17th Century Women and the Perserverance of Prophecy in Print

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke begins his polemic by likening prominent Dissenter Richard Price’s sermon in favor of the French Revolution to the worst religious excesses on the English Civil War:

That sermon is in a strain which I believe has not been heard in this kingdom, in any of the pulpits which are tolerated or encouraged in it, since the year 1648, when a predecessor of Dr. Price, the Reverend Hugh Peters, made the vault of the king’s own chapel at St. James’s ring with the honour and privilege of the Saints, who, with the “high praises of God in their mouths, and a two edged sword in their hands, were to execute judgment on the heathen, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron.” Few harangues from the pulpit, except in the days of your league in France, or in the days of our solemn league and covenant in England, have ever breathed less of the spirit of moderation than this lecture in Old Jewry…. This pulpit style, revived after so long a discontinuance, had to me the air of novelty, and of a novelty not wholly without danger (13-14).

In rhetorically linking the Civil War to the French Revolution Burke thus calls up the ghosts of that turbulent time – ghosts that still haunted the public at large.  More importantly, Burke suggests that part of the problem with the rhetoric of the Civil War was the blurring of the lines between preaching and prophecy – the overtaking of reasoned discourse and scholarly Biblical interpretation by ranting “enthusiasts,” who prophesied a world turned upside down.  It was this threat that Burke saw threatening England once again.

This threat was exacerbated (in Burke’s mind) by the proliferation of cheap printed prophecies that were distributed to the general population. Thus Burke’s harangue is also a testament to the long life of prophecy in print.  By drawing up the specter of the Civil War prophets Burke is also drawing attention to the complex connections between printed prophecy then and the perseverance of those prophecies throughout the eighteenth century – prophecies that would be echoed in the millenarian works of people like Richard Brothers.

The millenarian prophecy of the Civil War has been amply examined by people like Christopher Hill who, in his foundational The World Turned Upside Down, illustrates that religious groups like the Familialists, Ranters, Quakers, and Diggers were an integral part of creating the political landscape of the 1640’s and 50’s.  Absent from this work, however, is much recognition of prophetesses who proliferated during this time period.  As Phyllis Mack puts it, Hill has a tendency to, “subsume the category of ‘woman’ within that of class and would interpret the prophet’s attack on the enrobed Anglican priest as one aspect of a wider and more significant dynamic of class conflict” (3). This does not to say that class does not figure into the equation – during the turbulent 1640’s this was unavoidable – but it is to say that many of these prophetic women have been overlooked as important thinkers and writers of the time period.  For example, one of the most prolific prophets of the time period, Lady Eleanor Davies, is practically relegated to a footnote in Hill’s book, where he notes that she was “an eccentric personality who regarded herself as a prophetess [and] deserves more space than she can be given here” (128).

Furthermore, though modern feminist scholarship has done much to rescue these important women from the dustbin of history, relatively little work has been done on women as prophetic printers and writers – women who used the medium of print (often illegally) to project a prophetic voice.  In the case of Lady Eleanor Davies, her prophetic voice operated only through illicit print – print laden with her prophetic ideology.  As such her vision of millennium was as much a product of its mediation technology as its actual prophetic content, a fact that she herself acknowledges. In the case of a prophetess like Fifth Monarchist Anna Trapnel, on the other hand, her prophecy undergoes multiple layers of outside mediation before reaching the printed page, thus calling into question the very notion of a stable authorial persona.  As Lisa Maruca argues, in cases like this the printing process itself operated as a gendered space within which multiple subjectivities could be negotiated (15).  It is within this space that the prophetesses Davies and Trapnel thrived, working to create an alternative, gendered, public space that was gradually regulated and shut down over the course of the century.

Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist Prophetess, Misidentified here as a Quaker

Lady Eleanor Davies

Lady Eleanor Davies (1590-1652) was the fifth daughter of Baron Audeley, the first earl of Castlehaven.  She was married in 1609 to Sir John Davies, an attorney in the King’s service.  Until 1625 there was nothing particularly remarkable about her life.  However on July 28, 1625 she heard the voice of the prophet Daniel from heaven saying, “There is Ninteene years and a halfe to the day of Judgement and you as the meek Virgin.”  She interpreted this as a prophetic call and began publishing prophesies proclaiming the impending judgment that specifically criticized both the King (who acceded to the throne the same year Lady Eleanor heard the voice from heaven) and the governance of the Church of England under Archbishop William Laud.  She gained even more notoriety when she correctly predicted both the death of her husband in 1626 and the Duke of Buckingham in 1628. She quickly remarried Archibald Douglas, who claimed to be Charles II’s older brother and thus the rightful heir to the throne (Cope xi-xii).

In 1633 Lady Eleanor was arrested and sent to prison by Archbishop Laud for the illicit publication of her prophecy, Given to the Elector, which he burnt in front of her.  She remained imprisoned in the Gatehouse for two and a half years and upon her release she promptly destroyed the altar-hanging at Litchfield Cathedral and was committed to Bedlam.  She was later transferred to the Tower of London and remained in prison until 1640 (Cope xv-xvii).  In 1645 she interpreted the trial and execution of Archbishop Laud as the fulfillment of her prophecy of judgment made in 1625.  She continued to prophesy the coming kingdom of God until her death in 1652 and the printed prophecies she left behind represent one of the largest collection of writing by a seventeenth century woman.

What is particularly interesting about Lady Eleanor’s prophecies, however, is that they were meant for print.  Unlike the other prophets of the Civil War Lady Eleanor did not prophesy on street corners, walk naked as a sign, or fall into prophetic trances.  In fact her only real public demonstration (the destruction of the altar hanging at Litchfield) was largely a wordless event.  Instead Lady Eleanor focused her attention on print and her books.  However, as Lisa Maruca has pointed out, “print is a site in which the book as a tangible object meets the meaningful text contained within its pages” (4).  In other words, the production of print extends beyond the post-Romantic notion of the solitary genius author to the print technologies that made the book possible (the type, the press, etc) and the print workers that transferred words to type.  In fact she argues that, prior to the mid-eighteenth century the author was equally important as the printer, bookseller, hawker, etc.  In the case of Lady Eleanor, she and the printers she worked with took on substantial risk as, before the Civil War, it was illegal to print anything outside the Stationer’s Guild monopoly.  For this reason Lady Eleanor traveled to Holland early on in her career to print her most controversial prophecy, Given to the Elector, an event she describes in Everlasting Gospel:

And so pursuing the Prophetical History in the next place, That it might be fulfilled out of the Low Countreys, &c. as the Virgin when undertook her voyage, she fleeing for the Babes preservation thither; also constrained for printing the same, to go into Holland, those plain swathing-bands for wrapping it in, pretending in her husbands behalf the Spaw obtained a License, since none for printing to be had here, inquisition and hold such, among them imprisoned about it formerly, till afterward all as free, Cum Privilegio out of date become (288).

This passage is particular interesting in that, not only is she describing the “birth” of her most controversial prophecy – the one that got her imprisoned and condemned by Archbishop Laud – she is doing so in gendered terms and in the language of print.  Her books are her “Babes” – a term that takes on special resonance considering her prophetic identification as a virgin.  She goes to Holland because she cannot obtain a license to print in England and works with printers there to produce a religio-political text that lives on in print, despite being burned by the archbishop.

This gendered imagery of giving birth to the printed word also ties in closely to the physical production of her texts.  As Lisa Maruca argues, seventeenth century printing manuals often described the printing process in embodied and gendered terms.  So, for example, Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises describes the casting of letters thus: “[t]he Female Block is such another Block as the Male Block, only, instead of a Tongue running through the length of it a Groove is made to receive the Tongue of the Male-Block” (qtd. in Maruca 40).  Thus the mechanistic work that these letters then perform, Maruca argues, “is an essential part of the creation of words…. So, apparently, from the sex of machinery, a unit of language is born” 40-41).  In the case of Lady Eleanor, her printed works really are her “babes,” created through the illicit intercourse of radical prophet and underground printer.  The printed text that results is dangerous and destabilizing to the ruling hierarchy precisely because the prophetic message has found voice in the printed word.

All of these elements are on clear display in Given to the Elector, the only one of Lady Eleanor’s prophecies written in ballad form.  It was published in 1633 and then again in 1648 – on both occasions in sought to address specific socio-political circumstances.  The content of the prophecy conflates the events of Daniel 5, specifically Belshazzar’s feast, with what she sees (in 1633) as Charles I’s impending doom.  What is most interesting, however, is not so much the content of the text, but how it is printed.  On either side of the main body of text, Lady Eleanor has had glosses printed that sometimes help interpret the prophecy and at others simply obscure it further (see below).  For example, the body of the text conflates the writing on the wall that disturbs Belshazzar’s feast with the failure of Charles I to amend his ways.  In two places the marginal notes repeat the three words written on the wall predicting Belshazzar’s doom, “Mene Tekel Upharsin” and in one Lady Eleanor transfers the words to an anagram reading, “Parlement House King: in number about 666,” thus further tying corrupt government to apocalyptic prediction.

This particular passage is significant in that it was precisely her Biblical interpretation applied to current events that got her in the most trouble.  In fact when Lady Eleanor was brought before the Archbishop he overlooked her slights on King Charles and identified her most grievous offenses as claiming to be able to interpret prophecy and then (worst of all) having it printed without a license.  This is the account Lady Eleanor gives of his accusations in her Blasphemous Charge:

That she had lately compiled and written, and caused to be printed and published, the three several Schedules annexed to the said Articles, some containing Expositions of divers parts of the Chapters of the Prophet Daniel, But forasmuch as she took upon her (which much unbeseemed her Sex) not only to interpret the Scriptures, and withal the most intricate and hard places of the Prophet Daniel, but also to be a Prophetess, falsly pretending to have received certain Revelations for God, and had compiled certain Books of such her fictions and false Prophesies or Revelations, which she had in person carried with her beyond the Seas, and had there procured them to be printed without License, and after brought them over here into England, and here without License, vented and dispersed them, or some of them, contrary to the Decree of Star-Chamber” (252-253).

That a woman would claim to be able to understand the prophecies of Daniel was bad enough, but that she would dare to publish such prophecies in print and that there was a printer willing to do it testifies to the dangerous destabilizing effect such works could have.  For once in the public space such work was uncontrollable – the Archbishop could burn all the books he could find, but copies still remained and Lady Eleanor herself survived long enough to have Given to the Elector printed again in 1648.  Her work, then, is a testament not only to the power of prophetic discourse in the seventeenth century, but to the power of print technologies and printers in the turbulent times leading up to the Civil War.  During and after the War a new type of prophetic voice would arise, a voice that is best represented by Anna Trapnel.

Anna Trapnel

Anna Trapnel was the daughter of a shipwright.  Her mother died when she was nine after praying that the Lord would “Double thy spirit upon my child” (Trapnel 7). Unlike Lady Eleanor, who was not associated with any of the major religious movements of the English Civil War, Anna Trapnel was one of the most prominent Fifth Monarchist prophets.  The Fifth Monarchists interpreted the prophecies of the book of Daniel as predicting four successive corrupt empires to be succeeded by the glorious reign of King Jesus, who would come to earth to restore his kingdom (Hinds xxvii).  As such, Fifth Monarchists welcomed the overthrow of the monarchy and initially embraced Oliver Cromwell as God’s chosen tool to restore his kingdom – many prominent Fifth Monarchists even served in the Barebones Parliament.  However, after Cromwell was named Lord Protector, many Fifth Monarchists became disillusioned and it was in this political atmosphere that Trapnel made her most famous prophecy, The Cry of a Stone (Hinds xxxi-xxxii).

Also unlike Lady Eleanor, Anna Trapnel did not write her prophecies; they were recorded as she spoke in a trance then edited and printed later.  The particular trance that resulted in The Cry of a Stone occurred in January 1654 and lasted eleven days and twelve nights.  The fact that it occurred in Whitehall (the center of government) is significant, as is the fact that the Barebones Parliament had been only recently dismissed and Cromwell made Lord Protector.  In fact, Trapnel specifically singles out Cromwell, figuring him as the Biblical Gideon, for special condemnation for what she sees as his abdication of his divine role.  Thus, though the prophecy is not written by Trapnel, it is clearly in her own voice and reflects her interpretation of current affairs.  In fact, Trapnel was considered so disruptive that, while prophesying later in Cornwall, she was arrested and brought before the magistrates, a fascinating account that is laid out in her Report and Plea.

The co-construction of A Cry of a Stone by prophet, relator, editor, and printer allows the printed text to operate on multiple levels.  At the same time that it engages in radical social critique of the Cromwell Protectorate it also carves out a gendered space in print and works to further elide the category of the author.  Anna Trapnel is simultaneously the author and subject of her own text – it is within the editing and printing process that her subjectivity is recursively shaped just like the letters on the page.

The first level of mediation that occurs in A Cry of the Stone is between Trapnel herself and the (likely male) relator of the text who writes down her prophecy and ostensibly helps edit it for publication.  This is a situation already fraught with interpretative difficulty as Trapnel was ostensibly not even conscious at the time of her speech.  However the situation is further complicated by the fact that the relator’s transcript of the prophecy is incomplete.  He frequently comes into the room late, having missed part of the prophecy and at other times “because of the press of people in the chamber” (18), or Trapnel’s dying voice he is unable to transcribe all of her words.  At other times he seems to silently edit out passages that do not relate to the current political situation.  This elision seemingly occurs at times of little importance as much as at times of tremendous moment.  For example towards the end of the prophecy, right as Trapnel is beginning to elaborate her magnificent vision of the New Jerusalem, the relator maddeningly writes, “Having uttered many other things, she sung of the glory of the New Jerusalem, which escaped the relator’s pen, by reason of the lowness of her voice, and the noise of the people; only some pieces were taken here and there, but too broken and imperfect here to relate” (63).  Thus the relator functions both to relate the prophecy and shape the reader’s view of the prophet.  This is not to say that his/her view is inaccurate, only that both are working to co-construct the text.

A further level of mediation occurs, however, at the level of printing the text.  After the Civil War the monopoly of the Stationer’s Guild was broken and pre-publication censorship fell to the wayside.  This was not to say that a person could print anything without consequence, but in the chaos that followed the Civil War the amount of print exploded and became increasingly difficult to regulate.  In the case of Trapnel there is no printer listed on her text, but it is clear that it was printed quickly and cheaply, that the printer had editorial input, and that the materiality of the text shapes the content.

Of particular interest is that way in which the printer navigates the multiple voices and genres of the text – shaping reader perception through his choices of font, type, and spacing.  In the figure below, for example, we can see the printer navigating three very distinct textual spaces.  The page to the left includes the end of one of Trapnel’s prose prophecies, in this case one that includes biographical details.  The text here is small, closely printed, and in a regular font type.  On the top of the next page, however, the printer has to transition into the voice of the relator and for this he selects a larger font that frames the following section of Trapnel’s verse prophecy.  This prophecy in verse is printed in two columns of italic font which are roughly separated into stanzas of four – though this would seem to be primarily for ease of reading as the stanzas to not exhibit any consistent rhyme pattern.

Each of these seemingly small details are nevertheless important to how we understand the text.  Especially in the use of the italic stanzas the printer is clearly intervening in the text – suggesting how it should be read.  As Lisa Maruca has illustrated, in the eighteenth century such italic fonts were considered more “feminine” (51).  Thus even at the level of the printing process Trapnel’s gendered subjectivity is being shaped by forces outside her direct control.  The fact that we do not notice these types of details when reading itself indicates the extent to which our reading practices have been informed by the post-Romantic theory of authorship.  The material text has become transparent to us to the point that we find it difficult to read a text as it would have been read at the time.  As Maruca points out, this transparency must be interrogated for, “that which is the most ‘internalized’ or ‘intuitive’ is that which is also the most ideological” (6).

In the case of Davies and Trapnel I am by no means suggesting that they lack their own agency or voice.  Both women clearly had a distinct vision for their public role.  In fact if at any time there was a relatively open space for women to express themselves publically it was during the turbulent decades of the 1640’s and 50’s.  In fact after the Restoration we see women’s participation in print gradually diminishing – a story that is admirably related in Catherine Gallagher’s Nobody’s Story.  Ultimately, though, I would argue that the modern difficulties that these texts produce in terms of understanding how these women thought, spoke, and acted reflects more on our culture than theirs.  Religious and prophetic discourse was one of the dominant forms of public expression in the seventeenth century and it would not have seemed to strange at the time.  Thus, as Paula McDowell suggests, “By pursuing what makes us uncomfortable in early modern print culture… we may begin to understand not only our own literary values and agendas, but also… those values’ original socio-cultural functions and consequences” (16).  Furthermore, the perseverance of Davies and Trapnel’s prophecies in print is a testament to the power of the medium.  Despite attempts to limit, control, or destroy it these women’s words lived on long enough in print that Edmund Burke could draw upon cultural memory to condemn them afresh in 1790 and worry over the return of enthusiast prophets to “England’s green and pleasant land.”


Davies, Lady Eleanor. The Prophetic Writings of Lady Eleanor Davies. Ed. Esther S. Cope. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. New York: Penguin, 1972.

Mack, Phyllis. Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

Maruca, Lisa. The Work of Print: Authorship and the English Text Trades, 1660-1760. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2007.

McDowell, Paula. The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace, 1678-1730. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Trapnel, Anna. The Cry of a Stone. Ed. Hilary Hinds. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000.

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