We first hear of Katherine Chidley in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in 1616; she is the wife of Daniel Chidley and gave birth to their first son that year. She was already then involved in an illegal underground congregation (at the time only Church of England congregations were legal). She was brought to court at least twice in the 1620s, once for non-attendance at the parish church, and once for refusing to attend a service of ‘purification’ after childbirth.
By 1630, she and Daniel had fled to London, where it was easier to become lost in the crowd, but remained active in underground church life. As the religious tensions of the middle of the seventeenth century came to a boil, however, with the Civil War and the associated debates, Chidley became a powerful advocate of the Independent churches, engaging in debate with Thomas Edwards over a series of texts. Edwards had argued for the necessity of centralised church government (he was committed to Presbyterianism) for the maintenance of social order, fearing that independency would undermine the authority of husbands over their wives, fathers over their children, and masters over their servants. Chidley did not disagree; but she welcomed, rather than feared, these outcomes, and explained her view in an 81 page book, The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ (1641), which argued on biblical grounds for the independence of local churches, and against the authority structures in marriage, family, and home that Edwards had tried to support. The title page of Justification bears the text ‘Thou comest unto me with a Sword and Speare and with a Shield, but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of Hoasts’ (1 Sam. 17:45), which conveys well Chidley’s sense of divine calling and her fearlessness in argument.
A few years later Edwards launched a scathing attack on the Independent churches, accusing them of encouraging immorality. Chidley responded with her second book, A New Yeares Gift (1645), defending the independents from the charge; her final publication under her own name came in the same year; in Good Counsel to the Petitioners of Presbyterian Government she denounced Presbyterian preachers for valuing office more than the gospel, and pleaded for the release of imprisoned independents. She offered, boldly, to debate any Presbyterian minister on any point of theology in public. Edwards wrote Gangraena, a famous catalogue of heresies he found in London, in 1646; in it he attacks Chidley in unpleasantly personal terms, whilst also recording that she had been preaching in London and winning converts.
In 1647 she travelled with her son Samuel to Bury St Edmunds, where they helped to plant a new Independent church; in the next years Daniel died and she took over the business, and also became very involved in the Levellers, a radical political movement; when the (male) leaders were imprisoned, Chidley organised at least two mass protests of women, demanding their release, and arguing that as women they had full rights to participate in the political process on grounds of ‘our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth’ (Petition of Women, Sept 11, 1648); Chidley may have written the petition.
Katherine Chidley played a significant part in the revolutionary politics and church life during the 1640s; she debated some of the leading writers of the age; she seems to have been active in church leadership and church planting, and in a preaching ministry. She stepped into the field of national politics, and justified her presence there as a woman on theological grounds. By any standards, she was a remarkable woman.
More details about Katherine Chidley can be found here