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Female Petitioning to Monarchs and the Criminal Process in England, 1660-1702 by Emily Rhodes

In browsing the English State Papers in the National Archives at Kew or the State Papers Online database, one of the most common types of documents you will encounter are petitions to the crown. Within this subset of records, there are thousands of petitions submitted to the monarch on behalf of criminals. Most begged for pardons, but requests could also be for better accommodation, prison transfers, family visitation, or waived fees. One of the many fascinating aspects of these petitions is that between 1660 and 1702, at least 160 of these petitions came from women.[1] Female criminals could petition for themselves, or wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters wrote on behalf of an imprisoned male relative. Women petitioned against all types of crime, from debt and theft to murder and treason. Most interestingly, these women came from all social backgrounds — from duchesses to bricklayers’ wives — providing a fascinating insight into shared cultural expectations of early modern women.

Although women’s petitions number only in the hundreds these pleas offer insight into female subjecthood in the early modern period. For instance, the direct relationship between monarch and even common women is a connection rarely documented. The range of backgrounds, regions, and circumstances of female petitioning suggests not only that the phenomenon was widespread but may have even been expected when a woman or her male relative was in legal jeopardy. While the outcome of every female petition is unknown, of those with evidence of the decision made, around eighty percent were successful, revealing that ordinary women’s voices had efficacy at even the very top of early modern English society. Thus, female petitions demonstrate a cultural acceptance of women acting in the public sphere in early modern England and offers an example of domestic roles outside the household.

But how did women argue that they or their male relative should be released? The rest of this post will look into some of the rhetorical strategies used by a late seventeenth-century female petitioner.

Margaret Lake, wife of Joseph, a clerk, lived in the parish of Christ Church, Surrey (in modern-day Southwark, London), a fact she made clear in her 1681 petition to King Charles II begging not to be executed. In the petition, she related how she ‘stands Convict for manslaughter for killing Robert Edmonds’, her apprentice. While Lake admitted that Edmonds had ‘for some great provocations received a Blow from your Petitioner’, she was adamant that it was ‘without any prejudice to his health’ and that his normal behaviour a few weeks later over Christmas confirmed her innocence. Lake further stated that upon examination of his body, ‘the Chyrurgions found the only cause of his death was a Consumption for which his Mother had given him Asses milke for a year and a halfe before’. Lake claimed that the only reason she had been accused of murdering Edmonds were the allegations of ‘some Neighbours out of meere envy and mallice’.[2]

At the end of her petition, Lake begged for a pardon on account of having ‘six small Children now liveing’ by a former husband who would be ‘most miserable if your Petitioner should be taken from them’.[3] As Alison Thorne has shown, the most common tactic of early modern women petitioners was to exploit cultural ideas of a ‘defenceless women’ and female ‘gender identity or familial status’.[4] Lake’s concentration in her direct request to the king on how her execution would affect her children rather than fear of dying or another protestation of her innocence showed her leaning in to these gender stereotypes as reason why she should obtain a pardon.

However, Lake also strayed from these methods. In contrast to the image of a powerless, ignorant woman, she carefully presented all the facts of her case and why she believed they absolved her. Lake also critiqued the judicial system as a reason why she should be pardoned. She started by questioning the veracity of those who accused her of the manslaughter, a common objection cited by female petitioners. Although Lake’s claims that her conviction was based on jealousy and falsehood does not necessarily reflect a broad dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system, they suggest that she believed that the judge did not properly take into account evidence that undermined the credibility of the opponents.

Lake even criticised a specific law in her petition. She wrote that ‘if your Petitioner had been a man the benefitt of Clergy had been allowed and your Petitioner at this time had been at liberty’.[5] The ‘benefit of the clergy’ laws permitted literate, first-time male offenders to receive lighter sentences for most crimes.[6] While the law was extended in 1691 to include women, Lake clearly was not able to profit from it a decade earlier.[7] Lake’s critique of the benefit of the clergy both shows her belief that her treatment was unjust and displays that early modern women not only possessed legal knowledge, but also used it to plead their cases. While questioning the legal system might seem to contradict an argument based on feminine weakness, she still focused on how her gender affected her conviction as a rhetorical device. Furthermore, although it may seem that questioning the fairness of the legal system, of which the monarch formed a key part, could implicitly undermine the king’s authority. Lake’s petition rather reflected loyalty to the crown and a sense of optimism in the Charles’ judicial role to apply his superior wisdom and fairness to pardon her.

Margaret Lake’s methods and arguments clearly worked, as she was issued a royal pardon in June 1681.[8] While in distress, she turned to the king as a paternal caretaker who would come to her aid after hearing her sad tale. The fact that so many women petitioned the late Stuart monarchs using similar techniques as Lake teases the idea of oral female knowledge networks in which women learned how to effectively petition.

Emily Rhodes is the winner of the 2020 Women’s history Network’s MA dissertation prize. She completed her MPhil at Cambridge in 2020 with a dissertation on ‘Female Petitioning to Monarchs and the Criminal Process in England, 1660-1702’. She received her BA in History and French from Grinnell College in Iowa, USA in 2019. Emily is a first-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, studying petitioning mothers in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries.

[1] This number was found by researching the terms ‘petition’ and ‘crime’, ‘convict’, ‘criminal’, ‘pardon’, ‘reprieve’, ‘gaol’, or ‘prison’ on the State Papers Online archive. As a result, the amount of female petitions could be undercounted.

[2] The National Archives, Kew (TNA), State Papers (SP), 29/416 f.1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alison Thorne, ‘Women’s Petitionary Letters and Early Seventeenth-Century Treason Trials’, in Women’s Writing 13:1 (2006), 26-27.

[5] TNA, SP, 29/416 f.1.

[6] Krista Kesselring, Making Murder Public: Homicide in Early Modern England, 1480-1680 (Oxford University Press, 2019), 22.

[7] Lesley Skousen, Have Mercy upon Me O Lord: A History of Benefit of Clergy in Early Modern England, (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2013), 305.

[8] TNA, SP, 44/54 f.73.

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Witches_Being_Hanged.jpg

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