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Women All On Fire: The Women of the English Civil War

Women All On Fire: The Women of the English Civil War

by Alison Plowden

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Using personal accounts from both Royalist and Parliamentarian supporters to reveal the untold story of the women of the English Civil War, Alison Plowden illustrates how the conflict affected the lives of women and how they coped with unfamiliar responsibilities. Some displayed a courage so far above their sex as to surprise and disconcert their men. The Royalists


Using personal accounts from both Royalist and Parliamentarian supporters to reveal the untold story of the women of the English Civil War, Alison Plowden illustrates how the conflict affected the lives of women and how they coped with unfamiliar responsibilities. Some displayed a courage so far above their sex as to surprise and disconcert their men. The Royalists included Queen Henrietta, who went abroad to raise money for the cause, and Mary Bankes who held Corfe Castle for the king with her daughters, heaving stones and hot embers over the battlements at the attacking Roundheads. On the opposing side, Lady Brillia Harley guarded Brampton Bryan Castle in Herefordshire against the Royalists and Anne Fairfax, wife of Cromwell's northern general, who was taken prisoner by the Duke of Newcastle's troops after Adwalton Moor. This is a fascinating look at the little reported, yet valient actions, of the women caught up in this tumultuous age.

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Women All on Fire

The Women of the English Civil War

By Alison Plowden

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 The estate of Alison Plowden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6724-5


'Her She-Majesty Generalissima'

I wish to share all your fortune, and participate in your troubles, as I have done in your happiness, provided it be with honour, and in your defence.

Henrietta Maria to Charles I

Dover, Tuesday 23 February 1642, and a small crowd had gathered in the harbour below the castle to see Queen Henrietta Maria and the ten-year-old Princess Royal prepare to set sail for Holland. King Charles had accompanied his wife and daughter as far as the water's edge and their parting was a sorrowful one. The king kissed the Princess Mary, of all his children the one who most closely resembled him, sighing that he was afraid he would never see her again, and the Venetian ambassador heard that husband and wife had clung together 'conversing in sweet discourse and affectionate embraces'. Both were in tears and many of the onlookers wept in sympathy. At last the king reluctantly tore himself away. The queen and princess went on board the Lion, the ships weighed anchor and Charles rode along the shoreline, a lonely little figure waving his hat in farewell until the sails faded from sight.

The publicly announced purpose of the queen's journey was to deliver her daughter, married the year before to Prince William of Orange, to her new family and see the child well settled in. But although the Prince of Orange had sent out a fleet of fifteen warships to greet and escort his son's bride, on the English side there had been a noticeable lack of the sort of elaborate preparation normally associated with such a royal progress. Only three 'ladies of honour' and two noblemen were to be of the party, and it was not until 13 February that Sir John Pennington, Admiral of the Fleet for the Guard of the Narrow Seas, had received a warrant authorizing him to 'take up sufficient vessels for the transporting into Holland provisions and baggage, besides horses and coaches, for the use of the Queen, Princess Mary, their servants and followers'. The Admiral's secretary did not see how the queen could be ready so soon, 'except she will go without her horses and coaches', and was seriously shocked by the way in which the travel arrangements were being made. 'Things are done in such post haste that I never heard of the like for the voyage of persons of so great dignity.'

It was being given out that the queen's 'sudden resolution' to leave the country had been caused by Orange insistence that young Mary should be sent over to Holland without further delay, but there was more than a suggestion of panic about the speed of her departure. During the past fifteen months, as the conflict between king and parliament steadily escalated, the Catholic queen had been made the target of a virulent hate campaign accusing her, among other things, of encouraging a revival of popery, of protecting Jesuit and other missionary priests from the consequences of their treasonable activities, of conspiring to bring foreign armies into the realm, and of being in secret communication with the rebellious Irish Catholics. Her position had thus become increasingly unsustainable and by the beginning of 1642 events had brought matters to a crisis, forcing her into something uncomfortably like flight.

There had never been any secret about Henrietta Maria's devotion to her religion, not since she had first arrived from France as a fifteen-year-old bride. On the contrary, she chose deliberately to parade it, regardless of the offence caused to radical Protestant opinion. Her chapel at Somerset House was always open to other Catholics and, indeed, to anyone who cared to come and explore the mysteries of the Old Faith which had acquired a new glamour under the influence of the elegant, vivacious little queen. The radical Protestants, or Puritans, always strongest in London and the south-east, looked on with deepening alarm and resentment as they saw the Catholics growing in numbers and boldness – 'priestes, friars and Jesuites walking at noon day' – while superstition and idolatry flourished at court. But it was not until 1640, when the king's dire need for money to pay for his disastrous Scottish wars forced him to summon parliament after more than a decade of personal rule, that the Puritan tendency gained leadership and formal organization. The assembly known to history as the Long Parliament met at Westminster at the beginning of November and nothing in England was ever the same again. 'The Parliamentarians', reported the Venetian ambassador, 'let it be freely understood that they will not allow the parliament to be dissolved any more but only prorogued, so that it shall meet every year. If this happens no further authority will remain to the king than to be the minister and executor of the will of his people.'

By order of parliament Tuesday 17 November was observed as a day of prayer and fasting, and Puritan preachers everywhere mounted their pulpits to thunder against tyranny and popery, 'stirring up the people to put down the Catholic religion entirely'. Thus encouraged, a hostile crowd gathered outside the queen's chapel on the following Sunday and proceeded to attack members of the congregation with stones and weapons as they emerged after mass. The House of Commons meanwhile had appointed a committee to look into the operation of the penal laws affecting the Catholic minority. This body quickly fastened on to the suspicious number of priests released from prison at the instigation of people in high places, as well as noting the swarms of papists protected by reason of their status as the queen's servants. In December the queen was notified that she must dismiss all the English Catholics in her household, but her majesty, 'justly incensed', retorted that if she was forced to deprive herself of her Catholic servants, she would dismiss the Protestants as well. There was more unpleasantness over the fate of a Jesuit priest named Goodman, condemned to death for treason but reprieved by the king at the queen's request. 'When the parliament and the city learned this they both had recourse to the king, to permit the sentence to be carried out, or else they assured him of the offence his people would take ... They also threatened the queen with greater ills.' The king hesitated, temporized and then gave way, remitting the case into the care of parliament, so that the Venetian ambassador feared the unfortunate priest would eventually come to the butcher's knife.

Threats against his wife were those which Charles dreaded most, but for the time being the opposition's vengeful attention was concentrated on Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, a tough, uncompromising Yorkshireman, recently recalled from his post as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland. A ruthlessly efficient administrator and by far the king's most loyal and able servant, 'Black Tom Tyrant' represented a dangerous obstacle to be removed as a matter of urgency. One of parliament's first acts, therefore, had been to secure his arrest on a charge of high treason and in March 1641 he was brought to Westminster Hall to answer a long list of articles of impeachment.

The king and queen attended the trial on a regular basis in a deliberate show of support for the accused and Henrietta, who had not previously taken much interest in politics – she was later to regret that she had not studied English history as a girl – sat listening intently, taking notes and trying to understand what was going on. The queen, who tended to see everything in terms of personalities, had never liked the Earl of Strafford – to be fair, he was not a particularly likeable individual – but having once realized his importance to her husband's cause she was eager to do what she could to help him.

Characteristically enough her idea of being helpful consisted of arranging a series of late night secret rendezvous with some of the 'most wicked' members of the opposition party. According to her own account, these interviews took place in the apartments of one of her ladies-in-waiting who was conveniently absent in the country, and the queen would descend the backstairs, quite alone and carrying a single candle to light the way. But with the possible exception of George Digby, the Earl of Bristol's son, she does not appear to have succeeded in getting any of her visitors to change sides and her persuasive efforts, if they did not actively harm, certainly did nothing to improve Strafford's prospects.

Actively damaging, however, was her encouragement of a scheme being discussed by a group of young army officers and courtiers to occupy London, seize the Tower and free the prisoner, using the remnants of the second expeditionary force sent against the Scots. This enterprising plan, with its promise of action and quick results, made an immediate appeal to Henrietta's restless, impatient nature. Although she might occasionally be driven to make a conciliatory gesture, it never once crossed her mind that the enemy might have a valid point of view. In her eyes all those who, for whatever reason, challenged the king's authority were quite simply rogues, rebels and traitors to be destroyed without compunction by whatever means came nearest to hand. But unfortunately for its begetters, the Army Plot, as it came to be known, owed a good deal more to wishful thinking than to the facts of life. The increased comings and goings of certain military men about the court and the general air of suppressed excitement among the queen's friends did not go unremarked. Inevitably the amateur conspirators lacked cohesion and discretion. Inevitably news of their intentions was leaked and before long had reached the ears of John Pym and other leaders of 'the inflexible party' in the House of Commons.

It was probably no coincidence that the attack on the Earl of Strafford now abruptly changed gear and, while his trial was still proceeding, a bill of attainder against him was introduced into parliament. This obsolete but still deadly weapon merely decreed the guilt of an accused person by the will of the majority and on 21 April the Commons effectively passed sentence by a majority of 204 to 59.

The royal family's attention was temporarily distracted from the rising political storm by the arrival from Holland of the Princess Royal's fifteen-year-old fiancé, and the two children were married very quietly in the chapel at Whitehall on Sunday 2 May. In normal times a royal wedding would have been the occasion for civic banquets, street parties, firework displays and plenty of free wine and beer to drink the health of the happy pair, but in that turbulent spring of 1641 the event passed almost unnoticed outside the palace. Strafford's attainder was now before the House of Lords and on the day following the marriage a large crowd of 'substantial citizens' gathered at Westminster noisily demanding justice and the head of the Lieutenant, 'calling him traitor and enemy to the public liberty'. According to the Venetian ambassador, they refused to be pacified by mere words and threatened violent actions against 'his majesty's own person and all the royal house'.

On 5 May John Pym, choosing his moment, revealed the details of the so-called Army Plot, informing a jittery House of Commons that 'he had great cause to fear, there was at that time as desperate a design and conspiracy against the parliament, as had been in any age; and he was in no doubt, persons of great quality and credit at court had their hands in it.' The army plotters, 'five servants of the queen of the highest standing and favour' and including her close friend Henry Jermyn, fled ingloriously for their lives, while something approaching mass hysteria gripped the usually level-headed Londoners. Strafford had been accused of planning to bring his Irish army over to subdue the English. Now it seemed that the English army, too, was involved and rumours quickly spread that the French, or perhaps the Spanish, were about to land at Portsmouth and that the papists had attacked the House of Commons and set it on fire.

The Lords continued to be surrounded by an angry mob and on 8 May a thinly attended House passed the attainder, only eleven peers dissenting. All that was needed to complete the process was the king's signature and for two nerve-racking days Charles held out against the relentless pressure being exerted on him. The mob was now besieging Whitehall and could clearly be heard baying for justice, 'not without great and insolent threats and expressions, what they would do, if it were not speedily granted'. The palace, a rambling warren of courts, alleys and gardens, would have been impossible to defend if the bloodthirsty rabble outside had once broken in and, as no less a personage than the Archbishop of York pointed out to his majesty, it was no longer a question of whether he should save the Earl of Strafford, but whether he and, most probably, his wife and children should perish with him. On 10 May he signed, and within forty-eight hours Strafford had been beheaded on Tower Hill in the presence of a triumphant crowd more than 100,000 strong.

It was a bitter defeat and a surrender for which Charles never forgave himself. 'The king,' commented the Venetian ambassador, 'thus deprived of authority with the hatred of the people, which is even stronger against the queen ... suffers the tortures of the deepest affliction.' Henrietta, too, shed tears of mortification and was later to tell her friend Madame de Motteville how she and the king had both foreseen that this death would some day take the life of one and the peace of mind of the other.

The queen had already lost most of her peace of mind. Not only was she widely suspected of responsibility for the recent French invasion scare, but evil-minded gossip accused her of having had an improper relationship with Henry Jermyn, her Master of the Horse. It was true that those not 'blinded by passion' were beginning to discount some of the wilder rumours, but the parliamentary committee set up to enquire into the origins of the Army Plot found the queen to have been deeply implicated in the conspiracy. 'The end of this enquiry', reported the Venetian ambassador, 'remains uncertain, and it keeps the whole Court in a state of anxious anticipation. Meanwhile,' he continued ominously, 'as they are searching ancient documents to find out what was done with other queens in like circumstances, the fear grows that parliament intends to force the queen to clear herself.'

The king was planning to go north that summer to try and reach an accommodation with the Scots and the queen announced that she wished to go abroad for the sake of her health. She would first take the Princess Royal to Holland as requested by the Prince of Orange, and then go on to Spa to take the waters. Suspecting that she meant to stir up trouble in Europe, the Commons at once raised objections and insisted on interrogating her doctor, who failed to convince them that there was anything very much the matter with her majesty, apart from 'an unquiet mind' which they promised to make every effort to soothe if she would agree to stay at home. As for the princess, the members positively could not consent to her joining her husband until she was old enough to be a wife.

Thwarted, Henrietta retreated gloomily to Oatlands, the old Tudor hunting lodge near Weybridge. She was deeply depressed. 'I swear to you that I am almost mad with the sudden change in my fortunes', she wrote to her sister Christine. 'From the highest point of happiness I am fallen into despair ... Imagine what I feel to see the King's power taken from him, the Catholics persecuted, the priests hanged, the people faithful to us sent away and pursued for their lives because they serve the King. As for myself, I am kept like a prisoner, so that they will not even allow me to follow the King who is going to Scotland, and with no one in the world to whom I can confide my troubles.'

Henrietta found her forced inactivity one of the hardest things she had to bear. As she told her sister, it seemed she could only sit waiting helplessly for the enemy to do their worst. All the same she was not entirely idle, using the summer months working to try to strengthen support for the king in the Lords and especially urging the younger more impressionable members of the peerage to do their duty by attending the House.

Charles returned to London in November to a surprisingly warm welcome from the citizens, but almost simultaneously came the stunning news of rebellion in Ireland and stories of atrocities against the Protestant settlers produced a fresh outburst of anti-Catholic fury. The rumour factory was once more working at full stretch, and this time the queen was accused of being hand-in-glove with the Irish rebel chieftains. The capital was once more in uproar, with excited mobs roaming the precincts of Westminster and Whitehall looking for trouble. There were some violent confrontations between the king's officers and bands of city apprentices on the loose during the Christmas holidays, and for the first time the opprobrious epithets Roundhead and Cavalier were being flung around.


Excerpted from Women All on Fire by Alison Plowden. Copyright © 2012 The estate of Alison Plowden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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