‘Exhorting and Persuading’: Petitions, rhetorical strategies and the burning of Tiverton

The next post in our Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Rebecca Tomlin, postdoctoral researcher at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. Here she examines responses to fires which burnt down much of the town of Tiverton in 1598 and 1612, showing how pamphlet descriptions contrasted with the petitions for aid that were recorded in official documents.

In 1598, when he reported on the recent disastrous fire in Devon, the writer of the pamphlet The True lamentable discourse of the burning of Teuerton told a story of terrible panic and distress that the fire had caused among the town’s inhabitants.[1] The fire, which started when two elderly women tried to use straw to cook themselves pancakes because they had no wood, spread rapidly through the prosperous market town, killing some one hundred people, destroying four hundred houses and property valued at £300,000 and £400,000. [2] The town was left without resources to shelter and feed its displaced inhabitants, who were also suffering what we would now describe as shock, and were left wandering on the outskirts of the town ‘more like Spirits and Ghostes then liuing creatures'(B2r). The writer emphasises the sensory qualities of the fire, particularly the noises and sights of the burning town and its aftermath to evoke horror in the reader, or listener; this is surely a pamphlet intended to be read aloud in terrible tones to a pitying audience. The disaster is blamed on Tiverton’s own ‘unmercifulnesse, & small regard of the poore, which were dayly seene to dye and perish in their streetes for lacke of reliefe’ (B2r) while the escape from the fire of twenty poor men’s cottages and the town’s alms houses is taken as proof of God’s providential intervention and intent.

tomlin-wofull-newsUnfortunately for Tiverton, it was revisited by fire in 1612. Another pamphlet was printed, which also incorporated a dramatic woodcut illustration of the attempts to fight the fire and a retelling of the story of the 1598 burning. The day of the 1612 fire, August 5th, was a holiday ordered by King James to celebrate his preservation from the Gowrie conspiracy. In Tiverton, an un-named dyer did not observe the holiday and put his boy in charge of the furnace so that they could continue to work. But the boy, eager to finish early so that he could join in with the holiday, stoked the fire too high and quickly lost control. This time the fire burned 300 houses, and some £50,000 worth of goods and animals were destroyed. Only the free school, the alms houses and some poor cottages were spared.

Wofull newes from the west parts England, Being the lamentable burning of the towne of Teuerton (1612) borrows much of its descriptive text from the 1598 account.[3] Further sensational descriptions are added, including some in terms which link the fire to the Gowrie conspirators; it is ‘a flame of confusion, a flame of subuersion, a spoyling flame (A4r). The fire is personified with intent: ‘a commanding Tyrant’ (A4v) which has ‘commanding power’ and ‘made conquest’ (B3v). As in 1598, the fire was interpreted as sign of God’s displeasure, in this case at the breaking of the Sabbath, and as a warning to other communities. In 1617 Thomas Beard included the story of the town in Devon that had twice suffered God’s displeasure in his The thunderbolt of Gods Wrath, adding that it was punished for rejecting a godly preacher and profaning the Sabbath.[4] The story of Tiverton and its two fires became an exemplary moral tale throughout the seventeenth century, used for example by a preacher taking his examples from Beard, and for a broadsheet compilation of the the ‘theatre of God’s judgement’ stories.[5]

What does all of this have to do with petitioning? Well, taking the two fires together we have a rare case where we can directly compare pamphlets and petitions which represent different ways of writing about the same disaster. The differences between the modes of writing in these different forms draw attention to the social and economic concerns of the petitions for large charitable collections made in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

‘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? Continue reading

The London Lives Petitions Project: What can you do with 10,000 18th-century petitions?

Our next post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been written by Sharon Howard, an early modern historian and a project manager at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield. Here she shows how use of a digital ‘macroscope’ can both reveal the changing nature of local petitioning in eighteenth-century London and make these documents more easily available to anyone with an interest in this important set of sources.

Last year at the Voices of the People symposium, Brodie Waddell argued the importance of amplifying the voices of the people through digitisation and online access. This, along with another symposium post by Jonathan Healey on petitions, got me thinking about the petitions addressed to magistrates in the voluminous records of eighteenth-century London and Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, which were digitised several years ago by the London Lives project.

Although already digital, these petitions have been difficult to access within the London Lives website because of the sheer size and variety of the Sessions Papers. I didn’t even know how many petitions there might be (other than “a lot”). The result of this musing was a plan to discover and extract every identifiable petition in the Sessions Papers, and make the resulting metadata and text corpus available as open data (more information can be found via the London Lives Petitions project website).

So: what can you do with 10,000 petitions? Here’s just one, a personal favourite, from Ester Cutler to the Middlesex Sessions in 1715:


Worthy gentellmen of the Court your humble petishnor Ester Cutler begs Consederacion being a Weddow Woman & nothing to live apon but what she can gitt out of Selling a few herbs so that she humbly desiers to be taken of that tax of paying to the poor your

humble petishenor

Ester Cutler

Ester and her petition offer much of compelling interest to me: she presents herself as a lone, poor, working woman, but a ratepayer, not (yet) a pauper. She could write, but far from fluently, and her spelling is idiosyncratic to say the least. I know that this petition is unusual: it’s rare for petitioners to write their own petitions and it’s missing much of the usual conventions and formalities. But just how unusual is it? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Shaping the ‘I’ and the State? Petitions in Early Modern Europe

Our first piece in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Andreas Würgler professor of Swiss history at the University of Geneva and author of several publications on early modern petitioning. He offers an overview of the role of petitioning across Europe at this time, focusing in particular on how they can reveal both the microhistories of individual lives and the broader history of the emergence of early modern states.

The petition of Margrete Liechtenstein (Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland, Sig. A 92.1, No. 69)

The petition of Margrete Liechtenstein (Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland, Sig. A 92.1, No. 69)

On 27 April 1583, Margrete Liechtenstein wrote a supplication to the Zurich city council. In her letter, she petitioned the authorities for a job as a teacher in the city’s school. She claimed that she sought this favour because she was a widow and mother having no income. Since her husband’s death three years earlier, her friends and ‘other good people’ had been supporting her and her three-year-old son. Margrete apologized for her shaky handwriting – which was not very likely to qualify her as a teacher – and explained that ‘fear and anxiety made my hand tremble, so I was not able to produce any single nice character while I was shaking all over as if I had a cold fever’.[1] But as she had ‘trained herself in reading and writing since her youth’, she would like to teach the children and earn her livelihood instead of depending on charity. The council decided to give her some grain, but did not consider her able to be employed as a school teacher.

This supplication is one among thousands shedding light on an individual’s fate and on the social strategies used to cope with hardship: only after relatives, friends and neighbours were not able to help any more did Margrete turn to the city’s authorities – and she got temporary assistance, but no lasting improvement of her situation. Millions of other ordinary people like Margrete addressed petitions to local or central, secular or ecclesiastical authorities. In an attempt to persuade the recipients, they both revealed personal information about their conditions of life and undertook an exercise in deliberate self-fashioning. As petitions and supplications were made in the most varied situations they record their authors’ needs and hopes, interests and experiences, attitudes and activities. Although these sources were written by ordinary people – mostly with a little help from a friend or a professional writer on a modest fee – state, church or other institutions dealt with them carefully – and preserved them in their archives. Some of these institutions even copied out orally presented requests and grievances into their registers.[2]

Continue reading

Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society

How can people without official political power push the authorities to act? Historically, one of the most common tactics was to present a petition or supplication.  In early modern Europe, petitioning was ubiquitous. It was often the only acceptable way to address local and national authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, petitioning was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’.

The Humble Petition of Jock of Bread (1648)

The Humble Petition of Jock of Bread (1648)

People at all levels of society – from noblemen and officeholders to paupers and prisoners to servants and slaves – used this tool in their efforts to have their voices heard. Some of them were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper addressed to local benefactors while 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 potentially unparalleled source of evidence for illuminating how people responded to the challenges they faced in an era of rapid social, political and economic change. Widespread grievances about religion, governance, trade, taxes, charity and many other aspects of early modern life have been preserved in these documents.

On 18 March 2016, historians and literary scholars gathered at Birkbeck to talk about the history of ‘addressing authority’. This was, we conjectured, one of the most vital ways in which the supposedly ‘powerless’ were able to speak to ‘the powerful’. Indeed, as we discussed at the workshop, studying petitioning can complicate and challenge the idea of a dichotomous relationship between ‘rulers’ and ‘ruled’ in early modern society. However, although the event was a wonderful experience, we wanted to widen the conversation further by presenting our thoughts in an open forum and inviting responses from anyone with an interest in the topic.

We have therefore decided to host an online symposium here on the Many-Headed Monster, following the success of previous events on ‘History from Below’ and ‘The Voices of the People’. We will be posting short pieces from the workshop’s participants over the coming weeks. They include broad panoramic appraisals and close analyses of specific cases.  Some posts focus on the tools, methods and theories that can be used to understand petitioning while others show what particular supplications can tell us about key moments in early modern history. Although most focus on British cases, there are also posts on petitioning in Nuremberg, Venice, the Netherlands and Europe as a whole. We hope that together they demonstrate the centrality of petitions in early modern societies, and remind us of their continuing power in both democratic and authoritarian states today.

A new post will be published every few days over the coming weeks. We begin with bird’s eye views of the broad landscape of petitioning across Europe (Würgler), England (Waddell) and London (Howard). Then we will zoom in on two very different types of petitions from women in England, specifically their mass petitioning about captured sailors in the 1620s-30s (Hudson) and their individual petitions about seized estates during the Civil Wars and Interregnum (Worthen). Next come three pieces on how petition-writers sought to use carefully crafted supplicatory techniques to encourage charitable alms-giving in English parishes (Tomlin), influence the secretive Venetian authorities (Antonini) or persuade the Dutch ‘public’ (Van Den Tol). Finally, the symposium focuses on the worrisome ways that petitioning might fail to spark ‘democratic’ politics in Scotland (Stewart) and might turn into a policy of surveillance in Nuremberg (Murphy).

The aim of this online symposium is not to present these pieces as a finished ‘publications’ for posterity. Rather we hope that they will serve as spurs to discussion. You are thus warmly invited to reply to these posts with your questions, comments, suggestions and critiques, or join the conversation on twitter via #AddressingAuthority.

  1. Andreas Würgler (Geneva), ‘Shaping the “I” and the State? Petitions in Early Modern Europe’
  2. Brodie Waddell (Birkbeck), ‘Was early modern England a petitioning society?’
  3. Sharon Howard (Sheffield), ‘The London Lives Petitions Project: What can you do with 10,000 18th-century petitions?’
  4. Judith Hudson (Birkbeck), ‘‘2000 wives’: Women petitioning on Barbary captivity, 1626-1638’
  5. Hannah Worthen (Leicester and The National Archives), ‘Addressing authority during the English Civil Wars: the petitions of ‘delinquent’ widows’’
  6. Rebecca Tomlin (Cambridge), ‘’Exhorting and Persauding’: Petitions, rhetorical strategies and the burning of Tiverton’
  7. Fabio Antonini (Birkbeck), ‘‘Prostrate before your most merciful feet’: A Venetian secretary’s plea for clemency, 1614’
  8. Joris van den Tol (Leiden), ‘Petitions and the duality of structure: Lobbying the seventeenth-century Dutch Atlantic’
  9. Laura Stewart (York), ‘‘Thair is na offence to supplicat’: presbyterians and petitioning in early Stuart Scotland’
  10. Hannah Murphy (Oxford), ‘Supplications and Civic Rule in Sixteenth-Century Nuremberg’
  11. Giacomo Giudici (Birkbeck), ‘Petitions, Information and Governance in 15th and Early 16th-Century Sforza Milan’
  12. Brodie Waddell, ‘Concluding thoughts’

Also, shortly after the launch of the symposium, two more pieces focusing on petitions appeared on other sites. In the first, Martin Almbjär examines ‘Petitioning parishes in Sweden in the Age of Liberty, 1719-1772’. In the second, Rachel Weil investigates ‘When Prisoners Complain’ by looking at the petitions of London prisoners in the early eighteenth century.

If referencing pieces published here, we suggest the following citation: Author, ‘Title’, in Brodie Waddell (ed.), Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society (2016).

We are grateful to the Royal Historical Society, the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities, the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, and Professor Julian Swann as Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice Master for Research, for providing the funding and venue for the workshop in March where these pieces were first discussed.