From the home front to the front line: what were the roles of women in the Civil War?
The Civil Wars were not an exclusively male domain, as women from all social spheres became embroiled in the clashes or voluntarily threw themselves into the conflict. Emma Slattery Williams explores the warrior women committed to doing their bit, if even in disguise...
Arguably the most important woman of the Civil War was the wife of King Charles I, Henrietta Maria. Although the French-born queen has sometimes been overlooked, Professor Mark Stoyle argues that she was a far more pivotal figure in the conflict than is usually recognised.
He even suggests that the king’s declaration of war may have been partly prompted out of concern for her: “Charles’s attempt to arrest five MPs in January 1642 was, I think, partly prompted by rumours beginning to circulate that MPs were about to impeach Henrietta Maria and even, perhaps, to execute her.”
Sent to the continent for her safety, the queen continued to support the royalists from across the Channel, sending supplies and money, and later gathering an army to join her husband.
Aside from Henrietta Maria, women from all classes of society played a role during the Civil War. “There were some great noblewomen who defended their houses against the other side,” says Professor Stoyle. “The most famous of these were Lady Brilliana Harley, who defended her castle on the Welsh Marches, and Lady Banks, who defended her castle in Dorset."
Bankes famously held Corfe Castle for the king, withstanding two sieges. When the Parliamentarians tried to climb the walls, Lady Mary, her daughters and her female servants helped drive them off by raining hot coals and stones down upon their heads.
“But women all over Britain fought to protect their homes against the rampaging armies. During the eight-week siege of Lyme Regis in 1644, women helped to dig fortifications and bring out supplies to the men in the trenches. Some even fired muskets and cannons”.
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When the Royalists temporarily withdrew, the women ran out with picks and shovels and levelled the enemy earthworks.
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Some women took desperate measures to be near their loved ones or to get a slice of the action
For those women for whom becoming a camp follower wasn’t enough to feel like they were contributing to the war effort, the only option was to pull on a pair of breeches and join the army. While some women donned men’s clothes so they could accompany their husbands, others actually wanted to get on the battlefield itself.
Both the Bible and the king took a dim view of this practice, and those who were discovered could face public whipping. The actual number of women who crossdressed is unknown, but the problem was significant enough that a draft proclamation of 1643, which set out required standards of behaviour in the army, contained a hand-written memo from Charles I forbidding women from wearing men’s clothes.
- Read more about the women who swapped dresses for breeches
Despite this measure, a small number of women do seem to have taken part in combat. One famous example is Jane Ingleby of Ripley Castle, who reputedly charged with the King’s cavalry at Marston Moor, while many other women travelled with the armies as camp followers.
In terms of the home front of the Civil War, women took on important jobs while men were off fighting. These included civic duties, such as parish constables. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, women returned to their normal household roles – but there were shifts.
Radical religious sects began to pop up allowing female preachers, and some women became published authors for the first time. Overall, Professor Stoyle claims that the Civil War had a significant impact on the dynamics of society: “I would argue that women’s lives changed just as much as men’s did.”
This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.
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