This free content was born digital and sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The cost of photography, transcription and editorial work was funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Research Grant: ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’ (AH/S001654/1). CC-NC-BY.
Petitions in the State Papers Domestic, 1600-1699
In seventeenth-century England, people seeking redress for grievances or favour for loyalty could submit their requests to the highest authorities in the land. The Stuart kings – and their equivalents during the interregnum – were popular targets for petitioners. As heads of state, their jurisdictions were vast and their visibility unmatched. They would have received many unwritten ‘petitions’ from individual suitors in-person, especially less formal appeals from courtiers and other well-connected elites. However, they also received an endless stream of paper petitions from across the country and beyond on an infinite variety of matters. This volume includes transcriptions of a sample of 387 petitions submitted to the monarchs and their close advisors.
A truly diverse range of people addressed their requests to the kingdom’s highest authorities. Within this sample, about 70 percent came from single individuals and another 13 percent came from small groups of named individuals. A relatively high proportion were gentlemen, knights or titled peers of the realm. However, the majority were men and women of middling status, along with some lowly individuals such as William Romny, a ship’s carpenter’s mate, and Thomas Rogers, a farm labourer suffering ‘great poverty’. Almost one in ten came from women, again ranging from aristocrats to poor widows. Institutions and collective bodies also petitioned the king, including trading companies, town councils, and royal tenants. These amounted to about 17 percent of the items in this volume, with some taking the form of unofficial lobbies such as ‘the wholesale tradesmen of London that frequent the two annuall faires at Bristoll’ and ‘the poore fishermen of the cinque ports’. In most cases, the petitions transcribed here were not written directly by the petitioners themselves, but rather by an experienced scribe, whether professional or amateur. They may also have been advised by friends, family or a lawyer. However, the petitioners would have helped to craft the text and, in some cases, they subscribed their names underneath. Ultimately, the precise authorship is often unclear, so the petitions must be read and used with suitable caveats.
Most of the petitions in this volume were addressed to the men at the pinnacle of seventeenth-century government. However, the nature of the State Papers collection from which the sample was drawn means that some petitions to other entities were also included. Over two thirds of these petitions were addressed to the King, the Queen, the Privy Council, the Secretary of State, or – during the interregnum – the Lord Protector or the Council of State. About four percent were addressed to Parliament or the House of Commons specifically, all of which dated to the 1640s, 1650s or 1690s. Almost a quarter directed their requests to other officials in central government, including many submitted to Charles I’s Lords of the Admiralty or their later equivalents and smaller numbers to key officeholders such as the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, the Lord Chamberlain or the Lord Treasurer. Finally, about three percent of the total in this volume were addressed to local officers, who may have passed the petitions on to their superiors. There were, for example, two requests submitted to ‘the committee of safety’ for Warwickshire in 1646, that ended up in the State Papers transcribed here.
The breadth of the jurisdictions of the authorities who received these petitions ensured that a vast range of requests can be found in this volume. More than one third of the sampled petitions were requests for royal offices, pensions, land, tenancies, or similar favours. These included posts in the established church and in the military as well as an array of other potentially lucrative positions. Along with straightforward requests for money or property, some sought mitigation of taxation or less precise forms of favour such as diplomatic aid. In addition, about one in ten petitions in the sample asked for wages or reimbursement based on positions they already held or services they claim to have done for the crown. It is not always possible to distinguish between petitions seeking reimbursement for legitimate expenses and those seeking a special financial grant. Another third of the sampled petitions were related to recent or ongoing legal cases. Most of these were requests for royal mercy or pardon, which included common felonies, political crimes, civil complaints and fiscal offences. A smaller proportion sought royal arbitration in private legal disputes or asked for justice against alleged malefactors. Another substantial set of petitions – about twelve percent of the total – were those requesting privileges related to trade and industry, including both licences to pursue specific commercial activities and royal monopolies to protect existing enterprises. Unsurprisingly, many merchant companies tried to win royal favour for their schemes though this means. Finally, about seven percent of the sample did not fit easily into any of the proceeding categories. These included petitions from military officers asking for essential supplies, individuals asking for passports to allow them to travel overseas and a handful of requests for the restoration of lost aristocratic titles.
All these documents are held at The National Archives at Kew, London. They can be found in the huge collection of manuscripts known as the State Papers, which is primarily composed of the surviving papers of the Secretaries of State. The collection has many gaps and early preservation was haphazard, so it provides nothing like a complete record of all the petitions received by these officials in the period, but it includes enough material to construct reasonably extensive sample of surviving petitions to the central government from across the whole seventeenth century.
This sample was created by simply transcribing the first four surviving petitions for each year from 1600 to 1699, based on the Calendar of State Papers Domestic. This means that most of the items date to the first few weeks or months of each year. There were also some years for which less than four petitions survived, especially towards the end of the period when officials seem to have begun more regularly copying the core texts of petitions into entry books and discarding the original manuscripts. Because of the unevenness of the State Papers themselves and the simplistic sampling method used here, the items in this volume should not be assumed to be closely representative of all petitions submitted to the central authorities across the seventeenth century. Previous work by R.W. Hoyle and Brian Weiser has shown that perhaps 700 to 1000 petitions were submitted to the Stuart kings every year, so the sample is merely a tiny sliver of the total. However, it is hoped that it nonetheless offers a suitably broad selection for further study.
The cost of archival photography, transcription and editorial work was funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Research Grant: 'The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England' (AH/S001654/1).
The petitions were collected by Sharon Howard. They have been transcribed by Gavin Robinson. All images and transcriptions have been published courtesy of The National Archives at Kew. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions.
For analysis of petitions to the crown in this period, see Brian Weiser, 'Access and petitioning during the reign of Charles II' in Evelyn Cruickshanks (ed.), The Stuart courts (2000); R. W. Hoyle, ‘The Master of Requests and the Small Change of Jacobean Patronage’, English Historical Review, 126: 520 (2011), pp. 544-581; and Famarez Dabhoiwala, ‘Writing Petitions in Early Modern England’, in Michael J. Braddick and Joanna Innes (eds), Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations: A Collection to Honour Paul Slack (2017). For petitions to the central authorities during the interregnum, see Hirst, Derek. ‘Making Contact: Petitions and the English Republic’, Journal of British Studies, 45:1 (2006), pp. 26-50. For studies of specific types of petitions to the crown, see Andrea Button, ‘Royalist women petitioners in south-west England, 1655-62’, The Seventeenth Century, 15:1 (2000), pp. 53-66; Alison Thorne, ‘Women’s Petitionary Letters and Early Seventeenth-Century Treason Trials’, Women’s Writing, 13:1 (2006), pp. 23-43; Stewart Beale, ‘”Unpittyed by any”? Royalist widows and the Crown, 1660-70’, Historical Research (online 2019). For an edition of an early seventeenth-century register produced by the Master of Requests, see H.W. Hoyle, D. Tankard and S.R. Neal, Heard before the King: registers of petitions to James I, 1603-1616, Part 1, Special Series (38), List and Index Society (2006).
Transcriptions and Editorial Conventions
The transcriptions generally retain the original spelling and punctuation, with a few exceptions as noted below. In addition to the main text of each petition, subscriptions – whether signatures, initials or marks – have been identified using italics. Paratext added in separate hand – usually endorsements by the magistrates – has been signalled by indentation. However, due to the limits of the format of this edition, we encourage any readers interested in the details of layout, subscriptions or paratext to consult the original manuscripts or request reproductions from the archives.
The following changes have been made during transcription: capitalisation has been modernised, obsolete letterforms (e.g. y/th, u/v, i/j, ff/F) have been modernised, obsolete punctuation (e.g. './.') has been modernised), superscript has been transcribed as regular script, common abbreviations (e.g. 'petr' = 'petitioner') have been silently expanded, and interlined words in the same hand have been silently inserted into the main text.