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The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England.

The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England

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. 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 also 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 over 2,000 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. 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 pursue 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.

The Principal Investigator is Dr Brodie Waddell (Birkbeck, University of London), the Co-Investigator is Prof. Jason Peacey (University College London) and a postdoctoral research associate will be appointed. It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (£249,000) and runs for 24 months from January 2019 to December 2020.

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