Women at the Polls in the Seventeenth Century

As BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour reveal their ‘Power List’ this morning, Dr Vivienne Larminie shares her recent discovery of two 17th century women who had their voices heard in a more 20th century manner…

Researching parliamentary history has its mundane aspects.  A certain amount of systematic trawling through indexes and records is unavoidable; sometimes this is time-consuming and yields few concrete results; even powerful search engines with sophisticated tools to limit searches fail to eliminate unusable returns.  Periodically, however, a routine perusal of a source stops you in your tracks.  This happened to me recently with an election indenture.  These documents, in which local voters declared in the presence of the sheriff which candidates they had chosen to represent them in Parliament, do not invariably survive for the seventeenth century.  When they do, they are frequently damaged and partly or even almost wholly illegible.  But when they do survive in a form that can be read and, especially, when they can be put alongside other sources, they can transform understanding of the political process.

The indenture in question came from Heytesbury in Wiltshire and was dated 17 March 1640.  Getting on for three centuries before you might expect to find them, among the thirteen names on the list of voters were those of two women, Elizabeth Crayford and Agnes or Agnete Tarry.  Keen to find out more about the background this apparently extraordinary circumstance, I turned first to an advanced search in British History Online, so often a route to instant historical gratification.  On this occasion I was disappointed, but a search of online wills within likely dates via The National Archives elicited those of both Agnes (made 1653; proved 1656) and her husband (made and proved 1639), to whom she was executor.  On my next visit to the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives Centre I was able to establish via Heytesbury manorial records that the women had been admitted to the customary tenancies previously held by their husbands, Elizabeth in March 1639 and Agnes in October.  Parish registers confirmed that William Tarry had died rapidly of the illness he was suffering when he made his will in March 1639 and that Elizabeth’s husband George had died in November 1638, round about his 37th birthday.  Beyond some testamentary indicators of the Tarrys’ rather modest financial circumstances, however, nothing further emerged to illuminate either couple’s social stratum, occupation or background.

Elizabeth Crayford’s name appears again in the election indenture for the Long Parliament, dated 31 October 1640; Agnes Tarry’s does not, unless it is obliterated by time.  The explanation as to why their ‘voices’ were formally heard in 1640 has not yet presented itself.  Were the successful candidates more than usually anxious in 1640 to secure sufficient votes?  Was the presiding sheriff or the sitting bailiff ignorant of the usual rules?  Was there in fact a tradition of suffrage among customary tenants that was no respecter of gender?  If so, was this confined to Heytesbury?  Some time ago Derek Hirst drew attention to an instance of women at the polls in Suffolk, also in 1640: on that occasion their participation was barred, but seemingly for considerations of potential dishonour rather than of illegality (The Representative of the People? (1975), 18–9).  This example raises even more questions about electoral practice, but both examples provide that essential motivation for vigilance when casting my eye down those lists of names.


4 thoughts on “Women at the Polls in the Seventeenth Century

  1. This is fascinating. I’ve always suspected that Hirst’s discovery wasn’t unique and that there must have been a more complicated narrative around women voting than we had assumed.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Elaine – I wonder how many other incidents there are hidden in the archives? It would take some trawling to find it out I suppose.

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