During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, private individuals who wished to address the Commons were expected to do so by petition. When, in May 1604, the warden of the Fleet wrote an apologetic letter to the Commons from his prison cell for refusing to release an MP in his custody, it was remarked that he ‘ought to submit himself by petition to the House, and not by letter’.
Private petitions were often brought to the House’s attention by individual MPs. In May 1604, for instance, Speaker Phelips was presented with a petition by a poor clergyman in Westminster Hall while walking to the Commons chamber. However, such a casual arrangement did not prove entirely satisfactory. In 1625 Sir William Strode, sitting for Plympton Erle, recommended that petitions be delivered ‘publicly’ to prevent them from being smothered in the cradle by an individual recipient. Concern to avoid being bombarded with frivolous or slanderous complaints also led the Commons in 1621 to establish a subcommittee to weed out those of little consequence.
Petitioners were normally expected to submit their requests on paper and in prose. However, in 1628 Oliver Randall, a veteran of the Elizabethan war with Spain, presented the House with a couple of verses ‘wrought in needlework’ in an attempt to persuade members to bear his costs for a trip to the waters at Bath. The House was so amused that every member was ordered to stump up 12d. Randall was not the first petitioner to endeavour to employ poetry, even if he was the first to use needle and thread. In 1604, John Dee, the famous polymath, printed a petition in verse, addressed to the Commons, in support of a bill against slander.
Before the mid-Jacobean period, private petitions addressed to the Commons were rare. However, from 1614 there was a marked upsurge. In 1628, for instance, the Commons read sixty-five private petitions, whereas in 1604 they had considered only two. The main reason for this rapid growth was that between 1604 and 1629 relatively few bills reached the statute book. Repeated quarrels between the king and the Commons caused two successive Parliaments – those of 1614 and 1621 – to be legislatively sterile. MPs also allowed themselves to be diverted from their legislative business by parliamentary attacks on government ministers, which began in 1621, and great political issues like the marriage of the Prince of Wales and the Spanish Match. Such matters were, after all, more exciting and more important than bills. As John Angell explained to his Rye constituents in 1624, the Commons were so preoccupied with their grievances that the ‘ordinary businesses’ of bills are ‘infinitely delayed’.
Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that by the mid-1620s many lobbyists, such as the corporation of London and the City livery companies, had largely abandoned legislation in favour of petitioning. This was cheaper than legislation, as there was no need to send petitions to the Lords for their approval and the chairmen of the grand committees, to whom petitions were presented, seem not to have charged for their services, unlike the Speaker, who always charged for bills. Petitions also had the advantage of not being subject to the laborious and time-consuming procedures of bills, as the Commons deemed it necessary to read most of them only once before placing them in committee. As a result, lobbyists were more likely to obtain satisfaction from the Commons than if they had proceeded by bill. By the end of the 1620s, petitions had largely replaced bills in the Commons as the favoured means of redress among private individuals.
Dr Andrew Thrush is Editor of the 1604-1629 House of Lords Section, History of Parliament
Image: Sir Edward Phelips, Speaker of the Commons, who was accosted by a petitioner while on his way to the Commons chamber in May 1604
Sir Edward Phelips Speaker 1603-10, 1560?-1614, Oil painting by Unknown
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2699 www.parliament.uk/art