It’s a fact of life that many men are threatened by powerful and skilful women. Nowhere is this more so than in sport. While women’s sport might just be entering a golden age right now with women’s soccer, rugby, basketball, Australian football, cricket, surfing etc. emerging from the shadows to not only provide fun and exciting fitness alternatives for women but also to provide career opportunities the achieving of equality for women in sport is still a long way off. Still… things are better now than they were five, ten or twenty years ago. Quite a bit better than they were 350 years ago.
Women don’t surf
350 years ago, powerful, skilful and capable women were not just ignored, ridiculed or told that they were not as good as the men. They were killed!
In the year of 1642 AD a party of soldiers of the Parliamentary army (Cromwell’s mob) were returning to London after a skirmish with the King’s troops near the town of Newbury when they came upon a very clever, tall, thin, women. The soldiers were a little worse for wear. Their nerves were rattled. They were dirty and tired from the battle and they hadn’t eaten in days. At this stage of the English Civil War the Cromwellian troops were not doing very well. While they scavenged around the local fields looking for fruit and grains to ward off their hunger one foot-soldier climbed a tree in search of a juicy apple. He discovered more than he bargained for. A short distance away he spotted a woman doing something that neither he nor any of his companions would even dream of being able to do.
The fact that the women was standing on plank of wood is neither here nor there. That would hardly have been something to gather the boys together over. The fact that she was standing on a plank of wood while traversing a river and making that plank of wood go this way in that, seemingly, at her command, is quite another matter. This was a job for the lads.
The action that took place on the river bank that day was so exciting and shocking that the Earl of Essex’s army considered it worthy of creating a soldier recruitment pamphlet about all the fun in the hope that telling the story might motivate potential brave soldiers to join them in the Parliamentary cause. I mean, other than fighting battles with the poncy King’s men, what could be more fun and righteous than catching and killing witches. It sure beats tilling the fields. The pay’s not great but think of the stories you will have for your grandchildren.
As the pamphlet explained… “To and fro she ﬂeeted on the board standing ﬁrm bolt upright … turning and winding it which way she pleased, making it pastime to her, as little thinking who perceived her tricks, or that she did imagine that they were the last she ever should show.”
She’s a witch!
Given that stand-up paddle-boarding and surfing were not activities endorsed for peasant village women back in the seventeenth century I suppose it is not surprising that a bunch of the guys got together, tackled the woman when she reached the river bank and asked her, not too politely, what the hell she thought she was doing. When the woman gave no answer a couple of the best shooters on the team decided to teach her a lesson by lining her up against the river bank and shooting her. It was a good plan. A good plan that didn’t work out. The soldiers missed. Well they claimed that they didn’t miss. Their interpretation of the events was that she growled a bit, snatched the shot out of the air and ate the lead. She then had the bad manners to laugh at the soldiers.
Well that was it! Proof positive! She was a witch. A female surfing on a river is bad enough but catching bullets in mid-air, eating them, then laughing at brave soldiers freshly out of battle is not the behaviour of a god-fearing women. No need for a trial. Her courage, skill, power and rudeness condemned her. A commander of the unit killed the women with a pistol shot to the temple.
Shot for having a good time
We will never know quite what the woman from Newbury was up to on the River Kennet. Perhaps she was a reed-cutter by trade and she had discovered a terrific new technology for reed collecting. Perhaps she had discovered a better method of fishing. The Kennet today is known as a great sports fishing river. It is also popular among white water kayakers. Maybe she was just having fun with her own version of stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking or surfing. Maybe she had just developed her own method of getting to the other side of the river without getting wet or drowning or having to walk miles down-stream to the nearest bridge. Whatever she was doing, according to the pamphlet created by the military men, she was good at it and she was having one hell of a great time.
To interact with nature, whether at work or at play, is a form of power. The woman of Newbury was a powerful woman. Down through the ages these kinds of powerful people have always made authoritarian types nervous. What could be scarier to a tired, hungry, frightened soldier than a powerful woman who could, seemingly, tame nature? Powerful women who play well still frighten some men today. That will not stop such powerful people from their play. Fortunately, these days it would be rare for a woman, or any other adventurer, to be killed because of their power and passion. Fear of authoritarian men did not stop the Newbury woman from being one of the first people to stand-up paddle board or surf in Europe! What a woman!