Ancient Petitions, Henry III - James I
Edward I (Cat. ref. E 368/68)
The National Archives has over 17,000 images from the series of Ancient Petitions which draws together petitions addressed to the king, to the king and council, to the king and council in parliament, to the chancellor, and to certain other officers of state. The petitions include detailed information about the circumstances of the parties involved, and the conditions of the locality. These documents reveal something of the attitude to public authority in the later Middle Ages and the social conventions and political culture.
Most of the petitions are in Anglo-Norman French, although some early examples are in Latin, while English was increasingly used as the fifteenth century progressed. Most of the petitions came from England, but a significant minority were from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Aquitaine, Gascony and other parts of France.
The majority of petitions were presented by named individuals, men and women, singly or in groups. Although there are examples of petitions presented by members of the peasantry, it was more usual for petitioners to be members of the gentry, the nobility, the urban elites or the higher clergy.
In addition to petitions presented by individuals, a significant number of cases were presented in the name of communities and corporations: many examples exist of petitions presented by villages, towns, ecclesiastical institutions and mercantile associations. There are also petitions addressed from the "commons" or "people".
Structure of the petitions
Generally the petitions fall into two categories: some ask for the redress of grievances which could not be resolved at common law; others are straightforward requests for a grant of favour.
The formal statement of grievance or request which lies at the heart of each petition can include detailed information about the circumstances of the petitioner, as well as a wealth of incidental material about social, political, economic and cultural conditions. In most cases the petition was presented in the hope that it would mobilise royal grace. Early on it was common for the crown's response to be recorded on the dorse of the petition, but from the mid-fourteenth century this practice declined as the use of authorising writs, which were usually attached to the petition, gathered momentum.
The documents were rearranged by archivists in the nineteenth century and unfortunately many of the writs formally attached to the petitions were separated and then grouped with other records, most notably in Chancery: Warrants for the Great Seal in the seriesC 81. Although it is likely that a large proportion of the petitions contained in SC 8 were presented in parliament, the uncertain origins of the series, and the disparate nature of its contents, means that some caution should be exercised before this is assumed to be the case.