Notes from “The Conversion of Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick”

Raymond Anselment

Six years after Mary Rich began the diary she continued to write until the last weeks before her death in April, 1678, Lady Rich noted in a 1672 entry that she “had spent most of my last 3 dayes” writing a considerable part of her recollections about her birth, marriage, and religious conversion.  Four years later she would complete the narrative she characterizes as “som of the most remarkable good prouidences of God to me in my forepast life.”  The seventh of eight daughters born in Ireland to the first Earl of Cork, Robert Boyle, and his second wife, Catherine Fenton, Mary defied her father’s wishes and in 1641 married Charles Rich, the second son of the Earl of Warwick, who had few prospects and less hope of inheriting the wealth and status her father expected.  The marriage of the willful fifteen-year-old brought her into the religious family of her father-in-law; and, ironically, when Charles’s older brother died, she unexpectedly became in 1659 the Countess of Warwick.  While readers have found the diary’s record of Rich’s daily and decidedly religious life formulaic and repetitious, they have been drawn to the narrative of her courtship and marriage.  Readings of “Some Specialities In the life of M warwicke” that emphasize an idealized life influenced by romantic conventions tend to contrast the “reality” and “broken dreams” of the married life depicted in the diary.  But the center and focus of the narrative is God’s converting grace.  The tensions in Rich’s marriage, however strained they may seem, are paradoxically inseparable from a newfound spiritual love that leads to a renewed love for her husband. Through religious conversion and marital conflicts, Mary Rich ultimately understands and reconciles the demands of love both secular and spiritual.

Conversion is etymologically a turning, becoming the “new man” of the Pauline epistles.  The truly converted, Richard Baxter contends in A Treatise of Conversion (1657), “turneth his mind and heart and life from the Creature to God in Christ.”  Mary Rich’s conversion was not sudden.  The illness of her only child prompted a bargain with God: the boy’s life in return for her spiritual renewal.  Her diary records her turn to inner spirituality through meditation and prayer.  She also zealously embraced Christ’s command to Peter: “When thou art converted, strengthen thy Brethren” (Luke 22:32).  Seventeenth-century commentaries on this passage stress that love for the souls of others “forceth” compassionate admonition.  Worry about Charles’s physical well-being intensified her anxiety about his spiritual state.  Infirm, wracked with gout, and increasingly unable to leave his bed, he endured periods of prolonged suffering in the years leading to his death.  The days and nights at his bedside were for Mary vigils of secular and spiritual concern.  Her fears for the soul of her husband and her pleas and prayers for his conversion were a significant cause of tension between them.  Admonitions urging her husband to make his peace with God are persistent as she presses him with what she believes is kindness and humility to understand God’s design in his suffering.  She never attempts to understand that her husband’s debilitating illness might well account for his embittered, unpredictable temperament.  Mary’s belief that she voiced her earnest pleas with kindness, plainness, and humility is the conviction of a spiritual zealot, unaware that her relentless pleading appears to him constant nagging.  His passionate rejection of her “charitable and fit” exhortations, she believes, is unwarranted for she is “much in the right.”    

Mary’s struggles in “great sadness” with the troubled relationship lead through worldly sorrow to greater godly love.  She sees more fully the “insofisancy” of the worldly and recognizes her melancholy is inseparable from over-love of the world.  Mary has learned from experience that she has “too freely let out my heart to creatures,” expecting “too much comfort from them.”  She comes to understand the wisdom of turning “mind and heart and life” to God.  Exhilaration displaces melancholy in her affirmation from the Song of Solomon, “I was my beloued and my beloued was myne” (6:3).  The love for her husband, though seemingly minimized, is not lessened.  She realizes that she should not love him best; she should love him through the love of God.  Overwhelmed by “inexpressible griefe” when he died, Mary asserts with new conviction that her husband is also her beloved.  Through her spiritual conversion she has ultimately found deeper love.   

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Conversion of Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick,” published in Christianity & Literature 66.4 (2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.