3rd April 2020

Who was Miss Busby?

Historic portraits that line the walls of nearly all historic houses can seem daunting and anonymous. Some have deep connections with a place whereas others are often bought to make a room even more ‘historic’.

But these were real people and piecing together their lives, requiring perseverance and luck, can be revealing. This portrait, painted in the late 1600s, was acquired by York Civic Trust in 1985 and today hangs on the walls of Fairfax House in Castlegate. She is simply known as ‘Miss Busby who married a Clr (Counsellor) Piggot and might therefore be related to the Fairfax family’. But who was she?

The answer maybe Rebecca Busby – whose life is something of a quiet mystery. Rebecca was from a very religious Catholic family from Godington in Oxfordshire. She married, in the late 1600s, Nathaniel Piggott, Counsellor at Law, one of the most famous Catholic barristers in Britain – a time when large parts of society were persecuted because of their religion.

Her husband had a range of wealthy clients including famous writers, artists, politicians and aristocrats and, unlike his wife, was well known in London society.

She had ten children – two died in infancy whilst she was still living in Godington. Four of her sons had a Catholic education in France and went onto become either Jesuit priests (one lived for a time on Micklegate in York) or Benedictine monks. Two of her daughters joined nunneries in France and Rebecca’s other daughters married and moved away.

Rebecca’s son Ralph married Alathea Fairfax, a member of the Fairfax family of Gilling Castle, also a strong Catholic family and one of Nathaniel’s wealthy clients. It would be Anne Fairfax, Alathea’s niece, who would own Fairfax House on Castlegate, before retiring to Gilling Castle in 1772 and helping to found Ampleforth Abbey.

Ralph died unexpectedly in 1729 and Alathea and her young family moved from London to live with Rebecca in her mansion at Whitton, Twickenham. Alathea’s only son, Nathaniel Pigott, named after his grandfather, became a famous astronomer. He moved to York where he reported the Great Meteor of 1783 and built an observatory in his garden at 33 Bootham equipped with the latest microscopes. From here his son Edward worked with John Goodricke of Treasurers House making a number of important astronomical observations.

Nathaniel, however, also sought a fortune to go with his fame and ruthlessly harassed Anne in her retirement at Gilling, eventually securing her estates for his younger son Charles – but that is a different story!

Rebecca out-lived her husband whose will in 1736 leaves his houses in London and Whitton and an income of £400 a year to his ‘dear wife’. But Rebecca was suffering from mental health issues as her husband also leaves all his silver to her ‘to dispose of as she shall think fit if she recovers her memory…’. Nathaniel’s words suggest that he perhaps realises that her recovery may be more hopeful than a reality. The urgency of his concern is reinforced by leaving £1000 to be paid to his brother Adam within ten days of his death to cover any needs that Rebecca may have.

Nathaniel most likely realised he was not well as he died within a year of writing his will after a short illness through which he was nursed by Rebecca’s sister Hannah – who may well have been caring for her sister as well.

This portrait, fashionably demonstrating Rebecca’s youthful beauty but displaying no sign of her beliefs, may well be the only image that survives of a woman who spent what may well have been a long life looking after her family, following her religion and who was well cared for in her old age as she lived with mental health issues. It seems right that it hangs in the city that represents the important facets of her life – religion, science and mental health care.