Church Monuments Society

TawstockSaraPollard†16521 resized

Sarah Voysin Pollard: an educated professional early modern woman

Month: August 2019
Type: Board / Plaque / Tablet  
Era: 17th Century

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St Peter
Tawstock, Barnstaple EX31 3HY

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The modest monument to Sara Pollard, née Voysin, †1652, at Tawstock, reminds us that early modern women from the lower gentry and educated middle classes could earn their living by virtue of their accomplishments and education.

The modest monument to Sara Pollard, née Voysin, †1652, at Tawstock celebrates the life of a woman who had moved from Geneva to Devon and whose family and connections linked her to the intellectual, religious and temporal aristocracy of Britain and France. It also illuminates the world of the educated professional early modern woman.


The monument has brief biographical details; surviving records enable us to fill in some gaps.  She was born in Geneva before late 1603, her father being a Syndic of Geneva who was probably killed in the Escalade of 11/12 December 1602, and her mother one of the daughters of Henri Estienne II, the most important printer/scholar of his age, another of whose daughters, Florence, was married to the polymath Isaac Casaubon.


Sara Voysin’s epitaph says that she was educated in the French and English Courts, which suggests that she may have been raised in Isaac Casaubon’s household: he was recruited to Paris in 1600 by Henri IV, and remained there until 1610, from 1605 as keeper of the royal library. After the assassination of Henri IV Casaubon moved with his family to England. He had already many close connections with the British aristocratic and ecclesiastical protestant communities. Casaubon and his wife, whom he married in 1586, had seventeen children, of whom about half survived infancy: at least one son was born after the move to England. With so many children in the household one extra niece would have made little difference.


If this is the case Sara Voysin was brought up in a household at the centre of British intellectual life, and with much aristocratic patronage. By 1627 she was the third-ranking lady-in-waiting (a paid position) to the Countess of Westmorland, when she was a recipient of the gift of a bird, possibly embroidered, at a charming May masque written by the then fourteen-year-old Rachel Fane. She also features in household lists, and as the supplier of a recipe[1]. Since Rachel Fane was taught classical authors through the medium of French it seems possible that Sara Voysin acted as her tutor. At the moment we do not know when she joined the lively Westmorland household, or even whether she was recruited by the Countess of Westmorland, or by her mother, Grace Mildmay (d.1620), a devoted protestant who was an accomplished medical scientist and a skilled confectioner, whose interests her daughter shared.


Sara Voysin’s epitaph indicates the path of her life. When Rachel Fane married the Earl of Bath in 1638 she accompanied her to her new homes. Lady Rachel’s first marriage was successful, as surviving correspondence and the monument (1659) which she put up to her late husband (†1654) indicates. Her second marriage (1655) to her late husband’s connection, the 3rd Earl of Middlesex[2] (a four-letter fellow if ever there was one) was a disaster. But by then Sara Voysin was dead.


She had married in Richard Pollard, the gentleman-steward at Tawstock from 1640 to 1651, at Swimbridge, Devon, on 14 April 1646. He was probably a widower with numerous children[3], and she was in at least her mid-forties. The area of Tawstock church where her monument is now placed contains several other commemorations of members of the Bouchier household. We do not know who was the patron of Sara Voysin’s monument, but must assume it was her husband, who did not die until c.1660[4]


This monument is one of a number which remind us that early modern women from the lower gentry and educated middle classes could earn their living by virtue of their accomplishments and education.  The practice of entering a socially-superior household as a companion/attendant was not just of benefit to the women so employed, who in theory learnt to manage a household and might meet a suitable husband amongst their male fellow-attendants, but might also benefit the mistress of the household. A well-educated lady could provide congenial intellectual companionship and assist in the education of children. The isolation of life on a country estate would be greatly mitigated for a serious-minded woman by such company, and there are examples in the form of funerary monuments of the lasting affectionate relationships that could be built.  Even if not erected by the Countess herself the memorial to Sara Voysin is one such.




The other interesting aspect of Sara Voysin’s memorial is the light it throws on contemporary masons’ workshop practice. It is of freestone, with a partly-gilded frame enclosing an oval plate with a painted inscription. Still visible are the ruled lines used in setting out the inscription, and a number of corrections, such as the smudging of the words “thought Worthy to” and the centering of the line beginning “She died”, which was originally intended to be justified. There are also a number of faint scribbles at the bottom of the text, which are only apparent in photographs, and which seem to be notes of the spelling of “Henricus Stephanus” (this is linked to the name in the actual inscription by small superscript crosses) and “Isaac Casaubon” (which nonetheless remains wrong).


Jean Wilson


[1] See Marion O’Connor,  ‘Rachel Fane’s May Masque at Apethorpe, 1627’, English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 90-11.

[2] He was the brother-in-law of one of the daughters of the 4th Earl of Bath, who was married to his elder brother, James, 2nd Earl of Middlesex. Rachel Fane’s previous husband, the 5th Earl of Bath, was the first cousin once removed of the 4th Earl, being the fifth son of the third son of the 2nd Earl.

[3] See <,_Yarnscombe#Richard_II_Pollard_(d._1660)>  and < > (both consulted 21.07.2019). The shield of arms on the monument was evidently painted but no trace remains which would help to ascertain if Richard Pollard has been correctly identified.

[4] The Countess of Bath has to be a possibility, but the monument she erected to Peter Bold does state that she was the patron.