Sunday, 27 May 2012

Early Africans In England

Elizabeth Murray Countess Dysart
While researching my historical biography of Elizabeth Murray, it struck me how many 17th century aristocratic portrait paintings included a black child servant.  It made me wonder where these children came from, how they were viewed and treated in society, and what happened to them once they had outgrown being a trophy for their rich masters.

The earliest mention of Africans living in England seems to be 250AD, when Rome sent a contingent of black legionnaires to stand guard on Hadrian’s Wall.

There is no evidence that these men stayed in Britannia, and when the Romans finally withdrew in the fifth century, the Germanic tribes replaced them and become the English.

The Close Rolls of King John of July 1205, gives a ‘mandate to the constable of Northampton to retain Peter the Saracen, the maker of crossbows for the King’s service, and allow him 9 pence a day’.

During the Middle Ages, the few black faces in Britain appeared to be entertainers linked to royal entourages. African drummers lived in Edinburgh in 1505, and in London, Henry VII and his son Henry VIII both employed a black trumpeter named John Blanke, ‘the blacke Trumpet’, at a wage of 8 pence per day. He was depicted in the painted roll of the 1511 Westminster Tournament, [below] held to celebrate the birth of a son to Catherine of Aragon, who had arrived from Spain in 1501, again with Africans in her entourage.

John Blanke, The Black Trumpeter 1511
In 1540 Henry VIII employed a black diver to look for the wreck of the Mary Rose; but his name, and where he came from is unknown. In 1577 Elizabeth I issued an order for a ‘Garcon coate of white Taffeta, cut and lined with tincel, striped down with gold and silver … pointed with pynts and ribands’, for her ‘lytle Blackamore’. 

In Elizabethan times, masks of Black faces were considered fashionable, worn in court society at  functions and pageants. Members of the aristocracy were also known to paint themselves black, as 'nigrost' or as 'black Mores'. The character of the Black Moor also featured often in plays, including those of Shakespeare, and London street names, such as Black Boy Court, off Long Acre, and Blackamoor's Alley in Wapping, was an indication that black people were not an unusual sight in the city.

In 1555 John Lok reached Ghana, with three ships and from a coastal village the captain of the John Evangelist kidnapped the son of the chief and three others, brought them to England to be trained as interpreters. ‘Whereof sum were taule and stronge men and coulde well agree with our meates and drynkes’ but the ‘colde and moyst aire doth somewhat offend them’.

One married an Englishwoman, although the birth of their dark-skinned child caused considerable astonishment. Until then it had been believed that Africans’skin colour was caused by the heat of the sun. In 1578 George Best wrote that ‘I myself have seene an Ethiopian as blacke as cole brought to England who taking a faire English woman to wife, begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father’.

Anne of Denmark, James I's Queen
Queen Elizabeth was not alone in having a black servant in her household; in April 1584 the Duke of Leicester’s household records mention of a 'Mr Rawles blackamoore, XXs’. Sir Robert Cecil had a ‘blackmoor seruant’; Sir John Hawkins’ black page boy was named Samuel.

The King of Morocco’s ambassador arrived in England with a retinue of fifteen ‘Moors’ in 1600, and given a warm reception by Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, they had trouble obtaining housing. When they did find accommodation, they lived alone and were ‘strangely attired and behavioured’, and reputedly slaughtered their own animals (presumably to fulfill religious requirements).

Francis Drake also had a black manservant called Diego, an enslaved man who defected from his Spanish masters during the raid by Drake on the town of Nombre de Dios. He became Drake’s valued aid and manservant advising him on the route taken by the Spanish carting gold and precious stones across the isthmus of Panama to Nombre de Dios. As a result, when Drake returned the following year, he was able to capture ‘the mule train laden with treasure’ and ship it to England, a cargo valued at £20,000. 

Drake named a fort he built on an island in the Gulf of San Blas ‘Fort Diego’. Sadly, while stopping for provisions and water on Mocha Isle off the coast of Chile in November 1578, Diego and another crew member were killed by unfriendly islanders.

Walter Raleigh’s page boy, aged about ten, whom he had brought from what is now Guyana, was baptised Charles at St Luke’s church in Kensington in 1597. Raleigh had brought two black men from Guyana with him; one entered domestic service in London and the other waited on him during the early years of his imprisonment.

Unfortunately, this toleration eventually turned to fear of an increasing black population in London, which lead to Queen Elizabeth I issuing a royal proclamation to arrest and expel all "Negroes and blackamores" from her kingdom. I wonder if her own little blackamoor was included in this edict?

Lady Charlotte Fitzroy 1674
This charming painting [Left]  is by Sir Peter Lely, principal painter to Charles II of Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, aged eight, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and his mistress, Barbara Palmer, with her Indian page.

Dr Samuel Johnson's servant and valet, Francis Barber, attended a grammar school in Bishop's Stortford. He left Francis a £70 annuity in his will, and refused to let him go out to buy food for his cat, as he felt; 'it was not good to employ human beings in the service of animals'. 

This portrait of a black servant [below] is a sensitive characterisation of a servant as an individual. The young boy was clearly a favoured companion, shown by the fact that he is cup bearer, trusted and loved by his master’s lapdog.


When wealthy plantation owners sent their children to schools in England, they would sometimes send slaves to accompany them. The legal status of these immigrants was vague because their arrival was tied to their English owner and their freedom depended upon whether or not they were Christian. The question being that if a man brought to a free country could be anything but free - however economics always won over moral arguments and the trade grew. 

When these young boys reached their mid to late teens, they were sent back to Barbados to labour in the sugar plantations; a cruel end to a life of comparative luxury as a lady’s errand boy.  However, some grew up in England and stayed here as their masters and mistresses grew fond of them, often educating them in music, drawing and literature.

Indian people were commonly referred to as 'black', and as a result, appear less frequently in the records, although they may well have been present in large numbers in Britain.

Pierre Mignard (1612-1695) in his portrait of Charles II's Mistress, Louise de Keroualle [below] shows the lady has the attributes of wealth and power: The pearls are symbols of purity, gold symbolises wealth and the black servant (with her slave collar) is a symbol of power.

Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth
The artists positioned black people on the edges or at the rear of their canvasses, from where they gaze wonderingly at their masters and mistresses. Often they were placed next to dogs and other domestic animals, existing as solitary mutes, aesthetic foils to their owners' economic fortunes.

They were often given Roman names, which accounts for the large number of Scipios, Plinys and Caesars buried in churchyards across the country. Anglicised names are rare and African names rarer still. Notices for runaway slaves were a common feature of local newspapers during this period.
Lady Grace Cartaret,  Countess Dysart 1753

Servants who ran away from their masters' houses were the subjects of lost-and-found ads in the press, and rewards sometimes offered for their return.  An advertisement for this house servant [below] was printed in a London newspaper in 1678.
'Africa' A Runaway

He had been living in Covent Garden with his master Arnold Pigeon before he ran away. Described as wearing a livery coat, the reward for Africa's capture was 20 shillings, equivalent then to two months wages for a servant. It is likely that he was recaptured, as a young black boy alone in a city would not have stood much chance of evading his searchers. However there were instances of Black slaves escaping to "safe houses" throughout the time of slavery such as one known as " Jerusalem " in East London.

Not all Black people in England were slaves, many worked as sailors, trades people of all kinds and in some cases as businessmen or musicians. Black writers played a role in the anti-slavery movement in England and famous 18th Century activists like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were pivotal to the movement in speaking and writing from their personal experience of the horrors of the trade.

After 1772, the continuation of slavery in Britain was a rarity and often likely to attract legal and social hostility. This change in attitude was illustrated by the Somerset case of 1772 in which Somerset, a fugitive enslaved African, brought a case against his owner who was attempting to force him to return to the West Indies. Lord Justice Mansfield * ruled that it would be illegal to remove Somerset from the country against his wishes. This ruling formed the beginning of a much wider campaign against slavery.

Other images:

Paul Ourry by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Lady Elizabeth Keppel by Sir Joshua Reynolds

My favourite portrait is the one below of Dido Elizabeth Belle, and although 18th Century, and may not belong in this post, the story behind it is intriguing. Dido's beauty and personality comes through so well in this delightful painting in which she is in no way subservient to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray.

Dido was the natural daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain on HMS Trent, a warship based in the West Indies where she was born. Little is known about Dido’s mother, apart from that her name was Maria Belle, but Lindsay was the nephew of William Murray, Lord Mansfield* the Lord Chief Justice [mentioned above]
Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle
Lord Mansfield and his wife were childless, so raised Dido at Kenwood House, Hampstead, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had also died.

Dido’s status in the household was commented on by several visitors; one said that her great-uncle Lord Mansfield "called upon (her)…every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said."

Dido would not dine with the rest of the family, especially if they had guests, but joined the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped Mansfield with his correspondence - an indication that she was fairly well educated and seemed to have been a loved but poor relation.

She received an allowance of £30 10s and was provided with pretty furniture, birthday and Christmas gifts and ass’s milk when she was ill. When Lord Mansfield died, he left Dido £500 in his will, and a £100 annuity, and officially confirmed her freedom.

Dido married a John Davinier in 1793 at St. George's, Hanover Square and had three sons: twins Charles and John, also baptized at St George's on 8 May 1795, and William Thomas, baptized there on the 26 January 1802.Dido Belle Davinier died in 1804 and was buried in St George's Fields, survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children.

National Archives
International Museum of Slavery
Blacks In Tudor England
English Heritage-The Slave Trade
Westminster Gov
Video about Dido Elizabeth Belle

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Late Great Canonization of Hildegard von Bingen

On May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI formally recognized Hildegard von Bingen as a saint.

If Hildegard has long been venerated as a saint with her own feast day of September 17, why  did it take the Vatican so long to canonize her? Why Hildegard and why now?

The first attempt to canonize Hildegard began in 1233, but failed as over fifty years had passed since her death and most of the witnesses and beneficiaries of her reported miracles were deceased. Her theological writings were deemed too dense and difficult for subsequent generations to understand and soon fell into obscurity, as did her music.

According Barbara Newman, Hildegard was remembered mainly as an apocalyptic prophet. But in the age of Enlightenment, prophets and mystics went out of fashion. Hildegard was dismissed as a hysteric and even her authorship of her own work was disputed. Pundits began to suggest her books had been written by a man.

Newman states that Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence was due mainly to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey. In 1956 Marianne Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship. Their research provides the foundation of all subsequent Hildegard scholarship.

In the 1980s, in the wake of a wider women’s spirituality movement, Hildegard’s star rose as seekers from diverse faith backgrounds embraced her as a foremother and role model. The artist Judy Chicago showcased Hildegard at her iconic feminist Dinner Party installation. Medievalists and theologians rediscovered Hildegard’s writings. New recordings of her sacred music hit the popular charts. The radical Dominican monk Matthew Fox adopted Hildegard as the figurehead of his creation-centered spirituality. Fox’s book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen remains one of the most accessible and popular books on the 12th century visionary. In 2009, German director Margarethe von Trotta made Hildegard the subject of her luminous film, Vision. And all the while, the sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey were exerting their quiet pressure on Rome to get Hildegard the official endorsement they believed she deserved.

Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard’s burgeoning cult, possibly because he was repelled by her status as a feminist icon. Ironically it is his successor, Benedict XVI, one of the most conservative popes in recent history—who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, defrocked Matthew Fox—is finally giving Hildegard her due. Reportedly Joseph Ratzinger, a German, has long admired Hildegard.

I, for one, am heartened that Hildegard, the great polymath and powerfrau, is finally receiving this official  recognition. Her ethereal music, her philosophy of natural medicine, her transcendent visions, mandala-like illuminations, and her insights on the immanent divine in the natural world have made her icon to people all faith backgrounds. I can only hope her canonization and her upcoming elevation to Doctor of the Church will allow many more people to be inspired by her life and work.

My new book ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN will be published in October 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sunday, 13 May 2012


I suspect I am having a reaction to finally having walked away from legal practice, after thirty years. All the posts I have drafted in the last few weeks have been on legal matters and this post is no exception. Inspired by last week’s post on the Levellers I thought it might be appropriate to talk about “the Star Chamber” which reached such a level of infamy during the reign of Charles I that the term “Star Chamber” still exists in our idiom today.  It is generally used to denote any judicial or quasi-judicial action, trial, or hearing which so grossly violates standards of "due process" that a party appearing in the proceedings (hearing or trial) is denied a fair hearing.

It has its origins in the fourteenth century and is said to have derived from a room in the Palace of Westminster decorated  with a starred ceiling where the King and his privy council met. Initially it served the valuable role as a “conciliar court” which were convened at short notice to deal with urgent matters. Initially well regarded because of its speed and flexibility, it was made up of Privy Councillors, as well as common-law judges, and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. In a sense, the court was a supervisory body, overseeing the operations of lower courts, though its members could hear cases by direct appeal as well. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes.

In 1487, a Star Chamber Act was enacted setting up a special tribunal to deal with subversive activities within the King’s household. In theory the Star Chamber could only take cognisance of a matter if there was a good reason to interfering with the ordinary processes of law. In practice it meant that it heard cases and impose punishments in matters where no actual crime had been committed but, in the subjective opinion of the court, were considered morally reprehensible. The sort of matters coming before it would now constitute offences such as conspiracy, libel, forgery, perjury, riot, conspiracy and sedition. Henry VII and Henry VIII, in particular, used the power of the Star Chamber to break the powerful nobles who opposed his reign. Prosecutions were brought by the Attorney General and prisoners tried summarily by affidavit and interrogation (which very often included torture). Punishments included fines, imprisonment, pillory, branding or loss of an ear. It did not have the power to order a death sentence.

Its more sinister side began to emerge by the end of the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century when it began to lose its “civil” side and notwithstanding its inability to mete out death, by the reign of Charles I, the Star Chamber had achieved a terrible reputation for severity and tyranny. 

Charles I
Charles I routinely used the Star Chamber Charles to examine cases of sedition, which meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies.During the time of Charles' “personal rule” he ruthlessly stamped down on the freedom of the press and religious and political dissenters.  William Prynne, Alexander Leighton, John Bastwick and Henry Burton, all appeared before the Star Chamber for their views on religious dissent. William Prynne for example was a puritan who published a number of tracts opposing religious feast days and entertainment such as stage plays. The latter was construed as a direct attack on the Queen and in 1634 he was sentenced in the Star Chamber to life imprisonment, a fine of £5000, he was stripped of his qualifications and membership of Lincolns Inn and lost both his ears in the pillory.

It was the treatment of John Lilburne that eventually led to the abolition of the Star Chamber. As you will have read in Keith Livesey’s post, John was a Leveller. “Free born John”, as he came to be known, was arrested in 1637 for publishing unlicensed books (one of them by William Prynne). All printing presses had to be officially licensed. John was brought before the Star Chamber.  He refused to take the oath known as the 'ex-officio' oath (on the ground that he was not bound to incriminate himself), and thus called in question the court's usual procedure. On 13 February 1638 he was sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned till he obeyed.

John Lilburne at the Pillory
On 18 April 1638 Lilburne was flogged with a three-thonged whip on his bare back, as he was dragged by his hands tied to the rear of an ox cart from Fleet Prison to the pillory at Westminster. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censors, while distributing more unlicensed literature to the crowds.  He was then gagged. Finally he was thrown in prison. He was taken back to the court and again imprisoned. During his imprisonment in Fleet he was cruelly treated. While in prison he however managed to write and to get printed in 1638 an account of his own punishment styled The Work of the Beast and in 1639 an apology for separation from the church of England, entitled Come out of her, my people. John spent the next few years going back and forth between the Star Chamber and prison.

 In 1640, the King’s personal rule ended and he was forced to reconvene Parliament. Incensed by John Lilburne’s treatment at the hands of the Star Court, John Pym led a campaign to abolish it and in 1640 one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the western world was enacted, the Habeus Corpus Act. This Act abolished the Star Chamber and declared that anyone imprisoned by order of the king, privy council, or any councilor could apply for a writ of habeas corpus (literally meaning “release the body”) and it required that all returns to the writ "certify the true cause" of imprisonment.  It also clarified that the Court of Common Pleas had jurisdiction to issue the writ in such cases (prior to which it was argued that only the King's Bench could issue the writ). On this statute stands our basic right to a fair trial.

Physically the Star Chamber stood in the precinct of the Westminster Palace until its demolition in 1806.

Despite the rights of Habeas Corpus, “Star Chambers” still creep into our modern age. In modern American history, for example,  the best example of star chamber proceedings was the conduct of the House Un-American Activities Committee (1938-1975) which used its subpoena power to intimidate citizens by asking them unconstitutional questions about their political beliefs and associations, and then charging them with contempt of Congress for refusing to answer. Another example was the conduct of criminal proceedings against black defendants in some southern states from 1876 until the late 1960s. As a lawyer I have my doubts about the proceedings against the Guantamo Bay detainees but this is not the time and place to discuss these issues.
The House Un-American Activities Committee in session

An Introduction to Legal History J.H. Baker

Sunday, 6 May 2012


This week the Hoydens are delighted to welcome Keith Livesey of our 'brother' blog, Trumpet of Sedition, as our guest blogger with a fascinating study of the role of women in the politics of the English Civil War.

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

Lady Chudleigh

“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)

History and for that matter historians have not been kind to women who took part in political activity on both sides of the English Civil War. There is a dearth of material on women’s struggle at this time. As far as I can ascertain no major biography exists of two of the most important Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne. The purpose of the article is to examine Leveller women’s contribution to the English revolution which as Christopher Hill observed "helped many women both to establish their own independence and to visualize a total escape for the poorer classes”.

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
Elizabeth Lilburne, Leveller, was the daughter of Henry Dewell a London merchant. Like Chidley next to nothing is known of her origins and social background. She shared a similar background with that of Chidley in so much as she was involved in irreligious circles. She shared her husband politics. Her life with Lilburne was in many ways dominated by his persecution at the hands of parliament and Cromwell.

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)
Davies was an aggressive anti-papist. Her aggressiveness sometimes spilled into vandalism. In one instance in 1636 along with people went to Lichfield Cathedral, damaged its altar and sat on the bishop's throne. For her trouble she was sentenced to sixteen months in prison. One problem for modern day researchers is that in Seventeenth-century England, according to one writer “very few women, compared with men, wrote for publication their works form less than one per cent of the total number of texts published in the period.”
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
(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
(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.