the Cornishwoman who raised a King

When Charles, the second son of King James I and Anne of Denmark, was born in Scotland in November 1600 he was a sickly baby who grew to be a “weak and backward child”. The Royal physicians feared for his health and yet under the care of Elizabeth Trevanion the boy who would one day be king not only survived but thrived.

So who was this no-nonsense Cornishwoman? And how did she come to be guardian of such a special ward?

The Trevanions of Caerhays

Elizabeth Trevanion was born at Caerhays Castle on the Roseland in c1563, daughter of Hugh Trevanion and Sybilla Morgan. The couple had at least eight children – Edward, John, Hugh, Elizabeth, Charles, Margaret, Katherine and Beatrice. But sadly the three eldest boys all died young, leaving Charles as the only male heir.

Caerhays Castle

The estate had been in the Trevanion family since 1379 and as you might expect Elizabeth had a privileged childhood, her family were well off and very well connected, not only in Cornwall but also nationally.

Her great-great-grandfather, Sir Hugh Trevanion, had fought alongside Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth and had so distinguished himself that it is said that the King knighted him there on the battlefield. Her great-grandfather, William Trevanion, had been a favourite of King Henry VIII, jousting with him in numerous tournaments at Court. While her grandfather, another Hugh, was Sheriff of Cornwall, as was her own father.

“Twelve generations of Trevanions flourished at Carhays [sic] as knights and squires, taking a foremost place in the affairs of the county, serving as sheriffs, magistrates or other Royal commissioners.”

Charles Henderson, Essays inCornish History, 1935

Her family’s influence and far-reaching connections helped Elizabeth secure her first advantageous match to Sir Henry Widdrington of Widdrington in Northumberland in July 1588. We know very little about this marriage, other than the pair had no children and when Henry died in the spring of 1593 it only took Elizabeth a matter of months to find herself a new husband.

The Ambitious Robert Carey

Much of what we know about Elizabeth comes from the diaries of her second husband, Robert Carey, who was also her cousin.

View of Caerhays Castle from Porthlune Cove

Carey (sometimes spelt Cary) was handsome, fashionable and, although not particularly wealthy, he was moving in all the right circles. He was the grandson of Mary Boleyn, the infamous Anne’s sister, making him a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I.

Marriage to him was another step up the social ladder for Elizabeth and she brought with her an inheritance from her first husband that Carey must have found attractive.

Robert Carey

The wedding between the widowed Elizabeth and Robert Carey took place on the 20th August 1593 at Berwick-on-Tweed and by all accords the Queen was “mightily offended” to see a man said to be one of her favourites wed.

“Cornishwoman Elizabeth Trevanion of Caerhayes . . . She married secondly Sir Robert Carey. Queen Elizabeth was very indignant at his marrying her – or perhaps his marrying at all.”

A. L. Rowse, The Expansion of Elizabethan England, 2003

Carey first came to the attention of King James I (King James VI of Scotland) when Queen Elizabeth I died in March 1603.

Determined to be the first to give the king the news, and therefore ingratiate himself to the new heir to the English throne, Carey set off as soon as he heard she had passed away and rode nonstop to Scotland. It took him two days to get to Holyrood House and, on hearing his news, the king immediately made him his ‘Gentleman of the Bedchamber’. However, he was less popular at Court, many saw Carey’s actions as grasping – “contrary to decency, good manners and respect.”

The couple had secured the new monarch’s favour, however, and Robert’s wife Elizabeth was made a ‘Lady of the Privy Chamber’ for Queen Anne. She was specifically put in charge of “her Sweet Coffers”.

Mistress of the Sweet Coffers

This role of ‘Mistress of the Sweet Coffers’ meant that she was responsible for making sure the queen’s robes and dresses smelled fragrant because, let’s be frank, wealthy Tudor’s very rarely washed their clothes, if ever. The rich, impracticable fabrics and opulent ornamentations of their outer garments did not lend themselves to getting wet!

The chests or coffers that these fine garments were stored in would be made of sweet smelling wood, like cedar, and the dresses themselves would be sprinkled with scents such as rosewater or distilled violets to keep them ‘fresh’.

Queen Anne

Mistress of the Sweet Coffers

“A high-born maiden the title bore

That was sign of royal grace,

Of gentle service to stately queens,

In the days of olden ways and scenes.

And she who held the place

Was honoured to carry the golden keys

Of the coffers wrought from fragrant trees.

Aloe and cedar and sandalwood,

Carven in quaint device,

Within whose depths of fragrant dusk,

Made sweeter with amber, attar, musk,

Orient gums and spice.

The air that violet distil.

And crushed herbs with odours fill . . .”

Poem by Ela Thomas, Harpers Bizarre, 1892

It is clear that in this position, close to Queen Anne, Elizabeth must have gained her trust and perhaps even her friendship, because in 1605 Robert Carey wrote in his diary that “the Queen made the choice of my wife to have the care and keeping of the Duke.”

Raising Charles

The Duke that Carey was referring to was the young Prince Charles, the Duke of York, second son of King James I, and the future King Charles I. A document dated 23rd February 1605 records the official appointment by King James of Sir Robert Carey and his wife, Elizabeth, to the guardianship of the Duke of York.

And although this may at first seem like a huge honour it was in fact a massive risk.

Charles had been sickly since birth, some accounts say that he was baptised immediately because he wasn’t expected to live. He is thought to have had rickets, weak joints and a debilitating stammer. When he came into the care of Elizabeth he was 4 years old and developmentally very behind, it was said that he could neither walk nor talk.

“Nearly all the images of Charles’s childhood are negative and even his beginnings in life were unpromising . . . The small weak boy with a speech impediment often endured ill-treatment within his family. His brother Henry did not hold him in high regard and one can imagine that he teased Charles, as older brother are wont to do.”

Frederick Holmes, The Sickly Stuarts, 2005

There is some suggestion that his parents saw Charles’ slow development as laziness and his stammer as obstinacy, which only made his condition worse.

“As a child, Charles . . . was very much in the shade if his elder brother Henry, who possessed the physical strength and self-confidence that Charles so obviously lacked. Henry is said to have teased him ’till he made him weep, telling him that he should be a bishop, a gown being fittest to hide his legs’.”

D.R. Watson, The life & Times of Charles I, 1972.

It was normal at the time for Royal children to be raised and educated away from Court, and their parents, but none of the great families in the Royal circle would dare to take the boy on. His health was considered so frail that they all feared he would die in their care and they would have to take the blame.

Carey was well aware of this predicament, writing about the responsibility of raising Charles in his diary he said:

“Those who wished me no good were glad of it, thinking that if the Duke should die in our charge – his weakness being such as gave them great cause to suspect it – then it would not be thought fit that we should remain in Court after.”

Charles I as a young boy.

But despite all this the Careys must have seen the great advantages for them if the boy lived. In 1605 it was announced the Charles would be placed in their care – or more precisely in the care of Elizabeth.

“The king to Sir Robert Carey.

As we have made choice of your wife, Lady Carey, one of the ladies of the Privy Chamber to the Queen, to have the charge of our second son, we authorise you to take charge of his family and see things well ordered about his person and concerning his health.

Also to prevent all disorders among his servants and see every one of them do their duties, and wherein they misbehave, acquaint us or our officers. And of all things needful to be made known to us concerning our son, you shall inform us or the Queen or in our absence some of the Privy Council.”

From the Roll Series, 1605, published in the Cornish Guardian, 10th March 1932.

A Strong-willed Woman

Earl Edward Hyde Clarendon, historian and advisor to Charles when he was king, wrote in his book about the English Civil Wars, that the Cornish people “are used to speak what they think”, and it seems that in Elizabeth Trevanion (Carey) we have a shining example of that forthrightness.

In 1605 when Charles, at that time still the spare, not yet the future king, came to live with her Elizabeth already had three young children. Her daughter Philadelphia was eleven, Henry was nine and her youngest, Thomas, was about seven. (Some accounts also mentioned another younger child, only 1 or 2 years old, but I haven’t been able to confirm that.)

Robert Carey wrote in his diary:

“The Duke was past four years old when he was first delivered to my wife, he was not able to go, nor scant stand alone, he was so weak in his joints, and especially his ankles insomuch as many feared they were out of joint.”

But it seems that Elizabeth planned to raise Charles with the same no-nonsense care and tenderness that she had given her own offspring, even if that meant going against King James’ wishes.

The Carey Family later in life showing Robert, Elizabeth & their three children

We know this because of her husband account of events and also a letter written by Elizabeth to the king during this period. She was, it seems, determined to raise Charles with love and kindness, not the aggressive and potentially dangerous tactics suggested by the Royal household.

When King James wanted to have the skin under Charles’ tongue, the lingual frenulum, cut in an attempt to help him to speak Elizabeth argued passionately against the idea and it didn’t happen. And when he also wanted the little prince to be fitted with heavy iron boots to strengthen his joints she refused this too. She protested so much that it seems the King gave up and let her have her way.

“Many a battle my wife had with the king but she still prevailed . . . my wife protested so much against [both ideas] she got the victory and the King was fain to yield.”

The Memoirs of Robert Carey

Fortunately her instincts were correct and though the shy and reserved boy never fully overcame his stammer he grew stronger day by day in her care. Robert Carey wrote that he “grew more and more in health and strength, both of body and mind, to the amazement of many who knew his weakness when my wife took charge of him.” Charles’ parents were delighted and Elizabeth was said to be “well esteemed” by them both. Though I have to wonder if they would have been so happy to defer to her had they known that Charles was destined to be king.

Charles with his parents by Simon De Passe c1612

A letter that she wrote to King James in 1607 survives, held I believe in a collection of papers belonging to the Honourable the Marquess of Salisbury. In it Elizabeth writes to the king to ask for some improvements to the little duke’s household:

“For as things now stand, his Grace oftentimes is not so well fed as were fit, the company ill pleased with their scant diet, and your Majesty nevertheless so far at this present charged as I dare undertake – within that expense – to have it performed more wholesomely for the Duke, more plentifully for his people and more honourably for your Majesty. Wherein, if you Highness command my service and so deliver your pleasure unto the Council, I will, as becomes, obey your commandment.”

Extract of Letter from Elizabeth Carey to King James I, 1607

The King and Queen were so pleased with the progress that Charles was making that the King ordered his Lord Chamberlain to draw up a new contract with Elizabeth on whatever terms she decided!

Portrait of Charles aged roughly 11 years by Robert Peake, c1611

The Rewards

Charles stayed with Elizabeth for 7 years, until he was eleven years old. It is said that he grew in confidence and learnt to ride and hunt with the Carey family.

Charles continued to be treated very much as the baby of the Royal family, King James even referred to him as “baby Charles” in his letter when his son was a young man. But Charles, despite being desperately shy, seems to have been determined to overcome his difficulties.

We can imagine that it must have been a painful parting for them when he was made to leave them to continue his formal education in 1611 – Elizabeth had in effect been the only mother he had really known.

Just one year later, in 1612, his elder brother, Henry, died suddenly of typhoid fever and Charles was now the heir to the throne.

Elizabeth returned to the service of Queen Anne, remaining with her until her death in 1619 and then she retired from Court life, while her husband, Robert, joined the Prince’s household. The boy they had raised grew into a healthy, if a little small, young man.

“he grew slowly in every way but did, by about the beginning of his twenties, finally acquire the physical stature of a man. From measurements taken of his armour it can be deduced that he ultimately attained an adult height of about 5 feet 4 inches (162 centimetres) surely short for a grown man even in his time.”

Frederick Holmes, The Sickly Stuarts, 2005
Portrait of Charles by Gerrit Van Honthorst, 1628

When King James died in 1625 and Charles became King Charles I he remembered the Carey’s kindness to him.

One of his first acts on taking the throne was to give them land and money – an annual allowance of £500, (about £65,000 in today’s but the equivalent of 26 years wages for the average individual during that period). He also created a new title for Robert, making him the first Earl of Monmouth and Elizabeth the Countess.

One can only imagine Elizabeth’s pride in the sickly little boy she had so diligently cared and seeing the man he had become.

Final Thoughts

While researching this article I was struck by the accounts of Charles’ struggles with his health and particularly his speech impediment throughout his life; and the idea that this may in some way have contributed to his downfall. Apparently his shyness and the stress of public speaking made his stutter worse so he often avoided addressing parliament in person. This is said by some to have left him dangerously isolated, further estranged from the public and his advisors, perhaps exacerbating his unpopularity and leading to his death.


The Civil War that would culminate in Charles’ execution didn’t begin until a year after Elizabeth Trevanion’s (Lady Carey’s) death in 1641. Fortunately she was not there to witness the bloody events that were to follow but her brother, Charles Trevanion, who had inherited Caerhays Castle in Cornwall, was and unsurprisingly he remained loyal to the king. His son John was killed in the Siege of Bristol.

Somehow it seems strange, almost uncanny, to me that the life of King Charles I was bookended by Cornish folk. Elizabeth Trevanion at the start and the notorious Hugh Peter of Fowey at the end.

One gave him the best possible start and the other the worst possible end.

Further Reading

Hugh Peter – The Cornishman who killed a King?

Anne Basset – Mistress of Henry VIII & Almost Queen of England

The Story of Bodrugan’s Leap

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