The outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 came after several years of conflict between king Charles I and a growing number of his subjects, over numerous disputes – freedom religion versus increasing state centralisation or worship; the king’s personal autocracy; royal methods of fundraising including heavier and heavier taxation; economic diversity against monopolies being only some of the leading issues. The slide into war was gradual amidst social unrest, an explosion of propaganda and religious ferment. In the two years before the war began crowds had regularly besieged Parliament or gathered to protest, petition and demand. Street politics flourished; collective complaint became a daily occurrence.
The privation, violence and disruption of war soon began to tell on people’s lives.
On 8 August 1643, several hundred women, wearing white ribbons in their hats and pinned to their breasts, some said to be carrying babies and children, surrounded Parliament, demanding an end to the civil war, which they proclaimed was causing untold deaths and ruining the livelihoods of thousands… The previous night, the House of Commons had voted against accepting the House of Lords six proposals for a peace settlement. This week has been identified by some as a crucial crossroads in the Civil War: militarily the king had the upper hand, the moderates in Parliament were wavering and royalist sympathising Lords and MPs were pressing for peace negotiations. (The vote on the 7th August was in fact only narrowly defeated, allegedly with some underhand procedural shenanigans, while a riotous crowd outside cried ‘No Peace!’)
The morning of the 8th saw an organised demonstration to the Commons, with the stated intention of meeting with Parliamentary leaders, such as John Pym, to present them formally with ‘The Petition of Many Civilly Disposed Women’. MP and diarist Sir Simonds d’Ewes allegedly overheard some threatening violence to any member who was a an ‘enemy to peace’…
At one point in the demonstration they surged to the door of the House of Commons, pushing up the staircase, until soldiers forced them out, beating them with the flats of their swords.
The newspaper Certain Informations reported the event with a heavy dose of misogynistic bile:
‘Yesterday in the afternoon two or three hundred oyster wives, and other dirty and tattered sluts, took upon them the impudency to come to the honourable House of Commons, and cried for Peace and Propositions, and they so filled the stairs that no man could pass up or down, whereupon a man upon the top of the stairs drew his sword and with the flat side struck some of them upon the heads, which so affrighted them that they presently made way and ran down.’
Many of the women were said by others to be the wives of men away fighting.
Walter Yonge, M.P. for Honiton, reported that
‘they woulde not bee satisfied, but kepte knocking and beatinge of the outwarde door before the Parliament House, and would have violently forced the same open, and required Mr. Pym, Mr. Strode, and some other members . . . and threatened to take the round heades of the Parliament whome they saide they would caste into the Thames.’
The women retreated, but promised to be back…
… which they were, the next day, in greater numbers, estimated at anywhere from 500 to 6000 strong. Hostile observers judged them to be mostly ‘whores, bawds, oyster-women, kitchenstuff women, beggar women, and the very scum of the suburbs, besides abundance of Irish women’…
The newsbook Mercurius Civicus reprinted the petition carried to the Commons that day:
‘Shewing unto your Honours, hat your poore Petitioners (though the weaker Sex) doe too sensibly perceive the ensuing desolation of this Kingdome, unlesse by some timely meanes your Honours provide for the speedy recovery thereof; Your Honours are the Physitians that can by God’s speciall and miraculous blessing, (which we humbly implore) restore this languishing Nation, and our Bleeding Sister the Kingdome of Ireland, which hath now almost breathed her last gaspe; We need not dictate to your Eagle Ey’d Judgments the way; Our onley desire is, That God’s glory in the true reformed Protestant Religion may be preserved, the just Prerogatives and Priviledges of King and Parliament maintained, the true Liberties and Properties of the Subject according to the known Lawes of the Land restored, and all Honourable waies and meanes for a speedy peace endeavoured.
May it therefore please your Honours to conceive that some speedy course may be taken for the settlement of the true reformed Protestant Religion for the glory o God, and the renovation of Trade for the benefit of the Subject, they being the soule and body of the Kingdome.
And they with many Millions of afflicted soules groaning under the burthen of these times of distresse (as bound), shall pray, &c.’
‘Six members carried the answer that the house were not enemies to peace, and would consider the petition, and, according to Rushworth, desired them to return to their habitations.’
This day’s protest was cunningly planned or co-ordinated. Some women arrived at Parliament in boats, evading the riverside guards. Others beat up the sentinels on the other side of the House and swarmed in again. They occupied parts of Parliament for two hours, preventing any MPs leaving or entering. When men of the Trained bands (volunteer militia) fired blanks at them they laughed it off, crying ‘Nothing But Powder!’, and pelting the men with bricks. It took a charge by the mounted men of General Waller’s Horse to disperse them.
As the women were returning home they were reportedly met in the Strand by a troop of horse on its way to the house. ‘It fell upon and rode down some of the women, whereof four are said to be killed.’
Several women received serious injuries despite the soldiers again using the flats of their swords; one woman had her nose sliced off and was said to have died later. Sir Thomas Knyvett wrote of ‘diverse men and women being slain’. The Venetian Secretary in England reported ‘ten persons being killed and more than a hundred injured, mostly women.’
Others were arrested and marched off to the Bridewell. Again, the women shouted out that they would come back the next day, with guns and swords this time… In the event, the 10th August was quiet.
The protests led to a crackdown on suspected dissidents in London: ‘Many of the women who went to implore peace have been imprisoned, as well as their husbands, the mere suspicion of desiring it being considered the last degree of criminality. For this reason they have made a fresh general search in the houses, and taken away arms of every sort, even swords, from those not actually serving the parliament. Many have been arrested without any evidence about their sympathies save the indiscretion of soldiers, who permit themselves every liberty, without any reason, and even carry off anything they take a fancy to.’ (Gerolamo Agostini, Venetian Secretary in England, writing to the Doge and Senate of Venice.)
Commentators were outraged by the demonstrations. Women of any sort were not supposed to have political opinions let alone voice them, still less collectively claim any sort of public space to make political demands. The demonstrations were an outrage against the heart of the social order – male power over women, domination of the public and private sphere on every level. The Parliamentary Scout lamented the times: ‘Thus we see, to permit absurdities, is the way to encourage them: tumults are dangerous, swords in women’s hands do desperate things; this is begotten in the distraction of the Civil Wars’. The demonstrations were yet another sign of ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, the proper way of things inverted, complaints of which were increasing as the floodgates of opinion, thought and belief opened wider… The Parliamentarians had made a rod for their own backs to some extent, in their rebelling against the king, trumpeting the ideas of freedom of religion and enlisting mass support in the streets, they gave licence, had tolerated women’s petitioning en masse earlier in the 1640s when the cause was closer to their own… But now the streets, and much more, were opened up to people the MPs had never intended should think and act for themselves. Not only women – but women of ‘the inferior sort’! Working women! Sticking their noses into men’s business, and roughing up men who were properly appointed (by God) to rule over the lower orders and especially females.
The early 1640s were filled with men’s fear of women getting above themselves (as opposed to, er, pretty much every era you can name…). Women were even preaching, in some parts of London – an abomination to virtually anyone who was anyone, on both sides of the war. The virulently hostile reaction to the ‘peace women’, in print and from the soldiers, was the expression of fury – rage that females were usurping man’s rights and position.
At the time, the ‘peace women’ were accused of being opposed to the parliamentary cause and of supporting king Charles. Observers claimed to have overheard shouts of ‘we will have Peace presently and our King’. This may have been true, or the demonstrations may have been manipulated by ‘cavalier’ sympathisers; although that the women would be labelled as royalists was inevitable under the circumstances.
Rumours abounded that these women were ‘sett on and backed by some men of rank and quality.’ Four days after the protests, Mistress Jordan, a citizen of London, petitioned the commons to be allowed to go to Holland, ‘for that she went in great jeoperdy of her life here amongst her own neighbours in that she refused to joyn with them in their tumultuous rising against the parliament.’ Being questioned at the House of Commons, she repeated a statement made by one Master Knowles in Chancery Lane to the effect that many of the women had been with a great earl, ‘who encouraged them to make the disturbance, saying that the lords with one exception and all the commons except four or five were in favour of peace, and that if they came down for three or four days in that manner the peace proposals would pass.’ It was suggested this was the earl of Holland, who had already fled to join the king after the defeat of the Lords’ peace proposals…
Hardly a cast-iron case… To some extent the idea that (male) royalists were the brains behind the protests again represents the total incomprehension of the idea that women could be and were acting for themselves.
Royalist manipulation or not, many folk at the time were disturbed by the rebellion against the king, against a social hierarchy previously stated to have been ordained by God, and blamed the ‘rebels’, Parliamentary leaders, for a fatal breaking of this status quo. Even London, a parliamentary stronghold, was deeply divided.
But the women’s cries of mourning for ‘slain and imprisoned husbands’ told its own tale – a straightforward hatred of war and the death, hardship and destruction it brought. It is not recorded that any of the women pointed out that men, on both sides of the conflict, made war and played soldiers, and women paid the price as much as men, but without any voice in the decision-making… but the thought is bound to have occurred to some… Did any of the women see their demo as a female counterpoint to the largely anti-peace ‘mob’ who had gathered to denounce the peace proposals on the 7th (a crowd said to have been whipped up by the puritan lord mayor of London)? Did it seem to them that their intervention in what has (in hindsight) been viewed as a crucial nexus in the conflict might have derailed the war?
In the event this didn’t happen. The protests subsided, the war continued, and Parliament eventually gained the upper hand. But women’s demonstrations continued, in a wider context of an increased participation of women in ‘public life’. Some of the most notable demonstrations in support of the Levellers were organised by women, who played a major part in the movement. Female preachers and prophets, women quakers and ranters… The world continued to be turned on its head…
A really great book on women in the English Revolution is Unbridled Spirits, by Stevie Davies.
An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online