Right to fight? A female history of violence

Actor, director, voice artist and heritage interpreter Lucy Charles takes us through a brief history of women’s involvement in violence – whether as protest, war effort or martial art.

EWDHaving exercised my right to vote in yesterday’s elections, my thoughts wondered to fellow Royal Holloway alumna Emily Wilding Davison, and the violent means undertaken by the Suffragettes in order for us to be able to mark the ballot paper. (Emily Wilding Davison died as a result of injuries she received at the Epsom Derby in 1913, trying to draw attention to the women’s suffrage movement.)

Emily and I share the same university, the same belief in equal rights with men, but I would not have laid down my life for the cause, so how far would I have gone? Would I have smashed windows, chained myself to railings, fought with weapons against those who stood in my way? Throughout history women have had to fight, and overstep the boundaries of convention to be heard and to secure change. Boudicca in England, Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica, Joan of Arc in France, Nzinga Mbande in Angola, Nakano Takeko in Japan – these are just a few examples of those who took up arms and led forces in combat for their cause.

Lucy Spitfire 2

Still from ‘Brodworth at War’. Women were not able to fly planes in active combat, only between domestic airbases. Their work as plotters were key in winning the Battle of Britain.

Women who fight continue to perplex those who promote the accepted view that women are the ‘fairer,’ ‘gentler’ sex.

There are countless deities dedicated to war from around the world, many of them goddesses, as well as examples of violent women in popular culture: Medea guilty of infanticide, Lady Macbeth inciting regicide, the White Witch guilty of terrorising Narnians and Buffy, on the flip side, on her nightly missions slaying the daemons of the west coast. The question of whether women can fight alongside men in the military is still a taboo for many, the recurring argument being that sex will get in the way and detract the attention from the task in hand. Sex and violence seem inextricably linked. Rape is a recognised ‘weapon of war,’ and is even mentioned in the Bible.




Empress Menen said in 1935, “women in this world are connected and have the same desires in maintaining world peace and love… In spite of the differences of colour, race, creed and religion between women in this world, they all hate war because the fruit of war is nothing but disaster.”

Empress Menen

Her words echo the plot of Aristophanes poignant comedy Lysistrata (written way back in 411 BCE ), an amusing, risqué plot that sees women reclaiming the power of sex. The play highlights the constant blight of the Peloponnesian wars. So fed up of losing their beloved menfolk, Lysistrata leads the women in a sex strike in order to achieve peace. The women further enrage the Athenean men by seizing control of the Acropolis and barring them, thus keeping them away from state treasure used to fund the fruitless wars.

In a similar vein, enraged by extortionate taxes used to fund years of war with France, Johanna Ferrour, an English commoner, was instrumental in what became known as the Peasants Revolt in 1381. She was ‘chief instigator’ of a mob of commoners who surged to London and, for the first time in its history, took the Tower of London. Convinced that the young King Richard II was being manipulated by the Lord Treasurer and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Johanna ordered their beheadings.

Women had to contribute in siege warfare, so as not to be seen as ‘useless mouths’, taking up valuable resources without contributing to the war effort. Operating siege engines from within the castle was imperative, as was the case in the death of Simon de Montfort, killed by women operating a mangonel at a siege in southern France. There is also evidence of active female participation in the Fechtbuch I33, Europe’s oldest known fight manual, circa 1300. Walpurgis is shown in combat with sword and buckler, one of the earliest visuals of women actively engaged in martial art form in the West.

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Still from a fight display with Matt Wood, at the Antiquarian Book Fair, for the modern reproduction of the medieval manuscript.

Frustrated with the lack of progress, Suffragettes resorted to more proactive, violent means. They were encouraged to learn Jiu-Jitsu by Emmeline Pankhurst. Peter Blewett, Chief Instructor of The Budokwai, Europe’s oldest Martial Arts Club established in 1918, states that, “Judo translates as the ‘gentle way,’ whereby you yield to your opponents’ force, effectively using it against them. Jiu-Jitsu works with the same principle, Edith Garrud who taught Jiu-Jitsu to fellow Suffragettes was a slight woman and fought off police officers who had a minimum height restriction of 5’10. It was paramount that the Suffragettes were able to protect themselves. They were so effective at it, the term ‘Suffragitsu’ was coined.”


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Poster from 1919 by S. Begg. The bottom right reads, “Judo, gentle art of self dance. Lady throws man.”

The old adage says that the ‘pen is mightier than the sword,’ and I have the luxury to hold this view because throughout history, there have been women who have engaged in the physical language the ruling establishment understood: violence.

Lucy Charles



A Day in the Life of a Writer




Our own Lauren Johnson (author, historian and editor of this here blog) takes us through the reality of a day in the life of a writer…




A day in the life of a writer sounds pretty exciting. If you’re like me aged 12 you probably picture dusty garrets, inglenook fireplaces and a quilt-covered heroine nibbling meditatively on a quill pen while writing The Next Great Work of History. Basically a cross between Jo March, Sir Walter Ralegh at the Tower of London and Carrie Bradshaw during those episodes in Paris.

Carrie Bradshaw Paris

The reality is rather more prosaic. Essentially my day boils down to ‘get up, eat, try to write, eat, try to write some more, eat, try to sleep’ with varying degrees of success at all of these tasks. Except eating. I always accomplish that one. And while I do occasionally have to bundle myself up in a slanket (the modern woman’s patchwork quilt) it’s usually because I’m too much of a skinflint to put the heating on, since writing is not all that lucrative a profession.

That’s also the reason I so consistently look like a survivor of a dystopian future – knitwear piled on thermals piled on boots, topped off with an enormous scarf. Well, that and the fact that when you spend your entire day inside your own head, the exterior of your body starts to diminish in importance.

So, a day in the life begins: having had my breakfast (ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS) I sit at my desk, in my ergochair – seriously, if you spend hours in a stress position like I do, you must get one of these, they will save your spine – and start to write. Ha, ha. Only kidding. I actually just stare at what I wrote the day before with mounting desperation, horror and frustration. Having realised that I am, at best, an idiot and, at worst, illiterate I then try to form up the reams of notes I have collated over the past several months into a structured, interesting chapter of a book.

The process here is pretty much the same whether I’m writing non-fiction (So Great a Prince, a history of the first year of Henry VIII’s reign) or historical fiction (The Arrow of Sherwood, a C12th origin story of Robin Hood). The only difference really is the degree to which I extrapolate and interpret – and the absence or presence of imaginary characters. Non-fiction rather frowns on made up people, for obvious reasons.

Al fresco writing, prolonging the pre-brain-dead-phase a little longer.

After a few hours of this, when I am clearly incapable of forming sentences and have sat starting at a blank page for twenty minutes, it is time for lunch (ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS).  Since I usually write at home, lunch is had slumped in front of the telly with a laptray of soup (I told you it wasn’t glamorous).

Then back to the grindstone – for a little while. After four years of writing, I have come to know the patterns of my working brain pretty well and unfortunately one of them is that shortly after lunch I will have a good two hours of complete and utter stupidity. Genuinely, I can barely stay awake, never mind write. During this ‘brain-dead time’ I try my hardest to do something that is good for my otherwise-ignored body, like move it on a walk or put it in the gym or take it to meet some other bodies with brains attached – sorry, I mean, friends. Because as guilty as I may feel at this protracted break there is resolutely no point trying to plough through the brain-dead time. It just leaves me tired and achey. (Breaks? ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS).

Once my brain activity is slightly restored I assume the stress position once more, stare at my laptop and write for another two or three hours, finishing for supper (you guessed it, ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS) at about 7 or 8. Once I’m done in the evening, that’s it for me. I close the door on my writing and do something else for the night. Treating writing like a job rather than a hobby you should feel constantly guilty for not indulging is as important as any other habit I’ve learnt. If it’s a job you know that you have to do it every day, but you also know you have to have an occasional holiday and take the evening off. I don’t usually set myself a word count for the day. I prefer to have a specific narrative end point I want to reach: ‘I can’t finish until I’ve written this section about bears’ or whatever. (Yes, there is a section about bears in my history book.)

The evening is often spent alone, since after 12 hours of solitude I am not great company. Writing all day does weird things to both your eyesight and your brain. Despite having occasionally written some fairly decent sentences during the day – with words and commas and everything! – by evening I find myself incapable of human speech. It’s like my tongue has forgotten how to form words. My fingers, meanwhile, twitch. All in all it doesn’t make for a very active social life. ‘Shall we invite Old Squinteyes McTwitch out for a pint?’ ‘You know she’ll just sit in silence and occasionally utter malformed sentences.’ ‘Let’s ask anyway.’ Unfortunately, having forgotten how to speak, I am unable to accept the invitation.

In any case, in the last phases of writing-up, socialising with modern, living human beings starts to seem like a mad distraction from the 500-year-past existence in which you’re living, 16 hours a day. Even when you’re not writing or reading, you’re thinking about the world of your work. It’s like having a really weird new boyfriend. It becomes an obsession.

And what no one ever tells you about having your writing published – which is, after all, the ideal end result of all this effort – is that it means it’s finished. Over. Norwegian blue. When people say ‘kill your darlings’ this is why. Because whether you kill them in rewrites or your editor does in proofs or your deadline forces their destruction, those darlings are going to get it. Once the writing’s no longer your private scribbles but a printed, public book the work is – in a very real way – dead. You can’t change the structure. You can’t add in that conversation between your imaginary characters. You can’t correct the stupid mistake you made on p.197 and have only just noticed. The book, baby, is finito. And that is a very weird, curiously sad state of affairs. When I wrote the last chapter of So Great a Prince, looking beyond the year of 1509 (where I’d been living for 18 months) to four decades of turbulence and change in the country I had so lovingly recreated I genuinely felt like crying. All these figures who had been so real in my imagination – who were real, and exist in paper form for anyone to read about – were dispensed with in a few sentences. Bye bye, Alice Middleton. Farewell, Thomasine Percyvale and your blue-saddled horse. Hasta la vista, William Compton. Writing the end of that book was a form of mini-bereavement.

So that’s a day in the life of a writer for you. Frustration, excitement, obsession, boredom, unduly belated grief. And then, if you’re lucky, you get up and do the whole thing again, swaddled in knitwear and biscuit crumbs.

Roll on, Book Three…



Counterfeiting, Crime & Catherine Heyland



Educator Megan Gooch (Learning Producer for Historic Royal Palaces) introduces us to Catherine Heyland, a coin counterfeiter risking her life for her trade…



Spending a penny was a dangerous business in 1788. Seriously. If the money you spent included a counterfeit coin, you could be convicted of high treason and executed.

Today, when the rate of counterfeit pound coins is estimated to be 3% of those in circulation, you’ve almost certainly ‘passed off’ a counterfeit coin in your time. You criminal! Luckily the punishments are not so severe these days. In 1788 men would be hanged, drawn and quartered for this crime, and women burned at the stake, which was somehow deemed a more modest end for the ladies.

So it was a pretty desperate, bold or foolish young woman who engaged in the nefarious activity of not just using counterfeits, but making them. Catherine Heyland was such a woman.

Heyland and her accomplices were caught red-handed in 1787 in a garret workshop full of incriminating evidence. Catherine was wearing an apron, stained black like her hands, from the noxious nitric acid used to clean newly minted coins. There were crucibles full of molten metal, coin moulds for casting the fakes, and damningly, some brand new fake shillings.

Catherine’s defence at the Old Bailey was that she borrowed the apron, she hadn’t known her male accomplice very long, and she’d just walked in the room before the raid by the authorities. The court convicted her of high treason and she was sentenced to death, doomed to await her punishment in a gloomy, cramped and unsavoury cell in Newgate Gaol. She was imprisoned there for 14 months before given a reprieve.

Instead of execution by burning, she was transported to Australia, arriving there aboard the Lady Juliana in 1790, after a gruelling 390 days at sea. The ship gained notoriety as a floating brothel for the ship’s officers and seamen at ports along its journey. Catherine was sent to work on Norfolk Island until she was pardoned by the governor in 1796. After which she found a husband who farmed and made furniture, and had two sons.

Catherine wasn’t an unusual young woman. Counterfeiting and ‘passing off’ fake coins was a huge business in eighteenth-century London, and women were a key part of the criminal enterprise. They were useful for spending the new fake coins in markets and shops, disguised as honest housewives.

Catherine’s punishment was also typical of eighteenth-century law, a lengthy stay on ‘death row’ in awful prison conditions, before being shipped in worse conditions to Australia to complete her punishment and forge a new life.

Cheery stuff. Now, I’m off to check I’m not harbouring any fake coins in my purse…



A real shilling made in 1787, the kind of coin Catherine Heyland was caught counterfeiting © Arthur Bryant coins