Edmund Felton’s petitions for justice, 1621-53

This post by Jason Peacey has also been posted on the UK Parliament ‘Petition of the Month’ blog and draws on petitions transcribed in our newly published volume of petitions to the House of Lords.

In 1653, an embittered petitioner called Edmund Felton printed ‘An Out-cry for Justice’, reflecting upon the failure to get his complaints addressed, and upon a long struggle against a powerful opponent. His enemy, Sir Henry Spiller, was accused of foul deeds, including bribery, corruption, and conspiracy, as well as imprisonment and attempted murder, and Edmund wondered whether ‘anyone can tell where he may have justice against oppressors’. He bemoaned the danger posed to the ‘commonwealth’ by ‘want of justice’, and exclaimed that men were ‘made poor by oppression, and then despised because poor’.

It is difficult to know what to make of such claims, but it is vital not to dismiss them, just as they were not written off at the time. Edmund Felton’s tale of woe demands attention because it is loaded with lessons about how to study petitioners, their experiences, and their behaviour.

Edmund was the son of an impoverished Exchequer official, Thomas Felton, who raised money for the crown by identifying lands of ‘recusant’ Catholics that could be milked by the government. Thomas was zealous, and fell out spectacularly with Spiller, whose more lenient approach raised suspicions that he connived with recusants for pecuniary gain, thereby defrauding the state. Thomas lost the argument, and wound up indebted and imprisoned, ending his days in ‘great misery’.

Edmund then took up the fight, but with no more success. By 1626 he was in King’s Bench prison, for which he blamed both Spiller and the gaoler, whose extortionate fees kept him in debt and in detention. Edmund thus began to rail not just against Spiller’s ‘frauds and deceits to the crown’, but also against his ‘malicious practice’, which had undermined Thomas ‘till he died, not without… a strong presumption of an untimely death’.

Spiller’s ‘sinister practices’ were allegedly sustained for decades. He engaged in bribery, and detained ‘writings and evidences’ to prevent hearings, and even tried to ‘take away the life’ of one witness, ‘for a rape… committed on one of his men’s children’. Edmund was repeatedly arrested, and rumours were spread to ‘disgrace and discourage’ him, not least that he was ‘a mad man, crazed in his brains’. In prison he was beaten, ‘violently and barbarously’, and he claimed that three attempts were made on his life, involving a conspiracy between Spiller and the guards, ‘with whom he is very great’. Eventually, Edmund was moved to a common gaol and a ‘dark dungeon’.

Behaving in ‘a most wicked manner’ reflected Spiller’s determination to effect Edmund’s ‘ruin and undoing’, and it had a disastrous effect upon his family. Mrs Felton suffered a miscarriage and was ‘ready to depart this life’; impoverishment caused the death of another child.

Edmund Felton’s story – of ‘wicked plots’ and ‘oppression’ – sounds fantastical, although Spiller was notorious as a ‘knave’, and some claims had apparently been substantiated by witnesses, becoming matters of public record. As such, what makes Edmund fascinating is less the veracity of his claims than the response they elicited.

A petition to the House of Commons in 1621 was unsuccessful, and when Edmund turned to the Lords in 1624 his case was rejected, on the grounds that MPs were better placed to judge his case. This placed him in procedural bind, and while subsequent petitions were ostensibly humble they also hinted at frustration. A plea in 1626 conceded that MPs had failed to take action in 1621 due to their ‘extraordinary employments for the weal publique’, and because the king had dissolved Parliament, but it also reminded peers that ‘abuses’ required a ‘reformation’, and that witnesses had given evidence under oath. Edmund also made veiled criticisms of an unnamed Lord Treasurer.

‘The humble peticion of Edmond Felton gentleman’ (1640): One of the many he sent in these years. Photo courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/43.

When the Long Parliament assembled in November 1640, Edmund bombarded MPs with further petitions and ‘articles’ of accusation, but while Spiller was arrested and his case referred to a committee, real progress proved difficult. Subsequent months saw further petitions, as Edmund pleaded to be released from prison to pursue the matter. But it was all to no avail. The matter was dropped, and Spiller was released. He went on to fight for the king in the civil war (for which he was punished by Parliament), and died in April 1649.

Edmund Felton’s case is illuminating in terms of the grievances that drove him to Westminster, and the challenges he faced as a petitioner, but also in terms of how he responded to his experience as a frustrated supplicant. In 1639, Edmund apparently ‘scattered’ his accusations against Spiller around the streets, and was charged with having ‘scandalised him’. In 1642, another ‘humble petition’ was printed as a pamphlet, suggesting a determination to place matters before court of public opinion.

Eventually, Edmund supplemented lurid accusations about Spiller with complaints about Parliament, in terms of how difficult it had been to get official hearings, and about how little had been done about his repeated imprisonment. It was this lack of official assistance that justified going public, and that eventually provoked his ‘Out-cry for Justice’.

Ultimately, Edmund came to doubt the parliamentary process. In 1628, he had charged Spiller ‘to his face’ in the Commons, only to discover that, as an MP, his enemy was protected by parliamentary privilege. In 1640, Spiller was allegedly ‘befriended’ by ‘fellow justices and courtiers’, making it impossible for Edmund to ‘get his charge reported’ in the House.

Edmund thus felt ‘necessitated’ to pursue more aggressive strategies and more extreme language. He ‘thrice printed books… and presented them to every member’, before deciding to ‘write and publish his oppressions to the world’, and to complain how he ‘humbly prayed for justice, but found it not’. He quoted a well-known couplet: ‘who hath great friends, lives free and hath no faults / but without friends the most innocent halts’. However, he also quoted an Army document from 1647, about how ‘the people of this nation are subject to grievous oppressions, through the obstruction of justice’.

That Edmund Felton ended up sounding like a civil war radical is important, because of the route by which he reached this point. The dispute may always have been politically and religiously charged: he referred to Spiller as a ‘great malignant’, while boasting of his service to Parliament during the civil wars. However, it was largely framed as a story of someone who turned to Parliament with grievances about corruption, whose complaints provoked abusive ‘practices’, and who felt let down by the parliamentary process.

Felton’s case is instructive because this all proved to be eye-opening and dispiriting. Whatever the truth of his claims, Edmund’s experience animated him, as he learned to navigate official processes, pursued dramatic ways of making himself heard, and made sense of his experience through political reflection.

Edmund Felton was poor and obscure, and was last heard of pleading for employment with Cromwell, as someone lacking ‘wherewithal to wage law to obtain justice… having spent himself to the last’. But this is no reason to dismiss him. He may not have achieved the notoriety of his brother, John, the Duke of Buckingham’s assassin, largely because he pursued his grievances with a pen, rather than with a dagger. Nevertheless, as a petitioner who became a familiar face around Westminster, he highlights an important and largely overlooked phenomenon in early modern England: the disillusioned petitioner.

* * *

[You can also read about Edmund Felton’s petitions about his ‘war engines’ in our report by U3A member Pauline Brown]

‘For signing a Petition … [he] was put into the Stocks’ – Petitioning from within the Debtors’ Prison

Alex Wakelam

[This blogpost examines the petitions submitted by prisoners for debt in early modern England, especially their complaints against prison officials. It uses the case from Ludgate Prison in 1710 to show how the limits of such petitioning and the harsh consequences that could result for those who failed to gather enough support. The post is written by Dr Alex Wakelam (@A_Wakelam), author of Credit and Debt in Eighteenth-Century England: An Economic History of Debtors’ Prisons (Routledge, 2020).]

Every year throughout the early modern period, thousands of English men and women were imprisoned for failing to pay their debts. Most were confined without trial and had little formal recourse to legal aid. They were, however, surprisingly well placed to submit petitions to alleviate or remedy the worst aspects of their experience.

Unlike the felons they were confined alongside, most debtors were drawn from the middling sorts rather than the working poor. Even though they were cash-poor this population of shopkeepers, craftsmen, professionals (regularly including lawyers), and minor gentry were literate, familiar with civic administration, and expected a degree of public sympathy which allowed them to maximise the potential of petitioning.

Courts of Quarter Sessions and civic councils were thus deluged with appeals originating in the debtors’ prisons under their purview. Much of this volume did not, however, require much effort or time to resolve. Thousands of petitions were submitted between 1649 and 1830 to apply for one of the amnesties occasionally passed by Parliament known as the Insolvency Acts. This process was formulaic as courts were only required to collect and catalogue applications; by the 1720s printed petitions were widely available which only required an applicant to fill in their name and address.

Appeals for financial aid might be similarly formulaic. Petitions for financial aid in late seventeenth-century London were almost always seeking a ‘Charitable gift of five pounds for their relief’ implying that this was a routine award which courts merely signed off on.[1] In these instances petitioning was simply a tool of bureaucracy, a method by which debtors claimed aid they were entitled to but for which they had to grovel.

LMA, CLA/032/01/021
“The Humble Petition of the poore prisoners in the Poultry Compter”, 1698. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/032/01/021.Copyright of LMA and not for reproduction.

Debtors did raise more specific complaints which touched on all aspects of prison life such as broken pipes, bad ale, leaking windows, their proximity to felons, or, as at the Poultry Compter in 1698, that new toilets (‘the Jakes or House of Office’) be constructed.[2] While these necessitated an active response from the court, they were still probably simple to dispense, merely requiring a release of funds to the prison officers. This did not stop debtors couching such minor grievances in dramatic terms. The debtors of Newgate were far from unusual when in their petition to the Lord Mayor in 1742 for a new pot capable of holding twelve gallons of broth they declared that ‘most of us are So Miserable poor … wee are in A Manner Burried Alive’.[3]

This language of desperation and dependence was expected and required by those in power. However, it leaves the question of how ‘Miserable poor’ the debtors in Newgate actually were. Few petitions left an extensive paper trail and thus exist within something of a vacuum. Debtors were known to exaggerate their woes and such petitions only offer their version of events. Additionally, the complex array of events and negotiations which led to the document which was finally submitted to a court is usually lost. What was left out? How did debtors agree about what to complain? How did their imprisoned status impede their ability to petition? It is even frequently unclear how effective such petitioning was with the exception of those applying for Insolvency Acts which, when checked against prison records, reveal that 85-90% were successful.

Racquet_court,_Marshalsea_prison,_London,_1800
The physical environment of the prison was often a source of complaint in debtors’ petition. The Marshalsea Prison, c.1800, Wikimedia Commons.

When petitions revealed illegal or immoral activity by prison officials, courts could not respond so passively. Grumbling about Keepers was not uncommon. Prison administrators lacked salaries or government funds and ran the gaols for profit which they raised from prisoners themselves through a variety of fees and charging rent on private cells. Keepers frequently stretched without breaching their legal authority to maximise profitability, particularly by minimising their upkeep costs. In a typical 1733 petition against the Keeper of the Westminster Gatehouse prison Francis Geary the debtors claimed he ‘neglect[ed] to furnish the goal as it ought to be and extort[ed] for the lodgings more than is allowable by act of Parliament’.[4] In such instances courts usually simply rapped Keepers upon the knuckles and reminded them of their obligations.

However, when they committed acts of excessive cruelty or illegality such as beating debtors into emptying their pockets or, possibly worse, embezzling civic funds the courts could not sit idly by. Inquiries launched to investigate the complaints and causes of petitions rarely led to systemic change, but they provide unique detail on the organisation, accuracy, and consequences of petitioning from within prisons.

The Case of the Ludgate Prisoners, 1710

On Wednesday the 10th May 1710 three debtors in Ludgate Prison who had been ‘put in the Stocks last Saturday and continued therein till the Sitting of this Committee’ were released by order of the Court of Aldermen of London on condition that they formally apologised to prison administrators. Peter Wingate, William Block, and Thomas Wright had been held by the neck for five days – normal punishments lasting hours – ostensibly for the crime of causing disruption within the gaol and giving ‘opprobrious Language’ to the Keeper and the Steward of Ludgate. However, the prisoners informed the committee their true crime was daring to organise a petition revealing corruption and cruelty within one of the city’s most important debtors’ prisons.[5]

The petition which led the Court of Aldermen to order the ‘Committee for Examining into the Petition of the Prisoners in Ludgate’ does not appear to survive. It was probably similar to one submitted twelve years earlier against the same Keeper, Mr John Stacey, which beseeched then Lord Mayor Sir Francis Child to ‘Honour us with a Visit … or else appoint a Committee … to examine into the cause of our Complaint’, the prisoners ‘being Confined and not having Liberty to Speak for our Selves our Case will be misrepresented by the said … Keeper’.[6] However, the minutes of the committee’s two meetings at Ludgate on the afternoon of the 10th May and on the evening of the 17th do suggest that the petitioners in 1710 were less afraid to ‘Speak for our Selves’ and listed specific grievances in their initial submission.

LMA, COL/CC/MIN/01/115
“Minutes of the Committee for Examining into the Petition of the Prisoners in Ludgate”, Proceedings of Various Court of Aldermen and Court of Common Council Committees, 1710. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CC/MIN/01/115. Copyright of LMA and not for reproduction.

The inquiry began with Peter Wingate, one of the three petition ringleaders, summarising their complaints with witness statements to support his claims. Many of these were typical criticisms of Keepers particularly that Stacey charged excessive fees (Anne Smith testifying the Keeper had £9 2s 6d from her husband during his ten month imprisonment), that he embezzled the annual bequests from ‘the Lady Rich’s Charity’, and generally treated prisoners roughly and without due respect such as by forcing them to sleep ‘upon the Ground’. More uniquely they claimed he obstructed their ability to work, Thomas Hays complaining that ‘Staicey would not permit him to follow his Trade of a Basketmaker within the Prison till he gave him a Present of 5s Value’, and that the Keeper falsely released debtors but ‘afterwards they were brought back to the Prison again’ in an apparent scheme to extract additional discharge fees. The petition also targeted the activity of the Steward John Hall, claiming that he had embezzled ‘Five Guineas … given by a Gentleman … to be equally distributed amongst the Prisoners’. This was unusual as Hall was not an employee of Ludgate, Stewards being debtors elected from within their number to administer charitable gifts and settle disputes. They were usually older and drawn from the Master’s Side which housed the most prominent debtors who paid a weekly rent for a private room.

Surprised at the Steward’s inclusion, the committee summoned him to explain himself, Stacey following shortly after. The defendants promptly dismissed the petition entirely as a misunderstanding. Hall asserted that while he had indeed been given the five guineas it had been ‘charged to the Account of the House’ as had ‘5s sent by the Lord Mayor at Christmas, And also the £5 mentioned in the Petition [supposedly] to be embezeled’. This he and another witness Mr Sisson testified was common practice: ‘The Steward of the House maintains the Poor who have no Friends at his own Charge … the Steward places [donations] to the Account of the House in Order to Reimburse himself and he had no other way of doing it’. According to Hall, the petitioners were simply ignorant of the process of charity distribution within the prison. Furthermore, their repeated ‘demanding of the Steward a Distribution of the Money’ had led Hall to place ‘Block and others … in the Stocks for 6 hours’ as punishment for demanding selfishly they be given money at the expense of the wider community.

Stacey’s defence similarly rested on prisoner ignorance: ‘As to the Annual Revenue from the White Horse the Petitioners mistake the Fact, For the Lady Rich’s Charity being paid at that House, They take it as they like Sum of The Lady’s Charity issuing from the White Horse by which means that Charity is twice reckoned’. It is certainly probable that Hall and Stacey were lying and trying to dismiss the inquiry as quickly as possible by laughing off the accusations. However, the committee themselves pointed out the ignorance of the petitioners. Regarding their complaint of ‘Distribution of 9 Stone of Beef a Week only, amongst the Prisoners, whereas the allowance is 12 Stone’, the minutes at the end of the first day noted, as the Aldermen well knew, ‘in this their Complaint, the Prisoners are mistaken, for the Allowance of Beef from The Lord Mayor is but 9 Stone per Week’.

Even if the petitioners were mistaken and their case shaky, it is clear both Hall and Stacey suppressed their activity. On the 9th, shortly after the appointment of the committee, a lawyer known as Mr Beasley arrived at Ludgate and discharged Andrew Yateman. A creditor’s lawyer discharging a prisoner after debts had been paid was a common occurrence at the gaol though in these circumstances the petitioners cried foul; Yateman had been a key witness for their case and it appeared his discharge had been enabled by Stacey ‘that he might not be An Evidence’. Attempts to restrict the petition had begun several days earlier when Hall learned the three ringleaders had sent a letter to the Lord Mayor ‘about their Beef which the Steward believed was to Complain against him’ and placed them in the stocks in the middle of the prison yard. While they had previously been pilloried for demanding money improperly this had been only for a few hours and ‘Mr Stacey discharged [them] without any Submission’.

That the three were kept for five days without the Keeper releasing them suggests he supported this attempt to intimidate prisoners into remaining quiet, extending punishment to others who supported the petition. A John Moore claimed to the committee: ‘That for Singing a Petition to the Court of Aldermen complaining of Abuses, and for Carrying the same to the Women also to Sign, [he] was put into the Stocks and sate there 5 Hours’ alongside the ringleaders. This public punishment was a clear warning to others who might entertain thoughts of complaining about their treatment, emphasising the potential obstacles and risks of petitioning within prison.

The consequences of the inquiry for Hall and Stacey were minimal. The committee’s orders (other than that the ringleaders be let go) were limited to ‘That Mr Staicey the … Keeper or John Hall the Steward, or whoever else receives Money upon account of the Prison do enter into a Book to be provided for that purpose the particular Time when and the Name of the Person from whom Received and also for whose Benefit paid’. This process would allow future Stewards to defend themselves against accusations of embezzlement as well as preventing further petitions troubling the Aldermen on this matter. Stacey had also suggested that he be appointed to ‘the Table’ (the prisoners’ administrative council headed by the Steward) and that he be given ‘a Casting Voice in determining of Controversies and punishing Offenders’, a suggestion which clearly did not amuse the committee who noted simply: ‘Rejected’. However, in all other respects the key claims of the petition were dismissed, went unremedied, or were not even properly engaged with by the committee.

The essence of this failure lay not with the inaccuracy of the petition or even Hall and Stacey’s suppression of signatures and witnesses. Instead, it was the failure of Wingate, Block, and Wright to build a consensus within the prison which doomed the petition from its inception. Debtors’ prisons were highly stratified environments; while the majority were drawn from the middling sorts, the difference between those who could pay the 2s 6d per week Master’s Side rent and those on the free Common Side could be as vast as between a labourer and a baronet in the outside world.

If the petition was to succeed it required voices of status or at least the consent of the prison elite as had been done in 1698 when even the Steward signed. Not only did the 1710 petition originate from the Common Side, it singled out a prominent Master’s Side debtor for prosecution. John Moore did at least try and broaden their position by ‘Carrying the same to the Women also to sign’ though the addition of female prisoners whose social status was nebulous at best was unlikely to compensate for the opposition of the upper social strata of debtors.

Unsurprisingly, the Master’s Side closed ranks around Hall and lined up to speak against the petitioners. John Hoseman testified that ‘Wright is a very Contentious Man and breeds Disorders in the Prison, and swore several Oaths when he showed his Dislike to the Division of Beef’, James Bowyer concurring that ‘Wright is a very abusive Man’. Meanwhile George Whittingham testified to Stacey’s generosity: ‘[he] hath been in Prison 9 Weeks and lay in [a] Bed … but has Paid Mr Stacey as yet nothing for Chamber Rent nor has any thing been demanded of him’. Mr Sission claimed Stacey released prisoners ‘actually before he hath received the Money’ for their discharge, extending them credit on their fees. These debtors completely undermined the case of the petitioners and, with their high social standing, no further evidence to the triviality of this appeal was necessary for the Aldermen.

The limits and failures of prisoners’ petitions

While middling sort debtors were in a strong position to launch petitions, the failure of 1710 reveals that within debtors’ prisons their power was not inherent but conditional upon the ability to overcome a series of hurdles. When challenging city officials or men of status within the gaol, these were more complex than being able to grovel sufficiently.

Most importantly, petitioning was dependent upon the consent of the powerful. This applied to even trivial requests, prisoners being forced to flatter those to whom they appealed and phrase petitions for pots and pans in a language of poverty and desperation. Unsurprisingly, their captive status impeded their ability to criticise prison officers. Stacey’s attempted suppression suggests Keepers viewed petitioning as a threat to their authority, fearing court oversight of their administration. Even if a Keeper was unable to halt the appeal, if a petition lacked the support of the prisoner elite – a group with whom the Alderman were likely to have much in common – then organisers risked being viewed as troublemakers and face further punishment. By contrast, a petition from members of the upper echelons of the prison may have been difficult for Keepers to defend against.

Furthermore, as was true in petitioning outside gaols, appellants had to be accurate. It was much safer to ask for smaller bequests, to ask for that which others had already received, or to couch complaints in generalities of suffering and allow the inquiry to identify specific issues. Appeals to rights or crimes in exact terms risked the collapse of a case when officials were able to disprove them, even if evidently behaving improperly in other fashions. From a historical perspective, the 1710 inquiry reminds us to be cautious about petitions as sources on the nature of prison life. Detailed complaints and requests might imply prisoners were aware of their rights and privileges, but that which was confidently claimed in the prison alehouse may not always have reflected reality. This does not mean surviving petitions are not informative of life within early modern debtors’ prisons. The 1710 case was probably somewhat unusual; other petitioners were better organised and usually lacked the poor reputation within the gaol which the three ringleaders seem to have commanded. However, the voices of imprisoned debtors could be as untrustworthy as the Keepers who tried to laugh off any complaint or criticism.

We cannot always take the voices of the oppressed at their word as, even if they had a better grasp over procedure than Wingate, Block, and Wright, petitioners had varied and often hidden motivations. Regardless though of the accuracy of complaints, the reactions of Hall and Stacey to the petition suggest how potent such documents could be in granting power to the oppressed. To some extent, as they hung in the stocks for five days, the ringleaders themselves became victims of the power of petitioning when the traditional elite attempted to stymie its impact.

References

[1] “Petitions of Prisoners, Offices of Newgate and the Compters, and Other Persons relating to Prison Life, Repair of Prisons, Collections, Ill Health, Abuse by Officers, for Discharge, &c”, 1675-1700, Prisons and Compter – General, London Metropolitan Archives (hereafter LMA), CLA/032/01/021.

[2] “The Humble Petition of the poore prisoners in the Poultry Compter”, 1698, LMA, CLA/032/01/021, xxii.

[3] “Petition of Poor Debtors in Newgate Ward”, 1742-3, Debtors Petitions, LMA, CLA/040/08/009, i.

[4] “The Prisoners for Debt in the Gatehouse. WJ/SP/1733/01 (1733)”, in Petitions to the Westminster Quarter Sessions 1620-1799, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/westminster/1733#h2-0001.

[5] “Minutes of the Committee for Examining into the Petition of the Prisoners in Ludgate”, Proceedings of Various Court of Aldermen and Court of Common Council Committees, 1710, Corporation of London – Minutes and Papers, LMA, COL/CC/MIN/01/115, pp.31-33, 35-36.

[6] “The Humble Petition of the Stewards and Assistants of the Prison of Ludgate on Behalfe of themselves and the Rest of Their Fellow Prisoners”, 1698, CLA/032/01/021, lxxvii.

Women, gender and non-lethal violence in Quarter Sessions petitioning narratives

We have spent much of the last year and a half transcribing, editing and publishing hundreds of petitions to local magistrates in early modern England. But what can you actually do with all these new sources?

Sharon Howard has a new post on her blog showing that they can be used explore how people described and responded to violence in their communities. She focuses on 85 petitions about non-lethal violence, most involving a women as either victim or perpetrator or both.

She found that petitioners crafted narratives of violence that emphasised malice, public reputation, fear, material losses and of course physical trauma. Moreover, these narratives were highly gendered, with women often highlighting issues such as pregnancy, motherhood or marriage when trying to make their case to the magistrates.

The details are fascinating, so read the full post to find out more:

In 1594 Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife petitioned Cheshire Quarter Sessions, setting out the many abuses and outrages perpetrated against them by Anne Lingard. She had had unjust warrants against them, claiming to be afraid of “bodily harm”. This was “greatly astonishing” to the petitioners, who were “well known never to have disturbed her majesties peace” or threatened Anne herself. … [Read the rest of the full post here]

Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife. QJF 24/1/25 (1594)
The petition of Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife, 1594. Image courtesy of Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QJF 24/1/25.

The petition of Elizabeth Skory: A young woman seeks redress against a powerful man in 1621

This post by Sharon Howard has also been posted on the UK Parliament ‘Petition of the Month’ blog and uses transcriptions from our newly published volume of petitions to the House of Lords.

The 1621 Parliament was summoned reluctantly by the king and achieved little in the way of legislation before being dissolved in early 1622. But it is remembered for other developments that would have long-lasting consequences: the revivals of impeachment, of the Lords’ role as a court of appeal, and of petitioning.

There are just 13 surviving petitions addressed to the House of Lords in the parliamentary archives up to 1620 compared to more than 60 in 1621. Here I look at one of those 1621 petitioners, Elizabeth Skory, who was also among the first women to petition the Lords in the early modern period.

The petition of Elizabeth Skory, 1621
‘The Petitcion of Elizabeth Skorey touch Sir John Bennett, 18 May 1621’. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/18.

Most famously, the 1621 Parliament brought about the downfall of Sir Francis Bacon, the lord chancellor, for corruption. But Parliament also pursued two other men and their associates during the spring of 1621: Sir Gilles Mompesson and Sir John Bennet. It was the latter who was the subject of Elizabeth Skory’s petition.

At the beginning of 1621, Bennet was a high-flying lawyer and MP who had been appointed a judge of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in 1603. But a string of accusations that he had extracted bribes and excessive fees in his judicial office led to his expulsion from the House of Commons in early May.

The Commons referred the case to the Lords for further investigation, and a stream of witnesses gave evidence against Bennet throughout May. By the time Elizabeth Skory presented her petition on 18 May, it must have been clear that Sir John’s fate was sealed and she was likely to receive a positive response.

According to her petition, some months earlier, she had delivered £1100 to Sir John for safe-keeping, “her whole portion of money… bestowed upon her, by her uncle, Sir Edmond Skory knight, for the advancement of her marriage”. However, when she asked for the money to be returned, he told her that he had spent it in the course of “his troubles” and would pay it later if and when he could. This response “being verie unsatisfactorie, and unfruitfull, and cannot, but produce the ruine of her life, and fortunes”, she prayed for the Lords to come to her aid.

On 30 May, the Lords found Sir John “guilty of much Bribery and Corruption”, producing a long list of the charges found against him, and ordered him to repay Elizabeth. But she petitioned again on 2 June to complain that he was refusing to pay up, and to request a further order to ensure payment; a second order was made on the same day. (The second petition might seem hasty but Elizabeth needed to act quickly, as the king had just announced his intention to adjourn Parliament.)

Like many early modern petitioners, Elizabeth emphasised her helplessness and dependence on the recipient of the petition to save her from total ruin. Her second petition described her as “an Orphan”, who would be “voyde of all relieffe for her whole livelihood and estate” if the Lords did not come to her aid. She was not as desperate and alone in the world as this language suggested. She belonged to a Herefordshire gentry family with a history (if not a notably distinguished one) of public office. Her uncle Sir Edmond was a well-connected author who could spare over a thousand pounds for his youngest niece’s marriage portion, and her sister Anne would later marry Sir Chaloner Chute, who became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1659.

Nonetheless, only Parliament had the power to give Elizabeth such rapid satisfaction, without the expense and delays of a law suit. She was not the only woman to use a petition during the parliamentary assault on corrupt royal officials in 1621. In March, several female goldworkers had petitioned the Lords to complain about their treatment at the hands of one of Sir Gilles Mompesson’s deputies (Hester Favour and Elizabeth Cockren et al). They seized the opportunity created by Parliament’s investigations to try to get justice for their wrongs, and at the same time added their voices to the chorus against abuses of power.

Such petitions blurred the distinction between “private” and “public” petitioning and pointed the way towards more overtly political uses of petitioning Parliament in the 1640s and beyond.

Now Online: Hundreds of Petitions to the House of Lords from the Seventeenth Century

Over 730 petitions addressed to the House of Lords – with a few to the House of Commons – have now been made public on British History Online. Full transcriptions of these manuscripts from the Parliamentary Archives are now freely available to be read online, alongside hundreds of other petitions from local archives and from the national ‘State Papers’.

Parliament was an obvious focal point for people with grievances and demands, as a ‘representative’ institution that played an increasingly active part in encouraging the submission of petitions, and as the highest court in the land. At times, MPs and peers were inundated with supplications, from all corners of the land, and all sorts of people. Due to the devastating Palace of Westminster fire of 1834 – when the papers of the Upper House were deemed more valuable than those of the Lower House – the overwhelming majority of those that survive are contained within the archives of the House of Lords, and the transcriptions in this volume represent a small sample of the texts that have been preserved. Rather than select texts on the basis of important events and famous people, we opted to transcribe as many as possible – usually all – from particular years when Parliament met 1597, 1601, 1606, 1610, 1614, 1621, 1624, 1640, 1648, 1661, 1671, 1679, 1689 and 1696.

These petitions provide ample testimony about the range of issues that motivated petitioners, about their expectations of Parliament, and about the responses they received. For example, since peers took it upon themselves to address problems with the legal system, they encountered people like Philip Page (1624), who professed to be ‘a poore oppressed prisoner in the comon wardes of the Fleet’. Page narrated a sorry tale of troubles in the Court of Chancery, and of his mistreatment, which was ‘contrary to all equity and conscience’, ‘against common sence’, and indeed ‘fraudulent’. He turned to peers as ‘the principall pillars who support equity and common good’.

To the right reverend, and right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in this high and most honourable court of Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of Philip Page [1624]. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/23.
‘To the right reverend, and right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in this high and most honourable court of Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of Philip Page‘ [1624], first two pages. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/23.
Of course, Parliament was a legislative as well as a judicial institution, and petitions were increasingly submitted by people who sought to express opinions about particular bills as they progressed through both Houses. In a demonstration of the participatory nature of Parliament, as well as London’s development as a global trading port, an interesting example involves a petition from ‘divers shopkeepers and warehouse keepers’ who dealt in ‘India, Persia and China silks, Bengalls and painted callicoes’ submitted in 1696. They were concerned about a bill ‘now lying before your lordships’ that would ‘utterly deprive’ them of their ‘livelyhood’, and they pleaded to be heard at the ‘bar’ of the House. What makes this all the more interesting is that amongst its forty-six signatories were at least fourteen women, headed by Mary Pyke. Petitions to the Lords, in other words, shed valuable light upon the lives and work of ordinary women.

To the right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of divers shopkeepers and warehouse keepers [1696]. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/484/1051.
Finally, Parliament was obviously the scene for momentous political, religious and constitutional battles, and these too are reflected in our sample. On 19 November 1640, for instance, the Lords received a petition from the Earl of Strafford, lord lieutenant of Ireland and a close ally of both Charles I and Archbishop William Laud. Strafford had recently been imprisoned by the Long Parliament, and he sought to be ‘bayled’, and to be granted access to his solicitor, William Raylton, particularly since he ‘heares not as yet of any matter in spetiall objected against him’. Strafford’s plea was rejected, and his subsequent impeachment for high treason, followed by his controversial trial, attainder and execution in 1641, proved to be a key staging post on the road to civil war and revolution.

To the right honorable the lordes spiritall and temporall in the Highe Court of Parliament assembled. The humble petition of Thomas Earle of Strafford. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/43.
To the right honorable the lordes spiritall and temporall in the Highe Court of Parliament assembled, The humble petition of Thomas Earle of Strafford (1640). Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/43.

Overall, the topics covered by the petitions in this volume – from rich and poor, and from individuals as well as large groups – ranged across all aspects of contemporary life, from debt and imprisonment to litigation and property, as well as the economy, the church and the state.

Chart of topics

Anyone who wants to know more about petitioning in early modern England could start by reading our ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction offering a brief analysis of petitioners and their business. Further guidance and advice will appear in due course; in the meantime, we hope that these transcriptions prove to be as interesting to you as they have been useful to us:

Petitions to the House of Lords, 1597-1696, ed. Jason Peacey, British History Online (2020) <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/house-of-lords>

We would love to hear what you find! Please note that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

The volume was team effort. It was edited by Jason Peacey and transcribed by Gavin Robinson and Tim Wales. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to the Parliamentary Archives who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. Their phenomenal collections provide ample opportunities for further research on petitions, not least in terms of the individuals and communities that appear in our sample. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for their financial support, without which these volumes would not have been possible.

This volume represents the last of seven sets of transcribed petitions, the others of which include material from the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the City of Westminster, as well as from the State Papers in The National Archives.

Now Online: New Investigations into Petitioners during the Reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars

During the reign of Charles I, the king and his councillors received hundreds of petitions every year. Then, after civil war broke out in 1642, the new Parliamentary regime in London began receiving petitions as well. As part of ‘The Power of Petitioning’ project, we have transcribed and published almost 400 of these manuscripts from across the seventeenth century on British History Online.

We also completed a six-month Shared Learning Project with a large group of amateur researchers from the London Region of the University of the Third Age. Each of these researchers wrote one or more reports about the petitioners and their requests or complaints.

These short pieces of research are now online and we are very pleased to share them with you …

‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’: The main site for the U3A project, including information about the research methods and important caveats about accuracy and interpretation. Here you will find links to each of the sets of reports as they are published, including the previous set from 1600 to 1625.

‘Petitioners in the reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars, 1625-1649’: The set of 36 reports by the U3A participants, covering the second quarter of the seventeenth century. Each report also includes a professional transcription of the original petition and links to further sources of information.

A petition from Kent just before a Royalist revolt in 1648, discussed in a report by Sarah Harris.

Now Online: New Investigations into late Elizabethan and Jacobean Petitioners

During the reign of James I, the king and his councillors received hundreds of petitions every year. As part of ‘The Power of Petitioning’ project, we have transcribed and published almost 400 of these manuscripts from across the seventeenth century on British History Online.

We also completed a six-month Shared Learning Project with a large group of amateur researchers from the London Region of the University of the Third Age. Each of these researchers wrote one or more reports about the petitioners and their requests or complaints.

These short pieces of research are now online and we are very pleased to share them with you …

‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’: The main site for the U3A project, including information about the research methods and important caveats about accuracy and interpretation. Here you will find links to each of the sets of reports as they are published.

‘Petitioners in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, 1600-1625’: The first set of 46 reports by the U3A participants, covering the first 25 years of the seventeenth century. Each report also includes a professional transcription of the original petition and links to further sources of information.

The Penruddock Petitions: The Aftermath of a Royalist Revolt, 1655-1660

Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth

[This blogpost examines the petitions written by Wiltshire woman Arundell Penruddock and her family between 1655 and 1660. These are housed at the Wiltshire and Swindon Heritage Centre and demonstrate a concerted effort firstly to try and save her husband, John, from execution following a failed uprising against the Commonwealth, and then to secure property and money for her family. It is written by Dr Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Exeter.]

At the outbreak of the Civil Wars in 1642, John Penruddock and his brothers fought on the Royalist side; his siblings were killed but John rose to the rank of colonel before resigning his commission at Easter 1645.[1] The family’s loyalty to Charles I cost them dearly; parliamentary record the fines levied against John and his father for delinquency and the sequestration of their land.[2] When John senior died, his son found himself heir to a confiscated estate and was forced to spend a great deal of time and money trying to regain it.

Penruddock’s refusal to accept the new regime led him to engage with the Sealed Knot. Commissioned by Charles Stuart from exile in Paris, a series of assaults at Newcastle, York and Winchester were planned. A lack of support meant that the planned northern attacks did not take place, but, on 8 March 1655, Penruddock and his 400-strong force rode into Winchester. However, Oliver Cromwell’s spies had discovered the conspiracy and the garrison there had been reinforced. Thwarted, Penruddock headed instead to Salisbury, arriving on the 12th. Here, his men occupied the market square, commandeered horses, released prisoners willing to join them and publicly proclaimed their support for Charles Stuart. They then marched through Blandford, Sherborne and Yeovil, hoping to swell their numbers with the Royalists of Dorset and Somerset. Few responded. On the 14th March, at South Molton, Devon, Penruddock and his company were confronted by Colonel Unton Croke’s troop of horse from Exeter.[3] There was a half-hearted street fight: the insurgents fled, but Penruddock and others were captured.[4] They were taken to Exeter, incarcerated in the castle and then put on trial for treason. Penruddock’s Uprising had failed.

Map of the Rising from BCW Project

Penruddock’s attempts to have the charges dropped on the grounds that his actions were not treasonous because treason could only be against a King are documented in the published account of his trial.[5] Initially, both John and Arundell petition Cromwell for clemency. Penruddock begs mercy not just for his sake, but ‘for the sake of soe many Innocents his wife children and Relations who are too numerous to be made miserable by his death’ and acknowledges that ‘in your Highnesses Breath depends his Life or death’.[6] Arundell’s first petition echoes the sentiment. She accepts that her husband ‘hath justly deserved … your Highnesses most seveer displeasure’, but minimises his actions as ‘rashness and folly’.[7] Whilst, as Andrea Button notes, Royalist women petitioners sought repentance on behalf of their husbands, Arundell instead begs Cromwell to pardon John so that ‘he may live to repent and redeeme his ingratitude as well as fault’.[8] God has ‘out of his wonted mercy to you Highness [hath] frustrated their evil designes’ but she hopes that Cromwell will show his mercy and allow John to live.

Continue reading “The Penruddock Petitions: The Aftermath of a Royalist Revolt, 1655-1660”

Now Online: New Transcriptions of Petitions to Magistrates in Eighteenth-Century Worcestershire and Cheshire

Our final two sets of petitions to local magistrates have just been published on British History Online. The full transcriptions of 66 petitions to the magistrates of Worcestershire and 17 petitions to those of Cheshire are now free for anyone to read. These documents are not as numerous as our previously published sets, but they offer a new perspective on many ordinary peoples’ complaints and requests in the eighteenth century. When these are added to the volumes that we have already published, there are now transcriptions of 1,407 petitions to county quarter sessions available online from the 1570s to the 1790s.

The latest transcriptions all date to the eighteenth century, with some focusing on traditional concerns such as poor relief and petty litigation while other addressed new issues such as licencing religious dissenters and releasing imprisoned debtors. Many were presented by people who otherwise have left little trace on the historical record, so these texts can provide invaluable information about their lives and concerns.

Among the new transcriptions are several that stand out in various ways from the hundreds of others that we have been working on for this project. For example, perhaps the shortest petition we have in our collection is the request from a group of unnamed Protestant dissenters in Mobberley (Cheshire) to have a licence to worship in a local private house. Dating from 1758, the text of the petition itself is only 27 words, reminding us how routine this process could become over time.

Our shortest petition? Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QJF 186/4/103.

Also notable is the number of printed petitions that appear in the eighteenth century. In 1720s Worcestershire, twelve of the seventeen surviving petitions are actually printed forms submitted by imprisoned debtors applying for release from gaol, with only the key personal details filled in by hand. These two are a reminder of the bureaucratisation of some aspects of the petitioning process, a trend that Naomi Tadmor has traced in the poor relief system at this same time.

The printed petition of James Oyen, 1725. Worcestershire Archives, Ref.110 BA1/1/274/45.

However, my personal favourites in the new sets are the several petitions from the 1790s submitted to the Worcestershire magistrates asking for licences to open theatres in various local towns. John Boles Watson, manager of the Royal Theatre at Cheltenham, and William Meill, manager of the theatres at Worcester, Wolverhampton and Ludlow, each sought official permission to open theatres in Stourbridge and Great Malvern in this decade. Specifically, they wanted approval for ‘performance of such tragedies, comedies, interludes, opera’s, plays, or farces, as now are or hereafter shall be acted performed or represented at either of the patent or licensed theatres in the city of Westminster’. With a bit of further digging, one might be able to find out exactly what was being performed in this corner of the Midlands at the height of the Anglo-French wars, but for now the petitions still give a sense of the geography of the local cultural scene.

Petition of John Boles Watson, manager of the royal theatre at Cheltenham, 1790. Worcestershire Archives, Ref.110 BA1/1/522/76.

If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more. In the case of Cheshire and Worcestershire, the previous volume introductions have been updated to reflect the addition of the new eighteenth century texts.

We will be publishing further guidance and advice on our Resources page, but for now you can just dive into the sources:

We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

These volumes are truly a team effort. They were edited by Sharon Howard (Cheshire) and Brodie Waddell (Worcestershire), and both were transcribed by Gavin Robinson. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and Cheshire Archives and Local Studies who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions, or to view the original manuscripts. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic History Society for their financial support, without which these would not have been possible.

These two volumes complete our publication of quarter sessions petitions, which also includes volumes for Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Westminster. We recently published a volume of petitions in the State Papers and will soon be publishing a volume of petitions to the House of Lords. Watch this site for further announcements.

Now Online: Hundreds of Petitions to Kings, Councillors and Other Rulers in Seventeenth-Century England

Nearly 400 petitions addressed ‘to the King’s most Excellent Majesty’ and other key political authorities in seventeenth-century England are now available on British History Online. Full transcriptions of these manuscripts are now free to read online, alongside more than 1,300 local petitions that we have already transcribed and published. The new volume is a sample of 387 items drawn from the ‘State Papers’ collection held at The National Archives in London.

Hundreds of ‘petitions’ – formal written requests or complaints – were submitted to England’s central authorities every year in this period by people from across  the social and political spectrum. The transcriptions in this volume are only a small sample from the waves of supplication received by the nation’s rulers, but they nonetheless provide a strong sense of the sorts of concerns expressed by people at the time. Rather than focusing on well-known controversies or famous individuals, we simply selected the first four available petitions from each year that were preserved in the State Papers Domestic. This means that the range of topics touched on here is fascinatingly miscellaneous.

One finds many petitions like the complaint submitted by ‘the poore fishermen of the cinque ports’ to King James I in 1609, expressing their anger at foreign fishermen who ‘spoile’ their livelihoods. According to these petitioners, the ‘cuninge practizes of straingers’ from the Low Countries allowed them to monopolise the best fishing areas and sell their catch in English markets. This, they claimed, could be prevented by imposing a royal tax on such sales, ‘wherby the multitude of foraine nations which oppress us wilbe lessened’ and trade will increase ‘to the generall good of the whole kingdome’. The petition was signed by almost 100 individuals from six different ports, showing the high levels of organisation that can already be found in petitioning even at the beginning of the century.

This volume includes some highly political petitions like the one submitted to Parliament by ‘the knightes gentry clergy and commonalty of the countie of Kent’ in May 1648 which asked for peace talks with Charles I, the disbanding of the army, the upholding of ‘the fundamentall constitutions of this common wealth’ in legal trials, and the abolition of the excise. The petitioners claimed that, unless Parliament listened to them, there would be no end to ‘these sad and heavy presures and distempers, whose continewance will inevitably ruine both our selves and our posterities’. It was subscribed just days before the outbreak of a royalist revolt in this county. Such overtly partisan petitions are rare to find in the State Papers, but those that survive can illuminate some of the great political struggles of the age.

Alongside these collective petitions, the volume also includes large numbers of requests for mercy or pardon from individuals accused of serious crimes as well as even more requests from men and women for favour in the form of grants of offices, pensions, lands or tenancies. Others touch on a huge range of topics including diplomatic interventions, trading privileges, aristocratic titles and much else.

If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more. We will be publishing further guidance and advice on this site eventually, but for now just dive into the sources:

Petitions to the State Papers, 1600-1699, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online (2019) <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/state-papers>

We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

The volumes were edited by Brodie Waddell and transcribed by Gavin Robinson. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to The National Archives who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for their financial support, without which these volumes would not have been possible.

This new volume is part of a series of seven planned volumes, including five comprising petitions to the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the City of Westminster, which have already been published. The final volume will be petitions to the House of Lords. We will announce the last volume here when it is complete.