English history: the yeoman

In the stratified world of medieval England, the yeoman was wedged into a slot between the gentry and the peasants. Then history came along and blurred the categories, leaving confusion in its wake.

History will do that if you let it. 

Irrelevant photo: foxglove leaves after a frost

The hazy definition of a yeoman 

One way to define both the medieval aristocracy (they had titles) and the gentry (the people just under them, who didn’t), is to say that they owned land but didn’t (god forbid!) get their hands dirty by working it. So we can define yeomen as people who owned some land and also worked it.  

There were more yeomen than either gentry or aristocrats, but nowhere near as many of them as of the people below them–the serfs and free but poor laborers. Above all, yeomen were free. In an age where most people who worked the land were serfs, that was hugely important.

If that all sounds clear, stay with me. I can get laundry muddy while it’s still in the machine.

Yes, thank you. It’s a gift.

A yeoman could hold a fairly wide range of land and still be a yeoman. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (you might want to get your hands on a copy, because you never know when you’ll need it, do you?), Ian Mortimer tells us (or me, since you haven’t gotten your copy yet) that the most prosperous yeomen would have been well fed and comfortable, with servants to help with both the  housework and on the land. Some, in fact, rented whole estates from lords, ran the manor courts, and effectively functioned as lords. After the plague, this became relatively common, although some definitions will tell you that owning land was central to the definition. 

So some yeomen owned land and some rented it. Owning land was central to the definition of the yeoman and also wasn’t necessary.There’s your first bit of clarity breaking down, so let’s confuse the picture more.

They weren’t all in the same economic situation. Well below the most prosperous yeomen were others with some thirty acres of land, a third of which (like all land in this period) needed to lie fallow each year, leaving them with twenty acres that produced crops each year. In a good year, they’d be okay. In a bad year–in a series of bad years–they wouldn’t be. 

And below them? A yeoman might have no more than eight acres, and a bad year might force him to sell it, leaving him and his family to find whatever way they could to support themselves.

In his sixteenth century Chronicles, Raphael Holinshed (don’t feel bad; I never heard of him before either) described yeomen as having free land worth £6 per year and as not being entitled to bear arms. 

Other sources will also tell you that yeomen kept arms and fought for whoever their lord was, with yeomen becoming a category of soldier. The contradiction might be explained by the passage of time: What century was it when you opened the shutters and looked out at this green and pleasant land? 

It’s also possible that it can’t be explained that way. A yeoman’s son left an account of his father fighting for the king against the Cornish rebels in 1497–before Holinshed– and being not just armed but on horseback.

Aren’t the gaps and contradictions in the historical record fun?

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen talks about the terms yeoman, husbandman, ploughman, and hind coming into use in the fifteenth century, replacing the earlier division of the rural population into villein, bondman, and cottar, whose point of reference is the manor. Do what you like with that.

 

Were yeomen a class?

That will depend, at least partly, on how you define class. In an age when land ownership was the measure of your social standing, a yeoman who rented his land from a lord might have gone against expectations by being materially better off than a yeoman who owned only a small piece. Their role in village life would have been very different and their economic interests might have been different. What united them as a category was that in a time when most people who worked the land were serfs, they were free. And, of course, that they weren’t gentry, even if at the top end they brushed up against the gentry.

So were they a class? 

Forget it. I’m staying out of this.

A village’s more prosperous yeoman families (yeo-families?) were likely to fill the local roles, becoming the ale tasters, the jurors, the haywards, the constables, the tithing men, the churchwardens. They might also have become the lords’ retainers and so part of the lords’ households, and at some point, the word came to mean retainer, attendant, guard, subordinate official. 

But you noticed the word man tucked inside yeoman, right? Landowners were entirely or overwhelmingly male, and power (and with it, the slant of thought and language) was overwhelmingly male, but this was an age when adults married and if they could, had kids. So what were the wives and daughters of yeomen called? Ask Lord Google about yeowomen and he’ll lead you to only the most marginal of dictionaries. The respectable ones blink their eyes hazily and say, “Yeo-what?” 

The absence of yeo-words for the yeoman’s family members weighs (as far as I can tell, and keep in mind that I have no expertise in this field whatsoever) on the side of them not being a class or definable group that’s expected to behave as a group and restock itself.  

On the side of seeing yeomen as a cohesive group, though, if not necessarily a self-perpetuating one, were the Sumptuary Laws of 1363, which forbid yeomen or their families from wearing silver, gold, jewels, enamelware, silk, embroidery, or any of the more expensive furs. Their clothing had to be made from fabric that cost no more than £2 for the whole cloth.

What does the whole cloth mean? My best wild guess is a full bolt, because £2 was a shitload of money at that point. 

Ditto an act of 1445 that prohibited anyone of yeoman status or below from sitting in Parliament.

On the side of not seeing them as a cohesive group, some of the more prosperous yeomen intermarried with the gentry. Some might apprentice their children to tradesmen–the more prosperous ones to the more lucrative trades and the less to the less. On either level, though, they moved into a different category within the medieval social structure.

The children of some yeomen might become servants in other households, and here we need to stop and look at the role of servants.

In How to Be a Tudor, Ruth Goodman says that servants were often in their teens and likely to work only a few years before marrying and setting up their own households. The divide between servant and master or mistress wasn’t huge, and it wasn’t just the rich who had servants. The servants of the non-rich, though, weren’t there to provide personal services. A small-scale husbandman–a category of farmers below the yeomen–might take on a servant to help with the housework or the land, and there was always plenty of that.

The servant’s work depended on the household they served, and being a servant was less a question of class than of age. The child of a prosperous yeoman might serve in a richer household, and a Tudor-era description of dinner at a viscount’s house (dinner being at 10 a.m.) involved the gentleman usher, the yeoman usher, the yeoman of the ewery (in charge of hand washing and towels), the gentlemen waiters, the yeoman of the cellar, and I have no idea how many other people running around and bowing (even to an empty room). 

For our purposes, what matters in all this silliness is yeoman seems to be a title here, not a distinct class of person. He’s not the top servant in the dining room, but he’s there and he has a job title, matching one of the definitions in the Collins Dictionary: a lesser official in a royal or noble household. They also toss in a subordinate to an official (a sheriff, for example) or to a craftsman or trader.

 

Yeomen and the military

Henry VII created the Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, known to their friends and family as the Yeomen of the Guard. They’re the oldest military corps in Britain, having guarded not just the kings and queens but Charles II during the Commonwealth, when II was in exile in France and the king of nothing at all. 

Their job traditionally involved guarding the inside of the monarch’s palaces and tasting his (or occasionally her) meals in case someone was trying to poison him. Or her. One of them got the monarch’s bed ready and one slept outside the bedroom. In a very un-British defiance of tradition, that bit of rigamarole’s been abandoned, but the job titles–sorry, ranks–still exist: Yeoman Bed-Goer and Yeoman Bed-Hanger. 

If there was a title for the food taster, I haven’t found it. I suggest Yeoman I’m Not Sure That Tastes Right, Maybe I Should Have a Second Bite. Or Yeoman You Got Any Dessert to Go with That? 

Don’t confuse the Yeomen of the Guard with the Yeoman Warders. The Warders still guard the Tower of London and the two uniforms are similar but the Warders wear a red cross belt that runs diagonally across the front of their tunics.

A what? 

Damned if I know. Can we talk about something else?

Thanks. Let’s backtrack: 

In 1794, Britain eyeballed the threat from revolutionary France and then eyeballed its military, which was a combination of draftees (you only had to serve if you couldn’t afford to pay for a substitute) and volunteers, and it decided the structure was too shaky for the weight a war was likely to put on it.

Its solution was to form volunteer units that would be subject to military discipline. More radically, when they were called out, they’d be paid. The cavalry units were to be recruited–at least theoretically–from yeoman farmers. They owned horses, after all, so there were halfway there. You didn’t expect the government to provide them, did you? Recruits also provided their own uniforms, but the government supplied their arms and ammunition.

Their officers were from the aristocracy or the gentry, because that was the natural order of things.

Those units became the yeomanry, or yeomanry cavalry, and they continued as a volunteer military force that could be called out in case of an invasion or to put down revolts. Because they were less than fully trained, they played a disastrous role in the Peterloo Massacre

In 1907, they were merged into the Territorial Army. The Royal Yeomanry continues as a light cavalry force within the British Army Reserve.

The Royal Navy and Marines have the ranks yeoman of signals and chief yeoman of signals. They’re petty officers. None of that has much, if anything, to do with original meaning of the word except that they keep the sense of someone who’s not high up the ladder but who’s recognizably not on the bottom. 

And finally, let’s come back to yeo-women. Women are now members of the Yeoman Warders, and they’re called yeomen. Ditto–and more interestingly–in the U.S. women became yeomen during World War I. The military had no entry points for women except an accidental one. The Naval Act of 1916 said the reserve force would include “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense.” 

Who’d have thought, when it was written, the a person might be a woman? So they left a loophole and women got through it. The military needed bodies,  and the secretary of the Navy and the Bureau of Navigation (which translates into the personnel department) decided that nothing in the language kept women from enlisting in the reserves. In 1917 they started actively recruiting. Women became radio operators, stenographers, nurses, messengers, and chauffeurs, truck drivers, cryptographers, and mechanics. 

Most of them were yeomen (F), meaning female yeomen.

Nobody had figured out what they were supposed to do for uniforms, though. Wearing anything other than a skirt or dress still lay outside the wildest official (and for the most part, unofficial) imagination, so they were given some money and some guidelines and told to find themselves something vaguely uniformish. 

They had to find their own places to live as well.

The Peterloo Massacre, or how the British got the vote

It’s 1819 and we’re in the north of England. At last count–that was in 1780–only 3% of the population of England and Wales was allowed to vote. But that’s guesswork. A later count, in 1831, will estimate it at 1.35%. Voter registration won’t start until 1832, which may be why the numbers are a little hazy.

Can we say that not many people have the right to vote and leave it at that?

With such a thin slice of the population having any semblance of political power, and with wealth highly concentrated, this is a time when you can talk about a ruling class and not have to explain who you mean or argue about whether you’re seeing the world through Marxist-inflected spectacles. So let’s be bold and say that some elements of the ruling class see the value of expanding the vote in order to release a bit of the political pressure that’s been building in the country. Or to put that another way, they think it might help avoid a revolution. 

Irrelevant photo: I have to toss in a photo of holly sometime before Christmas. It grows here. I can’t quite get over that. Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, have a good one.

But reform itself sometimes leads to revolution, and since we’re in the present tense here we–and more to the point, they–have no way of knowing what will happen next. Will reform avoid a revolution or set one off? 

Tough choice. The French Revolution is still too recent, and it was too bloody and too scary, for the ruling class as a whole to take risks. So reform–at least the kind that came from the top down–gets put on hold, leaving it in the hands of scary, bottom-up radicals. 

 

So who can’t vote? 

That’s an easier question than who can. The list includes:

  • The working class
  • The poor in general, in case category one left any of them out
  • Women
  • Catholics
  • All or most or–well, at least much of the middle class

I chased Lord Google all over the internet trying to find some solid explanation of who can vote, and the answer was always murky. I finally found a House of Commons Library paper called “The History of Parliamentary Franchise,” which doesn’t answer the question but does at least explain why Lord G. is so evasive. 

Sorry–using the present tense for the nineteenth century gets awkward when I drag the twenty-first century Lord Google into it, but a commitment’s a commitment. We’ll stay with it if for no better reason than that it’ll give you a chance to watch me tie myself in knots. 

First, who can vote depends on whether you’re talking about England, Wales, Ireland, or Scotland, because they all have their own rules. After that, it depends on where in those four nations you live. In England, at least, the boroughs–in other words, the towns–set their own rules. Or at least the ones that have the right to send an MP to Parliament do. They don’t all have that right. In the counties, the rules seem to be consistent, but I wouldn’t want to put money on that.

What’s important is that no matter where you live, the right to vote depends on wealth, property, and influence. And some MPs aren’t even elected, so even if you have the right to vote it doesn’t necessarily get you much. 

According to the House of Commons Library, “Uncontested elections were common and in some seats an election had not taken place for many years. Parliamentary seats were often considered as property and remained in the control of a family from one generation to the next. This persisted until the beginning of the twentieth century.” 

(Votes won’t be cast by secret ballot until 1872. That’s not strictly relevant, but it’s interesting.) 

If you’re getting a picture of an undemocratic country, let me add another detail to the picture: Voting is only for the House of Commons. The upper house, the Lords, is hereditary.

 

Why does anybody care about the vote?

Nineteenth-century Britain is a country with multiple problems, and the people who suffer most from them don’t have a lot of ways to change their situation. Or if they’re risk-averse, any ways.

Britain’s busy turning itself from a rural country into an industrial one. Huge numbers of people who can’t make a living in the countryside are desperate enough to pour into the cities, hoping to make a living, but the cities aren’t prepared to house them. People are packed in on top of each other and sanitation verges on nonexistent. Wages, hours, and working conditions in the factories (and elsewhere) are terrible, and strikes are illegal: The Combination Acts mean you’re risking three months in prison if you and your co-workers walk off the job in any organized way, or prepare to, although you’re still welcome to quit your job individually and go starve somewhere.

No, I’m not being dramatic. People live close enough to the margin that we’re often talking about eating or not eating. Or ending up in the workhouse, which sets you only a small step above starvation.

The acts won’t be repealed until 1824 and 1825. Union organizing and what the National Archives call labor unrest–a term that takes in everything from riots to organizing a union –won’t break into the open until the 1830s. And here we are, stuck in 1819. 

You notice how subtly I reminded you of the date?

A few years ago, in 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended. This means a lot of former soldiers are now out of work. 

Thanks, guys, you’ve been positively heroic. Hope you find jobs somewhere.

Wages fell in England’s textile towns, and the taxes that were introduced to support the war didn’t, they walked into the peacetime years like zombies. The country entered a postwar depression. 

And if that isn’t enough trouble, the Corn Laws were passed in 1815. During the Napoleonic Wars, the country couldn’t import wheat from Europe and British farmers grew more of it. Then the wars ended and since landowners dominated Parliament they passed laws to protect their wheat market. The Corn Laws banned imports unless the price of domestic wheat went from high to astronomical.

Then the 1816 harvest was bad, leading to a winter of food shortages and riots. 

 

Blanketeers

Several strands of discontent wove themselves together: low pay, the Corn Laws, a political political system that shut out the voices of anyone other than landowners. The north–the center of the industrial revolution–became a center of radicalism among working people.

In 1817, a hunger march was organized, to go from Manchester to London. That’s 209 miles if you take the M40, which hadn’t been built yet. Each marcher carried a petition to the Prince Regent and a blanket to sleep in at night (and to mark them all as textile workers). They were called Blanketeers, and 5,000 of them gathered to start the march on St. Peter’s Field, near Manchester, with a larger crowd to see them off. One estimate puts the crowd at 25,000. The gathering was broken up by the King’s Dragoon Guard, which arrested 27 people, including the leaders, and injured several. One–a bystander–was killed. Several hundred people set off anyway, but the group thinned out, with some dropping out and many getting arrested or being turned back under vagrancy laws. 

Legend has one lone marcher reaching London and handing in his petition, but since he’s named both as Abel Couldwell and as Jonathan Cowgill, he may be mythical. Or I may be doing him a disservice.

Also in 1817, two hundred Derbyshire labourers marched to Nottingham in order, their leader said, to take part in a general insurrection. Three of the leaders were executed for treason. This did not calm the nerves of people in power.

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry was formed. Its purpose was to put down any insurrection that wandered into view.

 

Are we done with the background yet?

Yup.  Finally. It’s August 16, 1819, and the Manchester Patriotic Union Society has called a massive meeting calling for political reform, once again at St. Peter’s Field.

About 60,000 people turn up. A few years earlier, in 1802, Manchester’s population was 95,000, but people have come from other towns and cities. This is a big deal and a lot of preparation’s gone into it. Their banners call for an end to the Corn Laws, for universal suffrage, and for political reform.

What kind of political reform? 

Several kinds. Not only can’t most of the individuals here vote, the north as a whole is under-represented in the Commons. And in spite of its size, Manchester doesn’t have its own Member of Parliament. So this is about both class and region.

At this point, no one’s calling for women to have the vote. When they say “universal suffrage,” they’re talking about men.

Yeah, I know. History’s a real kick in the head, but we don’t get to rewrite it.

The organization involved is impressive. As Samuel Bamford, a handloom weaver who walks from Middleton, later wrote about the journey, every hundred men have a leader, who wears a sprig of laurel in his hat so you can spot him, and a bugler relays the orders given by the man at the head of the column. Everyone’s warned not to carry sticks or weapons. Only the very old and infirm are allowed walking sticks.

Together with marchers who join them from Rochdale, there are about 6,000 of them.

“At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester.”

And in case you think the emphasis on looks only applies to women, Bamford will also write, “First were selected twelve of the most decent-looking youths, who were placed at the front, each with a branch of laurel held in his hand, as a token of peace; then the colours: a blue one of silk, with inscriptions in golden letters, ‘Unity and Strength’, ‘Liberty and Fraternity’; a green one of silk, with golden letters, ‘Parliaments Annual’, ‘Suffrage Universal.’” 

That “Liberty and Fraternity” is an echo of the French Revolution and may not have helped calm ruling class nerves either, in spite of the emphasis on peaceful, laurel-branched, weaponless demonstrating.

One eyewitness will later describe the gathering at St. Peter’s Field as “large bodies of men and women with bands playing and flags and banners. . . There were crowds of people in all directions, full of humour, laughing and shouting and making fun. It seemed to be a gala day with the country people, who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives.”

The local magistrates, though, are less poetic than Bamford and less happy with the gathering than the second witness. They’ve pulled together four squadrons of cavalry (that’s 600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (another 400), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery (no numbers given), two six-pounder guns, all Manchester’s special constables (again, 400), and 120 men from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry–a kind of amateur cavalry. In other words, a shitload of soldiers and cops and would-be soldiers are on standby.

And their weaponry.

The main speakers arrive and the magistrates decide that Manchester’s “in great danger,” so they order Manchester’s deputy constable to arrest the speakers.

“Can’t do it without the military,” the deputy constable says (although he doesn’t use those words).

“Right,” the magistrates say, “no problem,” although I’m still making up the dialog.

They order in some of the military, and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry are closest and get the order first. Sixty of them ride into the crowd, which links arms to protect the speaker. Later on, eyewitnesses will claim the yeomen were drunk and the officer in charge will swear they moved erratically because the horses were spooked by the crush of people.

Either way, sabers are drawn. The Yeomanry knock down a woman and kill a two-year-old child. The speaker and a few leaders are arrested, along with some nearby newspaper reporters. 

Always go for the reporters.

Someone in authority decides that the Yeomanry need defending and sends in some of the professional soldiers.

Within minutes, the field is clear and 18 people are dead. Somewhere between 400 and 700 men and women are wounded.

One of the organizers (who’s also a publisher), Richard Carlile, avoids being arrested, is hidden by local radicals, and skedaddles on the first coach back to London, where he gets the story into print as fast as he can. By our standards, that’s none too fast but it’s fast enough to piss off the authorities, who raid his print shop and confiscate every bit of paper they can get their hands on.

The Manchester Observer also reports on what happened and is the first to call it the Peterloo Massacre, echoing the Battle of Waterloo. 

Carlile and the Observer’s editor, James Wroe, are arrested and sent to prison, Carlile for blasphemy and seditious libel and Wroe for producing a seditious publication. 

I have no idea where blasphemy comes into it.

 

The massacre’s legacy

The Peterloo Massacre is over, and thank all the gods I don’t believe in we can shift to the past tense to talk about its impact.

The government got busy and passed six acts–known, creatively, as the Six Acts–that were designed to keep anything like Peterloo from happening again. Not the massacre part, mind you. The radicalism. The mass meeting. That pesky damn press, or as Lord Castlereagh described it, “The treasonable, blasphemous, and seditious branch of the press.” 

Which branch was that? The branch that sold papers to “the lower orders.” 

It wasn’t just the ruling class you could talk about without argument back then. The class structure was clear, identifiable, and right in your face. To challenge it was to join the ranks of the treasonable and blasphemous et ceteras. 

It was “utterly impossible for the mind of man long to withstand the torrent of criminal and seductive reasoning which was now incessantly poured out to the lower orders.” Castlereagh said. 

Newspapers were already taxed, and that mattered because the higher the price, the less likely working people were to buy them. But the more radical papers had avoided the tax by, at least officially, publishing opinion instead of news. 

A tax was now slapped on them regardless of what they published. Game over.

The penalties for publishing blasphemous and seditious material and generally making the authorities mad went up. They now included transportation, which is another name for exile. 

Four other acts were aimed at suppressing mass meetings and protesters who used weapons. That makes five acts, so we’re missing one. Let’s say it outlawed pineapple on pizza, and like so many laws that overreach, it didn’t work. We’re still plagued by the stuff.

Of the six acts, Parliament’s website considers five to have been mostly ineffective. The one that had an impact was the newspaper tax, which stayed in place until 1836, when it was reduced from 4p to 1p, before being abolished in 1861. 

Even so, for a while there every significant leader in the parliamentary reform period was jailed and reformist meetings were effectively banned, which doesn’t make the acts sound insignificant to me. 

But that doesn’t mean the game went to the anti-reform forces. Either in spite of the repression or because of it (these things are as likely to backfire as the reforms that are meant to avoid revolution), the massacre fueled the anger that led to the Reform Act of 1832, which didn’t address the deeper issues but smoothed out a few of the worst political inequities and expanded the franchise by an inch or two. 

The deeper issues were left to the people who organized the trade unions, the Labour Party, and the movement for universal suffrage. 

Women’s involvement in the Peterloo gathering was significant. They helped organize it, they marched, and they were targeted by the soldiers. Women’s political groups were starting to form. You can legitimately draw a line from Peterloo to the later struggle for women’s rights in the workplace, within marriage, and in the voting booth.

 

And finally

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy about Peterloo. The last stanza is:

   Rise like Lions after slumber

   In unvanquishable number,

   Shake your chains to earth like dew

   Which in sleep had fallen on you–

   Ye are many–they are few.

No publisher was brave enough to touch it and it didn’t come out until a decade after his death.

*

For a glimpse of today’s Tandle Hill, where marchers from Oldham and Saddleworth gathered to walk to St. Peter’s Field, see the Bloggler.

Many thanks to the assortment of people who’ve been pushing me in the direction of writing about this for some time now. The next chapter in the history of British voting rights is the Chartists, and I’ll get to that before too long. Really I will.

If you want to follow the story more or less from beginning to end–and with apologies for referring you to myself (especially when we already know I’m long winded), you can find more posts on the history of voting rights by following the links: The roots of the English parliament, The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights, Suffragists, Sufragettes, and votes for women.

The origins of England’s parliament

You can trace the origins of England’s parliament’s back as far back as the Anglo-Saxon witan if you have nothing better to do with your life. Clearly, I don’t. 

 

The Anglo-Saxon witan

The witan wasn’t an elected body, but then neither were the earliest English parliaments. It was a council of the country’s nobles and top clergy, and it advised the king on whatever topic he wanted to be advised on. It consented to the laws he proposed and did an assortment of other things that kept the wheels of government creaking onward. 

And since it was his council, he set its agenda, chose its membership, and summoned it when he wanted its help. If it sounds a bit like his collie, to an extent it was. The king whistled and it came. If he didn’t whistle, he could take action anyway. He didn’t need its approval. 

But the collie also had some power. The king needed the support of the nobles and clergy if he was going to govern. Or to stick with the image we’ve got, the collie could either round up all his sheep or miss a few, so it paid to keep it happy and working hard. 

If you’re in the mood, you can call the witan the Witenagemot, which means meeting of the wise men. 

Don’t you just love it when people offer you meaningless choices? 

Irrelevant photo: The last of the begonias, from October.

Lower down the governmental ladder, each shire held a regular meeting, the shire moot. (A moot was a meeting.) It would’ve involved the local lords, the bishops, the sheriff, and village representatives.  Think of it as a collision of a court session and an administrative meeting, because the two weren’t separate at this point. 

Lower down still, moots were also held at the town and village level, and the local freemen would’ve attended.

 

The Normans 

Then the Normans invaded and they established something very much like the witan (and not unlike a structure they were familiar with in Normandy). They called it the commune concilium–Latin for general council, because, hey, they were Normans, they spoke Normish. Or French, actually. And Latin–or enough Latin to get by. 

The concilium was made up of the king’s chief tenants–in other words, the top layer of the aristocracy. It was a smaller group than the witan, but it was a permanent one.

In case you’re in need of confusion, though, I’ll be happy to provide it, and this is as good a place as any to toss it in. The commune concilium also seems to have been called the curia regis (the king’s court), or the aula regis. Unless, of course, Lord Google and the entire damn internet are messing with me.

I asked Lord G. to translate aula for me. Court seems to be the best match, but it also means inner court, palace, courtyard, his (confusingly), and (even more confusingly) aula. So aula means aula. It’s hard to argue with that, even if it doesn’t tell us much.

Translation programs are strange beasts. But let’s stick with curia regis, since we have a reliable translation for it. To quote one of the sources I ran to in search of some elusive clarity, “It is difficult to define the curia regis with precision.” So I may be slurring together some things that aren’t exactly the same, but if I am it’s not just me who’s short on precision. Blame history. Blame the Normans. Blame Lord Google.

Hell, blame Boris Johnson. Blame Theresa May. She didn’t say aula means aula, but she did say Brexit means Brexit, which was just about as helpful.

I know. Brexit’s just about upon us. It makes it appealing to write about thousand-year-old chaos.

It seems safe to say that the concilium/curia/aula changed over time. So we’ll say that, then sneak out the door and pretend we were never here.

For the sake of more confusion, though, every so often the king would call together a larger circle, the magnum concilium, or great council, adding earls and abbots, bishops and barons to the smaller group. Also priors, but I can’t find a category that makes a neat a counterweight for them. If I said “priors and pigeons,” you’d understand that the Norman kings didn’t really seek advice from pigeons, wouldn’t you? 

The great council was called together when the king needed them to approve his decisions, especially when those decisions involved taxes, because money was  always a sore point and he’d need to get the nobles on his side if that was in any way possible.

In the time of Henry I (that’s 1100 to 1135), a smaller council began to serve, unofficially, as a committee of the larger council. It was made up of the royal household’s officials plus the king’s attendants along with all the king’s horses and all the king’s friends. Its authority was as vaguely defined as the king’s, but it took on some financial responsibilities and gradually grew into the court of exchequer. We’ll skip the Latin for that if it’s okay with you.

Its members were called justices, and when the king wasn’t around, the chief justiciar presided over the court. 

However vaguely defined, this was turning into a powerful body.

 

The non-Normans

Now let’s leave the Normans behind and skip to Henry II, who was a Plantagenet. In 1178, he took five members of the curia, stirred vigorously, sprinkled dried fruit over the top, and turned them into a special court of justice. Unlike the rest of the curia, they stayed in one place instead of traipsing around the country after him. 

Kings (in case you didn’t know this–and if you did, surely someone out there didn’t) traveled a lot of the time, which allowed them to saddle their nobles with the cost of feeding and entertaining their huge and kingly households. It also kept them in touch with their kingdoms at a time when the internet was down.

Other bits and pieces of the original council spun off at different times until the country had the court of king’s bench, the chancery, and the king’s secret council (which eventually became the privy council).

The larger and smaller versions of the curia became clearly separate bodies, and the larger one was first called a parliament in 1236. Parliament’s website (which has some odd and interesting corners) considers the great council the forerunner of the House of Lords.

In 1254, the king (by now we’re up to Henry III) added representatives of the counties to Parliament. You can call them knights of the shire if you like. One site I found does, and it gives you a sense of the layer of society the representatives were drawn from. 

Do you have any idea how hard it is not to type “knights of the shirt”? 

The next addition came in 1265 (it’s still Henry III who’s plonked on the throne): Representatives of the boroughs (called town burgesses) were poured into the mix.

What was a borough? A town with a charter from the king. The charter allowed it to govern itself and go to the candy store without supervision–sometimes without even asking permission. 

Okay, like most things, the charters varied, but that’ll get us close enough.

And what’s a burgess? An inhabitant of a town who had full citizenship rights. You’ll notice, if you peer into the cracks of that definition, that not everyone who lived in a town did have citizenship rights, and that those who did were citizens of the town, not the country. It would make an interesting post.

As usual, Henry needed the burgesses to consent to taxation. 

That was always the king’s weakness. Not just Henry’s. Any king’s. Kings needed money, especially if they wanted to fight a way, and to get it they needed–well, I was tempted to say the consent of the governed, but at this point we’re still talking about the consent, or at least semblance of cooperation, of a very thin but powerful layer of people just below the king. The rest of the governed had to either put up with things or rebel. In between those two choices, they didn’t have a lot of space to maneuver.

 

Voting comes into the picture

From 1290 onward, representatives of the counties were summoned to parliament regularly, and a bit later on borough representatives were as well. Each county and borough generally sent two members. And at this point, I suppose I have to break down and capitalize that: two Members, as in Members of Parliament.

In 1295, voting comes into clear focus with the Model Parliament summoned by Edward I. It included two knights from each country, two burgesses from (almost) each borough, and two citizens from each city–all of them elected instead of nominated. 

Why “(almost) each borough”? 

A House of Commons research paper says, “There was no single definition of or agreement on what constituted a borough in this period. The issuing of a writ was a royal prerogative and those boroughs that became Parliamentary boroughs were usually the county town of each ancient county and a number of other important boroughs. The actual number of Parliamentary boroughs in early Parliaments fluctuated.”

Did you follow that? 

Don’t worry about it.

So who got to vote?

Not everybody. In fact, not a whole lot of people. But, like most elements in this tale, it was hazy.

Everywhere, only men could vote, but that was by custom, not by law. This is a country with an unwritten constitution, remember, so that sort of haziness feels like home and family. In practice, women who met the qualifications sometimes transferred their right to vote to a male, who’d vote for them. 

In the counties, voters were people with a property freehold worth 40 shillings, and that wasn’t restricted to land. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s enough to know that if you didn’t have a fair chunk of property, you didn’t vote.

In the boroughs, though, it varied from one to the next but usually depended on residence, on owning property, on being a freeman, or on some combination of those. In some it was restricted to members of the corporation running the borough. Again, if the details are slipping through your fingers, don’t worry about it. Same as above: The vote was restricted by wealth and status.

Oxford and Cambridge universities each sent two Members to Parliament, and they were elected by the senates of each university. 

What about the other universities? 

Trick question. They didn’t exist yet.

In 1341 (Edward III’s on the throne by now), the Commons (knights, burgesses, and citizens) and the Lords (barons and clergy) began to meet separately. 

 

More about the vote

Who got to vote was one issue, but it wasn’t the only one. The king’s writ required sheriffs to hold free elections for county representatives, but sheriffs sometimes skipped the election part and declared themselves the winners.

It’s a system I’m sure some modern politicians would envy.

In 1406, a statute specified that county elections had to be held in full view of the participants. My largely useless high school classes taught me that the secret ballot was the standard by which you could measure a fair election. Ha. At this stage, having people cast their vote in public was an attempt to prevent corruption. If you held the election in public, everyone would at least know it happened.

Elections could be raucous, with feuds and factions, and in 1429, the Commons petitioned the king to restrict the vote further, saying elections involved “too great and excessive number of people . . . of whom the greater part are by people of little or no means” and that these people “pretend[ed] to have an equivalent voice . . . as the most worthy knights or esquires dwelling in the same counties.” 

In response, in 1430 leaseholders lost the right to vote, no matter how much the land they leased was worth. The franchise was now limited to what one paper calls “40 shilling resident freeholders,” and I’m quoting because if I mess around with the wording so that it sounds more accessible I’m afraid I’ll change the meaning. What they’re saying, I think, is that you had to own the property, not just rent it.

This was the first time the rules for who could vote in the counties was formalized, and they stayed fixed–more or less–until the Reform Act of 1832. For a bit about the Reform Act, allow me to refer you to that noted non-historian, me. If you follow the link, it’s toward the end of the post.

Under Oliver Cromwell (he was Lord Protector–which is to kingship as margarine is to butter–from 1653 to 1658, and for the time he was in power you can add a few years to allow for a Civil War and assorted chaos if you like)–

Can we start that over? Under Cromwell, they tinkered with the rules on who could vote, but the changes were reversed when he died and the monarchy was restored, so we’ll skip them.

In the seventeenth century, someone came up with a nifty way to game the system. They subdivided large landholdings into smaller ones worth 40 shillings each, creating groups of people who’d vote the way the primary landowners wanted them to. The smaller landowners were called faggot votes. 

No, I’m not sure either. It’s a word with an odd history, and in modern Britain it doesn’t have anything to do with insulting a gay man. A faggot’s a sausage. And no again: As far as I know any relationship is purely accidental.

At the end of the seventeenth century, Church of England clergymen got the vote. 

In 1831, just before the Reform Act of 1832, an estimated 1.35% of the English population could vote, although the percentage would have varied from county to county. In Herefordshire, it was an estimated 3.6%, but in Middlesex it was 0.22%.

And with that in place, next week we go to another post about the history of British voting rights, the Peterloo Massacre. I’ve been threatening to write about it for a while, and it’s now in the queue. Sorry this one ran so long, and if you got this far, thanks for your patience.

The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights

The history of British democracy (or semi-democracy, as you’ll see) is long and convoluted, so let’s hack off a small piece to talk about here: the rotten borough. This was an electoral district that had lost most of its population but still sent an MP–that’s a Member of Parliament–to the House of Commons. Or sometimes more than one MP. 

Just before the picture changed with the Reform Act of 1832, 140 MPs represented (if that’s the right word) rotten boroughs. That’s 140 out of 658 Members of Parliament. Fifty of those boroughs had fewer than fifty voters. 

Meanwhile, major industrial cities like Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester had no MPs at all.  What was a rotten borough like? Gatton, in Surry, had twenty voters when the monarchy was restored (that was in 1660, and yes, I had to look it up) and a hundred years later it was down to two. Old Sarum had one farm house, some fields, and a lot of sheep. Both sent MPs to parliament. The former port of Dunwich had crumbled into the sea and only 32 people were left above the water line. It didn’t just send one MP to parliament but two.

Irrelevant photo: A murmuration of starlings (along with some sheep) on Bodmin Moor. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

So who got to vote?

You might want to notice that those examples don’t use parallel categories. For Dunwich, we have the number of residents. For Gatton, though, we have the number of voters. For Old Sarum, we have the number of houses and a vague gesture in the direction of the sheep. What’s worse, I haven’t necessarily given you dates. 

But to hell with it, it gives you enough to work with–as much (if your mind’s at all like mine) as you’ll remember anyway.  

The shifting categories point to a central issue, though: Not many people could vote, so residents form a very different category from voters. Women? Don’t be silly. Who’d trust ‘em with anything as serious as the vote. Men? Well, only the ones who mattered, which is another of saying men of property. How much property varied from place to place, but the requirements everywhere involved (a) being male and (b) owning property.

During the Civil War (that’s from 1642 to 1651), when the Levellers, serving as soldiers in the Parliamentary Army, argued for (nearly) universal male suffrage, their officers defended limiting the vote on the grounds that only people who had a stake in society could be trusted to take part in politics. And by having a stake, they meant owning some part of it.

The Levellers were naive enough to think that risking their lives for a new form of government might prove they had a stake in their country’s political future. They were wrong, and it was centuries before their demands were met. The conviction that owning property qualified a man to vote dominated political thought until the next paragraph, where suddenly it’s 1780.

 

It’s 1780 and we shift to the present tense

Look! It’s 1780. What a surprise. In England and Wales, about 214,000 people have the right to vote. That’s less than 3% of the total population. In Scotland the electorate’s even smaller. 

Now that we’ve pegged those numbers into the ground we can leave 1780 and toss a second element into the discussion of voting: It’s not done by secret ballot. That makes it easy for an ambitious politician–or a would-be politician–to buy votes. Because the electorate’s small, he doesn’t have to buy that many and because voting is public he can see whether the people whose votes he bought are honest enough to stay bought.

In some constituencies, however, this won’t work. Not because the electorate’s above that sort of thing but because whoever holds the power locally controls the process, selecting the MP and tells his people to vote for him. Get his approval and you’re as good as elected. Don’t get it and your chances are thin.

Did you notice how gracefully we slid into the present tense there? It’s going to get in the way eventually, though, so we’ll slip back into the past tense, where we belong. 

I know. When I write anything sane, I comb through and straighten out that sort of thing. Blogs make no commitment to sanity, however, and I enjoy the freedom to screw up so openly.

Buying off the electorate was done as openly as I just shifted tenses. You can even find a few statistics on who spent how much in what year buying which constituency. Approaching a powerful lord if you wanted a seat in parliament was done just as openly. That was democracy in action.

 

That pesky middle class

Pressure to change the system was growing, though. The middle class was getting larger and richer. 

And here I have to interrupt myself: I just hate it when I have to talk about the middle class. It means I have to define it, and it’s a baggy old piece of clothing. It’s easy enough to say that the middle class was made up of people who weren’t poor but weren’t aristocrats, but that’s a hell of a range and tells you less than it seems to. It includes everyone from the most marginal professional or shopkeeper to the richest industrialist. Not only did their incomes range all over the place, so did their interests.

We could probably pick that definition to pieces but I’m going to move on before we get a chance.

A middle class person who was rich enough could vote, but because of the way constituencies were drawn that didn’t mean they’d be in a position to influence an MP. The richest members of the middle class wanted political power that would match their economic power. 

At this point, a couple of little things happened, like the French and American revolutions, and they spoke to people lower down on the economic food chain. Things that had once looked unchangeable had been shaken to pieces. By the end of the eighteenth century, corresponding societies that pushed for universal manhood suffrage had come into existence.

 

Reform vs. revolution

In 1819, a public meeting calling for universal manhood suffrage was attacked and eleven people were killed. It’s known as the Peterloo Massacre. I keep promising to write about it and eventually I will. For the moment, take it as a visible sign that the demand for change was flowing outside the established political channels.

People in power gradually began to acknowledge the need for reform, and the rotten boroughs were high on the list of changes that needed to be made. But that was some people in power, not all of them.

By way of an example, take Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and in 1830 the Tory prime minister. In an 1831 letter, he defended the rotten borough system, writing, “I confess that I see in thirty members for rotten boroughs, thirty men, I don’t care of what party, who would preserve the state of property as it is; who would maintain by their votes the Church of England, its possessions, its churches and universities. I don’t think that we could spare thirty or forty of these representatives, or with advantage exchange them for thirty or forty members elected for the great towns by any new system.”

That does have the virtue of honesty.

But in 1830 the Tories lost power and a Whig government, headed by Earl Grey, supported reform, which it counted on “to prevent the necessity of revolution.” Toward that end, the House of Commons passed a reform bill in 1831 but it was defeated in Tory-dominated Hour of Lords. 

In response, all hell broke loose, taking the form of riots and “serious disturbances.” You know what serious disturbances are. They’re sub-riots. They’re earnest young riots-in-training. They broke out in London, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol, and other places that we’ll skip over. In Bristol, people set fire to public buildings and houses, doing more than £300,000 worth of damage, which was a hell of a lot more money then than it is now. Twelve people died, 102 were arrested, and 31 sentenced to death.

France had just had another revolution–the 1830 one, which tossed out a Charles and installed a Louis-Philippe. It was enough to make a British king nervous, and William IV agreed to pack the House of Lords with some Whigs so that when another Reform Bill passed the Commons, it could go on to pass the Lords, becoming the Reform Act of 1832. 

As far as I understand British politics, packing the House of Commons is a no-no, or at least getting caught at it is. Packing the House of Lords, though? That’s business as usual.

 

The Reform Act

Fifty-six rotten boroughs disappeared in the Reform Act of 1832 and sixty-seven new constituencies were created, although constituencies still weren’t of remotely even sizes. 

In the countryside the franchise was extended to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers. In towns, men who paid a yearly rent of £10 or more could vote, along with some lodgers, even if they didn’t own the property. If they could afford to rent someplace expensive enough, they could be trusted to vote responsibly.

That left out working class men. In fact, it left out six men out of every seven. 

And for the first time, women were specifically excluded from the franchise. Before that, women’s exclusion was a matter of custom, not law, and in a few rare instances women had voted.

Yeah, progress. It’s a wonderful thing. 

Suffragists, sufragettes, and votes for women

English women’s fight for the right to vote began in the nineteenth century, and it started out politely enough. Bills were introduced in Parliament. Bills were defeated in Parliament. 

What could be more polite than that?

In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies gathered local groups into a national organization and by 1914 it had 54,000 members. Most of them were respectable and middle class, and it’s not too much of a leap to assume that the campaign made a huge difference in individual women’s lives and in how they saw their role in the world. We can make a wild guess and say that many a couple argued about it over their respectable breakfast tables. Or didn’t argue and just let the tension build. 

They also made the issue part of the national conversation.

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker. Not, obviously, a real one. A flower.

The organization was efficient and nonviolent and the members were, for the most part, dedicated. And you know what? Women kept on not getting the vote. 

Their work played out against a complicated background involving political parties and a lot of wrestling over not just whether women should vote but which men should. So as usual, we need a bit of background: 

From as early as the 1830s, the Chartists, a working-class movement, had been pushing to open the vote up to all men. They presented petitions to Parliament: 1.25 million names on the first one, 3 million on the second, and nobody I checked with says how many on the third. In response, Parliament blew a raspberry and ignored them.

Before the First Reform Bill (that was in 1832) only 3% of adult males could vote. Your right to vote (or not vote) depended on how much you earned and what your property was worth.

After the bill, the vote was broadened but not to all men. Shopkeepers, tenant farmers, and small landowners got the vote. That’s in the counties. In the boroughs, householders who paid at least £10 a year in rent could vote and so could (gasp) some lodgers. 

What’s the difference between counties and boroughs? Beats me, but that comes from Parliament’s own website, so it must be right. It’s probably about the difference between cities and the countryside, but don’t take my word on that. I’m a stranger here myself. The point is that more people could vote, but only a safely respectable kind of more. And since women had come into the conversation they were, for the first time, specifically excluded. 

Isn’t progress a wonderful thing?

The Second Reform Act in 1867 did more of the same, doubling the number of men who could vote in England and Wales from 1 million to 2 million.

Leave Ireland and Scotland out of it, will you? This is complicated enough already.

By 1885, 8 million people out of a population of 45 million could vote–two-thirds of adult men. (Any numbers that don’t add up here can be blamed on women and children being left out of the accounting.)

So when women started pushing for the vote, the first question that popped its divisive little head up like a jack-in-the-box was, Which women? If all women had the vote, then presumably all men should as well. Or should only women who could meet the same property qualifications as men vote? Or how about unmarried women who met the qualifications, since married women were–or so the argument went–represented by their husbands. Or should it be only married women, since unmarried women were at best faintly embarrassing.

Or only women with those huge, amazing hats.

And this is where party politics came into it, because different choices were to the advantage of different parties. 

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, the women’s suffrage movement  was pulled between the women who wanted a single focus for the organization–votes for women–and those who wanted to address other issues too, because wasn’t the purpose of voting to have an impact on issues?

As women’s suffrage gained momentum, the Conservative Party could see the value of having propertied women vote: Well, of course they’d vote Conservative. And you could see why both non-propertied women and working-class (and presumably non-Conservative) men might oppose that. If the country allows only a small group of campaigners into the hall and they go in, closing the door on the rest of them, the people left outside might well ask themselves why they’d bothered supporting the ones who went in and didn’t return that support.

In 1893, the Independent Labour Party was formed–the forerunner of today’s Labour Party. Its goal was to represent the interests of the working class–a tough job at a time when large parts of the working class were still disenfranchised. 

In those conflicting currents, the suffragists bobbed around, lobbying politicians and campaigning for candidates who supported women’s suffrage, getting their hopes raised and crushed with each new bill. But the question of whether women should vote was, increasingly, an issue that couldn’t be ignored. Even people who made fun of it couldn’t ignore it. The Liberal and Conservative parties formed party women’s groups. They weren’t where the power lay, but they involved women in the machinery.

In 1894, women who met the same qualifications as men gained the right to vote in local elections.

In 1897, a women’s suffrage bill that had looked promising was defeated. You probably know what follows when a movement with a lot of momentum runs into a wall. Either it collapses or it explodes.

It exploded. The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903. The names you might recognize here are Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela. The group appealed to working-class women, not just respectable ones, and they were called suffragettes by a hostile press. The name was meant as an insult but the group adopted it. Why not? The words Tory and Whig had originally been insults, and both groups ended by embracing them.

In 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney got themselves arrested when they interrupted a political speech and unfurled a Votes for Women banner. And when I say “got themselves arrested,” I mean that Christabel had to work at it. The police threw them out of the hall and were going to let it go at that until Christabel spat in a police superintendent’s face and hit an inspector in the mouth. 

That did the trick: They both got arrested, they refused to pay a fine, and they were jailed, one for three days and one for seven. 

When they came out, they were met by a thousand supporters and the press, which got them national publicity. 

By 1909 the WSPU was a national organization, selling 20,000 copies of its paper every week, and it had a genius for attention-grabbing actions. Members disrupted political speeches and by-elections. They tried to rush the House of Commons. They broke windows, blew up pillar boxes (which in other versions of the English language would be called mailboxes), attacked paintings in galleries, and bought gun licenses not so they could use guns but to scare the authorities into thinking they might.

They also chained themselves to railings, getting the grill that sectioned off the House of Commons Ladies Gallery removed by chaining themselves to it.

They took advantage of a Post Office service that allowed postmasters to “arrange for the conduct of a person to an address by an Express Messenger,” posting two women to the prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, so they could talk with him.

The delivery was refused. 

The sad part was that social media hadn’t been invented. 

It was the eye-catching actions that gave them their reputation, but most of what they did was legal and even peaceful. They drove (at the time that involved horses) around town with placards on carriages. They carried placards themselves, on foot. At a time when women were supposed to be quiet, passive, deferential, and to the best of their ability and training to imitate doormats, this was shocking enough, but they also addressed crowds in theaters and restaurants–crowds who hadn’t come to hear them and were often hostile. They threw leaflets from theater balconies. Many of them were roughed up by crowds of men or by the police. 

In 1913, Emily Davison tried to stop a horse race and was hit by the king’s horse. She died of her injuries a few days later.

In a lot of these actions, women were arrested, and when they were released they were greeted by supporters, who sometimes pulled them through the streets in open carriages, increasing the visibility of their actions. And in prison, many of them went on hunger strikes and were force fed–a brutal and very painful process. 

In The English Rebel, David Horspool asks whether their militancy delivered or delayed votes for women and answers that it probably did both. If you have trouble working that out, go argue with him. I’m not sure both are possible at the same time, but I can see his point anyway. The same argument goes on, although the parallels aren’t exact, when Black Lives Matter demonstrations spill over into rioting or looting. Does it help or does it hurt? It depends on where you do your counting and how. In the case of the suffragettes, even a century later historians can still argue over it.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, it won’t be a simple one.

In 1910, a bill that would have given unmarried women the vote failed. The Liberals thought it might harm their interests. The Conservatives weren’t strongly enough in favor. Militancy had been winding down, but the bill’s defeat wound it up a notch. Asquith’s car was attacked. 

Somewhere in here, the Suffragists’ leadership–and the Pankhurst family–split over tactics. Should they work with men? How violent should their actions be? Should any bill introduced expand the vote for both men and women or should it only be for women?

I’ve been around political activism long enough for this all to sound familiar. If you get deep enough into politics, it can get very crazy very easily, but the alternative is–or at least seems to be–what someone I once knew called crackpot realism, where you dial your goals down to fit what looks possible, accomplishing somewhere between less than you wanted and nothing at all. 

And there things stood when everything was interrupted by World War I. Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the European powers all dug trenches and shot at each other, and 20 million soldiers and civilians died. Another 21 million were wounded. 

That was the war to end all wars. 

Yeah, they really did say it would.

The more radical branch of the Suffragettes (that was Emmeline and Christabel’s) suspended their activities, partly, according to Horspool, because Emmeline and Christabel were exhausted but also because they were realistic about how much political oomph women’s suffrage could have in the circumstances. And they did something I find more interesting: They moved to the political right. They suspended the campaign for the vote, backed the war, changed their paper’s name from The Suffragette to Britannia, and diverted the organization’s funds to the war effort, but many suffragettes were pacifists and the organization broke up for good. 

Their support for the war, according to Horspool, consisted of making speeches and editorializing in the direction of industrial workers, who were probably looking for their news and editorials elsewhere.

 Sylvia’s branch of the Suffragettes had become the East London Federation. Its membership was working class and it aligned itself with the Labour Party, campaigning for both workers’ and women’s rights. And–since changing newspaper names was in style–it changed the Woman’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought.

In 1916, the government faced the prospect of an election in which most servicemen wouldn’t be able to vote because of a residency requirement. 

Crisis. Conference. 

The moderates (remember the suffragists, working politely away in the background?) made a pitch for women’s suffrage. The former radicals (remember half the Pankhursts?) withdrew their support for women’s suffrage in case if ended up disenfranchising servicemen.

Aren’t humans strange?

A compromise bill passed in 1918. It gave the vote to women over 30 who were qualified to vote in local elections or whose husbands were qualified. That was about 8 million women. And there it sat for the next ten years, when the voting age was dropped to 21 and all other restrictions were lifted–in other words, women voted on the same terms as men.

Christabel ran for Parliament as a Women’s Party candidate and lost. Later she became a born-again Christian and lectured in California. Emmeline moved to Canada for a while and lectured on social hygiene until the winters drove her out.

I know just how she felt–minus the social hygiene part.

What is social hygiene? “The practice of measures designed to protect and improve the family as a social institution; specifically: the practice of measures aiming at the elimination of venereal disease and prostitution.” 

Bet you didn’t see that coming. 

Quinine, malaria, and empire

Quinine reached Britain (not to mention the rest of Europe) by way of Jesuit missionaries in South America. Browse around the internet and you’ll read that quinine is the dried, powdered bark of a tree that grows in the Andes and that it was discovered in the seventeenth century: The Jesuits, you’ll read, may or may not have used it to treat a Spanish countess’s malaria. Or the countess may or may not have discovered its uses herself. She may or may not have brought it back to Europe with her. 

Had the bark’s uses been discovered long before that by the people who were known as Indians thanks to Columbus having put too much trust in a glitchy SatNav (or GPS, since he was headed for the Americas)? 

Um, yes, according to biologist Nataly Canales. She says the bark was known to the Quechua, Cañari, and Chimú peoples long before any countesses or missionaries barged onto the stage.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

Once it got to Europe the bark was added to a liquid–usually wine–and drunk as a treatment for malaria.

Now let’s put quinine on the shelf and talk about malaria for a few paragraphs.

I don’t know about you, but the random reading I did when I was younger (and I spent a shocking amount of my life being younger) left me with the impression that at least the British and probably Europeans in general were exposed to malaria as a result of empire. In other words, I assumed they caught it when they left their nice, safe home climates and broke into other people’s (warmer, mosquito-prone) countries, taking them over.

Not so. Malaria in Europe predates predates the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, and while we’re at it, the Roman Empire. It was around in the ancient Mediterranean and it was also around in marshy, fenny parts of England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, and in London itself for at least for part of that time.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, it went into decline in England. Lots of causes have been proposed, from swamps being drained to an increase in the number of domestic cattle, which meant mosquitoes could bite creatures that weren’t able to swat them. Any combination of those reasons is possible. I found a perfectly respectable article that told me no one’s sorted the reasons into piles yet or measured which one is larger. 

Was malaria present in England before the fifteenth century? Probably. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” Chaucer writes about tertian fever–a recurring fever that was probably malaria. That takes us back to the fourteenth century and we won’t chase it any further back than that or we’ll never get out of here.

Malaria was also called ague or intermittent fever, and ague appeared in any number of the crumbly old novels I read when I spent all that time being younger. I had no idea what ague meant, I just accepted it as some vague kind of sickness and went on as if I understood more than, in fact, I did.

Those characters had malaria. And although some caught it by breaking and entering in other people’s countries, some caught it right there at home.

In fact, Europeans may have exported the disease to the Americas. That’s not certain, but a second strain of malaria was definitely imported with the slaves Europeans dragged over from Africa.

The long-standing European belief was that malaria came from bad airmal’aria–and that made a kind of sense. Folks had noticed that it was associated with stagnant water, vapors, swampy places. They were missing a piece of the puzzle, but as far as it went, it was good observation.

By the seventeenth century, the English were treating malaria with the latest wonder drug, opium, which both doctors and patients agreed cured pretty much everything: pain, fever, financial embarrassment, although it only cured that last problem if you were selling the stuff, not if you were taking it or buying it.

Opium was also used as an antidote to poison. Like I said, it cured everything.

Then along came quinine and–well, there was a problem. It came from the hands of Jesuits–in fact, it was called the Jesuit powder–and England wasn’t just Protestant, it was aggressively Protestant. Puritan-flavored, Cromwellian Protestant. And Cromwellian Protestants didn’t want a Catholic-flavored drug, even if it would cure a serious problem. 

Cromwell himself is thought to have died of malaria and he might (it’s not certain) have refused to take any of that dread Jesuit powder. Andrew Marvell (another staunch Puritan and a poet; nothing to do with the comic books) also had malaria and might have died from an accidental overdose of opium that he might have taken for it instead of quinine. 

Sorry–lots of mights in there. History’s full of things we don’t know for sure, and one of them is whether anyone dangled Jesuit-inflected quinine in front of them. (“Here, kid, the first one’s free.”) The consensus, though, is that Cromwell, at least, refused it. In a definitely very probably likely kind of way.

Opium wasn’t the only treatment for malaria. I’m not sure when Europeans gave this one up as a lost cause, but at some point the remedies they tried included throwing the patient head-first into a bush. The idea was the patient should get out quickly and leave the fever behind.

Britain’s full of thorny bushes, and I know that because I’ve met every one of them personally, so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the British gave this remedy up early.

Eventually, England settled down enough to realize that taking quinine for malaria didn’t necessarily turn you into a (gasp) Catholic (and didn’t leave you full of thorns) and it accepted the drug.

All of this mattered because malaria was and is, to varying extents, debilitating. The extent depended on the strain. Some strains killed people and others didn’t. Britain’s version was on the milder end of the spectrum, but many strains were capable of leaving individuals, whole regions, and armies debilitated. Some historians tag malaria in the fall of the Roman Empire. It wanders into discussions of the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, and assorted other historical turning points. The European colonization of Africa was slowed by malaria. Europeans had no immunity to it, while some (although not all) Africans did. If you inherit two copies of a particular genetic mutation, you have sickle cell anemia, but if you inherit only one it protects you against malaria. 

By the nineteenth century, Europe was in the process of eradicating malaria, so the Britons who went abroad to build and serve the empire (not to mention to build their own fortunes and serve themselves) were moving from a relatively low risk of the disease to a higher one. Which explains my impression that malaria was something they got in the hot countries where they practiced breaking and entering. 

In India, the British Empire ran on quinine. In the nineteenth century the active ingredients was isolated and purified, and Britons in the Indian colony mixed it with sugar and soda water, called it tonic, and took a dose of it daily as a preventive. 

In 1858 it was first made commercially, and from the colonies it eventually took over the home market.

At about this same time, gin was overcoming its reputation for dragging people into sin and degradation. It became respectable enough for British colonial officials to pour a bit into their tonic water. Or possibly a bit more than a bit.

For medicinal purposes only, you understand.

In 1880, the malaria bug was finally identified. It was a nearly transparent, crescent-shaped beastie. Then, as the world was falling off the edge of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the anopheles mosquito was identified as its carrier.

Quinine remained the treatment of choice, as it had been for four hundred years, but the stuff had–and has–side effects that range from mild headache, nausea, and hearing problems to severe vertigo, vomiting, marked hearing loss, loss of vision, hypertension, and thrombosis, asthma, and psychosis.

Its use is not recommended if you take a long list of drugs that you can’t pronounce anyway.

All of which explains why other drugs are often used for malaria these days and why so many websites tell you not to use it to treat leg cramps–although a few swallows of tonic water won’t leave you psychotic and vomiting by the side of the road. 

Annie Besant does Cristianity, secularism, socialism, and Theosophy

Annie Besant was, in more or less this order, an intensely religious child, a minister’s wife, a campaigning secularist, a brilliant public speaker, a writer, a socialist, a champion of everything from trade unions to birth control to feminism, a Theosophist, a Briton in colonial India, and a campaigner for Indian home rule. She adopted (sort of) an Indian son who she promoted as a new messiah and the incarnation of Buddha.

Along the way, she won exactly zero awards for consistency, so maybe we’ll want to slow that down a bit.

Irrelevant photo: a day lily.

She was born in 1847 (her birth name was Annie Wood) and she got, for a woman of her time, a good education. She married a clergyman, Frank Besant, who’s described by the only article I found that bothered to describe him at all as stiff-necked and charmless. He’s basically a prelude to her story and most articles drop his name in and move on. She married him because he proposed and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She wouldn’t be the first woman who married someone because she couldn’t think of anything else to do that afternoon. We can inch out on a thin limb and say that the relationship didn’t get off to a good start.  

They had two kids, and both were difficult births. When she suggested doing the limited things that were possible then to keep from having a third, he beat her. Which was perfectly acceptable at the time, at least to the world at large if not to her. Whether that was the first time I don’t know, but it wasn’t the only one.

At some point, she began to question her religious beliefs and in 1872 she heard  Charles Voysey preach. He was a dissenter who challenged the authority of the Bible and the perfection of Jesus. Through him, she met Thomas Scott, whose beliefs were even more radical and who encouraged her to write a pamphlet on what she believed, which he then published as On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth: An Inquiry into the Nature of Jesus.

All hell broke loose at home and Frank presented her with two choices: Take communion publicly and regularly at his church or leave home.

She chose, as she put it, expulsion over hypocrisy. 

She moved to London with one of their kids, a girl, and continued to write pamphlets for Scott. Frank stayed in Wherever with their other child, a boy. 

In the 1870s, Besant joined the National Secular Society, and here we need to stop and make sense of why secularism was a thing:

The Church of England, as the established church, had the power of the state behind it. It didn’t rule as many aspects of life as it once had, but it still ruled plenty of them. Divorce had only been taken away from church courts in 1857. Paying church rates–basically a tax you owed to the church–had been made voluntary in 1868. It wasn’t until 1871 that religion stopped being a requirement for university admittance. A non-believer still couldn’t be an MP unless he–and he had to be a he at this point–was willing to put his beliefs in his back pocket and swear a religious oath. In 1888, atheists and people whose religions didn’t allow them to take oaths were first allowed to solemnly affirm instead of swearing a religious oath. But church doctrine still influenced a wide assortment of laws, including one forbidding cremation, which didn’t become legal until 1902. And, of course, it influenced people’s thoughts and assumptions. Didn’t the Bible say the man was the head of the household? Didn’t it give him permission to beat his wife? 

All this meant that being a campaigning secularist wasn’t just for those pains-in-the-ass who couldn’t pass up the chance for a philosophical fight over dinner. It was for people who wanted to change society. Until you uncoupled religion from law and everyday life, any change you proposed could be challenged on religious grounds. Cremation? Birth control? Women’s right to own property and keep their own wages? It wasn’t enough that a change was harmless or life saving or entirely sugar free. If you could throw it out on religious grounds, it wasn’t valid. 

Being a campaigning secularist was also for people who couldn’t make themselves pretend to hold beliefs that didn’t come in their size or style. And it was for scientists, who couldn’t use the Bible was the one and only authority. They had to explore the world on its own terms. This was an intellectually fertile time, and secularism was a necessary ingredient.

Besant began to write for the Secular Society’s paper and to speak in public, and forget what she had to say, a woman speaking in public was in itself shocking. She was by all accounts a brilliant speaker, and it didn’t hurt that she was small and pretty. Yeah, you can speak as a feminist and call for equality, but a certain number of people will go right on judging you by the old standards. 

What number? Something along the lines of 99.7% back then. In today’s enlightened world, we’ve gotten it down to 99.4%. 

You could argue that she was using the patriarchy’s weapons against it: You think I look like a woman should look? Good. Now listen while I set your brain on fire.  

Of course, you can make an argument for just about anything. I haven’t a clue what her attitude toward her looks was, but they didn’t give her a free pass in any case. Beatrice Webb–who broke a few taboos herself–said that to “see her speaking made me shudder, it is not womanly to thrust yourself before the world.”

Besant quickly became a key figure in the Secular Society, denouncing religion as a force that kept women down and writing on the contentious issue of birth control. One of her arguments in its defense was, “We think it more moral to prevent the conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air, and clothing. . . . The wage which would support the parents and two or three children in comfort and decency is utterly insufficient to maintain a family of twelve or fourteen, and we consider it a crime to bring into the world human beings doomed to misery or to premature death.”

After she had a hand in publishing a pamphlet on birth control, her husband went to court, challenging her right to have custody of their daughter, and won. 

In 1887, she joined the Fabian Society, a socialist group, where again she quickly became a powerful force, co-founding a weekly newspaper, the Link. At a Fabian Society event, she learned about the working conditions of the women who made Bryant & May matches. They worked fourteen hour days, faced fines that could cost them as much as half a day’s pay (and their pay was already miserable), and worked with phosphorus, which caused bone cancer and killed them by horrible stages. Sweden and the U.S. had banned its use, but the British–holding out, nobly, for free trade–declined to.

I do so admire politicians with principles.

Besant wrote about their conditions in the Link, and the company demanded that workers sign a statement saying they were happy with their working conditions. When one group refused, they were fired and 1,400 women went out on strike. The Link campaigned in their support, calling their conditions white slavery.

Have you ever noticed how white slavery shocks polite (and, yea, even impolite) society in an entirely different way than black slavery? That can even be true of people who you’d expect to know better. But let’s acknowledge Besant’s limits and remember that she was a person of her time and place. Being an idiot in one way (or several ways, come to think of it) doesn’t take away the wisdom she showed in others.

Crucially, the Link also raised money to support the strikers.

After three weeks, the company agreed to end the system of fines and met several of the strikers’ other demands. The women went back to work, forming the Union of Women Match Makers and electing Besant as its first secretary. The union soon opened to men as well and continued until 1903, inspiring the unions to organize the lowest paid workers, not just skilled craftsmen.

In 1889, Besant was elected to the Tower Hamlets school board with 15,000 votes more than the next highest candidate. She initiated reforms that included free meals for undernourished students and free medical exams for all students.

In the 1890s, atheism be damned, she started to be influenced by Theosophy, a religious movement based on the Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation, and again became prominent, serving as its international president from 1907 until her death in 1933.

She moved to India and from 1913 on she became active in the struggle for independence, running a campaigning newspaper, New India, and starting the Home Rule League and the Women’s Indian Association. She drew back from Gandhi’s passive resistance campaign, though–he was  breaking the law and she couldn’t go that far–and her popularity waned.

And here we drop into the seedier side of her life

A Theosophist, C.W. Leadbeater, spotted two young boys in Chennai and announced that one of them had an aura that would make him the World Teacher–the person who would bring enlightenment to the world–and he convinced Besant to take the boys in. She eventually gained custody from their father. (Yes, they had a father. She didn’t rescue them off the streets.)

It ‘s not irrelevant that the Theosophical Society had expelled Leadbeater over a sexual scandal involving adolescent boys and had only just reinstated him. More than that I can’t tell you. People didn’t talk about those things then. 

Yeah, I think so too, but we don’t actually know.

Whatever did or didn’t happen behind the scenes, the Theosophists raised one of the boys, Jiddu Krishnamurti, to be the World Teacher, and the money rolled in. And Hindu-influenced as Theosophy may have been and supportive of home rule as Besant may have been, they raised the boys to dress and behave in the European style. 

Krishnamurti and his brother, NItya, remained close to each other. They both studied law in England, where Nitya passed with honors and Jiddu didn’t pass at all. Nitya died of tuberculosis in 1925.

In some of his early talks, Krishnamurti claimed to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, in others, the vehicle for the messiah, and in others still the messiah himself. But in 1929 he broke with Besant, the Theosophical Society, and the idea of being a World Leader. He returned the gifts he had control over to the people who’d given them. There’d been plenty of them, but the Society had control of the majority. 

He did become a teacher as well as a writer and lecturer and he promoted, among other things, the need for spiritual freedom, including freedom from teachers–something he knew a bit about.

Besant went on to promote Rukmini Arundale, a dancer and the daughter of a Theosophist, who took a style of traditional dance, bharata natyam, that was practiced by lower-class temple servants whose role included prostitution, and turned it into something to perform on stage, making it a respectable form for upper-class women.

Whether that satisfied Besant I can’t tell you. One article about Kristnamurti and Besant says she died heartbroken. Others just say she died. 

We all do, sooner or later.

*

My thanks to Bee Halton, of The Bee Writes, for bringing Besant to my attention. 

The Bristol bus boycott

Back in the bad old days, when the U.S. was unashamedly racist (gee, just think of the changes time has wrought), when the southern states weren’t just segregated but vibrating with the possibility of lynching, Britain had a reputation for being free of the color bar. 

I don’t think it was just me who believed that. I’m pretty sure I had both company and a push or two in that direction, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the belief came at least in part out of the experience of black American soldiers during World War II, when the U.S. Army was still segregated and Britain felt like a place you could take a deep breath.

That should teach me not to judge a country on the basis of one or two stories, although it probably won’t. In postwar Britain, it wasn’t unusual to see signs saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs,” when a place was for rent. 

In the interest of getting to the point, we’ll let that example stand in for a range of racist practices and talk about the bus boycott. 

Irrelevant photo: I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think this is a viola. At any rate, it’s a volunteer.

But before we do that, I need to stop and warn you that I haven’t managed to be funny about any of this. Sorry. It happens. Ask me to write about the black death and yes, I could probably be funny. The Bristol bus boycott, though? I haven’t managed it, but it’s an interesting piece of history. For whatever good my opinion does, I think it’s worth your time. 

The story starts in 1963. In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement was still fighting to integrate the most basic elements of public life, in South Africa the anti-apartheid movement was becoming more and more visible, and in Bristol the bus company had a whites-only policy for its higher paying jobs. That was as legal in Britain as it was in the US or South Africa. The difference was that in Britain no law enforced segregation, it just didn’t ban it.

The union local at the bus company and the management were in agreement on keeping blacks out of the better jobs. For the union, it was about the garden-variety racism of some members, but it was also protecting overtime. Before the war, basic wages had matched what skilled workers at the city’s aerospace plant earned, but since then they’d fallen behind. That left drivers and conductors dependent on overtime to make up the difference. 

But overtime depended on the company being short of workers, so tapping into a new source of drivers and conductors was the last thing the union wanted, and back in the fifties the local had passed a resolution against hiring anyone black as a driver or conductor. 

What management got out of the whites-only policy is anyone’s guess. Maybe just a chance to sit comfortably in their existing prejudices. It’s a surprisingly powerful motivator. You can judge their thinking by a quote from a manager:

“The advent of coloured crews would mean a gradual falling off of white staff. It is true that London Transport employ a large coloured staff. They even have recruiting offices in Jamaica and they subsidise the fares to Britain of their new coloured employees. As a result of this, the amount of white labour dwindles steadily on the London Underground. You won’t get a white man in London to admit it, but which of them will join a service where they may find themselves working under a coloured foreman? . . . I understand that in London, coloured men have become arrogant and rude, after they have been employed for some months.” 

A group of four men formed the West Indian Development Council (West Indians made up the majority of the black community) and set out to demonstrate that the bus company really was refusing to hire black drivers and conductors. An eighteen-year-old, Guy Bailey, applied for a job and showed up at the receptionist’s desk, explaining that he had an interview. 

You have to give a kind of back-handed credit to the bus company, because if they’d wanted to prove the association’s point they couldn’t have been more helpful. 

“I don’t think so,” the receptionist said.

He gave her his name. Yup, he had an appointment. 

She went to the manager’s office door and called,  “Your two o’clock appointment is here, and he’s black.”

The manager called back, “Tell him the vacancies are full.”

The company had been advertising for applicants, and an hour before someone from the association had called to ask about a job and been told they were hiring. He had an Essex accent, so they’d assumed he was white.

“There’s no point having an interview,” the manager said, still calling from his office. “We don’t employ black people.”

The next day, the association called a boycott of Bristol’s buses. 

At this point, I’d expected to read about the boycott itself, but the boycott isn’t the focus of anybody’s article about, um, the boycott. Bristol’s black community wasn’t large, so it didn’t have the economic impact of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Instead, the West Indian Development Council picketed bus depots, organized blockades and sit-ins, and generally brought the issue in front of  the public. Britain was the scene of an active movement against apartheid in South Africa, and the two causes became linked. 

Support came from the local Labour MP, Tony Benn, and the Trinidadian cricket player and high commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago Learie Constantine became a central figure. Student groups and antiracist organized demonstrations handed out leaflets. Bristol’s local press was inundated with letters, pro and con. The national press began to pay attention. 

The strategy had an impact. The local became isolated within the union movement and was accused of bringing shame on it. And the drivers began getting grief from passengers. 

Bristol’s Council of Churches decided to help out by issuing one of history’s more useless public statements: “We seriously regret that what may prove an extended racial conflict arising from this issue has apparently been deliberately created by a small group of West Indians professing to be representative. We also deplore the apparent fact that social and economic fears on the part of some white people should have placed the Bristol Bus Company in a position where it is most difficult to fulfil the Christian ideal of race relations.”

If you figure out what they’re calling for there, do let me know. Possibly a return to the time when they could snoozily ignore the problem.

Negotiations went on for months with the bus company, the union, the Bishop of Bristol, and the city government doing their best to sideline the West Indian Development Council, but Learie Constantine–remember him? the cricket player?–met with everyone he could and convinced the Transport Holding Company , the parent company of the Bristol Omnibus Company, to talk with the union, which they did for several months before the union voted, at a meeting of 500 members, to end the color bar. 

The first non-white conductor wasn’t Guy Bailey but a Sikh, Raghbir Singh. Bailey–remember, he was only eighteen–had found it hard being at the center of the storm and decided he didn’t want to work on the buses. 

“I felt unwanted, I felt helpless, I felt the whole world had caved in around me. I didn’t think I would live through it,” he said. “But it was worth it.”

A few days after that first hire, four other non-whites joined him. 

In 1965 and 1968, Britain passed two Race Relations acts banning discrimination in housing, employment, and public places. Harold Wilson’s government had decided it had to keep a situation like Bristol’s from happening again.

Three of the central people, Bailey, Roy Hackett, and Paul Stephenson, were awarded OBEs for the roles they played. 

An OBE? Well, irony’s alive and well, thanks. That stands for Order of the British Empire, which (you may remember) wasn’t what you’d call free of racism. Still, recognition is recognition, however deeply tinged with irony. 

 

The Early Quakers

The Quakers came into existence during the uproar when England fought a civil war, deleted a king, founded a start-up republic, and then rebooted the king (a new one, not the one they’d deleted). And whenever people found some down time, they argued about religion. 

And you thought we were living through interesting times.

Let’s start the tale with George Fox. He was the son of a weaver and came from Fenny Drayton. I mention the first fact because it places him in a relentlessly hierarchical society (he wasn’t anybody grand) and the second because I can’t help myself. It’s as absurdly English a place name as you’ll find anywhere. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An old-fashioned kind of hydrangea. If I have my British snobberies right (which is far from a sure thing), they’re the classier kind, and the fuller ones for the people like me who don’t know any better.

He left home at  nineteen to seek the truth.

About what? When people talk about seeking the truth, they’re pretty much always talking about religion. And religion, remember, was what everyone talked about anyway. Politics was religion. Everything was religion. Where’d you lose your mittens? I didn’t lose them. They went where god willed them to go. What’s for supper? Even that would circle back to religion. 

Fox listened to preachers–the country was well stocked with preachers–and inevitably he began to preach himself. I never thought of the Quakers as a preaching-type group, but it was a Quaker website using the verb, so we’ll let them set the tone: He preached, and he did it to increasingly large crowds. 

What he told them was that god’s light was in everyone. Or since he’d surely have used a capital letter, so let’s use his presumed style: God’s light. Follow that thought to its logical end–and he did–and you’ll end up attacking the social structure of the day, which held that God had made some people a whole lot better than other people, and that this was natural and good and necessary. 

Not only did everyone have that inner light, he preached that they had to follow it, even when it diverged from the Bible. 

In 1650, he was jailed for blasphemy. The early Quakers spent a lot of time in jail. I won’t list many of their arrests, but keep in mind that this was a risky set of beliefs to live by.

In 1652, Margaret Fell (later Margaret Fox) heard him preach and was convinced, and she quickly became central to the movement, coordinating the communications of its far-flung preachers and offering the safety of her house and the protection that her husband, who was a judge, could sometimes provide. She was one of the few founders who was from the gentry and she was the first to put the movement on record as being against violence. 

It was also in 1652 that Fox gained another key follower, James Naylor (or Nayler–it wasn’t possible to spell a word wrong back then). He was a more difficult personality than Fell and we can have more fun with him, so he’s going to get more space. Sorry. 

Naylor had served in the Parliamentary army. This was before the Quakers dedicated themself to nonviolence, and some branches of the army had Quakers hanging from every bough.  He was charismatic and a good debater, and he attracted a personal following that made other Quakers uneasy. 

He and Fox clashed. Meetings were disrupted. In an attempt to make peace, Fox offered Naylor his hand to kiss. Naylor told Fox to kiss his feet instead.

Yes, they believed all men were equal–and by men, of course, they meant both men and women. Yes, they meant what they said. No, it’s not easy to step outside the biases and assumptions of your time and place, or even to see them.

In 1656, Naylor and some followers re-enacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in Bristol. The scene included a couple of women walking beside Naylor’s horse and singing, “Holy, holy, holy.” 

Whatever they intended to get across, the authorities decided that Naylor’d presented himself as Christ, and it couldn’t have been too hard a case to make. At some point–earlier, later, during; I have no idea–he called himself the Sun of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace, the only Begotten, the fairest of ten thousand.

Not to mention the soul of modesty. 

His followers said he was the anointed king of Israel. No one thought to phone Israel to either check on that or tell them the news.

He was brought to London to be tried. We’re still in the middle of the Protectorate here–that period between the deletion of one king and the reboot of the next–and the Protectorate was all for freedom of religion, but only up to a point. You had to be Christian to take advantage of it. And you couldn’t be a Catholic kind of Christian. Or a licentious kind. 

Naylor was whipped, branded, imprisoned, and had his tongue pierced with a hot iron. 

After he was released, he and Fox made a reluctant sort of peace, with Naylor kneeling to Fox and asking his forgiveness.

Like I said, it’s not easy to step outside your time and place.

But enough about Naylor. Let’s go back to the Quakers as a movement.

By 1660, some estimates put their numbers in England at 50,000. By way of comparison there were about 35,000 Catholics. Eleven of their sixty key people–called the Valiant Sixty–were women. Women preached. Women spoke at meetings. Quakers promoted education for both girls and boys. If everyone had a spark of god in them, then everyone was spiritually equal.

And in case that wasn’t radical enough, they refused to use the titles that were so important to a hierarchical society, so no sirs, no madams, no lordships. They–and this would’ve applied only to the men–wouldn’t take their hats off to their social superiors. They addressed everyone by the informal thou, and people back then knew their thou from their you, so they knew when to consider themselves insulted. These days, if you address someone as thou and all you’ll get is a blank look. 

After the kingly reboot, the Church of England was back in power and in a position to demand tithes. Quakers refused to pay them. 

They wouldn’t take oaths. Not oaths as in curse words but as in I swear to tell the truth and all that stuff. They told the truth all the time, they said. But the culture took oaths seriously, and if you refused the swear one in court it was easy to convict you of pretty much anything. If you wouldn’t swear to tell the truth, who could believe you?

In short, they were principled, upright, and a pain in the ass to a society that took the symbolic stuff as seriously as the practical. They stuck quietly, consistently, and relentlessly to their beliefs.

In 1662, the Quaker Act made it illegal to refuse to take an oath of loyalty. It also outlawed meetings of five or more Quakers. In 1663, a hundred Quakers were arrested in a single day. 

It was 1689 before the Toleration Act allowed them to meet legally. And at that point we’ll leave them. Their later history is better known, from their implacable opposition to slavery to their long opposition to war. 

*

I’ve drawn on a number of books for this post, as well as the websites I’ve linked to, but the longest and most interesting section I found is in Paul Lay’s Providence Lost: The Rise & Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, which gives James Naylor a good chunk of text.

Everything we don’t know about Aphra Behn

The first English woman to make her living entirely as a writer was Aphra Behn. She’s known to have been born, to have been a spy, to have been a writer, and to have died. After that, information about her ranges from the sketchy to the questionable. 

What could be more fun than writing about someone nobody knows much about?

She was born in 1640. Her father might have been a barber and her mother might have been a wet nurse. They might also not have been. 

Her last name might have been Johnson. She might have been adopted. 

Since we can’t sketch in her family, let’s sketch in the times she lived in: The English Civil Wars ran from 1642 to 1651. In 1660, the Stuart kings settled their hind ends back on the throne they’d been lusting after. So she grew up in turbulent times and was twenty at the start of the Restoration, which is a fancy name for the aforesaid Stuart hind end settling back on that throne.

Irrelevant photo: This is one of about a dozen big, flat wildflowers that don’t look alike but are similar enough that I doubt I’ll ever learn their names.

She may or may not have spent some time in Surinam.

Suri-what? A small country in South America. It was an English colony until 1667, when it became Dutch. Under the English, it evolved into a place of sugar plantations and slave labor, which gets an early mention because it feeds into one of Behn’s books. 

(It’s irrelevant but interesting to note that the Parliamentarians–the folks who threw out the Stuart kings–were no more opposed to slavery than the Royalists were. That won’t be on the test. In fact, there won’t be a test. This is a blog. You can stop reading right here if the mood takes you.) 

If Behn had been a man, an aristocrat, or a religious nonconformist, she’d have left more information behind, or so say Abigail Williams and Kate O’Connor in an essay. The surprise in that, for me, is the nonconformists. They were prone, both the men and the women, to keeping spiritual journals. 

In 1664, Behn married a merchant named Johan Behn, although the marriage might not have lasted long. He might have died the next year. He might not have. Either way, that’s the last we’ll hear of him. 

She was a royalist spy in Antwerp during the Anglo-Dutch War. If she was in Surinam, she might have been there as a spy. 

Of course, she also might not have been in Surinam as a spy. 

She might not have been in Surinam at all. 

Don’t you love history?

Spying wasn’t a good way to get rich. According to one source, she wasn’t paid at all and had to borrow money to get home from Antwerp.

That leads to our next questionable statement: She ended up in debtors prison, according to one source (a different one this time) for “debts she incurred in service to the crown.” None of the other sources I’ve found mention the reason for her debts. In fact, the British Library entry on her says there’s no documentation that she was ever in debtors prison.

If she was, though, either somebody ponied up the money needed to break her loose or she started writing as a way to get herself out. Either way, write she did, and back then it was a better way to make money than it is today. Writing was still the hot new medium. You know how parents yell at their kids to get off their phones and turn off their computers? “Go read a book and learn something,” they say. Well, back then parents yelled at their kids to put down their books, get out in the fresh air, and be ignorant.

Yes, every last parent. Every last kid. That’s how you can tell what the hot new medium is: Parents are appalled by it.

Now we’ll take a quick step back. Bear with me. Before the Restoration, the theaters were closed. They were frivolous and led to perdition and fun. Then the king sashayed back to London, the party began, and theater companies were licensed. It wasn’t exactly a new medium, but it was hot all the same.

Behn started working for two of the theater companies that had started up, first as a scribe, then as a playwright. Fittingly, the timelines I’ve seen are contradictory, but her first plays either were or weren’t commercial successes, but either a later or the first one was. But forget which play it was, one of them ran for six nights, and that counted as a smash hit. The income from the third day (and the sixth if there was one, and the ninth if miracles should occur) of a run went to the author, so she got the income from two nights. 

She went on to write and publish an assortment of other plays, some successful, some not, and one–now lost–a complete disaster, involving an arrest for an abusive prologue (or epilogue–take your pick) attacking the Duke of Monmouth. She was (probably) let off with a warning. 

Nope, I have no idea what it said. It’s lost. Sorry. 

Some of her plays were definitely her plays. Others might have been her plays but might have been someone else’s. During her lifetime, a lot of her work was published anonymously, which helps explain the murkiness over what was her work and what wasn’t.

She also published novels and poetry. 

She had a couple of lovers. One of them, John Hoyle, is believed to have written the epitaph (not to be confused with that troublesome epilogue) that’s on her tombstone: “Here lies a proof that wit can never be Defence enough against mortality.”

She died in 1689, at forty-nine. 

So what did she have to say? Well, in her novel Oroonoko, the narrator swears the story’s true, that she either saw everything in it  or was told it by its hero, thus muddying the autobiographical waters by pouring fiction into alleged fact. The book’s unusual in English literature in its choice of hero, an African prince sold into slavery in Surinam. Behn wasn’t not free from the prejudices of her time and place–who is?–but she allowed him his humanity, something it took European writers and their descendants centuries to find their way back to.

She also wrote about sex–about women enjoying sex and about men sometimes failing to enjoy it, much as they would have liked to. “The Disappointment” is full of seventeenth century roundaboutness, but it’s also frank: The man couldn’t get it up. 

 

      . . . In vain th’ enraged Youth assaid

      To call his fleeting Vigour back. . . .

      In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,

      Th’ Insensible fell weeping in his Hands.

 

After Behn died, Memoirs on the Life of Mrs Behn. By a Gentlewoman of her Acquaintance was published, further blurring the line between fact and fiction. The gentlewoman was probably a man named Charles Gildon, who drew heavily on her fiction, along with her letters, to piece together a life, leaning heavily on sex to sell the story.

Behn went out of fashion in more prudish centuries and–well, Restoration literature doesn’t draw a mass audience anymore, but feminists since Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf have been rediscovering her, reinterpreting her, re-appreciating her, and in Sackville-West’s case reimagining her from the ground up. 

Which given the gaps in her story is easy to do. You have no facts to lean on but you also have none to contradict you.