Women’s History

Moving Beyond Boundaries: Student Perspective

In this post, sixth-form student Katherine Holmes shares her thoughts on the Moving Beyond Boundaries project and women’s history.


Students were surprised to learn about women’s active role in political reform in the Georgian era. 1819 ©Trustees of the British Museum

The women’s history project during our Personal Development Programme every week has been absolutely brilliant in opening our eyes to such a significant (but mainly unspoken) part of our country’s (and the world’s) history. Our perceptions on the role of women in history is primarily based on stereotypes and uneducated inferences that women have been merely passive witnesses in the building of our current society, and it was only men who really made any impact. A lot of us aim to excuse this by relying on the idea that women had limited opportunity. However, the project has taught us that although this is partly true, women did a lot more than we first assumed. These false assumptions can be argued to be a result of how women are represented on the curriculum, with us knowing lots about influential kings, prime ministers, archbishops, male scientists and authors etc. but little about not only influential women as individuals (e.g. Mary Seacole, Marie Curie etc.), but of the gender as a whole. We were extremely surprised to learn of the Georgian political protesters, as the only thing we are taught about the role of women in politics is the movement of women’s suffrage in the early 1900s, and even then this topic is separated and highlighted as an exception and is only about their fight for equality, not the influence they have had throughout history and how they helped shape society into what it is today. Thank you so much for such a great opportunity to see women’s history from a completely different perspective, and as someone personally wanting to undertake history at university it has provided me with a fantastic experience to talk about on personal statements and interview which is directly relevant to the course.


Constructing Gender in the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Centuries

In this post, facilitator Jessica Haldeman discusses one of the aims of the session on Georgian Women, which drew parallels between the constructions of ideal femininity in this period and today.

Working as a facilitator for the Moving Beyond Boundaries project was definitely one of the biggest highlights in my year so far. It’s been a great chance to share my work, continue the process of developing my own ideas, and enable others to peek into women’s history. Last week, my workshop partner Ruth Mather and I spent a few hours presenting on the topic of Georgian Women and discussed the realities of their lives and experiences. In this post, I’d like to discuss a concept that we introduced to the students: the feminine ideal. By comparing quotations from eighteenth-century conduct books with quips from contemporary articles, we were able to show the students that the notion of what makes a ‘real woman’ still applies to our lives today. By dissecting writing of the past, it allowed the students to question the messages that women are faced with on a daily basis.


The Georgian Woman: Ideal vs Reality

Far from the glamour of a Jane Austen novel or BBC adaptation, women in the eighteenth century faced social pressures from a wide variety of sources. No matter their social status, women had specific expectations about how to be feminine, what to wear, and even what leisure activities to enjoy. Take this quote from Samuel Richardson, for example:

‘…I would have you remember, my dear that as sure as anything intrepid, free, and in a prudent degree bold, becomes a man, so whatever is soft, tender, and modest, renders your sex amiable. In this one instance we do not prefer our own likeness, and the less you resemble us the more you are sure to charm: For a masculine women is a character as little creditable as becoming.’
Samuel Richardson, Letters from Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions, 1741, Letter xc, p.125.

Here, Richardson defines masculine and feminine behaviour. Citing masculinity as “intrepid, free, and bold”, Richardson makes femininity its contrast as something “soft, tender, and modest”. Richardson even addresses the concept of “masculine women”, stating that this type of woman has no credibility or appeal to men.

These messages aren’t unique to the eighteenth century. Today, women are constantly told to be amiable, soft-spoken, and delicate from an incalculable amount of channels. Glossy magazines beckon from our supermarkets, blogs and twitter accounts advertise products in the comfort of our own homes, self-help and beauty books occupy our shelves. Sources and voices have always told women how to act, how to dress, what to think. They did it in the eighteenth century. They do it today.

Participating in this project allowed us to share with the students that they don’t have to bend to expectations that society puts on them. We impressed upon the students that there’s no “recipe” for being feminine or masculine. No amount of stereotypically feminine behaviour, makeup, or clothing will ever take away who you are or add to your worth. By looking at Georgian women and learning about how they navigated the slippery slope of public approval, the students began to identify all of the messages they receive about femininity and how they might be affected by society’s voice.

Jessica Haldeman


In 2011, I graduated with a BA in English Literature from UCLA. After teaching English for a year, I completed a Master’s Degree at the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York with a dissertation on the social and theological connections between Baptist and Anglican women writers. I am currently a first year PhD student in the same department, researching Nonconformist women in the Eighteenth Century and representations of the physical body in their writing.


‘It’s a Kind of Magic’: Teaching Witchcraft History

In this post, facilitator Gabriela Leddy discusses both the difficult and rewarding aspects of teaching about Early Modern witchcraft.

Witches are a cultural phenomenon that everyone has some exposure to, but many do not know where these stereotypes that we still use today came from. In my lesson, I taught the students about sixteenth and seventeenth century English witchcraft and the women who were caught in the crossfire of religious and political turmoil.

We started out by thinking about the stereotypes of witches. Some immediate examples came to mind such as those portrayed and illustrated by Roald Dahl and the ones we see in movies such as the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter. I expected the students to stick to these stereotypes, but many branched out, giving features that had quite historical context. I had quite a lot that mentioned her old age, her black cat, and her poverty—all features that have ties to the witchcraft trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

Some of the witch stereotypes the students came up with

Some of the witch stereotypes the students came up with

For some more hands on work, I had the students break into five groups, each group with its own trial. For my selection of trials, I picked trials that were spread across the period, specifically focusing on presenting samples that were before, during and after the height of the witch craze, 1645. One of the selections was not technically a trial, but was actually a record of Matthew Hopkins, a notorious witch-hunter who many claim was behind the mass witch hunt in 1645 Essex and Sussex, giving an account of how he discovered witches. In their small groups, I asked them to read through the trial, which they were given as side-by-side comparisons of the black-letter pamphlet (as it would have appeared to contemporaries) and a transcription of the trial, as black-letter is quite difficult to read if not familiar with it. They were asked to read through the trial with the expectation of trying to determine how a witch was identified, what features she must have to be a witch, and anything they were surprised with that took place in the trials. They were then to present their thoughts on this to the class.

The public hanging of the three Chelmsford witches Joan Prentice, Joan Cony and Joan Upney. From an English pamphlet, 1598.

The public hanging of the three Chelmsford witches Joan Prentice, Joan Cony and Joan Upney. From an English pamphlet, 1598.

For the presentations, I went in chronological order, as I wanted to show the overall changing of witchcraft features from malefic (bad, disruptive magic) to diabolic (magic directly associated with the Devil or demons). The students seemed to pick up on this too, highlighting that at the beginning of the period, witches seemed more like bad neighbours and by the end, they seemed more like slaves to Satan. Although we did not have much time to discuss it, I hinted that this change might have to do with the rise of Puritanism within England at the time and that outside threats, such as the Catholic Church or Spain, faded away to internal threats such as we see during the Civil War and indeed, witchcraft. I was quite surprised that after this comment one student asked bluntly, ‘Was witchcraft then a means of social control?’. This was a very astute observation as it has been argued among witchcraft historians for decades. Because of limitations on time, I merely had to respond that it could be argued that witchcraft was a means of controlling women (and some men) who were outside the patriarchal system and did not ‘follow the rules’ of early modern society.

Overall, I was quite impressed with how well the lesson went. The students seemed interested and motivated to question the sources. They also hit on a lot of the historical debates that are still be analysed. The one thing I really learned is that even the most basic lesson about witchcraft, which I tried to present here, breeds too many questions to cover in just one class. More than ever I can see that it is such a complex topic involving issues of religion, politics, gender, class systems, and societal changes that make it very hard to simplify. This being said, I think that it was great to have some of these issues come out in the class, as one of my goals was to make students think about how we label women and how women were labelled and the motivations behind it. Also I hope that it showed how a seemingly straight-forward topic such as witchcraft is more than a phenomenon that is tied to archaic and uneducated minds as most assume, but is actually rooted in some of the very values we still hold today.

Gabriela Leddy


I am PhD student at the University of York looking into witches’ familiars in Early Modern England and how they relate to the wider scope of contemporary views on animals, the body and the devil.

What Moving Beyond Boundaries Means For Me

In this post, facilitator Ruth Mather outlines her motivations for taking part in the Moving Beyond Boundaries project.

I was really delighted to be invited take part as a facilitator the Moving Beyond Boundaries project. The project gave me an opportunity to move beyond the boundaries of academia and to take some of my research work to a wider audience. This was challenging but highly enjoyable. I’ve rarely been able to teach my own research area before, so it was necessary to think about which ideas I wanted to share, and how to make these interesting and useful for the audience. It was useful to work with a partner, Jessica Haldeman, to pool our different areas of expertise and find connections. Since as PhD candidates we spend a lot of time focusing on a fairly narrow research area, this expanded my own knowledge of the period, as well as making sure the lesson wasn’t all about my personal preoccupations!

Most importantly for me, however, Moving Beyond Boundaries is about encouraging reflection on what history is and what it is for. The crucial message is that what we choose to emphasise in our past is important for our sense of identity in the present day. As a feminist historian, I therefore find the continued dominance of elite white men on the curriculum troubling. This had led the students, we discovered in the first session, to believe that women hadn’t done much worth remembering, although they were aware that this was due to restrictions on women participating in the kinds of events deemed to be worthy of inclusion on the curriculum. Perhaps the topics we think about need to change if we are to include women as anything other than an ‘add-on’. From my own experience, it was not until I began to work on more social history at university that I began find a history with which I could identify, and from which I could build a sense of how my place in society was built from the past.  Much of this is of course down to personal preference, but I had found stories of great men and glorious wars and high politics alienating because they didn’t explain how people like me had reacted and participated. There is a place for these narratives, but they must not be the only narratives students receive, because they say that ordinary people – men too, but especially women – and their everyday lives aren’t important. It is not just great events which shape the world, but the seemingly insignificant daily routines in which we all take part, and which contribute in their own ways to the wider stories of power, resistance, continuity and change that are the essence of history. I’m proud to be part of Moving Beyond Boundaries not just because it redresses the balance in representation of women in the history curriculum, but because it encourages students to question what they are taught and why, and how this affects their views of the world we live in today.

Ruth Mather


Visit Ruth’s blog at http://ruthmather.wordpress.com 

Teaching ‘Georgian Women’

In this post, facilitator Ruth Mather reflects on teaching the ‘Georgian Women’ workshop.

Our major aim for this lesson was to explore how the realities of life for Georgian women might differ from contemporary ideals or modern media stereotypes, and thus to encourage the students to consider the socially constructed nature of gender both then and now. We began with the basics though, asking the students what they knew about women’s lives in the period 1714-1830. Because we allowed the opportunity to confer with a partner, and stressed that we didn’t mind guesses, the students were happy to contribute their understandings of a period that had not featured heavily on the history curriculum. Most of the responses focused on fashion and physical appearance: they were aware of ‘big wigs with fruit in’, hooped dresses and corsets, while one student mentioned the famous figure of Marie Antoinette. This might be due to the aspects of the period that tend to be highlighted in popular representations.

georgian portrayals

Popular representations of Georgian women

Media representation of the Georgian period was the next subject we sought to explore, showing a video clip from the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and asking the students to comment on the way that Mrs Bennett and her daughters are portrayed. In the particular clip we used, the students said that women seemed frivolous, marriage-obsessed, and dependent on men. Indeed, the idea of dependence on men was pervasive as we moved to our next task, in which we looked at advice literature and what was expected of the ‘ideal’ Georgian woman. We began with a quick guessing game, in which we read excerpts from 18th century didactic literature and from a 21st century blog on femininity, and asked the students to guess which was which. They were shocked to find that even today women can be advised to be submissive, gentle, and quiet. Finally, the students used posters to represent the ideal Georgian woman in words and images, which were then shared with the class. Again, quietness, demureness, chastity and submissiveness, as well as fashion, elegance and an appropriate degree of education came to the fore.

ideal woman

Student working on ‘Ideal Woman’ poster

After a quick break, we returned to these thoughts about ideals of womanhood, and began to question the kinds of other factors which might affect an ability or desire to achieve ideals, both in Georgian Britain and today. As well as personal inclination and values, we thought about social status, education, and the views of family and friends. We should perhaps also have mentioned the conflicting demands in a lot of advice literature! Moving on, we launched a series of quickfire introductions to aspects of women’s lives, following which the students had five minutes to respond in words and pictures on their posters. This worked very well, as we were able to convey quite a lot of information in a short period. This kept the attention of the students, who were able to ask questions or request more detail in the five minutes response time, and we were pleased that many did use this opportunity. The quickfire lectures covered the topics of love, home and work, education and religion and politics. We tried to highlight variety in the lives of women, talking about difference within as well as between social groups. Contrary to the students’ expectations, they became aware that women were able to exercise agency in a number of situations: they had considerable power within the home, they could use their religious enthusiasm to travel and to speak out, and women of different social statuses participated in politics in different ways. They were also surprised to hear about cross-dressing and lesbianism, and we used this opportunity to encourage them to think about whether or not gender is fixed or fluid. In the feedback period, the students discussed how their views had changed and we felt that the session had been successful in encouraging them to think about ideals and realities of life for Georgian women. We thoroughly enjoyed the session and hope that the students did too.

Ruth Mather


After graduating from the University of Cumbria with a BA in History in 2009, I completed a Masters degree in Modern History at the University of York in 2010-2011. Since 2012 I have been working on a PhD within the Department of History and Centre for Studies of Home at Queen Mary, University of London, exploring the relationships between politics and the homes of working people in England, c.1790-1830. I work primarily on late-Georgian Britain, and my research interests include gender and class in popular politics, the history of the family, and the study of material culture. I also work as a volunteer with York Museums Trust and with the Borthwick Institute for Archives and am interested in widening participation in historical research.

‘Migration and British Muslim Women’ Workshop

In this post, Sibyl Adam describes her experience of delivering a thought-provoking workshop on ‘Migration and Muslim Women’.

As part of my research and my wider interests, I have always felt there to be a lack of ‘common knowledge’ about the fundamental aspects of immigration in Britain, as well as the history of Muslims in Britain. This has left a space in which the more negative representations, propagated by media outlets, are more readily accepted and believed.  The issue is not the existence of negative portrayals and opinions, but the lack of positive and varied portrayals to ‘balance out’ the negative ones. Thus, I was very keen to be involved with the Moving Beyond Boundaries project.  I have felt for a while now that education, especially with young people, is the most important method to help combat issues of misunderstanding and misrepresentation in the history of Muslims in Britain, especially Muslim women.

My session on ‘Migration and British Muslim Women’ was combined with Gaby Leddy’s session on ‘Witchcraft in Early Modern England’, a topic which at first may not seem similar to mine. However, we found there to be many similarities concerning the representation of women, especially the use of stereotypes. In fact, the contrasting topics served to only highlight the prolific use of stereotypes in such distinct time periods in women’s history.

The aim of my half of the session was to emphasise the long history of Muslim women migrating to Britain, and to introduce some key ideas:

  •  Men often migrated first then women and children followed
  • Migration and Muslims living in Britain is not a contemporary phenomenon
  • Muslim women’s experience in Britain is varied and so not compliant with the stereotypical representations of ‘oppressed’ and ‘voiceless’

I began by asking the students if they could name, out loud to the rest of the class, any famous British Muslim women. I was surprised by the varied and prolific response, which included Olympic athletes, TV presenters and members of the House of Lords. They were also aware of Muslim representations in TV and film, although generally those based on male protagonists like the film ‘Four Lions’ and the TV show ‘Citizen Khan’. This was a good start to my half of the session, as the students appeared engaged and open minded. I wanted to begin with the basic acknowledgement that Muslim women can be found working in every aspect of British life. I gave a short presentation on the history of why Muslim people have moved to and lived in Britain for hundreds of years and introduced two authors – Atiya Fyzee and Leila Aboulela.

The main part of my half of the session involved three narrative extracts – two contemporary, fictional pieces by Fadia Faqir and Leila Aboulela and one piece of travel writing by Atiya Fyzee from the Edwardian period. I chose to use these pieces because they were different sources in which the students could engage. The travel writing was obviously a more historical source and the contemporary extracts showed the cultural production of Muslim women by Muslim women of different degrees of religiosity. I purposely chose extracts of Muslim women doing everyday things, such as going to work, going travelling, or visiting a mosque but these extracts also showed how their lives were specially affected by being women and Muslims. The extracts varied in positivity, which was done to counteract the stereotypical portrayals in British media of Muslim women as necessarily oppressed by their culture.  In small groups, the students read and discussed the extracts, keeping in mind the questions of why people migrate, and how migration is different for women and Muslims.

Following this, the students were asked to design storyboards on the subject of Muslim women and migration. These could be drawn like cartoons or film storyboards, and the subject of their projects could be contemporary and historical. I also provided photos from the Bradford Museum photo gallery of migrants from the 50s and 60s. I wanted the students to engage with the way first generation migrants, mostly from predominantly Muslim countries and British ex-colonies, presented themselves, including their dress and facial expressions. I hoped this would provide extra inspiration for the storyboards and was pleased to see students aware of details such as, in one of the photos, the military medals on the suit of an elderly Indian man. The student deduced the man must have fought for Britain in a war and by displaying the medals must be proud to be British.

 migrant women2

There were varied responses to this activity – some storyboards used the extracts as inspiration and some created their own narratives. The group I was working with came up with the idea of showing different periods in modern history that involved Muslims in Britain. I was impressed with how the students included the relatively mundane scene, from the Atiya Fyzee extract, of a Muslim woman visiting a Mosque in 1907, alongside scenes of the famous Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, the Bradford Riots, and 9/11. I felt that this showed that they understood that Muslims have not always had such a threatening image in Britain, and that global events such as 9/11 have contributed to the negative attitudes towards Muslims in Britain.

Some of the students' work on Muslim women and migration

Some of the students’ work on Muslim women and migration

At the end of the session, each group of students presented their storyboard and narrated them. We then  asked the students to talk about similarities between my half of the session and Gaby’s. Overall, I found the session to be a rewarding and interesting experience. I was particularly impressed by the previous knowledge and open-mindedness of the students, and I hope our project inspires them to think more about women’s history outside of the curriculum.

Sibyl Adam


I did my undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. I am currently on the MA Cultures of Empire, Resistance and Postcoloniality at the University of York, where I have developed my keen interest in British Muslim writing and feminist postcolonial theory.  I hope to continue my studies next year with a PhD at the University of York, looking at the changing role of religion in Muslim women’s writing about migration since the Edwardian era. The aim of this research will be to determine the relationship between gendered religious identity and the changing image of Islam in British society.

What Did Women Do?

In this post, project organisers Abigail Tazzyman and Bridget Lockyer reflect on the first session of Moving Beyond Boundaries at Huntington School

On the 26th February Moving Beyond Boundaries: Gender, Knowledge, History held its first session at Huntington School in York with twenty-five AS level students from Huntington, Fulford and Bootham Schools.  In this session we introduced the project and ourselves and tried to gauge students’ current knowledge of women’s history, their experience of being taught it at school and their views on its role and importance. We were lucky enough to have use of the school library with plenty of room for group work and movement, providing an interactive learning and teaching environment.

We began the session with the basics, asking students to shout out which elements of women’s history up they could remember learning about. We asked them to include any women that they had studied in subjects other than history such as English, Maths, Science, Art, Music etc. The first list was relatively short: the Suffragettes, women who worked in the First World War effort, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Bronte and Amy Johnson. Amy Johnson and Charlotte Bronte found their way onto the list because two of the Huntington School houses are named after them.


What elements of women’s history could they remember learning about?

This list was expanded after the students were asked to fill out a written questionnaire and to compare their responses in small groups. Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks, Boudicca, Mother Teresa, Elizabeth Fry and various queens of England were added to the list. A few women writers were named: Caryl Churchill, Susan Hill and Angela Carter as well as the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The flapper girls of the 1920s and women in 1950/60s Britain also got a mention. Overall, their knowledge was what we expected, it fitted with what we had learnt from conversations with history teachers and chimed with our own experiences of women’s history at school. The students obviously had some understanding of women’s history, but this was focused around key individuals who were often presented as the exceptions.

We were however very reassured by the level of engagement and contribution of all the students taking part. Both in small groups, class discussions and presentations the students were responsive, offering honest and thoughtful answers and giving clear consideration to the material they encountered. The most fruitful discussion sprung from a question about equal representation of men and women on the history curriculum. Most of the students recognised that women were less represented than men. Yet the reasons they gave for why this was the case was interesting and particularly thought-provoking for us as a team.

Do you think men and women are equally represented on the curriculum? If not, why not?

Do they think men and women are equally represented on the curriculum?
If not, why not?

The students felt that although it was true that women were less represented on the curriculum, this was not deliberate. For them, women in the past contributed little to society. Compared to men, they had not taken part in or even been present during big, ‘world-changing’ events, and this was because they lacked the opportunities to do so. The exclusion of women on the curriculum now was just a consequence of them being prevented from doing anything worthy of note in the past. From the student’s perspective, we could not learn about a history which never existed in the first place.

We were particularly struck by the implication that the curriculum emerged organically, merely reflecting the ‘truth’ about women’s position and roles in the past. We asked the students to think about who devises school curriculums and why, and that this is not an objective process. One student suggested that a male bias could emerge because most of the people making decisions on the curriculum were male themselves.

Within the students’ responses there were also judgements on what counted as noteworthy and which parts of history warranted being taught in school. In a discussion about the women on the banknotes campaign, a few of the students argued that Jane Austen was less important and influential than Charles Darwin (the current face of our £10 notes). They contended that Austen had only been chosen because she was a woman, and that her actual contribution, writing novels, was quite insignificant in comparison. Here, we reminded the students that male writers had also featured on the banknotes in the past, most notably Charles Dickens.

When we asked which parts of history the students considered to be important, there was general agreement that war, politics and science were the most significant. These were the things that had shaped society, and the students wanted to learn history that better enabled them to understand contemporary Britain. They felt that they should not be ‘forced’ to learn about women’s history, when, as they argued, their contribution to the making of Britain (and the world) was so limited. Again, women’s cultural contributions were sidelined, regarded as less significant. They also did not consider that the reason why they believed women had not been part of political or scientific developments was because they had not been taught about it.

Not all of the students felt the same. A small minority argued that for a woman to be recognised at all given the challenges she faced, was remarkable and should be taught in schools. They also argued that women have often been written out of history, meaning that their contributions have been forgotten or undervalued. They acknowledged that women’s lives were less recorded than men’s and that in general, the curriculum struggles to cover the lives of ordinary people, only the famous or exceptional, and this was partly to blame for the under-representation of women.

It was interesting that the few students who challenged the dominant view were mainly from Fulford School where they have an initiative called ‘Feminist Fridays’, a time dedicated to focusing on and learning about women and women’s rights both in the past and present. As a result, they appeared to be more open to taking a more critical look at women’s inclusion on the history curriculum.

We finished the session on an activity which questioned students’ assumptions of women’s roles at different points in British history: Roman, Medieval, Victorian, 1950s and 2014. This exercise was to get students to think about what women have been doing for the last two millenia. For example, most of the groups initially stated that women were unlikely to work during their allotted time period, but on further consideration, began to list some of jobs women might have done.


Students’ assumptions about women’s roles in different historical periods

It is important to note that we were very keen to hear the views of all the students in this first session, and we made sure that we did not disagree or argue with their contributions. Instead, we wanted to open up the debate and encourage them to think more critically in the weeks to come. The project now moves on to the workshop stage where each week the students will engage with a new area of women’s history that they have not previously encountered. It will be interesting to see whether or not their perspectives will change.

Dame Emma Raughton: Holy Woman, Visionary and Prisoner

In this post Jessica Knowles, one of our post-grad workshop facilitators, describes the unusual life of a medieval York woman, Emma Raughton.

In around 1420 a ceremony took place at the church of All Saints North Street in York. The Archbishop of York came to this small and insignificant parish church to brick up a woman in a cell. She was to suffer a living death. She was to spend the rest of her life living and praying in this tiny room. First she had to lie down in the church as if she were dead. She would then be picked up and carried into a small building attached to the side of the church. The archbishop said that the Office for the Dead, the entrance to this house, would be blocked up so that she could never leave. From then onwards she was reliant upon donations for food, clothes and anything else she needed. Yet she had not committed any great crime or sin.

Instead this woman, Emma Raughton, had chosen to undergo this treatment and wished never to leave the cell again. She probably came from a relatively wealthy family and may have previously been married. However, she decided that to become closer to God she wanted to spend the rest of her life in prayer and serving God within the confines of a building less than two meters squared.

And this dedication to God was rewarded. In 1421 she received seven visions from the Virgin Mary. These visions instructed the Earl of Warwick, one of the most powerful men in England, to build a church in Warwickshire. If he did this his wife would give birth to a son. He did do it and his wife did have a son. Emma’s visions also said that if he built the church the Earl would get custody of the infant King of England and France. Which he did. By choosing to be bricked up in a tiny cell, Emma Raughton had influence over events of international importance.

One of Emma's prophecies comes true as King Henry VI is crowned king of France in Paris on 16th December 1430

One of Emma’s prophecies comes true as King Henry VI is crowned king of France in Paris on 16th December 1430

Yet Emma Raughton would not have appeared strange or unusual to the people living in fifteenth-century York. Indeed, there were at least three other anchoress in York at the same time. Since before the Norman Conquest, women (and sometimes men) had chosen to be walled up for the rest of their lives. And this gave them considerable power. Whilst few had the level of international influence that Emma Raughton enjoyed, they were free from the supervision of husbands, brothers and fathers. No one could force them to get married for someone else’s benefit and they were respected by the community. Although there were a few downsides: when you’re walled up in a cell you can’t run away from bubonic plague, or marauding armies, or really irritating neighbours.

Jessica Knowles


Jessica is in the third year of her PhD in the Centre for Medieval Studies. Her research examines the role of the family in the parish church, with a focus on family imagery. She did her BA and MA in the History Department of University of York.

Medieval Women and the College of St Stephen’s

In this first post Elizabeth Biggs, one of our post-grad workshop facilitators, discusses the presence of women in ‘all-male’ medieval colleges.

A Medieval college was a hybrid beast; neither a fully secular institution nor a religious one. Like monasteries, they mimicked familial structures and households: a group of men, usually but not always priests, who lived and celebrated the Mass together. Sometimes, and in addition to being concerned what was called the opus dei, the round of Masses and other religious services, they also provided education.  Oxbridge colleges were of that type, having both teaching responsibilities along with religious ones. The college I’m concerned with, based around the chapel of the same name in the palace of Westminster, had a staff of about forty, including boy choristers who received an education.

So in an all-male institution why am I talking about women? Women are easily written out of the story of late-Medieval English politics. You just need to look at the uncomfortable reaction of contemporaries and historians alike when Queen Margaret of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth Woodville are discussed, predominantly because they dared to wield ‘male’ forms of power. St Stephen’s was a political institution, the senior staff of St Stephen’s usually held political or civil-servant roles. They are the kinds of people talked about when historians write about politics in this period. By looking at the women involved in this college we can start to revise our understandings of women in politics during the medieval period. 


A dramatic case study at St Stephen’s in the early 1440s involves Eleanor Cobham, duchess of Gloucester. She was the wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the young king Henry VI’s uncle and head of the council that was ruling England at the time. Henry VI was not yet an adult, so his uncle and aunt were important figures at court. She was accused of witchcraft, for conspiring with a canon of St Stephen’s to produce a horoscope for Henry VI which said that he would be seriously ill in 1441. Her trial was held at St Stephen’s itself, in the grand chapel decorated with pictures of Edward III’s family, including his daughters and wife. Condemned to imprisonment for the rest of her life and divorced against her will from Humphrey, Eleanor was to spend the rest of her life in castles far from London.  Her ultimate downfall was to help her husband’s enemies have him executed six years later. Yet we can see that as Humphrey’s wife, Eleanor was involved with politics and her choices did have impact, even if it was not the impact she intended. In St Stephen’s she would have seen the images of Queen Philippa and her daughters. As royal women, with access to the king and lands of their own, they too played political roles, and they too would have known and been respected by the canons of St Stephen’s.

Less exalted women also interacted with St Stephen’s and its staff. For example, women could own land and property in their own right. John Gunthorpe, a canon in the 1470s, left land and money in his will to his sister, Helen. She was married, and her husband was probably still alive, but the land went to her specifically and gave her some economic independence from him.  Land and money could also be given by women acting on their own. For example, Margaret Swyffte, who was from Westminster, then a relatively prosperous town next door to London, gave money to the college so that every year on the anniversary of her death, they would say a mass for her. This obit (remembrance mass) was a customary thing to do, and you generally asked for an obit in a church that you had some connection to.  I don’t yet know why Margaret was attached to St Stephen’s, but her presence in their records is a reminder that women could have active roles in managing land and money, roles which we think of as the preserve of men in this period. It is so easy to look at the vast numbers of male names linked to the college. What is perhaps more interesting  is to look very carefully at the women who turn up in the records and think about their own activities and the possibilities open to them.

Elizabeth Biggs


Elizabeth is a first-year PhD student at the University of York working on a whole variety of topics from diplomacy to building logistics and careers in the church, trying to understand a particular institution, the College of St Stephen’s in Westminster during its late Medieval existence.