‘Exhorting and Persuading’: Petitions, rhetorical strategies and the burning of Tiverton

The next post in our Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Rebecca Tomlin, postdoctoral researcher at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. Here she examines responses to fires which burnt down much of the town of Tiverton in 1598 and 1612, showing how pamphlet descriptions contrasted with the petitions for aid that were recorded in official documents.

In 1598, when he reported on the recent disastrous fire in Devon, the writer of the pamphlet The True lamentable discourse of the burning of Teuerton told a story of terrible panic and distress that the fire had caused among the town’s inhabitants.[1] The fire, which started when two elderly women tried to use straw to cook themselves pancakes because they had no wood, spread rapidly through the prosperous market town, killing some one hundred people, destroying four hundred houses and property valued at £300,000 and £400,000. [2] The town was left without resources to shelter and feed its displaced inhabitants, who were also suffering what we would now describe as shock, and were left wandering on the outskirts of the town ‘more like Spirits and Ghostes then liuing creatures'(B2r). The writer emphasises the sensory qualities of the fire, particularly the noises and sights of the burning town and its aftermath to evoke horror in the reader, or listener; this is surely a pamphlet intended to be read aloud in terrible tones to a pitying audience. The disaster is blamed on Tiverton’s own ‘unmercifulnesse, & small regard of the poore, which were dayly seene to dye and perish in their streetes for lacke of reliefe’ (B2r) while the escape from the fire of twenty poor men’s cottages and the town’s alms houses is taken as proof of God’s providential intervention and intent.

tomlin-wofull-newsUnfortunately for Tiverton, it was revisited by fire in 1612. Another pamphlet was printed, which also incorporated a dramatic woodcut illustration of the attempts to fight the fire and a retelling of the story of the 1598 burning. The day of the 1612 fire, August 5th, was a holiday ordered by King James to celebrate his preservation from the Gowrie conspiracy. In Tiverton, an un-named dyer did not observe the holiday and put his boy in charge of the furnace so that they could continue to work. But the boy, eager to finish early so that he could join in with the holiday, stoked the fire too high and quickly lost control. This time the fire burned 300 houses, and some £50,000 worth of goods and animals were destroyed. Only the free school, the alms houses and some poor cottages were spared.

Wofull newes from the west parts England, Being the lamentable burning of the towne of Teuerton (1612) borrows much of its descriptive text from the 1598 account.[3] Further sensational descriptions are added, including some in terms which link the fire to the Gowrie conspirators; it is ‘a flame of confusion, a flame of subuersion, a spoyling flame (A4r). The fire is personified with intent: ‘a commanding Tyrant’ (A4v) which has ‘commanding power’ and ‘made conquest’ (B3v). As in 1598, the fire was interpreted as sign of God’s displeasure, in this case at the breaking of the Sabbath, and as a warning to other communities. In 1617 Thomas Beard included the story of the town in Devon that had twice suffered God’s displeasure in his The thunderbolt of Gods Wrath, adding that it was punished for rejecting a godly preacher and profaning the Sabbath.[4] The story of Tiverton and its two fires became an exemplary moral tale throughout the seventeenth century, used for example by a preacher taking his examples from Beard, and for a broadsheet compilation of the the ‘theatre of God’s judgement’ stories.[5]

What does all of this have to do with petitioning? Well, taking the two fires together we have a rare case where we can directly compare pamphlets and petitions which represent different ways of writing about the same disaster. The differences between the modes of writing in these different forms draw attention to the social and economic concerns of the petitions for large charitable collections made in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

To turn then to petitions. Between 1583 and 1600 the churchwardens of St Botolph’s, Aldgate kept a remarkable series of Memoranda compiled mainly by the clerk, Thomas Harrydance.[6] Included in these Memoranda were records of some 300 collections for various causes, many of which were made under various petitions licenced by official ‘briefs’ (as Harrydance calls them).[7] The petitions can be roughly divided into two groups, those that were part of large-scale national collections and those that were smaller and more local. Into the large-scale category fall petitions for causes such as the re-edification of harbours, campaigns to support ‘prisoners of the Turke’, regular collections for prisoners at the Marshalsea and King’s Bench jails, and as in the case of Tiverton, relief for towns where fires had caused large scale destruction of property. Their scale and the repetition of certain generic features suggest that the petitions for large-scale collections were professionally written and distributed in order to mobilise national and international networks of support. As single sheet ephemera, very few ‘briefs’ survive, and the Memoranda kept at St Botolph’s provide an almost unique record of the charitable cases collected for in a late sixteenth century London church.[8]

Among the petitions recorded by Thomas Harrydance we find in November 1598 ‘A collection For the reedifying of the towne of Tyvertonn in the Countie of Devon and For the reliefe of the poore Inhabytants thereof’.[9] This Memorandum gives a version of the story that focuses on the economic effects of the fire, with an emphasis on problems that might be remedied with money, that is, rebuilding the town and supporting its inhabitants financially. The value of property and goods destroyed is given first, while the deaths of fifty people is added almost as an afterthought. The language of the Memoranda is spare and functional, and the descriptive phrases that it uses are generic; typically in these notes fires are ‘extreme and sudayne’ and houses and goods have been ‘burnt, wasted and consumed’, or, as in this case ‘utterly consumed and burnt’.  The Memoranda are essentially a record of the correct behaviour of the churchwardens and so the details of who authorised the collection, who collected the money and to whom it was paid over, are as important as what happened in Tiverton.

As I have mentioned, the original briefs and petitions themselves rarely survive, especially the manuscript ones, not least because they were carried by the petitioners from place to place and not retained by the churches that might otherwise have preserved them. However, some ‘briefs’ printed for large national campaigns have survived, and among them is the 1612 petition for Tiverton.[10] As in the Memorandum of the 1598 collection, the description of the fire in the petition is brief and factual; even though they deal with two different events fourteen years apart, the 1598 Memorandum clearly reflects an official generic rhetoric which is very similar to that found in the 1612 petition.

Why this absence of the dramatic and emotive description that we find in the pamphlets? Put simply, the rhetoric of these texts points to their very different functions. By imaginatively feeling, hearing and seeing the suffering of the people of Tiverton, the reader of the pamphlets could experience their suffering with them. The objective of the pamphlets is to evoke empathetic, felt compassion that would result in the reader’s own moral improvement. Imaginative engagement with the horrifying story might also, of course, have been experienced with pleasure; a later reference to the pamphlet suggests it was a commercial success. The pamphlet’s goal is the affective embodiment of the moral and spiritual lessons of the fiery disasters, hence the long afterlife of these stories as ethical exemplars.

In contrast, the object of the alms petition is not to cause the congregation to suffer sensory and emotional distress alongside the victims, but rather to dig deep for cash. The 1612 brief focuses on importance to the local economy of the market at Tiverton and states that the town created employment for some 8000 people in the surrounding district. The notion that the fire at Tiverton was God’s punishment of its sinful inhabitants was counter-productive when trying to raise cash for them, and perhaps the allegation that in 1598 the town had been negligent of its poor stung, because in 1612 its generous support for them is described more than once. The Memoranda, and the petitions that they record, describe suffering in terms of financial loss and focus on the poverty to which those who have lost everything in the fire are reduced. A rhetoric of economic disaster is deployed, in which the phrases ‘great hindrance’, ‘extreme impoverishing’ and ‘utter undoing’ appear repeatedly. The Tiverton petition is typical in its use of this language. The object of the petition is to raise funds and so the disaster by which the congregation is invited to be moved is financial, rather than emotional or physical.

Slee's almshouses at Tiverton, founded in 1610 for six single women, and, to the left, Great House of St George, constructed 1603-14 for George Slee, after the 1598 fire.

Slee’s almshouses at Tiverton, founded in 1610 for six single women, and, to the left, Great House of St George, constructed 1603-14 for George Slee, after the 1598 fire. Photo credit: Peter Hyde.

The fire petitions, including those for Tiverton, focus on the previous prosperity of the petitioner and the value of the business assets and other goods lost. Petitions seek to restore a lost social order, to reverse the ‘the utter undoing of many thousand people that before lived well and maintained their families in good sort’ (p.15-16). Tiverton seeks not only the restoration of its buildings and markets but the reversion of the ‘world upside down’ caused by the fire ‘whereby the chiefest tradesmen and others of the said town which but lately were of good wealth and credit are now impoverished and decayed’ (p.16). Petitions represent the desire of the state to restore economic and social order; the Tiverton petition makes specific reference to ‘custom subsidy and aulnage a great sum of money yearly besides other supplies that we had upon them upon all occasions with great readiness and willingness’ and it is in the Crown’s interest to restore the flow of revenue from Tiverton’s once-flourishing market. Accordingly, the rhetoric of the petition that aimed to mobilise the rest of the country in support of the burned town centres on economic factors rather than emotion.

It is difficult to know how these petitions were experienced by the parishioners as the Memoranda have little to say about that aspect of the collections. References to the quotidian practices of collecting in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century are scarce, and they probably varied from parish to parish according to local custom. Some indication of how they were delivered is offered by the Tiverton brief itself, which instructs parsons, vicars and curates to ‘publish and declare the tenor of these our letters patent under our said subjects exhorting and persuading them to extend their liberal contributions.’ (p.17) As we can see from the examples above, fires like those at Tiverton were used as cautionary tales by preachers but the dramatic details that brought the story alive were to be found in the pamphlets, not in the collection brief itself.

Perhaps the representatives from Tiverton who were permitted by the brief ‘to ask and receive the gratuities and charitable benevolence of our said subjects’ told their stories in person outside the church to interested and charitably inclined parishioners. Frustratingly, we can never know what combination of economic logic, social pressure, spiritual duty or horrified pity moved the parishioners’ pennies from their pockets to the collecting bowl when the petition was read out loud in St Botolph’s in 1598.

[1] Anon., The True lamentable discourse of the burning of Teuerton (1598) STC 24093.

[2] The title page says ‘fiftie persons burnt aliue’ but the text says ”it is verye credibly reported on hundred persons or there=about’ were ‘lacking’ after the fire (B1v).

[3] Wofull newes from the west parts England, Being the lamentable burning of the towne of Teuerton (1612) STC 10025.

[4] Thomas Beard, The thunderbolt of Gods wrath against hard-hearted and stiffe-necked sinners (1618) STC 21437.

[5] Stephen Denison, The white wolfe, or, A sermon preached at Pauls Crosse (1627)
STC  6607.5; Anon., Divine examples of God’s severe judgements upon Sabbath-breakers (1671) Wing D1720bA.

[6] London Metropolitan Archives P69/BOT2/A/019/MS 09234/001-007.

[7] These records actually show three stages of ‘petitioning’. The first was the original ‘humble petition’ sent by the victims to the crown or magistrates requesting permission to beg from parish to parish. The second was the text of this petition as it was incorporated into a written licence – known as a ‘brief’ or ‘letters patent’ – from the authorities granting that permission. The third was the petitionary act by the bearers of the briefs of asking parishioners and parish officers for alms. For more on these documents, see Mark Harris, ” ‘Inky Blots and Rotten Parchment Bonds’: London, Charity Briefs and the Guildhall Library”, Historical Research, 66, (1993), 98-110.’

[8] Surviving briefs include STC 8158, 8203.5, 8101 and 8247.6.

[9] 9234/7 fol.179r.

[10] James I, STC 8480.5. Extracts taken from Martin Dunsford and George Boyce, ‘Copy of a Brief granted by the King after the great fire in Tiverton in the year 1612’, Historical memoirs of the town and parish of Tiverton (Exeter, 1836), Book V, pp.15-18.

8 thoughts on “‘Exhorting and Persuading’: Petitions, rhetorical strategies and the burning of Tiverton

  1. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society | the many-headed monster

  2. For anyone who wants to learn more about fires in early modern towns, I can recommend John Morgan’s excellent recent article, not seen at the time of preparing this piece: ‘The representation and experience of English urban fire disasters, c.1580–1640’, Historical Research, 89 (2016): 268–293. doi:10.1111/1468-2281.12123.

  3. One of the interesting tidbits in Underdown’s book on Dorchester is the town’s remarkable generosity in response to such briefs after their own experience of fire.

    • Thanks Susan, what evokes generosity is one of the things I’m interested in, so that’s an interesting comparison to follow up.

  4. Thanks Becky, really interesting! I was wondering, do the fire petitions that you have read ever invoke religious language/obligations as well as social and economic ones? For example, one that I have come across in West Sussex RO (WSRO QR/W152 f. 35r) ends thus: ““ yo[u]r petic[i]oners w[i]th their wives and families are almost utterly ruined & undone and are likely to come to want and misery unlesse they shall be assisted and releived by the Charity of well disposed Christians”. Just a thought!

    • Thanks Hannah, the petitions almost certainly contained a religious obligation, not least because the ones I have seen were addressed to the clergy, instructing that they be read out in church as part of the parish collection for the poor. Few of the bills themselves survive so it is difficult to be definitive but I would expect this to be in the mix of reasons why people should give. The homily ‘On Charity’ is interesting on reasons for giving to charitable causes, if it won’t buy salvation post-Reformation. I am planning to come to your paper in Cambridge next week, we could discuss this further then!

      • Yes indeed we can! I have occasionally seen calls to ‘Charity’ used at the end of other petitions which I agree is an interesting formulation. I’ve just taken it to mean a general sense of obligation towards widows/orphans/vulnerable in society (as most of mine are from widows) but perhaps there is something more interesting to be discussed there. Looking forward to seeing you in Cambridge!

  5. Most interesting ! I am a direct descendant of George Slee, I am attempting to trace. A book written by an Australian descendant re the Slee family. Could you help source it. For me?

    Kathleen Brightwell

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