Letting the people speak: 2,526 early modern petitions on British History Online

[This post by Philip Carter, Director of Digital and Publishing at the Institute of Historical Research, was original published on the IHR’s ‘On History’ blog on 11 November 2020.]

This autumn the Institute of Historical Research’s British History Online completed a project to digitize and publish over 2,500 petitions from early modern England. The digitization project forms part of The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England, run by historians from Birkbeck and University College London.

The petitions, all now available free on BHO, offer remarkable insight into personal and community relations, preoccupations and language of grievance in early modern England. This makes for an excellent resource for research and teaching. In the final phase of the project, IHR Digital is now building a web interface to work with the BHO data, allowing this rich dataset to be explored in new ways.

Over recent months, editors at British History Online (BHO) have been hearing voices from early modern England. These are not the voices to which historians are most accustomed—those of the elite, literate or powerful whose views come down to us through official records and correspondence. Rather these are the voices of ordinary men and women who came together to raise concerns, submit requests or issue protests, and whose opinions were captured in thousands of signed petitions submitted to local officials, the crown and parliament.

BHO’s encounter with these voices comes from its involvement, as technical partner, in ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’. This is a two-year digitization and interpretation project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Council and Economic History Society, and led by early modern historians from Birkbeck and University College London: Brodie Waddell, Jason Peacey and Sharon Howard. For the IHR, the project’s been run by Jonathan Blaney, editor of BHO, and our senior developer, Kunika Kono. The original manuscripts were transcribed by Gavin Robinson and Tim Wales.

The ‘humble petition’ of Elizabeth Sandes (1620) in which she sought relief from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey; shown here alongside the transcript published in British History Online. Unless granted, ‘your peticioner is liklie to perishe and dy in the streetes’

In seventeenth-century England, petitioning was commonplace. It offered one of the few ways to seek redress, reprieve or to express personal and communal interests. Petitions were the means by which the ‘ruled’ spoke directly to those in power. As communications, they took many forms. Some were carefully crafted demands signed by thousands and sent to crown and parliament. Others were hastily written—and deeply personal—expressions of need or anger. Whatever their form, petitions reflect the seldom-heard concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people in early modern society. Continue reading “Letting the people speak: 2,526 early modern petitions on British History Online”

‘Infamus calumniations’, or, a petition goes awry at Rothwell Church, 1603

[This post from Dr Andy Burn (@aj_burn) was previously posted on the Durham History Blog. It examines a dispute about a petition to King James I from a group of tenants against their landlord, showing the danger of taking such complaints at face value and the conflict they could create.]

On the morning of 13 October, 1603, Sir Thomas Tresham summoned his tenants to Rothwell parish church, Northamptonshire, like naughty students to the headteacher’s study. He had got wind of a petition they sent to the King in the summer ‘to prevent sr Thomas from renewinge his lease’ of their home village of Orton, on the basis that he had been a cruel landlord. Sir Thomas had been fuming for a while but, ‘respectinge their harvest tyme’, postponed his florid telling-off until after Michaelmas – a not entirely unselfish pause, since they’d been reaping in his rent money during the harvest. And so he dragged the tenants to Church on a Thursday morning to give them an alliterative earful, and to ‘defend his Credytt, … against the infammus imputations which they impudently taxed on him in their petition to the kinge’.[1]

Information signed by JPs concerning complaints against Sir Thomas Tresham, 1603. The National Archives, E 163/16/19.
Information signed by JPs concerning complaints against Sir Thomas Tresham, 1603. The National Archives, E 163/16/19.

That the tenants had put their names to a petition was not unusual. Then, as now, petitioning was a popular form of politics that attracted wide participation – as the ‘Addressing Authority’ symposium over on the Many-Headed Monster blog laid out. Early modern petitions survive in their tens of thousands, and were used by people of all social ranks to try to improve their lot, or get their voices heard. And, on occasion, to lie through their teeth. Continue reading “‘Infamus calumniations’, or, a petition goes awry at Rothwell Church, 1603”