The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England: The Long Road to a New Project

Brodie Waddell

How can people without official political power push the authorities to act? Historically, one of the most common tactics was to create a petition or supplication. Even today, every year hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens sign e-petitions addressed to parliament which can lead directly to high-profile debates in the House of Commons.

In seventeenth-century England, petitioning was ubiquitous. It was one of the only acceptable ways to address the authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, it was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. People at all levels of society – from noblemen to paupers – used petitions to make their voices heard. Some were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper; others were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a vital source for illuminating the concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people and also offer a unique means to map the structures of authority that framed early modern society …

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That was our pitch to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a grant of nearly £250,000. To my surprise and delight, they liked it.

So, from January 2019, I’ll be running a project looking at ‘the power of petitioning in seventeenth century England’. The co-investigator is Jason Peacey at UCL and we will hire a full-time postdoctoral research associate for twelve months as well. There will be much more information available once we have the project website up and running, but in the meantime I thought I’d announce it here and explain how it came to be. I hope it might be useful, or at least interesting, to other scholars thinking about their own projects.

I’ve been intrigued by early modern petitions for at least a decade. I first became fascinated while researching my PhD, as they seemed like a particularly good example of how ideas of paternalism played out in social and economic relations. I initially focused mostly on printed petitions – because these were easily accessible and because their rhetoric was easier for me to decipher – but as a postdoc in 2010 I started gathering examples of personal petitions sent to local magistrates in the West Riding and Hertfordshire which survived in large numbers in their county archives. In the book which emerged from my PhD, I used quite a few of these petitions – both printed and manuscript – in one particular chapter, but I didn’t really get a chance to focus on them as a source in their own right.

After getting my job at Birkbeck, I decided I wanted to try to take this further and I was lucky enough to get a small grant from the Economic History Society in 2014 which covered the travel costs of me running around to a bunch more county archives to gather broader samples of petitions, giving me a much better sense of how many of these sources had survived and what I might find in them. I found this ‘pilot’ study incredibly useful and it laid the foundation for my AHRC application.

More recently, I helped organise a couple of workshops and online symposiums here at the Monster which focused on concepts of popular speech and supplication: ‘The Voices of the People’ in 2015 and ‘Addressing Authority’ in 2016. Last year, I was also lucky enough to join the organising committee of the ‘Petitions and Petitioning’ research network, which is running workshops in Durham, Leiden and Birkbeck in 2018-19. These events and discussions helped me to refine my thinking about petitions, expanded my knowledge of cognate sources, and gave me a chance to meet a bunch of brilliant, energetic scholars with overlapping interests.

I started writing the grant application in early 2017, beginning with some rough material from a previous failed application for a different scheme. I was warned then that it could take a year from conception to submission, but I didn’t quite believe it. Turns out, she were right. The application involved lots of thinking and writing, but much more time consuming was the communication and coordination with all the other people involved: planning with my co-investigator, budgeting with two university grants offices, negotiating partnerships with archives and institutions, sorting out the ‘technical report’ on digital outputs, soliciting much internal peer-review, and of course yet more budgeting. As a result, the grant was submitted in early 2018, only days away from my hard deadline when my AHRC ‘early career’ eligibility would have ended.

So, what have I learned? Well, you should take my conclusions with a huge grain of salt because so much of this depended on luck. My status as a white guy in a permanent post at a research-intensive university probably helped too. But, that said…

1) Start early. Laying the groundwork through the pilot project and various workshops was really important for me, ensuring that I had firm sense of the existing scholarship and the nature of the sources. Likewise, as noted above, the actual process of putting together the application took nearly a year, and it still felt rushed at the end.

2) Find allies. This couldn’t have happened without the support of all the other people involved, even before I started writing the application. The workshops were such a success thanks to my co-bloggers Mark, Laura and Jonathan, as well as my colleagues at the time, Laura Stewart, Rebecca Tomlin, and Susan Wiseman. The application itself benefited immensely from feedback from fellow Birkbeckers who generously read through it – Julia Laite, Filippo de Vivo, Vanessa Harding, Frank Trentman, and Julian Swann – and from Rachel Grafham who ran the numbers. And, of course, my co-investigator Jason helped to develop the proposal from the beginning. Finally, the fact that Charlie Turpie at the London Metropolitan Archives, Lisa Greenhalgh at Cheshire Archives, Jo Walters at U3A, Philip Carter, Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono at IHR Digital, and Julia Laite at the Raphael Samuel History Centre were willing to lend their support as ‘Project Partners’ showed that it was more than a merely intellectual exercise.

3) People are expensive. Maybe it is obvious, but paying for the time of highly-trained scholars is almost certainly going to be the biggest expense in a grant like this. The biggest item in our budget was the full-time research associate, followed by my time (0.3FTE) and then Jason’s (0.15FTE). The costs of events, travel and even the star digital ‘output’ were minor in comparison. This is partly due to our salaries of course, but mostly thanks to all the ‘indirect costs’, ‘estates’ and other opaque extras that institutions add to any direct salary costs. I found a good rule of thumb is to double your salary to get a starting figure for your ‘cost’. What this means, in practice, is that unless you are going for £500K pounds or more, you probably aren’t going to be able to pay for even a single year of full-time research leave. When the maximum for the ‘early career’ route is £250K, options are limited.

4) Follow your gut. I never would have got the beast of an application submitted if I hadn’t cared deeply, one might say obsessively, about the subject. Believe me, I could bore you to tears with my current passion for the minutiae of local petitioning practices in early modern England. Although I tried very hard to avoid delving into the details in the application itself, I could never have found the energy to put together the proposal if I wasn’t an over-eager evangelist for the historical importance of petitions.

For those of you who want to see how all this turned out on the page, I’ve uploaded here the main part of the proposal itself: Waddell and Peacey – AHRC Research Grant application – The Power of Petitioning (2018). (This is a near final draft, but a couple minor things were adjusted afterwards in the online form itself.) I hope it might be helpful for other people, particularly those with less robust support networks at their institutions.

If this has whetted your appetite to hear more about early modern petitioning, you shouldn’t have to wait long. We are hoping to advertise for the twelve-month research associate soon and we are aiming to have a project website ready early in 2019. You can also find innumerable examples from the history of petitions on twitter through #AddressingAuthority.

To close, here’s one of my favourites: ‘A Petition to the Petitioners’ during the Popish Plot scare of 1680. It seems the seventeenth century couldn’t get enough of petitions…

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England: The Long Road to a New Project

    • Yes, that’s a key question for us. We’ll be comparing petitioning to litigation, riot, libel, etc., and also looking for cases where these are used together. We don’t want to pretend that petitions were the only tool that mattered in early modern social/economic/political relations!

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