Women in early modern parliamentary politics

Over the last few weeks we have been marking Women’s History Month. Continuing the discussion of women’s parliamentary history, Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the new House of Lords 1558-1603 project, has turned his attention to the relationship between women and politics in the early modern era. Despite being excluded from Parliament, women still found ways to be involved…

During the early modern period women were excluded from the English Parliament. Although no law barred women, membership was entirely male. Even the few women who were peers in their own right did not sit in the House of Lords. Women were not permitted to enter the Commons’ chamber to give evidence either, but had to be examined elsewhere, in committee. The only formal role accorded to women in the parliamentary sphere was ceremonial. Under Elizabeth I the principal ladies of the bedchamber attended the queen at the State Opening of Parliament, at the presentation of the Commons’ Speaker and at the dissolution. During these ceremonial events they remained in the Lords’ Chamber, where they stood or sat in a row to the left of the monarch. Under James I a special seat was constructed for the queen consort, Anne of Denmark, so that she might view the opening ceremonies for herself. The same privilege was extended to Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria in 1628.

Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort of James I
St John’s College, University of Cambridge

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the idea that women might sit in Parliament was widely considered preposterous, at least by men. One reason for this was their supposedly soft-hearted nature and selfish tendencies. In 1598 Serjeant Harris defended his withering criticism of another MP’s motion to exclude certain categories of men from the bill of rogues, saying that he had no doubt that the proposal would have been allowed ‘if there had been a Parliament of women’. In 1640 an anonymous pamphlet entitled A Parlament of Women lampooned a fictitious assembly of women, whose members were depicted as self-serving, seeking to legislate for their own comfort and ease at the expense of men. In 1618 the herald and antiquary William Camden dismissed an inquiry as to whether Mary Beaumont, recently created countess of Buckingham, now had the right to sit in the Lords as ‘silly’. Perhaps the only surprising thing is that the question was ever put, rather than Camden’s reaction to it.

The aversion to female membership of Parliament was mirrored in male attitudes towards women’s right to vote in parliamentary elections. There was no law against it, and the statutory requirement that voters in county elections should own freehold worth at least forty shillings a year was not gender specific. In 1640 the sheriff of Suffolk, Sir Simonds D’Ewes, a trained lawyer, conceded that the right of women to vote ‘might in law have been allowed’, though he himself considered the prospect ‘dishonourable’. Nevertheless, from time to time parliamentary candidates or their sponsors quietly set aside their prejudice against female voters for the sake of electoral advantage. In December 1620 the dean of Westminster, John Williams, reportedly allowed the voices of ‘serving-men, apprentices, women, children, watermen [and] porters’ in order to ensure the defeat of Edward Forsett in the Westminster borough election. Likewise, in the Wiltshire borough of Hindon ‘some of those who certified for Sir Edmund Ludlow’ allegedly included ‘women and boys’. Ultimately it was down to the presiding officer, whose impartiality could not be assured, to decide who could vote. In 1628 Henry Slingsby, embroiled in a contest for one of the seats at Knaresborough, in Yorkshire, tried to persuade the bailiff to include the votes of eight widowed burgage-holders. He failed, even though two years earlier the Knaresborough election return had included the names of three women: Margery Batty, Mary Wakefield and Mary Berrott.

Elizabeth Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury,
by Hans Eworth
National Trust, Hardwick Hall

The occasional participation of women in parliamentary elections was not restricted to mere voting. Many parliamentary boroughs were in the pocket of a single family, and when the (male) head of the family died control sometimes passed to his widow. In 1554 and 1555 Dame Elizabeth Copley, widow of Sir Roger Copley, nominated the parliamentary candidates at Gatton, in Surrey, where she was lord of the manor. In 1572 the widowed Dame Dorothy Pakington informed the sheriff of Buckinghamshire that she had ‘chosen, named and appointed by my trusty and well-beloved Thomas Lichfield and George Burden to be my burgesses of my said town of Aylesbury’. Both Lichfield and Burden went on to sit. At Corfe Castle, in Dorset, Lady Hatton, widow of Sir William Hatton, shared the patronage with her second husband Sir Edward Coke. However, in 1614, after the couple’s relationship had begun to deteriorate, Lady Hatton exercised her patronage rights without reference to her husband. An important widow did not need to be lord of the manor to influence the outcome of a parliamentary election. In 1593 the widowed countess of Warwick prevailed on her brother, the 3rd earl of Bedford, to return her servant Arnold Oldisworth for the Cornish borough of Tregony. In 1563 Sir William St. Loe was returned for Derbyshire thanks to his second wife, the immensely rich Bess of Hardwick.

Prominent widows were not the only women who exercised influence in parliamentary affairs. When peers became infirm their wives perhaps inevitably became involved in exercising their husbands’ parliamentary responsibilities. In 1626 Katherine, countess of Suffolk, wrote to inform the University of Cambridge (of which her husband was chancellor) that ‘my lord willed me to write to you that he heareth Sir Robert Naunton and Sir John Coke are named … and wisheth that they now be chosen’. In this instance the writer appears to have acted as her husband’s amanuensis, but not all peers’ wives were so constrained. In 1641 Eleanor, countess of Sussex, whose husband the 6th earl of Sussex was too ill to attend Parliament in person, wrote to Ralph Verney that she would ‘not give my consent that my Lord Robartes shall have my Lord’s proxy [vote]’. Her case helps to demonstrate that women were not always quite as inactive as we sometimes assume. Whether they viewed the ceremonial life of Parliament from within, or participated in elections as voters or patrons, women were part of the early modern parliamentary landscape.


Click here to read about our newest project, House of Lords 1558-1603. Our section researchers will be posting blogs throughout their work under the Elizabethan Lords tag.

More of our blogs discussing women and parliament can be found here.

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