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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Summer Blog 8: An Occasional Series on The English Civil War - Role of Women

The 17th century in England witnessed an increasing role in society for women. Not all women, for the majority of women, and men too, whether living in town or country, remained in essence a vast peasantry. Yet at aristocratic and many middle class levels of society women's position did begin to show signs of change.

And, as usual with history, this change did not come out of nowhere. The previous century had seen the effects of The Renaissance and of Protestantism begin to change society, as well as England having two female monarchs for over half the century, and Scotland one. All three Queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I of England together with Mary Queen of Scots were highly educated. For nearly fifty years every time anyone in England was paid for work or was paying to purchase something the face of the never ageing Elizabeth glowed radiantly out at them on the silver coinage of her reign.

The 17th century saw a growth in the education of girls and a rising female literacy rate. The driving force for such change was Protestantism which taught that you reached God through your own direct endeavours, and not via a Catholic priest. This meant the reading of the Bible in English. The Quakers in particular are important for they treated men and women as equals, and perhaps most important of all the Quakers reached out to the lowest levels in society's hierarchy. '[The] Quaker movement which developed in Somerset from the mid 1650s in which women played a major part, was centred mainly in rural areas and small clothing towns; 62% of known adherents being agricultural workers'. (Anthony Nott)

Antonia Fraser, in probably her best book, 'The Weaker Vessel', tells of Mary, Countess of Warwick, who 'was in the habit of catechizing her maids daily and reading to them a book of devotion, in addition to her diurnal visits to the village girls' school'. However, not every mistress was as committed as Mary Warwick, nor every maid diligent in her studies. As for girls' education this was severely limited outside of the aristocracy, and even then clever young women were cautioned not to show off and to remain 'modest' in the presence of men. 'Lady Elizabeth Hastings, carefully educated by [her mother] know French, Latin and Italian, was advised by her on marriage merely 'to make herself fit conversation for her husband'. As a result, Lady Elizabeth showed herself so modest .....throughout her short married life .........that [her husband] never had 'all those inconveniences which necessarily accompany a learned wife' (Fraser).

James VI of Scotland/ James I of England had views on female education that his royal predecessor, Elizabeth, would have trembled at. Fraser writes, 'it was suggested that his daughter .....should learn Latin, the King replied that 'To make women learned and foxes tame had the same effect: to make them more cunning'. And he forbade it.' How very Talibanesque!

But, change was in the air whatever Kings might say and do. Fraser writes, 'In 1647 we find Adam Eyre of Yorkshire spending 1s 8d at a fair at Wakefield on a book.....for his wife'.

One such change was the emergence of female writers, women whom a later generation would describe as 'blue stockings'. Katherine Philips (d.1688 aged 36) has left behind her a small volume of poetry, a volume of letters, and two translations from Corneille. Her translation of the play 'Pompey' became the first play by a woman performed on stage in Britain - at Dublin in 1663.

The most famous was the high born Lucy Lucas of Essex, later Duchess of Newcastle. Her elder brother was one of the Royalist commanders shot after the Siege of Colchester in 1648. She herself was safely on the continent by then with the Queen. Here she married William Cavendish who subsequently became Duke of Newcastle.

Her work encompassed writing, philosophy, and even science. She was the first woman to attend a meeting of The Royal Society. She even wrote what has been claimed to be the first work in English in the field of science fiction - 'The Description of a New World, Called Blazing World'. It was published in 1666 and reprinted in 1668.

The Civil War threw up both challenges and opportunities for women in a world that had been 'turned upside down'. Women began to emerge from the shadows of a patriarchal society, and none more so than Lady Mary Bankes of Corfe Castle in Dorset. Her husband had left to fight for the King and she was left in charge of the castle and its lands. When first attacked in 1643 she only had her children, servants and five soldiers with which to face a force of forty parliamentary sailors. She and her miniscule force opened fire with four cannons, inflicting a considerable number of casualties and causing her enemies to withdraw. To buy time she handed over her cannon to Parliament but brought more defenders in so that when she was attacked by over 500 troops in June 1643 she was able to withdraw to the Upper Ward and rain down on them heavy stones and hot embers. She held out for three years, but was eventually betrayed by one of her own officers. She retired to a nearby house she owned, and watched the Parliamentary troops slight the castle (and that is the state it remains in if you visit today).

Lady Anne Fairfax was the indomitable wife of Lord Thomas Fairfax, commander of Parliament's New Model Army. She accompanied him on campaign and was briefly captured by Royalist Forces. But her great moment came in January 1649 at the Trial of The King. Her husband was expected to be one of the judges, but he studiously kept away. His wife attended in the Public Gallery and when Thomas's name was called out, she shouted, 'He had more wit than to be here1'. Later when the court stated that it was acting 'for all the good people of England', she called out again, saying, 'No, nor the hundreth part of them'. She was forcibly ejected.

Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle, had what might be called as an interesting personal life. She was married to the Royalist Earl of Carlisle, whilst she herself was a lady in waiting to the Queen. After her husband's death she had affairs with Henry Rich and Thomas Wentworth - both Royalists. She then switched sides, or at least men, and carried an an affair with the leading Parliamentarian John Pym. Indeed she acted as Pym's spy at court and forewarned him in 1642 that the King was coming down with troops to The House of Commons to arrest him and other leading MPs. Forewarned they hid in The City of London and Charles was left with egg on his face for 'the birds had flown'.

Lucy wasn't the only female spy in the war. Both sides employed women from all stratas of society to seek out information in market places, taverns, and so forth. 17th century men as a whole did not believe women to be capable of such subterfuge. One of the most famous of all was Elizabeth Atkins, commonly known as 'Parliamentary Joan'. She was paid for her services and thus was a professional spook.

Lady Bankes was by no means the only woman to take up arms. Indeed some women dressed as men in order to join one or other of the armies in the war. And, less exalted personages than Lady Bankes did their duty for King or Parliament. A Parliamentary Committee in Shropshire contained the following entry, 'Mrs Mary Crompton did keep a Garrison against the Parliament which garrison was taken by forces commanded by this Committee she is adjudged a Delinquent [ie a Royalist] And her real [land] and personal estate to be seized'.

Although I have attempted to show ways in which the status of some women was changing for most women in the 17th century England still remained a deeply patriarchal society. Women forfeited all their property to their husband on marriage, (hence why in this century the number of unmarried widows grew in number), their chances of education were far smaller than for men, hence literacy levels remained lower, and without birth control married women were little better than breeding mares, and many died in childbirth.

It is interesting to note that strong-minded English women could be found in all classes of society. Anthony Nott writing of Wells in Somerset tells us, 'There were .... many spirited women in Wells who did not suffer impudent or rude men: Elizabeth Whiting beat Richard Atwell and called him an 'old toade' while Katherine Jones and her servant Marie Perry thrust John Horler into a boiling furnace 'by which his arm [was] scolded from the hand unto the shoulder'. Finally, the grande dame, Lady Anne Clifford, said in 1649, 'Let him [Cromwell] destroy my castles if he will, as often as he levels them I will rebuild them, so long as he leaves me a shilling in my pocket'.

So, I leave it to you to follow up this small blog with extra reading (Antonia Fraser's book is, imo, brilliant) if you so choose and then decide for yourselves whether this century marked the very earliest beginnings of the fight for equality in our society.

The Weaker Vessel Antonia Fraser

The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford ed. DJH Clifford

Under God's Visitation Anthony Nott

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