NO ONE knows whether Emily Wilding Davison intended to kill
herself when she was run down by King George V's horse in the 1913
Epsom Derby. She may simply have been trying to stop the colt,
Anmer, ridden by Herbert Jones, not bidding for martyrdom.
The coroner returned a verdict of "Death due to misadventure",
but the jury is still out. There is plaus-ible evidence for
suicide, and also for foolhardiness (attempting to stop a galloping
horse is not to be recommended). What is beyond doubt is that
Davison's action, in ducking under the rail at Tattenham Corner,
and running into the horse's path, turned her into a heroic,
martyr-like figure for women's suffrage.
What is less known is that her militant activism was informed,
at least in part, by her Christian faith - and she was not alone.
But she and her compatriots were not unopposed within the
The Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Queen Victoria,
had described the campaign to secure votes for women as "This mad,
wicked folly of 'Women's Rights'" - she had just learnt that Lady
Amberley (the mother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell) had
become president of a local suffrage society.
The Church of England was less dogmatic over the issue. It
recognised, from the late 19th century, that the issue - and,
indeed, "feminism" (a word coined at this time) - presented it with
a challenge, in terms of both the governing of the country, and the
conduct of church affairs.
As a result of what has become known as the Great Reform Act
(1832), for the first time since the medieval era no woman could
vote in parliamentary elections. This was because the word "male"
now qualified "person" in that legislation - and it remained there
until 1918, when most women over 30 years of age were formally
admitted to the national franchise.
THE campaign for women's right to vote may be said to have begun
with the Chartists, although that demand was never formally adopted
by the national leadership. The first suffrage societies, and
attempts to secure legislative change, date from the mid-19th
century, and the momentum increased thereafter.
In 1897, local women's suffrage societies formed the National
Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). It was led by
Millicent Fawcett, and believed that it could secure the vote for
middle-class, property-owning women by peaceful means.
Its supporters were to become known as "suffragists". Six years
later, under Emmeline Pankhurst, the Women's Social and Political
Union (WSPU) was founded. This took a more active approach to the
issue, and soon resorted to violent protests, and terrorism -
although militancy was not confined to the WSPU. Those who
supported the WSPU were to become known as "suffragettes", although
support both, or change affiliation.
For some activists, women's rights - and the vote, in particular
- soon became known as "The Cause", and, as with many causes, was
pursued by some with a religious fervour. Davison was a case in
She was born in 1872, and in 1895 was awarded first-class
honours in English in the Oxford University examination for women.
Being female, however, she was not allowed to graduate.
She went on to teach, starting with the Church of England
College for Girls, Edgbaston. She taught there for a year
(1895-96). As an external student, Davison then secured a degree in
modern languages at London University. She joined the WSPU in 1906,
but was never employed by them, as she was seen as too independent
ON THREE occasions, she hid in the House of Commons. She was
there on census night in 1911, and the census transcript reads
"Found Hiding in Crypt of Westminster Hall, Westminster." She is
also credited with initiating the fire-bombing of pillar boxes in
During her time as a suffragette, Davison was imprisoned eight
times, for this and for other such offences (including whipping a
Baptist minister, whom she mistook for Lloyd George).
She was a prolific writer. Her last piece was an article, "The
Price of Liberty", published in the Daily Sketch a few
weeks before her death. It revealed how her deep Christian faith
influenced her approach to securing votes for women. She wrote "The
Pearl of Great Price . . . is the parable of Militancy . . . the
perfect Amazon is she who would sacrifice all even unto this last
to win the Pearl of Freedom for her sex."
Although the NUWSS and WSPU have tended to dominate the account
of the campaign, there were smaller organisations, too, which were
often referred to as leagues. Among them was the Church League for
Women's Suffrage (CLWS). This was founded in 1909 by the Revd
Claude Hinscliffe. He was already a member of the Men's League for
Women's Suffrage, and was the honorary secretary of the CLWS.
Maude Royden, a co-founder, was its first chairman. Royden, an
Anglican, and a future advocate of women's ordination within the
Church of England, was also a member of the NUWSS. She was one of
the organisation's main public speakers, and, in 1913-14, was the
editor of its newspaper, The Common Cause. As a league
member she formed a fellowship of prayer, "to unite in intercession
for the women's movement those who believe that prayer is work and
that all work should be done in the spirit of prayer".
THE aims of the CLWS were "to secure for women the Parliamentary
vote . . . to use the power thus obtained to establish equality of
rights and opportunities between the sexes, and to promote the
social and industrial well-being of the community". It, too, relied
on prayer and education to further its aims, seeing itself as
neither militant nor anti-militant.
The League's president was the Bishop of Lincoln, Edward Hicks,
who later wrote that he was probably the only bishop able to commit
himself to "a highly controversial movement". He supported the
cause because he believed in the equality of women, and saw them as
co-workers in his campaign for temperance.
Although he permitted Edith Picton-Turbervill to preach in a
church in his diocese, Hicks was opposed to women's ordination, and
resigned as president when the CLWS (as the League of the Church
Militant) campaigned for this policy.
In the era before the Great War, the CLWS was an important
suffrage organisation - the existence of churchmen willing to speak
and act on behalf of the campaign lent it moral force. It was also,
in effect, an umbrella group, as members of both the NUWSS and the
WSPU would attend its meetings. Davison was also a member of the
The organisation faced considerable criticism from both Anglican
clergy and laity. The Dean of Westminster argued that the name
"Church" had been "usurped by a faction and exploited by fanatics".
He said that, as the national Church, it should stand above
The League's response was to argue that politics affected every
aspect of the nation, and that the Church should take its place in
any great movement for the raising of the life of the community.
Canon Peter Green, of Manchester, refused to condemn militancy on
moral grounds, saying: "The cause is greater than the method."
JUST as many were critical that the Church of England could give
shelter to suffrage organisations, there were militants who saw the
Church - both as an institution and a structure - as a target. A
number of churches, such as St Catherine's, Hatcham, in London,
were firebombed, and churches sought insurance specifically to
cover themselves against suffragette attacks.
Groups of suffragettes targeted churches in protest at the
government's treatment of those women who went on hunger strike in
prison. Either they were forcibly fed, or released until they were
fit, under what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act, or Prisoners
(Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act of 1913.
Known as "suffragette choirs", supporters would attend services,
and chant prayers such as: "O God, save all women who are being
tortured for conscience' sake." Or they would boycott
Not surprisingly, the issue featured in the correspondence and
editorials of the Church Times. This was particularly so
just before Davison's action, and death. In the issue of 23 May
1913, it acknowledged "many once-currently accepted formulas leak
badly," and, in effect, supported votes for women as campaigned for
by the NUWSS leader Millicent Fawcett, although, "with the Maenad
furies [presumably militant suffragettes] we hold no parley". Since
the paper championed each individual's right to vote, it said, why
THE question whether Davison took her own life was much
discussed then, as it still is. In June 1912, after throwing
herself down a staircase at HM Prison Holloway, where she was
imprisoned, she told the medical officer that "a tragedy was
wanted". She was left with severe spinal injuries.
Film of the Derby incident clearly shows that she ran
deliberately in front of the King's horse, causing the animal and
its rider to fall. She remained unconscious for four days, dying on
8 June at Epsom Cottage Hospital.
Doubt was raised about her intentions, when it was discovered
that she had committed to keeping a subsequent appointment, and
that her possessions included a return ticket from Victoria
The possibility that it was suicide complicated arrangements for
the funeral. The WSPU decided to make it a public event, preceded
by a grand procession from Victoria Station. Several London
churches were approached to hold the service, but declined. The
Revd Charles Baumgarten, Rector of St George's, Bloomsbury, agreed,
partly because his wife was a member of the CLWS.
The coffin was brought to London on Saturday 14 June. The plate
on Davison's coffin read, "Fight on; God will give you the
victory," while the pall which covered it read: "She died for
The cortège was headed by a bare-headed woman in white, who
carried a cross. This was a deliberate decison, since any WSPU
symbol would have been likely to prove provocative, while similar
previous occasions had demonstrated that the Christian cross would
be respected, and the marchers remain unmolested.
Women carried laurel wreaths; the banners of various women's
leagues were flown; and ten bands accompanied the estimated 6000
marchers, some of them men (including some robed clergy). Emiline
Pankhurst's empty carriage also formed part of the procession - she
had been about to join the cortège, when she was rearrested under
the Cat and Mouse Act. It took two hours for the procession to
reach St George's.
The service was conducted by the Archdeacon of Lewisham, Charles
Escreet, Baumgarten, and Hinscliffe. They were joined by a
congregation of about 2000, including delegates from various
suffragette and other organisations.
Afterwards, the coffin was taken to King's Cross, whence it was
taken to St Mary's, Morpeth, in Northumberland, the next day, for
Dr Peter Street is a lecturer in religious studies and
history at the Open University.
St George's, Bloomsbury, is marking the centenary of Emily
Wilding Davison's death by hosting "The Wilding Festival", from 13
to 16 June. For more details, visit www.thewildingfestival.co.uk.