Elizabeth Bury (1644-1720)

Scientist, scholar, physician, diarist, linguist, Hebraist

The life of Elizabeth Bury was considered sufficiently notable to warrant entries in dozens of biographical works, including the Dictionary of National Biography of 1886. The same year Sophia Jex-Blake (1840–1912), the pioneering British physician who had fought for legislation permitting women in Britain to receive the MD degree and a licence to practise medicine and surgery, included Elizabeth Bury in her work Medical Women. A thesis and a history (Edinburgh, 1886). Elizabeth Bury continues to be included in modern biographical dictionaries, for example as a scholar and physician in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science (London, 2000), and her writings are widely cited in studies of autobiography, biography, sociology, history, literature, women’s studies etc. She still merits a substantial entry in the 2004 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography.

Extract from the preface to An Account of the Life and Death of Mrs Elizabeth Bury

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The period in which Elizabeth Bury lived (1644–1720) encompassed many of the most momentous changes in the English Church and State: civil and national wars; rebellions and revolution; the abolition and restoration of the monarchy and the episcopal Established Church; the birth and growth of constitutional monarchy and the parliamentary party system; the emergence of the United Kingdom through union with Scotland; and the Hanoverian succession. It was a period of shifting allegiances when it seemed that any party, whether in Church or State (or foreign power), could be supreme one year and cast down the next, and truly could it be declared ‘For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another’ (Ps. 75:6-7).

Born during the Civil War to a captain of a cavalry troop in Cromwell’s Ironsides, Elizabeth Bury (née Lawrence) spent her infancy while Presbyterianism was reaching the zenith of its civil and religious influence. With parliamentary authority, the Westminster Assembly was engaged in drafting directories, catechisms and a Confession of Faith for the nation. When the Assembly’s labour was done – several hundred man-years of effort – their works remained and endure to this day as the high water marks of Presbyterianism.

Elizabeth’s father befriended and assisted Richard Baxter (for a time chaplain in the Ironside regiments), but was lost in action at Colchester when Elizabeth was four years old. Shortly afterward, the Presbyterians were disbarred from Parliament and King Charles was executed. From seven years of age Elizabeth grew up as a stepdaughter of Nathaniel Bradshaw, Presbyterian rector of Willingham in Cambridgeshire. In her teenage years the Commonwealth disintegrated, the Stuart monarchy was restored, and within two years (1660–62) nearly two thousand ministers, mainly Presbyterian, were ejected from the Established Church, including her own stepfather. It was thus that she was driven into Dissent and began her daily diary, kept in impenetrable shorthand during the many years of persecution that followed. She married Griffith Lloyd, a former Parliamentary captain of horse and good friend of Charles Fleetwood and other Commonwealth luminaries, now also Dissenters gathered around John Owen DD; but she was bereaved of him in her mid-thirties. Toleration arrived under William and Mary in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and in 1697, then a widow of fifty-three, she married Samuel Bury, the minister of the flourishing Presbyterian church at Bury St Edmunds. Samuel too had been raised a Dissenter in the persecuting times that followed the 1662 ejection of his father, a Presbyterian minister, from Great Bolas in Shropshire, whom we find was ‘extremely harassed’ and ‘forced from his family…and passed from house to house, and from county to county’, having been subjected to the distraint of ‘his household goods, and books, and the bed he lay upon…and suffered great loss of his estate’ (Calamy).

Now that generation, which had stood for conscience and bravely endured the persecutions that ensued, was fast passing away. In 1702, with the accession of Queen Anne, dark clouds began to gather over the Presbyterian interest once again, threatening to sweep away toleration. But in 1714, at seventy years of age, Elizabeth Bury was able to praise God for favouring the nation with the Hanoverian succession that secured the Protestant throne and a fuller measure of liberty for Dissenters. She died in 1720, just five weeks after moving to Bristol, where her husband had accepted a new pastorate, having ministered in Bury St Edmunds for over thirty years.

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