“And your petitioner as in duty bound shall ever pray etc”: how an 18th-century petition works

From the petition of Thomas Oxlee for 'a Licence for his House for Publick Entertainment of Musick and Dancing', 1753

From 1753 petition for a licence for a ‘House for Publick Entertainment of Musick and Dancing’


What does a London Lives petition look like? Well, here is a pretty typical example, from the City of London Sessions Papers (1692), in which I’ve highlighted the structural and most characteristic elements:

[1] To the right honourable the Lord Major of the Citie of London and to the right Worshipfull the Aldermen & Recorder Justices of the peace of the same Citie.

[2] The humble Peticion of the Churchwarden & Overseers of the poore of the parish of St. Michaell le Querne in London & the Parishioners & Inhabitants of the same Parish.

[3] Sheweth That upon Complaint lately made into Sir Thomas Stampe Alderman & Sir Salathiell Lovell Recorder Justices of the peace of the Citie of London (one being of the Quorum) by that parte of the parish of St. Sepulchre which is within the Citie of London, That Hannah Allen late of the said Parish of St. Michaell Le Querne aforesaid was lately come into the said parish of St. Sepulchre within the the Citie of London, & was likely to become chargeable to the same & upon oath made by the said Hannah Allen that her last legall Settlement or abode was in the said parish of St. Michaell le Querne as a hired Servant where she lived for halfe a yeare, The said Sir Thomas Stampe & Sir Selathiell Lovell by an order made their hand & Seales bearing date the 27th day of December last ordered the said Hannah Allen to bee delivered to your petrs. the Churchwardens & Overseers of the said parish of St. Michaell le Querne, & that your Petitioners should provide for her according to Law, & your petitioners have accordingly provided for her ever since.

That your Petitioners are advised that the said Hannah Allen was never legally setted in the said parish of St. Michaell Le Querne, or if so setted that she being married away from the said parish ought to bee sent to her husbands last legall Settlement.

[4] Your Petitioners therefore humbly pray your Lordshipp & Worshipps to order that the said Hannah Allen be sent back to the said parish of St. Sepulchre or that your Lordshipp & Worshipps will bee pleased to make such other order concerning her as shall bee agreable to Law & Justice

[5] And your Petitioners shall ever pray Etc.

The two middle paragraphs contain the particular narrative for this petition (or, to use the language of the petitions themselves, the ‘premises’), and they’re what most historians (including me) would most often focus on. But for the moment, I want to set that aside and highlight the common structural forms and linguistic patterns, to explore what makes this a petition, and how it works. Some of this might seem obvious, especially to historians familiar with early modern petitions, but I think it’s worth unpacking what’s going on, in the same way that Thomas Sokoll has done for pauper letters. As he says, the rhetorical elements of the letters are ‘an integral and inseparable part of the message’. (Later I’ll also look at less formal petitions/letters, but first I think we need to know something about the standard forms.)

As you might recognise if you’ve read the documentation for the data, much of what I’ve highlighted is the same language I used to search for petitions in the Sessions Papers data files, so you could say, well, duh. But I was searching for any of those elements, and others, too, and I’ve been perhaps slightly surprised at just how much the petitions conform to this very particular, formal structure (especially once various additions by court clerks have been stripped out):

  • [1] state to whom the petition is addressed;
  • [2] identify the petitioner (nearly always ‘humble’);
  • [3] set out the ‘premises’;
  • [4] detail the petitioner’s request (or ‘humble prayer’)
  • [5] sign off with a formal valediction which is almost always a promise to pray for the addressees (I’ll return to this)

About 90 per cent of the petitions have all these five elements. Of the remainder, most start at [2]; some end at [4]. This kind of structure isn’t just found in the London Lives archives. For comparison, consider this 1779 petition from the Massachusetts Anti-slavery and Anti-segregation petitions collection. There are minor variations in form but the similarities, despite the very different subject, are overwhelming. Indeed, while I’m not aware of printed templates (unlike some document types in the Sessions Papers), by the late 18th century petition writers could consult George Brown’s The English letter-writer for models of a ‘great Variety of Petitions on every Occurrence in human Life’.

In characterising this petition as typical, though, I’m not suggesting they were all exactly like this one. For example, the exact form of address in [1] varies a good deal. The most common, according to my database, is ‘To the Right Worshipful/Honourable his/her/their Majesty’s Justices of the peace for the County of Middlesex’. Some omit the honorifics and are simply addressed ‘to His/Her Majesty’s Justices…’ (George Brown would not have approved); sometimes individuals are named, sometimes not. (There is much more I could say about the first lines of the petitions, though I’m not sure how interesting it would be to most readers. Maybe a shorter post later.) [3] is also very frequently ‘Humbly Sheweth’ (occasionally even ‘Most Humbly Sheweth’). And so on.

On the other hand, there are elements that we’d associate with petitioning language that are largely missing from the London Lives petitions, or are much less significant. For example, the opening phrase “We, the undersigned”, which is such a familiar convention that it’s a standard template for many modern online petitions, is not a feature (even in the more usual and less memorable form “We whose names are under written”) and in its rare appearances is most likely to refer to witnesses supporting the petition’s claims rather than to petitioners (eg). And at the other end of the petition, petitioners’ signatures (marks or autographs) are quite common but far from universal.

I think the modern idea of petitions – amplified by the recent popularity of online petitioning – is very much as something democratic and populist, for which numbers and signatures are all-important.[citation needed] But that was not really the case in the eighteenth century. Yes, petitioners (pretty much by definition) were ‘speaking upwards’ and making demands of authority. But many were themselves representing positions of authority. (Almost half of the London Lives petitions are, like this example, from parish poor relief officers who are trying to get rid of paupers who’ve been foisted on them from other parishes.)

It’s not just the absence of ‘We the undersigned’ or the relative unimportance of lists of signatories. In general, first person pronouns are very uncommon in the London Lives petitions and, if anything, ‘We’ seems to be even less common than ‘I’. (This is based on some simple searches; I need to investigate more systematically for more certainty.) Instead, petitioners nearly always refer to themselves as ‘your petitioner(s)’. It seems to me that this highlights that what really matters here is not the expression of the ‘voice of the people’ but the opinion of the authority to whom the petition is being addressed.

The language of deference in these petitions goes deep and far beyond the obvious and liberal use of ‘humbl(e|y)’. And yet they are nonetheless artefacts of some kind of political agency: people making demands of authority. Petitions to the Bench of magistrates may be deeply deferential but it shouldn’t be forgotten that in many cases the petitioners are explicitly challenging other figures of authority: parish officials, individual magistrates, gaolers and workhouse masters, employers, husbands.

So I think it’s helpful to think of early modern petitions, in terms of politeness theory and face-threatening acts (FTAs):  the rhetoric of deference and submission in petitions can be seen as a way of mitigating the potential threat contained in social inferiors’ demands. [There seems to have been rather a lot written around this since I read Brown and Levinson back in about 1999 for my MA thesis, so I have some catching up to do and my thoughts may seem a bit, errm, naive to linguists. Be kind!]

With that in mind, I want to finish by looking more closely at my model petition’s element [5]. These closing phrases have been intriguing me because they are very common but don’t have an immediately obvious function in quite the same way as the rest of the petition. The request [4] normally contains plenty of humbleness and deference, and about 8% of petitions do in fact stop there. So [5] is clearly not mandatory, but it’s nonetheless present in around 9/10 of the petitions. (Plus, a good chunk of the remaining 2% contain other sign-offs like ‘your obedient humble servant’, or the end of the petition is illegible due to the poor condition of the original.) So what is it actually doing?

Like the other elements, it does vary in details. It’s very commonly expanded to ‘And your petitioner as in duty bound shall ever pray [etc]’; conversely it’s often simply ‘And your petitioner shall pray [etc]’ and occasionally can be as abbreviated as ‘And etc‘ (!). ‘Will’ is also used instead of ‘shall’ (though I think ‘shall’ is more common, and more forceful in meaning.) More unusual additions make more explicit what may be encompassed in that also optional but very frequent ‘etc’, eg:

and for this yours honers goodness and Cllemincy as in all humblle duty bound this poor person will ever pray with a grateful acknowlledgment and thankful hart.

And your Petitioner as in Duty bound will Ever pray for and am your Worships most Obedient Humble Servant at Command

It’s doing a lot of hard work, this phrase. The first thing of note (which the modern secular reader might easily forget) is that it’s an expression of piety, of assumed shared religious values (I will pray). Second, it’s one last statement of submission towards the addressee (as in duty bound, your obedient humble servant, I will pray for you). Third, it’s an expression (pre-emptively) of gratitude – normally implicitly and sometimes more explicitly, as in the “grateful acknowlledgment and thankful hart” example. Discussing how expressions of gratitude functioned as politeness markers in early modern English, Mattias Jacobsson notes how they can be intensified by expressions of deference (including the ubiquitous modifier ‘humbly’). ‘Compound thanks’ are rare in the corpus analysed by Jacobsson (the Corpus of English Dialogues), but petitions are a rather different genre, in which a helluva lot of gratitude and deference may be needed to mitigate the FTA of the petitioner’s demands.

One final note, though: all this gratitude and deference is conditional, as is made clearer in examples like these:

and in So Doing yr petitioners and their Families as in Duty Bound Shall Ever pray Etc

and for this yours honers goodness and Cllemincy as in all humblle duty bound this poor person will ever pray with a grateful acknowlledgment and thankful hart.

most humbly Implores that this Court will adhear & listen to this Application and shorten the time of his sentence in Prison according as they of their Great Wisdom shall seem Meet which if so happy as to be granted Petitioner will as in Duty bound Ever pray and retain a greatfull Acknowledgement for such their Mercey & Clemency shewen to this his Humble Petition

As Andreas Gestrich and Steven King have recently pointed out in an overview of research on pauper letters and petitions:

While paupers certainly claimed to be humble, grateful, and sorry in their approaches to the local state, in practice it is striking how often the poor asserted their ‘rights’ (moral, legal, or christian) and the ‘duty’ of the parish.

The petitioner’s gratitude can’t be taken for granted; submissiveness and humbleness (however often reasserted) are strategic. Petitions, even where we can’t be sure that they were ‘authentic voices of the people’, were negotiating tools.


A housekeeping note: since the last post, I’ve done a further update to the petitions data, in which I’ve cleaned out more non-petitions (it’s now down to 10,045) – but I think I have found them all now…! As a result, I’ll need to check the numbers and update the visualisations in my last post at some point.

Originally published: EMN: London Lives Petitions