Published On: Wed, Nov 8th, 2023
Books | By MDN

Philippa Gregory brings women’s greatness to the fore in her new book | Books | Entertainment

Philippa Gregory brings women’s greatness to the fore in her new book | Books | Entertainment
Philippa Gregory brings women’s greatness to the fore in her new book | Books | Entertainment

It was 1629 and England’s poor were suffering. Failed harvests, rocketing food prices and a slump in the cloth industry had brought families to the brink of starvation as merchants exported scarce grain abroad for greater profit.

Hungry and incensed, scores of rioters stormed a ship docked in Maldon, Essex, to prevent rye from leaving shore. Yet there was not a single man among them.

The looters who filled their bonnets and aprons with cereal were female labourers and the wives of male workers. Were they an anomaly of time and circumstance?

Not so, according to Britain’s revered historical novelist Philippa Gregory, who has authored a new non-fiction book about the army of ordinary women – including soldiers, pirates, doctors and highwaywomen – who shaped England’s society for centuries yet were ignored by male-dominated accounts.

A decade in the writing, Normal Women: 900 Years of Making History spans 1066 to modern times entirely through the eyes of the women.

Gregory hopes it will ignite a new national history of women and demonstrate their active presence during periods of social change. She is writing a children’s edition set to be adopted into our national curriculum.

“I am more proud of it than anything I have ever done or published before,” she beams over Zoom from her home in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. “Usually our national history is told in the lives and reigns of kings.”

The multi-million-selling author stumbled upon the idea while writing her best-known book, The Other Boleyn Girl, about Anne’s less-famous sister, Mary, which became a Hollywood film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson.

Gregory believes England’s queens have overshadowed other female achievements along with the “limited number of heroines in English history”.

“You’ll get Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst and Ada Lovelace but that’s a skewed view,” she sighs. “The women coming up against and making historical change at the time are moving into businesses or being squeezed out of them.

“There are a lot of women dressing as men and going to war throughout the whole of the nine centuries, and many women in crime who aren’t named or charged because their husbands or fathers are. I call them normal women because they are literally day-to-day women like you and me.”

Until the mid-19th century, women often escaped prosecution for crimes as the responsibility of their husbands. It’s why magistrates backed the all-female Maldon rioters instead of jailing them – but there was no happy ending. When the merchants resorted to their old tricks three months later, shop owner

and rioter Ann Carter wrote letters to townships pleading, “Come, my brave lads of Maldon, I will be your leader for we will not starve”. She signed each one “Captain”. Under her charge, 300 male and female unemployed cloth workers overran a ship, assaulted the crew and stole the grain. This time Ann was hanged.

“Women’s lives were very, very tough,” Gregory says, reflecting on this. “But every story has one to balance it that will literally make you laugh out loud.”

Career criminal Nan Hereford’s tale is one of them. In the 1680s, she swindled a wealthy London apothecary out of £250 by pretending she was an heiress and he would inherit her money.

Hereford often used a sedan chair as a getaway vehicle during a separate prolific spree of shoplifting. She was eventually caught, prosecuted and hanged in 1690.

Gregory estimates she read 1,000 books in preparation for Normal Women. “One thing that astounded me was how in the 14th century, women casual workers were paid the same as men – 3d a day. And that’s the last time we get it, ever.”

Women received equal pay out of necessity. “The Black Death had killed off so many workers that the employers were having to literally pay what workers demanded and women demanded the same rate as men,” explains Philippa.

Prior to industrialisation, women often laboured in female groups. In towns, they repaired roads and worked on buildings.
In the countryside, they shepherded flocks of sheep and worked in the travelling shearing gangs. Women also dominated the silk, beer and baking industries in high-powered positions.

And they were the go-to medics in medieval times. Agnes Medica, whose name indicated she was a doctor, surgeon or apothecary, worked in Huntingdonshire in 1271.

But in 1512 a new law regulating physicians and surgeons banned “sorcery” and “witchcraft”. Six years later, The College of Physicians barred women from joining.

There are many surprises. In the 11th century, rape was considered a crime against a man because his wife was considered his legal property.

That changed in 1300 when it became an offence against the woman’s body. “You would think that was a big step forward because it’s recognising the damage done to the woman and the fact that she has been assaulted, but, of course, it means that she has to go to court to complain of the injury to herself,” explains Gregory.

“She has to face a court of men. She has to very often face a rapist who is much better read, of a higher class and wealthier than she is – and she has to defend herself against the argument that she put herself at risk. Women are still faced with that today.”

Rebels are ever-present, such as Mary Edwards, born in 1705. “They called her the richest heiress in England in the 18th century,” says Gregory. “She married an incredibly charming, younger son of an aristocrat – and for love.”

Their marriage was announced in a society magazine in 1731 and they had a son two years later. But then Edwards discovered her husband had stolen £17,000 worth of her shares in the affluent trading corporation The East India Company. “It wasn’t theft because everything that she owned was his anyway,” Gregory says.

“She’d basically lost all her money on marriage to him.” Edwards hired lawyers and denied she was married in order to win back her money. With remarkable foresight, she had recorded herself as a single mother on her son’s birth certificate.

“She literally disgraced herself,” says Gregory. “She said she was a fallen woman, she called her son a bastard.” Edwards won her case and her “wealth and courage” saved her from a life of ruin. In 1742, she sat for her portrait by her friend, the painter William Hogarth.

Resplendent in red, draped in diamonds, she sits beside objects depicting liberty – her confident pose adorns the cover of Normal Women.

Gregory says her book isn’t about individual women per se but the story of all women. “It’s about how since 1066 onwards, society has tried to get women out of profitable work into caring, free and underpaid work – and how women have always progressed against that,” she says.

“It’s how in times of political struggle women step forward and start moving into government and leadership roles; how in times of emergency like war, or famine or civil war, women come out as leaders. In times of peace, they are literally forced back into their homes by law and tradition. It becomes defined as the place where women are happier and safer.”

At the start of the 16th century, the word spinster refers to someone who spins wool. A century later, as attitudes towards women declined, it became an insult for a woman who failed to find a husband.

Following a law change excluding women from working in business and preventing pay rights, the term demeaned their single status.“There has always been commentary about women’s sexuality and behaviour, adverse commentary about women’s appearances, about them being vain, frivolous, expensive or chattery, but it ebbs and flows and in some centuries it’s severe,” says Gregory.

She believes feminism drove new legislation in the 1970s and 1980s on equal pay and sexual offences. But it also caused a backlash, she says. “You get another push forward with the MeToo movement calling out sexual abuse by men of power and authority, especially in the
entertainment industry, but you get pushback on that almost immediately.”

Today, she disagrees with feminists who want trans people barred from single-sex spaces including prisons and toilets. “By and large, the greatest danger to women prisoners in the UK is self-harm and mental illness, and we don’t protect them against that,” she says.

“If anybody cares about the safety of women, they should worry about that – not whether somebody washes their hands next door to you, what they were called or what colour they had to wear when they were born. It really is so irrelevant to me to the important issues of women’s safety.”

Until about the 18th century, she says “nobody really cares what sex anybody says they are, how they describe themselves or how they want to live their lives or what they want to wear”.

The exception involved sex crimes and, by the 18th century, the legal requirement to determine sex when inheriting property. “I just look at the history and there were women who said they changed sex, and people born male who were absolutely accepted and happily lived as women from the earliest period of records,” says Gregory.

She highlights Mark Weston, who was born Mary Weston and became an Olympic shot putter in 1928, before having surgeries to live as a man. “I can’t help anybody who doesn’t like that except to say tough, that’s what the history is.”

It’s a huge row undoubtedly but perhaps in the long span of history, looking ahead to another 900 years, it will be yet another juncture in the history of women. Only time will tell.

● Normal Women: 900 Years of Making History by Philippa Gregory (HarperCollins, £25) is out now. For free UK P&P, visit or call 020 3176 3832

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