Women and Parliament in the Fifteenth Century

2018 is the centennial anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 under the terms of which, for the first time in the history of the British Politics, some women were permitted to vote in Parliamentary elections. In order to mark this step in the progression of equality for women in our country’s political system we will be publishing a series of blogs about women’s engagement with Parliament and parliamentary politics. In the first of which our own Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow in the Commons 1422-1504 section, discusses fifteenth-century women’s relationship with Parliament…

It is one of the peculiarities of parliamentary history that the right of women to stand for election to the Commons predated the admission of hereditary female peers to the Lords by 45 years (1918 against 1963). From a fifteenth-century perspective, the second would have appeared closer than the first: the first was inconceivable, but the second was partly anticipated in the right of the heiress of a peer to transmit to her husband or son the right to a seat in the Lords. Yet, if a female member of the Lords was at least conceptually possible (one thinks here of the creation of Edward I’s granddaughter, Margaret of Brotherton, as a duchess in her own right in the Parliament of 1397), such membership did not lie within the realm of practical politics. This, however, is not to say that female engagement with the parliamentary proceedings was entirely lacking.

A study of those who turned to Parliament for help and redress provides numerous examples of women petitioning not jointly with their husbands but in their own right. Some of these petitioners, as one might expect, were the widows of great men, generally seeking some act of royal favour or protection for their rights against the claims of others. For such women Parliament was an obvious resort, not simply because they had kin in the Lords but because they might also have adherents in the Commons. When, for example, Anne Stafford, widow of Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, petitioned the Parliament of 1425 for an adequate provision for her widowhood out of the debt-burdened Mortimer estate, she could rely on the support of the Commons’ Speaker, Sir Thomas Waweton, a highly-paid Mortimer retainer. Other well-born women turned to Parliament in less advantageous circumstances. A petition presented in the Parliament of 1406 provides a vivid example: Elizabeth, widow of William, Lord Zouche, claimed that her stepson, the new Lord Zouche, had organised a campaign of oppression against her during which one of her servants had had an arm cut off and her daughter had been frightened into a premature birth. If her stepson attempted his place in the Lords to thwart her complaint, he failed, and he was summoned to answer before the royal council. Her petition, and others like it, reflect the disadvantageous position of women in family disputes, and Parliament could sometimes offer them better hope of remedy than litigation at common law. The same applies where the complaint related to sexual violence. To cite one of several examples, in the Parliament of 1439 Margaret, widow of Sir Thomas Malefaunt, complained that she had been raped and forced into marriage by a Welshmen, a former servant of her husband.

These three petitioners were all members of the social elite, as indeed were, to a greater or lesser degree, most of women who successfully brought petitions into Parliament. Yet there were the enough exceptions to form a significant sub-category. One such was Elizabeth Reynald, a recluse living in the cemetery of the church of St. Margaret, Westminster, who sought the help of the Commons in the 1422 Parliament to secure the restoration of the annuity her long-dead husband had once enjoyed as a royal serjeant-at-arms. Other women sought to overcome a lack of individual influence by coming together to advance a group cause. In the Parliament of 1394 the ‘widows of London’ complained that the city authorities had sought to tax them despite the customary exemption they enjoyed in respect of all taxes (save those imposed by parliamentary authority); and later the silkwomen of the city protected their monopoly of worked silk by successfully petitioning, between 1455 and 1504, for a series of temporary embargoes against imports. The routine presence of Parliament at Westminster no doubt gave the women of London both opportunity and incentive to organise themselves, and a curious reference in the chronicle of the abbey of St. Albans provides a striking incidence. The chronicler describes how a group of them, ‘respectfully attired’ (‘reverenter ornatis’), came ‘openly’ (‘palam’) into the Parliament of 1427 bringing letters to the Lords condemning Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, for abandoning his first wife, Jacqueline of Hainault, ‘as his love for her had gone cold’  (‘amore refrigerato’) in favour of one of her household servants, Eleanor Cobham, ‘to the ruin of himself, of the realm and of the strength of the institution of marriage’.

These examples may not be enough to show that, beyond the obvious fact of disqualification from membership, fifteenth-century women existed in a different relationship to Parliament than men, although the chronicler’s curious story is perhaps suggestive in this regard. They do, however, show that Parliament offered a potential source of aid for women outside the high aristocracy.


In September this year we are co-organising ‘A Century of Women MPs‘ with UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project and the University of Westminster, a conference which will explore the experiences, contributions and achievements of women MPs since 1918. The Call for Papers is out now and closes on 31st January. Full details on how to submit your paper are available here.

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