The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England

Lead Research Organisation: Birkbeck College
Department Name: History Classics and Archaeology

Abstract

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. This study will be the first to examine petitioning systematically at all levels of English government over the whole century.

The project will create a valuable new resource by digitising and transcribing a corpus drawn from nine key collections of petitions held at national and local archives, totalling about 2,500 documents. This corpus, when combined with careful contextualisation, will allow the investigators to offer new answers to crucial questions about the major social and political changes that unfolded in this formative period. We will be able to examine the role of petitioning in specific moments such as the outbreak of civil war in 1642, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Exclusion Crisis in 1679-81 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. We will also be able to track how petitionary practices shaped - and were shaped by - long-term developments, such as the emergence of a politicised 'public sphere' and the vast expansion in the English state, by assessing how much petitioners' attention shifted from local to national authorities, and from individual to mass subscriptions. Such questions are central to understanding government and politics in this period, but they can only be addressed through methodical analysis of a substantial corpus of petitions.

This resource will make it possible to go beyond questions specific to petitioning by offering a new perspective on the nature of state authority itself. Current understandings of formal power structures in seventeenth-century England have been drawn primarily from the writings of theorists or officeholders. In contrast, petitions provide a view of authority 'from below'. They will allow us to reconstruct the outlook of people who lacked any official authority of their own. What concerns did they believe should be addressed by their superiors? To whom did they direct their complaints or requests? How did they adapt their rhetoric to fit with the changing political and ideological complexion of the state?

The transcribed petitions will be made freely available through a bespoke Institute of Historical Research website, augmented with contextual essays, and searchable by year, locality, sender, recipient, topic and response. So, while publications by the investigators will address the research questions above, other scholars will use this resource to pursuing further lines of inquiry. Moreover, this resource will also serve the needs of stakeholders beyond professional researchers. We will partner with two archives (Cheshire and London Metropolitan) and a large volunteer organisation (The University of the Third Age) to support lay researchers - such as local and family historians - working on this wealth of newly accessible material tagged by place and name. This project will therefore open up a new perspective on the seventeenth century for both scholars and the wider public.

Planned Impact

Just as petitions and supplications could be used by almost anyone in the seventeenth century, this project will offer tangible benefits to people with diverse backgrounds and interests. We will disseminate our findings in accessible formats to enhance public understanding of the history of authority, complaint and mobilisation. We will also give non-academics new tools for their own exploration of the past and offer them an expansive collection of previously inaccessible sources. The project will primarily focus on reaching lay researchers, but will also benefit students and archives.

The project will stimulate and support engagement with non-academics through a series of formal partnerships with the University of the Third Age (U3A), London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Cheshire Archives and Local Studies (CALS), the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), and the Raphael Samuel History Centre (RSHC). As detailed in our 'Pathways to Impact', we will reach our target constituencies through collaborative volunteer projects, archive outreach events, accessible online and print publications, and the integration of the new digital resource into a well-established infrastructure of online research.

People outside academia are increasingly undertaking historical research of considerable depth and breadth. Many of these are family historians, for whom pre-census resources are very limited. Our project will provide them with easily searchable details about thousands of individuals, including not merely names and locations but also further information about their lives and circumstances as recorded in the texts of the petitions themselves. The innumerable groups dedicated to reconstructing the history of their own local communities will similarly benefit from this new resource by allowing them to go beyond the usual sets of local records to uncover a broader range of stories and perspectives.

To engage with these groups, the project will collaborate with volunteers and archives. We will partner with U3A to launch a Shared Learning Project (SLP) through which a team of 15-30 volunteers, advised by the PI and supported by LMA training events, will use the transcribed petitions as a starting point for research on contemporaneous records. The U3A researchers will create brief biographies and local histories - each centred on a specific petition - that will be published on the project website, thus offering valuable context for other users and a fun learning experience for the volunteers. We will also partner with CALS and their affiliated volunteers to run a similar project there, advised by the PDR. This process of engagement and co-production will be strengthened through outreach events hosted by LMA and CALS to showcase the local stories captured in the petitions, and through a public event at the RSHC where we will launch the online resource.

Exploring the role of petitioning in seventeenth-century society - and the petitions themselves - can also contribute significantly to formal historical education, especially at Key Stage 5 (A-Level) and undergraduate level. Many of the existing resources relating to the early modern period continue to present the seventeenth century through a top-down political narrative. Students and their teachers therefore have much to gain from our project, which will enable them to approach British history in this period 'from below'.

Archives and repositories - the institutions that provided the raw material for our project - will also benefit. We will supply them with the newly-created metadata to enhance their catalogues at 'item' level. On the project website, we will also highlight the wider range of material they hold so as to promote public awareness and use of their collections. This will be undertaken through the formal partnerships with LMA and CALS as well as informal cooperation with the other six repositories.

Publications

10 25 50