Crazy Concepts Women Have Had To Endure In English History

Not much need for an introduction on this one. I’m just going to let the examples speak for themselves.

Women Can’t Accuse Men Of Murder

Magna Carta. Upheld and lauded as the foundation block of this country’s democracy, as well as overseas, the most commonly cited example being its influence on the U.S. Constitution. And it’s true, don’t get me wrong – core principles in Magna Carta, such as Clauses 39 and 40 (right to a jury and Habeas Corpus – to prevent people being imprisoned unlawfully) have echoed through the centuries setting important precedents for our modern society.

Magna Carta held in the British Library, (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of the day, however, it was produced in 1215 so it is also a product of its time. A charter which dealt with Medieval gripes and Medieval concerns, particularly those concerns of a very small, entitled section of society – Barons. So it may come as no shock to discover that Clause 54 of this hallowed document reads as follows:

“No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman, for the death of any other than her husband”
Yep. You read that right. Basically prohibits any woman from accusing a man of murder. Unless it’s her husband who’s died.

How far this was enforced, it’s not clear, but the intention was to keep women out of judicial processes, as they weren’t allowed to act as witnesses in cases like these. Coupled with the fact that, even though Magna Carta reinforced a person’s right to “the lawful judgement of his peers” (Clause 39), aka a jury, women would not have been allowed to sit on those juries, further ensuring that the law was, effectively, an elite boys’ club.

Bishop Of Winchester’s Rules About Sex Workers

Southwark was once very closely linked to Winchester, specifically through the Bishop of Winchester. From the twelfth-century, a section of Southwark, known as the Liberty of the Clink, was leased to the Bishop – an area of about 70 acres. The Bishop of Winchester traditionally held very important positions in the monarch’s government (such as Lord Chancellor), so it was vital that he also had a London base, so it was also in the Liberty of the Clink that you’d have found Winchester palace (some of the fourteenth-century ruins of which still survive in Southwark). Subsequent Bishops of Winchester continued to reside there until 1626.

Remains of Winchester Palace on Clink Street

The Bishop of Winchester didn’t just live here but also oversaw the administration and management of the area, an authority which was backed up with his own legal court and prison. Southwark has gone down in London’s history as being where all the fun stuff was and where the rules were a bit more relaxed. It was outside of the stricter jurisdiction of the City of London, but still with easy access from the City because it was just a hop, skip, and a jump over the river.

It was therefore in Southwark that you would find the theatres, the gaming houses, the bear-baiting and the cock-fighting, and, most importantly for our story, the brothels. The prominence of these “stewhouses” or “stews”, as they were called, was built into the very urban landscape of Southwark, with street names like Whores’ Nest and Codpiece Lane.

The Bishop of Winchester dedicated, what we may consider, an unhealthy amount of attention to the regulation and taxation of Southwark’s sex workers. To the extent, that they became known as “Winchester Geese”. In addition, “to be bitten by a Winchester goose” in the sixteenth-century meant you’d contracted a venereal disease. He even issued a set of rules called the “Ordinances Touching the Government of the Stewholders in Southwark under the Direction of the Bishop of Winchester” – 30+ regulations as well as the fines incurred for breaking them. The vast majority of sources seem to accept the issuing of the Ordinances in the 1160s, but the Wellcome Collection is pretty adamant that it was actually the fifteenth-century (that the Bishop was just pretending he’d dredged up these rules from the twelfth-century in order to give them a bit of credibility). Make of that what you will.

But let’s have a look at some of these rules. Before we get to some of the more ridiculous ones, there were some that were designed to protect the sex workers – women were not allowed to be forcibly detained and no married women and absolutely no nuns were allowed to work at a stewhouse. There were also regulations to protect the men who visited these establishments, for example, women were not allowed to physically drag men in from the street. It was a bit of a terrifying free-for-all in historic Southwark. The rest of the Ordinances pertained to anything and everything from what the women were allowed to wear (no aprons, because this was the mark of a respectable woman) to what they could say (no cursing). A lot of sources make reference as well to the fact that sex workers were not allowed to operate on Sundays and religious holidays, but apparently this was to the extent that the poor women would be physically expelled from the Liberty on holy days between 8am and 5pm (with a break in between from 11am to 1pm, in case someone wanted a bit of fun around lunchtime…). The most severe punishment was reserved for the women who slept with a man for love, not money. If she was discovered, the woman would be subjected to three weeks in prison, a six shilling fine, a dunking on the “cucking stool” (into raw sewage…), and banishment from Southwark. No mention of punishment for the man, however…

These rules would likely have been in effect until Henry VIII ordered the closure of the Southwark stews in 1546.

Fishwives Can’t Sit Down

Borough Market, a delectable assortment of delicious eateries in the London borough of Southwark, was not always so ordered and contained as it is today. The first known record of the market is 1276, but some argue it’s been in operation for over 1,000 years. In the centuries that it’s been in operation, the market has only had a proper home since the 1750s. Before that, it made do with whatever space it could find at the south end of London Bridge and as it grew it spread further and further down what is now Borough High Street. London Bridge was already a frenetic hive of chaos, after accounting for the houses and shops which ran both sides, it was only about four metres across – this narrow passage had to accommodate foot and road traffic in both directions. Not only that, but until 1750, London Bridge was the only bridge across the river Thames in London, so the route across London Bridge and then along Borough High Street was the main, and pretty much only, route southwards for the bulk of London on the other side of the river!

Old London Bridge, Claude de Jongh, 1632 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine now that you finally make it over the bridge, only to encounter a “road” teeming with traders, stalls, sacks of grain and vegetables, even loose livestock – goats and cows – stretching for hundreds of metres. Yeah… I’d turn back too.

There were multiple attempts to curtail and regulate the market. For example, a set of ordinances issued in 1624. The marauding livestock (okay, maybe not “marauding”, but certainly “meandering”) were getting out of hand so one rule was introduced to stop farmers going into local shops and slaughterhouses with their livestock – animals “that are so wild, that they will not enter, but run away (as often it happeneth)”. Similar to previous regulations, these ordinances stipulated that the traders set out their stalls in a particular order, running from the end of London Bridge down the high street (and this is where we circle back to the fishwives).
One thing that was new in 1624 is that suddenly fishwives were no longer allowed to sit down. Just women. And only those women who happened to be in the fish trade. I can’t find any more information than that, but I have a plethora of questions. Was this rule triggered by a particular event? Were fishwives stealing all the seats? Maybe people were worried the fish would run away, so the women needed to be on their feet and ready to give chase? Or maybe there was a disgruntled committee member who thought no one read his ordinances? Solution: include a crazy rule about fishwives to see how long it would take people to notice. If anyone could shed some light on this, I would be forever grateful. Thankfully, this rule no longer appears to be in force.

The Directory Which Helped You Find A Rich Wife

This is genuinely one of my favourite things which I learnt during my History degree because it’s just so ridiculous. In eighteenth-century Britain, there was genuinely a directory of wealthy women which could be consulted when one was in need of a rich wife. In 1742, the Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury or the Widower and Batchelor’s Directory was published, compiled by someone only identified as a “Younger Brother”.

The reason why it is very deliberately by a “Younger Brother” is because it was marketed to those unfortunate young men who had the burden of not being the eldest son, which meant, on the whole, these younger brothers missed out on inheriting their parents’ fortune.

(Photo: British Library, Google Books)

It gets better.

Not only does the book contain an alphabetical list of women from Duchesses to Spinsters for ease of use, it also provides “an account of their places of abode, reputed fortunes, and fortunes they posses in the stocks”. Of course, one must be fully informed before one courts one’s potential sugar-widow.

One name on the list really caught my eye; first of all because the place of abode was listed as “Downing Street”. The address at the heart of British politics, only newly so in the eighteenth-century when it became home to the man who is considered by many to be this country’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. The woman’s name in question in the directory? Lady Maria Walpole. With a reputed fortune of £80,000 (substantially more than any other woman in her section of the list and in much of the book). It’s a bit confusing, but if I’ve worked it out correctly, Maria was not Robert Walpole’s wife (also called Maria who died in childbirth in 1738), but his daughter. As she was illegitimate and the result of an affair between Robert and Maria, her date of birth is not entirely clear, some time between 1723 and 1734. “Luckily” for Maria, something happened in 1742 which launched her to the top of the eligibility chart, just in time for the publication of the directory. In 1742, Robert had become Earl of Orford and used his influence with King George II to have Maria’s status raised to that of an earl’s daughter. She was now Lady Maria Walpole. In 1746, she married Colonel Charles Churchill. I wonder how he found her…

No Degrees For Women

Until the nineteenth-century, women in this country were not allowed to go to university. Looking at the three oldest universities in England and considering that the oldest, Oxford, claims a vague foundation date around the eleventh-century, it wasn’t until 1868 that the first women were admitted to university education. This was at the University of London. The first to do so in the UK. Cambridge admitted women the following year and Oxford in the 1870s.

Certificate for Alice Mary Marsh, 1878, (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

What I actually find more patronising is the brief period after this. Yes, women were now at university… but they weren’t allowed degrees. Women at the University of London had to take a “Special Examination for Women” (sometimes called “General Examination”). At the end of it, no degree, but a “Certificate of Proficiency”. Announcement of this plan also caused such worry at the Home Office about “the excitement… which might arise from bringing these young persons up to London for examination” that there was a matron on hand in case the women’s hysteria got the better of them.

At Oxford, women could take the main exams but no, no, no, you still can’t have a degree. At Cambridge, it wasn’t until the 1880s that women could take the same exams as men, but (you guessed it) no degree. Basically, “we agree that you’re just as smart as men, but there’s no way we could give you a formal qualification admitting that”. Apparently, women students at Cambridge weren’t even allowed to attend lectures until the 1920s! By 1895, Oxford and Cambridge were the only two British universities to deny women degrees.

Then it was finally in 1878, 1920, and 1948 that the University of London, Oxford, and Cambridge respectively finally admitted women on the same terms as men. This right didn’t come easily either. Cambridge University still has the remnants of a firework thrown by protestors in 1897. Protestors fighting against women getting degrees. And, importantly, these dates largely refer to when the first white women were able to graduate from these institutions. I wasn’t able to find a date for the University of London, but it was only in 1935 that the first Black woman, Lady Ademola, graduated from Oxford, and 1948 that we see the same thing at Cambridge when Gloria Claire Carpenter graduated, so the same year Cambridge University started giving women degrees.

A note to end on: it was only in the 1950s and ’60s that Oxford and Cambridge respectively removed their quotas limiting the number of female undergraduates.

Female Artists Can’t Look At Nude Men

For a very long time, it was commonly accepted in most parts of Europe that the most esteemed type of painting was history painting. Grand, ambitious depictions of great Classical and religious stories and themes. Think of the great frescoes of Raphael and Michelangelo in the sixteenth-century or the monumental canvas of seventeenth-century Peter Paul Rubens. For an equally long time, women were largely excluded from this type of art. You had the exceptions like Artemisia Gentileschi and Angelica Kauffmann, but those exceptions often came from artistic families, where they could receive a more homeschool-style education in art. Very few European artistic academies accepted women, and often, those that did wouldn’t let women draw the male nude, an important part of being able to produce a successful history painting.

This goes for England too. England received their art academy, the Royal Academy, in England in 1768 with the great RA Schools founded the following year. It is the oldest art school in Britain and was one in a string of art academies which had been founded across Europe since the sixteenth-century, intending to represent the peak of artistic taste and education. It seems like a real kick in the teeth that even though two women were part of the founding circle of the Academy, women were not allowed to study there until 1860. And even then it was by accident. In 1860, the RA schools accepted a student who submitted their drawings simply labelled, L.H.. Unbeknownst to them, the artist who’d applied wasn’t Larry, but Laura. Laura Herford.

In the ten years after Herford’s admission, a further thirty-four female students were admitted to the RA, although the fight continued to allow them access to the same facilities and training as their male peers, namely life drawing. By barring women from this important stage of artistic training, women were automatically put at a disadvantage when they entered the professional art world.

The contemporary justifications came thick and fast. Women were ruled by emotion; their hysteria would know no bounds if they were presented with the naked male form!
Women were fragile and their delicate disposition was better suited to “minor” fields of painting: the ease of still life and gentle landscape painting. Their painting had to embody “feminine” traits like beauty, grace, and modesty.
Women had no need to become accomplished artists to the same standard as men because a woman’s true focus should be marriage and procreation. It was academic anyway; women couldn’t achieve that level of skill – it was biological: weak hands.

Even the two female artists who had helped found the Royal Academy, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, were not allowed into the Life Room to study and draw nude models.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany, 1771-72, (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The image above encapsulates the situation pretty well. In this painting by Johann Zoffany we can see all of the Academicians in the Life Room with two nude models. The only two missing are Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. They’re only allowed in the room as portraits on the right-hand wall.

This was the prejudice these women were having to dismantle. They presented the President of the RA with petition after petition, requesting the right “to study from the figure” (although they conceded that that figure could be “semi draped” to try and placate the collection of men who would ultimately be making the decision). The first petition in 1878 had thirty-five signatures. By 1883, there were ninety. It was only, finally, in 1893, fifteen years after the first petition, that women were finally allowed to take part in a life-drawing class with a partially draped model. Of course, by this point, at the end of the nineteenth-century, art education wasn’t limited to the Royal Academy, and there were many more organisations now offering life drawing classes to women, but the RA was by far one of the most prestigious so it was an important moment when they finally changed their policy.


Magna Carta

Winchester Geese

Borough Market



Women in Art

Published by Amber | Rambling London Tours

Hello, my name is Amber. A few things about me. I am a born and bred Londoner so I absolutely adore my home city, but I love travel too, which means I'm always excited about exploring new places as well as taking other travellers (like you) around the places I love. I have been working in tourism on and off since 2014, both in the UK and briefly in Australia, and in 2020 I qualified as a professional Blue Badge Tour Guide for London and the South East of England. I love history, I have a History degree, and I think tourism is the perfect way to make sure I always keep learning, meeting new people, while also giving me a career where the world is my office! Hopefully I will have the pleasure of meeting you too.

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