Searching for the Fighting Women of the English Civil War

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Apparently participants on both sides of the English Civil War were extremely concerned about the prospect of women dressing as men and going into battle. (Or following the army as well disguised sex workers.) And a few women actually did it.


The Guardian draws attention to the work of historian Mark Stoyle, who has painstakingly combed through accounts from the English Civil War about women donning men’s clothing to more easily accompany armies or even, in some cases, to fight themselves. The perception is fairly common, which Stoyle attributes in part to Antonia Fraser’s 1984 book The Weaker Vessel. In a piece at the academic journal History, he takes a stab at scholarly due diligence on the idea, and the result is a fascinating exploration of era’s attitudes toward gender.

Stoyle traces the concern about the prospect of women wearing men’s clothing even before the conflict, then looks at who responded how to the then controversial issue, as well as how those responses varied across the political spectrum. There’s a sense that Royalists loyal to Charles I were a bit less stern than the severe, devout Puritan parliamentarians. But there were concerns on both sides about the practice—which was associated with camp followers and specifically sex workers. Charles I very nearly issued a strictly worded proclamation against it—except a) that it would have simply provided ammo to propagandists among his parliamentarian opponents and b) also there was the sticky fact of his own queen having appeared a few years before in an amateur theatrical as an Amazonian warrior.

But the most detailed account of a woman cross-dressing during the English Civil War actually comes from the Puritan side, via a publication called The Scottish Dove, which praised a soldier who “being examined, he sayd, he was indeed a female, and said that her selfe 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.” The story does support the idea that there indeed women who did so in order to fight for their own side:

The parliamentarian ‘she‐trooper’ who was apprehended at Evesham, by contrast – like her three shadowy fellow‐countrywomen – is said to have donned male attire chiefly in order to preserve herself from her enemies and ‘to serve in the Warre’ for a cause in which she passionately believed. It was vital for the Dove’s editor to present the unnamed woman at the centre of his account as a model of sexual propriety, of course, if he was to convince his readers that she was a ‘virtuous virago’: an exceptional woman in the mould of Joan of Arc or Mary Ambree, whose adoption of male attire should be regarded as an act of heroic religiosity and/or patriotism. Even so, his story strongly suggests that there were women on the battlefields of the 1640s who were there for their own reasons, and not as mere appendages – and that the stirring tale of ‘the resolute lady’ of Chester with which this article began may not have been so very unrepresentative of some women’s real‐life wartime experiences, after all.

Even if the practice was rarer that previously believed, Stoyle argues that “the activities of the women who donned masculine attire in order to march into the field during the 1640s should not be dismissed by historians as negligible or unimportant.” For one thing, the response was too fierce and touched on too many ongoing gender concerns in regards to the power and capability of women; for another, it speaks to how women responded to the societal upheaval wrought by the era. Read Stoyle’s full paper here.

Senior Editor at Jezebel, specializing in books, royals, romance novels, houses, history, and the stories we tell about domesticity and femininity. Resident Windsor expert.



Two tangentially related comments:

One: English society was worried about dress and misrepresentation in general from about the time of the Civil War and for another century or so, as society became less rural and people became more mobile, both geographically and financially. People used to be able to tell your station in life (as well as your gender), because of how you dressed, and because everyone knew you in your small village from which you would never really stray. Now any Joe or Jane could go forth and seek their fortunes, buy nice clothes, and present themselves as something “better” than themselves. Huge upheaval to the expected social order.

Two: although there may have been fewer women dressed as men in the Civil War than people thought, they certainly existed, and women crossed-dressed for a lot of other reasons too. They cross-dressed to earn a living in fields where women couldn’t work, and they cross-dressed to marry women. I did a research assistantship, back in grad school, researching eighteenth-century newspapers for references of women cross-dressing (you’d find mentions after people died, sometimes sensational revelations connected to other things, or women complaining that they married men in “good faith” only to find out on the wedding night that they weren’t really men, etc.) and there were enough references to keep me employed for awhile. Some were almost certainly fakes (see “gee, I thought he was a man”), but they kept showing up in the news.