Woodcut of a woman spinning at the time of the English Civil War.

Woodcut of a woman spinning at the time of the English Civil War.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The English Civil War (1642-1651) was one of the most important conflicts in English history. Although it devastated the country, it also established the precedent that an English monarch cannot govern without Parliament’s consent. It was the first step in a long road to democracy, a process that was not completed until the end of World War One with the introduction of universal suffrage.

The role of women in World War One is often credited as being a reason why suffrage was finally granted to women. By taking over the roles that men had left behind to go to war, women had proven that they were just as capable as men. But World War One was far from being the first opportunity women had to prove themselves while men fought wars.

There is very little known about how girls would have lived during the war, but we can imagine it must have been a terrifying time for them as their male relations went to war, perhaps never to return. We do however, know a little bit more about how older women coped with the war.

While many were left to look after their husband’s estates and businesses, there were others that played a more direct part in the war.

Some women, such as Lady Elizabeth Dowdall and Brilliana, Lady Harley of Brampton Bryan, became famous for defending their husband’s castles–even, in Elizabeth Dowdall’s case, when their husbands were present. When the High Sheriff of the county brought 3,000 men to beseige Kilfenny Castle in Co. Limerick, Ireland, Elizabeth not only held the attackers at bay but personally shot the High Sheriff himself as well as destroying the army’s cannons.

Lady Brilliana was a rather more reluctant fighter. In the absence of her husband and sons she defended their home during a three month siege from the enemy Royalists. When the troops withdrew, she persuaded her tenants to level their siege earthworks and dispatched 40 troops to raid a local Royalist camp.

Women also fought on the side of the Royalists. Jane Whorwood was a Royalist agent, managing the circulation of intelligence and smuggling funds to sustain their cause. She was a close confidante of King Charles I and helped his escape captivity in the late 1640s. These attempts were ultimately not successful but ciphered letters tell us that Jane and the King began a sexual affair before his execution in 1649.

This period of English history was rife with radical religious and political movements. Members of one such movement were known as Levellers, who emphasised extended suffrage, religious tolerance and equality before the law. It’s perhaps not too surprising then that the movement attracted a relatively substantial number of female followers. Their leader was Katherine Chidley, who may have written the Petition of Women, Affecters and Approvers of the Petition of 11 September 1648, 1649, in which the political activity of Leveller women was justified on the basis of “our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also a proportional share in the freedoms of this Commonwealth.”

Of course, not all women played such direct roles in those turbulent times. For many women, the Civil War meant enforced separation from their father, husbands and sons. Surviving letters reveal not only how deeply they loved their families, but also how much they feared they would never see them again.

Nevertheless, despite these fears, women tried to live their lives as best they could. Perhaps young girls during this period looked at the older women in their lives and were inspired by the strength and courage that many surely displayed, whether that be the strength to fight alongside men or the quiet resilience needed to survive in a period of war. Perhaps the seeds of the future suffragette movement were already sown during this time, waiting for the right time to blossom.

-Sarah Jackson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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