Addressing authority during the English Civil Wars: the petitions of ‘delinquent’ widows

The next piece in our Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been authored by Hannah Worthen, completing her doctorate at University of Leicester and The National Archives. She argues here that war widows’ petitions cleverly used established stereotypes about humility and poverty to press their cases, while also sometimes boldly asserting their political autonomy from their late ‘delinquent’ husbands.

In July 1645, a few months before Charles I surrendered to the Scots at Newark and brought the first Civil War to a close, Elizabeth Warner sent a petition to the Parliamentary Committee for Compounding with Delinquents. This committee had been set up to manage the confiscated estates of Royalists and to allow them to regain their estates for a fine. Elizabeth’s offence was that she had been discovered to have been sending letters to the wife of Colonel Thomas Blagge who was then governor at Wallingford House: a garrison being held for the King.

SP 35

Elizabeth asserted in her petitions that the letters were sent to ‘her antient & intimate friend’ and that ‘there past no thing but Civill Complem[en]ts’ in them. Despite this, she was suspected for a Royalist and her estate was seized by the sequestrators. In the final part of her petition she wrote she ‘submissively begs’ that ‘she may be freed of this Brand’.[1] Elizabeth was just one of many widows who were ‘branded’ with delinquency because of their own actions or the actions of their husbands. They used the petition in order to lobby Parliament for the return of their lands.

The majority of the business of the Committee for Compounding with Delinquents was dealing with men who had fought for the King. They too sent in their petitions to the Committee in order to be able to pay a fine to regain their estates. Rachel Weil examined these men’s petitions and found very few claimed to be entirely innocent, but many emphasised outward actions, such as providing financially to Parliament, in order to lessen their fine. She admits, nevertheless, that ‘women will need to be considered separately’.[2]

In contrast, when women petitioned the Committee several did boldly stress that they were not delinquents. In doing so they dismissed the accusations of Parliamentary agents and presented their own stories of loyalty. This risky strategy was couched in the terms of humility and supplication that were familiar to petition writers. Assertions of poverty and being a ‘poor distressed widow’ were commonplace in these petitions. They needed to convince the Committee that they were not a threat and also deserving of their leniency. For many these claims were probably genuine. Parliament had ordered that estates worth less than £200 a year were to be discharged without a fine but that practice does not seem to have been universally followed. Mary Dalby’s husband had fought at sea for the King and her small estate of negligible value was confiscated. She put in her petition that she and her children were ‘wanting both food to eate and Clothes to putt on’.[3]

However, it was not just widows who might be materially described as poor who invoked this sort of narrative. For example, Lady Elinor Hastings begged the Committee ‘to grant reliefe to her and her three small children which absolutely must starve’ as she had ‘not a penny to buy them breade and being altogether vnable to mayntayne them’.[4] In the same petition Elinor asserted that her husband’s sequestered estate was worth £1,400 a year. Language of starvation and famine, irrespective of class, was also used in descriptions of war widows in print. A Civil War pamphlet described war widows at the gates of Westminster as ‘suffered to starve for want of bread’.[5] Yet, male supplicants could also invoke language of desperation and poverty in their petitions. The petition of Hugh Henn, a former page of the king’s bedchamber, described how following the sequestration of his lands he was left ‘in a very sad condic[i]on & his Children & Grandchildren like to be exposed to much Penury and want’.[6] It is difficult, therefore, to assert that the language of poverty and desperation in war widows’ petitions was a gendered narrative. Despite this, it does seem likely that petitioners drew on wider cultural notions of the poor suffering widow in order to bolster their claims, gather sympathy, and reduce the confrontational nature of their request.

Lady Anne Bowyer protests here innocence in 1650

Lady Anne Bowyer protests her innocence in 1650

Claiming poverty was not the only tactic used by widows who had been deemed to be delinquent. Many of these women were submitting petitions because their husbands had fought for the King and subsequently died in that service. Therefore, their inheritance had been placed in the hands of Parliament. Some women were indignant that the actions of their husbands had somehow tarnished their own reputations. Anne Bowyer wrote ‘however her said Husband might deserve to have his Estate sequestred during his life, or untill he Compounded, yet yo[u]r Pet[itione]r hath not merited any such thing’.[7] Charlotte Stanley, Countess of Derby, petitioned Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector in 1654 after a protracted campaign to have her lands returned and claimed that ‘shee humbly conceives is the only woman that ever was Sequestred for acting on that side to w[h]ich her husband adhered’.[8] Unfortunately for the Countess, that was not the case. Many of the widows who presented their cases at Goldsmith’s Hall were there because of the decisions of their husbands.

Nonetheless, the Committee did seem unsure about how to link up the disloyal actions of one spouse with the allegiance of another and there are several cases where petitioners tried to exploit this ambiguity. Edward Panton had fought for the King at Edgehill but he asked to regain his lands for a reasonable fine because soon after this he ‘layd down his arms as he had promised’ before marrying a woman who was loyal to Parliament. He asked too that his new wife, Judith, may not be prejudiced by the actions that he committed before they married.[9] Lady Elinor Hastings also attempted to maintain that her loyalty was a separate issue to her husband’s. The petition claimed that she had suffered ‘cruell & unheard of vsage practized by yo[ur] peti[tioners] husband and his Confederates ag[ains]t her to the absolute hazard of her life’ and asked for access to their estates.[10] Another widow, Joan Heming, claimed that her own affections ‘have always been very real to Parliament’ and that she was ‘very sollicitous with her said husband to bee like affected’.[11] These petitions reveal that some female petitions were willing to imply discord between them and their husbands on matters of allegiance in order to appear more favourably in front of the committeemen.

Many Royalist widows also used specific language of loyalty such as being a ‘well-willer’ and ‘well affected’ to Parliament. These narratives were used alongside their own stories and all formed part of their attempt to use their petitions to remove the ‘brand’ of delinquency. However, those widows who had been charged with delinquency on the basis of their own actions could not just rely on these assertions. They used narratives of inner as well as outer convictions in order to persuade. Katherine More was accused of supplying the Garrison at Newark with some of her own goods. She pleaded with the Committee that she had only done this because soldiers were threatening her livelihood and so she had sent her goods on for their protection. She finished her petition by asking for a reduction on her fine because of ‘the smallnesse of the delinquency Charged vpon her’.[12] Katherine appears to have been negotiating with the Parliamentary Committeemen on their terms. She accepted that sending goods to a Royalist Garrison was enough to be punished but asked them to consider how slender the offence was. To further cement her position she submitted an oath that she had taken the National Covenant of loyalty to Parliament: something that was not required of female petitioners.

Anne Hughes has studied the records of the Committee of Indemnity which dealt with claims of malpractice by soldiers during the Civil Wars. She found that when people lobbied this Committee they presented themselves as loyal servants of the ‘public interest’ and that this language was largely shaped by the expectations of the Committee and of Parliament.[13] In a similar way, Weil wrote that one way to consider these petitions would be to ‘emphasize the power of narratives extracted by the state’.[14] The narrative tactics that were employed by many female petitioners echoed those of male petitioners and may have largely been used a result of the expectations of the government and the committeemen. Consequently, Royalist widows were presenting their narratives of loyalty in ways that were informed by how the government was propagating notions of who was and was not loyal to the State.

This does not necessarily make the narratives any less ‘true’ and nor should it lead historians to doubt the authorial contribution of the petitioner. Instead, it should be remembered that these narratives were constructed to be the most successful that they could be.  Consequently, the petitions used the expressions of humility that were expected of petitioners as well as bold assertions of entitlement to their lands. The trope of the poor suffering widow was invoked by many women, notwithstanding their class and status. The petitions also contained statements of loyalty through outward conformity alongside subtle denials of the way that Parliament had labelled the widows as delinquents.

They all used individual stories and narratives in order to regain their lands for these widows and their children. When addressing the authority of Parliament ‘delinquent’ widows used language of loss and loyalty, submission and request in order to regain what the Civil Wars had cost them.

And your petitioner will ever pray &c.

And your petitioner will ever pray &c.


[1] Petition of Elizabeth Warner, July 1645, The National Archives (TNA), SP 23/127, p. 735.

[2] R. Weil, ‘Thinking about allegiance in the English civil war’, History Workshop Journal, 61:61 (2006), p. 190.

[3] Petition of Mary Dalby, 28 Mary 1646, TNA, SP 23/79, p. 615.

[4] Petition of Elinor Hastings, [1645-1647], TNA, SP 20/10/37, f. 99r.

[5] B. Ryves, Micro-Chronicon (1647), p. 40.

[6] Petition of Hugh Henn, 24 October 1645, TNA, SP 20/11/10, f. 62r.

[7] Petition of Anne Bowyer, 6 November 1650, TNA, SP 23/70 p. 284.

[8] Petition of Charlotte Stanley, 14 July 1654, TNA, SP 23/230, p. 55.

[9] Petition of Edward Panton, 3 January 1646, TNA, SP 23/110, p. 816.

[10] Petition of Elinor Hastings, [1645-1647?], TNA, SP 20/10/37, f. 99r.

[11] Petition of Joan Heming, 18 May 1649, TNA, SP 23/212, p. 182.

[12] Petition of Katherine Moore, 16 February 1647, TNA, SP 23/198, p. 108.

[13] A. Hughes, ‘Parliamentary tyranny? Indemnity proceedings and the impact of the civil war: A case study from Warwickshire’, Midland History, 11:1 (1986), p. 69.

[14] Weil, ‘Thinking about allegiance’, p. 189.

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2 thoughts on “Addressing authority during the English Civil Wars: the petitions of ‘delinquent’ widows

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

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

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