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.

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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.