Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham is considered by some to be the United Kingdom’s first female architect and a major patroness of architecture during the 17th century. Born into aristocracy in 1632, Lady Wilbraham married Thomas Wilbraham, the heir to the baronetcy of Wilbraham in 1651. During their honeymoon, the couple traveled throughout Europe and Lady Wilbraham has the opportunity to study European architecture and meet with various important architects throughout the continent. In the Netherlands, she met with Pieter Post, considered the creator of the Dutch Baroque architectural style, and studied the work of Palladio in Venice.
Labeling Lady Wilbraham as the ‘first female architect’ is a bit difficult, as there is no evidence of her direct involvement in the building of the various projects she is attributed to. Historian John Millar has dedicated more than 50 years of research to Lady Wilbraham, but his claims are still relatively speculative. It was impossible for a woman to professional pursue architecture and Millar states that Wilbraham used male assistant architects to supervise the projects, but she was behind the formal designs of more than 400 buildings. She is even credited with tutoring Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed English architects who rebuilt 52 churches in London after the Great Fire in 1666.
While the legitimacy of her role as a formal architect is unknown, it is clear that Lady Wilbraham took a great interest in architecture and was a major supporter and patron of architecture during the late 17th century. She was likely involved at least as a patron on the construction of her Staffordshire family home, Weston Hall, which included unusual architectural details and references to her interest in Palladio.
Women, while barred from serving as architect professionally, became extremely important patrons of architecture throughout the Early Modern period. Queens, such as Catherine and Marie de’ Medici, commissioned chateaux, chapels, and churches to represent their various roles as queen, mother, wife, and more. Those who had the funds to do so saw architecture as a way to memorialize their families and themselves in stone for all to see and many of these structures, like the buildings overseen by Lady Wilbraham, still stand today.