‘2000 Wives’: Women Petitioning on Barbary Captivity, 1626-1638

Our next post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been written by Judith Hudson, an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. She looks here at how women used collective petitioning to push the English government into action in the early seventeenth-century.

In March 1626, the Duke of Buckingham, Admiral of the Fleet, was presented with the ‘humble petition of the distressed wives of almost 2,000 poor Mariners now remaining most miserable captives in Sally in Barbary’.[1]  The wives, with their ‘multitude of poor Infants’, requested that Buckingham intercede with the King for their husbands.  Throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English sailors in the Mediterranean, together with residents of coastal villages, were captured by North African and Ottoman Turk corsairs and sold as slaves in the markets of Algiers, Sallee, and other so-called ‘Barbary’ ports.  The experience of captivity became a collective one at this time, shared with the nation via testimony, sermons, and drama.  Numerous petitions seeking justice for the captives were laid before the Crown and Parliament by their local officials, their employers and priests.   The 1626 petition, however, was the first time that the wives of the captives would speak out.  For the next twelve years ‘distressed wives’ were to petition on a regular and organised basis.

Redemptionist Friars arriving to ransom captives: Pierre Dan, Histoire de Barbarie et de ses Corsaires (1637)

Redemptionist Friars arriving to ransom captives: Pierre Dan, Histoire de Barbarie et de ses Corsaires (1637)

Women had petitioned before as individuals, however a large group engaged in organised intervention seems to be something new.   In this post, which builds on an initial investigation by Nabil Matar, I’d like to suggest that the 1626 petition represents the start of a progression of collective female petitioning – women as a self-defined political lobby – that has usually been considered to begin in the years immediately preceding the Civil War.[2]  The ‘Civil War’ petitions, which include a diverse range of texts, from pro-Royalist petitions in 1642 to the Leveller petitions for the release of Lilburne and others, are frequently constructed as the corollary of a specific interlude of ‘female potentiality’, occasioned by the Civil War and by the rise of sectarian groups.  This is coded specifically as a new and radical engagement. [3]  However, well over a decade earlier, wives of ‘Turkish’ captives had organised themselves into petitioning groups to considerable effect. Was the Civil War really a unique catalyst, or can we see a similar dynamic in the Barbary texts of the 1620s?

‘[T]heir manifold masters’

Captivity was nothing new; in 1584, for example, William Harborne wrote to Walsingham from Algiers, imploring assistance for ‘our poor Christian brethren here in captivity.’ [4]   The problem escalated during the seventeenth century and on Charles I’s accession there were hundreds of recorded captives in Barbary states. This was partly attributable to the greater presence of English merchants in the Mediterranean, but equally, even as English ships came into Ottoman ports, corsairs from Morocco and the Regencies were acquiring the technology to allow them to make incursions into English waters. According to a report preserved in the State Papers, in April 1625 ‘a bark of Plymouth, chased by a Turkish man-of-war’ crashed ‘into St Mary’s Road’ in the Scilly Isles.[5]  The incongruity of this image masks the alarm it must have created on the English coast.

The following year, the first of the wives’ petitions appeared, and as the crisis deepened, these texts became the primary commentary on captivity during Charles I’s reign.  Who were these ‘distressed wives’?  For the purposes of their petitioning, it seems, that role was their only means of signification. Although some petitions contain individual names – the 1635 ‘humble petition of Clara Bowyer’ for example – by and large their force lies in their unassailable mass: ‘2,000 distressed wives’, ‘a thousand poore women’. [6]  The wives came together in London, yet it seems unlikely that they were all London women: lists of captives ransomed give places of origin that include Cardiff, Southampton and Hull. [7]   Similarly, we have no real information on authorship. Female literacy rates in this period (c.10 per cent) make it almost certain that these women did not write their texts, although they may have been involved in their composition.[8] The texts draw on similar, sometimes identical phrasing, even across gaps of almost a decade.  An allusion to the captives as subject to ‘the merciless crueltie of their manifold masters’, for example, appears in texts in 1626 and 1635.[9] Such a shared discourse of protest suggests that the petitioners of 1635 (assuming they were not all the same women) had access in some way either to the authors or the content of their predecessors’ work.

The 1626 petition to Buckingham was rapidly followed by a second text, directed at Parliament, on March 19, and a third to the Lords on March 24.  This ‘clustering’ of petitions, often referencing each other, is typical.  The rhetoric of the petitions is simple and direct, the texts rarely more than a few hundred words in length, yet this construction belies a highly effective deployment of cultural images. For example, running throughout the earliest ‘cluster’ is a motif of ‘want’: the petitioners’ children ‘wante of foode’; the Christian captives themselves ‘wante… of the spirituall foode of their soules.’ [10]  They construct the loss of these men as a national ‘want’ on a number of levels – the ‘want’ of ‘marriners’ for the nation, the smaller ‘want’ of their ‘industrie’ to their families, and the ‘want’ of Christian ‘soules’ to the English Church, for these men are ‘almost forced to convert from their Christian religion.’ The fact that the risk of conversion is highlighted throughout the petitions reflects the hold that this terrible prospect had gained on the national imagination. The figure of the convert, or ‘renegado’, fascinated English culture and as a type enjoyed far more literary and dramatic success than the captive – see e.g. Daborne’s A Christian Turned Turk (1612) and Massinger’s The Renegado (1623).

The key images of the petitions, then – the penurious wife, the captive husband and the spectre of the renegado – were familiar and resonant by 1626.  The wives’ texts display a powerful double structure: the deployment of these images of crisis, followed by a proposed solution to that crisis. In November 1635, for example, they addressed the Admiralty Commissioners, asking them to authorise the voyage of one Captain Bushell, who they had heard was ready to ‘adventure to fetch home … distressed persons’.[11]  There is evidence that the wives became increasingly integrated into the culture surrounding their captive husbands, sharing in the news that arrived with merchants returning from North Africa, and passing that information on to those they petitioned.  Moreover, their intelligence was, to an extent, influencing foreign policy – a 1635 petition relayed specific information from Sallee that the Morroccan King, ‘as the said subjects have beene informed will deliver them out of all captivitie if your majestie send an Embassador.’ [12] The diplomatic and naval activity that followed culminated in the 1637 assault on Sallee, with the liberation of large numbers of slaves.

Further, the vocabulary of the texts may signify the emergence of a specific female ‘voice’.  One example is worth consideration – in May 1638, a petition was presented to the King and Privy Council by the wives of men ‘who were lately taken in a Shipp called the Mary of London’.[13] These resourceful women had also persuaded the owners of the Mary to offer £100 in ransom, and to petition the King. [14]  The differences between the two petitions – that of the wives and that of the owners – are telling: the wives’ text draws on by now familiar tropes, the ‘intollerable servitude’ endured by their husbands, their own ‘extreame wantes’; while the owners’ narrative dramatises their ship’s encounter with ‘three Great Turkes men of warr’, presenting the captured men as heroes, ‘skillfull … & well-experienced’.  These contrasting presentations of the drama of captivity lend strength to the argument that the female petitioners had developed the rhetorical tools that they felt best served them.

‘a company of Gosops’

As we have seen, then, the wives’ petitions for justice were event-driven, politically informed, and deployed a specifically female rhetoric of protest to considerable effect. Why then are they consistently ignored by those writing on the ‘feminist’ petitions of the Civil War years, left stranded outside that space which Anne Laurence claims empowered women with ‘more opportunity to assert their views than before or after’?[15]

Examining the individual petitions constituting the Civil War group, we find they encompass a wider range of attitudes and ambitions than their treatment would imply.  They display the same ‘clustering’ pattern as the Barbary texts; the first ‘cluster’ occurs in late January 1642, with petitions presented by groups terming themselves ‘Gentlewomen and Tradesmen’s Wives’. These texts, including one presented by one ‘Mrs Anne Stagg, a Brewer’s Wife’, requested action on a number of issues, including the Irish situation and the ‘abominable’ practice of Mass in Henrietta Maria’s court. [16] However February 1642 saw a substantial group of women petitioning the Lords to enjoin that the Queen, who, it was rumoured, was intent on quitting the country, should stay in England.[17]  In August 1643, the War underway, female peace petitioners gathered at the ouse House of Commons.  Their petitioning culminated in violent scuffles around Westminster, in which a number of people are reported to have died.  Finally, September 1646 marked the onset of the last discrete grouping of petitions, the self-dubbed ‘Peticoat Petitioners’ of the Leveller sect, starting with Elizabeth Lilburne’s petition for the release of her husband John. [18] 

Ideologically, then, these petitions are marked as much by their differences as by their similarities.  Commentators, however, argue for a number of features that make these actions politically coherent.  One of the key measures used is level of opposition; the Civil War petitioners were frequently met with physical force and, more insidiously, with repeated slander in print. When the peace protestors lobbied Parliament in 1643, the Parliament Scout suggested disparagingly that ‘some 500 of them were whores’, while the Leveller women were described as a ‘company of Gosops … who shewed their petitions to everyone’.[19]

Conversely, a notable feature of the Barbary wives’ campaign was that it met with almost no hostility. Nabil Matar sees this as resulting from the petitioners’ self-presentation as ‘women who wanted to be wives again… women who confirmed the ideals of patriarchy.’[20] There is undoubtedly truth here, yet the later petitioners use similar constructs to present themselves: the ‘Anne Stagg’ petitioners write of their ‘Husbands and Children, as dear to us, as the Lives and Blood of our Hearts’; and much of the Leveller petitions’ rhetoric is predicated upon the destruction of the ideal of the household. In this formulation, the Barbary wives are possibly the most troubling group: although firmly and repeatedly identified as ‘wives’, their position is liminal; with their husbands’ whereabouts unknown, they are masterless lower-class women, a band of itinerant poor.  In fact when we look more closely, a key fear surrounding the War petitioners was not of women acting collectively – but of a male force behind that action.  Rumours abounded that the peace petitioners’ ‘company of women’ was in fact a mixed group, including Royalist ‘men malignants’ dressed in female attire, and the newsbooks were filled with ‘leads’ in this quest for truth. [21] The slander of the Civil War petitioners thus deploys a classic discourse of misogyny to direct what is in effect an attack on male political concerns. If we are to use level of opposition as an index of female radicalism, therefore, it becomes clear that we need also to analyse that opposition in context.

‘2000 wives’

A study of the captives’ wives’ petitions and the later corpus of texts thus destabilises the notion of that ‘corpus’ itself and our perception of the liberating ‘space’ created for women by the Civil War.  While there are differences between the Barbary petitions and the later texts, equally there are discrepancies, particularly of intent, between petitions that have hitherto been grouped together. In one way, the Barbary wives dismantle any perception of petitioning as a model of early liberation, for they present no claims to equality; yet in another they demonstrate women’s harnessing of a political right in an exemplary – and empowered – manner. All these texts negotiate with female political activity in different ways – to view them solely as the manifestation of a single impulse is to exclude that fact.

I’d like to argue, therefore, for a new model to describe women’s petitioning in the seventeenth century, one that recognises that there were certain sets of circumstances that made collective female petitioning both more necessary and more persistent than was the norm – but acknowledges that these occasions were multiple, and began at least as early as March 1626.  Women’s petitioning thus emerges as a more normalised activity, a right, but as a right that was employed in complex and compelling ways, all of which inform our beliefs about engagement with authority in the first half of the seventeenth century.

[1] The National Archives (hereafter TNA), SP 16/43/76.

[2] Nabil I. Matar, ‘Wives, Captive Husbands, and Turks: The First Women Petitioners in Caroline England’ Explorations in Renaissance Culture 23 (1997) 111-28; Patricia Higgins, ‘The Reactions of Women, with Special Reference to Women Petitioners’, in Brian Manning (ed.), Politics, Religion and the English Civil War (London, 1973).

[3] Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women (New York, 1981), p. 65.

[4] Calendar of State Papers Foreign Series 18, p. 330.

[5] Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1625-1626, p. 94,

[6] TNA, SP 16/306/85.

[7] John Dunton, A True Journey of the Sally Fleet with the Proceedings of the Voyage (London, 1637).

[8] Danielle Clarke, The Politics of Early Modern Women’s Writing (Harlow, 2001), p.24.

[9] Matar, ‘Wives’, p. 114 and TNA, SP 16/306/75

[10] TNA, SP 16/43/76.

[11] TNA, SP 16/301/66

[12] TNA, SP 16/306/85.

[13] TNA, SP 16/391/95.

[14] TNA, SP 16/391/97.

[15] Anne Laurence, Women in England 1500-1760: A Social History  (New York, 1994), p. 245.

[16] ‘A True Copie’ in The Harleian Miscellany (London, 1746) Vol.VIII, p. 567.

[17] See E.A. M’Arthur, ‘Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament’ EHR 24 (1909) p. 701.

[18] Thomason Tracts (hereafter TT), E.513(12).

[19] TT, E.64(13); E.554(18).

[20] Matar, ‘Wives’, p. 119.

[21] TT, E.65(11).


3 thoughts on “‘2000 Wives’: Women Petitioning on Barbary Captivity, 1626-1638

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

  2. Pingback: ‘Exhorting and Persuading’: Petitions, rhetorical strategies and the burning of Tiverton | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts | the many-headed monster

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