The World Turned Upside Down

In my poor judgment these times can bring no good end to them: all that women can do is to pray for better, for sure it is an ill time with them of all creatures for they are exposed to all villainies.1

When Margaret Eure wrote these words to her nephew Ralph Verney in the summer of 1642, civil war in England was fast approaching. Fighting had already been under way in other parts of the British and Irish islands for months, and it would last for years to come. For thousands of women and men, the times did indeed bring no good end: death and injury, bereavement and separation were to be common experiences, shared across social divides. More than simply a war, it was a period of disruption, questioning, revolutionary ideas and actions.

But Margaret was certainly mistaken in one respect. Women did more than pray; sometimes, like the remarkable Irish woman Lady Elizabeth Dowdall, they vigorously fought back. Others, like Brilliana Harley, were more reluctant - but no less resolute - commanders of siege defences. They became camp-followers (and occasionally soldiers, though less often than the popularity of the subject in ballads might suggest), sharing much of the privations and dangers of the soldiers, and with their own additional fears about the consequences of military defeat. Women, no less than men, took sides in the conflict, championed causes and raged against enemies.

Most of all, perhaps, they carried on as best they could in a world that was being turned upside down: they ran estates and businesses while their husbands and sons went to war, into exile or imprisonment, they petitioned parliament against the sequestration of estates, they bore children (and sometimes did all of these simultaneously). And those who were literate wrote, in letters, diaries and memoirs, of the effects of the changes being wrought upon their society as they experienced them and tried to make sense of them. These pages gather together some of those writings, accounts of war and revolution from women's perspectives and in their own words.

Editorial Notes

Caution: the truth of images?

While none of the written texts could be seen as simply 'neutral', many of the images here were produced for blatant propaganda purposes. The pictures of the 'atrocities' of the Irish rebellion are a particularly notorious example; iconoclastic puritan soldiers might (sometimes) also need to be taken with a pinch of salt, and so on. None should be taken at face value. They should perhaps be seen as part of the cultural contexts of the writers' experiences, since they would often have been familiar with the images, rather than directly depicting their lives in some way.

Editorial decisions

Spelling and capitalisation have been modernised in the extracts used (where this had not already been done), but otherwise they are reproduced as in the source. Sources for both texts and images are detailed in References.

The images reproduced in these pages are placed here under 'Fair Use' provisions for educational purposes. Mark Harden of Artchive gives a useful summary. See also Benedict O'Mahoney's Copyright Website. Source information is contained in each image's alt text.

  1. Margaret Eure, letter to Ralph Verney, 4 August 1642. Memoirs of the Verney family, I, 258.