When I received a beautiful 18th century paper fan back from the conservator the other day, I decided to do a little bit of research into the fan’s owner, Lady Agnes Frankland. I knew that her story formed the basis of several romantic novels and poems in the 19th century, but I was not aware of the full story, nor was I prepared for how truly unromantic it seems when viewed from a 21st century perspective.
Lady Frankland was born Agnes Surriage in Marblehead, MA. Her father was a poor fisherman, but her mother, Mary (Pierce) Surriage was born into a respectable Maine family. The date of Agnes’ birth is open to some debate, with some sources stating that she was born in 1726 and therefore 16 when she met the wealthy Sir Charles Henry Frankland, or 1728, in which case she was only 14. In the summer of 1742, Frankland encountered Agnes, who was working as a maid in the Fountain Inn, a pub in Marblehead. Frankland was the Collector of the Port of Boston, a wealthy British peer who had been born in Bengal in 1716 and who was next in line for the baronetcy of Thirkelby in North Yorkshire. He was directly descended from Oliver Cromwell.
The story goes that he saw that she had no shoes and gave her money to buy some. On his next visit to the Fountain Inn, he saw that she was still barefoot and asked why she hadn’t bought the shoes he had suggested. She said that she had, but that she kept them for going to church on Sundays. In the heavily romanticized, Victorian versions of this story, Sir Harry recognized her intelligence and whisks her away to Boston to be educated. In Marblehead’s Pygmalion: Finding the Real Agnes Surriage (2010), F. Marshall Bauer put forth evidence that he impregnated Agnes soon after meeting her and she bore a son who was thereafter known variously as her sister’s son, or as Frankland’s natural (i.e. illegitimate) son from a previous relationship.
She did move to Boston as his ward and was known to be his mistress by the time she finished her education. Boston’s high society shunned her, both for her impoverished background and for her unmarried state, so the couple moved to Hopkinton, where they built a large manor house and plantation. Frankland owned more than a dozen enslaved people, as slavery wasn’t outlawed in Massachusetts until the 1780s. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem "Agnes", one of the most famous retellings of this story, claims to be half based on the remembrances of Julia, “born a slave/beneath Sir Harry’s roof”.
Agnes and Sir Harry lived together unmarried for many years, until, after visiting his family in England, they were in Lisbon during the momentous earthquake of November 1st, 1755. Later legend says that Sir Harry was riding in a carriage when the earthquake struck, with an unidentified woman, who is said to have bitten a chunk of flesh from his arm, through his broadcloth coat. He was buried in the rubble, and Agnes went out looking for him and rescued him by convincing a group of men to dig him out. None of details of this story has been confirmed by later scholarship, but they certainly experienced the traumatic earthquake.
Many of the retellings of this story state that it was at that moment that he decided to finally marry Agnes, who had by that point been his mistress for 13 years. However, a reference in Sir Harry’s diary and a letter written about the couple both refer to her as his wife, at least 6 months before the earthquake. It is fairly certain that they did have their marriage resolemnized in the Church of England (the first ceremony having been conducted in the Catholic Church) before returning from Lisbon to England.
When Sir Harry and Lady Frankland returned to Boston in 1756, they bought the Clark House, a large mansion in what is now the North End, and legend has it that Lady Frankland was fully accepted by the Boston snobs who had shunned her as Sir Harry’s mistress.
Sir Harry died in Bath on January 11, 1768 and was buried there. Agnes, now the owner of the houses in Boston and Hopkinton, as well as some property in England, and the recipient of a large annuity, lived for several years with her sister, brother, nieces, and nephews, as well as Henry Cromwell, summering in the Hopkinton House and spending winters in Boston.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, Agnes remained loyal to the crown. She sought and received permission from the Committee of Safety to travel to Boston from Hopkinton with her servants and some of her belongings. One of the stories best known about Agnes, and most likely to be told by staff at the Old State House, is that she armed herself heavily for this journey, which very much surprised the soldiers she encountered. The 19th century retellings of this story portray her watching the Battle of Bunker Hill from her home in Boston’s North End and then treating wounded soldiers there, but again there are no contemporaneous reports to substantiate that claim.
She left Boston for Chichester in England soon after Bunker Hill, and lived with Sir Harry’s family (and Henry Cromwell) there until she remarried in 1782. She married a man called John Drew, about whom very little is known. Agnes Drew died within a year and is buried in Chichester, with a gravestone which acknowledges both of her husbands.
Many people have seen the romance in the story of Agnes Surriage – in 1894, she was included in a book entitled Three Heroines of New England Romance and her story was retold in novels and poems through the 19th century. In the 21st century, comparisons have been made to Eliza Doolittle and the 1967 film, To Sir with Love. To our current sensibilities, this story reads as much less romantic and much more like the story of a girl who was groomed and possibly taken advantage of by a man older and more privileged than herself, who had so much power and money that her parents willingly handed her over to him while she was still a teenager. Whatever the facts which underlie this story, holding her paper fan, and reading the many different versions of her story, bring Agnes’ complexity and humanity to the fore and somehow ground her story in the material world.