Spartacus Blog

Women Levellers: The Campaign for Equality in the 1640s.

In November 1640, Katherine Chidley published, The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ. At the time it was extremely unusual for a woman to engage in public debate about religion and politics. Katherine was the wife of Daniel Chidley, a tailor of Shrewsbury. She had married in 1616 and over the next fourteen years gave birth to eight children. In 1626 she and her husband were prosecuted for non-attendance at church. She was also reported for refusing "to come to be churched after childbirth". As a result of this conflict with the authorities the family moved to London. (1)

In 1632 Katherine became friends with John Lilburne, who had been deeply influenced by the writings of John Foxe. In 1637 Lilburne met John Bastwick, a Puritan preacher who had just had his ears cut off for writing a pamphlet attacking the religious views of the William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lilburne offered to help Bastwick in his struggle with the Anglican Church. Eventually it was agreed that Lilburne should go to the Netherlands to organise the printing of a book that Bastwick had written. (2)

On 13th February, 1638, Lilburne was found guilty of publishing illegal books and was sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried and imprisoned. The following month he was whipped from Fleet Prison to Old Palace Yard. It is estimated that Lilburne received 500 lashes along the way, making 1,500 stripes to his back during the two-mile walk. An eyewitness account claimed that his badly bruised shoulders "swelled almost as big as a penny loaf" and the wheals on his back were larger than "tobacco-pipes." (3)

When he was placed in the pillory he tried to make a speech praising John Bastwick and was gagged. Lilburne's punishment turned into an anti-government demonstration, with cheering crowds encouraging and supporting him. While in prison Lilburne wrote about his punishments, in his pamphlet, The Work of the Beast (1638). He reported on how he was tied to the back of a cart and whipped with a knotted rope. (4)

Katherine Chidley, who was now in her early forties, decided she would become a preacher and was active in the Stepney area. It was extremely unusual for women to play this role and it came to the attention of Thomas Edwards, who was based at at St Botolph Church in Aldgate. He strongly disapproved of Puritan groups such as the Anabaptists and Congregationalists and wanted them suppressed. He warned about the growth in radical preachers touring the country, included "all sorts of illiterate, mechanic preachers, yea of women and boy preachers". (5)

Upset by the comments of Edwards, she published, The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ. It was an eighty-one-page rejection of the ideas put forward by Edwards and other Presbyterian who believed in "hierarchical and centralized church government". She argued that Edwards was afraid that "religious toleration would undermine the authority of husbands, fathers, and masters over their wives, children, and servants". (6)

Chidley argued that when "God brought his people into the promised land, he commanded them to be separated from the idolaters". Churches did not need pastors or teachers, for "all the Lords people, that are made Kings and Priests to God, have a free voice in the Ordinance of Election, therefore they must freely consent before there can be any Ordination". She went on to suggest that the humblest members of society, were better qualified to create churches than "ill-meaning priests". She concluded by admitting that although she was "a poor woman" she was willing to debate publicly with Edwards on the subject of religious separatism. (7) Chidley accused Edwards of having turned the pulpit into a cockpit. All this only increased Edwards's reputation as an opponent of toleration. (8)

On 4th January 1642, Charles I sent his soldiers to arrest John Pym, Arthur Haselrig, John Hampden, Denzil Holles and William Strode. The five men managed to escape before the soldiers arrived. Members of Parliament no longer felt safe from Charles and decided to form their own army. After failing to arrest the Five Members, Charles fled from London and formed a Royalist Army (Cavaliers). His opponents established a Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) and it was the beginning of the English Civil War. (9)

Brian Manning, the author of The Crisis of the English Revolution (1992) has argued that the war caused a threat to the patriarchal family. As a result "religious beliefs could cause wives to assert their independence from husbands, children from parents, servants from masters". He uses the example of Katherine Chidley who he quotes questioning the authority of the "unbelieving husband" over the "conscience of his believing wife". (10)

In January 1645 Chidley published A New-Years-Gift to Mr. Thomas Edwards. She argued that it was "most befitting a woman" to answer the attacks by Edwards. The Church of England was, she wrote, not a true but a deformed church, which, by admitting all comers to the sacraments, was guilty of "casting God's holy things to dogs". She rejected the idea that religious toleration would result in "toleration to sin". Edwards responded to this pamphlet by describing Chidley as "a brazen-faced audacious old woman". (11) Christopher Hill has pointed out in The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1991) that Chidley made clear that "a husband had no more right to control his wife's conscience than the magistrate had to control his." (12)

 John Lilburne
Woodcut from the pamphlet, The World Turned Upside Down (c. 1649)

In 1647 Katherine Chidley moved to Bury St Edmunds, where with her son Samuel Chidley, she established a separatist church. However, she did not give up her struggle with the Church hierarchy and that year she became an active member of the Levellers. This group included John Lilburne, Elizabeth Lilburne, Richard Overton, Mary Overton, Thomas Prince, John Wildman and William Walwyn. In September, 1647, Walwyn, the leader of this group in London, organised a petition demanding reform. Their political programme included: voting rights for all adult males, annual elections, complete religious freedom, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and a maximum interest rate of 6%. (13)

The Levellers were opposed to the monarchy and intitally welcomed the overthrow of King Charles I. However, they disagreed with the decision to execute him and quickly became disillusioned with the rule of Oliver Cromwell. In February, 1649, John Lilburne published England's New Chains Discovered. "He appealed to the army and the provinces as well as Londoners to join him in rejecting the rule of the military junta, the council of state, and their ‘puppet’ parliament. Leveller agitation, inspired by his example, revived. He was soon in the Tower again for the suspected authorship of a book which parliament had declared treasonable". (14)

In another pamphlet Lilburne described Cromwell as the "new King." On 24th March, Lilburne read his latest pamphlet, out loud to a crowd outside Winchester House, where he was living at the time, and then presented it to the House of Commons later that same day. It was condemned as "false, scandalous, and reproachful" as well as "highly seditious" and on 28th March he was arrested at his home. (15)

Richard Overton, William Walwyn and Thomas Prince, were also taken into custody and all were brought before the Council of State in the afternoon. Lilburne later claimed that while he was being held prisoner in an adjacent room, he heard Cromwell thumping his fist upon the Council table and shouting that the only "way to deal with these men is to break them in pieces … if you do not break them, they will break you!" (16)

The supporters of the Leveller movement called for the release of Lilburne. Katherine Chidley, Elizabeth Lilburne and Mary Overton organised Britain's first ever all-women petition on the case. This was a difficult task as the mass of women did not question their inferiority and subordination. "Everything suggests that women did indeed regard their sex role as one of dependence and inferiority." (17)

However, women Levellers rejected this view: "The women who preached in public and marched on Parliament with petitions must have been exceptional and forceful members of their sex." (18) They must have been very persuasive as the managed to convince over 10,000 women to sign the petition. This was presented to the House of Commons on 25th April, 1649. (19) They justified their political activity on the basis of "our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth". (20)

This picture of John Lilburne appeared on thefront-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.
Petition of Women (1649)

MPs reacted intolerantly, telling the women that "it was not for women to petition; they might stay home and wash their dishes... you are desired to go home, and look after your own business, and meddle with your housewifery". One woman replied: "Sir, we have scarce any dishes left us to wash, and those we have not sure to keep." When another MP said it was strange for women to petition Parliament one replied: "It was strange that you cut off the King's head, yet I suppose you will justify it." (21)

The following month Elizabeth Lilburne produced another petition: "That since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportional share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children, and families?" (22)

David Petegorsky, the author of Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (1940) has pointed out: "The Levellers clearly saw, that equality must replace privilege as the dominant theme of social relationships; for a State that is divided into rich and poor, or a system that excludes certain classes from privileges it confers on others, violates that equality to which every individual has a natural claim." (23)

Richard Overton, William Walwyn and Thomas Prince, were eventually released in August, 1648. Although Oliver Cromwell agreed with some of the Leveller's policies, including the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, Cromwell refused to increase the number of people who could vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes: "What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces." (24)

It was to be another 260 years before adult suffrage was achieved. Religious freedom, trial by jury, and an end to the censorship of books and newspaper came earlier. However, we are still waiting for other Leveller demands such as a fair taxation system, annual parliaments, and the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords.


(1) Ian J. Gentles, Katherine Chidley : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Frances Condick, John Bastwick: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 65

(4) David Plant, Biography of John Lilburne (2012)

(5) Henry N. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (1961) page 36

(6) Ian J. Gentles, Katherine Chidley : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(7) Katherine Chidley, The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ (1640)

(8) P. R. S. Baker, Thomas Edwards: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 256

(10) Brian Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution (1992) page 143

(11) Katherine Chidley, A New-Years-Gift to Mr. Thomas Edwards (1645)

(12) Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1991) page 312

(13) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 198

(14) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) Peter Richards, John Lilburne: The First English Libertarian (2008)

(16) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 270

(17) Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977) page 201

(18) Brian Manning, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution (1992) page 169

(19) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 508

(20) Ian J. Gentles, Katherine Chidley : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) Mercurius Militaris (22nd April 1649)

(22) Elizabeth Lilburne, A Petition of Women (5th May, 1649)

(23) David Petegorsky, Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (1940) page 54

(24) Oliver Cromwell, letter (4th September, 1654) quoted by Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches: Volume II (1886) page 90

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