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.

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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…