Elly Robson on practices and principles of justice in seventeenth-century fen petitions

We recently published The Power of Petitioning in Early Modern Britain, an open access collection of essays available to read for free from UCL Press. One of the contributors is Elly Robson, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. We asked her about her chapter on ‘The edges of governance: contesting practices and principles of justice in seventeenth-century fen petitions’ and its place in her wider research.

* * *

How did you get interested in early modern petitioning?

Petitions are difficult to avoid when researching early modern England! They are one of the most important sources we have for exploring interactions between a huge spectrum of society – ranging from poor widows to wealthy officials – and overlapping political structures, operating from hyper-local institutions to Parliament to individual patrons. My wider research examines the contested politics of environmental change in seventeenth-century England, arising from one of the first projects of large-scale environmental engineering: ‘improving’ the English fens. The overwhelming number of petitions produced by long-running and entangled conflicts about wetland improvement provide unique insights into how this environmental politics functioned in practice.

What fascinated me most about these petitions was that they were written by almost every stakeholder in the process – from Dutch entrepreneurs who enjoyed royal favour to large crowds of rioting commoners. My chapter asks what insights might arise when we look at the complexities and contradictions of petitions as they emerged from local contexts, rather than tracing broader patterns of petitioning from the perspective of central governors or a single archive. In the tumultuous political landscape of the mid-seventeenth century, fen petitioners moved nimbly between unstable national and regional institutions and energetically exploited newly-emerging languages of authority.

What is the most interesting petition or petitioner that you came across while researching this chapter?

One of the most interesting petitions I discuss in my chapter was written in November 1633. Communities strung along the River Eau in Nottinghamshire complained directly to the king about new patterns of flooding that had emerged since drainage five years earlier. Their commons had previously been ‘without annoyance of waters except in times of floods’, but were now ‘covered with the water’ of the Eau even in the summertime. This petition was not exceptional. Many similar petitions were written by other flooded communities in the aftermath of drainage in Hatfield Level, with some villages ‘drowned’ thirty times in five years.

This petition is interesting for three reasons. Firstly, it illuminates the negotiation of environmental risk. The petitioners were unequivocal that these catastrophes were anthropogenic in origin, not natural or divine. Their petition reflected fluency in methods of water management; local communities were active and long-standing participants in the constant work of decision making and material maintenance that waterways and wetlands demanded. Rather than eliminating flood risk, the petitioners argued, drainers had redistributed it by blocking and diverting one of the river’s branches, protecting their newly-drained lands at the expense of drowning others. They told a story of anthropogenic degradation that countered promises of improvement.

Secondly, this petition highlights how water could transcend the administrative lines that defined communities in early modern England. The petition travelled along the River Eau, gathering the signatures of up to a dozen men from each of the eight flooded townships. With fifty-two signatories in total, it is a rare example of mass petitioning in the locality – preceding by a decade more famous mass petitions orchestrated by new political groups like the Levellers during the civil wars. Floodwaters demanded collective action and generated political association in wetlands.

Finally, this petition shows how something as material and mundane as water was imbricated in structures of power. Flood petitions arose from a crisis of governance: who was empowered to make decisions about the competing interests that flowed through waterways and how? The Eau petitioners appealed to the crown, perhaps feigning ignorance of Charles I’s financial interest and political support for the improvement project. Central governors proved surprisingly receptive to flood complaints, but they were ill-equipped to resolve complex issues of flood risk and water responsibilities hundreds of miles away and drainers repeatedly evaded their orders to implement correctives. Flooding was therefore shaped by access to justice and petitioners often sought to redress failures of governance.

Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, A Flood (1876)
Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, ‘A Flood’ (1876): Manchester Art Gallery, 1947.92.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your chapter?

Revisionist studies of the English civil wars produced a series of binary divisions, which continue to leak into the way that petitions are often categorised – between ‘bread-and-butter’ issues and constitutional concerns, communal grievances and mass politics involving print and the ‘public’. These divisions are muddied by fen petitioning, which arose from political encounters between local, national, and even transnational interests during wetland improvement. Petitioners not only sought to reshape floodwaters and land rights in the fens; they could also mobilise highly-politicised languages of ‘commonwealth’, ‘delinquency’, and ‘tyranny’ to weave local grievances into the fabric of national conflict. Within the supplicatory constraints of petitioning as a genre, we can find petitioners stretching and reforging plural political languages as they navigated the distributions of power that underwrote redistributions of land and water.

More recent scholarship has located petitioning as a mechanism of ‘state building from below’, whereby ordinary people made demands on the state and, in doing so, expanded its administrative capacity and political authority. My hope is that readers will take from my chapter a greater sense of the jurisdictional pluralism, fractures, and limits of governance in early modern England. Improvement projects led to institutional dislocations by transferring management of large tracts of wetland commons and waterways from local communities to cohorts of drainage investors. When problems emerged, there was a lack of administrative infrastructure to mediate conflict and petitions served as one strategy to address this gap – alongside riots, litigation, patronage, and informal influence.

How does your work on this chapter fit into your current and future research?

Writing this chapter has opened up questions for me about what other types of ‘environmental’ petitioning we might find in early modern England; whether the ‘nuisance’ of coalsmoke in London or food scarcities in rural England. What kind of action did individuals and communities demand when faced with these problems, and from which people and institutions? How did they understand the causes of environmental problems and what political languages did they use – for instance, collective rights or economic damage and compensation – to make their case?

I’m also interested in where petitioning did not take place. My new project explores large-scale projects of anthropogenic environmental change that unfolded across the seventeenth-century British Atlantic, aiming to cultivate English fens, Irish plantations, and American colonies. How far did Gaelic and Indigenous communities, who faced dispossession or new risks at the hands of colonists, have access to the methods of political negotiation used so vigorously by fen petitioners? Or did they mobilise alternative tools that relied on different models and mechanisms of political authority and negotiation? Broadly speaking, I’m interested in what looking at petitioning from Atlantic perspectives might tell us about environmental justice and injustice in the past and about the interrelated development of states and empires.

 

Imogen Peck on orphans, petitions and the British Civil Wars

We recently published The Power of Petitioning in Early Modern Britain, an open access collection of essays available to read for free from UCL Press. One of the contributors is Imogen Peck, Assistant Professor in British History at the University of Birmingham. We asked her about her chapter on ‘‘For the dead Fathers sake’? Orphans, petitions and the British Civil Wars, 1647-1679’ and its place in her wider research.

* * *

How did you get interested in early modern petitioning?

My first encounter with early modern petitions was during my PhD research. I was working on a thesis on the memory of the British Civil Wars and doing a lot of ferreting about in quarter sessions records. Initially, I was looking for depositions and informations that concerned seditious speech and other evidence of people evoking the memory of the Civil Wars in criminal proceedings. While much of that material went on to form a chapter of my thesis (and eventually my book, Recollection in the Republics), time spent in the quarter sessions records also yielded many hundreds of petitions, including petitions by war widows, war orphans, and maimed soldiers.

As a rare insight into the voices and experiences of non-elite women, I was particularly interested in the petitions of war widows: how did they interpret and narrate the death of a spouse? How did they receive this information and how trusty-worthy was it? How did they position themselves as a worthy recipients of relief? And, perhaps most intriguing, what happened to those women who husbands later returned, Martin Guerre-style, very much alive? This wasn’t an entirely uncommon occurrence, I discovered! The first proper article I wrote, in Northern History, explored those themes and I’ve been writing things about petitions – by war widows, by maimed soldiers, by civilians, and now by war orphans – on and off ever since!

What is the most interesting petition or petitioner that you came across while researching this chapter?

That award must go to the Townend orphans: a rare example of a petition framed as the direct request of its child subjects that slips from the third to the first person. Such ‘unstable pronouns’, to use Lloyd Bowen’s excellent phrase, have long been deployed as evidence that petitions were not purely constructed by scribes but were documents that reflected the words and narrative of their subject. This, however, was the first time I’d seen such a slip in a petition presented by children. It really got me thinking about whether some older children might, perhaps, have had as much of a hand in crafting their petitions as adults and about the potential that kind of insight might have for histories of both childhood and petitioning.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your chapter?

First, the ways in which existing petitioning strategies and conventions intersected with, and were reshaped by, the experience of civil conflict and the changing relationship that the wars engendered between the state and its citizens. Second, the enduring, intergenerational impact of the wars on the lives of soldiers’ families and the crucial role that petitioning played in forging and reinforcing partisan identities, entrenching wartime divisions across generations. Third, that even children might have some grasp of the petitioning process and that taking children seriously as potential agents in the petitioning process might open new avenues for research in the history of petitioning and childhood more broadly.

Petition of Henry Gravenor, infant, 1655
‘The humble peticion of Henry Gravenor a poore distressed Infant’, 1655: Cheshire Archives, QJF 83/1, fol. 133, via the Civil War Petitions project.

How does your work on this chapter fit into your current and future research?

This chapter was, in some ways, a Covid project for me: it involved a lot of material I had amassed and which was sitting on my hard drive, but which never made it into the book! However, it also speaks to the interests of my current research project, on family archives in the long eighteenth century, which explores issues of intergenerational memory and has illuminated a lot of material that suggests the ways Civil War identities were (re)produced within families across generations. I’m working on an article specifically on family memory and the Civil Wars, and it’s also sparked my interest in the experiences of children during and after the conflicts: so perhaps that is another direction for me to pursue in the future…