Wife and servant are the same
But only differ in the name
When she the word ‘obey’ has said
And man by law supreme has made
Fierce as an eastern prince he grows
And all his innate rigor shows
Then shun, oh shun that wretched state
And all the fawning flatterers hate
Value yourselves and men despise
You must be proud if you’ll be wise
“Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood”?
Women's Petition (1649)
In many ways it is hard to separate Leveller women from their male counterparts both socially and politically. It is true the Leveller men suffered great degradation on a regular basis through jail, torture, war and disease but it would not be an overstatement to say that women suffered these same deprivations and some.
The Levellers took on many of the characteristics of a political party in the years 1645-46. This is a contentious issue and has been disputed. Some say they were the radical wing of an Independent coalition. I prefer the description of the Levellers being a specific party. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. William Clarke who provided us with the report of the Putney Debates was an avid collector of books, pamphlets and leaflets. Over eighty Leveller pamphlets were found in his collection. The Levellers strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had significant support in the army.
The main plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have a wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layers which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.
In many ways the Levellers were the pioneers of modern democracy, but radical as they were in the 17th century they were in favour of an extension of the voting franchise only for men and to the exclusion of women. They also refuted “childish fears” that their object was to “make all men’s estates equal and to decide laws by telling noses”.
It goes without saying that large numbers of women did not take accept this anomaly without a fight. For many women the fight for social and political equality would be their first involvement in any kind of political work. It can be said without contradiction that women like Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne laid the basis for future franchise struggles including the suffragettes.
Women Levellers mounted large scale demonstrations and organised petitions in favour of social equality. They were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged to. On the whole middle class women were treated with derision but largely no violence was committed against them. This is not the case with the poorer sections of the women’s movement who were often treated severely by MP’s and soldiers alike.” Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions or workhouses. Middle class women were simply escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”.
A. S. P. reports on a typical response to the women’s demonstrations on 26 May 1647 Thomas Case warned the House of Commons that if they allowed "liberty of conscience," then "see ... how long your civil peace will secure you when religion is destroyed. . . . Liberty of conscience may in time improve itself into liberty of estates and . . . houses and ... wives, and in a word liberty of perdition of souls and bodies”
Sir Simonds D'Ewes, who was in attendee at parliament when the first women’s protest took place Tuesday, 8 August 1643, said in his diary “a multitude of women described elsewhere" as two to three hundred oyster-wives, 'taking example by the unlawful and tumultuary proceedings of the former faction. . - came to the very doore of the House and there cryed . . . Peace, Peace, and interrupted divers of the members both as they went in and as they came out of the House,' and threatened violence to those members who were enemies to peace”.
Women in the 17th century had little or no rights at all and according to The Lawes Resolutions of Woman’s Rights, 1632 women’s legal position depended solely on their husband’s goodwill. The husband had complete control “over an unmarried daughter and a husband similar authority over his wife. Married women were not considered legal persons. An independent woman was viewed suspiciously”.
What really moved women to go into struggle. According to Christopher Durston not a lot up until the outbreak of the Civil War. It is true to some extent that radical activity amongst men and women was low at the beginning of the 17th century. But as this essay shows the war had a huge radicalising effect of all aspects of family life.
The struggle for equal rights inside and outside the family was a powerful motivating force. Much of women’s protest at least from an ideological standpoint was cloaked in a religious phraseology. Significantly recent historiography has downplayed the role of economic factors in motivating people. Soma Marik asked the question “What kind of economic pressure was brought to bear on the labouring poor in this age of transition”. She goes on “The impact of these economic crises, as well as of political crises, could be contradictory. Women were paid less than men, who in turn were ill paid. So they were certainly greatly burdened. But women were often hired as domestic servants, which reduced family/husband's control. During the civil war, the absence of husbands due to exile or military service also proved to be a two-edged sword. Women faced greater hardship”.
Another not insignificant factor was the seeking of equality inside the family. Chidley demanded "I pray you tell me”, what authority (the) unbelieving husband hath over the conscience of his believing wife; it is true he hath authority over her in bodily arld civil respects, but not to be a lord over her conscience"
While poverty amongst Leveller families was not unsubstantial according to Ian Gentles “Chidley’s’ uncompromising radicalism did not prevent them from prospering under the Commonwealth and Protectorate. An examination of their financial and administrative careers shows that they may be counted among the tangible beneficiaries of the English revolution. Katherine won at least two substantial contracts to supply stockings to the army in Ireland, while Samuel obtained a job in the State's service. He was appointed in 1649 to Worcester House where he took up lodgings as registrar of the debentures used to purchase crown fee farm rents. How he landed this appointment is unknown, though his fellow saint, David Brown, asserted that it was thanks to his influence in high places”.
It must be said that Gentles is one the few historians that establishes a link between the Chidley’s economic position and their political activity.
What kind of political activity did women take part in? As with their male counterparts it is difficult to match Leveller women’s petitions to their authors and far more research is needed but the women Levellers did release a substantial number of petitions to parliament on a number of issues. They demanded the release of the Leveller leaders, redress from high taxes, and lack of work, dictatorial government and opposition to meddling in Irish affairs.
While some historians have disputed the figures it is believed that in 1649 ten thousand Leveller women signed a second women's petition to parliament. The significance of this document is that regardless of class background the petitioners called for equal rights for all women and equality with men.
“Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honorable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighborhood? And can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defenses of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power?
“Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends, in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children , and families? Are not our husbands, o[u]r selves, our children and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they? And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home, while such men as have borne continual testimony against the injustice of all times and unrighteousness of men, be picked out and be delivered up to the slaughter? And yet must we show no sense of their sufferings, no tenderness of affections, no bowels of compassion, nor bear any testimony against so abominable cruelty and injustice?”
The petition was written by Katherine Chidley though this has been disputed but for the sake of this article we will accept that she did write it. It is beautifully written and shows the writer was well educated with a substantial political acumen.
Little is known of Chidley’s origins or social background. Given the level of education needed to write highly political tracts it must be assumed she came from a reasonably well off family. Katherine married Daniel Chidley who by profession was a tailor from Shrewsbury, Shropshire.
It would appear that before the revolution Chidley had a stable family environment. She gave birth to seven children. Given her family commitments it is nothing short of staggering that she was able to combine a busy family life with no help from modern equipment with an extremely active and brave political life.
While it is clear that outbreak of the civil war fired Chidley’s radicalism she was political active in the early 1620s. Along with her husband she was according to Ian Gentles “active in a Shrewsbury conventicle which carried on a running quarrel with the rector of St Chad's, Peter Studley. In 1626 she and Daniel were among twenty people presented to the consistory court for non-attendance at church”.
The amount of irreligion in the English revolution has been contested by numerous historians. Christopher Hill in his pamphlet Irreligion in the Puritan Revolution quoted Richard Baxter who believed that those who rejected mainstream religion were ‘a rable’ “ if any would raise an army to extirpate knowledge and religion, the tinkers and sow-gelders and crate-carriers and beggars and bargemen and all the rable that cannot read…. Will be the forwardest to come in to such a militia” It goes without saying Baxter argued for their suppression with violence if necessary.
Gentles says that Chidley was also reported for refusing ‘to come to be churched after childbirth’. It would appear that this brush with authority was an early marker for her later radicalism. If she had remained in Shrewsbury it is open to debate whether she would have had the opportunity to express her radical beliefs further. But as fate would have it her hounding by the religious authorities forced her to go to London were she had the luck to join up with other Levellers such as john Lilburne and John Duppa.
Chidley’s first pamphlet was published in 1641 by the printer William Larner. Called The Justification of the Independant Churches of Christ (1641). It was a reply to the right wing fanatic Thomas Edwards, a London preacher. Chidley readily admitted that it was ‘not laid down in a schollerlik way’, she defended her actions saying they were ‘the plaine truth of holy Scripture’. She believed that according to Gentles that “churches ought to be exclusive in their membership, because as Chidley puts it, ‘when God brought his people into the promised land, he commanded them to be separated from the idolater”. Edwards countered with an attack in Gangraenah by saying “There is, one Katherine Chidley an old Brownist, and her sonne a young Brownist. who not content with spreading their poyson in and about London, goe down into the Country to gather people to them”.
Edwards attack on Chidley in his book Gangraena for separatist “errors “could be dismissed as nothing more than an aberration if it were not for the fact that it expressed in general terms a widespread fear in ruling circles of a growing radicalism amongst the more educated sections of the population. The other fear was that these educated radicals would spread their ideas of equality and democracy to the poorer sections of society. Chidley believed that even the poorest sections of society ‘whether they be Taylors, Felt-makers, Button-makers, Tent-makers, shepherds or ploughmen, or what honest trade soever’, were better qualified to create churches than ‘ill-meaning priests’.
|Lady Eleanor Davies|
John Lilburne was frequently jailed and exiled. Far from cowering Elizabeth she tirelessly lobbed for his release. According to Ann Hughes when “John, a captain in Lord Brooke's regiment, was captured by royalists at Brentford and sentenced to death it was Elizabeth's determined petitioning that persuaded parliament to threaten retaliation on royalist prisoners if Lilburne was hanged. It was a pregnant Elizabeth who carried to Oxford the life-saving letter from the speaker of the Commons”.
Leveller women did not fight just as individuals. According to historian Gaby Malhberg the wives of leading figures of the English revolution “formed their own networks, discussing political issues in the absence of their husbands. Edmund Ludlow recorded, for instance, that he had little hope of a pardon from the King because the wife of his fellow republican Sir Henry Vane had informed Elizabeth ‘that she was assured [General George] Monke’s wife had sayd she would seeke to the King, upon her knees, that Sir Henry Vane, Major Generall [John] Lambert and myself should be hanged.”.
The civil war put tremendous strain on the Lilburne’s marriage so much so that John Lilburne’s writings in exile are full of attacks on his wife’s “mournfull arguments”. John was critical of his wife’s persistence in asking him to “make peace with Cromwell” But Ann Hughes presents another picture of Elizabeth “Almost everything known about Elizabeth Lilburne comes from the writings of her self-regarding husband—and his presentations of his suffering wife may well owe as much to the demands of particular polemical situations as they do to the reality of her personality or their life together. The impression is left of a brave and realistic radical woman, determined to preserve herself and her children in the most difficult public circumstances”.
On the political side it must also be said that while the Leveller women were the left wing of the English revolution they were not the only women in society that led struggles against the King. In some sense these women were lucky in that they had access to printing materials and presses.
Many invoked their aristocratic credentials in order to be heard in print. One such woman was the formidable and extremely intelligent Lady Eleanor Davies (left). As I said earlier most middle class women were treated with leniency however a significant minority were not. For critisizing Charles 1 she was imprisoned four times. Her most important trial was in 1633 when she was found guilty of publishing unlicensed books and “of circulating false prophecies”. The fact that increasing number of women had access to licensed and unlicensed printing presses is significant in telling us that the radicalisation of society went much deeper than had originally been thought. Secret printing allowed popular ideas and protests to develop. In Davies’s case she was fined £3,000 which a significant sum in those days and sent to prison. If that was not all her books were burnt by Archbishop Laud. Laud was not the only person to burn her books. Both husbands took delight in burning her books.
|And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1878)|
It is common knowledge that extremely small numbers of women outside the ruling circle had access to any kind of education that would enable them to express their grievances in written form. This is one reason why some women turned to witchcraft to express their dissatisfaction at their life.
Coupled with the fact that resources were not available was the position of society that women should largely be seen but not heard. Heavy punishment was meted out to those women who rebelled against the prevailing orthodoxy. One such ‘rebel’ was Margaret Cavendish who wrote in a tract Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655),”We are become like worms that only live in the dull earth of ignorance, winding ourselves sometimes out by the help of some refreshing rain of good educations, which seldom is given us; for we are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered to fly abroad to see the several changes of fortune, and the various humours, ordained and created by nature; thus wanting the experiences of nature, we must needs want the understanding and knowledge so consequently prudence, and invention of men: thus by an opinion, which I hope is but an erroneous one in men, we are shut out of all power and authority, despised, and laughed at, the best of our actions are trodden down with scorn, by the overweening conceit men have of themselves and through despisement of us”.
To conclude even the small amount of research needed for this article has uncovered that for historians who like a challenge a detailed study writings of the radical women of the 17th century will in the future provide us with much deeper understanding of the radicalism in the English revolution.
(1) To the Supreme Authority of England, the Commons Assembled in Parliament. The Humble Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, Hamlets and Parts Adjacent. Affecters and Approvers of the Petition of Sept. 11 1648. (May 5, 1649)
(3) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography- Katherine Chidley by Ian Gentles http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37278
(5) Ian Gentles, ‘London Levellers in the English revolution: the Chidley's and their circle’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 29 (1978), 281–309
(6) Hughes, Ann. "Gender and Politics in Leveller Literature." In Political Culture and Cultural Politics in England: Essays Presented to David Underdown, edited by Susan Amussen and Mark Kishlansky, 162-188. Manchester: Manchester University Press; New York: St Martins, 1995.
(7) Marcus Nevitt. Women and the Pamphlet Culture of Revolutionary England, 1640-1660.
(8) Baxter the Holy Commonwealth 1659
(9) For further research on Lady Eleanor Davies The Folger Shakespeare Library's holdings have a volume of forty-five bound tracts by Lady Eleanor which was probably owned by her daughter, Lucy, Countess of Huntingdon. The Folger volume includes the tract titled Samsons Fall (1642), in which Lady Eleanor warns Parliament that Charles I have become too popish; indeed the King has become like Samson in that he has fallen under the seductive spell of the French Catholic Delilah, Henrietta Maria, at the cost of British unity.
(10) Christopher Hill -Women turning the World Upside Down-Soma Marik Social Scientist vol32 ¾ 2004 pp. 50-70
(11) Women and the Civil War Sects Keith V Thomas Past and Present no 13 1958
(12) Gaby Malhberg’s blog http://thehistorywoman.com
(13) Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament Ellen A M’Arthur The English Historical Review vol24 no 96
(14) A Hammer in Her Hand: The Separation of Church from State and the Early Feminist Writings of Katherine Chidley: Katharine Gillespie : Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 17, No. 2,
(15) London Levellers in the English revolution; The Chidley’s and their Circle Ian Gentles Journal of Ecclesiastical History vol 29 July 1978.
(16) Lucy Hutchinson wrote an important biography of her husband. It was entitled Memoirs of the Life Colonel Hutchinson First published in 1806. University of Oxford Centre for Early Modern Studies have a Lucy Hutchinson Website which is carrying out important research into this leading female figure. A four volume book on her works is included. http://www.cems-oxford.org/projects/lucy-hutchinson