The Civil War cross-dressers: the women who swapped dresses for breeches

King Charles I forbade it. The Bible declared it an abomination. But that didn’t stop women joining the armies of king and parliament dressed in men’s clothes. Mark Stoyle tells the stories of the people who swapped dresses for breeches in the Civil War

Illustrations by Ian Morris.

Soldiers’ lovers: the unmasking of a “poore loving wench”

During the 1640s England was torn apart by a terrible Civil War fought between the reigning monarch, Charles I, and his enemies in parliament. The conflict saw thousands of lives turned upside down, and one of the most intriguing consequences of this social dislocation was that a number of women ventured into the field alongside the soldiers of king and parliament while cross-dressed as men – despite the fact that transvestitism is explicitly condemned in the Bible.

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Some women donned masculine attire not to fight but in order to accompany their male partners while they were away at war. This was true of a certain Nan Ball, “a poore loving wench” who was “taken in man’s cloathes” in the royalist camp near York in 1642. Ball had, it appears, been waiting upon “her beloved”, an unnamed lieutenant in the king’s service.

Her penalty for being “taken in man’s cloathes” was to be banished from the royalist camp

Once her cover had been blown as the result of “a foolish accident” – the nature of which is, sadly, left unspecified – Nan was brought before the Earl of Lindsey, who was then governing the king’s camp in the temporary absence of Charles. Lindsey questioned the lieutenant and his cross-dressed consort, and – having satisfied himself that the lovers had indeed conspired in a sartorial deception – punished the lieutenant by dismissing him from his command. As for Ball, she was to be exposed to “publique shame”, either by being whipped or placed in the pillory, two punishments that were frequently handed out to “moral offenders”.

In the end, more merciful counsels prevailed, and a “letter was procured for… [Ball’s] reprieve”. As a result, rather than being forced to undergo harsh punishment, this ‘outed’ female cross-dresser was banished from the royalist camp and, in the words of the sympathetic writer who recorded the story, “turn’d [away] to seek her fortune”.

Illustrations by Ian Morris.

Prostitution: dressing as men for sex or convenience?

How many women dressed as men during the Civil War? We’ll never know for sure. But what is certain is that, by the summer of 1643, Charles I had become so concerned about the phenomenon that, in a draft proclamation designed to regulate the conduct of the forces under his command, he included a directive specifically forbidding that practice. “Because the confounding of habites appertaining to both sexes… is a thing which nature and religion forbid and our soule abhors,” the king wrote, “[and] yet the prostitute impudency of some women have thus conversed in our army, therefore let no women presume to counterfeit her sex by wearing man’s apparall, under payne of the severest punishment.”

Illustrations by Ian Morris.

Charles’s claim that it was a sense of “prostitute impudency” that led some of the women in his camp to adopt male “habites”, suggests the king regarded female cross-dressing primarily as a cover for the sale of sex. It’s true that a few of the female camp-followers who accompanied the royalist army may indeed have swapped their dresses for breeches in order to make it easier for them to ply their trade as prostitutes. However, it seems probable that most of the women who adopted male attire would have done so for reasons of simple convenience: it made it easier for them to stride alongside their menfolk as they marched across the country on campaign.

Travellers: sniffing out secrets on parliament’s highways

Not all of the women who cross-dressed during the Civil War did so as a means of following loved ones into the rival armies. Others clearly donned male garb in the hope of passing unnoticed through a countryside in which law and order had all but broken down, and in which travel had become extremely hazardous for lone women.

They donned male garb in the hope of passing unnoticed through England’s hazardous landscape

There are several instances of such travellers being unmasked on the highway during the conflict. In 1644, a group of parliamentarian soldiers manning a “court of guard”, or military checkpoint, in Hyde Park, apprehended a young woman of 16 or 17 from Gloucestershire as she attempted to pass through their guard while dressed as a boy. The unfortunate traveller was suspected of being a royalist spy bent on sniffing out secrets in London.

Illustrations by Ian Morris.

As to her fate, we can’t be sure, although she may well have been despatched to the nearest prison, as those detected in the act of cross-dressing during the 1640s frequently were.

Female warriors: cross-dressing in the name of God

Perhaps the most unusual and fascinating of all the women who dressed as men during the Civil War were those who “counterfeited their sex” because they wanted to serve as soldiers themselves.

There is good evidence to show that a handful of exceptional women fought in the rival armies. A “woman corporall” was among the royalist prisoners captured when parliamentarian forces took Shelford Church in Nottinghamshire in 1645. And long after the conflict was over, a Cheshire man of royalist sympathies expressed his distaste for the fact that one of his neighbours, a certain Katherine Dale, had allegedly served as a parliamentarian trooper during the Civil Wars. “If Kate Dale… had ridden as a trooper for the king,” he remarked, sniffily, “it had bin gallant in her… but rideinge for the Rebells… it was a most base thing.”

Illustrations by Ian Morris.

If these two women did, indeed, serve as soldiers, they would surely have done so in male attire. And the same was evidently true of the parliamentarian trooper at Evesham, who in 1645 aroused the suspicions of a local tailor by ordering him to make “a petticoat… for my sister, which is just of my stature every way”.

The tailor was convinced that the petticoat was intended for the soldier himself, rather than his ‘sister’, and so informed the authorities. According to the contemporary pamphleteer who related the story, “this young man was sent for… and being examined… [admitted] he was indeed a female, and… that herself and three more sufficient men’s daughters came out of Shropshire when the king’s forces commanded there, and to get away, came disguised in that manner, and resolved to serve in the warre for the cause of God”.

More evidence of female fighters dressing in men’s clothes can be found in the financial accounts of the chamberlains of Worcester. Among those accounts is a note of a payment made in 1649 “to a messenger to carry a letter… concerning the woman that cam[e] disguised in mans app[ar]ell in the name of a souldier”. Presumably Worcester’s local governors were appealing to someone in higher authority for advice as to how to deal with the unsettling male impersonator who had recently been discovered in their midst.

How many other cross-dressed women like these may have served, unrecognised, in the armies of king and parliament? Sadly, we will never know.

Mark Stoyle is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton. You can read his essay ‘Give Mee a Souldier’s Coat: Female Cross-Dressing During the English Civil War’ in the journal History (volume 103, issue 358).

Illustrations by Ian Morris

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This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine