Women of the English Revolution:
1640 - 1660


1 Stevie Davies' book is history at its most gripping and passionate. From a huge range of eyewitness accounts and personal narratives she reconstructs the sufferings and triumphs of the women radicals of the English Revolution. Scholarship and imagination are powerfully matched in this raw and cruel but inspiring story. A tempest of a book not to be missed.
  John Carey


2 Her narrative drive gives her account of these women's lives an impressive and gripping immediacy... This is a human, balanced, yet impassioned description of women in a turbulent period — an admirable supplement to Christopher Hill's own pioneering account. A very useful, unorthodox, scholarly and enjoyable book.
  Margaret Drabble


3 "As a woman you glimpsed a world where you had a say", writes Stevie Davies of the years in England when, with civil war, regicide and Protectorate, the world was turned upside down. Unbridled spirits were women set free, who accepted the challenge of that freedom and wrote, prophesied or engaged in public debate. Their battles, as she readily concedes, were not the modern feminist ones; their demands did not amount to women's rights as these are now conceived. Theirs was a different mental world, lacking the secular individualism of the modern age. This is a rich and compelling book, the work of a literary critic and distinguished novelist who now proves herself, besides, a fine historian. It is written with sustained passion, in a highly coloured prose that some could find indigestible but which powerfully carries her story along, as she unveils a fascinating parade of extraordinary women. Through specific detail about their lives she manages to bring them close to us. Yet the book is always authentic; it represents a meticulous and formidable research effort in the printed pamphlet literature of the period. If there is little in the outline of these stories that scholars of the period will find entirely new, there is much new in the texture of the tales as told here. Moreover, in several cases — Anna Trapnel, Margaret Fell and Lucy Hutchinson for example — radical women probably live here more more wholly than they have ever done before.

To grasp the credulity of men, which opened the way to careers of female trance and prophecy, we have to appreciate the power of the early-modern gender stereotypes and the extent to which the events of the 1640s and early 1650s dislodged men's minds and drove them to seek reassurance. They saw masculinity in terms of reason and femininity in terms of body, emotion and spirit, so it was natural to grasp at the possibility that God was speaking through a particular woman. Hence the Army Council in December 1648, as it debated the trial of Charles I, paused to listen in all seriousness to the young prophetess from Abingdon, Elizabeth Pool, who had a vision to impart. The weaker vessel might carry words from God that the Council could wish to hear. In this case it did not, but five years later there was even more excitement in London when Anna Trapnel, lying close by at Whitehall, prophesied the apocalyptic downfall of worldly power and the imminent millennium. Trapnel gained her following by her impressive ability to sustain a trance, virtually without food and drink, for days on end, which seemed to argue that she was God's chosen instrument. Davies's account, the best we have, of Trapnel's journey to Cornwall in early 1654, brings out her theatricality and courage. It illuminates the perplexity of her audiences, who could not decide whether to treat her as a witch, a vagrant or a woman possessed by God.

A thoughtful chapter discusses three Puritan marriages, shifting the focus briefly from the public to the domestic setting. Davies convincingly argues that the marital advice of Puritans both expanded and contracted the gap of inequality. In Ralph Josselin, the celebrated Essex diarist and clergyman, she suggests, we can perceive a man attempting to practise what his fellow clerics preached. The Josselin marriage was kept afloat by a husband who viewed the union as an almost, but not quite, equal partnership, with roles specific to each gender and a basis in mutual attraction and respect. Ralph was at the same time a deeply engaged parent full of affection for his children. Nehemiah Wallington's diaries yield close insights into the character of his wife, Grace, and what Davies calls her "impassioned discipline". Lucy Hutchinson's writings about herself and her husband reveal a woman of great drive, aware of the loss of the self that has died with him. Thus this considerable child prodigy ended her life in proud self abnegation.

The latter sections of the book are mainly taken up with Quakers. The movement is portrayed through three pairs of eyes: those of Margaret Fell, her husband Thomas, and George Fox, eventually Margaret's second husband. Davies's sensitive telling of the story of George Fox's impact on the Fell household at Swarthmoor in the Lake District reminds us of the extraordinary magnetism of his personality and the power of his simple message of the inner light. Judge Fell, dubious as he may have been about how his household fell before his eyes into Quakerism, could not bring himself to challenge his wife's inspired speeches. She was formidable indeed, a militant controversialist into her eighties, whose stamina did not fail. In a sense, Margaret Fell stands for the many unbridled women that this book seeks to celebrate. It was she who delivered by hand to Charles II in 1660 the Quaker manifesto which enshrined the basic claim: "we are a people that follow after those things that make for peace, love and unity". Behind this whole story lies the breakdown of Calvinist predestinarianism, with its exacting cerebral demands. Through sectarianism, seeking and finally Quakerism, many men and woman had been set free to find their own spiritual paths. The reaction, well sketched by Davies early in the book in an account of the conservative pamphleteer Thomas Edwards, was fierce. But there is a legacy, Davies is convinced, which echoes to the present. By posing the notion of spiritual equality between men and women, the Reformation had prised open minds. Changing conceptions of gender limited the opportunity for spiritual prophecy to be taken seriously after 1660. Women's claims contracted before they eventually expanded on a broader front. This captivating book about the first radial women deserves a wide audience.
  Anthony Fletcher, Times Literary Supplement


4 At the outset of her book Stevie Davies describes being "raised on Christopher Hill", and hardly noticing on her first heady reading of his The World Turned Upside Down that it "all but censored; unread" the lives and works of many female political and religious agitators who were often at the forefront of the controversies of the period.

Many historians have acknowledged that the years 1640-60 saw the questioning of the legitimacy of all kinds of relationships. Contemporary accounts testify to the socially traumatising effects of the revolution, which in disrupting the age-old claim to the divine right of kings in favour of a more democratic system of government also had the knock-on effect of questioning the legitimacy of the master's authority over his servant, the parent's over his child, the husband's over his wife.

Davies has set about the task of restoring to their rightful place the many public female voices who took advantage of the temporary fissures in patriarchal authority that appeared during the upheaval of this period (only to close again after the Restoration), and who managed, against considerable odds, to make themselves heard.

Both in style and content Davies has provided a text both immensely useful to the academic and entirely accessible to the absolute beginner. Rendering clear the sense in which religious and political issues were inextricably linked during the English revolution, she brings alive for a secular age the burning issues of the time, in which women involved themselves in an unprecedented fashion. Crucially, she acknowledges that these were rarely "women's issues", and the characters she brings to our attention cover a broad spectrum of religious belief and political opinion. It was the fact of women claiming the right to be heard and read which was the significant aspect of their role in the revolution.

She resists the tendency to enhance the attractiveness of her heroines by glossing over their negative characteristics. She rather dwells on the meanness of one, the pride of another, with a frankness that is refreshing and reassuring. These women remain extraordinary, but real. As a result, what she sees as admirable is more persuasive.
  Times Higher Education Supplement


5 Stevie Davies writes in the introduction that although she admires Christopher Hill's Marxist studies of seventeenth century British history, women do not figure in them as either agents of or participants in the public sphere. Therefore, it is one of her purposes to fill this gap and she does so in a way that would meet with Hill's approval, namely by devoting serious attention to the lot of the of the unprivileged women of the period. She explains that this is a hard endeavour, because such women, if they had any visibility at all, enjoyed it only for a moment. She writes, 'I have been painfully aware of the silence of the majority of seventeenth century women, which accompanies the historian like a mute, spectral companion, of whom little can be recorded save her existence.'

Davies's study consists of an introduction, 12 chapters and an ample bibliography in four sections which will prove most useful to anyone who wishes to engage in further study of this subject. The last section, secondary sources, evidences the rapid development of women's revisions of history on both sides of the Atlantic since the early 1980s. This work covers the activities of women in various radical religious groups: Fifth Monarchists, Levellers, Puritans and Quakers. Davies's recognised skills as an imaginative writer assist her in bringing to life the routine pain, miseries, squalor and indignities of seventeenth century life, above all for the poorest; but the more prosperous were not spared either, and those who served a sentence in a bridewell or a prison were lucky to get out alive.

Clearly fascinated by this period, Stevie Davies has combed documents and social histories in search of detail on subjects as varied as underwear (yes, for practical reasons women did not adopt knickers until the Victorian age), medical histories (Puritans not only knew about but also favoured the female orgasm), and ghastly punishments for women who forgot their (silent) place in society. Anyone who is not aware of the punishment applied to scolds, the brank, must turn to page 41. Even in an age of spiritual and intellectual ferment, such as the one covered here, it was dangerous for a woman to come out of the home and seek to affect the conduct of public affairs. She risked being labelled whore, scold or witch, and being flogged, imprisoned or burned for forgetting her place.

Stevie Davies's work is an example of a double revision of history. Not only does she give her rightful place to women, she also reconstructs domestic history with great tenderness. After all the work done by feminist historians, the mainstream can never look the same again.


6 ... In the social collapse of the English Civil War, many women took the opportunity to make their voices heard for the first time. Davies pays poignant tribute to "the mass silence" of the female majority, who continued to toil through the eternal round of childbearing and child-burying, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause (if they were lucky) and death, in poverty and illiteracy.

Her focus is on the exceptions to the rule — and what a startling lot her women are. Three hundred years before Greenham, Peace Women marched and hollered against war. Prophetesses preached the downfall of Charles I. Leveller women swung their words like swords, hacking till they drew blood. 'Gay Quakers' danced and sang for the glory of the Lord.

They paid for it, of course. As Davies shows, women's escape from patriarchal control seemed to men "the final anarchy", far worse than killing the King. They were pilloried and lashed, dragged through the streets and subjected to the torture of the scold's bridle or ducking stool. They still chose to forfeit freedom, property, health, even life, for the right to speak out. "I want to haunt the reader with these revolutionary women's stories," writes Davies. She does. ...


7 ... combines a scholarly approach to the printed sources with lively prose and obvious enthusiasm for the extraordinary lives she chronicles — completely absorbing.
  Ronan Bennett, The Independent (Christmas Books)


This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies