One way of looking at the Protestant Reformation in England was that it was completely because of a woman that Henry VIII broke away from the Pope, for whom he had been such a staunch defender just a decade before. If Henry hadn’t been so besotted with Anne Boleyn, and if she had been more gracious in becoming his mistress, then maybe we’d all still be reciting the rosary. Of course that’s simplistic. The King of England and the Pope had beef for centuries, and Henry saw an opportunity to get a lot of money and land by dissolving the monasteries when he broke away from the Church fold. Henry’s wives tend to dominate the social history of the time, but there were other women who were making history, too, albeit less sensational. Here are five worth knowing:
Margaret Beaufort – Fighter for her family’s claim to the throne and all-around badass
I wrote a lot about Margaret Beaufort yesterday, so I won’t rehash it all. She was the sole heiress to a Lancastrian branch of the family that had a serious claim to the throne, even moreso after the early battles of the Wars of the Roses when the nobility began killing each other. She sent her only son, Henry Tudor, abroad so he would stay alive and avoid the infighting of the Cousins’ War, and she pretended to be a good member of the Yorkist court while all the time working ceaselessly to position her son as the next King. When he sailed for England and met Richard III on Bosworth Field, her husband’s forces probably tipped the battle in Henry’s favor. When he became Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, she was right there providing advice and taking an active interest in government. In a world where men made policy, she made her son a King.
Anne Askew – Protestant Preacher, ‘Heretic,’ and maker-of-important-people-uncomfortable
Even though Henry VIII broke from Rome, he still wasn’t a Protestant in the traditional sense. He didn’t want the liturgy changed. He just wanted to be the head of a still-Catholic-seeming church in England. Protestants were still regularly tortured and burned as heretics. One of these was a woman from Lincolnshire who was highly educated, great at argument, and pious. She was married off to a man originally intended for her sister, but her sister died before the marriage, and so she took her place. She eventually sued for divorce for spiritual reasons, her husband kicked her out, and she moved to London and began preaching the gospel by heart. At the time she was arrested, opponents of the King’s current, and last Queen, Katherine Parr, tried to link Anne with Katherine in an attempt to bring the Queen down. But even though Anne was tortured on the rack – the only woman on record ever to have been tortured in the Tower – she never gave away any names, and never implicated the Queen. After her torture, she had to be carried to the stake – where she was burned – on a chair because her injuries were so great. The constable of the tower was so impressed with her, he refused to torture her, so others had to. In part because of backlash against her execution, no more Protestants were killed under Henry VIII before he died.
Isabella Whitney – Published Poet and Literary badass
A middle class woman leaves her village in Cheshire to go to London and try to profit from her creativity – in this case, her writing. A story we’d be familiar with, and still inspired by if it happened now. But Isabella Whitney was born in the 1540’s, and is the first woman to have published secular poetry in England. Most of what she wrote was satire, and in 1573 she wrote a Last Will addressed to London. This is in response to an act of 1544 that made it illegal for certain people to write their own wills – namely the mad, people under 21, and wives. Writing a will, and publishing it, puts her in the position of someone asserting her own power and independence, and then looking down on London to make sharp critiques about the city.
Elizabeth Barton – the Nun of Kent – Mystical badass
Elizabeth Barton was born around 1506 and became a nun when, after she fell ill and recovered, she became certain that she could speak with angels. A monk went to investigate, and either believed her, or believed that she was believable enough that he could make money off of her by admitting her to the local convent in Canterbury in 1526. While at St. Sepulcher, her fame increased, but things really started to take off for her when Henry VIII began to think about divorcing Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth Barton spoke directly to the King in private, warning him to put aside thoughts of divorce. He didn’t listen to her, and so she began to talk in public, saying that if he married Anne Boleyn, he would die within a month. She was arrested for treason in July 1533, and was taken to the Tower. It was while being questioned by Thomas Cranmer that she began to break and doubt her visions. She made a public confession, though it’s believed to have been extracted through force, and was executed in November 1533 for high treason, along with the monks who supported her.
Bess of Hardwick – my historical-girl-crush – entrepreneur and sticker-up-for-her-rights
It’s no secret that I have a total history crush on Bess of Hardwick. This woman was married four times, went from being the daughter of a yeoman farmer with so-so prospects to being the second wealthiest woman in England just after the Queen herself. She did it through strategy, and sticking up for her rights when she needed to. She was clever and protected her inheritances and dowries, and she always kept her finances separate from her husband’s so that she didn’t bail them out and they weren’t able to gamble with her money. The woman was astute and knew how to build a dynasty. She was the grandmother to Arbella Stuart, who had a good claim to the English throne, and she built homes, like Hardwick Hall, that still stand today. I adore her.
There are so many inspiring women in history, it’s hard to choose just five. But I think this list is a good start. What do you think? Who would you include who’s not on it?