Margaret Brent (ca. 1601-1671)
MSA SC 3520-2177
Down to MPT Founding of Maryland Project Biography of Margaret Brent
Margaret Brent by Dr. Lois Green Carr
Margaret Brent arrived in Maryland in 1638,
with her sister Mary and brothers
Giles and Fulke. They were members of a landed Catholic family in
Gloucestershire and came armed with instructions from Lord Baltimore, himself
never able to immigrate to his colony, to grant them land in Maryland on the
same terms that had been granted the first investors. The first proprietor dearly
expected substantial contributions from the Brents.
The Brents immigrated to a colony intended
as a Catholic refuge. Lord Baltimore
knew that he needed Protestant settlers if his enterprise was to succeed, and to
attract them he promised toleration of all religious practices and political
participation without regard to religious preference. Settlers who came to
Maryland were participating in an experiment, extraordinary for the time.
Margaret Brent's career in Maryland was remarkable
in many ways, but one of
the most striking things about it is that she never married. Her single status was
more unusual than perhaps most realize because in coming to Maryland she
moved to a society in which, at this time, men outnumbered women about six to
one. The pressures on her to marry must have been extreme, unless, in fact, she
was protected by vows of celibacy. She and her sister, who also remained
unmarried, may possibly have come, not as nuns, but under temporary vows to
work with Jesuits in founding a Catholic settlement. But, whatever the reason that
these two women of property did not marry, they were probably unique in
17th-century Maryland, where little girls of twelve were sometimes hustled into
the marriage bed to fulfill the need for wives.
The early investors in Maryland---Jesuit priests
They brought in settlers, developed land, and raised tobacco for an international
market. Margaret Brent was no exception. She established residence with her
sister in her own household at Sister's Freehold near Chancellor's Point and was
active in importing and selling servants and lending capital to incoming settlers.
She appeared for herself in court as necessary to collect her debts and in general
handled her business affairs as a man would have done and without assistance
from her brother Giles. She would attract our attention and admiration for her
enterprise under rugged conditions were that all to tell.
However, it happens that there is much more
to tell. In 1645, seven years after
the Brents' arrival, a Protestant ship captain named Richard Ingle raided the
settlement on the St. Mary's River in the name of the English Parliament, which
was carrying on a Civil War with Charles I. The Governor, Leonard Calvert, fled
to Virginia. Ingle burned the Catholic chapel, plundered the homes of Catholic
settlers, and returned to England with Giles Brent and the Jesuit priests in chains.
The Calverts came close to losing the colony entirely. Most of the Maryland
Protestants fled to Virginia, where they were among the first settlers in the
Northern Neck, just across the Potomac River from St. Mary's. The population
of Maryland, perhaps 500 - 600 people at Ingle's raid, probably dropped to under
100, fewer than had come on Ark and Dove eleven years before. If Maryland
was to recover, the province had to start anew. Leonard Calvert, for reasons that
remain mysterious, did not return to his colony for more than a year. Late in
1646 he suddenly died. On his death bed he appointed Thomas Green as
Governor, but made Margaret Brent his executor with instructions to "take all,
There is no doubt that Margaret Brent's courage
and diplomacy were important to
Maryland's survival at that moment. Without her, the Calverts might have lost
their territory to Virginia and the experiment in religious toleration would have
ended then and there. The soldiers were clamoring for their pay; there was a
shortage of food. New disorders seemed imminent. Leonard Calvert had pledged
his whole Maryland estate to pay the soldiers but his assets were insufficient. The
Maryland Council finally agreed to make Margaret attorney-in-fact for Lord
Baltimore himself---in place of the deceased Governor---so that she could sell
Lord Baltimore's cattle. She then bought corn to feed the soldiers and paid them
off. These acts averted the crisis.
Towards the end of this period occurred the
event for which Mistress Brent is
best known today. On January 21, 1648, in the house at St. John's, she asked the
Governor and assembly to admit her with two votes, one as a landowner and one
as Lord Baltimore's attorney. She was refused, of course, and departed with the
statement that she "Protested against all proceedings in this present assembly
unless she may be present and have vote as aforesaid."
Twentieth-century interpretation of her actions
needs to be carefully analyzed.
Margaret Brent never said she thought that women, all women, should vote or
hold office. It is doubtful that she even thought that all land owning women
should be able to vote. She knew well that many members of the assembly were
more interested in preserving their estates than in the welfare of Lord Baltimore's
colony and would refuse to levy a tax to pay the soldiers. She must have hoped,
by her request for the vote, to at least cover herself when she sold Lord
Baltimore's cattle without his knowledge and consent. She may even have hoped
to persuade the men present to contribute a share that would make such an act
As it turned out, her tactic, if it was such,
was of no avail. Lord Baltimore was
furious. Weeks away in England, he had no clear understanding of the problems
in Maryland. By 1651, Lord Baltimore's discontent with Margaret's actions,
coupled with the appointment of a new Protestant Governor, had driven all the
Brents to remove to the Virginia frontier, where they took up land, brought in
dozens of settlers, and began a plantation which Margaret named Peace. There
she died in 1671.
Although Lord Baltimore was outraged and suspicious
of Mistress Brent's real
intentions, the members of the Maryland Assembly understood the importance of
her achievement. "As for Mistress Brent's undertaking and meddling with your
Lordships Estate here..." they wrote, "we do Verily Believe and in Conscience
report that it was better for the Colonies safety at that time in her hands then in
any mans else in the whole Province after your Brothers death for the Soldiers
would never have treated any other with the Civility and respect and through they
were even ready at times to run into mutiny yet she still pacified them till at the
last things were brought to that strait that she must be admitted and declared your
Lordships Attorney...or else all must go to ruin again and then the second
mischief had been doubtless far greater than the former. We conceive from that
time she rather deserved favor and thanks from your Honor for her so much
Concurring to the public safety then to be justly liable to all those bitter invectives
you have been pleased to Express against her."
At Historic St. Mary's City, there is a memorial
to Mistress Margaret Brent
located in the Governor's Field area of the museum. A bas relief plaque by
sculptor Mary F. dePackh depicts the scene where Mistress Brent asked the
Assembly for "vote and voyce." The Gazebo containing the memorial and the
surrounding garden were dedicated to Margaret Brent's memory in 1984 during
the 350th anniversary of the founding of Maryland. The Business and
Professional Women's Clubs of Maryland and the local Margaret Brent Chapter
of the BPW initiated the effort to honor her and the project was supported by
many other associations and individuals. Please Note: For an informative recent
article on Margaret Brent, see The Washington Post Horizon Section (December
Margaret Brent stands out in the history of early Maryland for her courage and independence. During a time when men outnumbered women by about six to one and most women looked to their husbands for support and protection, Margaret never married. Instead, she became a successful businesswoman, trading land and servants, and earned the respect of Governor Leonard Calvert, who entrusted her with managing his estate upon his death. While these achievements were both unusual and significant, Margaret Brent is best known for being the first woman in America to request the right to vote.1 Deposition Regarding Leonard Calvert's Last Wishes, naming Margaret Brent as his Executrix to "Take all, & pay all" GOVERNOR AND COUNCIL (Proceedings), 1647-1651, liber A, folio 64, MSA S-1071-4
The Brents were a wealthy Catholic English family with close ties to the Calverts, the Proprietors of Maryland. So when Margaret arrived in Maryland in 1638, accompanied by her sister Mary and her two brothers, Giles and Fulke, she was better off than most immigrants. The Brents came to Maryland for religious freedom and economic opportunity, and for a while they found both. Giles settled on Kent Island and soon became a leader of the colony, but Margaret and Mary chose to live by themselves. Because the women had brought a number of servants with them, Lord Baltimore had generously granted her and her sister patents for 2000 acres of land, "as much Land in and about the Towne of St. Maries and elsewhere in that Province in as ample manner and with as large priviledges as any of the first adventurors have". Margaret soon became skilled at business. She profited from lending money to new immigrants. Both women, but particularly Margaret, appeared in court to collect debts and manage their affairs. Although unusual, Margaret’s economic activities were not illegal or unprecedented. As long as she remained single, a woman could own and manage property. However, once a woman married, she lost the power to make contracts, and her husband assumed control of her property. Since most women in early Maryland married, Margaret stands out in the colony's history.
However Margaret is known for much more than her business activities. Events in England and Maryland thrust her into a position where she became the first woman to request a vote in the Maryland Assembly. Civil war broke out in England in 1642, and rebellion spread to Maryland a few years later. In 1645 a Protestant ship captain, Richard Ingle, led a surprise attack on the Catholic settlers in Maryland. Margaret’s brother Giles was captured and taken to England, while Governor Calvert fled to Virginia, leaving the colony in disarray. A year later the governor returned with a group of hired soldiers from Virginia and successfully defeated Ingle and his supporters. Unfortunately, Governor Calvert became ill shortly after his return. On his deathbed, he appointed Thomas Greene to replace him as governor and named Margaret Brent as his executrix, in charge of paying his debts and disposing of his estate. He instructed her to "take all and pay all."1 It was not uncommon for a woman, usually the dead man's wife, to be named executrix, but Margaret's situation was unique. She was not Calvert's wife - she was not married at all - and she was soon forced to deal with a problem which could impact the survival of the entire colony.
Not long after Leonard Calvert died, the soldiers whom he had hired to protect his colony began to demand their pay. Margaret had used the governor's money to pay his other debts and did not have enough left for the soldiers. They were becoming restless and threatening to mutiny. Margaret quickly took steps to prevent this. Leonard Calvert had been serving as attorney in Maryland for his brother Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore. Margaret went to the Provincial Court and asked that she be named Lord Baltimore's attorney in Leonard's place. Her request was granted. Margaret then took the step for which she is most famous. On January 21, 1648, she went before the all-male Assembly and asked for two votes - one for herself as a landowner and one as Lord Baltimore's attorney. She probably hoped to convince the Assembly to pass a tax to help pay the disgruntled soldiers. However, the Assembly, particularly the new Governor, was not ready to give such power to a woman and turned down her request.
Barred from the assembly, Margaret did not give up. Using her authority as Lord Baltimore's attorney, she began selling some of his cattle to pay the soldiers and thus prevented an uprising. Her quick actions saved the day in Maryland, but they angered Lord Baltimore, who did not like having his cattle sold without his permission. He wrote a letter expressing his disapproval of what Margaret had done, but the Assembly came to her defense. They wrote to Lord Baltimore, saying, "We do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that it was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands than in any mans else in the whole Province… for the Soldiers would never have treated any other with that Civility and respect and though they were even ready at several times to run into mutiny yet she still pacified them… She rather deserved favour and thanks from your Honour for her so much Concurring to the publick safety then to be justly liable to… bitter invectives."2 Unfortunately for Margaret, Lord Baltimore was not convinced by the Assembly's claims. Possibly because of Lord Baltimore's displeasure, in 1649 Margaret and her brother Giles, who had also fallen out of the Calvert's favor, moved to Virginia. She acquired a large tract of land, which she named "Peace" and lived there until her death in 1671.
Margaret Brent did not succeed in becoming the first woman in America to gain the right to vote, but she was a remarkable woman who helped protect the stability of Maryland and ensure the colony's survival. She deserves recognition for her independence and her brave actions in appearing before the Assembly and doing all in her power to preserve control of the colony for the Calvert family.
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