From pantomime dames to principal boys, from drag queens to Dame Edna, cross dressing has a long history, Using it as a form of entertainment is not new. The first pantomime dame in the UK dates back to 1806 when a Mr Simmons played Mother Goose in Harlequin, and the Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.
But travel back in time and while it was ok, indeed compulsory, for boys to play all the female roles in plays in Shakespeare’s time, women dressing as men was considered outrageous.
This didn’t stop a minority of women deciding not only to follow the English Civil War armies on campaign but to dress as men and become “she soldiers” as they became known. In 1643, King Charles’s army was drawing up written standards of behaviour for soldiers. With typical attention to detail the king reviewed the draft himself and made notes in the margin, ‘lett no woman presume to counterfeit her sex by wearing mans apparall under payne of the severest punishment’.
But as in so many other things, the king was doomed to disappointment if he expected his ban on women soldiers to be observed. The fact that he considered it worthy of comment suggests that this may have been commonplace. Armies throughout history have been followed by camp followers – women, families, dependents of the soldiers who either had no way to survive if left behind or who preferred to stay with their men, cooking for them and tending them if they were sick or wounded. It seems probable that many of the she soldiers who fought would have been accompanying a man (family member or lover). The disguise would have made it considerably more likely they would be able to spend their days and nights with their men, rather than left behind with the baggage train. It is not clear what proportion of these female soldiers simply wished to fight and had chosen a different method of helping the war effort to the many women who acted as spies and messengers.
In circumstances where changing clothes, undressing or washing anything but hands or face was difficult, it may have been relatively easy for women to remain undetected. The long shirts, baggy breeches and thick coats the men wore would also have helped. And both sides of the conflict were constantly losing soldiers through desertion, so officers may have turned a blind eye to a practice which helped fill the constant gaps in their ranks. But when captured or seriously wounded, the deception, if it so was, would come to light. Jane Ingleby, daughter of a Yorkshire yeoman is said to have been wounded fighting in the royalist cavalry at Marston Moor. One young soldier in the parliamentary garrison of Gloucester went undetected for a year before being discovered and reported when visiting a tailor.
It was not just the poorer sort of woman who followed the armies dressed as a man. When the royalist Lord Henry Percy was captured by Oliver Cromwell in the course of a raid at Andover in 1645, the raiding party included his mistress, dressed as a man. The youth being “of so fair a countenance” Cromwell ingeniously requested that he sing “which he did with such a daintiness” that Cromwell confronted Lord Percy who admitted that the youth was in fact a “damsel”.
Tempting as it is, I have not included any female soldiers in my civil war novels – not yet.
Sources – Going to the Wars by Charles Carlton and ‘Give mee a Souldier’s Coat’: Female Cross-Dressing during the English Civil War by Mark Stoyle