Lady Damaris Masham

For International Women’s Day this year we focus on the theologian and philosopher Lady Damaris Masham (née Cudworth) , 1658-1708.

Masham was born into an academic family resident in Cambridge.  Her father, Ralph Cudworth, was a prominent member of the ‘Cambridge Platonist’ circle of philosophers and theologians at the University.  It was her father’s work, in addition to the writings of the other Cambridge Platonists, which developed Masham’s interest in philosophical thought.


Engraving of John Locke.  PL 2979 p. 126d

There are parallels to be drawn between Masham and Mary Astell, the subject our blog marking International Women’s day 2019.  They were both promoters of education for women and published writers.  Astell corresponded extensively with John Norris, also associated with the Cambridge Platonists, leading to the publication of their correspondence.  This male-female intellectual pairing can be seen even more prominently between Damaris Masham and John Locke.  Locke taught Masham in philosophy and divinity, and even lived with her and her husband, Sir Francis, in his latter years when in ill health.


Old Library B.17.71.  Masham, Damaris: Discourse concerning the love of God.   London : printed for Awnsham and John Churchil, at the Black-Swan in Pater-noster-Row, 1696.

On philosophical matters, however, there were differences between Masham and Astell, perhaps influenced by the teachings of their respective mentors.  Masham’s first book, ‘A discourse concerning the love of God’ is a response to the publication of the correspondence between Norris and Astell, ‘Letters concerning the love of God’.  Despite Astell’s challenges to Norris throughout their correspondence, Masham criticises both scholars for, in the words of Jacqueline Broad, ‘espousing an impractical or ‘unserviceable’ moral theory, rather than one based on common sense’ and ‘opposing the ‘daily Sense and Experience of all Mankind’[i] . Broad goes on to explain that both Astell and Norris believed that John Locke was responsible for the authorship of ‘A discourse concerning the love of God’, due to Masham’s arguments being ‘steeped in the empiricist philosophy of Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning Human understanding’.[ii]


Old Library B.17.33.  Masham, Damaris: Occasional thoughts in reference to a vertuous or Christian life.  London : printed for A. and J. Churchil at the Black-Swan in Paternoster-Row, 1705.

Masham’s later publication, ‘Occasional thoughts in reference to a virtuous or Christian Life’ published in 1705, was again mistaken for a work by Locke.  In the work she espouses Locke’s view that ‘virtuous living is more important than religious ceremonial…she argues that moral conduct is central to religious practice.’[iii]

In both Masham books in the Old Library, a former owner has made handwritten notes on the endpapers and on the title pages .  One can just see in faded ink on the title page above, ‘by the Lady Masham of Oates in Essex’).  In the picture below, ‘Suum quisque judicium habet every man has his opinion, as Labeo told Augustus w[ho]m he gave his suffrage for Lepidus’. Excitingly, the former owner of these books could well be Mary Astell, due to the similarity of letterforms in these examples of handwriting when compared to confirmed examples of Astell’s hand elsewhere in the Old Library.[iv]


Sample of handwriting, possibly Mary Astell’s.

Contemporary copies of Damaris Masham’s work are very rare.  In fact, Magdalene is the only Cambridge College to hold such works.  Perhaps the person who brought Astell’s publications (and books owned by her) to Magdalene was also responsible for the Masham books coming to the college.  This could possibly be Daniel Waterland, former master of Magdalene, who was an enthusiast of Astell’s work.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections



[i] Broad, Jacqueline.  Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  2014, Lady Damaris Masham [Online].  [Accessed 10 February 2020].  Available from:

[iv] Comparisons of handwriting made by Dr Tilda Watson, college archivist, and Catherine Sutherland.



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