The 17th-Century Protest That Got a Woman Killed

5 minute read
History Today

This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at

The summer of 1643 saw the political unrest that had culminated in the beginning of the English Civil Wars the previous year spill into the streets of Westminster. Between August 7th and 9th there were a series of pro- and anti-war demonstrations in the capital. In a letter to his wife, Katherine, dated August 9th that year, the monarchist Thomas Knyvett reported how the House of Lords had sent a number of ‘very honourable’ proposals to reopen talks for a peace treaty with Charles I to the Commons. The proposals were thrown out by a small majority. Knyvett was dismayed at the Commons’ rejection, signing his letter ‘thy poor disconsolate husband T. K.’ A group of women had clearly taken the same view and on Tuesday August 8th had gathered outside the Houses of Parliament to protest for peace. The women, described by Knyvett as a ‘multitude’, several hundred strong, were apparently given some verbal reassurances and dispersed without incident.

However, the next day the women returned to Westminster in much greater numbers with the intention of meeting with Parliamentary leaders, such as John Pym, to present them formally with ‘The Petition of Many Civilly Disposed Women.’ The organized nature of the protest was clear, as all the women were supplied with white ribbons to wear in their hats as a symbol of the peace they sought. John Dillingham’s newspaper The Parliament Scout for the week beginning August 3rd claimed that 5-6,000 women were involved in this second day of action. He also wrote that a tenth of the women were prostitutes, but mostly they were poor women whose husbands were away in the army. Richard Colling’s newspaper, The Kingdom’s Weekly Intelligencer, went further and reported that the women were largely comprised of ‘whores, bawds, oyster-women, kitchen-stuff women, beggar women and the very scum of the suburbs, besides a number of Irish women.’ The idea that this was a random convergence of malcontented women goes against the organized nature of the protest and, in fact, some sources say that the ribbons were given out by a ‘Lady Brunchard.’ Around lunchtime the women heatedly blockaded the entrance to Parliament for two hours. The protest turned violent as Sir William Waller’s horse regiment attempted to suppress it. Knyvett told his wife in his next letter of August 10th that ‘there was much mischief done by the horse and foot soldiers.’ Two men were known to have been killed and numerous men and women injured.

Listening to news of the day’s events as they unfolded was John Norman, who ran a spectacle shop. From the prime position of his shop door just outside Westminster Gate, Norman could take in all that was happening. He was on the side of Parliament and had been heard to say that he would ‘rather see the streets run with blood than that we should now have peace.’ Amid the chaos, news spread that one of the women protestors had been shot dead in the nearby churchyard. Norman was unsympathetic, commenting that it did not matter to him if ‘a hundred of them were so served.’ Rushing out to see the commotion closer, Norman found that the woman who had been killed was his own daughter. The young woman, described by Knyvett as a ‘pretty young wench,’ worked as seamstress in Westminster Hall and was believed to have been accidentally shot when she crossed the Palace Yard while running an errand unconnected to the protest. The soldier who fired the shot was investigated, but apparently let off when his defense that his pistol went off accidentally was accepted.

The Intelligencer suggested that women in general should use the young woman’s death as a warning not to get caught up in such uprisings. The Parliament Scout blamed the death on the women themselves for uprising, claiming that ‘Tumults are dangerous, swords in the hands of women do desperate things; this is begotten in the distractions of Civil War.’ There is a twist in the story of the seamstress, however, and it is alluded to in the Intelligencer. The paper’s account of the incident mentions almost in passing that ‘the malignants say, it was done by a trooper that rid up to her, and shot her purposely, others say it went off by mischance,’ echoing the soldier’s own defense. The antiquarian and parliamentarian MP Sir Simonds D’Ewes noted in his journal that the horse soldier who shot the woman was a ‘profane fellow’ who bore an old grudge against the spectacle-seller and so used the opportunity to ‘shoot his daughter to death as she was peaceably going upon an errand.’ We do not know if the seamstress was unwittingly caught in the riot, or if she had decided to join in the unrest; nor if she was a victim of a tragic accident or an opportunistic murder. For Thomas Knyvett, it was an opportunity to spread propaganda about the other side, as a man who had been heard to claim that he would rather see the streets running with blood than accept a compromise with the king had seen his own daughter’s blood shed in the street. Knyvett instructed his wife to be bold and tell this story widely because it was ‘certainly true.’

Sara Read is the author of Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives, 1540-1740 (Pen & Sword, 2015).

17 of History’s Most Rebellious Women

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, Russia Members of the feminist punk rock collective were jailed after protesting Russian President Putin in a church. The group has since used its notoriety to promote human rights issues. The very name of the band is meant to turn something passive into something powerful.Yuri Kozyrev—Noor for TIME
Tawakul Karman, Yemen
Tawakul Karman, Yemen Tawakul Karman, chair of Women Journalists Without Chains — a Yemeni group that defends human rights and freedom of expression — pressured former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from power, which he held from 1978 to 2012. She was arrested several times during her peaceful protests.Hani Mohammed—AP
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu has been the foremost leader in the effort to democratize the Southeast Asian nation as well as a courageous advocate for human rights and peaceful revolution. She spent 15 years under house arrest when the government refused to cede power to her after her party was elected. Alison Wright—Corbis
Corazon Aquino, the Philippines
Corazon Aquino, the Philippines When Corazon Aquino's senator husband was assassinated in 1983, Aquino ran against 20-year autocrat Ferdinand Marcos in his stead. Though Marcos claimed victory, Aquino led a peaceful revolution across the nation of impoverished islands. Aquino became President of the Philippines upon Marcos' resignation.Willia Vicoy— Reuters/Corbis
Phoolan Devi, India
Phoolan Devi, India Phoolan Devi began a streak of violent robberies across northern and central India, targeting upper castes. In 1981 she led her gang of bandits to massacre more than 20 men in the high-caste village where her former lover was killed. Devi negotiated her sentence with the Indian government to 11 years in jail.Getty Images
Angela Davis, the U.S.
Angela Davis, the U.S. Angela Davis, a political activist, scholar and author, was accused of supplying the gun in the death of a federal judge. She fled, landing her a spot on the Most Wanted list. Davis was caught in New York but was acquitted in 1972, backed by activist supporters who demanded her freedom. Hulton Archive—Getty Images
Golda Meir, Israel
Golda Meir, IsraelAlthough best known as Israel's Prime Minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Meir made her mark on the revolutionary Zionist movement during the pre-state period when during a 1948 trip to the U.S., she raised $50 million from the Jewish diaspora community, making a state of Israel possible.Bettmann—Corbis
Vilma Lucila Espín, Cuba
Vilma Lucila Espín, Cuba The spirit of the Cuba's communist revolution was most vividly embodied by its "First Lady," Vilma Lucila Espín. After training as a chemical engineer, Espín took up arms against the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s and debunked the notion of the docile Caribbean woman with her full army fatigues.AP
Janet Jagan, Guyana
Janet Jagan, Guyana Chicago-born Janet Jagan and her husband founded the People's Progressive Party in Guyana, which sought to promote Marxist ideals. Her hand in protests got her thrown in jail by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. She was elected Guyana's first female President in 1997.Harry Benson—Getty Images
Jiang Qing, China
Jiang Qing, China After marrying Chairman Mao Zedong in 1938, Jiang Qing climbed the ladder of the Communist Party, eventually becoming the leader of the infamous Gang of Four. Jiang refused to apologize for the criminal charges that were eventually brought against her, instead spending a decade in prison before dying. Bettmann—Corbis
Nadezhda Krupskaya, Russia
Nadezhda Krupskaya, RussiaAlong with fellow radical Vladimir Lenin, Nadezhda Krupskaya helped set up the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in 1895. Police arrested them both, and they married while exiled in Siberia. After her release in 1901, she ran Iskra (the Spark), an international newspaper for Marxists. Hulton-Deutsch Collection—Corbis
Susan B. Anthony, the U.S.
Susan B. Anthony, the U.S. In 1851, Susan B. Anthony met fellow women's-rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the outspoken duo began touring the country arguing the case for women's suffrage.U.S. marshals arrested Anthony for voting illegally in 1872. She died before the 19th Amendment was passed.Frances Benjamin Johnston—Corbis
Emmeline Pankhurst, Britain
Emmeline Pankhurst, Britain<br Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women's Social and Political Union in Britain, which carried out public demonstrations and did not shy away from arson, vandalism or hunger strikes. Pankhurst was routinely arrested, but she never strayed from her pursuit of women's suffrage.Bettmann—Corbis
Harriet Tubman, the U.S.
Harriet Tubman, the U.S. Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave in 1820, fled Maryland for the free state of Pennsylvania. Over the years, she went on 19 missions to rescue more than 300 slaves on the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she was the first woman to lead a military expedition, liberating more than 700 slaves. Corbis
Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft, BritainIn 18th century Britain, Mary Wollstonecraft made the unprecedented claim that the rights of women are equal to those of men. In her two most famous works, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791), she takes on Edmund Burke with her then-radical feminism.Hulton Archive—Getty Images
Joan of Arc, France
Joan of Arc, France Spurred by dreams in which Christian saints would urge her to fight the English, Joan of Arc famously led the assault that lifted the English siege of the city of Orleans in 1429, turning the tide in favor of the French. But a few years later, Joan was captured and burned in a public square on grounds of witchcraft. Getty Images
Boudica, Britain
Boudica, BritainIn the 1st century A.D., Boudica, Queen of the Iceni rebelled against her daughters were raped and she was publicly flogged by Roman officials. Boudica led a coalition of tribes on a revenge mission and razed ancient London. Though her rebellion failed, she is remembered as one of Britain's original nationalist heroes.Hulton Archive—Getty Images

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at