Was early modern England a petitioning society?

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]

The Apprentices of Londons Petition ... with the Names of about 30000 Apprentices (1641)

The Apprentices of Londons Petition … with the Names of about 30000 Apprentices (1641)

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?

A simple, formulaic petition from two Cumberland prisoners for release from the House of Correction, 1688

A simple, formulaic petition from two Cumberland prisoners for release from the house of correction, 1688

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.

A satirical ballad 'petition' from a husband to his wife to care for his bastard.

A satirical ballad ‘petition’ from a husband to his wife to care for his bastard.

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).

[iv] Zaret, ‘Petitions’ (1996); Peacey, Print and Public Politics (2013), ch. 8; English Short Title Catalogue.

[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


15 thoughts on “Was early modern England a petitioning society?

  1. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society | the many-headed monster

  2. re: Shaping the I and the State:
    Petitions used We as the pronoun of choice (and safety in numbers). Petitions from commoners were based on a beautiful sentiment: The King loves the people and wants to know their innermost thoughts. In England, there was once a reality behind the dreamy fiction: Henry VII did stop gentry teardowns/predatory acquisition of small holdings. The petitioners in Norwich (in the tragic summer of1549) recall this, nostalgically. But Kett and 23 shire representatives signed a petition as death warrant: Kett was eviscerated, hung from the battlements. As was his brother. Local magistrates ordered carpenters to build gallows executing the petition writers on a field with an estimated 3,000 slain commoners. Then as now, only very large numbers–a hypothetical 20% of the populace rather than 5% ? –would be able to unsettle authorities to the point that actual negotiation would be permitted. Most early modern petitions were steam, released for the satisfaction thereof.

    • I think you may have intended to post this on Andreas Würgler’s piece (and I’ve reposted it there), but it raises some issues that apply to my piece too.
      The use of ‘we’ is definitely common – though there are also many individual petitions for charity, promotion and mercy from ‘your humble petitioner’ – and often it is based on what’s been called ‘naïve monarchism’.

      The sorts of Tudor petitioning you mention – including Kett in 1549 as well as the Pilgrimage of Grace, etc. – typify two of the features I tried to highlight in my post: (1) Petitions aligned beautifully with the official and popular ideologies of the age which saw the king as a font of justice and protector of his weakest subjects, even if this was often not true in practice. (2) Petitioners were inherently limited by their subordinate position, which meant that ambitious collective petitioning (like Kett’s) could backfire. As you say, signing a petition left the petitioners vulnerable to punishment if things went wrong.

  3. Great posts Brodie! Really interesting question “But how many others failed to send a petition?” which got me thinking. Obviously, to find evidence about those who failed to submit petitions is incredibly difficult but I think it is important to always bear it in mind when surveying the petitions that do exist in archives. Also, in the case of the petitions that I research, those that survive in archives are usually those which were successful and therefore it brings the question of what happened to the rest of them? Were they not kept? Or were most of them actually successful anyway? It reminds us that the archival record has a big impact on the conclusions we make: something I have to keep on reminding myself!

    • Thanks, Hannah! Yes, evidence of those who decided to send a petition but were unable to actually get it written, delivered or read is likely to be almost impossible to find. However, there is a fair bit of evidence of *failed* petitions. For example, many original petitions to county magistrates include a note about whether they were accepted or rejected. I’ve seen plenty and I believe Steve Hindle and Jonathan Healey both talk about success rates in their work on pauper petitions. The material isn’t clear cut (surely many rejected petitions were not retained), but it can still give some insight into the limits of petitioning as a strategy.

    • To Hannah’s interesting question whether successful petitions are more likely to have survived than unsuccessful petitions? I’m not sure about that. In some cases we have registers lining up all incoming petitions or supplications. They show us that the registers just note the – positive or negative – decisions, but the supplications themselves are lost (given back to the authors?) regardless to their success or failure. (Erika Flückiger, Zwischen Wohlfahrt und Staatsökonomie. Armenfürsorge auf der bernischen Landschaft im 18. Jahrhundert, Zurich 2002).

      • Yes, thanks Andreas and Brodie! There is a similar situation with the Quarter Sessions petitions for military relief in the Civil Wars: the Order Books note successful cases but the actual petitions do not survive which is frustrating, It does raise the interesting possibility that perhaps some were presented orally and so never existed (although my supervisor disagrees with me on that!). I have never come across an Order Books note for an unsuccessful petition in this specific set of records, however, and so those are totally lost.

  4. Resources? Common purse for ‘communal’ petitions, but not all those for benefit of individuals, unless some wider benefit or perceived shared objective?

    • Yes, as you suggest, there were ways for groups of poor people to overcome their individual poverty by raising the needed funds through a ‘common purse’. There were also many paupers who would have had no money to pay for someone to write and deliver a petition for aid, but took advantage of the links of friendship, neighbourliness or paternalism to get someone else to do it for them. Still, there must have been many others who were unable to mobilise such support.

  5. Is there any relationship between N of petitions and N of local acts which might be explanatory of change (if there was one) in petitioning?

    • I don’t think we know enough about the chronology of petitioning yet, though I’m working on it! Once we have a better sense of when it was rising (definitely by the 1640s, but perhaps well before, see also Sharon Howard’s post) and falling, we can start to pick apart causation.

  6. I really like the point about petitioning happening alongside other, horizontal strategies of action — sometimes a petitioner is also a rioter, or a petition will quasi-apologize for but also explain the reasons for some much less respectful action that just happened (in a “sorry not sorry” kind of way) . I have an example sitting here in this pile of papers on my desk and will dig it out at some point.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rachel. I’d love to hear about the example when you dig it out!

      Glad to hear we agree about that. My one worry about my emphasis on the way petitioning could be used alongside other strategies is that it might give the impression that all these tactics were all equally likely or open to everyone. In fact, many people were far far more likely to send a petition than to take to the streets or even launch a lawsuit. Paupers, for example, seem to have had almost no avenues for recourse against parish officials except petitioning.

      • Personally, I prefer de Certeau’s distinction between strategies and tactics, but I had this disagreement with Pete King many years ago and so won’t press it (having just done so).

  7. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society – Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

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