The story of the English Civil Wars is often told from the point of view of the men who fought, with little space given to the role of women.
Indeed, women of the time had few rights and privileges and were expected to look after the home and raise children, always under the control of their husband or father.
However, mothers, wives and daughters played a much more active role during the decade long conflict. They were fighters, spies, couriers, petitioners to both Parliament and the Royals, responsible for protecting their homes from opposing soldiers, and for raising the money they needed to survive while their husbands were away.
There are many incredible stories that reflect the important role played by woman of the time.
The grand homes of rich families would often be a stronghold for one side or the other, and with husbands absent it would often by the upper class lady of the house leading the defence of their property against opposing soldiers, with maid servants and other female members of the household also pitching in (although rarely praised).
Lady Mary Bankes patrolled the battlements of Corfe Castle in Dorset during the first Parliamentarian sieges. Along with her maids and a small number of soldiers, she would drop rocks and hot embers on the enemy below.
Women without large homes to defend would get involved with funding and building fortifications for their own towns. Dorothy Hazard is noted as leading a group of women to barricade breaches in the walls of Bristol when Royalists assaulted the city in 1643.
The female soldier was an idea that outraged and excited people in early modern Britain, who were fascinated by the reversal of traditional roles, and also by the idea of women dressing in men’s clothing!
The idea of women soldiers is thought to have been embellished over time, but there are records of genuine cases. Major-General Poyntz, who led the New Model Army’s defeat of the Royalist Army at Chester, reported capturing a female corporal among Royalist prisoners in November 1645. A woman named Nan Ball served in the King’s army near York so she could be close to her lover, and Anne Dymocke from Lincolnshire disguised herself as a man to be close to her partner.
Catherine Murray was the mistress of Ham House and the wife of a prominent supporter of the King. When her husband left to fight she used her wits and courage to protect the family home in Richmond by the Thames, despite being crippled by fines, facing threats of confiscation for supporting the Royalist cause, and being close to the heart of Parliamentarian power in London.
Her daughter Elizabeth (pictured above) took over the family home after the death of her parents and became a double agent, joining a secret royalist organisation called the Sealed Knot which aimed to restore the monarchy, while at the same time fostering a friendship with Oliver Cromwell and gaining trust from Parliament. When Charles II was returned to the throne years later, she became one of his most trusted advisors.
Women were vital to keeping families together during the brutal conflict, sometimes taking on the running of a farm or business to bring in money.
Ann Fanshaw was the wife of a Royalist diplomat and when he was imprisoned she played a crucial role in keeping their family together by visiting him in prison, nursing him through sickness and raising money to fill the gap in their lost income.
Women were also effective lobbyists, forcefully petitioning both sides to try and stop the war, secure pensions for war widows, or to bring about the release of imprisoned husbands.
Elizabeth Lilburne was married to a polemicist and pamphleteer who was captured by the Royalists. Terrified that he would be executed, she lobbied Parliament to threaten retaliatory executions if he was killed, and then carried the news from London to the Royalist capital of Oxford while pregnant.
Following Parliament’s victory over the King, a group numbering hundreds of ordinary London women petitioned the victors for religious liberty, freedom of the press and greater political participation for men, feeling that little had changed following the end of the conflict.
This political activity was not universally accepted, and the term ‘fishwife’ developed to disparage women who got above their station and took part in protests.
Britain’s Civil War gave some women the opportunity to move beyond the traditions that had bound them for hundreds of year before, however the process of moving to a level of equality with men was still many centuries away.
Find out more: our small-group history tours are led by experts and examine the people and personalities that were at the forefront of Britain’s most important historical events, telling the stories of normal people as well as leaders and kings. Our English Civil War tour based in Oxford (departures in March and July 2021) examines the impact to the city that became the Royalist capital, and War in the West, based in Bath (departs April 2021), looks at how the brutal campaign effected devastated England’s West Country.
Ann Hughes, Professor of Early Modern History, Emerita: Women’s political activism in the English Civil War
Earls of Manchester: The Warrior Women of the English Civil War
Francesca Moll: The Rebellious Royalist Women of the English Revolution
Heather Delonnette: Did the Civil War and its aftermath to 1660 offer any lasting new opportunities to women?
Elizabeth Murray, Duchess, socialite and spy (credit: Lisby from Western Maryland, United States / CC)
More articles about the English Civil Wars on Promenades Travel
>> The Battle of Rowton Heath: Charles watches as kis army is wiped out
>> The Battle of Worcester: the final chapter of the English Civil Wars
>> How divine right sparked the English Civil Wars
>> How Charles I's Royalist revival was crushed at Preston
>> Marston Moor - a reckoning for the Royalists
>> How Cropredy Bridge created the New Model Army
>> Julian Humphrys on his English Civil War tours
>> The third and final siege of Oxford
>> The Battle of Naseby