Last week, on International Women’s Day, one of my brilliant friends Patti shared an article with me on Facebook. It’s not all about pictures of dogs that look like muffins you know. The article was an interview with proper historian Dr Bettany Hughes on the subject of why women were written out of history. Dr Hughes points out women only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history despite making up 50% of the population. It’s a fascinating article but what really stood out for me was this sentence,
“We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative, there are so many women that should be household names but just aren’t”.
After reading this, I thought of Eleanor Davies whose story I first became aware of at Christmas, when reading Peter Ackroyd’s book on the Civil War. Eleanor, a fervent anti-papist, believed she was a prophet and that she could predict events in England based on anagrams she found in the Bible and specifically, the Book of Daniel and Revelation. She even managed to create an anagram from her own name – ‘Reveal O Daniel’ – which she considered evidence of her gift (although this form of prophecy was later mocked when at one of her trials it was discovered that another anagram of her name was ‘Never Soe Mad a Ladie’). I’ve been holding out on this intriguing woman until I felt I could do her greater justice. But perhaps saying nothing about her, rather than sharing what I do know about her, however incomplete, is a bigger injustice.
Given that I dabble in local history a bit, I was surprised that I hadn’t come across Eleanor before. Although frequently in trouble for publishing her prophecies in the form of pamphlets, both with her husbands and with the authorities, it was here in Lichfield where she embarked on her one instance of direct action. At Michaelmas 1636, Eleanor moved from The Angel into the Cathedral Close to live with Susan Walker. Eleanor, Susan, and another local woman called Marie Noble, were said to have spent a lot of time discussing religion and went everyday to the Cathedral to protest against the seating arrangements which gave priority based on social rank and office, by sitting in the seats reserved for gentlewomen and the wives of the bishop, dean and canons. According to Esther Cope’s biography, there is no record of what specifically led Eleanor and the other women to protest but we do know that Eleanor wrote to the Bishop to express her disapproval about whatever it was. When no reply was received, she took her protest to the next level, sprinkling the new altar hangings at the Cathedral with a mixture of tar, pitch and puddle water and sitting on the bishop’s throne where she declared herself ‘primate and metropolitan’. On hearing of this, the Privy Council ordered that she be sent to Bedlam without trial, although Eleanor actually remained here in the city until mid February as the messengers bringing the order were delayed by bad weather. According to Cope, both Susan Walker and Marie Noble were also later prosecuted for ‘discussing religion’.
Events in Lichfield are clearly a significant chapter in the complex story of Eleanor Davies (1) Going back to Bettany Hughes’ views on putting women back into the historical narrative wherever possible, perhaps Eleanor Davies, and indeed Susan Walker and Marie Noble, should be also be included as a significant chapter in the story of Lichfield?
Notes & References
(1) I’ve focused here on Eleanor Davies’ time in Lichfield for obvious reasons but I highly recommend reading the journal article by Esther Cope “Eleanor Davies Never Soe Mad a Ladie” for a more detailed look at her life, and it can be found online here
The Prophetic Writings of Lady Eleanor Davies
Cope, E S. (1993) Handmaid of the Holy Spirit: Dame Eleanor Davies, Never Soe Mad a Ladie Michigan:University of Michigan Press
Cope, E S Dame. Eleanor Davies Never Soe Made a Ladie? Huntingdon Library Quarterly 50(2) 133 0 144