Socialist and Peoples' History

Women Turning the World Upside Down: Christopher Hill and His Legacy



Soma Marik[*]


People and Politics in the English Revolution: The Ongoing Class Struggle

The identity of a great historian emerges neither through the sheer bulk of her or his writings, nor through a single piece of solid work, but by the overall corpus and its wide influence on subsequent historiography. By this yardstick, the achievement of John Edward Christopher Hill is close to unparalleled in the annals of twentieth century historiography. Few scholars have left such a deep imprint on their chosen field. In this paper, only one corner of that field, the 17th Century in English history and the centrality in that century of the revolution of 1640-1660, is under survey. The role of women in that revolution was long neglected, and the first full-fledged history came to be written only in 1998. The author, Stevie Davies, writes that “I was raised on Christopher Hill and remain inspired by his works”[1], even though she finds it necessary to point out the inadequacies in Hill. Between his first essay, ‘The English Revolution 1640’, written in 1940, and the Liberty Against the Law, published in 1996, Hill would develop certain themes consistently, and with that, he would open many new doors to research. It was Hill, above all others, who established that the revolution of mid-17th Century England was not a mere constitutional revolution nor a narrowly defined religious conflict, but a multifaceted social revolution, of world-historical significance, whose full implications could be understood only by stepping down from the palace tops and coming closer to the ground. He made this quite clear in the ‘Introduction’ of one of his excellent books (The World Turned Upside Down) portraying the wide range of radical ideas that emerged from below during the English Revolution. Here he draws our attention to the different approach of his own book and David Underdown’s Pride’s Purge[2] which is about almost the same period of English history. Hill writes, “His (Underdown’s) is the view from the top, from Whitehall, mine the worm’s eye view. His index and mine contain totally different lists of names.”[3] This explains why he took pains to explore the voices of the ‘inarticulate’ and the ‘silent’ majority. Not unnaturally, historians hostile to the aspirations of subaltern masses[†] and politically conservative in the present could not stomach Hill. So when Maurice Ashley revised his England in the Seventeenth Century, he cautioned his readers in the bibliographic note: “It should be remembered that all Dr. Hill’s books are written from a highly sophisticated Marxist standpoint”.[4] And among conservative historians of the younger generation, like Lord Conrad Russell or John Morrill, the bid to establish their revisionist viewpoint always meant targeting above all the interpretations and methodology of Christopher Hill. Jonathan Clark, for example, took a roundhouse at ‘Old Guard’ Marxists, not a surprising stand for a historian for whom Mrs. Thatcher was a second Gloriana.[5]


Like so many other aspects of the English revolution, the churning in the legal, socio-economic, political and religious existence of women during the revolutionary years first came to be examined closely by Hill. To be accurate, there had been occasional pieces before him. From the researches of Patricia Higgins, we learn that as early as 1909, (possibly under the influence of suffragism?), Ellen McArthur had written ‘Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament’.[6] But this was restricted to one specific form of activity. To see the numerous other ways in which women pushed their way through the confining bounds of patriarchy during the revolutionary and interregnum years, one has to turn to Hill’s classic The World Turned Upside Down.


This is probably the work that will be remembered as Hill’s greatest single contribution. No dogmatic and certainly no economic determinist, Hill’s rejection of narrow constitutionalist or religious interpretations of the revolution did not lead him into the opposite error of economic reductionism. For Hill: “There are two ways of looking at a revolution. We can observe the gestures which symbolize and focus whole ages of struggle – Sir John Hotham shutting the gates of Hull in the white face of Charles I; the women bringing up the ammunition at Lyme Regis; an axe flashing in the January sun outside Whitehall; Nayler riding into Bristol on his ass, with women strewing palms in his path. But there are also the longer, slower, profounder changes in men’s ways of thinking…. And we can, perhaps, extend a little gratitude to all those nameless radicals who foresaw and worked for… the upside-down world.”[7] In examining the transformation of women’s lives, Hill brought in an interaction of both aspects. The slow and deep moving social and economic forces, the rethinking within human communities, and the focal points all get treated, though not in a fully connected manner, across many of his writings. Hill examines the Statute of Artificers, promulgated in 1563, early in the reign of Elizabeth, the Statute of Apprentices and the Elizabethan Poor Law to show what kind of economic pressure was brought to bear on the labouring poor in this age of transition. 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. But women also had the opportunity to emerge out of masculine/ patriarchal control. They had to fend for themselves and their family members. On the other hand, the ideologies generated during the strains and stresses of the civil war viewed women in distinctive ways, and sometimes restated patriarchy in new forms corresponding to the times, while sometimes patriarchy was openly challenged.[8]


It is however in The World Turned Upside Down that the ideological dimensions are teased out. In this book his aim was to trace the emergence and development of radical ideas in the revolutionary era. The public appearance of such ideologies questioned and at times overturned long-held verities. Among these was the theory that women must forever be under the thumbs of men. Since religious radicalism was one of the mainsprings of the revolution and the main form of ideological expression, it is not surprising that in discussions of gender rights, too, religious/spiritual liberty of women often took priority. Both the Catholic and the Anglican churches had conservative views on the subject. Radical Puritans by contrast began to acknowledge the individuality of women. Hill has shown that the new morality constructed by Puritanism was by no means one that made wives the absolute equals of their husbands. But henceforth they were to be partners rather than slaves.[9] By the middle of the seventeenth century, wife beating was becoming an offence.[10] The new ethics were reflected in Puritan doctrines that stressed that the wife had rights (in subordination) in family partnership, on marriage for love and on freedom of choice for children. All these led to a new stress on the wife’s equality before God and in access to God. Thomas Goodwin pointed out that Eve was taken from Adam’s side not from his foot. And even a respectable Puritan divine like Samuel Torshell wrote in 1645 that there was no difference between men and women in the state of grace, since the “soul knows no difference of sex”.[11]


Hill was of course aware that Puritanism was not a homogeneous faith. So he also showed the persistence within Puritanism of ideas stressing that the wife was the property of the husband.[12] But, as Hill was also to show, not all the radicals could be covered by the term Puritan, even using it in an extremely ecumenical way. The sectaries, as they were called, went beyond hierarchically organised churches, formed their independent groups, and often had demands where religious equality was mixed up with political and social equality. The Fifth Monarchist John Rogers told husbands that they should not interfere in women’s independence. At the same time, he cautioned women against moving too far forward. Katharine Chidley, who would later on be a prominent Leveller activist, asserted in 1641 that a husband had no more right to control his wife’s conscience than a magistrate had the right to control his.[13] Hill has delved into his sources with his usual tremendous command to bring forth the voices, not only of sympathetic men, but also of some of the women themselves. Independent groups advocated, often, the use of ‘mechanick preachers’. The distinction between clergy and laity had begun to break down. The preacher could be an ordinary human being who worked at some trade six days a week. Such an arrangement would cost the congregation nothing and would bring the views of audience and preacher more in tune with each other especially among subaltern social layers. Fifth Monarchy supporters, for example, were strong among the cloth workers and other crafts. John Rogers attacked the nobles and the gentry using strong class language.[14]



Recovering the Voices of Women

A part of such struggles for equality was the assertion of rights by women themselves. Some of the voices recovered by Hill are those of Katharine Chidley, Mrs. Attaway and Mary Cary. As Hill observed: “The Revolution helped many women both to establish their own independence and to visualize a total escape for the poorer classes.”[15] In 1648, Mary Cary declared herself a ‘minister’ (i.e., a protestant preacher) and justified Parliament’s war against the King from the Book of Revelation (O.T.). In 1651, she drafted A New and more exact Mappe or Description of New Jerusalems Glory, where she assured her readers that a time was coming when not only men but also women would prophesy, “not only those who have university learning but those who have it not, even servants and handmaids”.[16] This open questioning of class and gender structures of power led to the assertion that salvation lay through divine light and mercy, distributed equally to all.


Hill’s critique of the Puritan morality caused him to show that this morality “turned a less friendly face on those whose efforts did not meet with the good fortune which was also necessary”, and that the Puritan ethics also involved assumptions of a dual standard of rationality, one for the rich and one for the poor.[17] Hill also makes a convincing case of how this upper class ethic was imposed on the toiling poor by the protestant clergy. For those at the bottom rungs of society, all this ethic brought was hard work with no recompense. And they did not accept its imposition easily. It took two centuries of struggle, mapped out in The World Turned Upside Down and Liberty Against the Law, before the battle was won by the ruling class. The challenges to this Puritan view came from various quarters, and women were once more involved. The conservative Puritan divine Baxter had advised the poor to starve rather than steal. Sir Thomas Browne reflected that it would be wrong to abolish poverty, for then there could be no charity.[18] This forerunner of the World Bank’s safety net outlook found in Puritanism no doubt a comfortable religion. Against such people were radicals, such as Lawrence Clarkson. In his 1647 pamphlet A General Charge or Impeachment, he warned the ‘commonality’ against the nobility: “Your slavery is their liberty, your poverty is their prosperity.”[19]


Women in large numbers were among those on the losing side as a result of the imposition of this Puritan ethic and capitalist economic practices. The idea of women’s equality may not have been theorized in our terms, but these were articulated through diverse forms of protest. During the two revolutionary decades, women and their subversive demands for equality surfaced within the religious sects as well as the political currents. Many of the radicals, including or example the Quakers, believed that after the preacher had spoken, all participants had the right to ask questions and to debate. But it was Mrs. Attaway, a female preacher, who turned theoretical discussions to practical deed.[20] Thomas Edwards, the cleric who is our chief source of information, was a vocal opponent of every real or imagined heresy in the English church, on which he wrote a three-part book in 1646 entitled Gangraena. Methodically listing and denouncing 176 heresies, he and his informants have left for posterity a distorted, but nonetheless vital, record of how common people, freed of the control of the thought-police, expressed themselves. No. 124 of his list expressed horror at the view that “ ‘tis lawful for women to preach, and why should they not, having gifts as well as men?”[21] In the first part of Gangraena he specifically mentioned discussions led by Mrs. Attaway. In fact, Mrs. Attaway crops up quite a few times in his rather vicious writings. She preached, despite being a woman. And worse, as he recorded, she left her husband for another man named William Jenny. Here, the women sectaries went beyond the act of preaching, bad as that was. They argued that unequal marriages were antichristian yokes, and a wife could leave an antichristian husband. Equally, a sense of belonging to the same faith and ideology acted as a bridge between these two people.[22] Behind the religious formulations, there was a clear struggle for the retention of control over women’s sexuality, and an equally determined struggle by women to use the rupture in social control mechanisms generally to overthrow centuries of patriarchal domination and regain sexual freedom. As Hill remarks, differences in perspective make the same deed appear as sinful or not. Mrs. Attaway and William Jenny believed they were committing no sin, and that they were as free of sin as Christ. Edwards by contrast gleefully seizes on this as an example of sin. A similar issue crops up elsewhere in Edwards, when he records a London lady as having declared that “murder, adultery, theft, were no sins”.[23] The recurrence of references to adultery is indicative of a certain outlook. Private property and family marched hand in hand here too. And by the same token, in this short period, when the lower classes and oppressed sex found a voice, they seemed to have challenged both institutions strongly. Thus, the Puritan view of religion and everyday life was attacked all along the line. The Quakers believed that marriage required no religious ceremony, but a simple declaration before the congregation. They also abandoned the wife’s promise to obey her husband, since man and wife were as equals in the new life as they had been before the Fall.[24] When George Fox married the wealthy Margaret Fell, he engaged not to interfere with her estate. (Of course, in this, as in several other cases, there was the flip side of the story, not recorded by Hill, but known to us nonetheless. Margaret Fell combined a Quaker otherworldliness with strong gentry views. Her profession of egalitarianism went along with manipulation of rank. Her view of gender equality did not extend to women workers. She hired the physically strong Peggy Dodgeson to do men’s work at the going rate of wage for women.) However, to return to the aspect of the sects’ story we had been discussing, they were the ones who, in an era when marriage for the propertied was a matter of consolidation of property, taught that women had an independent existence, and that that existence mattered. It is necessary to qualify this assertion by recognising that some of the Puritans also recognised that neither the continuity of the family nor property calculations, but mutual love and respect should be the basis of marriage.


Indeed, neither Puritan nor Radical denotes a homogeneous group. But in the discussions on women’s rights in this age, we can discern two types of ideas ranged against each other. Many Puritans demanded certain rights for wives in domestic life, and respected women’s right to express their own views in choosing their life partners. Winstanley, the Digger leader, who was socially far more radical, also believed that in marriage, independent will and love were the key factors, not the propagation of the family or the question of property.[25] On the other side were the Ranters. Freedom of choice for them was to come to mean that there was no ‘sin’ in having sexual relations outside marriage. Lawrence Clarkson and Abiezer Coppe, for example, seem to have raised this to a point of principle.[26] Clarkson taught: “there is no such act as drunkenness, adultery and theft in God… sin hath its conception only in the imagination” [27]. In a century when there were virtually no effective contraceptive facilities beyond abstinence, Hill is right in asserting: “Sexual freedom, in fact, tended to be freedom for men only”.[28] It is for this reason, he affirmed, that there was a practical moral basis to the Puritan stress on monogamy. Such men, who enjoyed non-sinful free love, were usually careful in avoiding parental responsibilities. The burden used to fall by and large on the mother. There was a positive dimension to the Ranter ideology – rejection of church marriages. Marriage as an institution was questioned, and the right of divorce was assumed to be a very simple one where either partner had the right to separate at will. In the village of Fenstanton, Edward Mayle and his wife “ ‘did not desire to be in such bondage’ as to observe ‘outward, ceremonial and carnal ordinances’”.[29] But from this positive assertion of marriage as a personal business between two consenting humans, the jump they made was beyond the material and technological, and often strongly coloured by the received discourse of male domination. Thus, we find repeated assertions like that made by the Seeker William Erbery, defending the Ranters, and saying that the self-styled saints were worse than the Ranters in having “their eyes full of adultery”.[30] Abiezer Coppe, even when issuing a recantation for fear of being seriously punished, argued that adultery, fornication and uncleanliness might be sins, but pride, covetousness, hypocrisy, oppression, tyranny, unmercifulness and despising the poor were worse sins. But in Coppe’s writings, ‘whores’ appear in comparative statements, when it is deemed better to lie with them than to do certain other acts. My point is, his view of prostitution is the same as those of upper class Puritan elements. Only, he is saying that some other things are even worse.[31]


In this connection, it is worth looking at Hill’s carefully materialist approach when discussing the Puritan and the Ranter positions and their social consequences. When Lawrence Stone followed Peter Laslett into arguing that there was a decline in illegitimate births in the revolutionary years due to Puritan ideology[32], Hill argued effectively that all that we can say from the parish registers is that less bastardry processes were formally recorded. Acknowledging one’s fatherhood of an illegitimate child had the consequence of being compelled to pay something for the upkeep of the child. In decades when prices were rising the declining powers of the state to control men allowed them to escape from the consequences of their actions. So obviously they did not like to record the birth of illegitimate children.[33]


However, Hill continued to examine the issues of women’s rights, including the question of freedom in marriage. One of the important figures of this period to whom he returns repeatedly is John Milton. Milton straddled the mainstream and the radical oppositions to Charles, and Hill stresses Milton’s support for divorce, arguing that while he stressed the religious sanction behind it, there is also a need to realise that he supported divorce because he believed that marriage should be based on love.[34]


After 1660, the common people, including above all lower class women, lost their freedom of speech. So after that date, their voices can only be recovered from outside the law – including among pirates and gypsies. In the article ‘Radical Pirates’ (1980), or in an article in Liberty Against the Law, Hill stressed that the culture among pirates was relatively democratic in 17th Century England, whereas captains of naval ships were absolute despots. Marcus Rediker, historian of pirates, showed that the pirates did not accept a wages system.[35] Pirates had no master-servant relationship. Within this structure of egalitarianism, women also had a space. A book by Charles Johnson, published in 1736 about pirates, reveals information about women pirates like Mary Read.[36] That piracy offered freedom, and that this freedom was or could be a double-edged one, was recognized by Mary Read, who remarked that if there was no death sentence for piracy, “many of those who are now cheating the widows and orphans, and oppressing their poor neighbours… would then rob at sea, and the ocean would be crowded with rogues”.[37] Evidently, in her eyes, the pirates of her own type were not rogues, but people fleeing from the oppression of the sort of people she had described. Pirate freedom extended to sexual freedom, including freedom for women and for gay men.[38] Likewise, in the eyes of middle class England, the vagabond life of the gypsy was sometimes attractive, sometimes condemnable. The law as it stood could be applied to execute a gypsy simply for being a gypsy. Gypsies put up a stout resistance to all efforts to make them give up their travelling life. They were a standing offence to those who wished to force the English lower classes to become wage labourers. Since they had no original village, they could not be flogged back there and made to work – the standard method for treating vagabonds. Moreover, gypsies at times seem to have been connected to popular resistance to encroaching capitalism. In 1723, Billy Marshall, chief of the Galloway gypsies, was leader of a popular revolt by ‘Levellers’ against enclosing landlords.[39] Hill shows that the ballad literature of the 17th Century brings out two reasons why this life seemed attractive to women – they would not be considered the property of their husbands, and they would enjoy sexual freedom. In ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’, for example, a neglected wife of wealthy gentry background discards her ‘silken gown’ and makes a break for liberty by joining the gypsies. When her husband tries to get her back by reminding her of the wealth she is leaving behind, she remarks that all this was his show (of which, by implication, she was a part).[40]



Beyond the Works of Hill: Gender and Politics in the English Revolution

The issues which Hill was a pioneer in bringing into historical studies, as discussed above, were to be further developed by a number of scholars. And these studies also show that pioneers standing at a turning point show a backward as well as a forward look. In many ways, women continued to be marginal in Hill’s analysis. The feminist movement that developed from the end of the 1960s argued that the vote did not bring freedom to women, including sexual freedom (right to choose one’s partner, etc). In some ways, Hill seems to be responding to these issues in The World Turned Upside Down.

Women’s participation in the directly political struggles during the revolutionary upsurge remained sidelined in his writings. Katharine Chidley comes across in Hill’s writings as chiefly a preacher. Lucy Hutchinson and Elizabeth Lilburne are virtually absent. So, on the other side of the battlefield, is Elizabeth Cromwell. Yet at least one recent study emphasises how Elizabeth Cromwell was a target for critics both on the Royalist right and the Leveller left, and how the Protectorate in turn built up a picture of Elizabeth to satisfy its brand of politics. Republican opponents of the Protectorate attacked Elizabeth as a would be Queen who fuelled the overreaching of her husband. Royalists, after the restoration, had a class attack, sneering at the woman who was supposedly more suited for the barn than for the palace.[41] As the major recent study on Elizabeth argues: “The criticisms of Elizabeth that emerge from both the "left" -- the republican critiques of the post-regicidal grandees and their wives -- as well as the "right" -- the popular royalist critiques of the republic -- reveal the degree to which debates over the scope and function of private and public spheres within particular political orders are often waged through the cultural politics of gender. Both republican and royalist representations of Elizabeth Cromwell are enmeshed in larger disputes over the contradictions that each side perceived within the entity of a Protectorate -- the body politic that emerged during the Interregnum period as neither a monarchy nor a republic but rather an uneasy synthesis of the two, not unlike "Protectorate Joan," as Elizabeth was often called. As an oxymoronic plebeian queen, Elizabeth's class and gender identities were used by both sides to project their sense of what the abject and excessive feature was that tipped the scale of the Protectorate towards the social and political failure it met with at the return of Charles II in 1660.”[42]

Lucy Hutchinson had been the daughter of the officer in charge of the Tower of London, and had been educated by prisoners of the stature of Sir Walter Raleigh. Her book, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, was a powerful vindication of the Puritan and Parliamentary stand of her husband. Hutchinson had been one of those who signed the death warrant of Charles I and therefore a regicide excluded from the amnesty offered by Charles II in the declaration of Breda. He was arrested, and saved only by Lucy’s intervention, rearrested in 1663, and died in prison. The book itself is a significant work, for while formally remaining within patriarchal norms, it subverts them by presenting an intelligent mind engaged with political and religious issues, a radical fighting the Restoration with words considered no les dangerous than swords by her age.[43] Similarly, Margaret Fell appears in Hill’s book only at the moment of her marriage with George Fox, and it is Fox’s magnanimity in refusing to meddle with her property that is germane. Margaret’s own very striking personality is not given even a paragraph. Even when talking about magic and witchcraft, Hill neglects to mention that of the 4000 people sentenced to death in England in the 17th Century for this “crime”, nearly 90% were women, and that in Europe as a whole, some 40-50,000 witches were killed by law, and that 75% of them, a very large majority, were women.[44] This is an issue where Keith Thomas shows a greater awareness. In his classic work Religion and the Decline of Magic, Thomas notes that while a witch could be a person of either sex it was mostly women who were accused of being a witch.[45] They were not necessarily radicals. But page after page of information in the book reveals clearly the gendered character of so-called witchcraft. Thus, for similar “crimes”, it is the women who are more often reported by Thomas as being executed.[46] In discussing the making of witches, after acknowledging that a mono-causal explanation – any of them – was likely to be wrong, Thomas shows that there were some people, who did indeed believe themselves to be witches. They believed in the efficacy of their curses. And an analysis of the curses shows that such ritual cursing by the witch was often a substitute for political action, usually by those at the lower end of the social scale.[47] Thomas clearly points out the class angle. Demonologists, as well as prosecution lawyers in courts, treated successful cursing as a strong presumption of witchcraft. If the curses were provoked by genuine injury, an alternate vision might lead one to assume that this was divine judgement.[48] But to accept that would have been to accept the injustice of class and gender dominations. Women breaking the boundaries set forth by patriarchy were likely to face three charges – being a whore, being a scold, and being a witch. Scolds were severely punished. And since Quakers were outspoken, there were attempts to punish them repeatedly. For Quaker women, this very often meant being punished as scolds. This involved public humiliation, and a torture. A bridle was put into her mouth. She was dragged to the punishment place – and if she was not careful the iron bit could break her teeth or her jaw while being dragged there. She was made to stand in that position for a length of time. Most women did not record the shock and trauma this involved. But Quaker women took pride in the punishment, “expressing Christ in proud bare backs that were turned to the lash through the streets of Cambridge or London.”[49] Punished with the brank or the bridle, Quaker women remained unrepentant, and some of them bitterly recorded the tortures they had been put through.[50] Between 1645 and 1647, some two hundred witches were hanged or burnt. In other words, while it was bad to be a radical, it was far worse to be a radical or outspoken woman.


In one sense, there is no Hill school of historiography. But many of those who have studied the role of the subaltern layers in the 17th Century have been students of Hill, or have acknowledged his influence. They include scholars like Brian Manning, Keith Thomas or Stevie Davies. Their researches reveal the ways in which women and the question of gender equality remained peripheral to Hill’s concerns. In 1650, the English Parliament passed an Act criminalizing adultery, and made the act punishable by death. Thomas shows that this legislation was an attempt to unify a wide array of religious groups.[51] The Act provided for harsher punishment for women than for men. This was inevitable, because in the perceptions of that age, a woman committing adultery was committing a worse act than a man doing the same thing. The contemporary concept of adultery showed that when the husband was in the wrong, he filled his wife’s heart with grief and jealousy and her face with shame, while a woman in adultery risked introducing bastards into the family, depriving lawful heirs of their rightful inheritance.[52] And, Thomas shows, while for various reasons the Act could not be well implemented, it was not an exception but part of the mainstream 16th-17th Century efforts at social control by the English elite.


However, even efforts at social control could be subverted. Both Hill and Thomas have mentioned Milton’s The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. What neither of them spells out clearly is that Milton wanted to give this right of divorce solely to men. Hill sees this solely as a tool of social control and to introduce new social patterns on the easier going sexual habits of traditional society. But this was aimed at increasing the rights of men. Milton explained that unless this right to divorce existed, adultery and brothels would increase. When Mrs. Attaway used Milton’s logic to leave her husband, it was a radical subversion of Milton’s idea of control.[53]


How women’s participation in the political struggles of the 1640s would be conceptualised was an issue where Hill’s works made a significant contribution. From early twentieth century, scholars like Gooch, Woodhouse, Haller and Davies, Wolfe, and finally Morton, had written about Leveller democracy and had published the documents of the Levellers.[54] Yet there is virtually no gender sensitivity in all these books. By contrast, despite all its shortcomings, The World Turned Upside Down, has discussions on women, not merely while talking about Ranters and their outlook, but in connection with Levellers and Diggers. In The Century of Revolution he recorded clearly as something that a historian should take note of, the fact that women did not have the vote. But beyond this Hill was not to go. For actual descriptions of women fighting for political goals, we have to turn to Brian Manning[55], Higgins, or Davies. In these writings, we come across women fighting for peace, women in the Leveller Sea-Green as part of the first modern democratic movement, women demanding equal right of inheritance, Quaker women fighting against tithes, women in immense numbers demanding price reduction and an end to enclosures and the abolition of imprisonment for debt-default. And time and again, women took to the streets to demand the release of political prisoners.


The Leveller women’s participation in politics was much more sustained. Between 1646 and 1653, we find them appearing repeatedly on the political scene – collecting signatures for mass petitions of women, going to Parliament in demonstrations, and questioning patriarchal power structures in many ways. Both Davies and Higgins have shown that many types of women entered politics, and when they did so, there was always a gender dimension. Women mobilised in 1641-2 when the London masses were putting pressure on behalf of the parliament against the King. In February 1642, women, led by Ann Stagg, demanded the abolition of the episcopacy.[56] Davies has developed at length the story of the women who took part in the peace movement. Throughout the 1640s, we find various groups of women turning up before parliament with their demands. Stevie Davies suggests that the horrors of war combined with the increasing economic crisis pushed women out into the streets to take part in the Leveller movement, between 1646 and 1649. Women experienced the Civil War in ways quite different from men. With one or two exceptions, women did not serve in the army. Even the image Hill evokes, women bringing up the ammunition at Lyme Regis, serves to highlight how exceptional this was. For them there was no prospect of the “heroic” in the civil war. Instead, there was acute violence, looking after the injured, the loss of husbands and sons in war, looting by the victorious side, rising taxes and rising prices. The feelings generated by these experiences were probably the ones that led women to come out demanding peace in 1643. However, it is possible that Royalists and Presbyterians, who wanted a settlement, encouraged these women. In other words, though the movement was objectively directed against the revolution, that such a women’s movement was at all taking place was due to the revolution and the changed atmosphere as well as the courage to transgress the masculine norm of politics produced by it.[57] The nature of the participants is also worth noting. In 1643, parliamentarian leaders and their mouthpieces were quite upper class, a fact we should remember when considering the following information:


“ two or three hundred oyster wives, and other dirty and tattered sluts, took upon them the impudency to come to the honourable House of Commons, and cried for peace and Propositions, and they so filled the stairs that no man could pass up or down, whereupon a man upon the top of the stairs drew his sword and with the flat side struck some of them upon the heads….”[58]


This serves to remind us that this was a bourgeois revolution, where the bourgeois-gentry bloc sought to corner all the gains. Some of them, like Cromwell, might have been willing to use the lower classes in battle, and therefore to allow the individual member of those classes to climb up the social ladder through military promotions, but none of them entertained thoughts of endorsing the struggle for rights by the poor. The pro-peace women were not dispersed merely by the flat side of a single sword. Waller’s cavalry attacked them. Some male opponents called them “whores, bawds, oyster-women, kitchenstuff women, beggar women, and the very scum of the suburbs”.[59]


Class was not a central issue when the Leveller women marched. They were led by women like Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne. Despite his political radicalism, John Lilburne always stressed his freeborn origin. However, gender became all the more significant. On 29th April 1649, there was a funeral of the military Leveller leader Robert Lockier, executed by order of Cromwell in a bid to crush the Leveller movement in the army. A very large number of women, wearing sea-green dresses and green and black ribbons, turned the funeral into a political statement. They were mourning the crushing, by arms and by the manipulations of Cromwell and Ireton, of a great democratic struggle, and at the same time reaffirming it. When a petition was drawn up to demand the release of Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince, four Leveller leaders arrested at about the same time, reportedly some 10,000 women signed the petition of 23rd – 25th April.[60] The response of the government was predictable – the women were advised to go back home and attend to their housewifery and wash their dishes. The women responded – we have none. They were then told that they possessed no political sense of their own, and the government had already answered their husbands. This disregard for women as persons was not taken lying down. A petition of 5th May, drafted by either Katharine Chidley or Elizabeth Lilburne, stated the following:


“ Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also a proportional 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 honourable 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 good laws of the land? … 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…? 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… No, far be it from us. Let it be accounted folly, presumption, madness, or whatever in us, whilst we have life and breath we will never leave them nor forsake them…”[61]


This was strong argument by any standard. The voice that emerges is authentic. It is an angry voice, of a great many women whose political experience has been gained at immense personal cost. For their leaders, that is, for women like Elizabeth Lilburne or Mary Overton, personal life was wholly sacrificed, even though, unlike the men, they were also compelled to look after the domestic situation and count up the costs of repeated police raids, seizure of property, and the like.[‡] The anger is all the more pronounced, because they feel that all their sacrifice has been in vain. The people they fought to advance to power were seemingly setting up a new despotism. And within this general struggle for civil liberties the gendered arguments come out repeatedly. Woman too is assured of her creation in the image of God. Notions of equality are reaffirmed repeatedly in the text. The voiceless condition of women is openly challenged – not indeed by demanding the vote, but in the name of Christianity (And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home). Knowing that their very act of speaking openly would be branded presumption, folly and madness, the Leveller women spoke sharply, telling parliament that they would ignore those well worn epithets and go on placing their demands. And yet, despite this, they found less than full equality even within the movement of which they were such eloquent defenders. In October-November 1647, at Putney Church, property and democracy were on debate. Henry Ireton spoke with barely concealed fury, rejecting the equal right of people having and not having property. Speaking for the Levellers, telling points were made by Sexby, an ordinary soldier who had been elected Agitator (representative of his Regiment) and by the leading Leveller officer, Colonel Thomas Rainborough. One of history’s greatest speeches in defence of democracy was made there by Rainborough, when he asserted: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”[62] It is true, that on one occasion, Lilburne explicitly mentioned women when he wrote about consent of the governed. But in the Putney debate, the dispute was categorically over “the poorest he”. Talking about the 1647 Agreement of the People, an attempt by the Levellers to propose a compromise which would considerably widen the franchise but fall well short of manhood suffrage, Hill wrote that this involved “a substantial extension of the franchise – to all soldiers, and all others except servants and beggars”.[63] One can use the term all others only by assuming that women could not be persons – an assumption not too unusual in 17th Century England, but surprising when carried over by 20th Century historians.


A Feminist Consciousness in 17th Century England?

Davies has asked whether the Leveller women can be said to have had feminist consciousness in any sense. Certainly, as in all ages, their struggles began over concrete issues, and in so far as they did not ever demand the franchise for themselves, it might be argued that they possessed no feminist consciousness. On the other hand, however, the fact that they pushed their way into the wholly male preserve of politics needs to be examined further. One of the standard strategic ways was to lead off by acknowledging women’s inferiority, but then claiming that nonetheless they had certain rights. In early 1642, London women had rallied to the House of Commons in its conflict with King and Lords. They acknowledged that this public political action might be thought strange and unbecoming of women. They accepted their own inferiority and subjection to men. But they justified their action on the grounds that the calamities threatening church and state were affecting women as well as men. So although they petitioned in order “to Discharge that Duty we owe to God, and the Cause of the Church”[64] they in fact went beyond religious equality to mass political action. In the Leveller women’s petition of May 1649, a greater political maturity, the result of several years of political activism can be seen. When a Member of Parliament said that it was strange that women were petitioning, pat came the reply, that it was strange that parliament would cut off the head of the King, yet that had been done.[65]


The women petitioners had a well-developed organisation. They had collected signatures at several mass meetings held at the service of the sectarian churches. And they displayed considerable anti-patriarchal radicalism in refusing to accept that an answer given to their husbands included them. Higgins, for example, concludes from this that they had reached the peak of feminist position.[66] Manning questions this, pointing out that they neither asked for votes for women, nor had they fully rejected the concept that married women could not petition, sliding back in 1653, when, responding to the comment of the Commons that their petition for the release of Lilburne could not be taken cognisance of, because since many of them were wives, the law took no notice of them, they withdrew from the radical position of 1649 to a response that not all of them were wives. They thus failed to stand up to the1649 position that wives had a right to act apart from their husbands.[67] Higgins suggests that instead of simply looking at this as a retreat, the complexities of the situation should be examined. At times, in order to get a hearing, the women needed to be tactful, in a society where the very air they breathed was excessively patriarchal.[68] One should remember that A. L. Morton, for example, had argued that the Leveller willingness to accept something less than full manhood franchise was a tactical measure.[69] If this be granted to the male Levellers, it should be even more obvious that women Levellers, fighting the prejudice of centuries, would often give way a little in order to gain a point. Regardless of the exact terms of argument in the different petitions, however, what seems most striking is the articulation of protest so sharply. A number of factors come together here. The rise and growth of a free press in the revolutionary years certainly contributed. In the revolutionary decades, more tracts were published than in the entire 150 years previously. As Davies rightly points out, given mass illiteracy, meagre education and conditions of servitude, women’s tracts are, inevitably, a tiny minority of the total.[70] Nonetheless, during the revolution, in general, women took on a greater public, and therefore also political role. Certainly, when the respectable gentlemen parliamentarians fought for their freedom of the press, they did not envisage the rabble, and the women, utilising it. But the controversies taught lessons to all the underclasses. A second factor was the social crisis. Mary Prince, wife of the Leveller leader Thomas Prince, was to record her shock and wrath at her husband’s arrest using the following words: “Is this the men my husband hath stood for, and adventured his life, as he hath done, and trusted the Parliament in their necessities, above six years past, with above £1000 and is yet unpaid?”[71] The Leveller women had a great sense of betrayal at the hands of those for whom they had readily sacrificed much. It was not merely the well to do Prince family who had this feeling, but many with much less than 1000 or more pounds to give. As one of the April 1649 petitions complained: “time hath been when you would readily have given us the reading Petitions, but that was when we had money, plates, rings and bodkins to give you.”[72] Besides the overall situation and the economic pressures, there was the grim reality that the men who were supposed to have subsumed the women were often in prison, battle or exile. And finally, we must remember that the Levellers were a unique phenomenon in their own time and for a long time to come – the first modern political party. The Leveller women were more of a new development than we might think, since women have been organising and fighting in a sustained manner over the last two centuries. In the mid-17th Century, though, organising the female section of a democratic party was much more a radical action.


One issue where Hill’s research will continue further fruitful research is the role of the sects in connection with rights of women. Manning counterposes the radical political activism of the Leveller women to the role of the sects, which he says was one of permitting spiritual equality but rejecting social and political equality. Women could be preachers, since mechanic preachers were allowed, but they could not hold office, be ministers, etc. He points out that though Katharine Chidley was instrumental in gathering the Independent church at Bury St. Edmunds, she was debarred as a woman from holding office.[73] Davies disagrees with this kind of extreme formulation. She points out that Leveller women were at one with Quaker women over the question of abolition of tithes, potentially the most revolutionary issue of the Interregnum. In 1659, a seventy-page document, with 7000 names, was submitted to parliament. The main body of their petition begins with an affirmation of their powers as women: “We who are of the Seed of the Woman, which bruiseth the Serpent’s head, to which the promise was, Christ Jesus in the Male and in the Female… do bear our Testimony.”[74] Quaker women fought for their faith, and in so doing, were martyrs to the cause of toleration in the Old world and the New. Mary Dyer, hanged at Massachusetts for being a Quaker, was not merely a religion struck woman committing virtual suicide by returning after being banished and threatened with execution. She was one of a whole line. Just as Hill’s work had drawn attention to a continuity from Lollards to Levellers, and again, from Levellers and Diggers to the early 19th Century, with the sea green rising for the last time perhaps with the early Chartist movement, so Davies points out that Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and other influential suffragists were Quakers, beyond the proportion of Quakers in the US population.


The process of reconstructing the stories of the doubly oppressed, of Katharine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne, of Mary Dyer and other radical women, shows that their struggles were not less significant than those of men like Walwyn, Lilburne, Fox or Nayler. The process of reconstruction has left, even in the brief survey presented here, the perspective of Hill behind. Yet, he remains the pioneer, who opened the doors of understanding to popular radicalism in its numerous forms. To recognise the role of women within the far left of the English revolution of 1640-60, we still have to begin with Hill.

[*] Reader in History, Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidyabhavan. Revised version of a paper presented at the seminar on ‘Samaj Rupantar O MatadarshaNimnabarger Aloke Itihas Charcha’ (Social Transformation and Ideology – History from Below), organised jointly by Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidyabhavan and Paschim Banga Itihas Samsad, in memory of Christopher Hill, 7th April 2003.

[†] I use the term subaltern in the original Gramscian, not the post-modernist Subaltern Studies sense.

[‡] In 1648, when John was taken to the Tower, Elizabeth placed her body between his and the soldiers’ muskets. Some years earlier, during his captivity at Oxford at the hands of the Royalists, she had petitioned Parliament while well advanced in her pregnancy. She had lived with him in Newgate prison when Parliament imprisoned him in 1645. Partner of an idealist, a man who to the sensibilities of ages when compromise and the selling out of principles appear sound appears nothing short of being a fanatic, she had to cope with the domestic problems as well as the public ones, an adjustment that John never faced. Yet she had her own political mind. Facing a charge in 1647, together with her husband, she lashed out, apparently at him but in fact at parliament: “I told thee often enough long since, that thou would serve the parliament, and venture thy life so long for them, till they would hang thee for thy pains, and give thee Tyburn [the place where people were publicly hanged in London] for thy recompense…” (Quoted by Pauline Gregg, Free-born John: A Biography of John Lilburne, London, 1961, p.53). Elizabeth’s life was like that of many a Russian revolutionary woman of the late 19th or early 20th century – selling or pawning household goods, seeing two sons die of smallpox, sacrificing the ‘personal’ forever to the public life. We know less about the other Leveller women, like Mary Overton or Mary Prince. However, even the brief accounts we have show that they had to bear a heavy burden. In 1646, armed soldiers smashed the doors of the home of the Overtons, acting on the orders of the House of Lords. In the first raid Richard was removed to Newgate prison. In a second raid, their household goods were removed and the printing press that was the source of their livelihood seized. Mary was also asked to testify before the House of Lords. She refused, since they believed that the Lords was an illegal institution of arbitrary power. As a result she was removed to Maiden Lane prison with her six-month old baby. From there she was removed to Bridewell, after she had refused to go on her own, and after ordinary porters and carters called in by the Marshall had refused to do the repugnant duty, by gaolers, servants, ‘or hangmen deputies’. (Cf. S. Davies, pp.74-76.)

[1] Stevie Davies, Unbridled Spirits -- Women of the English Revolution: 1640-1660, London, 1999, p.7.

[2] David Underdown, Pride’s Purge, Oxford, 1971.

[3] C.Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, England, 1985,pp.13-14

[4] Maurice Ashley, England in the Seventeenth Century, (revised edition of 1977), Harmondsworth, p. 259.

[5] Jonathan Clark, Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Cambridge, 1986, p.64, and The Times, 12 November 1987, review of Jasper Ridley’s Elizabeth I.

[6] Ellen A. McArthur, ‘Women Petitioners in the Long Parliament’, English Historical Review, Vol. XXIV, 1909, pp.698-709. My attention to this essay was directed by the seminal article of Patricia Higgins, ‘The Reactions of Women, with special reference to women petitioners’, in Brian Manning ed., Politics, Religion and the English Civil War, London, 1975, pp. 179-222.

[7] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Harmondsworth, 1985 (originally published in 1972), p. 384.

[8] Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714, London, 1972 (original publication 1961), pp.31-33, 149f; Liberty against the Law, Harmondsworth 1997 (originally published 1996), pp.255-6.

[9] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p.306.

[10] Ibid., p.308.

[11] Ibid, pp.309, 311.

[12] Ibid, p.309, especially footnote 16 for mid-17th Century reiterations of such a view.

[13] Ibid, pp.310-11.

[14] See P. Toon ed., Puritans, the Millenium and the Future of Israel, Cambridge, 1970, p73 and passim.

[15] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p.321.

[16] Ibid, pp.321-2. Cary’s juxtaposition, cited by Hill, seems singularly apposite today, when those having university learning are again seeking to construct a tyranny of words through their post-modernist jargon, within which servants and handmaids and their modern descendants, the proletariat, are to be kept perpetually entombed in power structures, the deconstruction of one of which seemingly sets up another one, and for whom imperialism is a mere construct while Marxist grand narratives pose much bigger threats to autonomy.

[17] Ibid, p.328.

[18] Christopher Hill, Liberty Against the Law, p.61.

[19] Quoted in ibid, p.59.

[20] C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p.105.

[21] Quoted in S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.96.

[22] C. Hill, The World Turned Upside down, p.311.

[23] Ibid., p. 188.

[24] Ibid, p.312.

[25] “Every man and woman shall have the free liberty to marry whom they love, if they can obtain the love and liking of that party whom they would marry.” – Winstanley, quoted in ibid, p.312.

[26] Ibid, pp.314-8.

[27] Ibid, p.215.

[28] Ibid, p.319.

[29] Ibid, p.229.

[30] Ibid., p.198.

[31] Ibid., pp. 210-212.

[32] Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, London 1977, pp. 144-6; P. Laslett, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations, London 1977.

[33] C. Hill, The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill, Volume Three, People and Ideas in 17th Century England. Brighton, Sussex, 1986, pp.193-4.

[34] C. Hill, Liberty Against the Law, p. 207.

[35] M. Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, Cambridge, 1987, pp.107-8, 18. Rediker indeed links the social tradition of the pirates to “masterless men” and levellers.

[36] C. Hill, Liberty Against the Law, p.121.

[37] Ibid.

[38] See further D. R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean, New York, 1984.

[39] C. Hill, Liberty Against the Law, pp. 131-3.

[40] Ibid, pp.137-140. For ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’, see p. 138.

[41] Katharine Gillespie, ‘Elizabeth Cromwell's Kitchen Court: Republicanism and the Consort’, Genders 33, 2001, .

[42] Ibid, paragraph 5.

[43] Lucy Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, London, 1995.

[44] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.44.

[45] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, London 1980 (4th reprint, orig. ed. 1971), p.436-37.

[46] See for example the cases of the Leicestershire man vs. the Huntingdonshire woman mentioned in ibid, p.474. “The man who sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a famous preacher”, and the “woman who gave herself to Satan, in return for an extraordinary power of prayer, which brought ministers from far and wide to admire her virtuosity. She was later executed in New England as a witch.”

[47] Ibid, pp.502-510.

[48] Ibid, p.512.

[49] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.3.

[50] Ibid, pp. 40-42, 46.

[51] K. Thomas, ‘The Puritans and Adultery: The Act of 1650 Reconsidered’, in Puritans and Revolutionaries, ed. D. Pennington and K. Thomas, Oxford 1978, pp.257 – 282.

[52] Ibid, pp.259-60.

[53] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, pp.108-9.

[54] William Haller (ed), Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution, 1638-1647, Gloucester, Mass., 1933; William Haller and Godfrey Davies (ed), The Leveller Tracts, 1646-1653, New York, 1944; A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty, London, 1938; Don M. Wolfe (ed), Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution, New York, 1967; G. P. Gooch, English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century, London, 1898; A. L. Morton (ed), Freedom in Arms, London, New York and Berlin, 1975.

[55] Brian Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution, London, Chicago and Melbourne, 1992.

[56] Patricia Higgins, p.187.

[57] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, pp.22-23, 68. See further P. Higgins, pp.198-99.

[58] Certain Informations, quoted by S. Davies, ibid, p. 63.

[59] Quoted in Higgins, p.190.

[60] Ibid, pp.202-3.

[61] Quoted in Davies, p.85.

[62] A.S.P. Woodhouse (ed), Puritanism and Liberty, p.53.

[63] C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p.67. (emphasis added)

[64] Quoted in B. Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution, pp.150-1.

[65] Ibid, pp.161-2.

[66] P. Higgins, p.218.

[67] B. Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution, pp.163-4.

[68] P. Higgins, pp.211-22.

[69] A. L. Morton, Freedom in Arms, pp.44-5.

[70] S. Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.25.

[71] Ibid, p 77.

[72] Ibid.

[73]B. Manning, 1649, p.146.

[74] S. Davies, p. 92.