Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part II: Some evidence from manuscripts

Brodie Waddell

According to a crude survey of published texts, ‘the people’ were invoked frequently in print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in times of political turmoil such as the 1640s and 1688-89. However, published texts are notoriously unreliable representatives of actual contemporary discussion. They were produced by the literate, for the literate, often using carefully crafted rhetoric.

Manuscripts can bring us slightly closer to a less skewed view of ‘the people’. Although obviously they too were only produced by the literate elite, they occasionally purport to record the voices of the illiterate and they tend to be less polemical as they were not intended to influence a wide audience. Unfortunately, there is no manuscript equivalent of the huge sample of published texts that have been transcribed by the Text Creation Partnership, though the Folger Library is giving it a go with its own manuscript collection. The State Papers Online is also promising, but only the calendars, rather than the original documents, have been transcribed. The closest to an equivalent to EBBO-TCP is probably the corpus of 240,000 transcriptions on the wonderful London Lives site, though these only cover the period 1690 to 1800 and the early material has many irregular transcriptions.

I’ve mostly drawn on my own little collection of notes from various archival documents (and published editions thereof), amounting to just over 600 pages in total, in which I found about 70 mentions of ‘the people’. Of course my notes are heavily biased in all sorts of ways, with a notable focus on the late 17th century, thanks to my current obsession with the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s. Still, it’s better than nothing. (In what follows, I have not included references, but I’m happy to supply them upon request and I have included links to any quotations taken from London Lives.)

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

So, with that methodological stuff out of the way, who are ‘the people’ in these sources?

1) The laity. The first thing to note is the absence of ‘the people’ as the laity – contrasting with the clergy – which was very common in printed sources. This is almost certainly due to the fact that very few of the manuscripts that I’ve searched were written by clergymen, whereas a huge proportion of printed texts were authored by people associated with the Church. The closest to this definition that I have found is when the Norwich Mayor’s Court ordered that ‘the Ministers of this City be desired the next Lords day to dispose the people to [make] a Liberall Contribution’ to a special charitable collection during the hardships of winter 1695. Lay people, in other words, do not seem to have defined ‘the people’ in the same way as clergymen.

2) The population. I expected to find many manuscripts referring to ‘the people of [a locality]’, but this too appeared only occasionally. There was a letter sent to the Secretary of State from Penryn in Cornwall in the name of ‘the People of this Place’ against quartering soldiers there in 1696. This plea presented itself as the voice of the entire parish, rather than of some particular social group. In a much more practical way, one finds it being used quite often in judicial sources. In 1723, for example, some men were accused of having ‘assembled with divers others in a Riotous & unlawful manner to the Terror of the people & against the peace & did begin to demolish & damage some houses’. This phrasing was used because the legal definition of an ‘affray’ included ‘the terror of the people’. More interestingly, a witness in a case in 1698 reported that upon ‘crying out Shop thief, the People pursued [the thief] and apprehended him at Cole Staires’. Here, ‘the people’ are simply the anonymous crowds that thronged the London streets. There are many more such examples recorded in the thousands of depositions on London Lives.

3) The political nation. There are also relatively few of the manuscript writers who identified ‘the people’ in explicitly political terms, defining them by their role in (or exclusion from) the polity. Still, some correspondents did use the term this way. Sir George Fletcher, for example, wrote to the former MP Sir Daniel Fleming in 1696, saying that ‘our great happiness is the people complain less than we do, and beare our delay [in reforming the coinage] to a wonder, which is the best proof of the people’s affection to the government’. Even more politically direct was Francis Lane, a Northamptonshire gentleman, writing in December 1689: ‘No doubt the hand of God joined with the wishes of the generality of the people in the late revolution’ and ‘the people are almost unanimous against [the restoration of James II], and I believe would be so in the greatest confusion.’ Likewise, John Evelyn recorded in his diary that the hearth tax had been removed in 1689 ‘to gratifie & sweeten the people’. Here, ‘the people’ were almost equivalent to what we now call national ‘public opinion’, whose support was vital for a stable and successful government.

4) The commons. The notion of ‘the people’ as ‘the commons’, ‘the commonalty’ or the ‘common people’ is clearly related to the political definition, but not quite the same. Here, the people seem to be defined not by their relationship to the state but rather by their socio-economic position. Thus, even when the price of grain was very high ‘the people must buy bread at any rate’ (1694) and depressed trade ‘puts the people to great straits’ (1696). During these hard times, ‘the people are discontented to the utmost’ (1696) and sometimes took direct action. Narcissus Luttrell used the term to describe the crowd during two grain riots in this decade: ‘the people began to mutiny’ at Colchester and ‘the people gott together and overturned some of their carts’ at Northampton. In essence, they were the large majority of the population that were forced to work for a living and lacked independent means. They were, in other words, the antithesis of ‘gentlemen’. This was perhaps the same group that was occasionally called ‘the middling and poorer sort of people’, though this much more verbose version was used very rarely when compared to the compressed version.

Overall, my own current interests mean that most references to ‘the people’ that I have recorded treat them as a social, economic and occasionally political group. This was a collective noun that seems to have encompassed paupers and tradesmen, men and women, perhaps even voters and the disenfranchised. Yet, as I said earlier, the sources I’ve used here are terribly unrepresentative, so I would be very eager to hear if any readers have come across ‘the people’ in their own research. Moreover, you will have noticed that nearly all the writers I’ve quoted above do not include themselves within ‘the people’. For these observers, who were mostly wealthy gentlemen, ‘the people’ are ‘them’, not ‘us’. So who described themselves as part of ‘the people’? That will be the question I address in my final post.

6 thoughts on “Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part II: Some evidence from manuscripts

  1. Thanks for this, Brodie: the legal definition will be very important in certain sets of sources. “The people” comes up a fair bit in Westminster equity cases I’ve transcribed (also mostly 17thC), usually in sense 2, perhaps with a bit of sense 4 implied as well. In setting up the legal fiction that brought a trade dispute into the Exchequer in this case we hear that the King’s revenue would be harmed ‘by admitting of such things as may give occasion to the people to depart from the auncient Townes’. The people = working and trading population, ratepayers. Are these the tories’ and labour’s favourite ‘hardworking people’?

    And in this particularly enjoyable case there’s a dunghill in the Castle moat in Newcastle, which ‘did grow so great, that the Maior and Aldermen were inforced to cause build a Wall about the said dunghill, to kepe the people from casting any more dung thereon, As also to keepe the same dunge from falling into the heigh streate or paved Cawsey thereby to stopp the passages of the people’. The people = the population, who are both causing a nuisance and are in danger. In the same deposition, the people are also the politically governed: ‘the Aldermen have the Charge of the said Wardes, some of them two Wards, and some of the Aldermen Three Wardes, who wthin their severall Circuites, doe order and governe the people inhabiteing wthin the same Wardes’.

    • Thanks for passing along those examples, Andy, especially the ‘great dunghill’ of Newcastle!

      Yes, it is clear that anytime ‘the people’ appeared in a statute it might spur litigants and witnesses to use it in depositions, etc., in order to make strengthen their case. I suspect that accounts for many of the mentions in the judical records on London Lives.

      More generally, it seems that contemporaries often didn’t make a clear distinction between the ‘political’ and the ‘social-economic’ definitions. Most elites assumed that if you were working (i.e. ‘poor’ or ‘middling’) you were not fit for governing. Of course, as we know, England was more like an ‘office-holding republic’ (Mark Goldie) and working people regularly held minor official posts, but the gentry who wrote this stuff down didn’t seem to see it that way. Perhaps it is in towns – where magistrates tended to come from the ‘middling sort’ and their was a broader socio-economic spectrum – that we see ‘the people’ being used in a wider variety of ways.

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