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Present arms! Museum staff step back in military history as Sandwell celebrates Armed Forces Day

Friday, 25 June 2021

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As Sandwell gets set to celebrate our services on Armed Forces Day on 26 June, staff at Oak House Museum and Haden Hill House Museum have been looking back at how women in times past dressed as men to take the field.

Women masquerading as men during the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) was common enough for King Charles I to set out a draft proclamation in 1643, which included a handwritten note by Charles in the margin forbidding women to wear men’s clothes: ‘lett no woman presume to counterfeit her sex by wearing mans apparall under payne of the severest punishment.’

During the civil wars many women valiantly defended their property against invading troops, while others worked as spies to get messages or money across the country.

But just as during the Crusades and the Hundred Years War, and the Napoleonic wars later, there were those who took to assuming a male identity to play a more active part in the fray.

Several 17th century ballads exist extolling the exploits of these women, usually casting them in a valiant light but almost always as a companion to their husband or lover, suggesting the reason for their disguise was to be with their companion. But recent research suggests their motivations were more wide-ranging.

For women known as camp followers, it could have been simple practicality, as life on the road would be easier when wearing a pair of breeches rather than a long skirt.

More interestingly, some women seem to have fought for the cause alongside male soldiers. In Evesham in 1645, four women from Shropshire were discovered who were active and ‘well exercised in Armes’. One of the women had visited a tailor, dressed as a man, and ordered female clothes for ‘his’ sister, which aroused suspicion and led to her discovery.

In July 1645 a burial is recorded in Kidderminster of “a woman wounded at the battle in Leicestershire,” possibly a victim of the massacre of over one hundred of the king’s female camp followers after the battle of Naseby, or perhaps one of the unknown female soldiers killed in the battle.

Frank Caldwell, Museums Manager, said: “I’m glad to see that times have changed and our services now welcome women and value the many skills they bring to complete our Armed Forces. Diversity brings strength, as we in Sandwell know. So, this Armed Forces Day, on 26 June, we celebrate the contributions of all our service personnel – men and women – including the female and male cadets here in Sandwell.”

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