There she was. Powerful and maternal, she claimed her place at the head of her family, teaching from an open book while her husbands slept elsewhere. We finally “met” more than 400 years after her death and burial in this medieval church, and friends of mine who saw my pictures there wondered about my joy at standing in a tomb.

I spent several years studying the life of a 16th century English noblewoman, Lady Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell. When I finally traveled to England as a senior undergraduate researcher, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her, but I was wrong. In England, I saw how her signature changed through time, and how she forged relationships with others through physical writing. I felt her personality in the pages of documents that she wrote or dictated in a way that printed sources could not communicate. I witnessed her devotion to her family when I saw other funeral monuments she had designed. I even crept through her house while people downstairs prepared the great hall for a wedding, which her portrait would look down on as it had countless times before.

But nothing compared to the experience of looking at Elizabeth in the funeral monument of her own design. There, I finally encountered her legacy as closely as possible to the way she had intended. After 400 years of consistent flooding from the Thames, it is unlikely that her physical remains are still in the crypt or even identifiable, but it was almost as though I could feel her presence anyway.

That experience in a quiet countryside chapel has changed the way I think about how we craft our legacies, and it cemented in my mind the idea of historical subjects as people that we are just trying to get to know.

– Frankie Urrutia-Smith (Ph.D. Student)