The Archbishop and the Suffragettes

In the collection of Archbishop Randall Davidson’s papers held at Lambeth Palace Library are two large volumes containing a number of letters regarding women’s suffrage (Davidson 515 and Davidson 516). From them, we can tease out some of the stories of these women and of the Archbishop’s views on the events surrounding the suffragette movement. Most of these letters refer specifically to the suffragettes and not to the suffragists who protested by non-militant methods for women’s votes.

Davidson took a consistent stance on the issue of women’s suffrage, according to his replies. Whilst he supported the idea of women’s suffrage in general, he disagreed with the militant methods undertaken by the Women’s Social and Political Union, which were often violent and involved the activists acting illegally. Therefore, Davidson chose not to openly show his support for women’s suffrage in case he was misinterpreted as supporting the suffragettes and their tactics. He was, one could say, a passive suffragist.

For many of the suffragettes, this was not what they had hoped for from the head of the Church of England, as most mistook his actions as being anti-women’s suffrage, and others believed that he should show his support for their cause more openly.

It is easy to feel the suffragettes’ frustration when reading these letters. In particular, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), who was well-known for composing The March of the Women and conducting singing through her prison bars with a toothbrush, writes page after page to the Archbishop, venting her frustration and claiming that women are, in her opinion, being ignored and will continue to be ignored unless their point is made through militant acts. Smyth was not afraid to speak her mind about the politicians of the time:

“…if ever I come across Mr Asquith’s path… I shall say, as loudly and distinctly as I can, that I think it disgraceful that millions of women shall be trodden underfoot because of the “convictions” of an old man who notoriously can’t be left alone in a room with a young woman after dinner.” (Letter to Davidson from Ethel Smyth, 11 February 1914, from Davidson 516)

Signature of Dame Ethel Smyth as found on one of her letters to Archbishop Davidson

When reading Davidson’s replies to these letters, one is struck by how careful the Archbishop is not to be associated with the actions of the suffragettes, although his frustration at being misrepresented is also clear:

“Would it not be fairly said “they have even converted a stolid Archbishop?” whereas in the first place he was fairly converted before…” (Letter from Davidson to Miss Agnes Gardiner, 5 March 1907, from Davidson 515)

He is also keen to inform the suffragettes of the damage he believes they are doing to the cause and to the efforts of the suffragists in general by partaking in violent actions such as window smashing, throwing missiles at MPs and other illegal activities.

“I fear [the suffragettes] are daily strengthening the hands of those who say, untruly as I think, that the enthusiasm of good women is apt to lack the kind of balanced judgement which is specially called for in dealing with large political questions.” (Letter from Davidson to Lady Blomfield, 25 October 1909, from Davidson 515)

For many of the WSPU, Davidson’s actions weren’t enough. The Union’s most prolific and founding member, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), was in and out of prison. She underwent hunger strikes and submitted to force feeding, which caused her to be a victim of the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. Whilst in prison, she wrote to Davidson, asking for an audience. Unfortunately, Davidson felt unable to visit her, due to her associations with the suffragettes. The meeting never took place, although Mrs Pankhurst makes her views on the situation clear:

“… I shall call upon women to refuse to obey and men to vote against, a Government which while professing the principles of representative Government, refuses to apply them to women…” (Letter to Davidson from Emmeline Pankhurst, 31 March 1914, for Davidson 516)

Emmeline Pankhurst encourages Archbishop Davidson to meet with her.

Norah Dacre Fox (1878-1961), another prominent member of WSPU, goes further, saying that the Archbishop, in fact, is to blame for their militancy, stating that in the half century since the fight for women’s votes began, the Archbishop of Canterbury has had plenty of opportunities to show his support, and that the support of such a spiritual leader could have resolved the issue before militancy was needed.

“Our view is that the Church is very responsible for Militancy, because it has failed to realise the spiritual meaning of the Women’s movement and has not helped women to get the vote.” (Letter to Davidson from Norah Dacre Fox, 27 February 1914, from Davidson 516)

The two volumes show the vast array of letters sent to the Archbishop by many well-known suffragettes, including Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954), and Louise Creighton (1850-1936). For some members of the WSPU, however, simply writing letters was not enough to cause a reaction from the head of the Church of England. In Davidson 315 we find newspaper accounts regarding Miss Annie Kenney (1879-1953) who, in May 1914, gained access to Lambeth Palace and refused to leave. Archbishop Davidson, his wife and several members of staff attempted to make her leave, but eventually she had to be arrested and removed from the site. Due to the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ (1913) she succeeded in making several visits to Lambeth Palace to seek sanctuary, and Davidson was warned that he could be accused of harbouring someone wanted by the police, so he could do nothing to hinder the arrests. The WSPU thought he could have prevented Miss Kenney’s further arrests. Yet another blow to Davidson’s reputation as a supporter of women’s suffrage. In one of many letters he sent to suffragette supporters he argued his corner, stating that he had treated Miss Kenney with ‘utmost consideration and kindness’, but, as Davidson well knew, the versions of the story being published in the suffragette newspapers painted him in a less than bright light (Letter from Davidson to Mrs Wilcock, 19 June 1914, from Davidson 516).

Archbishop Davidson’s account of Miss Kenney’s visit.


Possibly the most shocking inclusions in these volumes are descriptions sent to the Archbishop of the treatment of imprisoned suffragettes. Pressure on the Archbishop increased in 1914 in response to the methods used to feed the suffragettes. Many accounts go into horrific detail about the acts of forced feeding which were inflicted upon these women and the injuries and damage they suffered as a result. In some cases, the practice was seen as so violating that even the prison doctors refused to take part, and many of the women suffered permanent injuries. We have no evidence of how Davidson reacted to the practice, as no letters of response have been retained in this collection.

In 1918 Davidson had his chance to show his support for women’s suffrage when the motion was voted on in the House of Lords. Women over the age of thirty had the vote, which was the first step to women having equal voting rights to men in the UK.

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