Who Was Elizabeth Fairfax?

Who was Elizabeth Fairfax?

The Elizabeth Fairfax Cookbook gives few details about the woman or women who authored and collected these handwritten recipes. However, there are a few hints inscribed on the entry page of the cookbook that offer a small glimpse into the book’s original ownership.

The first lines written in the cookbook read as a memorial to the late Lady Frances Fairfax. While no recipes in the cookbook are directly attributed to Frances, it is possible that some of them may have originated from her household. Otherwise, the dedication remains mysterious. While Lady Fairfax’s name appears first on the entry page, “Elizabeth Fairfax Hir Booke [Her Book]1694” is written directly underneath to claim ownership of the cookbook.  Along with Elizabeth’s claim that the book belonged to her, multiple recipes include the initials, “E.F” which lead historians and archivists to attribute the cookbook in its entirety to Elizabeth.

But who was Elizabeth Fairfax? Searching for Lady Frances Fairfax is simple. Due to the elite status of both her birth and married families, Frances is included in multiple genealogies and published works on the Fairfax family. Initially, those who first examined the cookbook assumed that Elizabeth Fairfax must be a close relative or descendant of Frances due to the initial dedication and the assumption that these recipes were passed down. It has been suggested that Elizabeth must be the granddaughter of Lady Frances and Lord William Fairfax as the child of one of their sons William or Thomas. However, the search for Elizabeth Fairfax is much more complex.

William and Thomas Fairfax, the sons of Lady Frances, both married and had children. No family genealogies or histories mention the existence of a daughter named Elizabeth.  In a family as prominent as the Fairfaxes, it is unlikely that the daughter of William or Thomas would be so easily overlooked by professional genealogists. While some relation to Frances and the Fairfaxes must be true, it is possible that Elizabeth may not have been as closely related as previously supposed. In searching records from York County England around the year 1694, there are very few Elizabeth Fairfaxes that meet the appropriate requirements for someone who would have owned a family cookbook. The majority of the Elizabeth Fairfaxes who can be found in church or tax records were small children in 1694 and it is unlikely that they would have kept or maintained a cookbook. Of the Elizabeth Fairfaxes old enough to own and use a cookbook, all of them were married into other prominent York County families by the 1694 entry date. It is unlikely that a woman would go by her maiden name after marriage in the late 17th century.

However, the closest person that can be identified as the owner of the cookbook is Elizabeth Fairfax Spencer. According to the book, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry Volume 2 by John Burke, Elizabeth Fairfax of York County was the daughter of William Fairfax, esq. Of Steeton in York County, England. This William Fairfax was not the son of Lady Frances and Lord William Fairfax, but a distant cousin who died in 1644 as a Cavalier in the English Civil War. Elizabeth Fairfax married Thomas Spencer esq. of Attercliffe Hall in 1670, making her the appropriate age to own and maintain such an extensive family cookbook. 

Other Elizabeth Fairfaxes who lived in and outside of York County during the time period were deemed as commoners. It is certainly possible that the Elizabeth Fairfax who owned the cookbook could have been born or married into a less prominent branch of the Fairfax family. However,  there are too few sources to determine any relationship to Lady Frances Fairfax---if that relationship ever existed at all. 

The Elizabeth Fairfax Cookbook leaves us with more questions and assumptions than concrete answers. As the search for Elizabeth continues there are some important questions that we must ask ourselves. Can the dedication to Lady Frances Fairfax help us find Elizabeth? Do the types recipes in this cookbook identify Elizabeth as a prominent woman or a commoner? Would Elizabeth forgo her married name in a personal family cookbook?

While our quest to properly identify Elizabeth Fairfax comes up short, there is hope that with more sources and research that she will be found.