Elizabeth I

Although Elizabeth I has been extensively written about with regards to her unique nature as an unmarried female monarch in the early modern period, she remains one of my historic heroes. This is particularly due to her adamancy in the face of huge scrutiny on things that she truly believed in – specifically the issue of marriage and succession.

Elizabeth was petitioned by parliament to make a decision on these issues not once, not twice, but THRICE! She was immediately accosted in 1559 after becoming Queen, to which she responded politely but resolutely that they should perhaps back off a touch. Then, in 1562 the poor gal almost died of smallpox. This threw into sharp focus the lack of a clear plan of action in the event of her death. So, good ole parliament gave her a year to feel better, and petitioned her again. She was slightly more curt this time, which led them to lay off…for just three more years. She was petitioned one more time in 1566, at which time she decided to open a can of whoop-ass on parliament. (Side note – even after this the issue of her naming a successor remained a prevalent one.)

Her response was cold, cutting, and accused them of questioning her ability as Queen and her desire to protect her realm and her people. She dryly reminded them that she had already answered all their questions – “A strange order of petitioners that will make a request and cannot otherwise be assured by the prince’s word, and yet will not believe it when it is spoken.” Unfortunately, historian Ilona Bell has explained how when Elizabeth was straightforward with her councillors she was assumed to be lying, and when she was elusive they assumed she was concealing a secret plan, all due to the fact she was a woman. (“Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman,” in Political Rhetoric, Power and Renaissance Women, ed. C. Levin and P. Sullivan.)

Her response evidently was not trusted, and sadly even to this day some historians don’t seem to believe her, claiming that her replies where part of a political rhetoric to get her advisors to leave her the HELL alone. Here are the reasons why I believe in her responses:

Firstly, she did not want to name a successor. She herself (in the eyes of all but the Catholics) had been the successor to the throne under the reign of her sister, Mary I, and look where that got her – the centre for opposition, imprisoned by her own sister. She was adamant that she did not want to divide her people by giving them someone to focus on in moments of mistrust for the present monarch. Even more thoughtfully, she did not want to put anyone through what she had been through herself.

Secondly, Elizabeth is infamous for her decision not to marry. Many historians depict her as ‘The Virgin Queen’ who knew from the beginning of her reign that she would not marry. However, Elizabethan historian Susan Doran has shed much light on this issue, particularly in her co-edited book The Myth of Elizabeth. She explains that the culture of ‘The Virgin Queen’ actually did not begin until well into Elizabeth’s reign, immediately discrediting the fact that she had wanted to convey this all along. Furthermore, she believes that Elizabeth made genuine attempts at courting various suitors for marriage. The issue was that her councillors were so divided on who was the best man for the job that once again, Elizabeth feared that making a decision would create destructive divisions. Thus, she chose no one.

Elizabeth was well known for wanting to keep the peace in this manner. Despite becoming the Protestant Queen of a Catholic country she made it clear that an individual’s personal religion was of no concern to her so long as people respected hers. Yet through slow and careful change she solidified the religion of the country to Protestantism by the end of her reign. In fact, she made Catholicism so abhorrent in England that after her reign it was no longer tolerated in the monarchy, being one of many causes for suspicion of Charles I and leading to the deposition of James II. Yes, she may have been blessed with a long reign to be able to implement these things, but I also think it was representative of her slow and careful decision making, which is why she did not marry and why she did not name a successor – not stalling tactics or weapons of diplomacy, but genuine and valid reasons and fairly typical of her style of rule.

And so, Elizabeth I remained unmarried and reigned for 45 years with no named heir until she became close to her departure from this world. Yet the succession was smooth and went to Mary Queen of Scot’s son James, the man she had wanted it to go to ever since his mother’s death. She was a smart one that Elizabeth.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

During my BA in History, a wonderful course full of non-western history to shock my national curriculum shrouded eyes, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a figure that came up during a module on the Ottoman Empire. She lived in Turkey for two years and luckily for us recorded her experiences in great detail, a source that would prove historically invaluable. Yet after looking into her life it would seem she was an amazing figure for many additional reasons.

Born in 1689 in London into an aristocratic life, Mary was required to become lady of the house when her mother died. She immediately disliked the role in which she found herself (i.e. waitress) so in between carving meat and looking pretty, she defiantly began educating herself in the classics. She would later use some translations completed as a child to defend women’s right to education. After spending her teens adeptly developing her writing style that would come to articulate her feminist beliefs for Georgian high society, her father attempted to marry her off. In what was becoming characteristically defiant behaviour, she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu and married him in 1712. Although they did not seem to dislike each other and even managed to have two children, it was largely a marriage of convenience and I believe if society hadn’t forced it down her neck she may have remained unmarried. However, even to a woman as wilful as Mary, not marrying at all was not a recourse of possibility for a woman of her social standing at this time.

Edward was made a member of parliament in 1715 and Mary was eager to join him at court, quickly becoming a prominent character due to her wit and beauty. This beauty was sadly taken from her the same year when a bout of smallpox left her badly scarred. This was a sorrowful experience as she found society’s treatment of her altered alongside her beauty and in response she began to nurture a contempt for the way society valued women purely for their appearance. Her barbed tongue would smite many a misogynist during her time at court, engaging in poetic battles at a time rife with satire. Some of it was was taken in good spirits; some people, particularly men, had to be careful not to offend her as she would launch public attacks against them via sharp and stringent poetry. She was reactionary in this respect, writing of things as and when they provoked her and giving little regard to offence they may cause – to be on the receiving end of her keen wit could be no laughing matter.

Just a year after her entry into the Georgian court her husband was made ambassador in Istanbul, and she lived there with him for two years. The letters she wrote at this time are of significance for several reasons; her writing was a great indicator as to the authority that women’s writing could hold, due to the female-only areas of society that they could access and record. Thus, she offered a unique view in her letters. The most well-known example is the time she spent time in the Turkish baths with the women. Not only was this an insight into an area unexperienced by men, she also didn’t take the euro-centric view common of that time period of the lack of civility in non-western societies. One only has to read Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ to understand the ideological divide that was created between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’. She described Turkish men as generous and noble, in actuality rarely taking more than one wife, nor stealing, kidnapping or killing, as people at home believed. The main limitation was that this was an unrepresentative portrayal purely of aristocratic life, yet it remains important for the section of society it was able to illuminate. The Turkish baths were regarded by the English as a highly sexualised environment where the women were uncivilised and indecent, yet Lady Mary enlightened all with her tales of political discussions, gossip and intrigue. She went as far as to compare them with the coffee houses of the men back at home. In fact, she even believed the women to be freer with their bodies and minds than in England, finding their culture liberating. This is reflected in a chat she had with the ladies about corsets, which they all found astoundingly horrendous, disbelieving that the women of Europe would freely imprison their bodies in such a way.

Equally noteable, she discovered a smallpox inoculation being used in Turkish society and due to her terrible experience of the disease became an immediate supporter. After having her own children inoculated she promoted the procedure once she returned home, despite the considerable resistance she experienced from the medical establishment. Such was her vigour that she even managed to persuade George I to inoculate his grandchildren, the children of Princess Caroline and heirs to the throne. The safer technique of vaccination was later developed from this and she eventually became praised for bringing the practice to Britain. Her adamancy in the face of reluctance shows her single-minded tenacity when fighting for what she believed in.

This was also evident in her erudite feminist writings. She wrote of how society placed a role upon women that led them to limit their own behaviour, that being treated as irrational and incapable made them act so rather than it being part of their nature. In a piece of writing objecting against the supposition of a woman’s innate lack of common sense, she described a desire of “exhibiting a set of pictures of such meritorious ladies, where I shall say nothing of the fire of their eyes, or the pureness of their complexions, but give them such praise as befit a rational sensible being: virtues of choice and not beauties of accident.” (“The Nonsense of Common Sense” Jan 24th 1738) She embodied these arguments by refusing to fit into the role placed upon her; she wrote courting letters to men at a time when it was seen as appalling for a woman to do so; she refused to follow fashion and instead of towering Georgian wigs she wore what was seen as extravagant Turkish dress. I love to imagine her defiant head held high through it all, defying anyone to condemn her actions for the opportunity to denigrate them in poetic terms. She was a woman of great character to stand up for these rights some 300 years ago. It is a shame that in the 21st century we are still arguing for women to be valued for more than merely appearances – at least we no longer have to wear corsets…yet Bridget Jones’ body shaping knickers come to mind…*sigh*

Milunka Savić

When Disney released their hilarious adaption of the ancient Chinese legend Mulan, she quickly captured popular imagination in the western world. Not only did she speak up for what she believed in, she put her life at risk to act upon it when going to war in the place of her ageing father. Unfortunately, the Disney version of the story results in 2 outcomes; Mulan going down in history for her courageous acts…and finding a man. PHEW! Thank goodness she wasn’t still single, that would have been a TRAVESTY! Anyway, little did we know that in our very own Europe there was an actual woman who fought in some of the most perilous wars of the 20th century under a male guise. Her name was Milunka Savić and here is her story (or rather the parts of her story I could piece together from very limited digital information.)

Milunka was born around 1890 in the small rural village of Koprivnica in Serbia. That is pretty much all the information we have on her early life. The next thing we know is that in her early twenties the First Balkan War began and she left her village dressed as a man to fight for her country. Apparently he brother received call-up papers and she decided to go in his stead – it isn’t known why she decided to do this, we can only assume that he wasn’t fit to fight for some reason. Perhaps he was a lot younger than her, or unwell. Either way she left home and never returned.

During the First Balkan War she fought for what became know as the Iron Regiment of the Serbian Army, known for its ferocious success in driving the Ottomans out of Macedonia in the Battle of Monastir. The first war was very quickly succeeded by the second, with Bulgaria turning against its former allies. Milunka continued to fight, her sex undiscovered. She received her first medal during this war after the Battle of Bregalnica, and was promoted to corporal. She was clearly a talented soldier.

Her greatest fear remained – a gunshot wound to the chest that would lead to her discovery. This was to finally happen during this war whilst on her 10th military deployment. The story surrounding this contains a lot of detail considering how little is known about her so I am unsure how much to trust it. However, I believe it to adequately represent her head-strong nature and so will share it all the same. Her loyalty and success as a soldier was such that her commanding officer refused to punish her, instead offering her a transfer to the nursing division. She remained steadfast and refused, insisting that she wanted to fight as a combatant. He must have felt divided – she was such a valuable soldier and yet, even in the 21st century women are not allowed to fight on the front line; can you imagine how fantastic this must have seemed 100 years ago! So, the officer decided to sleep on it and left the tent. Milunka stood abruptly to attention and declared that she would wait. After standing erect and proud for an hour, the officer returned not only to send her back to the infantry, but to promote her to junior sergeant! Thus, she returned to the field of combat openly as a woman. The Second Balkan War ended and she was now a sergeant to be reckoned with.

World War 1 saw her most outstanding achievements, her experience making itself evident when she was made the commander of the Iron Regiment’s Assault Bomber Squad. After the Battle of Kolubara, a decisive victory for Serbia against Austria-Hungary, Milunka gained the nickname “The Bomber of Kolubara” for her dangerous accuracy and ability to capture the enemy. For her unwavering success she was awarded her 1st Karađorđe Star with Swords with the full support of her regiment, and was later awarded another for single-handedly capturing 23 Bulgarian soldiers.  She sustained severe head wounds during this battle but only required a couple of months of recuperation before she returned straight to the front as commander, such was her spirit of steel.

In spite of this success the Austria-Hungarian forces returned and the waning army, of which on 125,000 were left, were forced to retreat safe in the knowledge that they had evacuated as many civilians as possible and protected their country as far as they could. They made their way through the harsh winter weather to the coast of Albania to be rescued by French and British Warships. After leaving Serbia they joined French forces in Greece where the French General Maurice Sarrail was incredulous of her bombing skills as a woman. The story goes, he brought out a case of old and expensive cognac and told her if she could hit one 40 metres away, she could have the rest of the case. Needless to say, Milunka and her squad drank like queens that evening, at the expense of the general’s scepticism of a woman’s ability. For her valiant fighting and commanding skills during World War 1 she was awarded numerous awards from the allied forces, French, Russian, British, as well as from her home country.

After World War 1 Milunka lived a quiet life in Belgrade, Serbia, working menial jobs and raising 4 daughters, 1 from an absent father and the other 3 adopted war orphans. She apparently helped many other impoverished orphan girls finish school as well. She lived a humble life, turning down the offer of a home and army pension in France that would have kept her very comfortable for the rest of her life. Taking care of her country and her people remained her priority above her own lifestyle.

During the German occupation of Serbia in World War 2 she was arrested, either for giving first aid to their enemies or refusing to attend a German officer’s banquet; the sources are unsure. She was beaten up, taken to a concentration camp for 10 months and was meant to be shot. Before this could happen a German general recognised her name and let her go. She certainly must have made an impression 20 years ago to be treated as such.

By the 1950s she was living in poverty and squalor and her name had disappeared from public memory. This all changed in the twilight of her life. In the 60s she attended jubilee celebrations dressed with all her military awards and attracted the attention of officers who she spoke about her service with. Public pressure led the Belgrade City Assembly to finally giver her an apartment. A year later she died and she was buried in Novo Groblje cemetery in the Alley of the Meritorious with full state and military honours. Resilient, forceful and faithful to Serbia even in the face of death, Milunka Savić, so nearly forgotten, finally received the recognition she was due. A street in Belgrade remains named after her to this day. May history never forget her name again.

Portia DeGeneres

She is beautiful, she is lovely and she is married to one of the most hilarious and gregarious TV personalities I know of. I didn’t know anything about Portia until I picked up her book Unbearable Lightness one day. I had seen it written about on a blog and it was described as a harsh depiction of the reality of living with an eating disorder. Having suffered with an eating disorder as a teenager it piqued my interest quicker than any other book I have ever bought.

Portia is uncompromisingly honest in this book. I can imagine that for some people it could make for quite an uncomfortable read as it faces issues that people are often unwilling to discuss head-on. Eating disorders are often perceived as something to be embarrassed about and as such should be kept hidden. To lay bare her most troubled times in this way is such an incredibly brave act, I am in awe. I watched her interview with Oprah just after the book was published and she admits that having to recall all the terrible memories and form them into words often left her crying at her desk. So in this short post, I would like to thank her.

Portia, thank you for laying your experiences and your heart break out onto the pages of a book. I have never read anything I have felt more able to relate to than this book and it felt like therapy for my heart. This book was such a selfless, beautiful, inspirational thing to write, thank you for opening your soul to the world. I know that you will help countless people who are suffering, or have suffered, from eating disorders. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

After learning more about Portia I began to look into Ellen’s life. Coming out to the world in such a public way – wow. I got to see a little of the negativity Ellen experienced in her life in her Oprah interview in 1997, which was just the tip of the iceberg. There must have been innumerable gay people who felt inspired by simple act of honesty and she certainly played a part in paving the way for the acceptance of gay rights. Portia and Ellen are both remarkable women, standing up for the truth in a society that can punish us for it, whether it be our sexual orientation or illnesses that has been stigmatised. Their love for one another is a beautiful thing to behold and I believe their imprint on society will leave behind a legacy of enlightenment, undoubtedly saving lives.

Phoolan Devi – Bandit Queen, Prisoner and MP

A year into Phoolan Devi’s life of banditry, loyally by the side of Vikram Mallah, disaster struck. Two returning members of the gang killed Mallah. Some say this was due to his actions in killing their leader, who was in fact of a higher caste than him, which the returning members thought was despicable; some say the police had hired these men to capture Devi. Either way, the dramatic series of events to follow shaped the way in which Devi would be captured in the public imagination for the rest of her life.

The two men took Devi to a remote village nearby called Behmai, tied her up and locked her in a small room. Over a period of a week or so Devi was beaten, raped by a succession of upper-caste Thakur men and even paraded around the village naked. To me this all indicates a malicious attempt by these men to assert their caste and subsequent power over Devi and her association with the death of their Thakur gang leader. Thankfully, Devi eventually escaped and quickly found another dacoit gang, again becoming the lover of their leader, Man Singh. Once again, Singh seemed very much to care about Devi and in a similar way to Mallah, allowed Devi to work with his gang to bring retribution upon her torturers. The gang disguised themselves as police officers, as dacoits often did, and returned to the village of Behmai. I don’t know how much of this story has been sensationalised, but these are the events which planted Devi’s name firmly in banditry and as an enemy of the upper-castes. In the centre of the village, Devi demanded the men who had accosted her to make themselves known. When no one came forward Devi gave the signal and her gang entered the homes of the people of Behmai and dragged around 20 high caste men to the river. There they were made to kneel and all were shot. The BBC news described this as “one of the largest gang massacres in modern Indian history.” This certainly sounds like sensationalism, especially considering how rife banditry was in this area – killings of high caste people by dacoits could not have been uncommon. Perhaps this was because the movement was spearheaded by a women of low-caste, a shocking thing indeed to rural Indian society. Regardless, from this fierce act of aggression Phoolan Devi became forevermore The Bandit Queen.

Thus ensued a long police manhunt for Devi. She skillfully evaded capture for 2 years and became a heroine to the lower-caste villagers, who called her Dasyu Sundar, or Beautiful Bandit. These were arduous years for the gang, constantly on the move and never sure when their next meal would be. According to Devi most days they walked around 25 miles! During this time Devi became injured and had to enter a village in disguise to find medical help. Despite her efforts the man who helped her recognised her, but assisted her anyway – the love of her supporters evidently ran deep. But, after 2 years of constantly fighting just to stay alive, Devi and her gang were exhausted and she made the decision to give herself up. It was a highly orchestrated affair, involving a number of stipulations outlined by herself. This is how effectively she had managed to outwit the police; after all the crimes she had committed they still had to offer her compensations for her surrender. She absolutely refused to meet with the authorities from where she grew up as she had no trust for them – who can blame her. She made sure her waning gang members would be protected, that none of them could be hanged or imprisoned for longer than 8 years. She also wanted land for her family; as we recall, her childhood arrest had been due to trying to get her impoverished family more land to work on and she clearly had never forgotten them. In February 1983 she gave herself up in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh in front of the Chief Minister and around 8000 supporters. She was determined to the last to make her opinion of the system of authority in India known and laid down her weapons in front of portraits of Gandhi and the Goddess Durga, rather than physically surrendering to the Chief Minister. Thus, to calls of support from a huge crowd, The Bandit Queen gave up banditry once and for all.

Her personality emerges in accounts of her life during the time of her surrender as it would really have been the first contact she had with anyone likely to be recorded. Mala Sen described her as wildly fluctuating just before her surrender and after, when she visited her in prison. She was hysterical, distracted, sometimes friendly and all of sudden becoming angry and aggressive. Sen presents this in a sympathetic view, as I’m sure most would after having learnt of her life story. She has also been called egotistical, short-tempered, mistrusting, a front I believe one would have to assume to thrive in the dacoit world, especially as a woman. Further, the policeman who negotiated Devi’s surrender with her, who gained her trust and who remained by her side (by Devi’s request) through the whole process of surrender, was depicted by Sen as being genuinely fond of Devi and her wild nature. It would seem there were some in power that understood the injustice of her life.

Devi ended up serving 11 years in prison, never actually being tried. During this time she was given an involuntary and unnecessary hysterectomy for ovarian cysts, the doctor reportedly claiming he wanted to prevent her producing any children that could end up like her. Once more her body was violated by a male in a power. It is easy to see why she mistrusted authority. For her the lines between those living outside the law and those supposed to be working from within it were blurred; she didn’t believe anyone to have the right to judge her after the local police let her down so spectacularly as a child. Once she was released she ran for a seat in parliament on the Samajwadi (socialist) party to fight for women’s rights and lower caste interests.

She had a lot of support from the people she championed and undoubtedly raised interesting debates with other MPs.The sad thing is, as you can see from the 2 blog posts I have written about her, the information available on Devi is overwhelmingly emphasised on her time as a dacoit. It is important, undeniably, but the most amazing incident in her life I believe is her becoming an MP. We know what she stood for and what she wanted to change, yet her actual tangible achievements during this period of her life seem scarce. Whether it is because she was more of a figurehead and didn’t achieve much I do not know. Perhaps the media, which has not been much of a friend to women over the years, chose to only focus on the negative aspects of life as she was challenging the system which the media perpetrates. Her becoming an MP may not have served their purpose as well as her murdering and looting, or in fact her assassination.

Phoolan Devi was killed in 2001 by a gunshot to the head outside her home for upper-caste revenge. She was a force to be reckoned with who took command of her own life, not a small feat in the society into which she was born, and it was quite an extraordinary life to say the least.

Phoolan Devi – The Beginning

I first learnt of Phoolan Devi after having read a book by Mala Sen called “Death by Fire”. This book is about a case of sati, or widow burning, which happened in Northern India in 1987. I was studying for my Masters degree in South Asian history at this time and had spent what felt like the longest hours of my life pouring over academic journals with nothing but tea and a supportive housemate to keep my eyes open. Sen’s book was so captivating I immediately became enraptured by her prose; so much so that I ended up writing my dissertation on the sati she wrote about. Having finished my Masters (PHEW!!!!) I decided to check out her other publications and came across her book on Phoolan Devi. It was equally spellbinding and after I sadly turned the final page, I researched Devi and where her life had taken her. Her story is one of such hardship, horror and yet incredible strength and vitality of spirit I feel compelled to talk about her to anyone who will listen to me. This is my attempt to briefly depict her life that led her from a small impoverished village, to the ravines of the Chambal Valley, to prison and finally into politics.

Phoolan Devi was born in rural Uttar Pradesh in August 1963. The 4th of 6 children in a family belonging to the mallah caste (a lower caste of boatmen), they had little. At the age of 11 Devi’s father negotiated an arranged marriage for her with a man three times her age. Although child marriage had been made illegal for Hindus by British Colonial rule in 1929, these western placed laws failed to impact in the far-reaching areas of rural India. Like so many traditions that the British made illegal in an attempt to ‘better’ Indian society, they continued regardless. So, Devi entered married life with her husband. This was not a happy life; she was treated like a servant and raped. The remainder of this stage of her life in the village is complex and stories vary from book to book. She certainly escaped the household of her husband and was forced to return after he had married a second wife. Discrepancies arise as to whether her father was angered by her escape or felt terrible having to make her return. Either way, Devi is depicted as a young girl refusing to accept the life that she was given. She was passionate and fierce before even legally an adult, although one could argue that her life experiences forced her to grow up quickly.

Her refusal to give in to the role that rural India tried to place her in can seem, to the twenty-first century western writer, an indomitable act of feminism – Devi single handedly fighting for the rights of women in India to choose the life they want to lead. It is easy to place Devi’s life within this context – it certainly serves my purpose well for her to be a feminist. However, at this stage she was purely fighting for self-preservation. Initially it seemed she had made life worse for herself as her family began to turn against her for the dishonour she had brought them. After getting involved in a family dispute over some land she believed belonged to her poor father, one of her cousins had her jailed for ‘theft’ in order to keep her at bay. There she was subject to further abuse as the police raped her, but she didn’t remain there long – she was kidnapped by a gang of dacoits (bandits) from the neighbouring ravines of the Chambal Valley. Banditry was rife in this very poor area as men ran away to the ravines to form gangs of dacoits and rob wealthy villages and travellers. So this was the point at which Devi entered the world in which she would become know at the Bandit Queen.

The leader of the gang at that point intended to drag Devi around as his sexual slave, molesting her as soon as they reached the ravines. She was physically abused and molested in front of the gang for days before one of the dacoits, Vikram Mallah, had had enough. After asking their leader to desist a handful of times, Mallah went full throttle and shot him. He then became leader of the gang and he and Devi began a relationship together. The two seemed genuinely to care for one-another; Mallah perhaps recognised Devi’s fierce spirit in the face of her uncountable hardships and Devi, no doubt, was overwhelmed to find a man fighting for her quality of life. He allowed the gang to return to her village where she dragged her husband from his house and stabbed him. Mallah’s sense of right and wrong was clear and he cared enough for Devi to allow her her revenge. There followed a year of kidnappings, murders and ransacking of upper caste homes. They almost seem like a South Asian version of Robin Hood and his merry men! Devi appears to have fitted very easily into this life, such was her formidable character. Finally having found a man who respected her and a life in which she could exact revenge upon the upper castes that had made her life so incredibly dire, this was arguably the happiest year of her life to date. But things were to fall apart suddenly and irreversibly.

To be continued…

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

For 3 and a half years I was lucky enough to work at Hampton Court Palace. Some parts of the job were pretty dire, such as the bright red uniform that made me look like a chelsea pensioner and rainy winter days waiting at the front gate to check the ticket of that one visitor who was determined to make the most of her/his day off, regardless of the relentless British weather. It was definitely worth it though, mostly for all that I learnt there. That building has such an unspoken history that most people remain unaware of, merely imagining Henry VIII stomping around and falling out with whichever wife that was afflicted by her matrimony to him at that time. One particular character that left a deep impression upon me was Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

Sophia lived in Faraday House opposite Hampton Court Palace under the reign of Queen Victoria and used to happily amble around the inexplicably beautiful gardens walking her dogs. She was also the president of the Suffragette Fellowship for a while, which was set up for suffragettes to write about their experiences so that history would remember each and every one of their stories. I write this blog post to play my part in this as Sophia’s name never came up when I learnt about the suffragettes at school and yet, it turns out she was quite the inspiring life-force.

To give a brief background her father, Maharaja Duleep Singh, was the last Maharaja of the Sikh Kingdom of the Punjab. He was deposed as a child, exiled to Britain and led an incredibly prosperous and indulgent life as a young man. Queen Victoria had a bit of a soft spot for him, no doubt due in part to the charisma demonstrable in his popularity and scandalous sexual dalliances with court beauties and servants alike. Sophia was his youngest daughter and I assume she grew up with him absent, as he was plotting a political return to the Punjab from when she was a baby right up until when he died financially destitute. In spite of him turning his back on Britain, Victoria still loved his family and granted Faraday House to his three daughters, who lived there as grace and favour residents. Watching Sophia flower into a powerful and driven activist cannot have been much of a surprise to the ageing Queen given Duleep Singh’s tumultuous life – Sophia seemed to have inherited his feisty nature, albeit aimed towards a very different cause. 

Sophia had only to hear of the Women’s Social and Political Union and their fight for women’s suffrage once to be convinced of their cause and join. Her ideals on women’s rights must have been already well formed in her head for her to make such a quick decision to become an activist. What followed was what I can only describe a relentless political career, driven by her belief that women must gain equality to men. She placed herself right at the gates of Hampton Court Palace to hand out the paper ‘The Suffragette’ in order to gain publicity for their cause. She would have been putting a lot at stake doing this as living at Faraday House and carrying the name of her father placed her right in the centre of high society. Yet she cared nought for social protocol and put her reputation at risk, placing herself at the forefront of campaigning and using her name to publicise the cause. Hampton Court-ers were not happy; some even wrote letters in a attempt to have her evicted. But, as long as good Queen Vic let her stay there, there was nothing anyone could do to get rid of her – can’t you almost hear their woeful sighs as the suffragette continued rabble rousing in their good neighbourhood?

Sophia refused to pay her taxes, as she quite rightly believed that taxation without representation was “tyranny.” When the ‘bailiffs’ came knocking and sold her expensive jewellery at auction to recover the taxes, rather amusingly other suffragettes bought it back for her. Although the tax money was still repaid it did wonders to publicise their cause because as you can imagine, the ladies doing the buying weren’t quiet about their purpose. She also marched proudly alongside the suffragette delegates (I fight the urge to name drop here as I believe anyone fighting for women’s right to vote at this time is notable whether their name is remembered by many or by few) for the Black Friday demonstrations of 1910. The police violence that ensued interestingly roused the sympathy of the public in the most basic ‘men shouldn’t be violent against women’ way, yet still left the vast majority disinterested in their cause.

It is here that I would like to interject some of my own feminist beliefs. Today the suffragettes are celebrated for what they achieved and taught as part of the national curriculum as a group that helped change our society for the better. However, at the time, many believed female enfranchisement unnecessary, the activism of the suffragettes ridiculous. I would like people to bear this in mind when rolling their eyes at current feminist activism. There are many important feminist causes now that I myself have experienced disdain at, such as fighting representations of women in the media and the devastating effect this can have on female self body image, or how this sexualises women to be valued more for physical appearance than mental ability. People used to react the same way to the suffragettes and yet, in 21st century Britain and in many other countries around the world (although sadly not all) a woman’s right to vote is a basic human right. One day, the causes that feminists today fight for will become generally accepted human rights and people will hardly believe that there were once people who didn’t believe in their cause – I truly believe this, whether it takes 20 years or 200 years. Worth bearing in mind I think.

Thankfully, Sophia, the woman who in the 1934 edition of ‘Women’s Who’s Who’ listed ‘Advancement of Women’ as her only interest, lived to see the Act passed where all women over 21 could vote – a tangible piece of success for all her hard work and perseverance. I am honoured to have worked at the Palace where her campaigning all began and am proud to be able to share her story to those who may not have known of the daughter of a Maharaja who helped every women in this country obtain the right to vote.