Writing Women into History

As it is Women’s History Month we’re looking at how women’s history is represented in different media. Here, our very own Lauren Johnson discusses why she didn’t include a chapter about women in her latest book…

So Great a Prince FINAL artBefore I started writing my latest book (So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII, out now, sorry, getting the plug out the way early) I made one big decision: it would not include a chapter dedicated to women.

This isn’t because I don’t think women deserve a chapter all to themselves – women deserve all the chapters. A chapter for every one, as far as I’m concerned. I bloody love historical women. I’ve been trying to fill the gender gaps in my knowledge of the past since I was a kid, and not always with the greatest of ease. At university I was met with mild bewilderment every time – at least once a term – I asked to do a paper on women’s or gender history as part of my period of study. One tutor was so startled at the prospect of teaching me about medieval women that he grasped about for a couple of female mystics and left it at that. Not tremendously representative of general experience, it must be said.

No, the reason I denied women this chapter is because it is my firm belief that:

History should – must – always did – involve both men and women.


Women deserve more than being relegated to a sparse twenty pages, in which all of them – from migrant apprentices to pawn princesses – are lumped together as a single entity. No queen in history would have considered herself comparable to a washerwoman. Female CEOs today still probably have more in common with other managers than they do with their cleaners. Obviously there are biological facts that remain common, but the experience of periods, childbirth and pregnancy would have varied enormously depending on a woman’s class and status.

Instead, I set out very deliberately to use female examples of general historical experiences. Looking for a middle class parent? Clear off John Middleton, I’ll use your wife Alice instead. Want someone who trained apprentices and kept servants? Hello Thomasine Percyvale (nee Bonaventure – she demanded attention for that brilliant name alone). In this age of burgeoning new learning and ‘heresy’, yes I will pay you attention, Joan Warde.

Alice Middleton wikimedia.jpg

Alice Middleton in later life (Wikimedia Commons)

I won’t lie, this made my life harder. Women’s identities are obscured in historical sources at the best of times and the late medieval period is far from the best (although it’s a lot easier than the early Middle Ages, so that’s a boon). Chronicles occasionally mention a queen or heretic but they were written by men about prominent public figures and so largely concern themselves with other men. Guild archives refer to women but often just as ‘so and so’s wife’. Married women could only write wills with their husband’s permission and many working class men and women were still dying intestate. Legal records brim with female criminals or those fighting for their rights, but these women pop into existence for the duration of the case and then promptly disappear again (and that’s if enough of the case survives to fully work out what was going on). Religious theory? Medical texts? Decidedly problematic.

After all this effort meticulously researching, carefully selecting and then writing my women into the wider narrative, it was with some dismay that I read the proofs of my index and found it’s full of bloody men! Flicking back through the book, my anxieties were slightly allayed. A number of women pop up alongside men, but are not indexed due to the brevity of their appearance. And the index entry for old Thomasine lists almost a dozen appearances. (As a wealthy widowed tailor who left a will, she provided me with an enormous amount of anecdotal detail – I even know her horse’s saddle was made of blue velvet.)

The relative sparsity of female figures in the final book – they make up less than half the total characters who appear – does not make me regret the approach I took. Without the often engrossing, occasionally frustrating, effort taken to dig out these women, I would have had an easier time but a much less rounded book. I also, whether I fail or (hopefully) succeed, feel it is my duty to try and find these women. Not because I am a woman or a feminist or because I personally find women’s stories fascinating – although all of these things are true – but because I’m a historian. History has always involved both men and women. If we only tell the story of one half of the population, we are missing a huge part of the picture. Let’s not just write women’s history in single chapters or consign it to the ‘women’s history’ corner of the bookshop. Let’s tell it in all our history books.

Let’s make all our stories History.


©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda (wikimedia commons)



This piece was originally posted at Lauren’s blog on International Women’s Day 2016.

Lauren tweets at @History_lauren and her website is Lauren-Johnson.com

‘Death Makes me Poor’: Telling Women’s Stories in British History

Kathy Hipperson & Simon Kirk of Time Will Tell Theatre in ‘Death Makes me Poor’

As part of Women’s History Month we have been talking to heritage practitioners and historians about Women’s History and the many ways of telling the stories of fascinating females throughout time.

Here we talk to Kathy Hipperson, one half of Time Will Tell Theatre, about her most recent work, which focuses on forgotten stories from History – with women front and centre of the tale.

Time Will Tell Theatre is a theatre company specifically put together to add more drama to history! However we aren’t particularly interested in the well-known, often told bits of history, we like to find bits that, as a rule, not many have considered. And this year we have been commissioned to tell two very specific, virtually unknown stories.

The first, set against the backdrop of The Great War, featured the charter of a Royal Society; the second a story from the British Civil Wars, featured petitions to Parliament. The one thing they had in common was their involvement in women’s history in Britain.

‘The Way to the Stars’ at the Royal Astronomical Society

‘The Way to the Stars’, a piece commissioned by the Royal Astronomical Society, was performed at the society’s meeting held in January 2016 and celebrated the Centenary of the first female fellows to be voted into the society. The performance was half an hour and was a journey through time, from female Ancient Greek astronomers to those risking their lives during World War One to track the path of comets.

While the rest of the country was enduring the pain and uncertainty of war in 1916 the Society’s male fellows decided to approach the Privy Council, to ask for all male terms and references in their charter to be changed to something non-gender specific. This then would allow female fellows to be voted into the society. Our journey in researching, writing and performing this play introduced us to some wonderful female astronomers, including Mandy Bailey whose article about women in the RAS is fascinating.

Recently we performed ‘Death Makes Me Poor’ as part of an opening to a new exhibition at the National Civil War Centre, Newark. The exhibition itself is called ‘Battle Scarred’ and is a look at surgery, medicine and military welfare during the British Civil Wars, when Parliament fought against King Charles IAt first glance the exhibition might appear to be all war and gore, but it includes petitions to Parliament from those wounded fighting in the war AND from the widows of those killed.  

‘Death Makes me Poor’ at the National Civil War Centre, Newark

The story of Parliament’s passing of this ordinance and its attempt to honour its commitment to serving soldiers and their families is interesting on many levels, but the parts of the tale that were particularly relevant to us in telling the women’s story were these:

  • Only those injured, and the widows of men killed, whilst fighting in the service of Parliament during the Civil War could apply for support. (Meaning that royalist widows got nothing!)
  • While those injured in war had, in the past, been allowed to personally petition for pensions, this was the first time that widows and female dependants were allowed to do so.
  • The widows could be from any level of society. The only requirement was that they could draft the petition. It wasn’t just for the privileged wives of officers.

Part of the reason for this ordinance was the same motivation as that of the British government in 1915: to encourage men to join the cause by referring to their wives – “come and join the army, if anything happens to you we will look after your family and widow”. But the really important thing is the acknowledgment of Parliament’s responsibility to support the women themselves if needed. It gave women of all statuses a new found legal right.

Unfortunately the reality was, that as the wars dragged on, the pensions and payments given were woefully inadequate, and the money given to the widows of officers was far more generous than the £2 or £3 offered to widows of soldiers. But the significance of the ordinance in women’s history is huge!

But only short lived. The monarchy was restored in 1660, and from then on only those who had supported the royal cause during the war were allowed to petition. Even then, it would seem those Royalist widows who did petition were less likely to gain a pension –  more likely a single, gentle arm-patting, one-off payment.

This new, radical acknowledgment of women within the law courts would no longer break any new ground.


I am in awe of the passion of those female astronomers – working so hard at their science with great commitment, knowing that their work could only be recognised through men,and we should not forget the role of the men of the Royal Astronomical Society who, with what seems like very little pressure, changed their charter to bring about history.

And then the strength of those widows of the 17th Century is staggering. According to their petitions, they had in many cases been subjected to abuse during the war, so to then enter the male legal world to ask for help was extremely courageous. They were often required to appear in person at their hearing, standing alone before a court of men to ask for support.

As our projects for the rest of the year look towards the Battle of Hastings, King Arthur and the Gospels at Lindesfarne I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to be part of telling these stories of women in history.

Kathy is one half of Time Will Tell Theatre, a theatre company set up to work mainly in the heritage industry. Simon and Kathy have been working in the field of historical interpretation and education for over 15 years, both training as actors now can be found putting on site specific and historically specific productions across the country.

Find out more about Kathy here.

Follow Kathy on Twitter.

Tell us what you think of this piece: Tweet @History_Riot !


The Boleyns and the Bechdel Test


Lucy Charles and Rosanna Heverin, costumed heritage interpreters, Tudor historians and women’s history advocates, discuss the day their interpretation of the Boleyn women passed the Bechdel Test at Hampton Court Palace, and argue for the inclusion of intelligent females in heritage interpretation every day, not just International Women’s Day.


For nearly 500 years, Anne Boleyn has been interpreted by popes, princes, ambassadors, historians, actors, writers and, for the last 20 odd years, historical interpreters. She has been the revered mother of the English Reformation, a romantic heroine, a naïve tragic victim of Henry VIII’s tyranny, and an ambitious ‘heretic.’ Anne has appeared as a named character in 41 television and film productions; her portrayal unique to her socio-political environment. Intertwined with interpretations of Anne are varied interpretations of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford – Anne’s sister-in-law. A darling of Henry VIII’s court before Anne came into the King’s view, Lady Rochford has been shown as the vicious reason behind the Boleyns’ downfall or a manipulated weak woman, intimidated by her in-laws.

Charles and Heverin in role as Jane Boleyn and Anne Boleyn

On International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2013, History Riot’s resident contributor Rosanna Heverin and fellow historical interpreter and actor Lucy Charles were performing as Anne and Jane Boleyn respectively at Hampton Court Palace for Past Pleasures, in a daily scenario called ‘Making History Happen.’ This live interpretation performance explored the events of the late 1520s – Anne Boleyn was angered that the French Queen had refused a meeting with her in an imminent state visit to France with King Henry VIII, and was engaged in a religious debate pushing Henry to consider the radical ideas of William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man. At midday there was a scene in which visitors were welcomed by the Boleyn women, who, unaccompanied by the men of court, would discuss these events from their point of view. Usually, the scene played out as an exploration of the role of marriage in Tudor society, and gave interpreters the chance to unpack Henry’s marital history for the visitors.

However, on this day, Charles suggested we celebrate IWD by playing the scene to the rules of the Bechdel Test. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film or play must:

  1. Have two named women
  2. The women must talk to each other
  3. They must talk about something other than a man

“By moving the dialogue away from a ‘romantic’ discussion, both women had the chance to be portrayed as well rounded, intelligent, entire people in their own right.”

 Seated on cushions in the middle of the Great Watching Chamber of Hampton Court Palace, we encouraged visitors to sit and share opinions and garner advice in an improvisation which discussed politics, gender roles, society, court etiquette, issues of religious tolerance and the human attitude to change, against the back drop of the Tudor world. By moving the dialogue away from a ‘romantic’ discussion to something more substantial, both women had a chance to be portrayed as well rounded, intelligent, entire people in their own right. Anne was able to discuss her reformist beliefs, Jane was able to showcase her political intelligence, and the audience were able to see the similarities and differences between women now and then. It also provided a wonderful opportunity for us to share individual research and interests about women’s history in Tudor England, and to develop more informed ideas as historians and heritage interpreters around the character and the motives of Anne and Jane.


Anne is an important character to get ‘right’. Amongst the disagreements of contemporary sources, there is one aspect all agree on – she was not conventionally beautiful. It was her wit and her intelligence that captured the King’s attention, and she was an advocate of education for women. These traits are vital to communicate to young people, whose world is soaked in media images promoting ‘looking a certain way,’ and which can belittle intelligence rather than celebrating it. If heritage interpreters can use the interest Anne sparks to promote self-worth dependent on one’s abilities in young people, rather than one’s looks, then we have done a worthwhile job.

Jane is important to portray in a humane, truthful and informed way. Most interpretations of Jane in literature and live/recorded media seem universally damning, accepting that she and Anne were ‘enemies.’ Some visitors, knowing the destinies of both women, can be incredibly judgmental towards them – one colleague of ours was literally chased upstairs when interpreting Jane by a visitor particularly furious at her ‘betrayal’ of Anne. It is important to find something likable, or relateable, in the person you are playing, no matter how reprehensible their reputation by today’s standards.  What sort of woman assists in the condemnation and subsequent deaths of her husband and sister-in-law? Well, perhaps one who understood the ruthless nature of court, who knew that to survive the inevitable death of her husband she would have to collude in his guilt.

 “They were no longer familiar caricatures, but real women who had lived, breathed, hoped, plotted, debated and laughed”

So on that IWD in 2013, the audience heard things about Tudor society and how it worked that wasn’t just about two women’s relationship to and with Henry VIII. After a brilliant, interactive half hour, Anne and Jane emerged as remarkable individuals, intelligent enough to engage in polite, lively and informed conversation, who respected each other’s positions and opinions, and could survive and thrive at court (albeit only for a time). They were no longer familiar caricatures from popular history, but real women who had lived, breathed, hoped, plotted, debated and laughed in that very room.

It was an experience that only costumed interpretation could have provided in such a vivid, immediate fashion.


The feedback received from visitors in the audience was wonderful. Instead of asking Anne about Henry, or Jane if she really betrayed her family, we were asked political questions, questions about law and religious reform – questions that are usually directed to our fellow (equally brilliant!) male interpreters. Visitors that day went away knowing that Tudor women were not all simply fodder to Henry VIII’s marriage cannon, but were influential, intelligent human beings who had to operate and find their standing in a world where they were seen as chattels and the property of their fathers and then their husbands.

 “History where women are solely romantic interests and men are the leaders is wrong and damaging”

Given that women make up 50% of all historical populations, being able to showcase their remarkable abilities as individuals is vital. Heritage interpretation brings history to life for visitors, and it must always include these women who used their strengths and smarts to build the world we live in today. History where women are solely romantic interests and men are the leaders is wrong and damaging. Children particularly need to see a world where men and women stand as equals. Men and women have been equals throughout history in many ways, and it’s time that this is illustrated at every historical site, every day and not just for one day in March.

Lucy Charles is an actor, director, voice artist and heritage interpreter.

To find out more about her, visit www.lucy-charles.com.

Follow Lucy on Twitter: @lucy_charles_

Rosanna Heverin is a museum educator, heritage interpreter and resident contributor and editor of History Riot.

Follow her on Twitter: @RLHeverin