New Camden Volume on Medieval Petitions

Cambridge University Press have released an exciting new edition in our Camden Series of annotated primary source documents.

Mark Ormrod of the University of York discusses the volume he has edited with Helen Killick (Reading) and Phil Bradford (York), Early Common Petitions in the English Parliament, c.1290-1420.

In May 1322 the Commons, assembled in Parliament at York, complained to the king and his council about unscrupulous traders who had taken advantage of the presence of the king’s household in the city to push up the price of meat, fish and other foods. The result, they said, was that they had to pay triple what one would normally spend on basic provisions in the local markets. No doubt MPs were aware that their expense accounts, paid by their constituents at a fixed per diem rate, were not going as far as they hoped.

This glimpse of everyday business in Parliament comes down to us because the petition in which the complaint was registered happens to survive in The National Archives. Historians chiefly remember the York Parliament of May 1322 as a moment of high political drama, in which King Edward II took his bloody revenge on the barons and gentry who had supported the recent unsuccessful rebellion of his cousin, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. Because no official record survives for the assembly, however, it has rarely been appreciated that the Commons at the same assembly also submitted a series of significant petitions calling for reforms of the law and the better regulation of the economy. Even in the extraordinary and adverse circumstances of 1322, Parliament’s function as a talking-shop for the great affairs of the realm and a sounding board for the wider public concerns of the political community was actively acknowledged and observed.

The emergence of the so-called ‘common petition’ was a long and complicated process. The earliest parliamentary petitions expressing the collective anxieties of the realm date from the 1290s. During that and the subsequent two decades, it was the Lords, rather than the Commons, who tended to take the lead in articulating demands for reform in Parliament. Not least of the consequences of Edward II’s purge of the baronage in 1322, was that the Commons then took up the process and became the main spokespersons for the king’s subjects at large. From the 1340s, a fair copy was made on the official record of each assembly, the so-called parliament roll, of the common petitions submitted to and answered by the king and council.

Before 1340, there survives a series of originals of individual or multiple petitions submitted in the name of the ‘commonalty of the realm’, ‘the people’ or the ‘poor commons’ that serve, as in our example from 1322, to compensate for the absence of a parliament roll or of a section on that roll assigned to common petitions. After 1340, moreover, there are number of such original petitions that, for various reasons, were not included among the common petitions written up on the parliament rolls: because the matters raised were beyond remedy; because they were already (in the government’s view) adequately addressed in existing legislation; or, indeed, because the relevant issue was deemed too contentious to be taken further. Comparatively little attention has been paid to this body of material, mainly because it is scattered randomly over a number of series in The National Archives. Now, for the first time, a group of such documents, covering the period c. 1290–c. 1420, have been identified and brought together in a volume that provides critical editions, modern summaries, and historical notes for over 120 single and multiple common petitions.

How do these records alter our view of the petitioning process, and the subject matter of common petitions, in the fourteenth-century English Parliament? First and foremost, they provide firm evidence that petitioning in the name of the commonalty was a more regular practice before the 1340s than has previously been appreciated.

Some 69 instances of common petitions firmly or impressionistically dateable between 1290 and 1340 (including some that appeared on the parliament rolls) are listed in an annotated Appendix to the new study. A number of Parliaments in particular stand out as important occasions for common petitioning: for those held in 1305, 1307, 1309, 1315, 1319, 1322 and 1324, we have a number of single-item petitions and/or multiple-clause petitions that indicate a significant level of petitionary activity in the name of the people of the realm.

Secondly, the new body of evidence helps to define the topics that preoccupied the compilers of common petitions both before and after 1340. A particular concern during the early fourteenth century was the regulation of royal officers, especially sheriffs and forest officials. Basic legal rights and the functioning of the legal system were major issues throughout the period. The special status of the Church and the abuse of privilege by the clergy were also a frequent source of complaint. Trade and the regulation of the economy were matters of particular concern across the century, with much petitioning about the wool and cloth trades, the state of the coinage, royal taxation and its economic effects, weights and measures, quality control and (as with the petition about York in 1322) prices.

The economic problems identified in common petitions were often expressed as matters of real crisis, and are a reminder of the series of natural and man-made disasters – famine, plague and war – that dominated the fourteenth century. In this respect, though, the most striking body of material in the new collection is a series of common petitions addressing the events and consequences of the Peasants’ Revolt. The new documents represent a significantly wider range of concerns and solutions than those that appear on the parliament rolls of the period, and suggest the real difficulties that the Commons had in presenting a coherent strategy for resolving the social, legal and economic tensions exposed in such dramatic form during the summer of 1381.

Professor W. Mark Ormrod
University of York

Illustration (front cover of volume): the king surrounded by prelates and laymen in parliament, from a late fourteenth-century version of a treatise on parliamentary business, the Modus tenendi parliamentum (British Library Cotton Nero D VI, fol. 72r).

RHS Visit to Belfast

As part of our 150th anniversary activities, the RHS is visiting history departments and hosting events in all four nations of the United Kingdom. In September, RHS officers visited Belfast to meet with history staff and students at Queen’s University, and for our symposium on ‘Teaching & Researching Controversial History’.

We held meetings with history staff from the new School of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy, and Politics to discuss their views on issues and challenges facing history departments in Northern Ireland and across the UK, and to learn about the work of Queen’s historians in research, teaching, and impact, including their new Centre for Public History. We also met with post-graduate and early career historians to discuss their views and to advise them on the Society’s resources for those beginning a career in history. It was illuminating to meet the wide range of historians at Queen’s and to hear their views on issues facing UK higher education, and to learn about their diverse work.

The symposium provided a full day of excellent presentations on the challenges and rewards of both researching and teaching controversial histories. Dr John Curran reflected on his experiences teaching ‘the historical Jesus’ at Queen’s, while Prof Colin Kidd (St Andrew’s) discussed the challenges of teaching unionism and nationalism in Scotland. Prof Fearghal McGarry and Dr Margaret O’Callaghan outlined their work during Ireland’s 2016 commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, while Prof Dominic Bryan (co-chair of Northern Ireland’s Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture, & Tradition) offered an anthropological perspective on historical commemoration. RHS Literary Director, Prof Richard Toye (Exeter), discussed his experience designing and leading the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Empire: The Controversies of British Imperialism’, while symposium organiser Dr Paul Corthorn discussed his work researching and teaching Enoch Powell.

Queen’s historians spoke about their extensive work in public history: Prof Sean O’Connell outlined his interactive course on Belfast oral history, Kieran Connell explained his role in the Varna Road exhibition at Ikon Birmingham, and Dr Olwen Purdue discussed QUB’s MA in Public History. Chairs including Prof Richard English (QUB Pro-Vice-Chancellor) and former RHS Vice-President Seán Connolly facilitated interesting comments and debate throughout the day.  In a keynote lecture, Prof Hugo García (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) explored the challenges of teaching the history of the Spanish Civil War in contemporary Spain.

We had a fascinating two days in Belfast, and the meetings and events were a fitting start to our wide-ranging programme of 150th anniversary events. We would like to thank the historians at Queen’s, and especially Dr Paul Corthorn, for providing such a warm welcome.

In our 150th anniversary year we will also be making visits to the University of South Wales, the University of Strathclyde, and the University of Oxford.

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From left: Prof Richard Toye (RHS Literary Director), Prof Margot Finn (RHS President), Dr Paul Corthorn (QUB), Prof Jane Winters (RHS Council), Prof Hugo García (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid).

Historical Transactions

Historical Transactions was created as part of the Society’s 150th anniversary in 2018.


When the RHS reached a hundred, it published A Centenary Guide to the Publications of the Royal Historical Society 1868-1968 and of the Former Camden Society 1838-97 (1968).  A 260-page hardback, this volume represented much that was – and continues to be – central to the Society’s activities, as exemplified in publication of our annual, peer-reviewed Transactions (whose title inspired the name of our blog), the volumes in our Camden Series of annotated editions of primary sources, and the monographs of early career researchers published in our Studies in History series (which will see its 100th volume appear in the anniversary year).

Our decision to commemorate (and interrogate) the 150th anniversary with an open-access online blog reflects the Society’s desire to complement our established engagement with traditional forms of History publication, while developing new ones.  The RHS’s longstanding commitment to comprehensive, high-calibre bibliographies of British history is now best reflected in the online Bibliography of British & Irish History, produced in partnership with the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) and published by Brepols; our early career monograph publishing is now shifting to an online open-access format (accompanied by print-on-demand hardbacks) with the launch of our open-access New Historical Perspectives series.  In this spirit, and in the wider context of more dynamic practices of production within the discipline of History, an anniversary blog – involving our Fellows, Members and Postgraduate Members, as well as other historians – proved more appealing to us than a standard commemorative volume.

This blog will, we hope, afford new opportunities for a wide range of historians to engage with the RHS’s past and its present.  The Society has developed a wide-ranging programme of anniversary activities throughout the UK, which will follow on from an official 150th launch at the Anniversary Meeting in November 2017.  New posts will be added to the blog regularly, and can also be accessed from our Twitter.  If you are interested in participating as an author yourself, please contact us with your idea here.

To find out more about the RHS, to apply to become a member, or to attend one of our free public events, please see our website. I very much hope to meet many of you over the coming year.

Professor Margot Finn
President, Royal Historical Society

2017 Prize Winners

RHS President Margot Finn (front left) with (from left) Ashley Atkins, Claire Eldridge, William Cavert, Elly Robson, Felicity Hill, Stephanie Mawson, Alice Taylor.

At a reception following the Prothero Lecture on 7 July, RHS President Margot Finn announced the 2017 RHS Prize Winners.

The Whitfield Prize is awarded to:

Claire Eldridge, for From empire to exile History and memory within the pied-noir and harki communities, 1962–2012published by Manchester University Press.

The Gladstone Prize is awarded jointly to:

William Cavert, for The Smoke of London Energy and Environment in the Early Modern Citypublished by Cambridge University Press;

and

Alice Taylor, for The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124-1290published by Oxford University Press.

The Alexander Prize is awarded to:

Stephanie Mawson, for ‘Convicts or Conquistadores?: Spanish Soldiers in the Seventeenth-Century Pacific’, Past and Present, vol. 232 (2016), 87-125.

The Rees Davies Prize is awarded to:

Ashley Atkins for his University of St Andrew’s dissertation, ‘The authorship, function, and ideological origins of the Claim of Right of 1989’.

The David Berry Prize is awarded to:

Malcolm Petrie, for his essay ‘Fear of a “Slave State”: Individualism, Libertarianism, and the Rise of Scottish Nationalism c.1945-c.1979’.

2018 Prizes:
Information on how to apply and deadlines for next year’s prizes is available on our website here.

Prothero Lecture

On 7 July, Professor Simon Dixon, of UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, delivered this year’s Prothero Lecture at the Cruciform Building in UCL. At the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Prof Dixon addressed the subject of ‘Orthodoxy & Revolution: The Restoration of the Russian Patriarchate in 1917’. You can watch a video of his lecture, and read his abstract below.

‘At the height of the October Revolution in Moscow – a much bloodier affair than the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd – the Orthodox Church installed Tikhon (Bellavin) as Russia’s first patriarch since 1700. At the most obvious level, this was a counter-revolutionary gesture aimed at securing firm leadership in a time of troubles. It was nevertheless a controversial move. Ecclesiastical liberals regarded a restored patriarchate as a neo-papal threat to the conciliarist regime they hoped to foster; and since Nicholas II had explicitly modelled himself on the Muscovite tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, the potential for renewed conflict between church and state was clear long before 1917. This lecture will emphasise the extent to which a single individual haunted the whole debate. For, until the last moment, it was widely assumed that the new patriarch would be not the little-known Tikhon, but Archbishop Antonii (Khrapovitskii) [pictured above], whose attempts to model himself on Patriarch Nikon – the most divisive of seventeenth-century patriarchs – helped to make him the most controversial prelate of the age.’

Next year’s Prothero Lecture will take place on Friday 6 July 2018 at Mary Ward Hall in London, where Prof Carole Hillebrand (Edinburgh), will present a lecture on ‘Saladin’s Spin-Doctors’.