Our second post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium is authored by Brodie Waddell, a lecturer at Birkbeck. Here he attempts to assess the pervasiveness of petitioning in early modern England, and how it competed with other methods of lobbying and redress.
Petitions were everywhere in early modern England. The sheer number of petitions and supplications produced is impressive: about 800 a year sent to James I and 1,000 annually to Charles II; 850 to the House of Commons in the first nine months of 1660; scores every year to the magistrates of large counties such as Lancashire and the West Riding in the seventeenth century; and over 10,000 to London magistrates in the eighteenth century.[i] In addition, innumerable ‘unofficial’ petitions were sent from the distressed to charitable institutions, from tenants to landlords, and from private suitors to potential patrons.[ii]
Most were sent by individuals but many represented the views of organised groups and some were signed by tens of thousands such as those related to the intense political and religious struggles of the 1640s and 1679-80.[iii] Some reached a still broader audience through printing, with perhaps 500 published for a public readership in the 1640s and 50s, and more than 10,000 titles involving ‘petition’ published before 1800.[iv] So, even if someone didn’t join a petitioning campaign directly, they may well have supported it indirectly through buying a copy and spreading the word.
Moreover, beyond the numbers, the range of issues addressed in petitions was extraordinarily broad. Most supplicants sought ‘practical’ things such as employment, licences, titles, poor relief, judicial mercy and relief from taxes, yet others aimed at grander goals such as ecclesiastical reforms, political redress or constitutional changes.
This might lead us to conclude that early modern England – and perhaps Europe more generally – was a ‘petitionary society’ in which essentially everyone used petitions as their primary means of addressing those more powerful than themselves.[v] This would be a very convenient conclusion to reach for an event like this, and I believe there is some truth in it. Yet I would also like to raise a few reservations.
The Limits of Petitioning
There are at least three significant problems with assuming that this was a truly ‘petitionary society’.
First, the extraordinary diversity of documents labelled ‘petitions’ means that we cannot assume that they all served the same social function. What did a highly formulaic legal ‘petition’ to a local court have in common with a politically-charged mass ‘petition’ to Parliament?
On one hand, the differences between such texts may have been overestimated by some scholars. For example, although David Zaret suggests a fairly clear division between ‘traditional’ (private, individual) supplications and ‘modern’ (public, mass) petitions, in fact many ‘traditional’ requests were not as limited as he implies. Supposedly ‘humble’ petitions to county magistrates were often composed collaboratively, claimed ‘popular’ (if local) support, and drew on the language of ‘right’ and ‘law’.[vi] Likewise, some printed petitions were actually ‘discrete’ communications about ‘traditional’ issues, not ‘political’ appeals seeking a public audience.[vii] There was, then, a spectrum of different types of petitionary texts, rather than stark divisions. On the other hand, it would be misleading to claim that all self-declared ‘humble petitions’ fit within a model of society that assumed the pre-eminence of hierarchy and inequality. Despite their label, some were definitely not examples of ‘writing upwards’.[viii] Instead, some undermined rather than reinforced ‘vertical’ ties through egalitarian presumptions and appeals to ‘horizontal’ solidarities. Petitions could be distinctly unpetitionary.
Second, although supplicants came from a much broader social range than, say, authors of political tracts, the medium of petitioning was not equally accessible to all. How much did barriers such as illiteracy, age and gender impede the use of petitioning?
Such barriers did not necessarily exclude anyone at all. It is actually quite difficult to find any groups that completely lacked the ability to seek redress through this means. Quarter sessions papers are filled with examples of plaintive supplications from (or on behalf of) convicted felons, poor elderly women, young orphans, severely disabled paupers and many other individuals who would seem likely to be confined to the margins of early modern society.[ix] But how many others failed to send a petition? For a request to have any chance of success, the petitioner required some combination of economic, social and/or cultural capital in order to produce and deliver it. Someone – the petitioner themselves, a literate ally or a hired scribe – had to write the text, and that writer had to ensure that the text conformed to both legal requirements and cultural expectations. It then had to be delivered which could be a significant cost if the recipient was distant and the sender was poor, disabled or imprisoned. Attempting to reach the higher levels of government such as the crown or parliament could be very expensive indeed. Beyond these practical considerations, it also seems clear that the ‘credibility’ of the petitioner would be assessed according to notions of ‘worth’ and ‘repute’ that would have put most of the population at a distinct disadvantage when, for example, compared to a propertied, male householder.[x] All of this might seem rather obvious, but it is reminder that the undoubted prevalence of petitioning should not be mistaken for universality.
Finally, there were many alternative routes to influence, redress or advancement that did not follow a strictly petitionary dynamic. How did the ‘vertical’ appeals of the petition work alongside – or against – ‘horizontal’ strategies?
As noted above, it was far easier to send a petition than to publish a political tract. Moreover, most formal requests were much cheaper than launching a lawsuit and required less qualifications than voting in local or national elections. They were also substantially less risky – and thus much more common – than riots, rebellions, strikes or other forms of mass public protest. Nonetheless all of these alternative strategies were used frequently during the early modern period, showing that petitioning did not monopolise the circuits of power. In some cases, savvy complainants deployed a range of tactics concurrently, such as the commoners who struggled against the drainage and enclosure of the fenlands in the seventeenth century.[xi] More generally, there was an explosive growth in litigation, in which the contending parties – at least in theory and with some notable exceptions – had equality before the law.[xii] No matter how broad and diverse petitioning might have been, focusing too narrowly on it alone obscures the ways in which many people were active participants in both petitionary and non-petitionary relationships. It was possible for a person to be a voter, an officer-holder, a rioter or a pamphleteer as well as a petitioner.
Superiors and Inferiors
So, is it useful to think of early modern society as one structured by the habit of petitioning? Despite the caveats outlined above, I still believe that the answer is yes. The other pieces in this symposium will present many reasons why we need to acknowledge the centrality of petitioning, but so I’ll conclude by merely highlighting one that strikes me as especially important.
This was a world in which inequality and hierarchy were praised as positive values and ingrained in the institutions of the day. The famous ‘Homily on Obedience’ (1547) set the tone for endless reiterations of this point. The world was divided into ‘superiors’ and ‘inferiors’, with constant reminders that true power was justly invested only in the former. Although the specifics of who was a rightful authority was sometimes in dispute – king or parliament? ministers or magistrates? – the underlying principle was rarely challenged.
As a result, for most people most of the time, it made sense to direct requests upwards as prayers to God and petitions to more earthly authorities. This became a mode of communication – and of thinking – used habitually in both daily life and in moments of mass mobilisation.
Petitioning was never comprehensive in reach nor uncontested in use, and it was certainly not homogenous. Yet it was channel that aligned rather well with the social, economic, legal and political systems of early modern England, so we should hardly be surprised at the vast current of voices that flowed along it.
Apologies for the minimal references. Full details of most of the items below can be found on the Bibliography of British and Irish History.
[i] Hoyle and Tankarde¸ Heard before the King (2006); Weiser, ‘Access and Petitioning’ (2000); Healey, Welfare (2014); West Yorkshire Archive Service at Wakefield, QS1; Sharon Howard, ‘The London Lives Petitions Project’.
[ii] Hindle, ‘Endowed Charity’ (2004); Houston, Peasant Petitions (2014).
[iii] Fletcher, Outbreak (1981), ch. 6; Knights, ‘London’s “Monster” Petition’ (1993); Knights, Representation (2004), ch. 3; Knights, ‘Roger L’Estrange’ (2008); Knights, ‘Participation and Representation’ (2010).
[v] Peterson, Reading Between the Lines (1992), ch. 3 (‘A Petitioning Society’).
[vi] Quarter sessions papers in various archives.
[vii] Peacey, Print, p. 279.
[viii] Lyons, ‘Writing Upwards’ (2015).
[ix] Healey, Welfare; Sokoll, Essex Pauper Letters (2001).
[x] Shepard, Accounting (2015).
[xi] Lindley, Fenland Riots (1982); Bowring, ‘Fens’ (2011). See also Laura Stewart’s post later in this symposium.
[xii] Brooks, Litigation (1998); Muldrew, Obligation (1998), ch. 8