Meeting Report: ‘Surviving the English Civil Wars as a Widow’, 20th February, by Hannah Worthen


Hello everyone!

Thank you again to Hannah Worthen for her really interesting talk about widows in England during the 17th century. Thanks also to everyone who attended. It was great to see some more new faces.

Hannah started off her talk in a very novel way by showing us a tweet she had written as part of a challenge to summarise a thesis in less than 140 characters. It read: “Discovering the petitions of Early Modern War Widows in order to better understand women, war and survival throughout history.”

Hannah outlined the profound impact of the civil wars by stating that 7% of the population of England, Wales, and Scotland died between 1642 and 1651 due to fighting in the civil wars as compared with only 0.7% during World War 2. Hannah spoke to us about a variety of primary sources in which widows are represented including pamphlets and petitions (see images on her power point in the photo above). Society viewed widows both as objects of pity but also as a threat since their newfound single status would permit them to sponge off rich bachelors. In addition, they were sometimes viewed as sexually deviant!

Hannah began her documentary analysis by providing some examples of sources in which widows were portrayed by men who were either royalists or parliamentarians. Some of these documents were created in order to highlight the cruelty of the other side. One royalist, B. Ryves, tries to demonstrate the nepotism in parliament by writing that the widows were crying outside parliament whilst subsidies were given to others who were less impoverished. Hannah added that during the civil wars, it was common to find characterisations of England as a widow.

Hannah’s main focus, however, was on the petitions with which women applied either for pensions or for land to be returned to them. These petitions were usually written by scribes who were either relatives or literate members of the parish such as priests. Parish members were often keen to help widows so that they were less of a financial burden to the local community. Hannah explained that the petitions were normally written in the third person and are rather formulaic. Certain phrases crop up repeatedly. For example, many write that they are living off “borrowed bread” and list a number of small children (the word “small” being key) who are now hungry. Hannah provided us with three fascinating case studies of widows from Kent who had applied either for the return of their land or for a pension. My favourite example was Mary Blaithwaite whose husband died fighting for parliament. To fit in with the image of a widow as an object of pity, she refers to a parable in the Bible and uses highly emotive language. After little success with her manuscript, she decided to go to print. Mary Blaithwaite even sent a rather ominous letter to Oliver Cromwell which essentially informs him that he should take pity on her because he would want his wife to be protected if he ever died.

The enthusiasm expressed by our audience during the Q and A was a testament to Hannah’s really fascinating research. If you would like to find out more, follow Hannah on twitter @HannahWorthen

We look forward to seeing you for our talk next week on the female grotesque. It will take place at the different time of 3pm, in a different room HumSS 144