In 1647 the
new Maryland colony was in crisis. Protestants had revolted against
the Catholic government and seized control of the colony. To preserve
Maryland as a refuge for Catholics and safeguard his family's interests,
Governor Leonard Calvert hired mercenary soldiers from Virginia.
Lacking hard currency to pay them, he pledged his estate and that
of his brother, Cecilius Calvert (Lord Baltimore, the proprietor
of Maryland), as security for their wages. But just as his soldiers
put down the revolt, Governor Calvert died, plunging the government
into disarray, without authority or funds to pay the restless mercenaries.
On his deathbed Leonard Calvert named Thomas Green to succeed him
as governor but entrusted his personal estate to a prominent landowner,
Margaret Brent. Telling her "I make you my sole Executrix.
Take all, pay all," he left the resolution of the crisis
in her hands.
The woman who accepted this challenge was born around 1601 in Gloucestershire,
England, into a substantial gentry family. But as Catholics, the
Brent's religious freedom and fortune were increasingly precarious.
Since the death of Queen Mary in 1557, English Catholics had endured
almost continuous religious persecution, and the growing power of
militant Puritans during the 1630s promised new hardships for the
Brents and other Catholics. The family faced a troubled financial
future as well. With thirteen children, Margaret Brent's parents
had done their utmost to propagate their Catholic faith, but their
fruitfulness threatened the next generation with economic decline.
In migrating to Maryland, the Brent children hoped to use the modest
funds provided by their parents and their ties with the Calverts
to maintain their gentry status.
Margaret Brent, her sister Mary, and their brothers Giles and Fulke
arrived in Maryland in 1638. They carried a letter from their coreligionist
Lord Baltimore recommending that they be granted land on favorable
terms, and the grant was made. Margaret and Mary took up the "Sisters
Freehold" of 70 acres in St. Mary's City, the capitol of the
colony. Four years later Margaret acquired another 1,000 acres on
Kent Island from her brother Giles. Margaret soon won the trust
and favor of Governor Calvert, sharing with him the guardianship
of Mary Kitomaquund, the daughter of a Piscataway chief, who was
being educated among the English.
The governor's death during the 1647 crisis threatened the Brent's
ambitions, which depended on Catholic rule and access to the
governing family and its allies in the assembly. To preserve her
family's religious freedom and its wealth and influence Margaret
Brent would have to save the colony from the mutinous soldiers.
Now a mature woman of forty-six, Brent was unusually well qualified
for this task. Like many women of gentle birth, she had received
some preparation for public affairs; she had enjoyed a basic education
in England and had watched her father conduct the business of his
estate. But, almost unheard of for a woman, she also had considerable
experience in the public arena. As a single woman of property in
Maryland, she had appeared frequently before the Provincial Court
to file suits against her debtors. In addition, she had occasionally
acted as an attorney, pleading the cases of her brother Giles and
various women before the court.
not hesitate to use the power and authority Calvert had assigned
to her. First, since food was in short supply and the soldiers camped
in St. Mary's City were demanding bread, she arranged for corn to
be imported from Virginia. Then, to pay the soldiers, she spent
all of Leonard Calvert's personal estate. When that proved inadequate,
she adroitly exploited her position as the governor's legal executor
to draw on the resources of the Lord Proprietor. Using the power
of attorney Governor Calvert had held as Baltimore's representative,
Brent sold the proprietor's cattle to pay the troops. Once paid,
the soldiers promptly dispersed, some becoming settlers, allowing
Governor Green to restore order to the increasingly Protestant colony.
To preserve Maryland as a refuge for Catholics, Lord Baltimore had
the assembly pass a Toleration Act (1649), which allowed the free
exercise of religion by all Christians.
vigorous advocacy of the interests of her family and the Calverts
did not go unchallenged. In January 1648 she demanded two votes
in the assembly, one for herself as a freeholder and one in her
role as the proprietor's attorney. For reasons that do not appear
on the record, the Provincial Court opposed her claim: it "denyed
that the said Mrs. Brent should have any vote in the house."
From England, Lord Baltimore launched a "bitter invective"
against Brent, protesting against the sale of his cattle and accusing
her of wasting his estate. Baltimore's attack was partly designed
to convince the Puritan Parliament, which had just defeated the
king in the English Civil War, that he did not favor Catholics.
He also hoped to recover some of his property, which he suspected
had fallen into the hands of the Brent family. Although the Maryland
assembly declined to grant Margaret Brent a vote, it did defend
her stewardship of Baltimore's estate, advising him that it "was
better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands than in
any mans . . . for the Soldiers would never have treated any others
with that Civility and respect. . . ."
No longer assured
of the proprietor's favor, the Brents turned to new strategies to
advance their interests. Giles Brent married Mary Kitomaquund, the
Piscataway Indian, perhaps hoping to gain land or power from her
influential father, and moved with her to Virginia in 1650. The
next year Margaret and Mary Brent also took up lands in Virginia,
on the Northern Neck, gradually settling their estate with migrants
from England. Margaret Brent never married, making her one of the
very few English women in the early Chesapeake not to do so. She
died on her Virginia plantation, named "Peace," in 1671,
bequeathing extensive property in Virginia and Maryland, mostly
to her brother Giles and his children.
Margaret Brent is often hailed as an early feminist and woman lawyer,
but viewed in the context of the time, her actions and achievements
were essentially those of an "adventurer" and an assertive
woman of property. Born into privileged circumstances and determined
to maintain that status, she had struck out on her own, settling
in the wilderness of Maryland, defending her interests before the
Provincial Court, asserting her rights as a property owner in the
assembly, and helping to save the colony, and her family's fragile
stake in America in a time of crisis.