Anne Bracegirdle (d. 1748)



  • Actress
  • Singer

Biographical details

Note: the 19th- and early 20th-century biographies below preserve a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

BRACEGIRDLE, ANNE (1663?–1748), one of the most popular and brilliant of English actresses, was born about 1663, presumably in one of the midland counties. Curll (History of the English Stage) calls her the daughter of Justinian Bracegirdle, of Northamptonshire (?Northampton), esq., says 'she had the good fortune to be well placed when an infant under the care of Mr. Betterton and his wife,' and adds that 'she performed the page in "The Orphan," at the Duke's Theatre in Dorset Garden, before she was six years old.' 'The Orphan' was first played, at Dorset Garden, in 1680. With the addition of a decade to Mrs. Bracegirdle's age, which this date renders imperative, this story, though without authority and not undisputed, is reconcilable with facts. Downes (Roscius Anglicanus) first mentions Mrs. Bracegirdle in connection with the Theatre Royal in 1688, in which year she played Lucia in Shadwell's 'Squire of Alsatia.' Maria in Mountfort's 'Edward III,' Emmeline in Dryden's 'King Arthur,' Tamira in D'Urfey's alteration of Chapman's 'Bussy d'Ambois,' and other similar parts followed. In 1693 Mrs. Bracegirdle made, as Araminta in the 'Old Bachelor,' her first appearance in a comedy of Congreve, the man in whose works her chief triumphs were obtained, and whose name has subsequently, for good or ill, been most closely associated with her own. In the memorable opening, by Betterton, of the little theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, in 1695, with 'Love for Love,' Mrs. Bracegirdle played Angelica. Two years later she enacted Belinda in the 'Provoked Wife' of Vanbrugh, and Almeria in Congreve's 'Mourning Bride.' To these, which may rank as her principal 'creations,' may be added the heroines of some of Rowe's tragedies, Selina in 'Tamerlane,' Lavinia in the 'Fair Penitent,' and in such alterations of Shakespeare as were then customary; Isabella ('Measure for Measure'), Portia ('Merchant of Venice'), Desdemona, Ophelia, Cordelia, and Mrs. Ford, with other characters from plays of the epoch, showing that her range included both comedy and tragedy. In the season of 1706-7 Mrs. Bracegirdle at the Haymarket came first into competition with Mrs. Oldfield, before whose star, then rising, her own went down. According to an anonymous life of Mrs. Oldfield, published in 1730, the year of her death, and quoted by Genest (vol. ii. p. 375), the question whether Mrs. Oldfield or Mrs. Bracegirdle was the better actress in comedy was left to the town to settle. 'Mrs. Bracegirdle accordingly acted Mrs. Brittle' (in Betterton's 'Amorous Widow') 'on one night, and Mrs. Oldfield acted the same part on the next night; the preference was adjudged to Mrs. Oldfield, at which Mrs. Bracegirdle was very much disgusted, and Mrs. Oldfield's benefit, being allowed by Swiney to be in the season before Mrs. Bracegirdle's, added so much to the affront that she quitted the stage immediately.' That from this time (1707) she refused all offers to rejoin the stage is certain. Once again she appeared upon the scene of her past triumphs. This was on the occasion of the memorable benefit to Betterton, 7 and 13 April 1709, when, with her companion Mrs. Barry, she came from her retirement, and played in 'Love for Love' her favourite role of Angelica [see Betterton, Thomas]. After this date no more is publicly heard of her until 18 Sept. 1748, when her body was removed from her house in Howard Street, Strand, and interred in the east cloisters of Westminster Abbey. Of her long life less than a third was directly connected with the stage. An amount of publicity unusual even in the case of women of her profession was thrust upon her during her early life. To this the murder of Mountfort by Captain Hill and Lord Mohun, due to the passion of the former for Mrs. Bracegirdle and his jealousy of his victim, contributed. An assumption of virtue, anything but common in those of her position in the days in which she lived, was, however, a principal cause. Into the inquiry how far the merit of 'not being unguarded in her private character,' which, without a hint of a sneer, is conceded her by Colley Cibber, is her due, it is useless now to inquire. Evidence will be judged differently by different minds. Macaulay, with characteristic confidence, declares 'She seems to have been a cold, vain, and interested coquette, who perfectly understood how much the influence of her charms was increased by the fame of a severity which cost her nothing, and who could venture to flirt with a succession of admirers in the just confidence that no flame which she might kindle in them would thaw her own ice' (History of England, iii. 380, ed. 1864). For this statement, to say the least rash, the authorities Macaulay quotes, unfriendly as they are, furnish no justification. Tom Brown, of infamous memory, utters sneers concerning her Abigail being 'brought to bed,' but imputes nothing directly to her; and Gildon, in that rare and curious though atrocious publication, 'A Comparison between Two Stages,' expresses his want of faith in the story of her innocence, concerning which, without arraigning it, he says (p. 18), 'I believe no more on't than I believe of John Mandevil.' Wholly valueless is the evidence of these two indirect assailants against the general verdict of a time known to be censorious. Mrs. Bracegirdle may at least claim to have had the highest reputation for virtue of any woman of her age; and her benevolence to the unemployed poor of Clare Market and adjacent districts, 'so that she could not pass that neighbourhood without the thankful acclamations of people of all degrees, so that, if any one affronted her, they would have been in danger of being killed directly ' (Tony Aston), is a pleasing trait in her character. The story is worth repeating that 'Lord Halifax, overhearing the praise of Mrs. Bracegirdle's virtuous behaviour by the Dukes of Dorset and Devonshire and other nobles, said, "You all commend her virtue, &c., but why do we not present this incomparable woman with something worthy her acceptance?" His lordship deposited 200 guineas, which the rest made up to 800 and sent to her' (Tony Aston). Whether, as is insinuated in some quarters, she yielded to the advances of Congreve, whose devotion to her, like the similar devotion of Howe, seemed augmented by her success in his pieces, and whose testimony in his poems appears, like all other testimony, to establish her virtue, remains undetermined. In her own time she was suspected, though her biographers ignore the fact, of being married to Congreve. In a poem called 'The Benefits of a Theatre,' which appears in 'The State Poems,' vol. iv. p. 49, and is no more capable of being quoted than are the other contents of that valuable but unsavoury receptacle, Congreve and Mrs. Bracegirdle, unmistakably associated under the names of Valentine and Angelica, are distinctly, though doubtless wrongly, stated to be married. Congreve left her in his will a legacy of 200l. Garrick, who met Mrs. Bracegirdle after she had quitted the stage, and heard her repeat some lines from Shakespeare, is said to have expressed an opinion that her reputation was undeserved. Colley Cibber denied her any 'greater claim to beauty than what the most desirable brunette might pretend to,' but states that 'it was even a fashion among the gay and young to have a taste or tendre for Mrs. Bracegirdle.' She inspired the best authors to write for her, and two of them, Congreve and Rowe, 'when they gave her a lover, in her play, seemed palpably to plead their own passion, and made their private court to her in fictitious character.' Aston, bitter in tongue as he ordinarily is, shared his father's belief in her purity, and has left a sufficiently tempting picture of her. 'She was of a lovely height, with dark-brown hair and eyebrows, black sparkling eyes and a fresh blushy complexion, and, whenever she exerted herself, had an involuntary flushing in her breast, neck, and face, having continually a cheerful aspect, and a fine set of even white teeth, never making an exit but that she left the audience in an imitation of her pleasant countenance' (Brief Supplement, pp. 9–10).

[Genest's History of the Stage; Cibber's Apology, by Bellchambers; Egerton's Life of Ann Oldfield, 1731; Stanley's Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey; W. Clark Russell's Representative Actors ; A Comparison between the Two Stages, 1702; Tony Aston's Brief Supplement to Colley Cibber, n. d.; Downe's Roscius Anglicanus.]

J. K.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

BRACEGIRDLE, ANNE (c. 1674–1748), English actress, is said to have been placed under the care of Thomas Betterton and his wife, and to have first appeared on the stage as the page in The Orphan at its first performance at Dorset Garden in 1680. She was Lucia in Shadwell’s Squire of Alsatia at the Theatre Royal in 1688, and played similar parts until, in 1693, as Araminta in The Old Bachelor, she made her first appearance in a comedy by Congreve, with whose works and life her name is most closely connected. In 1695 she went with Betterton and the other seceders to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where, on its opening with Congreve’s Love for Love, she played Angelica. This part, and those of Belinda in Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife, and Almira in Congreve’s Mourning Bride, were among her best impersonations, but she also played the heroines of some of Nicholas Rowe’s tragedies, and acted in the contemporary versions of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1705 she followed Betterton to the Haymarket, where she found a serious competitor in Mrs Oldfield, then first coming into public favour. The story runs that it was left for the audience to determine which was the better comedy actress, the test being the part of Mrs Brittle in Betterton’s Amorous Widow, which was played alternately by the two rivals on successive nights. When the popular vote was given in favour of Mrs Oldfield, Mrs Bracegirdle quitted the stage, making only one reappearance at Betterton’s benefit in 1709. Her private life was the subject of much discussion. Colley Cibber remarks that she had the merit of “not being unguarded in her private character,” while Macaulay does not hesitate to call her “a cold, vain and interested coquette, who perfectly understood how much the influence of her charms was increased by the fame of a severity which cost her nothing.” She was certainly the object of the adoration of many men, and she was the innocent cause of the killing of the actor William Mountfort (q.v.), whom Captain Hill and Lord Mohun regarded as a rival for her affections. During her lifetime she was suspected of being secretly married to Congreve, whose mistress she is also said to have been. He was at least always her intimate friend, and left her a legacy. Rightly or wrongly, her reputation for virtue was remarkably high, and Lord Halifax headed a subscription list of 800 guineas, presented to her as a tribute to her virtue. Her charity to the poor in Clare Market and around Drury Lane was conspicuous, “insomuch that she would not pass that neighbourhood without the thankful acclamations of people of all degrees.” She died in 1748, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

See Genest, History of the Stage; Colley Gibber, Apology (edited by Bellchambers); Egerton, Life of Anne Oldfield; Downes, Roscius Anglicanus.