The Secret Commonwealth

By Jane Stevenson

History and folklore collide when a 17th century alchemist discovers there are supernatural forces at work as England slides towards Civil War

Monday, 31 October 2016

Someone unexpected

The ‘real world’ bit of Secret Commonwealth is peopled with an extensive caste of real people. I was reading John Buchan’s biography of the Marquess of Montrose, who I knew I wanted as a character, when I came across someone else I felt I really had to include; Frances Dalyell. I’ve had hard words to say from time to time about historical fiction which features intrepid heroines engaging in improbable amounts of physical activity, but Frances Dalyell is something of an exception which proves the rule. She was the daughter of the Earl of Carnwath, and she was also officer of a company in Newcastle’s Northern Horse. She makes me think of the more intrepid heroines of the border ballads. Her family was one of those split by the civil war; her brother Gavin had declared for the Covenant, though the Earl was staunchly royalist. Frances was also a royalist, her husband, John Pierson, fought under Marmaduke Langdale, and was killed. Frances, I can only think, must have hunted along with her menfolk, because she must have become a good rider and a good shot. After she was widowed, she got her father to procure her a commission in the name of Captain Francis Dalyell, and raised a troop of men and horses from the family estates. Perhaps the idea was to redeem the family honour from the stain cast on it by her brother; certainly, her standard was the family badge. It was black, with a naked man dangling from a gibbet, and the motto ‘I dare’. There were women, Brilliana Harley for example, who directed the defence of a besieged house, but to the best of my knowledge, Frances Dalyell is the only woman in the Civil War who actually fought as a soldier.

Back to project page
Share on social


Joad Raymond
 Joad Raymond says:

Hi Jane,
This may interest / amuse you:

The Weekly Intelligencer of the Common-Wealth (17-24 July, 1655):

Friday, July 20.
This day we heard the story of a Female souldier that was brought to bed not far from the Tower, her love to her comerade was such, that in the habite of a young man she had followed him through all the dangers of the War, and had been a partaker of them with him as wel in Ireland as in England ...

posted 31st October 2016

Jane Stevenson
 Jane Stevenson says:

Thanks - I hadn't encountered that one. There are quite a few female sailors in the Napoleonic era, but the only 17th century women soldier I know about otherwise is Catalina de Erauso. By the way, as a connoisseur of newsbooks, have you ever come across a story about a young woman in royalist-held Oxford who committed suicide by shooting herself after the death of her lover? Hester Pulter writes a poem on this theme giving the impression that it was something of a cause célèbre, but I haven't seen any other reference to the event.

posted 31st October 2016

Joad Raymond
 Joad Raymond says:

The suicide doesn't ring any bells beyond Pulter's poem, but I'll think about it. You're right that it's exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to read in a newsbook ...

posted 7th November 2016

Jules Ward
 Jules Ward says:

Hi Jane, I am currently researching a history of females in the Cavalry and to some degree the Infantry So was delighted to be sent your link by a colleague.
You may be interested to read about 'Mother Ross' another female who disguised herself as a man in order to try to locate her husband. She was eventually injured in battle and only then discovered to be a female. Although discharged She was awarded a full pension.

posted 15th May 2017

Top rewards

£20  + shipping
47 pledges


First edition of the hardback plus the ebook and your name in the back of the book
Choose this reward
£30  + shipping
28 pledges


A signed first edition of the hardback plus the ebook, plus your name in the back of the book.
Choose this reward