Women in History
From great medieval queens to nurses in the First World War, the role of women throughout English history has often been overlooked. Here we highlight some of their stories – not only the women who achieved high status and success, but also those who remain largely unnamed in history, and who have quietly shaped our way of life today.
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Women who tell our stories
In 2023 Women’s History Month is celebrating ‘Women Who Tell Our Stories’. This new theme encourages the recognition of women, past and present, who have been active in all forms of media and storytelling, devoting their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth, and reflecting the human condition decade after decade.
We are shining a spotlight on some of the women related to our sites, and recognised by our blue plaques scheme, who have told our stories through their achievements in literature, film, television and radio.
Margaret Cavendish was a prolific writer and philosopher who challenged conventions for women through her intellectual ideas, dress and fiction. As well as books of philosophy and poetry, she penned one of the world’s first science fiction novels.
Fanny Burney, later known as Madame D’Arblay, is famous for her novels – published to widespread acclaim in the late 18th century – and for her diaries, which record her life within the distinguished literary circles of Samuel Johnson and the bluestocking group.
Grace Wyndham Goldie
Grace Wyndham Goldie was a television producer and one of the few women executives of her era at the BBC. She was a powerful influence in bringing politics and current affairs to the small screen, and in giving a critical edge to this coverage.
Best known for her coverage of the Spanish Civil War and Second World War, Martha Gellhorn was a pioneering war correspondent whose passionate but lucid reporting style became highly influential in the practice of journalism.
The actor Vivien Leigh is best remembered for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) for which she won an Academy Award.
An American-born singer, actress and entertainer, Elisabeth Welch was also the first black broadcaster to be given her own radio series on the BBC. She was a trailblazer for black women in 1930s Britain.
Read about some of the women whose stories have slid under the radar. Their achievements – big and small – have made a significant contribution to our lives today, yet often go unrecognised in history.
Women in the Arts
Explore the lives and work of some of the female painters, sculptors and artists associated with English Heritage sites.
Women and Garden Design
We discover some of the women who played a key role in designing the gardens in our care.
Groundbreaking Female Archaeologists
Read about some of the female archaeologists who worked on sites now cared for by English Heritage.
The Wrest Park Nurses
Find out about the lives of some of the women who worked at Wrest Park when the house was transformed into a WWI hospital.
A Journey into Witchcraft Beliefs
Step into the world of early modern England as Professor Diane Purkiss describes popular and intellectual beliefs about witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Experiments in Gender
Exploring the women who adopted masculine styles of dress and the increasingly fluid ideas about gender identity and sexuality in the early 20th century.
Weeding Women: Shaping England's Gardens
Explore the unsung role of ‘weeding women’ in the history of English gardens, and the difficulties of tracing their stories.
Fighting for a cause
Discover some of the brave and determined women who fought valiantly for their cause in extremely challenging and sometimes perilous conditions. They fought for their families, their freedom and their rights in the face of exile, imprisonment or even death.
Learn how Lady Blanche Arundell heroically led a small band of men and women in defence of her home, Old Wardour Castle, when it came under siege during the English Civil War.
The Match Girls’ Strike
In July 1888 some 1,400 of the predominantly female workforce walked out of the Bryant and May match factory in Bow. They stayed out under considerable hardship and won a resounding victory after three weeks.
Eleanor de Montfort
An influential woman at the centre of a civil war, Eleanor de Montfort acted independently to protect her own interests and those of her family and her supporters, holding Dover Castle under seige in 1265.
Learn more about the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), commemorated with a blue plaque at 22 Great Smith Street, Westminster – its headquarters from 1910 to 1918.
Discover more Women in history
Select the images below to learn about more inspiring women from history. All of them are closely linked with places looked after by English Heritage, or are commemorated in London by our blue plaques scheme.
NEW BLUE PLAQUES FOR WOMEN
Our ongoing ‘plaques for women’ campaign has seen a dramatic rise in the number of public nominations for women since it launched in 2016.
In 2023 over half of the new plaques to be unveiled will be dedicated to women. They include a plaque to Claudia Jones – dubbed ‘the founding spirit of Notting Hill Carnival’. Other notable women to be honoured include suffragettes Emily Wilding Davison and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh; London’s first female mayor of a London borough, Ada Salter; and Pre-Raphaelite model Marie Spartali Stillman.
The blue plaques scheme commemorates some of the most inspirational women from London’s past. Read about their stories and track down the blue plaques marking their former London homes.Discover more
Queens of the Past
Cartimandua – Queen of the Brigantes
Ruler of the Brigantes, an Iron Age people of northern Britain, Cartimandua was an important ally of the Roman Empire during the conquest.
The Eleanor Crosses: A Journey Set in Stone
Discover the story of the beautiful stone crosses erected by King Edward I in memory of his beloved first wife, Eleanor of Castile.
Mary Queen of Scots at Carlisle Castle
In 1568, Mary Queen of Scots fled conflict and turmoil in Scotland for England. Find out how and why her two-month stay at Carlisle Castle began 19 years of captivity.
In 597, St Augustine arrived in England to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. How important was Queen Bertha of Kent, who was already a Christian, in his mission’s success?
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine was queen in turn of two great medieval European powers, France and England. Read more about her life and the very active role she played in the politics of her day.
Find out about Queen Victoria and how her reign of over 63 years shaped England during a period of immense political, social and cultural change which saw a great expansion of the British Empire.
Joan of Navarre
Read about Joan of Navarre, who was imprisoned at Pevensey Castle in 1420 accused of witchcraft and plotting to kill the king.
Mary Tudor, England’s First Queen
Discover the story of how Mary Tudor was proclaimed the first woman ruler of England while she was at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk in 1553.
Tracy Borman examines what the accession of Elizabeth I – who famously remained unmarried – meant for women in positions of power.
1066: The Power behind the Throne
Find out about the roles of three queens in the period around the Norman Conquest who helped shape the events of 1066.
Listen to our Podcast
Join us as The English Heritage Podcast explores the fascinating stories of women associated with our sites.
Episode 151 - The extraordinary life and times of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Episode 101 - Woman at war: Eleanor de Montfort at Dover Castle
Episode 20 - Mary Tudor and the succession crisis at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk
Episode 98 - Eleanor of Castile: Spanish princess and English queen
Episode 113 - Painting a portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta at Osborne
Episode 103 - At your service: The remarkable working women at our historic houses
Episode 52 - The remarkable women who changed history at our sites
Episode 49 - The blue plaque women who changed the course of English history
Eight Myths About Witchcraft
Professor Diane Purkiss tackles the common misconceptions about witchcraft and the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries.
LGBTQ history has often been hidden from view. Find out more about the lives of some LGBTQ individuals and their place in the stories of English Heritage sites.
Listen to Speaking with Shadows
The podcast that listens to the people that history forgot. From castles on the south coast to Hadrian’s Wall in the far north, join presenter Josie Long as she seeks out stories from the hidden corners of England’s history.
Below Stairs at Audley End
What were Victorian servants’ lives really like? Discover the stories of the men, women and children who worked at Audley End House in the 1880s.