Voices of the Disgruntled: ‘Green-Ink Letters’ in Elizabethan England

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Jonathan Willis, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Jonathan uses some rather intriguing letters found amongst the Elizabethan State Papers to raise some crucial questions about the relationship between eccentric individuals and the wider culture they belong to – what we might term the ‘Menocchio question’ .

Jonathan Willis

A few years ago, I stumbled across an interesting letter in the Elizabethan State Papers. I would say that it was ‘by accident’, but it wasn’t really, as I was actively looking for references to the Ten Commandments, as part of the monograph I’m currently writing on the reformation of the Decalogue. Still, I wasn’t exactly expecting to find what the calendar compliers described as ‘two letters to the Queen from Robert Banister, a great quoter of Scripture, yet mighty vehement against some Puritans who plagued him’, and which the caption on the letter itself (dated 1578) records as ‘two letters to Queen Elizabeth by Robert Banister a Religious mad-man, who seems to have concedid great indignation against the Puritans his prosecutors’.[1] Banister’s letters were written in black ink, but otherwise seem to fit the modern definition of a letter written by a card-carrying member of the green-ink brigade, which one website defines as:

a particular kind of letter writer, who claims that he is the victim of some injustice, or who composes long and vehement complaints against a person or an organisation, or who believes that a numerical calculation based on the name of the Prime Minister shows he’s an agent of the devil, or who is sure that invisible rays are being beamed into his house by his next-door neighbour to cause him injury, or who puts forward a thesis which, if adopted, will lead inevitably to world peace.[2]

Banister’s letters contained a request for the queen to grant him permission to publish a treatise designed to clear his name from puritan accusations that he was a member of the secretive radical sect, the Family of Love. Banister may in fact have been a familist – his letters are ambiguous. He refers scathingly to ‘the phamily of lewde love’, and claims that never to have been ‘acoynted with any of that sect’, but he also described the puritans as a ‘vile, & most faulse family’, and spoke repeatedly of ‘gods love’. What is clear though is that, familist or no, Banister was a rare Elizabethan antinomian – that is, somebody who rejected the authority of the moral law, or Ten Commandments. His attack on his puritan persecutors was based on the fact that they were pharasaical legalists, ‘English Jues … that spie moses motes in every eye’. Attempts to trace Banister in all the usual locations – parish registers, ODNB, ESTC, CCED, lists of university alumni, etc. – have so far proved fruitless. (If any reader has come across him in another context, I’d be very happy to hear about it!). Still, in a way Banister’s anonymity opens up as many possibilities as it closes down. It seems to suggest that, other than his extraordinary views, expressed in these startling letters, he was an ‘ordinary’ person.

Before I present some more examples of such ‘Green-Ink Letters’, I’d like to spend a little time thinking about precisely what we mean, when we talk about the ‘voices of the people’. In a series of posts on the many-headed monster in early 2015 (see here for part I, part II and part III), Brodie provided some useful context on what early modern men and women understood by the term ‘the people’. Very often, it turns out, contemporary authors used the term to talk about people other than themselves: the laity, the governed, the commons, the workers, the (subordinate) majority (as opposed to the privileged minority), although occasionally the term could take on a broader sense, encompassing the whole nation. Our tendency as historians, Brodie observed, is perhaps to use ‘the people’ ‘as a catch-all term for those below the elite … a convenient replacement for “plebeian”’.[3] However, he continued, we should also be careful not to use the term in ways that would have seemed alien to early modern men and women.

This is a useful warning. In this short post, I’m not going to prise open any further the can of worms relating to whether or how contemporaries understood the phrase ‘the people’, but I do think it is important for us as historians to interrogate what we mean by it. Today, I think, ‘the people’ has connotations of bill-of-rightshomogeneity, solidarity, democracy, and commonality. We might not think so readily of the voices of ‘the people’, as of their voice, singular, commanding our attention and respect, as we strive to rescue it from the unjustness of what E. P. Thompson labelled the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. In the wake of the 2015 UK General Election, however, in which a conservative majority government was elected with just 36.9% of the popular vote, it is very clear that we need to look beyond notions of a singular popular voice, and strain our ears to hear the full diversity of the voices of the people.[4] In other words, to try to listen to everybody at once is at worst impossible, and at best misleading, as the voices of quieter individuals are drowned out by the louder and most strident. It could be more productive, I would like to suggest, to try instead to listen to the voices of just some of the people. To sit one down quietly, interrogate them, and move on. Stand in line, and form an orderly queue. Keep it down, please. Next!

That, in a nutshell, is what I hope in time to do with the Elizabethan green-ink brigade. This is a fledgling research project (I need to finish the book I’m writing before I can properly begin!), but I gave a speculative talk about it a few months ago at our departmental research forum. One colleague cut right to the heart of the matter with what he termed the ‘Menocchio question’. Menocchio, of course, was the Milanese miller, whose examinations for heresy formed the central piece of evidence in one of the greatest ever works of microhistory, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Miller.[5] Every time we write about an extraordinary individual, cheese_16x9research a particularly well-documented community, or choose an especially rich and evocative case-study, we have to ask ourselves a question: what is the value of an insight drawn from the extraordinary, or the atypical? How relevant are conclusions based on a single, well-documented example, to the rest of early modern society? How far can we apply the conclusions drawn from Wrightson and Levine’s analysis of Terling to other English villages? How representative are the autobiographical outpourings of Nehemiah Wallington of the spiritual torments experienced by others in the godly community? The answers, of course, are that we can’t, and that they are not, at least not in any straightforward way. We cannot pretend, much less assume, that the voices of individuals or individual communities speak for the wider community, or for the nation. That assumption, surely, is only a slightly worthier manifestation of the same enormous condescension of posterity against the propagation of which Thompson so importantly warned us.

That brings me back to my green-ink letters. These documents are problematic in a whole series of respects. They are written by a disparate group of individuals, some of whom, such as Miles Fry, who claimed to be the secret offspring of Elizabeth I and God himself, clearly had a tentative grasp on reality. They are also extraordinary, because they survived, whereas many letters written by these kinds of ‘ordinary’ men and women – people who did not have secretaries, wealth, or personal archives – did not. These letters survived because they were sent to, and retained by, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s principal adviser, where they eventually entered the English State Papers as part of the Lansdowne Collection. As such, the letters represent at least two agendas: the agenda(s) of the letter writer, but also the hidden agenda of Burghley, who read, selected, preserved, and archived just over one hundred such letters. It is important therefore to recognise that a seemingly random group of epistles was in fact deliberately retained from a much larger number, and formed into a highly specific collection. What do they have in common? That is something I am still trying to work out, but broadly speaking, most of the letters concern some sort of suspicious activity or language, and are addressed either directly to Burghley or the queen. It is impossible to know if Burghley ever replied to any of these letters, but my suspicion is that he did not: they were simply retained, just in case the sender turned out to be a person of interest, or became involved in some more serious or threatening activity.

That therefore leaves the question: what is the value of these green ink letters? First and foremost, they literally give us a chance to hear the voices of a group of people we would never otherwise know existed; the disgruntled, the eccentric, the oddballs of Elizabethan England. But their gripes and eccentricities also give an insight into broader concerns, into the sorts of issues that vexed all sorts of people in early modern England, and into the ways in which they might seek to understand and even seek redress for the injustices which life could thrust upon them. Furthermore, these letters also give an insight into the paranoia of the Elizabethan state which, we must assume, carefully filed them away for a reason. Let me give one last detailed example to illustrate this. In 1587, a man named William Darbishere wrote to Cecil, to try to clear his name. Darbishere’s father had, apparently, died more than £150 in debt, debts which his sons as executors of his will were unable to pay. It may be that some of these debts were owed to the Earl of Leicester, as Darbishere spoke of his attempts to curry favour with the peer, his disgrace at having failed, and that his family had prejudiced Leicester not through malice, but through ignorance. He also referred to a trial and examination, frustratingly (for the contemporary historian), ‘so thoroughly known as I need not to enlarge it any further’. Clearly desperate to establish his honest name and reputation, Darbishere had an extraordinary offer for Cecil, ‘for the keeping of lies or writings not fit to be knowen to any others then shall seame fit by your honor to thend your honor may more fully knowe my truth, care, & diligence for that I serve.’ It seems unlikely that Cecil ever took William Darbishere up on his offer to secretkeep safe the secrets of the realm, but this sorry tale speaks to the crippling effects of debt on families and individuals, to the importance of establishing credit and a good name, to the importance of patronage and clientage networks, and to both the perception and reality of an Elizabethan state paranoid about secrecy, and the behaviour of its citizens. William Derbishere’s voice can hardly be taken as representative of the people as a whole, but if we listen to it carefully it can still tell us much about life in Tudor England.


[1] Lansdowne MS. Vol/99.4, f.8.

[2] ‘Green-ink letter’, http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-gre5.htm [accessed 13.05.2015].

[3] https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/we-the-people-1535-1787-who-were-the-people-in-early-modern-england-part-iii/ [accessed 13.05.2015]

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2015/results [accessed 13.05.2015].

[5] The English edition was translated by John and Anne Tedeschi – it was published in 1980 by Routledge and again by Penguin in 1992.


5 thoughts on “Voices of the Disgruntled: ‘Green-Ink Letters’ in Elizabethan England

  1. These letters really force you to tackle these issues head on, don’t they? Many of these problems of ‘typicality’ are present in any surviving sources recording voices ‘from below’ from this period, including the petitions, depositions and letters discussed in many of the other posts in the symposium. But these extraordinary letters are more like heretical writings or seditious libels: they were preserved precisely because they were so ‘atypical’.

    For me, what stands out is the fact that they were sent at all. Irrespective of the content, their very existence tells us that even (or especially?) people on the fringes of early modern society –‘the eccentric, the oddballs’ – believed that the best way to gain redress for their grievances was to try to contact the Queen or her most powerful minister. They may have believed in the old tropes of hierarchy and obedience, but they certainly did not believe that the ‘ruled’ needed to be ‘silent’ or even ‘patient’ in the face of severe adversity.

    • Thanks Brodie, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head! As you say, the question of typicality, or how representative something is, is a constant thorn in the historians’ side. The more ‘interesting’, rich and detailed a source is, the more we are attracted to it, but such sources are few and far between, and so can hardly be considered representative. We’re then forced to ask the question: is this what everybody else was thinking, and this person just happened to write it down, or are we dealing with something completely out of tune with prevailing attitudes or beliefs? I suppose I get around this in the same way as most historians – firstly, if we can multiply the number of examples we can start to build a case for something being representative of wider views, even if the overall quantity evidence is still small comparative to the number of people in early modern England. And secondly, even if the specific of a source can’t be deemed representative, the general parameters within which the source is framed give us some clue as to the social and cultural milieux that informed the mental world of the author.

      As for the fact that these letters were ever written and sent in the frist place – yes, it’s fascinating! As your post and other scholarship has shown, the culture of peitioning those in positions of authority to seek redress was a common practice, and I suppose these letters are in that mode of thinking, but they do differ rather in the sheer gumption required to write to the queen herself! I wonder whether other monarchs attracted similar ‘green-ink’ letters, and it’s just thanks to the thorough record-keeping of Burghley that we have this sample from the reign of Elizabeth?

      • Yes, I’m struggling with some of these same issues in my attempt to figure out what Joseph Bufton can tell us about late 17th-century England. Thanks to the microhistory, we now have lots of tools to address ‘typicality’, but its still difficult to feel confident drawing conclusions.

        Regarding the fact they were addressed to the Queen, I think this may have been more common than I’d previously assumed. Richard Hoyle found that James I received 700-800 petitions a year and Brian Weiser found that Charles II received c.1,000 a year in the 1660s (source). I wonder how many of these were from ‘madmen’?

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