How can people without official political power push the authorities to act? Historically, one of the most common tactics was to create a petition or supplication.
In seventeenth-century England, petitioning was ubiquitous. It was one of the only acceptable ways to address the authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, it was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. People at all levels of society – from noblemen to paupers – used petitions to make their voices heard.
Some were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper; others were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a vital source for illuminating the concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people and offer a unique means to map the structures of authority that framed early modern society.
‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’ is a two-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which began in January 2019. The project team includes Brodie Waddell (Birkbeck), Jason Peacey (UCL) and Sharon Howard (Birkbeck), supported by many other scholars and contributors. This study will be the first to examine petitioning systematically at all levels of English government over the whole century.
The project will create a valuable new resource by transcribing and digitising a corpus drawn from seven key collections of petitions held at national and local archives, totalling over 2,000 manuscripts. This corpus, when combined with careful contextualisation, allows us to offer new answers to crucial questions about the major social and political changes that unfolded in this formative period.
We will examine the role of petitioning in specific moments such as the outbreak of civil war in 1642, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Exclusion Crisis in 1679-81 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. We will also track how petitionary practices shaped – and were shaped by – long-term developments, such as the emergence of a politicised ‘public sphere’ and the vast expansion in the English state, by assessing how much petitioners’ attention shifted from local to national authorities, and from individual to mass subscriptions.
This resource will make it possible to go beyond questions specific to petitioning by offering a new perspective on the nature of state authority itself. Current understandings of formal power structures in seventeenth-century England have been drawn primarily from the writings of theorists or officeholders. In contrast, petitions provide a view of authority ‘from below’. They allow us to reconstruct the outlook of people who lacked official power. What concerns did they believe should be addressed by their superiors? To whom did they direct their complaints or requests? How did they adapt their rhetoric to fit with the changing political and ideological complexion of the state?
The thousands of transcribed petitions will be made freely available on British History Online. So, while publications by the project team will address the research questions above, other scholars will use this resource to pursue further lines of inquiry. Moreover, we have joined with five Project Partners, including Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, London Metropolitan Archives and the volunteers of the University of the Third Age to support lay researchers – such as local and family historians – working on this wealth of newly accessible material. This project will therefore open up a new perspective on the seventeenth century for both scholars and the wider public.
(Header image: The Humble Petition of Jock of Bread, Scotland (1648). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.)