This is the third in a short series of posts about the Historical Association conference, held in Chester in May 2019.

The opening session on Friday morning was a keynote talk from Dr Fern Riddell called ‘Uncomfortable Histories:  From sex to the suffragettes’.  Considering that the audience was mainly made up of teachers, Dr Riddell’s lecture hit just the right note, celebrating the teachers (both at school and university) who had helped her make a career in history by believing in her when others didn’t.  She commented that this is an incredibly exciting time to be a historian.

She opened by commenting that sex and violence, especially female violence, is difficult to deal with.  Our belief in the naïve and prudish Victorians has dominated our understanding of the 19th century. But she argued that throughout the Victorian era, sex was universally acknowledged and celebrated, with, for example, condom advertisements on the front page of newspapers specifically marketed towards women.  Dr Riddell commented that we are fixated on the cold, drab view of Queen Victoria, but the fact that she had many children and wrote movingly in her diary of seeing Albert naked for the first time on her wedding night shows how much she enjoyed sex.  Dr Riddell further argued that we should talk about these sorts of facts with students, especially at secondary school, to show that it has always been normal to desire and want to talk about sex.  The Victorians also advocated birth control, and lived openly queer lives.  When cases of immorality are tried in court, they tend to result in a view that people should be allowed to live as they wish.  What the dominant power said about sex, and what the culture actually shows (from newspapers, letters, diaries et cetera), are two different things. 

Dr Fern Riddell opening her Friday morning keynote lecture

1860 is the year when ‘pornography’ enters the English language.  The Art of Begetting Handsome Children was published that year, albeit reprinted from many earlier versions of book that had been published over the centuries.  The book promoted foreplay and argued that women should not be coerced into sex.  One of the most important messages is that under no circumstances should children come from a marriage in which there is no love.  Furthermore, sales of a guide to contraception skyrocketed after a trial at which Annie Besant spoke, and the birth rate plummeted over the following few years.

Moving on to look at the suffragettes, Dr Riddell commented that our traditional view is based on Emmeline Pankhurst: strong women, marching, speeches and the WSPU.  We have forgotten their real actions.  She reminded the audience that the term ‘suffragette’ applies only to members of the WSPU. Their motto was “deeds not words” – they had done talking.  One of their tactics was violence, especially arson and bomb attacks.  She argued that the WSPU was the most violent and dangerous domestic terror organisation we have ever had and that not even the IRA come close if you look at the size of the bombs and where they were left. This claim, however, was the subject of some debate amongst conference delegates over the morning tea break!  Nevertheless, the WSPU wanted to create a sense of fear and terror.  Christabel Pankhurst asked in a 1913 newspaper interview that when men throw bombs it’s called war, so why shouldn’t women make use of them too? 

Dr Fern Riddell

Dr Riddell suggested that despite our discomfort with the facts, there is no evidence at all that the suffragettes didn’t want to hurt anyone: it is just not true.  Their bombs were full of nails and they gave no warnings.  They were referred to at the time as terrorists.  They are idolised because of the result, but we need to tell all sides of the story and give the rounded view.  We sanitise the story and can’t believe that women would really do that. The histories are uncomfortable to the present as well as the past.  We need to show what radicalises people and how: the suffragettes, for example, were deeply harmed by the state through marginalisation, suffering violence themselves, and force feeding.  But it doesn’t matter what we feel about the need for women to have the vote, we need to show that no one is perfect and that in every civil rights movement there has been an extremist element.  Men and women fought for the economic, political and social freedoms of women. Dr Riddell finished by concluding that we make change together.

The first Friday general pathway session was given by Professor Peter Gaunt on Chester in the Civil War.  He commented that the Civil War had a dramatic effect on Chester.  In summer 1639, it was a prosperous city.  Seven years later, its population had halved, it had suffered plague, and the bombardment of the civil wars had caused destroyed parts of the city.  Two of the suburbs had been completely removed by the Royalists holding the city.  It was Royalist almost throughout the war, although in Feb 1646, shortly before the end of the war, it surrendered on terms to the Parliamentarians. Prof Gaunt’s lecture addressed what the Royalists and Parliamentarians hoped Chester would be, what role it played in reality, and why.

Prof Gaunt described how the Civil Wars used to be seen as a single national war, with major battles between national commanders.  He argued that this national picture has relevance no here, because Chester’s role is as part of a local war between garrisons which supplied a longer term civil war.  The aim was to tie down key places and territory such as roads, ports, and resources  such as men, horses, fodder, food drink and above all, cash!

Chester is often referred to as a regional capital. Even though it was never a really big regional town, it was the largest in the north west, bigger than Lancaster, Liverpool or Manchester.  It had a population of between 5 and 10 thousand.  It was a centre of trade and manufacture, partly because it was the centre of road network and also a port.  The city was often the departure point for going to Ireland, as it was more accessible than Holyhead. 

He argued that the king certainly accorded Chester a high priority, as he visited early in the war shortly after raising his standard at Nottingham. He arrived in Chester in September 1642, in an attempt to capitalise on the swell of support for the king in the west.  Although some people didn’t want the king there because they didn’t want to get involved in the war, they let him in.  The king apparently gave the same speech in each location he visited, flattering the residents by saying he could think of nowhere better to make his residence, then asking them to open their magazines and taking men and armaments.

The king’s two nephews were given southern armies and were ordered to come up and secure Chester, but the king himself didn’t return until nearly the end of the war, by which time the city was under great threat.  Although he ordered one of his few remaining field armies to come up and protect the city, his reinforcements were torn to pieces at the Battle of Rowton Moor.  The king left, leaving the city leaders permission to surrender.

Prof Peter Gaunt

But Prof Gaunt pointed out that we are not sure why he thinks the city is so important as it is barely mentioned in his letters.  There are a number of possible reasons:

  • A buffer to help protect the royalist heartland of north wales.
  • The prestige of holding established county towns.
  • After Marston moor and the loss of north of England, Chester is one of the few key towns he still held so might serve as launching point to link up with Montrose and recapture the north.
  • Above all it allowed access to Ireland where the king had links with the Irish Catholic rebels. He had made a truce with the Catholics, which meant that his Protestant army could be brought home as they didn’t have to fight the rebels any more.  Chester was his best bet for bringing in reinforcements from Ireland

The Cestrians themselves just hunkered down and hoped to avoid as much of the problem as possible.  The locals provided a garrison of horse and foot, which was one of a string of garrisons across the area.  Most of the garrison commanders tried to take the fight to the parliamentarians, trying to disrupt the parliamentarian hold, but even though Chester was on the edge of parliamentarian territory, it didn’t do much.  Prof Gaunt asked why? He outlined several factors which encouraged the local commanders to sit back as they knew they could hold out.

  • Successive governors were pretty incompetent.  Even the most active didn’t take much part in the fighting.
  • Governors had to liaise with king’s northern commanders, and they weren’t competent either.
  • The situation was made worse when Capell from Hertfordshire was moved in as northern commander – as he was not local he was not trusted.
  • The city had strong stone walls and these were supplemented by mud walls round the suburbs, so there was no incentive to leave them.
  • The city sits on a corner of the river Dee, so again, it was relatively easy to defend.
  • Royalist north wales was on their doorstep

From the Parliamentarian perspective, one local commander, Brereton, tried unsuccessfully to raise forces in Chester. He thought Chester was a priority.  He couldn’t sleep easy holding half to two thirds of the county while the county town was in the king’s hands.  But he knew how difficult it was to capture Chester with only his own forces, so he tried to induce other regional parliamentarians to join him in attacking Chester.  In 1644 Fairfax intervened at Nantwich, and Brereton suggested that he came further west and helped to capture Chester, but Fairfax wasn’t interested and, moreover, it did not form part of his orders from Parliament.  Brereton also tried to persuade the Earl of Manchester and others, but none of them would help.

Parliament and the Committee of Both Kingdoms were worried about Chester’s strategic importance in 1642, especially when Byron’s forces were reinforced by Irish troops.   But they didn’t respond with land forces.  Instead they sent in the navy to patrol the Irish Sea in order to stop the king’s reinforcements getting across in the first place.  When some did try to land at Milford Haven, the Parliamentarians threw them, bound, into the sea.  Brereton attempted to play the Irish card, suggesting that bloodthirsty murderers might still get through, but parliament took no notice.  Because Chester is on a road to nowhere, as long as the king couldn’t use it to get men in from Ireland, it was of no strategic importance to the Parliamentarians – it’s just a road to Royalist Wales.  They knew that the king’s army would be defeated in the Midlands, not near Chester.

Only in the closing weeks of the war did Parliamentary high command finally turn its attentions to Chester and order other regional commanders to support Brereton.