We have just published full transcriptions of 424 petitions received by the Justices of the Peace for the City of Westminster in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The texts of these requests and complaints are now free to search and read on British History Online. The addition of these Westminster petitions to our recently published volumes for Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire brings the total to over 1,300 transcribed petitions available in our series.
The City of Westminster included most of London’s rapidly growing western suburbs in this period, home to about 130,000 residents by 1700. Wealthy courtiers and politicians lived here alongside huge numbers of poorer workers and destitute paupers, so unsurprisingly the law courts here were busy. The petitions transcribed in this volume often arose from local conflicts that led to residents submitting supplications to the local magistrates for assistance, mercy or arbitration.
In 1620, for example, a servant named Elizabeth Sandes complained that she had ‘behaved her selfe in verie civell and honest manner’ in service since arriving in London about thirteen years earlier. However, after the death of her most recent master, Doctor Fisher of the High Commission, she ended up being ‘drawen into follie’ by the false promises of Charles Chambers, gentleman. Now she was pregnant, but Chambers refused to marry her or offer any support. She pleaded for the court to force Chambers to provide some financial help, as ‘in equitie and conscience’ he ought to do. It seems the magistrates granted her petition, because Chambers was then seized and taken to the Gatehouse Prison by the constable.
While this is just a single example, it is suggestive of the sorts of stories that frequently appear in these petitions. Many involve complaints from pregnant women or single mothers about negligent fathers. Even more involve servants or apprentices in conflict with their masters. And the largest group of all concern various forms of litigation, whether appeals from victims seeking justice or pleas from accused people seeking mercy.
Alongside these many individual petitions, there were also a substantial number from larger groups or whole communities, such as the five men, three women ‘and diverse other inhabitantes in Hartshorne Lane in the parish of Saint Martins in the Feildes’ who petitioned in 1636. They complained that the old watercourse that ran through the lane had been stopped up, leading to floods in ‘all our cellars and lower roomes’ and the spread of ‘daingerous and ill savours’. They sought the help of the magistrates to combat the perilously foul smell.
If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more. We will be publishing further guidance and advice on our Resources page, but for now you can just dive into the sources:
We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.
[Note: Unfortunately the search interface on British History Online is currently not working correctly. To search, rather than browse, the petitions series, you can use google’s ‘inurl’ feature. Simply type inurl:”british-history.ac.uk/petitions” into the search bar, followed by the desired keyword. For example, inurl:”british-history.ac.uk/petitions” debt will return petitions including the word ‘debt’. The new Westminster petitions are not yet indexed by google, so will not be included in these results. Apologies for the inconvenience.]
The seventeenth-century petitions were photographed by the archives staff at London Metropolitan Archives and they have been transcribed by Tim Wales. Images of the eighteenth-century petitions were drawn from London Lives, 1690-1800 and the transcriptions there were revised for a higher level of accuracy by Gavin Robinson. The texts for revision were extracted by Sharon Howard from ‘London Lives XML Data’, which is CC-BY-NC licensed. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.
We are extremely grateful to London Metropolitan Archives, especially Charlie Turpie, Principal Archivist, who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections and online catalogue to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic History Society for their financial support, without which these would not have been possible.
This is the fifth in a series of seven planned volumes which already includes petitions to the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire, and will soon also include petitions to the Crown and the House of Lords. We will announce the new volumes here as they appear.
Full transcriptions of 333 local ‘petitions’ from two Midland counties have just been published on British History Online. The first volume includes 239 requests submitted to the magistrates for Staffordshire and the second volume includes 94 to the magistrates of Derbyshire. When added to our recent publication of 572 petitions from Cheshire and Worcestershire, we now have over 900 transcriptions freely available from the late sixteenth to late eighteenth century.
These documents cover a wide range of economic, judicial and other concerns, though they only rarely focus directly on contentious political matters. Most were requests from individuals, both men and women, usually asking for judicial mercy, criminal prosecution, or poor relief. The remainder were from groups such as ‘the poore prisoners in Derby Goale’ who complained of a reduced ‘bare allowance’ for bread in 1680. In the eighteenth century, for the first time, imprisoned debtors began to submit petitions for release under the various Insolvent Debtors Acts and, from around the same time, Protestant Dissenters sought licences to establish meeting houses to worship outside the Church of England.
The petition of Nickolas Yeamandes of Staffordshire in 1609 offers an intriguing example of how these requests could potentially counteract the power of local elites. Yeamondes claims he had been imprisoned upon a malicious charge by his landlord, Roger Fowlke of Sutton Coldfield. Apparently Fowlke was using the judicial system to try to force Yeamandes to give up a lease. Yeamandes asks the county magistrates to hold a ‘hearing of the matter in contrevartie’, in the hope that he will be released as ‘ane honest man’. Of course he also promises that he, ‘his por wiffe and children’ will ‘pray for your healthes longe to continew’. Although the full story of this dispute remains to be explored, this document suggests that tenants and other vulnerable individuals might try to use petitioning to overcome the sharp imbalances of power in English society at this time.
If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more. We will be publishing further guidance and advice on our Resources page, but for now just dive into the sources:
[Note: Unfortunately the search interface on British History Online is currently not working correctly. To search, rather than browse, the petitions series, you can use google’s ‘inurl’ feature. Simply type inurl:”british-history.ac.uk/petitions” into the search bar, followed by the desired keyword. For example, inurl:”british-history.ac.uk/petitions” debt will return petitions including the word ‘debt’. Apologies for the inconvenience.]
We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.
These volumes are truely a team effort. The volumes were edited by Brodie Waddell and transcribed by Tim Wales and Gavin Robinson. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.
We are extremely grateful to Derbyshire Record Office and Staffordshire Record Office who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic History Society for their financial support, without which these would not have been possible.
The four published volumes are part of a series of seven planned volumes which will also include petitions to the City of Westminster, the House of Lords, and the Crown. We will announce the new volumes here as they appear.
Our first 572 full transcriptions of petitions from Elizabethan and Stuart England are now freely available to read and search at British History Online. One volume includes 297 requests and complaints submitted to the magistrates of Worcestershire and the second volume includes 275 sent to the magistrates of Cheshire. Although very few focus on the sort of conventional ‘political’ issues found in modern petitions, together they show a huge range of the grievances raised by ordinary people in a tumultuous historical period.
To take just one example, twenty-two inhabitants of Bayton in Worcestershire submitted a petition to the magistrates in 1666 asking them to ‘suppresse’ their neighbour, Daniel Roberts, from selling ale and beer. They complained that Roberts had ‘forged a certificate’, ‘tooke up armes against his majesty’ during the civil wars, and refused to attend church ‘to hear divine service and sermon’. Unsurprisingly, the vicar and churchwardens were among the many signatories. The petition appears to have been successful, because a clerk wrote ‘Suppressed by order of cort’ at the bottom of the page.
There were 17 other petitions relating to alehouses in the Worcestershire collection, including several supporting rather than opposing them, but these two volumes also include a vast variety of other types of petitions. Crime and punishment feature very prominently, accounting for nearly 160 of the petitions. Addressing poverty and poor relief is also a major concern, with dozens from both counties from paupers seeking parish pensions. You will also find many petitions relating to bastardy and paternal maintenance, the right to build cottages on ‘waste’ land, military pensions for veterans and war widows, exception or imposition of local taxation and officeholding, and a very miscellaneous group of other matters. If you are interested in the social, cultural or legal history of this period, there is sure to be something that catches your eye in here.
If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more.
We will be publishing further guidance and advice on our Resources page, but for now you can just dive into the sources:
We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in the seventeenth century, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.
These volumes are truely a team effort. They were edited by Sharon Howard (Cheshire) and Brodie Waddell (Worcestershire), and both were transcribed by Gavin Robinson. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.
These two volumes are merely the first in a series of seven planned volumes which will include two more counties (Derbyshire and Staffordshire), one city (Westminster), the House of Lords, and the Crown. For the counties and the city, we will also be adding eighteenth-century petitions. We will announce the new volumes here as they appear.
This is an exciting phase for a project like this, because we get to go out and grab a huge amount of interesting stuff but aren’t expected to have anything polished to show for it yet. It also includes lots of annoying admin and paperwork to get everything up and running, though we won’t bore you with the details of that somewhat less exhilarating part of the project.
Broadly, we’ve been busy with four main things…
At the heart of this project are several large collections of manuscript petitions and associated records. We already had photographs of some material from pre-project work, namely about 800 petitions to the magistrates at the quarter sessions of Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Kent and Sussex. Since starting, Sharon has collected hundreds of photographs of petitions to the Cheshire quarter sessions (c.600), the Chester City Assembly (c.150), the House of Lords (c.750), and the Crown (c.400). The London Metropolitan Archives have photographed about 130 to the Westminster quarter sessions. Brodie has photographed petitions to the quarter sessions of Hertfordshire (c.430) and a small sample from Devon (c.50). Jason has gathered a range of material about responses to petitions at the Huntington Library and the Parliamentary Archives. Thanks to this work, we now have photographs of well over 3,000 petitions to local and national authorities from c.1570 to 1800, as well as a selection of material about responses to some of these requests.
In order to turn these seventeenth-century manuscripts into something that can be read by non-experts and easily digitally searched, we are professionally transcribing a substantial selection of them. These will eventually be freely available at British History Online, with Gavin Robinson and Tim Wales working their way through the petitions to the magistrates of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Westminster and Worcestershire, and the petitions to the Crown from the State Papers at The National Archives. All of these are now complete (c.1400 items), so only the House of Lords collection (c.750) remains to be transcribed.
Although hundreds of photographs and raw transcripts are a wonderful starting point, they become much more useable once they have been sorted and categorised in various ways. In some cases this can be partly done using the data from the archive catalogues, while in other cases they need to be directly read and labelled. In the process so far, Sharon and Brodie have focused on the nearly 2,000 quarter sessions petitions – including those from Sussex, Kent and Devon that are not being transcribed – attempting to assign them to eleven broad categories from ‘alehouses’ to ‘rates’. We’re also extracting key information about the petitioners: name, gender and ‘type’ (i.e. individual, group or institutional). In addition, we have started counting the number of signatories on each petition, though this isn’t yet finished.
There is still much more to be done on this part of the process, but the early results are already intriguing. When we throw together all the quarter sessions material into a single chart, we can see a very wide range of requests. The importance of litigation and poor relief is obvious, but many petitioners had other concerns, and the ‘other’ category was very miscellaneous indeed. That said, there were major variations depending on the county and the period, so you shouldn’t take this first glance at the data as an academically rigorous analysis.
All three of us have been lucky enough to not have any departmental teaching or admin duties during this first six months of the project. We have, therefore, had a chance to catch our breath and think about petitioning in its widest sense.
Part of this has come from going along to events in Lisbon, Birkbeck, KCL and Oxford. This has encouraged us to think about how petitions work in other contexts – including other periods and places – and how they relate to other forms of narrative, memory and protest. Discussions with colleagues at these events has allowed us to get a sense of how our sources and ideas fit into the wider historical and historiographical landscape.
During this period of reflection, one thing we realised early on is that we’d benefit from knowing more about what happens to local petitioning in the eighteenth century. Brodie and Sharon thus decided to put in a bid for a small grant to the Economic History Society to gather and transcribe a selection of material from our current quarter sessions series for this later period, which was fortunately successful. We’ll start this part of the project in September.
Finally, we’ve also been attempting to get some of our early thoughts written down. It has been illuminating to present some of our preliminary work at various events and write up short pieces such as an annotated bibliography and a short introduction to different types of petitions. We’ve also been posting some our finds on twitter at #PowerOfPetitioning. This has not only sparked fruitful discussion with other historians in person and online, but it also helped us identify our current blind spots.
We have a lot more work to do, yet having six months to focus directly on our project and to set up some of the practical stuff means that we’re ready to take our next steps. We’ll soon be able to offer the initial fruits of our research, so look out for the first sets of transcriptions to go online in the autumn.
In eighteenth-century England, ordinary people regularly petitioned county and city magistrates about personal calamities or local problems. These requests survive in huge numbers in local archives, including nearly ten thousand for London alone. Analysing such petitions allows us to better understand social relations, economic hardship and the role of the state in this period as well as the outlook and circumstances of people who lacked any official authority of their own. Which issues drove people to complain? How did they frame their requests? How did such petitioning vary by geography, chronology, gender and social status?
We’re very pleased to announce that we have just been jointly awarded an Economic History Society Carnevali Small Research Grant of nearly £3,000 to gather material to help to answer these questions. This new research will photograph, transcribe and analyse a substantial selection of eighteenth-century petitions, building on Brodie and Sharon’s current projects, namely ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’ (c.1580-1700) and ‘The London Lives Petitions Project’ (c.1690-1800). Both these projects are creating or using large collections of transcribed manuscripts to undertake quantitative analysis of petitioning. However, comparing material from these projects to draw broader conclusions is currently impossible because they cover different chronologies and jurisdictions. This grant from the Economic History Society will enable us to bridge this divide by collecting, transcribing and analysing six key collections that will link these two projects, and so create a diverse publicly-available corpus of petitions stretching across more than two centuries.
For social and economic historians, this research will provide a wide-ranging survey of the challenges and hardships faced by people of all ranks while also illuminating the determined reactions they provoked. Preliminary research suggests that the most common petitions to local magistrates were appeals for temporary aid or long-term poor relief, allowing glimpses of material hardship from a variety of different perspectives: labourers afflicted by old age or disabilities, families suffering the loss of a bread-winner, householders rendered homeless by fire or flood, traders facing insurmountable debts, and many other victims of sudden immiseration.
Yet, while this type of petition is both valuable and numerous, it is hardly the only form available for examination. Others illuminate problems associated with early modern trade and labour practices such as the pleas from imprisoned debtors seeking freedom, from workers desperate for unpaid wages, and from apprentices seeking to be released from failed or abusive masters. Moreover, many petitions came from organised groups rather than from isolated individuals. Collective requests from whole parishes frequently asked for the expulsion of poor migrants, for relief from taxation or for funds to maintain local roads and bridges. Examining a broad selection of these documents will provide insight into the nature of local economic and social problems in this period.
For scholars studying the history of England’s state structure, the project will reveal one of the primary ways in which ordinary people addressed and shaped these developing institutions. Specifically, it will offer an alternative perspective on the nature of state authority in the localities. Current understandings of formal power structures in eighteenth-century England have been drawn primarily from the writings of theorists or officeholders. In contrast, petitions provide a view of authority ‘from below’.
The petitions sent to local magistrates in the eighteenth century represent immensely valuable source material for historians of social and economic history. Although several scholars have already used them to examine specific issues in particular jurisdictions, the Economic History Society grant will enable us to undertake the first methodical analysis of these sources over a broad geographical and chronological range. It will substantially enhance the benefits of our existing separate projects while also creating an online resource that will offer a new perspective on eighteenth-century England for all interested researchers.
This grant will fund the costs of photographing and transcribing more than 400 petitions from six different jurisdictions, with collections chosen to align with the data created by the two other projects and taking full advantage of existing material. Specifically, this will include the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Hertfordshire, Staffordshire, Westminster, and Worcestershire. Gavin Robinson, who is currently working on our AHRC project, will undertake the transcriptions. It is on a much smaller scale than the AHRC project, so it will simply run alongside it in 2019-20.
The grant will also include the cost of partnering with the IHR Digital team to add these texts to the online editions of transcriptions being created for the AHRC-funded project, which will be published on British History Online. Using XML mark-up, the transcriptions will be easily searched or analysed by date, people, place and gender. The full texts will also enable Natural Language Processing to track textual patterns. Moreover, integrating the transcriptions into British History Online will ensure their discoverability and sustainability. Existing users of this well-known platform – which received two million unique visitors in 2017 – will be able to seamlessly search the whole corpus alongside the 1,289 volumes of historical material already on the site. With the combined support of the AHRC and the Economic History Society, we will create an entirely free digital resource which will make publicly available full transcriptions of approximately 2,500 petitions from c.1580 to c.1800 for use by researchers, students, teachers and others.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The London Region of U3As and Birkbeck’s ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’ will be collaborating in a Shared Learning Project from September 2019. All U3A members are eligible to apply to take part.
How could ordinary Londoners voice their complaints and concerns in an age of plague, fire and civil war? In the seventeenth century, one of the most common means was to send a petition. It was one of the only acceptable ways to address the authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, it was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. People at all levels of society – from noblemen to paupers – used petitions to make their voices heard. Some were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper; a few were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a vital source for illuminating the concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people and for catching a glimpse of their lives.
This U3A Shared Learning Project will give you the chance to use a large set of transcribed petitions from seventeenth-century Londoners as a starting point for exploring their lives and communities. Many of these documents include short autobiographical narratives about the petitioner and their circumstances, which can reveal startling details about the lives of our predecessors. The petitioners include many individuals such as prisoners asking for mercy, paupers requesting charitable aid and apprentices complaining about abusive masters. They also include some groups like the hackney coachmen seeking a monopoly and veterans expressing grievances about their treatment. Often much more information about these petitioners can be gleaned from the sorts of sources used by local and family historians such as parish registers and legal records. Exploring these histories as a U3A group will undoubtedly uncover a very interesting cast of characters.
The petitions have been collected and transcribed as part of a research project based at Birkbeck, University of London, and the academic project leader – Dr Brodie Waddell – will advise participants on the U3A Shared Learning Project. Training will also be provided by the London Metropolitan Archives and the Westminster City Archives to allow you to find out more about who these petitioners were, where they lived and why they spoke up. The project will run from six months from September 2019 to February 2020 and the results will be published online as a series of short pieces on the academic project website.
U3A Project Leader: Peter Cox
Academic Advisor: Dr Brodie Waddell of Birkbeck, University of London
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.
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.
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.
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 newpaper 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.
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.
Although our project is currently focused primarily on the seventeenth-century, one of the project team – Sharon Howard – is also undertaking her own research on eighteenth-century petitioning using material digitised by the London Lives project. In a new post on her blog, she presents some of her most recent analysis of ‘when and why petitioning mattered’ for the ordinary people of the metropolis.
Using the 10,000 petitions sent to London’s local magistrates between 1690 and 1800, she shows this sort of ‘everyday’ petitioning was far from static and unchanging across the period. Instead, there seem to have been spikes in petitioning in particular decades, a long-term decline in petitioning per capita, and a shift in the types of petitioners. Specifically, the proportion of women petitioners declined dramatically, the proportion of individual male petitioners declined more moderately, and the proportion of institutional petitioners – such as parishes – increased substantially.
‘The Power of Petitioning’ officially began as an AHRC-funded project in January 2019, but it has a long ‘pre-history’. In an earlier post on the Many-Headed Monster history blog, Brodie Waddell explains how the project came to be. He also discusses some of the lessons he learned while putting together the application and includes a link to the full text of the funding proposal which might be useful for other people seeking external support.