Men and Women in the English Revolution

Elizabeth Cromwell, née Bourchier (1598-1665)

Over the summer I agreed to review two books on the English civil wars. One Blair Worden’s God’s Instruments (2012), the other Ann Hughes’s Gender and the English Revolution (2012). The first, aside from a few fleeting references to Lucy Hutchinson, deals almost exclusively with Oliver Cromwell and other men who fought in the Civil War and determined the politics of the country in its aftermath. The second focuses mainly on women, though never studying them separately from the men they supported and challenged.

What I conclude from this is, that nearly half a century after the emergence of women’s history, it is still possible to write history books that largely ignore women, while it is virtually impossible to write anything at all that ignores men. I.e. as far as high political history is concerned, gender is only a ‘relational concept’ with regards to women.

I do not blame Blair Worden. In fact, I admire his work and frequently cite it in my own. Besides, I am no less guilty of having written entire book chapters or journal articles without mentioning a single woman. Political correctness and indeed the contribution of women to politics and political decision making easily slip our mind when the evidence is so much focused on a male political sphere – especially for students of the early modern period. But I still think we should try and change our practice and ask ourselves every time we look at a political issue: and what was the contribution of women?

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

As Hughes shows in her recent book, aside from Lucy Hutchinson (the author, translator and biographer of her husband, the republican Colonel John Hutchinson), there were thousands of other ‘Women at war’ (35). There was ‘Elizabeth Alkin, also known as “Parliament Joan”’, who ‘spied for the armies of the Earl of Essex, Sir William Waller and Sir Thomas Fairfax’, or the ‘royalist … conspirator … Katherine Stuart, Lady Aubigny’, who came to London ‘to raise supporters in the city’ and prompted ‘an abortive plot’ (36).

Women frequently ‘played a full part in organising the defences of besieged towns’ (36), while soldiers’ wives ‘helped with civil war administration’ (37). Queen Henrietta Maria herself was one of Charles I’s most trusted advisors; Elizabeth Cromwell presumably kept the household up and running while husband Oliver was out killing royalists; and Elizabeth Ludlow remained the faithful companion and co-conspirator of her regicide husband Edmund, who had to flee England for continental exile in 1660. There were also many others without whose contribution history might have developed differently.

I know the case has been made many times before, but the gender segregation in works on political history shows that it’s worth repeating.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. Right on the mark – I am researching and writing about a great grandma I found in the parish register of St Botolph without Aldgate 1655 who was one of Cromwell’s first fighting fit professional soldiers for 5 years before discovering she was a woman! How could I not bring her out of obscurity!
    do see my blog for more info.

    1. Since I responded to the subject of missing women in historical texts I’ve been learning and writing more – and noticed also a class bias – everybody wants to write about women if they are upper-middle class or aristocratic – perhaps this is because writers mostly write about themselves?
      Anyway all for one and one for all – Happy International Women’s Day 2013 – wars and religions still raging, and now it’s the muslim girls demanding literacy skills and petitioning parliament for a quota of women on Boards.
      I have a facebook page which shows the references I use to stimulate my writing and I will add you…

      It is thanks to people like you who share your knowledge that empowers me to rise above my station in life!

  2. I am writing a historical fiction based on the Civil War time period. In doing my research I began to wonder about all of the women who were ‘left behind’ by their husband’s while they went off to fight. What did these women of the gentry do while they were gone? Was there a unwritten law which kept them safe in their homes and estates? I am looking for information and seem to have come to a dead end. If you have any suggestions I would like to hear from you.

  3. A lot of gentry women would take charge of their family estates, while their husbands were away and challenged accepted gender norms in a variety of ways. There are quite a number of remarkable examples. But I’m not the expert here. You could try to contact Ann Hughes at Keele University or Amanda Capern at Hull. They know more about this subject than I do.

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