Women and the Navy in the 17th Century

Drawing in particular on material from our archives, Dr Elaine Murphy explores the diverse connections between women and the navy in the 17th century, researched during her time as a Caird short-term fellow.

During the 17th century, women engaged and interacted with the navy in a variety of complex ways. Many women visited or sailed on naval vessels for both short and extended voyages, while others did business with the admiralty supplying goods and services to naval dockyards.

Women who sailed on men-of-war ranged from those of the highest levels of society to the wives of ordinary sailors and soldiers. Queen Henrietta Maria came under attack from parliamentarian ships as she landed in Bridlington in February 1643 [AGC/34A/3]. 

Henrietta Maria
Oil painting of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669) by Anthony van Dyck circa 1938

Despite a horrendous voyage by sea to England in 1662, Queen Catherine of Braganza visited and spent time with the fleet in later years. In 1672 Sir John Narborough described how she and King Charles II received a ‘bountifull interainment’ when they dined on the Victory [JOD/3]. 

Details of the wives of ordinary sailors on board ships can be found in letters and journals from officers and admiralty officials. In 1666 the captain of the Princess was ordered to remove all the women from his ship as one of them had the plague [DAR/3]. The chaplain Henry Teonge on his first voyage to sea, on board the Assistance in 1675, described in his journal the interactions between the mariners and their wives writing that: 

‘You would have wondered to see, here a man and woman creepe into a Hammack; the womans Leggs to the hams hanging over the syds’ [JOD/6].

Teonge's Diary
A page from Reverend Henry Teonge's diary kept on board the Assistance, Bristol and Royal Oak

Large numbers of women can also be identified doing business with the navy in a variety of trades including flag making, ship painting, ironmongery, nursing wounded seamen and rat catching in dockyards. Others tried to defraud the navy such as Anne Pearson who impersonated the sister of a dead mariner to try and claim his wages [ADM/A/1819/340].

To explore these collections further, enter the reference in our archive catalogue

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Elaine Murphy

Dr Elaine Murphy is a Lecturer in Maritime History at the University of Plymouth and was a Caird Short Term Library Fellow in the autumn of 2016.