A further question raised by the 1723 oath rolls is the large number of women who swore. Approximately 3 in 10 oath takers were female. This makes the 1723 oath rolls unique among declarations of loyalty throughout the early modern period. Women had been active in the seventeenth century as petitioners, but never before had they been called upon to profess their loyalty to the government in such numbers.109 Moreover, female involvement in the process gathered steam throughout the autumn and winter of 1723. In August and September the ratio of male to female names identified on the oath rolls was approximately 5:1. By October, over a quarter of all those swearing were women, and in December over half of those taking the oaths were female. Partly these figures are derived from the fact that by December most of the men who were going to swear had already done so.110 Nonetheless, December was also the peak month for women taking the oaths, suggesting that female involvement was being actively encouraged. In Exeter, female participation was rather higher, with 735 of the 1,595 oath takers having been women (46.1%).
Both the Exeter and Devon rolls indicate that not all of those women who swore the oaths in Devon did so as widows and therefore heads of households. Descriptions of women’s marital statuses are not provided consistently throughout the Devon oath rolls, and so only limited conclusions can be drawn. For the months of August, September and October an indication of marital status is provided for 16.8% of those who swore. By far the largest group are the widows, a description given to 11% of women taking the oaths in the first three months of the process. A further 3% are described as spinsters, with just 2.8% having definitely been married. However, the returns for November and December suggest that the majority of women appearing in the oath rolls were in fact married. Some indication of marital status is provided for 39.9% of women oath-takers in November and 65.6% in December. In the final month of oath-taking 55.5% of all women who swore were definitely married, 6.1% were widows and just 4% were spinsters. Given that the data is sketchy for the first three months it seems likely that through the process the majority of women taking the oaths were married. In Exeter the picture is clearer, since marital status is provided for all but eleven of the 735 women who swore. Married women again form the largest single group at 41.6%, with 32.0% widowed and 24.9% spinsters.111
The finding that a large proportion of the women who took the oaths were married is surprising. In theory, the purpose of swearing was to avoid having to register estates and paying Walpole’s levy on papists. It has also been observed that the original Quarter Sessions orders relating to the administration of the oaths referred specifically to property holders. However, most married women in England at this time had no property rights of their own. Only around one in ten women entered into pre-marital property settlements, and these usually concerned a bride’s property rights in her widowhood.112 Thus it appears that many of the women who took the loyalty oaths did not have to do so. It is, of course, possible that in doing so they were seeking to insure themselves against the possibility of being taxed in the event of widowhood. Yet the fact that the proportion of the adult female population who swore was still relatively low suggests that for women inclusion in the process of declaring their loyalty was understood to be a voluntary act. That the number of Devon women who swore increased leading up to the cut-off date of 25 December 1723 indicates that no attempts were made to discourage them from joining their husbands in appearing before the Quarter Sessions to take the oaths. They were, it would seem, ‘citizens whose loyalty was worth being sure of’.113 Why this might have been the case in the context of early Hanoverian England can be seen by examining the wider role played by women in the popular politics of the period. Following the meeting house riots of 1715 it emerged that one third of those involved in a riot in Oldham, Lancashire had been women. A focal point for popular expressions of Jacobitism was frequently 10 June, the pretender’s birthday. In 1717 a group of Bristol women described as ‘some idle Sluts’ appeared at the main guard-house in Bristol with white roses in their bosoms as a symbol of their affection for James III. On 10 June 1721 women in Bridgewater were prominent amid rioting, with as prominent a figure as the mayor’s wife reported to have been ‘Stuck over with White Roses’.114 Such behaviour helps to explain why women were encouraged to express their loyalty to George I in 1723.