Her “Diversion”: The Gardening and Botanical Pursuits of Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort

Portrait engraving of the Duchess of Beaufort by Joseph Nutting, after Robert Walker, circa 1690-1722 (image from the National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons)

Prominent botanist and cataloger of gardens, William Sherard (1659-1728), was hired by an aristocrat to tutor her grandson in botany for “hee loving my diversion so well.” This was Mary Somerset, the first Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), an accomplished gardener and botanist in her own right. She sought solace in “natural learning” and tending plants, some cultivated in what she referred to as her “infirmary.” As detailed in landscape historian and conservator Mark Laird’s splendid A Natural History of English Gardening (2015), her gardening activities were a refuge from bouts of depression. She remarked in a letter of her cataloging: “When I get into storys of plants I know not how to get out.”  Laird’s chapter on Mary Somerset, and other recent scholarly investigations, examine her work and help elevate her role in the history of science. Rather than simply a diversion from melancholia, she was dedicated in her studies, blossoming late in her life.

The English noblewoman was born Mary Capel and is also known by the name from her first marriage, Mary Seymour, Lady Beauchamp. She gave birth to nine children and oversaw, with an exacting eye, two estates—Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in London with their famous gardens. Mary Somerset began intensely collecting and cultivating plants in the 1680s. In widowhood, beginning in 1700, it became even more of a consuming passion. Somerset’s specimens, both exotic and domestic, were featured in her and other important gardens.

The Capel (also Capell) Family by Cornelius Johnson, circa 1640 (photo: National Portrait Gallery, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-capel-family-156922). Mary Capell, later the Duchess of Beaufort, is to the far right of this affectionate portrayal. The background landscape provides a glimpse of the family’s Italianate gardens of Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire, where Mary Capel grew up.

Everhard Kick, Polygala Blue Convolvulvus, Badminton florilegium (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The herbarium Mary Somerset compiled to record her efforts grew to twelve volumes containing her dried plant specimens. She bequeathed this significant work to a great friend, the family physician and neighbor in Chelsea, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), who in turn donated it to the British Museum. The work now is in the Botany Library of the Natural History Museum in London. Another manuscript of her flora is preserved in the paintings of Everhard Kick (also known as Everard Kickius), a Dutch artist, and Daniel Frankcom. They composed a two-volume florilegium (1703-5) in sixty-eight folios of her prized exotics and occasional favored native plants. This catalog remains at Badminton House. These were private undertakings, a record of her individual mind and accomplishments. Apart from these bound works and manuscript collections of letters and records, there are other sources to trace this remarkable woman’s pursuits and how she was viewed by contemporaries.

In the early modern period, plant collecting relied on an informal scientific network—a circle of botanists, nurserymen, gardeners, apothecaries, physicians, and explorers—for information. Although excluded from the culture of the coffeehouse and other intellectual clubs and the Royal Society, Mary Somerset was an active participant in the exchange of botanical knowledge. She was not just a patron but an influential gardener whose analyses of plants were taken seriously by many contemporary scientists who were her correspondents and mutual suppliers of seeds, including John Ray, Jacob Bobart, Samuel Doody, Robert Southwell, George London, and Richard Bradley. Preserved correspondence reveal her contributions, as do mentions of her in important publications of the time.

Explorer, physician, collector, and long-serving President of the Royal Society, Hans Sloane, in his Preface to the first volume of A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christohers and Jamaica (1707) acknowledges the value of Somerset’s active role in his colonial plant trade. He wrote:

“The Plants themselves have been likewise brought over, planted, and throve very well at Moyra, in Ireland, by the Direction of Sir Arthur Rawdon; as also by the Order of the Right Reverend Dr. Henry Compton, Bishop of London, at Fulham; at Chelsea by Mr. Doudy; and Enfield by the Reverend Dr. Robert Uvedale; and in the Botanic Gardens of Amsterdam, Leyden, Leipsick, Upsal, &c. but especially at Badminton in Gloucester-Shire, where they are not only rais’d some few handfuls high, but come to Perfection, flower and produce their ripe Fruits, even to my Admiration; and that, by the Direction of her Grace the Duchess of Beaufort, who at her leisure Hours, from her more serious Affairs, has taken pleasure to command the raising of Plants in her Garden.”

Mary Somerset received seeds from all over the world, including the Cape of Good Hope, Sri Lanka, Japan, and the West Indies, and tended them with great care. She was one of the early adopters of the late 17th-century innovation, the “tropical stove” or hothouse, to propagate plants. At a time when women, if employed in aristocratic gardens at all, tended to be low-paid weeders, the converted greenhouse at Badminton was presided over by a female assistant, known only as Mary or Martha.

Beaufort House in London had greenhouses as well as expansive gardens. This home of Mary Somerset, and that of Sloane, were nearby to the Chelsea Physic Garden, founded for the promotion of medicinal botany in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries. There was a mutual trading of specimens and seeds with the four-acre physic garden.

Lycium afrum, one of the plants nurtured in Gloucestershire and Chelsea that Mary Somerset is credited with introducing. Illustration from: Plantarum indigenarum et exoticarum icones ad vivum coloratae. Jarhg. 3 (1790). Contributed in BHL from Harvard University Botany Libraries.

Among the plants nurtured in Gloucestershire and Chelsea that Mary Somerset is credited with introducing were Globe amaranth (native to Asia; in William Townsend Aiton, volume 2, Hortus Kewensis), Comptonia asplenifolia (native to North America; in Encyclopaedia Londinensis 1810), Canarina campanula, Pinus strobus L. (White pine, native to North America), Lycium afrum, and Iva frutescens (John Claudius Loudon, Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, 1838; Philip Miller, The Gardener’s and Botanist’s Dictionary, 1807; and Hortus Collinsonianus, 1843). But she also grew florists’ flowers, such as carnations, nasturtiums, tulips, and auriculas as well as evergreens and oranges, most often in dedicated sections of her vast gardens, and, of course, to adorn her great homes.

Passiflora caerula. The blue passion flower is another cultivar of the Duchess of Beaufort (see Loudon’s Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum).

William Sherard helped instruct Mary Somerset in taxonomic methods of documenting her plants. The botanist had studied with Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in Paris and Paul Hermann in Leiden and helped edit a revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici. The requests from numerous scientists and botanical authorities for the tending of seeds at both Badminton and her London gardens was not simply to provide the necessary environment for nurturing specimens, but for her ability to cultivate these exotics and to compare them with native plants, providing details on what thrived and what did not. That is, her observations, descriptions and opinions were respected and sought.

Another correspondent of Somerset’s was botanist James Petiver (1663 or 1664-1718). He wrote a series for the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions (1711-14), “Account of Rare Plants Lately Observed in Several Curious Gardens about London and particularly the Company of Apothecaries’ Physic Garden at Chelsea.” Included in this description is Somerset’s neighboring garden in London. Nothing remains of that estate except perhaps some of her specimens that may have ended up in the Physic Garden. Beaufort House at Cheyne Walk was purchased in 1737 by Sloane. After being left vacant for twenty years, he had the home and gardens demolished in 1740.

Philip Miller (1691-1771), who had a distinguished career at the Chelsea Physic Garden, in the Catalogus Plantarum of 1730 notes Somerset’s contributions. The gardener records names of some of the “many learned and curious persons, nobility and gentry” who sought to transform “our former poorly furnish’d gardens.” Included was:

“Her Grace the Dutchess of Beaufort did also collect a numerous quantity of rare Plants into those famous Gardens of Badmington, where she preserved and maintained them with great Care in wonderful Beauty for many years; but as this Collection consisted chiefly of our most tender Exotick Plants, so we shall have Occasion to mention that Noble Person when we come to treat those Plants in another Place.”

Engraving of the Chelsea Physic Garden, from the Surrey Bank (from Wellcome Images (no. L0003897) via Wikimedia Commons)

It is notable that Mary Somerset, in contrast to many of her fellow botanists, was not just interested in dried specimens and their identification but thoroughly engaged in horticulture—cultivating plants to thrive and creating gardens that were famous in their time. As Stephen Switzer noted in his 1718 Ichnographia Rustica, or, The Nobleman, Gentleman, and Gardener’s Recreation, “how much of her time she virtuously and busily employed in the garden.”

Colored engraving of Beaufort House, occupying part of the former estate of Sir Thomas More, in Chelsea, 1708, by Johannes Kip. From Britannia Illustrata (image from the Museum of London) the bird eye’s view shows the surrounding gardens, orchards and greenhouses.

A more complete survey of printed acknowledgements and identifications of plants which Mary Somerset helped introduce will expand the portrait of a complex woman who sought relief from depression in gardening and horticultural and botanical studies. There is the challenging task of pinpointing more of her plants by comparing the portrayals in the Sloane herbarium and the Badminton florilegium with representations in publications in the pre-Linnaean era. As the Biodiversity Heritage Library makes more of this literature, including landscape history, available online, the ability to explore Somerset’s participation and influence is greatly aided.

Beaufortia decussata. The genus Beaufortia was named for Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort. Illustration from: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. v. 42 (1815). Contributed in BHL from the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden.


Chambers, Douglas. “‘Storys of Plant'”: The Assembling of Mary Capel Somerset’s Botanical Collection at Badminton,” in Journal of the History of Collections, volume 9, 1997, pages 49-60.

Davies, Julie. “Botanizing at Badminton House: The Botanical Pursuits of Mary Somerset, First Duchess of Beaufort,” in Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science; editor, Donald L. Opitz (2016).

Duthie, Ruth. “The Planting Plans of Some Seventeenth-Century Flower Gardens,” in Garden History, volume 18, no. 2 (Autumn 1990), pages 77-102.

Laird, Mark. A natural history of English gardening, 1650-1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Munroe, Jennifer. “’My Innocent Diverson of Gardening’: Mary Somerset’s Plants,” Renaissance Studies, volume 25, number 1, February 2011, pages 211-123.

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Julia Blakely is a former Rare Book Catalog Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. She has undergraduate and master's degrees in art history from the George Washington University and a M.S., with a specialization in rare books, from Columbia University. For many years she was a lab instructor at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (formerly at Columbia). She served as the Libraries' representative for the Smithsonian's Material Culture Forum. Julia wrote the bibliographical descriptions for An Oak Spring Flora (1997) and has worked with several other private collections.