The frankness, ingenuity[1] and pleasantness of her temper was ordinarily known to all that conversed with her. She was never reserved but when she thought her company was disagreeable, or she could profit herself more by her own thoughts than by the discourse of others.

She has often been taken notice of by others as a person of uncommon parts,[2] ready thought, quick apprehension and proper expression. She was always very inquisitive into the nature and reason of things, and greatly obliged to any that would give her information.

In common conversation, upon the flirts or banters of others, she often had such sharp turns[3] and ready replies that were very surprising; and yet mollified at last with such art and air and ingenuity,[4] that they could very seldom be resented by any.

In writing of letters she had a great aptness and felicity of expression, and was always thought so close[5] and pertinent and full to the purpose; and withal, so serious, spiritual and pungent, that her correspondence was greatly valued by some of the brightest minds, even in very distant countries.

Her genius led her to the study of almost everything, having such a natural capacity, accompanied with a very faithful and retentive memory; and taking such a continual pleasure in reading and conversation, she soon became mistress, in some measure, of anything she aimed at.

She often diverted herself with philology, philosophy, history (ancient and modern); sometimes with music, vocal and instrumental; sometimes with heraldry, globes and mathematics; [6] sometimes with learning the French tongue (chiefly for conversation with French refugees,[7] to whom she was an uncommon benefactrix), but especially in perfecting herself in Hebrew, which, by long application and practice, she had rendered so familiar and easy to her, as frequently to quote the original in common conversation when the true meaning of some particular texts of Scripture depended on it. Her very critical remarks upon the idioms and peculiarities of that language, which I have lately found amongst her papers, have been very surprising to me.

Another study which she took much pleasure in was anatomy and medicine, being led and prompted to it partly by her own ill health, and partly with a desire of being useful amongst her neighbours. In this she improved so much that many of the great masters of the faculty[8] have often been startled by her stating the most nice[9] and difficult cases in such proper terms, which could have been expected only from men of their own profession; and have often owned that she understood a human carcase and the materia medica much better than most of her sex which ever they had been acquainted with.[10]

But however she diverted herself with these, yet her constant favourite and darling study was divinity, especially the Holy Scriptures, having from her very childhood taken God’s testimonies for the men of her counsel; and in the latter part of her life devoted the most of her secret and leisure hours to the reading of Mr Henry’s Annotations,[11] which she would often say were the most plain, profitable and pleasant she ever read, and the last books (next to her Bible) she should ever part with. She honoured the author for finding so much of God in him, and for speaking the case of her own heart better than she could speak it herself. He always surprised her with something new, and yet so natural, and of such necessary consequence, and unobserved by others, that she still read him with a fresh gust[12] and pleasure. Next to the Holy Scriptures, her chiefest delight was in reading practical divinity; and the plainer and closer and more penetrating any author was, he was always the more acceptable.

But notwithstanding all her knowledge and unusual attainments in so many professions, faculties, kinds of literature, spiritual and most concerning truths of religion, she would always confess and bewail her own ignorance, and that she knew little of what others did, or what she ought to have known, in any of those matters.

She would often regret[13] that so many learned men should be so uncharitable to her sex as to speak so little in their mother tongue,[14] and be so loath to assist their feebler faculties, when they were in any wise disposed to an accurate search into things curious or profitable, as well as others – especially (as she often argued) since they would all so readily own that souls were not distinguished by sexes.[15] And therefore she thought it would have been an honourable pity in them to have offered them something in condescension to their capacities, rather than have propagated a despair of their information to future ages.[16] And as to herself, she would always speak with the greatest thankfulness of her singular obligations to her father Bradshaw,[17] Dr Fulwood and some others, for the ready and kind assistance they gave her, in all her applications to them, in order to the little light and knowledge she had attained in such things.


[1] Openness of heart; fairness; candour. This sense of the word was common at the time but became obsolete in favour of ingenuousness. Thus William Burkitt (1650–1703): ‘I trow not, unless you count my candour and ingenuity in telling the truth, a crime: Am I become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?’; ‘The modesty and great ingenuity of the apostle, in assuring them, that his praising their liberality so much was not upon design to get more’ – commentary on Galatians 4:16 and Philippians 4:7.

[2] Qualities; powers; faculties; accomplishments.

[3] Sharp turns = acuteness of mind in arranging words in a sentence.

[4] See footnote preceding.

[5] Fully to the point.

[6] Her half-sister Catherine’s family (the Salmons) were especially active in history, music and mathematics, and published a considerable number of works.

[7] The Huguenots, many of whom went into exile following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in October 1685. The Edict of Nantes (1598) had provided for toleration of the Protestant religion in France, but from 1679 the Huguenots were increasingly persecuted, and in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict, thereby outlawing the Protestant religion within his realm. Hundreds of thousands of Huguenot refugees fled the country, and tens of thousands settled in England. Some were engaged in drainage of the Fens, and a refuge was established for them at Soham in Cambridgeshire from 1687 to 1690. Linen and silk workers settled in Colchester, Norwich and other local population centres, such as Ipswich, where Thomas Firmin set up a linen and woollen manufactory to employ Huguenots. Many Huguenots settled in Presbyterian churches because these were closest to the faith and order of their churches in France. When the new Presbyterian meeting house in St Nicholas Street, Ipswich had been opened by John Fairfax in 1700, many Huguenots were added to the congregation.

[8] Or ‘masters of the Faculty’, so Sophia Jex-Blake (see following note). All nouns are capitalized in the original. University teaching comprised four faculties: Theology, Law, Medicine and Arts. Members of the medical profession in England were commonly known as ‘masters of the faculties’. The present Royal College of Physicians of London was established as a ‘faculty of commonalty’ by Henry VIII in 1518, and though it did not have legal title to the name ‘Royal College’ until 1960, it was electing fellows as FRCP in the seventeenth century.

A number of nonconformist ministers, ejected in 1662 and prevented from following their vocation, pursued professions such as law and medicine. Unable to graduate at English universities, being Dissenters, several went abroad and trained as physicians. One such was Nathaniel Fairfax MD (1637–90), the brother of John Fairfax, Presbyterian minister at Needham and Ipswich in Suffolk. Nathaniel Fairfax had been curate of Willisham in Suffolk until ejected in 1662. He then took up physic, graduated MD at Leyden in 1670 and began practising in Woodbridge. His son Blackerby followed him, graduating MD at Leyden in 1696.

Elizabeth’s own nephew, Nathaniel Salmon (son of her half-sister, Catherine) was an extra-licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1710 and practised at St Ives (Hunts) and Bishop’s Stortford (Herts).

[9] Requiring precision, discrimination etc.

[10] Sophia Jex-Blake (1840–1912), the pioneering British physician who successfully sought legislation (1876) permitting women in Britain to receive the MD degree and a licence to practise medicine and surgery, includes Elizabeth Bury in her work Medical Women. A thesis and a history (Edinburgh, 1886).

Elizabeth Bury is also classified as a pioneering physician in the recently-compiled Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science (London, 2000).

[11] Matthew Henry’s Annotations upon the Scriptures, which became his famous Exposition of the Old and New Testament, a commentary on the Bible compiled 1704–14. In all, Matthew Henry completed the whole Old Testament and the New Testament up to Acts in five folio volumes before his death in 1714; the commentary from Romans to Revelation was completed by other ministers from his papers. When Samuel Bury removed to Bristol in 1720 he promised to bequeath ‘a Sett of Mr. Henry’s Annotations upon the Scriptures…to be kept in the Vestry’ of the Presbyterian meeting house at Bury St Edmunds.’ In his will (1730) he bequeathed his whole library to his nephew, Samuel Savage, ‘excepting a sett of Mr. Henry’s Exposition of Scripture which I have promised to the use of the Chappell in St Edmunds Bury.’

Matthew Henry (1662–1714) attended Thomas Doolittle’s Academy at Islington, where he met Samuel Bury. They became lifelong friends. After his friend’s death, Samuel Bury wrote, ‘he was to me a most desirable friend, and I love heaven the better since he went thither.’

[12] Enjoyment.

[13] Felicity Nussbaum in The Autobiographical Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England makes unsupported assertions concerning Elizabeth Bury. She states, ‘She was angered “that so many Learned Men should be so uncharitable to her sex” ’. Her husband merely says that she regretted it; and of her Isaac Watts wrote, ‘Swift to forgiveness, but to anger slow; and rich in learning, yet averse to show’.

[14] The language employed for intellectual discourse between literate men was Latin, as it had been for centuries. None of the universities open to Dissenters (e.g. in Scotland, the Netherlands etc.) taught courses in the vernacular until the mid-eighteenth century.

Those for whom Latin was an unfamiliar tongue were termed illiterate, notwithstanding their reading and writing skills in their mother tongue. Thus Matthew Henry (1662–1714), criticizing the use of Latin in services, declares ‘the body of the people, who, in most Christian assemblies, are illiterate; how should they say Amen to prayers in an unknown tongue?’ – commentary on I Cor 14:16. Beth Barton Schweiger observes, ‘The magnitude of the change in the meaning of reading between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be traced in a single word: “illiterate.” In the mid-eighteenth century, the term still commonly referred to a person who could not read Latin or Greek. By 1850, an “illiterate” could not read or write at all, and the term was usually invoked to qualify “masses”, itself a new usage. For almost two centuries, to be literate was to possess the attribute of being learned. But as the skills of reading and writing spread through the population, the term’s meaning expanded to embrace anyone who could read and write.’ (Abstract to The Moral Economy of Reading in the Early United States, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, July 24, 2005). Nussbaum (op. cit.) mistakenly invests seventeenth- and eighteenth-century terms with nineteenth- and twentieth-century meanings, which yields nonsense, e.g. ‘The preface to Elizabeth [sic] West’s Memoirs or Spiritual Exercises of Elizabeth [sic] West: Written by her own Hand indicates that she was illiterate, and, because the text also indicates that the publication was copied exactly from the manuscript, we must assume that she dictated it to a friend.’ On the contrary, the account itself amply evidences that Elisabeth West wrote it all by her own hand; that she was well educated at school and by her relations, and was employed as a teacher; that she read the Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Christian writers such as John Bunyan, Andrew Gray, Samuel Rutherford, John Flavel et al. The entry in the Dictionary of National Biography confirms, ‘the memoir abounds with references to her reading volumes of puritan practical divinity.’ But she had no access to the erudite Latin rhetorical tradition, and so as the preface to the Memoirs reminds us, ‘she being illiterate, it cannot be expected that her stile should be altogether so exact and just’, and rather displays ‘an easy and unaffected simplicity.’ All the easier a style for the illiterate to read, of course – compare the preface to the third edition of Rev. Thomas WillsSpiritual Register (London, 1787): ‘With regard to the style, I ever wish and study to use the plainest language, for the benefit of the illiterate’ – Wills deliberately avoided a latinate and affected rhetorical style for the benefit of his illiterate readers. Walter Ong observes, ‘Into the nineteenth century most literary style throughout the West was formed by academic rhetoric…with one notable exception: the literary style of female authors…When they began to enter schools in some numbers during the seventeenth century, girls entered not the mainline Latin schools but the newer vernacular schools…Women writers…normally expressed themselves in a different, far less oratorical voice’ (Orality and Literacy, 1982).

[15] Nussbaum (op cit.) states that ‘Bury argues strongly…that “Souls were not distinguished by Sexes” ’; this was, in fact, the common belief of learned men, for example Matthew Henry (1662–1714): ‘But this one woman and her wisdom saved the city. Souls know no difference of sexes’ – commentary on II Sam 20:16–17; what Elizabeth Bury argued was that it was they – the learned men – who would readily admit such a thing.

[16] Nussbaum (op. cit.) states, ‘it would seem that Bury seems to assign this failure in the understanding of most women to custom, not nature.’ On the contrary: if learned men would need to ‘assist their feebler faculties’ and offer them, in pity, ‘something in condescension to their capacities’, women were clearly seen as of naturally weaker intellectual capacity. The interpretation is evident from a similar expression in Elizabeth Bury’s own hand, for in a letter giving directions to instruct a child she writes, ‘Talk over the sermons you hear together in language adapted to his capacity’ – i.e. condescend to his naturally weaker capacity.

[17] Nathaniel Bradshaw, her stepfather.

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