Revolution and Women

The 17th century in Britain seems to have been a time when women were demanding rights and making a lot of noise and trouble. This is again from Stevie Davies Unbridled Spirits:

At the Restoration, as the second Charles rode to his coronation, the conduits on the streets ran with wine. Charles’ procession passed beneath a series of triumphal arches, symbolising past breakdown and the new monarchical order. One arch supported a woman dressed as Rebellion in a blood-red robe crawling with snakes, a gory sword in her hand. Her henchwoman, Confusion, wore a headpiece a ruined castle and carried broken sceptres. ‘I am Hell’s daughter, Satan’s eldest child,’ announced Rebellion. The Revolution was gendered female to a culture which ascribed to women lawless, destructive powers. ‘She’ had turned the world upside down for a period of 20 years.

Women as low in the social scale as fishwives and oysterwomen had been essential to the war effort. In the building of the massive fortifications encircling the whole capital in spring and summer of 1643, when Londoners were expecting the onslaught of thr royalist army, women constituted a substantial part of the thousands who marched parish by parish, trade by trade, indefatigably to dig and carry earth to the great ramparts, 9 foot thick and 18 high, which stretched 18 miles round the city. On these ramparts stood 24 forts built of earth and timber, surrounded by ditches and stakes, mounted with cannon. Samuel Butler recalled the women’s efforts in his satire, Hudibras, with wholly involuntary admiration:

Marched rank and file, or drum and ensign,

T’entrench the city, for defence, in;

Raised rampiers with their own soft hands,

and put the enemy to stands;

From ladies down to oyster-wenches,

Labour’d like pioneers in trenches,

Fell to their pick-axes and tools,

and helped the men to dig like moles?

Wandering tailor William Lithgow watched as day by daa Londoners came: tailors with 8000 men (by his loose accounting) one may morning; watermen with 7000 the next, porters ‘and upon that same day, a thousand oyster-wives advanced from Billingsgate through Cheapside to Crabtree Field, all alone, with drums and flying colours, and in a civil manner’ to add their joint strength to the communal effort.’

2 thoughts on “Revolution and Women

  1. My first “proper” job involved cataloguing historical people and events mentioned in the ballad collection belonging to Samuel Pepys. I was amazed at the attitude towards women. Much more enlightened than I would have thought, both in terms of rights and general treatment of women. I guess this may well have been because women were becoming more outspoken; or perhaps acknowledging women’s rights gave more women the confidence to speak out.


    • Pepys was hardly typical, but i seems there was a far wider range of behavior and opinions back then, particularly in the non conformist communities. Ultimately, nobody wants to share a house and bed with someone who you are at odds with. Life is and was too short. MOre posts to follow on his topic.


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