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, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/worcs-quarter-sessions/1610. 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.) <http://www.ewgreen.org.uk/pack-b/fullpage-b/bayton-1.htm>

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, <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/worcs-quarter-sessions/>.

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) <https://petitioning.history.ac.uk/blog/2019/06/petitions-in-early-modern-england-a-very-short-introduction/>

For the parish of Bayton itself, including population estimates, see Murray Andrews, ‘Counting people: demographic change in medieval Bayton’, Medieval Bayton (2013), <https://medievalbayton.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/counting-people-demographic-change-in-medieval-bayton/>; ‘Bayton, Worcestershire’, A Vision of Britain Through Time (n.d.) <https://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/place/9595>; ‘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 <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/worcs/vol4/pp237-241>.

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.

 

Postscript

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.

Post-postscript

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.

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”

‘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”

The petition of Elizabeth Skory: A young woman seeks redress against a powerful man in 1621

This post by Sharon Howard has also been posted on the UK Parliament ‘Petition of the Month’ blog and uses transcriptions from our newly published volume of petitions to the House of Lords.

The 1621 Parliament was summoned reluctantly by the king and achieved little in the way of legislation before being dissolved in early 1622. But it is remembered for other developments that would have long-lasting consequences: the revivals of impeachment, of the Lords’ role as a court of appeal, and of petitioning.

There are just 13 surviving petitions addressed to the House of Lords in the parliamentary archives up to 1620 compared to more than 60 in 1621. Here I look at one of those 1621 petitioners, Elizabeth Skory, who was also among the first women to petition the Lords in the early modern period.

The petition of Elizabeth Skory, 1621
‘The Petitcion of Elizabeth Skorey touch Sir John Bennett, 18 May 1621’. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/18.

Most famously, the 1621 Parliament brought about the downfall of Sir Francis Bacon, the lord chancellor, for corruption. But Parliament also pursued two other men and their associates during the spring of 1621: Sir Gilles Mompesson and Sir John Bennet. It was the latter who was the subject of Elizabeth Skory’s petition. Continue reading “The petition of Elizabeth Skory: A young woman seeks redress against a powerful man in 1621”

Now Online: New Investigations into late Elizabethan and Jacobean Petitioners

During the reign of James I, the king and his councillors received hundreds of petitions every year. As part of ‘The Power of Petitioning’ project, we have transcribed and published almost 400 of these manuscripts from across the seventeenth century on British History Online.

We also completed a six-month Shared Learning Project with a large group of 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.

These short pieces of research are now online and we are very pleased to share them with you …

‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’: The main site for the U3A project, including information about the research methods and important caveats about accuracy and interpretation. Here you will find links to each of the sets of reports as they are published.

‘Petitioners in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, 1600-1625’: The first set of 46 reports by the U3A participants, covering the first 25 years of the seventeenth century. Each report also includes a professional transcription of the original petition and links to further sources of information.

Petitions in Early Modern England: A Very Short Introduction

Brodie Waddell

Until relatively recently, the word ‘petition’ had a much wider meaning than it does today. In the twenty-first century, a petition is a request or demand signed by a substantial number of people and addressed to a government authority. Paper petitions are still common among – for example – local activists trying to show support or opposition to changes in their neighbourhoods. However, with the rise of online platforms and social media, we’ve seen the re-emergence of mass petitioning to the national government, signed by huge numbers of people such as the six million who subscribed to one seeking a second referendum on Brexit.

In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some petitions looked much like their modern counterparts, but they could also take many other forms. In this post, I’ll attempt to very briefly set out the different sorts of ‘petitions’ that circulated in early modern England and where we can find them in the archives. I’ll devote most of my attention to the three types of petitions that are the focus for our project, but I also discuss others even more briefly. If you want to know more about any of these types, take a look at our annotated bibliography for further reading or our selection of online resources for many original examples.

 

Petitions to local magistrates

Every city and county authority in England – including mayors, borough councils and county magistrates – received handwritten ‘petitions’ from those who lived within their jurisdictions. For county magistrates, this often took the form of ‘the humble petition’ of a man or woman asking for poor relief, a licence to keep an alehouse or build a cottage, release from parish office, or discharge from a lawsuit. Many also came from veterans or war widows requesting a county pension, especially from the 1640s onwards. Nearly as common as these individual appeals were collective petitions from ‘the inhabitants’ or ‘the parishioners’ of a particular village or neighbourhood asking for adjustments to local taxation, prosecution of disorderly neighbours, expulsion of paupers who legally belonged elsewhere, or adjudication between contending parties.

In both cases, the petitions were often left unsigned – especially those from single individuals. However, in some cases the petitioners might also add their signatures, initials or marks, usually amounting to about six to twelve subscribers, though sometimes twenty, thirty or more names.

The petitions sent to civic officials such as the London Court of Aldermen, the Mayor of Norwich, or the Chester City Assembly usually took a very similar form, though they tended to include somewhat different requests because of their differing jurisdictions. Petitions about apprenticeships – such as release from an abusive master – were more common, as were others related to guilds and the ‘freedom to trade’, though poor relief, local taxation, alehouses and imprisonment were also popular topics.

Although it is difficult to be certain about the process of composition, petitions sent to magistrates were very rarely written by the petitioners themselves, but rather by a professional scribe or literate neighbour – such as a clergyman – who was usually familiar with conventions of the genre. Usually, however, the petitioner also had a large role in determining what would be recorded on the page.

‘The humble peticion of Joyce Marson of Holt’, a single mother asking for parish poor relief in 1610: Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service, Ref. 110 BA1/1/7/72.

These petitions are held in local record offices. For the county magistrates, they survive before c.1700 for about half of England’s forty counties and they are normally preserved in the quarter sessions rolls or papers. They also survive in smaller numbers for some cities that were ‘counties corporate’, which had their own quarter sessions jurisdiction. In many cases, such petitions have not yet been catalogued at the level of individual documents, so the archive catalogue will simply state, for example, ‘Michaelmas Sessions 1645’, and this file will include any number of unlisted petitions. My current estimate is that well over 30,000 of these documents survive from around the 1570s to the 1690s, with the largest number in Lancashire (20,000), Cheshire (5,000), the West Riding of Yorkshire (2,000), Staffordshire, Somerset and Devon (each with around 1,000 or more). Only a small number survive for the sessions of the peace for London and Middlesex before the 1690s, but they amount to almost 10,000 items in the eighteenth century.

For the civic magistrates, they are also common and sometimes survive from much earlier though in smaller numbers. For example, Norwich has about 520 surviving from c.1530 to c.1810, though only 150 definitely date from the seventeenth century. Among larger collections, the City of London Court of Aldermen papers includes perhaps 500 from the 1660s to 1690s and the Chester City Assembly Files holds about 1,400 petitions for the seventeenth century.

Of course, there are many jurisdictions for which few or none survive, but this is due more to the hazards of record-keeping rather than a lack of early modern petitions being sent. Indeed, even where the original petitions have long since disappeared, one can often find evidence of them in the ‘order books’ or ‘minute books’ of local magistrates.

 

Petitions to the Crown

The King or Queen – or Lord Protector – were popular targets for petitioners through this period and beyond. As heads of state, their jurisdictions were vast and their visibility unmatched. They would have received many unwritten ‘petitions’ from individual suitors in-person, especially semi-formal appeals from courtiers and other well-connected elites. However, they also received an endless stream of paper petitions from across the country and beyond on an infinite variety of matters. As a result, offices such as the Masters of Requests were created that sorted and filtered these incoming petitions.

‘The humble peticion of Roger Bassett’, asking to be appointed as ‘sworne servaunt’ crossbow-maker to the prince in 1613: The National Archives, SP 14/72/184.

Further systematic research is needed on this form of petitioning, but it seems that most petitioners were individuals seeking preferment – offices, property, charity – or clemency. There were also many petitions sent to the monarch and privy council from institutions such as those sent by borough councils seeking royal charters or other privileges. Finally, some petitioners focused on issues of ‘church and state’, such as the 16,000 Londoners who signed the ‘monster’ petition to Charles II in 1680 calling for parliament to be reconvened to deal with the Popish Plot. Perhaps the most famous today is the petition from the First Continental Congress in America to the George III in 1774 which complained of the standing army and new taxes. As with petitions to local magistrates, these seem to have rarely been written by the petitioners themselves, but instead the writing was entrusted to an expert scribe who followed well-established rules of composition.

Thousands of petitions to the Crown survive, though many more have been lost. Scholars have found evidence of one royal Master of Requests handling 700 to 800 petitions per year under James I and about 1,000 per year under Charles I, with similar levels received by Charles II in the 1660s. Many of the original petitions are held at The National Archives among the State Papers and have been catalogued in the Calendars of State Papers Domestic, but others are scattered across other series and collections. For example, hundreds more from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century are held at Hatfield House Archives among the Cecil Papers.

 

Petitions to Parliament

Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords were frequent targets for petitioning throughout this period. In some cases, they took a very similar form to modern petitions: directed to the national government, asking for a change in public policy, signed by hundreds or thousands of people. This style of parliamentary petition became frequent from the opening of the Long Parliament in 1640, including the famed ‘Root and Branch’ petition calling for the abolition of the bishops, reportedly signed by 15,000 subscribers. However, most petitions to parliament concerned less ‘political’ matters and were often sent by individuals or institutions, such as gentlemen, merchants or whole towns seeking special privileges or adjudication in ongoing litigation.

‘The humble petition of the shopkeepers in the New Exchange’, asking for hackney coaches to be banned from obstructing the streets thereabouts in 1648, signed by 46 men and women: Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/252.

Unfortunately, virtually none of the original petitions to the House of Commons survive, though there are references to many of them in the Commons Journals and informal parliamentary diaries. Some were printed as stand-alone publications or in newsbooks, allowing us to get a sense of the original text, among them the ‘humble Petition of the Knights, Gentlemen, Ministers, Freeholders, and other Inhabitants of the County of Dorset’ in 1642 asking for the ‘obstructive party’ to be removed from the House of Lords to better pursue the war effort. Around 8,000 manuscript petitions to the House of Lords have survived from the seventeenth century, becoming much more common after the Lords resumed its powers as a court of judicature – and a place to which to appeal on legal matters – in 1621. All of these are held at the Parliamentary Archives and are very well-catalogued.

 

Other types of petitions

The wide range of petitionary documents that flew around early modern England mean that it would be impossible to provide even a very superficial review of every type, especially as some documents that served overlapping purposes went under different names.

There were, for example, many ‘addresses’ sent to monarchs at this time, sometimes simply congratulating them on victories or marriages but other times including direct requests or even critiques. At the other end of the spectrum, the system of ‘settlement’ created by the Poor Laws led to the emergence of ‘pauper letters’, sent by poor individuals to the overseers of their ‘home’ parishes requesting aid. These were more candid and less formalised that the pauper petitions to county magistrates, though they only seem to survive in substantial numbers from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Much more formal were the purely procedural ‘petitions’ submitted to some courts by litigants to initiate a lawsuit, which followed a strict legal form. In between these types were the many petitions sent to authorities with other sorts of jurisdiction: to the Vicar General to give a Christian burial to the body of a suicide; to the royal judges on the Assizes circuits from prisoners seeking mercy; to the Navy Board for a particular military office; and so on.

Formal petitions were also sent about matters outside the official jurisdictions of church and state. For example, many absentee landowners – in their role as landlords and ‘lords of the manor’ – received handwritten petitions from their tenants. As with petitions to magistrates, these might be from a single individual or, less often, from a small group. Presumably requests to resident landowners were made in-person orally, but requests to those residing elsewhere had to be written down. In them, tenants asked for rent abatements, charitable aid, permission to use resources on the property such as timber or favour in other local matters. In many cases, the landlords owned much of the property in a particular village and held additional legal powers as the lord of the manor, so there was sometimes a degree of overlap between petitions to a gentleman as a landowner and a petition to that same gentleman as a magistrate.

Unfortunately, there are no official collections of tenants’ petitions and they appear to survive in much smaller numbers than those sent to local magistrates, but that is at least partly because they usually only survive when preserved among estate papers. Most local record offices hold some, though those may not be catalogued in any detail. Petitions to institutional landlords – such as those sent to Sutton’s Hospital Charterhouse which owned various urban and rural properties – are more likely to have survived. The only substantial published research on these sorts of documents is Rab Houston’s Peasant Petitions and he found about 200 petitions from seventeenth-century Cumberland in the papers of the Percy family and its descendants.

However, to limit the discussion to such formal ‘petitions’ would be misleading. Informal ‘petitionary letters’ were extremely common thanks to the importance of patronage networks in this period, sent by artists, writers, traders and almost anyone seeking the support of someone with more power or prestige. Even prayers to God were often called ‘petitions’, and many of the conventions used in ‘secular’ petitioning can be first found in supplications directed to divine rather than earthly authorities. Indeed, many of the thousands of printed ‘petitions’ in the English Short-Title Catalogue are published prayers rather than political requests.

* * *

So, when reading an early modern document explicitly labelled as a ‘humble petition’, we must remember that it was part of a long, expansive tradition of petitioning that stretched back centuries and encompassed a variety of overlapping genres. It was probably produced through a collaborative process involving the named petitioners, their supporters, occasionally a legal advisor, and a hired scribe. Most importantly, no matter how unique it may appear, it was just one of the hundreds of thousands of ‘petitions’ created in this period and must be understood as part of the wider culture of petitioning in early modern England.

Petitioning in Early Modern England: An Annotated Bibliography

Brodie Waddell

Scholars have been writing about the history of petitioning for many decades, so it would be impossible to create a comprehensive list of all the publications that touch on the topic. We are gradually putting together and organising an expansive Zotero bibliography, which we will eventually share online.

In the meantime, we thought that it might be useful to provide an annotated bibliography of publications focused on petitioning in England from c.1550 to c.1750. Unfortunately, this list excludes much valuable research on medieval, modern and non-English contexts. However, we hope it will provide a useful starting point for people looking to know more about petitioning in this period. It cannot claim to be comprehensive, so please let us know about publications we have missed.

 

Books, Chapters and Articles

Appleby, David J. ‘Unnecessary persons? Maimed soldiers and war widows in Essex, 1642-62’, Essex Archaeology and History, 32 (2001), pp. 209-21. Analyses petitions for military pensions sent to the quarter sessions of this county.

Beale, Stewart. ‘War widows and revenge in Restoration England’, The Seventeenth Century, 33:2 (2018), pp. 195-217. Examines petitions submitted by royalist widows to the House of Lords during the first few months of the Restoration.

Beale, Stewart. ‘”Unpittyed by any”? Royalist widows and the Crown, 1660-70’, Historical Research (online 2019). Analyses 114 petitions for relief from war widows submitted to the Charles II in this decade, including a collective petition from 163 widows and orphans in 1664.

Bowie, Karin; and Thomas Munck (eds), ‘Early modern political petitioning and public engagement in Scotland, Britain and Scandinavia, c.1550-1795’, special issue of Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 38:3 (2018). Includes a substantive introduction by the editors as well as pieces by Jason Peacey on printed petitions to Parliament (1650s-90s) and Ted Vallance on petitionary loyal address in Cromwellian England.

Button, Andrea. ‘Royalist women petitioners in south-west England, 1655-62’, The Seventeenth Century, 15:1 (2000), pp. 53-66. Studies the appeals of Arundel Penruddock and others to a range of different authorities.

Coast, David. ‘Speaking for the People in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, vol. 44 (2019), pp. 51-88. Surveys positive attitudes to ‘the voice of the people’ in printed and manuscript complaint literature, including self-declared ‘petitions’ and ‘supplications’, c.1520s to 1630s.

Dabhoiwala, Famarez. ‘Writing Petitions in Early Modern England’, in Michael J. Braddick and Joanna Innes (eds), Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations: A collection to honour Paul Slack (2017). Examines private petitions addressed to King Charles II through the Master of Requests, drawing on the papers of a scrivener involved in the process.

Daybell, James. ‘Scripting a Female Voice: Women’s Epistolary Rhetoric in Sixteenth-Century Letters of Petition’, Women’s Writing, 13:1 (2006), pp. 3-22. Focuses on requests for favour sent to monarchs and government officials from 1540 to 1603.

Falvey, Heather. ‘‘Scandalus to all us’: presenting an anti-alehouse petition from late Elizabethan Rickmansworth (Hertfordshire)’, Rural History, 31 (2020), pp. 1-15. Reconstructs the context, subscription, presentment and reception of a petition to county magistrates in 1588.

Fletcher, Anthony. The Outbreak of the English Civil War (1981). Chapter 6 focuses on the role of petitions in the politics of this period.

Foster, Elizabeth Read. ‘Petitions and the Petition of Right’, Journal of British Studies, 14:1 (1974), pp. 21-45. Sets the famous parliamentary petition of 1628 into its wider petitionary context.

Hart, James S. Justice Upon Petition: The House of Lords and the Reformation of Justice (1991). Discusses the judicial role of the House of Lords using the many petitions and appeals submitted there instigating litigation or seeking parliamentary intervention.

Healey, Jonathan. The First Century of Welfare: Poverty and Poor Relief in Lancashire, 1620-1730 (2014). Analyses the thousands of petitions for poor relief that survive for this county.

Hindle, Steve. On the Parish: The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England c.1550-1750 (2004). Discusses many petitions about poor relief, including systematic examination of the hundreds sent to the Cumberland quarter sessions from 1686 to 1749 in Chapter 6.

Hirst, Derek. ‘Making Contact: Petitions and the English Republic’, Journal of British Studies, 45:1 (2006), pp. 26-50. Examines petitions to the central authorities in the 1650s about ‘bread-and-butter’ issues.

Houston, R.A. Peasant Petitions: Social Relations and Economic Life on Landed Estates, 1600-1850 (2014). Discusses petitions from tenants to landlords, including almost 1,000 from Cumberland from c.1600 to c.1850 in Chapter 14.

Hoyle, R.W. ‘The Master of Requests and the Small Change of Jacobean Patronage’, English Historical Review, 126: 520 (2011), pp. 544-581. Focuses on the thousands of petitions to the crown recorded in two registers of the Masters of Requests under James I.

Hudson, Geoffrey. ‘Arguing disability: ex-servicemen’s own stories in early modern England, 1590-1790’, in R. Bivins and J. Pickstone (eds), Medicine, Madness and Social History: Essays in Honour of Roy Porter (2007), pp. 104-17. Examines petitions for support sent by disabled veterans to county quarter sessions and royal hospitals.

Kesselring, Krista. Mercy and Authority in the Tudor State (2003). Includes analysis of petitions to the crown for pardon, focusing on their rhetoric, their social significance, and the role of patronage and intermediaries in the process, in Chapter 4.

Knights, Mark. ‘London’s “monster” petition of 1680’, Historical Journal, 36:1 (1993), pp. 39-67. A close study of the mass petition to Charles II signed by nearly 16,000 citizens, using a prosopographical approach.

Knights, Mark. Representation and Misrepresentation in later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture (2004). Includes a substantial analysis of ‘petitions’ and ‘addresses’ as a potential representation of ‘the public’ in Chapter 3.

Knights, Mark. ‘Participation and representation before democracy: petitions and addresses in pre-modern Britain’ in Ian Shapiro, Susan Stokes, Elizabeth Jean Wood and Alexander Kirschner, eds., Political Representation (2010), pp. 35-58. Surveys the role of public petitions to the crown and parliament on national political and religious issues in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Lake, Peter. ‘Puritans, Popularity and Petitions: Local Politics in National Context, Cheshire, 1641’ in Thomas Cogswell, Richard Cust and Peter Lake (eds), Politics, religion and popularity in early Stuart Britain: essays in honour of Conrad Russell (2002), pp. 259-289. Close study of the political context of petitions about the church from Cheshire to the House of Lords.

Loft, Philip. ‘Involving the public: Parliament, petitioning, and the language of interest, 1688-1720’, Journal of British Studies, 55:1 (2016), pp. 1-23. Analyses over 300 ‘large responsive petitions’ sent to parliament during this period.

Loft, Philip. ‘Petitioning and Petitioners to the Westminster Parliament, 1660-1788’, Parliamentary History, 38:3 (2019). Surveys the chronology and geography of the 12,431 ‘large responsive and initiatory petitions’ submitted to parliament during this time.

Maltby, Judith. Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (1998). Analyses the mass petitions about religious issues in the 1640s in Chapters 3-5.

Matar, Nabil I. ‘Wives, Captive Husbands, and Turks: The First Women Petitioners in Caroline England’, Explorations in Renaissance Culture, 40:1-2 (1997), pp. 125-138. Examines the series of petitions to the King and Parliament in the 1620s-30s from groups of wives of English sailors captured by North African corsairs.

McArthur, Ellen A. ‘Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament’, English Historical Review, 24:96 (1909). Probably the first article-length study of petitioning in the 1640s.

McEntee, Ann Marie. ‘”The [un]civill-sisterhood of oranges and lemons”: Female petitioners and demonstrators, 1642-53’, Prose Studies, 14:3 (1991), pp. 92-111. Closely analyses the text of women’s printed petitions and newspaper responses to them.

Neufield, Matthew. The Civil Wars After 1660: Public Remembering in Late Stuart England (2013). Includes analysis of over 500 petitions for relief from veterans to the quarter sessions of eight counties in Chapter 2.

O’Brien, Karen. ‘Sexual Impropriety, Petitioning and the Dynamics of Ill Will in Daily Urban Life’, Urban History, 43:2 (2016), pp. 178-199. Investigates verbal hostility in Nantwich using petitions and suits to the Chester Consistory court in the 1660s.

Oldenburg, Scott. ‘The Petition on the Early English Stage’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 57:2 (2017), pp. 325-347. Analyses petitioning in Elizabethan drama, focusing on several plays of the 1590s.

Patterson, Annabel. Reading Between the Lines (1993). Considers the prominance of petitioning in literature and more widely in Elizabethan and early Stuart England in Chapter 3 (‘A Petitioning Society’).

Peacey, Jason. Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution (2013). Examines petitioning and lobbying in the mid-seventeenth century in Chapters 8-10.

Peck, Imogen. ‘The great unknown: the negotiation and narration of death by English war widows, 1647–1660’, Northern History, 53:2 (2016), pp. 220-35. Draws primarily on the first-time petitions of 72 women from Lancashire and Cheshire who appealed to the county quarter sessions for relief between 1647 and 1660.

Stoyle, Mark. ‘“Memories of the maimed”: the testimony of Charles I’s former soldiers, 1660-1730’, History, 88:290 (2003), pp. 204-26. Focuses on 179 petitions for relief submitted to the Devon quarter sessions to assess how royalist veterans viewed the conflict in retrospect.

Suzuki, Mihoko. Subordinate Subjects: Gender, the Political Nation, and Literary Form in England, 1588-1688 (2003). Draws on printed petitions of apprentices and women to Parliament in the 1640s and 1650s in Chapter 4.

Thorne, Alison. ‘Women’s Petitionary Letters and Early Seventeenth-Century Treason Trials’, Women’s Writing, 13:1 (2006), pp. 23-43. Focuses on the supplicatory letters composed by women whose male relatives were implicated in the Essex debacle (1601) or the Main Plot (1603).

Thorne, Alison. ‘Narratives of female suffering in petitionary literature of the Civil War period and its aftermath’, Literature Compass, 10:2 (2013), pp. 134-145. Examines the symbiotic relationship between these narratives and the polemical agendas promulgated by various religious sects, especially in the female petitioners of the 1640s, the Levellers, and the first generation Quakers.

Thorne, Alison. ‘The politics of female supplication in the Book of Esther’, in Victoria Brownlee and Laura Gallagher (eds), Biblical women in early modern literary culture, 1550–1700 (2015), pp. 95-110. Close reading of early modern commentaries on Queen Esther’s petitioning and its role in women’s printed petitions from the 1640s-50s.

Vallance, Edward. ‘A Democratic Culture? Women, Citizenship and Subscriptional Texts in Early Modern England’, in C. Cuttica and M. Peltonen (eds), Democracy and Anti-democracy in Early Modern England, 1603-1689 (2019), ch. 12. Discusses the inclusion and exclusion of women from different types of subscriptional texts, including petitions.

Waddell, Brodie. God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660-1720 (2012). Includes examination of various local and national petitions about economic matters in the later Stuart period, especially in Chapter 2.

Walter, John. ‘Confessional Politics in Pre-Civil War Essex: Prayer Books, Profanations and Petitions’, Historical Journal, 44:3 (2001), pp. 677-701. Provides a close study of the process of initiating and drafting a local petition to the king in 1641 in support of the Book of Common Prayer.

Weil, Rachel. ‘Thinking about Allegiance in the English Civil War’, History Workshop Journal, 63 (2006), pp. 183-191. Discusses petitions to the Committee for Compounding with Delinquents to look at how people framed their political loyalties.

Weisser, Olivia. Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (2016), pp. 159-179 (Ch. 5: ‘Illness Narratives by the Poor’). Examines 648 petitions for poor relief that mention ill health from 1623 to 1730 from ten county quarter sessions, highlighting how these narratives were shaped by the conventions of petitioning.

Whiting, Amanda Jane. Women and Petitioning in the Seventeenth-Century English Revolution: Deference, Difference, and Dissent (2015). Focuses primarily on printed petitions from women in the 1640s and 1650s.

Woodfine, Philip. ‘Debtors, Prisons, and Petitions in Eighteenth-Century England’, Eighteenth-Century Life (2006) 30:2, pp. 1-31. Analyses the petitions of imprisoned debtors, mainly from Yorkshire in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Worthen, Hannah. ‘The administration of military welfare in Kent, 1642-79’, in David J. Appleby and Andrew Hopper (eds), Battle-Scarred: Mortality, Medical Care and Military Welfare in the British Civil Wars (2018). Focuses on petitions for military pensions sent to the Kent quarter sessions.

Worthen, Hannah. ‘Supplicants and guardians: the petitions of royalist widows during the Civil Wars and Interregnum, 1642-1660’, Women’s History Review, 26:4 (2016), pp. 528-40.  Examines petitions to parliamentary committees from female royalist landowners whose estates were confiscated.

Zaret, David. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early-Modern England (2000). Discusses the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ in the 1640s through the rise of printed petitions.

A selection of books that include extensive discussion of petitioning.

Blog Posts

Burn, Andy. ‘‘Infamus calumniations’, or, a petition goes awry at Rothwell Church, 1603’, Durham History Blog, 2017,

Hopper, Andrew, et al. Civil War Petitions Blog, 2018 onwards.

Howard, Sharon. ‘The London Lives Petitions Project’, Early Modern Notes, 2015 onwards.

Loft, Philip. ‘“An unnecessary and arbitrary court”: A Welsh petition to abolish the Council of the Marches, 1689’, Parliament’s Petition of the Month Blog, 2018.

Waddell, Brodie, editor. ‘Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society’, The Many-Headed Monster, 2016. Includes pieces by Sharon Howard, Judith Hudson, Rebecca Tomlin, Brodie Waddell and Hannah Worthen on petitioning in early modern England, in addition to further pieces focused on other places.

Weil, Rachel. ‘When Prisoners Complain’, Early Modern Prisons, 2016.

Bibliography last revised 20 April 2021.