The English civil war of the 1640s exposed and encouraged an explosion of radial and pioneering political and social thought. A substantial driver of the conflict had been ideology – a striving for freedom of religious worship. But economics was also heavily involved – restrictions on the ability of the middle classes to better themselves through trade, maintained by monopolies licensed by the king and bolstered by custom and autocratic rule, were hampering the rise of the bourgeoisie.
But Parliament acting on behalf of the moderate bourgeois interests, called on the lower orders to fight, enlisting them with appeals that seemed to offer them the fruits of the struggle – greater freedoms, religious tolerance… However this opened up many cans of worms, as the war agitated maelstroms of ideas and produced a surge of aspiration from below, much to the horror of the moderate leadership.
But the war had also been partly emerged from a lingering trade recession, and the war economy was to worsen this. And this was to open up the worst of nightmares for the Parliamentary worthies – rebellious women.
Women had been a major part of the crowds who had mobilised against the king in 1640; they had formed a substantial contingent of the volunteers who had build a ring of forts around the whole city when the king’s army threatened it in 1642. But rage and poverty would set them against Parliament; not just against the king and his party, but against all “the haves… set up for themselves, call parity and independence liberty… destroy all rights and properties, all distinctions of families and merit.” As Stevie Davies put it, “they were driven not by ideology but by pragmatic hatred of war.”
In the very earliest days of the war, a reaction in London was already beginning – among women of the City. On 31st January 1642, as Parliament and king Charles were only just marshalling their armies, crowds of women protested at Parliament. “They were hungry; the economy had nose-dived into depression, and mobs of the ‘rabble’ were daily clamouring for relief at the House of Lords (’popish Lords’ whose lack of co-operation they blamed for their present catastrophe). What the women wanted was bread for their children, who they threatened to plant on the Lords to mother.”
When as several hundred women surrounded Parliament, the king’s cousin, the Duke of Richmond, (who they waylaid as he rode up in his coach), laid into them with his ducal staff, crying ‘Away with these Women, we were best to have a parliament of women!’ Angry women grabbed his staff and it got broken in the tussle. The Duke was regarded as a ‘dangerous malignant’, a prominent supporter of the king and enemy of parliament and people.
Another aristo, Lord Savage, despite his name, tried a more conciliatory approach, delivering the women’s petition to the Lords, who agreed to see representatives of the crowd to hear their grievances.
But immediate respite was not forthcoming, and on February 1st a crowd of women surged around the House of Commons: “great multitudes of women at the Houses, pressing to present a Petition to the Parliament; and their language is, that where there is One Woman now here, there would be five hundred tomorrow; and that it was as good for them to die here as at home.”
The crowd were persuaded by Sergeant-Major Skippon, commander of the City Militia, to leave the Commons to consider their pleas…
The next day also a blockade of Old Palace Yard, protesting that the recession was driving them to poverty.
On the 4th, however, another group of women assembled, bringing a petition against the Bishops (also seen as supporters of the king and oppressors of the people). Anne Stagg, ‘a gentlewoman and a brewer’s wife’, led a deputation of women of like status, addressing parliament in a more genteel manner, and received a much friendlier welcome…
By August the following year, crowds of distressed women had become ‘Peace Women’, who flocked to Parliament, wearing white ribbons, and demanding and end to the war and the privations and death it was bringing. This time, the women were beaten by soldiers and driven from Westminster violently, and denounced as “oyster wives, and other dirty tattered sluts…” or “whores, bawds… kitchenstuff women… the very scum of the suburbs”, who were the willing or unconscious dupes of the royalists. The Peace women may have called for peace, but peaceful they were not, targeting figures of authority, roughing them up; they also beat up the Trained Bands, the citizen volunteers, and derided the lying promises of the officials. They besieged Parliament and barred the doors; pelted the soldiers with brickbats, and threatened to duck the Parliamentary leaders in the Thames (traditionally a male punishment for ‘scolds’).
Again they were driven violently off by soldiers, some were cut by sword-wielding cavalry, others arrested and jailed in the Bridewell.
Women would continue to erupt into the male-dominated world of the civil war, while the men essentially attempted to block them from having a voice. They would begin to preach in the streets (outraging conservative opinion beyond belief), campaign in support of the Levellers, even as the Levellers drew up plans for a wider franchise that continued to exclude all women; would form vital elements of the ranters, quakers, and other sects and groupings; Fifth monarchist women would issue prophesies and call Oliver Cromwell to account. And just as many of the gains of the English Revolution would, at least for a while, be lost and driven backward, women’s part in these events would be ignored and marginalised by historians.
Much of this is lifted from the wondrous ‘Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution’, by Stevie Davies, which uncovers some of these women’s stories… Essential reading.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.