Petition topics: What were petitions about?

This new post from Sharon Howard (@sharon_howard) is cross-posted on her own Exploring the Power of Petitioning site.

Quarter Sessions petitions topics and themes

The Power of Petitioning project team manually assigned broad topics to each of the transcribed collections, as well as a number of other collections for which we had rich enough metadata. I’ll focus for now on Quarter Sessions because they have their own set of topics and the project tried (as far as possible) to apply them consistently to enable comparison of the counties. [I’ll try to do a later update for the State Papers and House of Lords collections, but the topics for these are quite different.]

There is a brief analysis of topics for each county in the introductions to the British History Online editions, so I’ll focus more on an overview and comparisons here.

The data

The counties

  • Cheshire
    • transcriptions / metadata 1573-1798
    • all pre-1600 petitions, then a sample of all surviving petitions for 1 year in every decade [613 petitions]
  • Derbyshire
    • transcriptions 1632-1770
    • every surviving petition that could be dated to within a decade [94 petitions]
    • NB however, many surviving petitions can’t be dated and have been excluded from the collection
  • Hertfordshire
    • metadata only 1588-1698
    • (I think) every surviving petition, but 16th-17th century only [413 petitions]
  • Staffordshire
    • transcriptions 1589-1799
    • sample: all surviving petitions from one year per decade [239 petitions]
  • Westminster
    • transcriptions 1620-1799
    • every surviving petition [424 petitions]
  • Worcestershire
    • transcriptions 1592-1797
    • every surviving petition (except a few early illegible/damaged ones) [360 petitions]

The topics

  • alehouse: all about licences (including victualling houses, inns, taverns)
  • charitable brief: requests for certificates to allow the petitioners to collect charity in response to personal calamities such as house fires
  • cottage: licences to build cottages on ‘waste’ lands
  • dissenting worship: concerning applications for licences to establish places of worship (following the Toleration Act of 1689)
  • employment: service, apprenticeship, wages
  • imprisoned debtors: applications for release from imprisoned debtors (18th century)
  • litigation: broad category for uses of and encounters with the legal/criminal justice system (eg request for prosecution, request for mercy or discharge)
  • military relief: requests for pensions (soldier, sailor, widow/wife)
  • officeholding: mostly to do with constables (eg trying to get out of serving, or seeking compensation for expenses)
  • paternity: financial support for children; mostly to do with bastardy, obtaining/avoiding maintenance from father/husband
  • poor relief: relief or removal under the poor law system (often complaints that local overseers were refusing to pay relief to which the petitioner was entitled, or parish appeals about removals)
  • rates: mainly attempting to impose or avoid payment of various communal rates, levies or taxes
  • other: anything that didn’t fit into the categories above


The chronological distribution of petitions in several counties is very lumpy, and it’s hard to be sure in some cases whether this reflects actual petitioning trends, random losses or other less random factors, and whether the surviving petitions are representative. Derbyshire is particularly difficult (IIRC, more petitions were excluded than included). Westminster is also problematic; 44 petitions couldn’t be dated to within a single decade (though all were within the period 1620-1640), and these were not evenly distributed across topics.

Two counties, Cheshire and Staffordshire, have been sampled by the simple method of taking one year in ten. This is unlikely to be a significant issue for overviews and comparisons of gender. But it’s much more awkward for any attempt at chronological analysis. I’ve ignored that here and simply counted by decade. But I’ll probably need to think much harder about this before long.

Overview of topics

Which were the most popular topics of QS petitions?

Comparing counties: three views

a bar chart

The colour coding here is not strictly essential but I find it helpful for comparing the different rankings of topics. It can be seen that the counties cluster into two groups with either litigation or poor relief as the most frequent topic of petitioning. Cheshire is unusual for the level of cottage petitions. Westminster has no cottage petitions because cities were exempted from the relevant legislation; more interesting is the frequency of petitioning about employment and infrequency of poor relief petitions.

another bar chart

But switching round the comparisons. (For convenience, “other” is excluded this time.) Suggests that within most topics there aren’t massive differences between counties; notable exceptions = Westminster/employment and Derbyshire/poor relief.

mosaic plot

These are less common than bar charts, so a bit of explanation:

  • the relative size of each county is indicated by the height of the row
  • the size of each topic is indicated by the width of the rectangles. (When there are this many categories, it can become difficult to line up each rectangle with its label; I think this is hitting the limits really, even though I’ve excluded the two smallest categories and “other”.)

So you can compare the relative size of each topic for each county visually. But the colour coding takes things further.

  • blue means that the topic is (statistically) over-represented
  • red means that it’s under-represented
  • grey is neutral
  • the darker the shading, the stronger the statistical significance
  • the lines with a red circle represent 0s

(The statistical measure is Pearson’s Chi-squared Test.)

This method can produce some surprises. Eg, litigation in Cheshire looks big, and it is the largest single county-topic combination with 177 petitions. But it turns out that’s slightly deceptive, because Cheshire just has so many petitions. (In the second bar chart, you can also see that two counties have a higher % of litigation petitions.) It does, however, confirm the impression that cottage petitions are unusually popular in Cheshire.

Change over time

NB earlier caveats about the problems caused by missing dates and by sampling. This section should be considered very provisional.

stacked bar chart

This is a popular type of graph… but I think there are far too many categories for it to be really effective, even after dropping the smallest topics and “other”.

faceted bar chart

Faceting (or “small multiples”) can be a more effective way of showing complex data. The y axis is scaled for each facet, enabling direct comparison of trends. Having said that, this is a pretty mixed picture!


(white tiles represent 0s)

This heatmap is an example of how stripping away subtlety can be useful to draw attention to particularly exceptional patterns. In this case, the particularly “hot” cluster of petitions for military pensions in the 1650s dramatically highlights one legacy of the Civil Wars. But it also indicates that a number of other topics also peak around the middle of the 17th century. The heatmap also highlights the sparsity of petitions in many topics after 1700, except for the new topics of dissenting worship and imprisoned debtors.


(“na” = collective petitions and a handful of unknowns)

stacked bar chart

But this time a “proportional” stacked chart to show % instead of numbers. Again, there are probably too many categories for this to be really effective, even though I’ve reduced the topics again. You can pick out a few things – eg female/poor relief, female/paternity; male/officeholding; na/rates – but it’s hard to get a good idea of their relative significance. On top of that it gives no sense at all of the big differences in size between the gender groups.


The mosaic highlights the most important relationships more clearly.

Eg, female petitioners are strongly positively associated with poor relief and paternity, while the negative associations with alehouse, cottage, officeholding are somewhat weaker. The strongest association for male petitions is the negative one with paternity petitions. For collective petitions it’s all about rates (and it is common for “inhabitants” of a township or parish to group together to complain about taxes), but they’re less likely to be litigation-related.

Conversely, eg, although you can see in the bar chart a lower female than male % for military petitions, the difference is too small to register as statistically significant.


The strong association between mixed gender petitions and litigation stands out even more strongly here than in the mosaic. It’s an intriguing one, even allowing for the small size of the group.

Responses to petitions: Did petitioners get what they wanted?

This new post from Sharon Howard (@sharon_howard) is cross-posted on her own Exploring the Power of Petitioning site.

Cheshire Quarter Sessions petitions

I’m focusing on Cheshire quarter sessions because I’ve already done the work coding responses for this collection. I’d like to compare with some of The Power Of Petitioning’s other transcribed collections, but that’ll take quite a bit of work which I don’t have time to do at present.

The data

I’m working with a sample of 613 petitions from the Cheshire QS files between 1573 and 1798. I photographed all surviving petitions from every year ending in -8 between 1608 and 1798, plus every pre-1600 calendared petition. (My estimate is that there are in total about 5000 petitions in the files.) TPOP transcribed all the 16th-century petitions and a 1-in-20-year sample for the 17th and 18th centuries (years -08, -18, -38, -58, -78, -98); I abstracted the rest, and encoded all the responses.

I’m using only responses written on the petitions. This may miss a few responses recorded in separate documents, though I haven’t found any while consulting the files. I’ve also examined the 17th-century QS order books, but haven’t found additional responses there; they’re more useful for fleshing out the reasoning behind the brief summaries on the petitions.

I’ve decided to treat the absence of a recorded response as a type of negative response given that there are high response rates generally – about 70% of the petitions have an annotated response – and responses don’t seem to be recorded anywhere else.

The detailed coding categories:

  • granted = request granted in full
  • grant_part = request partially granted (eg smaller amount of relief than requested)
  • grant_cond = granted, but conditional on the petitioner doing something
  • referred = to be further investigated or mediated outside the court, usually by local JPs
  • rejected_nil = rejection with only the terse annotation “nil/nihil” or “nothing”
  • rejected = rejection with a reason given (including “absent”)
  • no_response = no response written on the petition
  • uncertain = response (or probable response) couldn’t be interpreted (eg damaged or illegible).

Simplified positive/negative:

  • positive = granted, grant_part, grant_cond or referred
  • negative = rejected_nil, rejected, no_response

I’ll exclude the small uncertain group from analysis (there are only 20, some of which may not be responses anyway), so I’m looking at 593 petitions.


How often do petitioners get what they want?

Overall, 56.3% of the 593 petitions received a positive response, which suggests is that petitioners to the Cheshire magistrates had a reasonable chance of getting at least part of what they wanted, but a positive outcome was far from guaranteed.

229 (37.3%) requests were granted in full, 50 (8.4%) partially or conditionally and 55 (9.3%) were referred. 75 (12.6%) were rejected with a response and 184 (31%) had no response.

In more depth

Could variations in responses point to factors that increase or reduce the chances of success?

petition topics

This is a set of broad topics manually assigned by the project for QS petitions; a couple of topics with very low numbers (dissenting worship, debtors – <10 petitions) have been merged into the “other” category.

The proportional bar chart on the left shows the detailed breakdown of responses. The smaller chart on the right shows the % of positive responses and the size of the square indicates the relative size of the category.



In some categories, the numbers may be too small to draw any real conclusions. Even so, it’s noticeable that there is some relationship between the number of petitions in a topic and the likelihood of a positive response; that’s to say, smaller topic categories are less likely to get a positive response. The exceptions to this pattern are the largest category (litigation, 171 petitions and one of the lowest positive response rates at 44.4%) and employment (15 petitions, 73% positive responses).

Additionally, there are two very distinct clusters in positive response rates.

Another feature to note is the unusually high percentage of conditional responses for cottage petitions; it was very common for a request to be allowed to build a cottage to be granted on condition of obtaining the consent of the lord of the manor.

change over time

Pre-1600 and post-1700 petitions have been combined because the annual numbers are very small. There were only 7 petitions in 1698, all of them for poor relief, so it’s difficult to be sure why the success rate (100%!) was so exceptional in that year.

The JPs’ diligence in 1648 is particularly noteworthy; there were almost 150 petitions during that year, but only 22 have no response at all. Moreover, apart from 1698, it was the most successful year for petitioners.

There is a possible trend overall – the positive % rising until mid-century and declining afterwards – but 1628 and 1688 really confound any such pattern. Unlike topics, there are no clear clusters or correlations between petition numbers and positive %.

petition type

Variations here appear to be much less significant than previous categories of analysis.

Three types

  • single petitioner (413)
  • multiple named petitioners (72)
  • collective (eg “inhabitants of Nantwich”) (108)

There is very little difference in overall positive/negative responses to the three types, though single-petitioner petitions are slightly more likely to receive a positive response.

The responses breakdown does show more variation. The single category is far less likely to get no response at all, and is most likely to have requests granted in full. (But, interestingly, collective petitions are most likely to have a reason given for rejection.)

petition gender type

(Collective petitions excluded.)

A summary of gender of all petitioners (but not additional subscribers) per petition:

  • f = female only (128 petitions)
  • m = male only (343)
  • fm = mixed gender (26)

Again there is very little variation in positive response rates. I might have expected slightly more variation in this category as I know there are gendered variations in petition topics; I’ll need to explore this further.

And again, the more detailed breakdown of responses shows up more subtle variations. It appears that petitions involving female petitioners were less likely to have requests granted in full and more likely to have their cases referred to JPs for further investigation.

Arguing about Alehouses: Local Petitions and Parish Politics in Early Modern England

[This post by Brodie Waddell was commissioned and first published by My-Parish on 23 April 2021. It is posted here with an additional postscript.]

In the early seventeenth century, the parishioners of Bayton had a problem with alehouses. This small village at the edge of Worcestershire’s Wyre Forest had a population of only a couple hundred people, but disputes over local drinking establishments sparked a series of complaints and counter-complaints between 1610 and 1621 that illuminate a broader issue in the history of early modern parish politics: the rising importance of petitioning.

In 1610, some of Bayton’s parishioners complained to the county magistrates that an ale-seller called Thomas Morely (or Morley) allowed ‘abuses and disorders’ in his establishment and they asked for his alehouse to be ‘putt downe’. Soon after, twenty men of the parish signed and submitted a counter petition claiming that Morely was ‘honeste and cyville’, poor but hardworking, and without his alehouse there would be nowhere in the locality for travellers to stay or workmen to be supplied with provisions. Two years later, a group of parishioners petitioned about this again, now targeting Elizabeth, Thomas’s wife, who allegedly sold ‘extraordinary’ powerful beer very cheaply, causing all sorts of ‘disorders’ including idleness, drunkenness, violence and theft. Around the same time, nineteen named parishioners submitted similar petition against John Kempster and Thomas Bird, also claiming disorder caused by their ale-selling. Then in 1613 the churchwardens of the parish petitioned the magistrates, now complaining about Thomas and Elizabeth Morely as well as Kempster and Bird, for continuing to sell beer and causing ‘abuses’ despite a warrant issued to supress them. Finally, in 1621, eleven men signed their names to a petition accusing William Bryan and our old friend Thomas Morely of running alehouses full of ‘vagraunt’, lewd and disorderly people.

Bayton petition of 1610
The first surviving Bayton petition, defending Thomas Morely from an earlier complaint, subscribed by 20 men, including ‘George Shawe, clerke’, in 1610. Transcribed in ‘Worcestershire Quarter Sessions: 1610’, in Petitions to the Worcestershire Quarter Sessions, 1592-1797, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online, Image courtesy of Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service, Ref.110 BA1/1/7/84.

What does this flurry of complaint tell us about parish politics? It was merely an example of the rise of a broader culture of parochial petitioning, through which increasing numbers of ordinary people become heavily involved in seeking to win the support of state authorities through collective claims to represent the ‘voice of the people’ at the local level.

As part of a collaborative project on ‘The Power of Petitioning’, we have photographed, transcribed and published just over 1,400 petitions to county magistrates on British History Online. Although our initial analysis is still provisional, it appears that almost 20 percent of these petitions were from ‘the inhabitants’ of a specific place or similar collective entities and another 10 percent were by groups of named individuals. So, although there were few places quite as enthusiastic as Bayton in the early seventeenth century, the number of parishes where groups of locals banded together to petition the county magistrates was substantial and growing even before the mass petitioning campaigns of the 1640s.

These parochial requests and complaints concerned a huge range of issues, but groups of parishioners frequently focused on ‘fiscal’ issues such as eligibility for poor relief, liability for taxation or raising funds to maintain local roads and bridges. Collective petitions about alehouses – whether complaining about alehousekeepers or supporting their requests for licences – were also very common, showing the importance of new regulatory responsibilities imposed by Tudor statutes on local communities.

The Bayton petitions also allow us to look more closely at how parishioners represented themselves in their addresses to the authorities. For example, it is notable that they usually supported their claims with lists of subscribers, a practice that seems to have been relatively rare until the seventeenth century. Three of the documents together include 36 individual men’s names, with 14 of these appearing on more than one petition. Another had a subscription list which unfortunately has not survived and a fifth document – now lost – may have included still more names. Given the parish had only 30 men who contributed to the Lay Subsidy tax in 1524, it seems clear that most of Bayton’s householders probably signed their names to one or more of these petitions.

William Albert Green, ‘Bayton, Worcestershire’ (drawn 1940s)
William Albert Green, ‘Bayton, Worcestershire’ (drawn 1940s), Historic Buildings in Art (n.d.) <>

The language they used to describe themselves is equally revealing. In the 1610 petition, they did not use a particular label but notably referred to themselves in the first person: ‘wee whose names are underwritten’. One added his position too – ‘George Shawe, clerke’ – thus giving the subscribers a slight boost to their credibility. In 1612-13 and 1621, they again used ‘we’ and now also represented themselves as ‘the inhabitants’ and ‘the parishioners’, turning an assortment of individuals into a collective entity. Intriguingly, in 1613, only two men actually sign the petition – John Geers and Edward Sutton, churchwardens – showing how these officers took on the role of representing the entire parish in some circumstances. In contrast, the 1621 list includes one man listed as a constable among 10 others with no specified titles or occupations, rather like the clerk in the middle of the 1610 list. While it is not possible to untangle the exact meaning of these variations, the Bayton petitions suggests that both the inclusion of parochial officeholders and sheer weight of numbers were considered potentially important when trying to project an image of credible and overwhelming local public opinion.

Over the course of the early seventeenth century many, if not most, English parishes witnessed similar attempts to persuade the state authorities through collective petitioning. Groups of neighbours all across the kingdom formulated their grievances, organised subscription lists, and articulated their own role in the polity as ‘the inhabitants’ or ‘the parishioners’ of a particular community. In so doing, they not only directly shaped their own ‘little commonwealths’ but also unintentionally helped to clear a path for the immense wave of political mobilisation that swept through England in the 1640s.


Sources and Further Reading

The petitions from Bayton to the county quarter sessions are transcribed in ‘The inhabitants of Bayton. Ref.110 BA1/1/7/84 (1610)’, ‘The inhabitants of Bayton. Ref.110 BA1/1/19/85 (1612)’, ‘The inhabitants of Bayton. Ref.110 BA1/1/19/86 (1612)’, ‘The inhabitants of Bayton. Ref.110 BA1/1/20/58 (1613)’, ‘The inhabitants of Bayton. Ref.110 BA1/1/44/33 (1621)’, in Petitions to the Worcestershire Quarter Sessions, 1592-1797, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online, <>.

The original petitions are held at the Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service, Ref.110 BA1/1/7/84; Ref.110 BA1/1/19/85; Ref.110 BA1/1/19/86; Ref.110 BA1/1/20/58; Ref.110 BA1/1/44/33.

For a brief overview of petitioning in this period, see Brodie Waddell, ‘Petitions in Early Modern England: A Very Short Introduction’, The Power of Petitioning (2019) <>

For the parish of Bayton itself, including population estimates, see Murray Andrews, ‘Counting people: demographic change in medieval Bayton’, Medieval Bayton (2013), <>; ‘Bayton, Worcestershire’, A Vision of Britain Through Time (n.d.) <>; ‘Parishes: Bayton’, in A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 4, ed. William Page and J W Willis-Bund (London, 1924), pp. 237-241, British History Online <>.

For alehouse politics and petitions, see Mark Hailwood, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England (2014), pp. 29-58, 90-94. For a new study of anti-alehouse petitioning, see Heather Falvey, ‘‘Scandalus to all us’: presenting an anti-alehouse petition from late Elizabethan Rickmansworth (Hertfordshire)’, Rural History, 31 (2020), pp. 1-15.



Since sending the post to My-Parish, I have found a few more bits and pieces of information that help to contextualise this particular case.

The Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service catalogue reveals several more relevant documents from this period. For example, Bayton was listed as already having two victuallers in 1604, only one aleseller in 1615 but then two alehouses ‘unlicensed and to be indicted’ in 1616. There is also confirmation of action against – and reaction from – the Morleys in 1613 as Elizabeth was bound to appear at the sessions and five of that family were indicted for ‘rescuing’ her from Abraham Wolverey, the village constable. Two decades later, in 1634, Ralph Morley, husbandman, was one of four men indicted for keeping an unlicenced tippling house in Bayton, so evidently the family were involved in this trade well after the final surviving petition.

The original complaint in 1610 against Thomas Morley was not a ‘petition’, so was not photographed and transcribed as part of this project. However, the ‘articles’ that resulted from this initial complaint have survived, and help to explain the counter-petition.

As noted in the post, Bayton had only 30 contributors to the Lay Subsidy tax of the 1520s. An additional hint about the parish’s size is its listing in the Compton Census of 1676, which James Harris very kindly shared with me. There it is recorded as having 150 conformist and 5 non-conformist communicants, which implies a population of around 220 or perhaps 50 households.


After this was posted, Jonathan Healey rightly pointed out that – although the village is in the Malvern Hills District according to modern administrative boundaries – Bayton is north of the topographical extent of the Malvern Hills, so the post has been amended accordingly.

A Family Feud and Parallel Petitioning to the Crown from Sixteenth-Century Devon

Laura Flannigan

[This post explores the case of two feuding families who submitted a long series of judicial petitions against each other to a variety of different courts. It is written by Dr Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17), who is Lecturer in History at Christ Church College, Oxford.]

Petitioning for justice before the highest authorities in early modern England involved decisions and strategies. By the middle of the sixteenth century, numerous royal courts with overlapping jurisdictions were crammed into the legal marketplace of Westminster: Common Pleas, King’s/Queen’s Bench, and Chancery in Westminster Hall itself, and the courts of Star Chamber, Exchequer, Requests, and Wards in adjoining spaces. Why choose one forum over another? On what grounds did litigants and the lawyers they hired make these choices?

View of the north end of Westminster Hall, showing the Courts of Chancery and King’s Bench in session with lawyers in gowns. The British Museum, early seventeenth century (available under Creative Commons license)
View of the north end of Westminster Hall, showing the Courts of Chancery and King’s Bench in session with lawyers in gowns. The British Museum, early seventeenth century (Creative Commons)

Of course, while royal justice was positioned as a last resort and poorer suitors may have been priced out of its costly proceedings, the more resourceful petitioner sued in as many of these forums as possible. To understand why cross-litigating before the Crown was so popular, and why pluralism developed in this jurisdiction at all, we can examine petitions for cases that appeared repeatedly.

One family feud ran through almost all the central equity courts in the early sixteenth century. Its dramatis personae were the Halswell and Strode families, hailing from Devon. The gentry family of Strode from Plympton St Mary was headed by the elderly William Strode and his brother Richard until both of their deaths in 1518, and thereafter by Richard’s son, also called Richard. Men of considerable standing in the county, they acted as local officials and both Richards sat as MP for Plympton Erle. In managing their estates, they were voracious users of the law. All three men appear regularly in both the central common-law courts and in the equity courts, as petitioners and defendants in suits with their tenants.

Family trees of the Halswells of Dartmouth and the Strodes of Plympton St Mary, Devon, in the early sixteenth century.
Family trees of the Halswells of Dartmouth and the Strodes of Plympton St Mary, Devon, in the early sixteenth century.

Leading the Halswells of Dartmouth were the brothers John and Richard, Richard’s wife Joan, and their children, John and Jane. The Halswells left little trace in the historical record, so were presumably poorer than the Strodes. John Halswell senior had sold his lands to make up for various debts owed and was described at one point as a ‘common land seller’. But the younger John Halswell was said to be a ‘yeoman’ and was able to hire a serjeant at law as his legal counsel.

The dispute between them produced at least seventeen separate suits, with twelve surviving petitions in the central archives.[1] Taken together, they illustrate the perceived differences in the character of each royal court and the strategies adopted when petitioning to them. Continue reading “A Family Feud and Parallel Petitioning to the Crown from Sixteenth-Century Devon”

Now Online: Nearly 150 Investigations into Seventeenth-Century Petitioners

Tens of thousands of people submitted requests and complaints to the king and other high-ranking royal officials in seventeenth-century England. Each of these ‘petitions’ tells a story and investigating them further can reveal much about life during this tumultuous century.

As part of ‘The Power of Petitioning’ project, we completed a six-month Shared Learning Project with a group of 46 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. All of these 149 short pieces of research are now online at ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’, so please take a look at these new investigations to learn more.

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

We are extremely grateful to the many people involved in this project who made it possible. In addition to the main U3A researchers – listed in full on Investigating Petitioners – we would like to thank Peter Cox, who coordinated the project from the U3A side; Frank Edwards, David Moffatt and Sarah Birt, who helped to edit the reports and get them online; the London Metropolitan Archives and Westminster Archives for introducing the researchers to their collections and offering palaeography training; and of course to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding most of the associated costs.

The reports each began with one of the almost 400 transcribed State Paper petitions from across the seventeenth century that we have published on British History Online. These are based on images of manuscripts held at The National Archives at Kew. The photographs were collected by Sharon Howard, transcribed by Gavin Robinson and edited by Brodie Waddell.

The U3A group also completed reports about a number of seventeenth-century petitions submitted to the magistrates of the City of Westminster, which we are preparing organising for publication online. Keep an eye on our project site for a further announcement.

Crime and Women’s Petitions to the post-Restoration Stuart Monarchs

Emily Rhodes

[This post examines petitions for mercy from women on behalf of themselves or their male relatives who were accused or convicted of serious crimes. It is written by Emily Rhodes (@elrhodes96), a PhD candidate at Christ’s College, Cambridge.]

In 1666, Susan Coe of Rochester, Kent sent a ‘humble Peticion’ to King Charles II.[1] Within, she explained that her husband, the mariner William Coe, ‘being out of Employment and haueing A considerable sume of money due to him from your Majestie’ and ‘destitute of all meanes to subsist by’, stole gunpowder from the Dead Dock at Chatham in order to sell it. The petition further relates how William Coe had been apprehended and ‘confessed the whole matter’ to a Commander Cox, showing that he ‘was heartily penitent’ for the crime. At the bottom of the manuscript and indented, Susan Coe made her request:

‘May it therefore please your Majestie according to your accustomed Clemency & Charitable Disposition in favour of your Petitioner’s husband and in recompence of his former good Services to vouchsafe that his life may be spared for this Offence by your Majestie’s Gratious pardon.’[2]

The State Papers in The National Archives at Kew include thousands of petitions submitted to the Crown on behalf of criminals — mostly for pardons, but also to request improved prison accommodation, prison transfers, visitation or fee waivers — which provide historians incredible insight into the lives of common people in late seventeenth century England. Particularly striking is that between 1660 and 1702, at least 160 of these petitions came from women, offering one of the only examples in the early modern period of a direct relationship between even plebeian women and their monarch.[3]

‘British Library Add. MSS 5759, f.5. A page from Gervase Holles’ entry book of petitions submitted to the crown in August 1660. Two entries can be seen pertaining to cases involving women. These records show that women’s petitions were common and treated just like men’s.

Women would write for themselves, or on behalf of their male relatives: husbands, sons, brothers, fathers, fiancés and sons-in-law. They came from a wide socio-economic background. While some came from the upper echelons of society, others had humble lives — the wives and daughters of labourers and mariners — who frequently stated that without the pardon, they would likely be forced to rely ‘on the parish’. No crime was too big or small to warrant a petition; pleas were submitted for accused and convicted robbers, debtors, coiners, murderers and traitors. Of the female petitions with known outcomes, eighty percent were decided in the supplicant’s favour, demonstrating the political efficacy of early modern women’s voices.

While the number of women’s petitions pales in comparison to the hundreds to thousands of petitions submitted by criminal men, that the female petitions come from so many different backgrounds, regions and circumstances suggests that this practice was widespread. Furthermore, the fact that so many women of so many backgrounds turned to petitioning sheds light on women’s roles outside of the domestic and in the political sphere. Continue reading “Crime and Women’s Petitions to the post-Restoration Stuart Monarchs”

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”

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.

Continue reading “Edmund Felton’s petitions for justice, 1621-53”

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