The Hidden Women of the Civil War


2018 has become know by many people as ‘The Year of the Woman’, and as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote for the first time, Manchester Museum has been among a great many institutions across the nation and beyond, celebrating the women whose achievements and contributions have been overlooked in the history books. In keeping with this spirit, today’s Story from the Museum Floor, by Catherine from the Visitor Team takes a closer look at the role that women played in the English Civil War. 

The Hidden Women of the Civil War

Manchester Museum is home to thousands of objects, all of which have a story to tell, we can use them as gateways through which we can learn more about the past. One such group of objects are the Newark siege coins in our Money Gallery. Produced during the English Civil War they give us an insight into one of the most turbulent periods of British history.

The Civil War began in 1642 and was a succession of battles between King Charles I and Parliament over who had the right to lead the country. All over Britain people declared their allegiance to a side, leaving many towns and houses vulnerable to attack from those who opposed them. This was the case in Newark where, after declaring their support for the King, the town was besieged three times by Parliament’s forces. During the last siege, in 1646, the coins currently on display in the museum were minted to keep money circulating in the cut off town. The coins are a diamond shape, the straight lines meaning that less of the valuable metal was wasted than if they were circular. On one side the crown and ‘CR’ show the town’s support for Charles, the denomination of the coin was demonstrated with Roman numerals, in this case a 9 pence and a 12 pence. On the obverse the coins have the date they were printed, the name of the town and the abbreviation ‘OBS’ short for ‘obsidional’ from the Latin for ‘besieged’.

Newark siege coins on display in the Money gallery, Manchester Museum

The Civil War was a very tumultuous time for Britain, through the many battles and sieges that took place all over the country thousands of  lives were lost, with about 5% of the population being killed, the highest of any war to date.

When we think of these sieges and battles we often imagine them as being entirely dominated by men, however the nature of them meant that many of those caught up in defending their homes and towns were women. At the time women were seen as naturally inferior to men, with an ideal woman being submissive and obedient, devoting her time to her husband and family. Women that took part in the conflict were often viewed in a bad light as it was definitely not something a ‘good’ woman would do.

Newark’s women – From Queens to Grandmas

Newark saw its fair share of women aiding the war. The Queen, Henrietta Maria, spent some time in the town on her way down to meet King Charles I in 1643. She had left the country soon after the war began, raising funds and troops throughout Europe. By the time she passed through Newark she was heading an army of 3,000 foot soldiers, 2,000 cavalry and 6 cannons. Quite impressive, regardless of the fact that this would never have been expected of a woman.

HenriettaMariaofFrance02.jpgHenrietta Maria of France.

On a slightly smaller scale, a diary entry from John Twentyman, a local Newark man, describes how his grandmother took charge after seeing the arrival of enemy troops. She ordered her sons and grandsons outside, getting them to beat old broken drums to warn everyone about what was happening. Warning signals such as this were very useful to the townspeople, allowing them extra time before any attack began.

The Countess of Lathom

Away from Newark, one of the many ways in which women became involved in the Civil War was through defending their homes. While many men were off fighting, their wives were left in charge of the household and, in the case of upper class women who were protecting their estates or castles, they were vulnerable to attack. A significant example of this took place in Lancashire at Lathom House, one of the largest houses in the North of England at the time.

Lathom_House_at_the_time_of_the_Civil_WarsLatham House. This picture was only produced in the 1800s, so is probably not completely accurate, but it gives a sense of the scale of the estate.

James Stanley the Earl of Derby lived there with his wife, Countess Charlotte, and their children. The family supported the King and James was called to work for him on the Isle of Man in 1642, meaning Charlotte was entrusted with defending their home, estate and all those who lived there. Shortly after he left, Parliamentarian troops tried to claim the house, Charlotte refused to give it up and so a siege began in 1643.

A portrait of the Countess painted 16 years before the siege (Source: Blickling Hall © National Trust)

Charlotte was keen to stand up to those trying to seize her home, saying she would defend the house as long as ‘there is a bit of roof to shelter me’. The danger was very real though, one story tells of how she was eating a meal with her two daughters when the roof was knocked in by enemy fire, luckily no one was seriously hurt and it did little to dissuade her from continuing the fight.

Charlotte was very resourceful and an impressive leader of about 300 men, despite facing an army of nearly 2,000 she was able to hold them off until Prince Rupert, an important Royalist, and his troops could relieve the siege. She kept the Parliamentarians from Lathom House for over 3 months.

AN01019545_001_lAn engraving from 1872 showing the Countess at work in the siege. This scene probably never happened, but it shows the romantic image attached to the idea of a woman defending her home. (Source: British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum)

In the grounds of what was Lathom House, this rock, or ‘Cromwell’s Stone’ is believed to have been used by the Parliamentarians to cast their ammunition

800px-Cromwell's_Stone‘Cromwell’s Stone’, in the grounds of Lathom Park Chapel.

Nurses and spies

Many other women played important roles in the English Civil War, some worked in more traditional ways such as nursing wounded soldiers, whilst others even worked as spies. One in particular, Lady Anne Halkett, played an important role in rescuing one of the King’s sons from imprisonment. Taking part in a complex plot that involved disguising the prince in women’s clothing and smuggling him out of the building where he was held captive. She was willing to risk her life for the Royalist cause that she believed in.

Despite their impressive actions, many of these women weren’t received very well at the time. Women were expected to be passive, deferent to their husband and not independent – in many cases the exact opposite of what they did during the Civil War! Whilst some women were praised for their behaviour, with people seeing their bravery as essentially a duty to their husbands, others were not treated so well. The existence of strong women was often seen as a sign of weakness in the men around her. In the case of the Countess of Derby, the Parliamentarians used her actions as propaganda against the Royalists, saying she was a better soldier than her husband and had ‘stolen his breaches’, mocking her achievements.

Until recently these women hadn’t normally featured in histories of the Civil War, their actions weren’t seen as significant as those of men of the time.  Many of the women were forgotten about and their stories have only resurfaced more recently, but by looking at documents and objects from the time we can start to piece together what life was really like. In this way, we can see that the objects in Manchester Museum really do all have a story to tell!

Catherine Tindsley

For more about our numismatics collection, have a look at our Curator’s blog, Ancient Worlds Manchester.

And read about some of the ‘Wonder Women‘ of Manchester Museum and The University of Manchester. 


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