‘Thair is na offence to supplicat’: Presbyterian petitioning in early modern Scotland

Our next post for the Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been written by Laura Stewart of the University of York. She brings to our attention the important role of petitions in the mobilisation of opinion against King Charles I’s religious policies in Scotland, but also point to the problems of identifying the extent of popular participation and suggests that petitioning did not inevitably lead to a more open or ‘democratic’ mode of politics.

Scholars of early modern England have made a strong case for the significance of petitioning as one of the means by which new political associations and practices came into being. Petitions had long been seen as a legitimate political tool but, according to David Zaret, it was the combination of this practice with the move into print that mattered. Printed petitions were nothing less than the harbinger of ‘public opinion’ and, hence, modern democratic politics.

Although Zaret’s work has generated fruitful debate, his thesis has been heavily critiqued by historians. The likes of Jason Peacey, amongst others, have sited petitioning amongst a far wider range of other practices and media, not all of which aimed ‘to publicize a case in the public sphere’. For Peacey, petitions were part of a process in which a wider cross-section of society was able not only to engage more fully and deeply with parliamentary politics, but also to appropriate such practices for its own uses. The key issue here is less whether such activity furthered the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ – some of it clearly did not – than the ways in which print technology facilitated widening participation in politics.[1]

Peacey’s shift of emphasis is useful to historians of those parts of Europe in which precious few signs of the emergence of Zaret’s ‘democratic culture’ can be found prior to the eighteenth century. Scotland is one of those places. In an important book on the debates surrounding the Union of 1707, Karin Bowie argued that it was only in the closing moments of the seventeenth century that the conditions for the emergence of ‘public opinion’ finally obtained in Scotland. Petitioning generated debate throughout society and ‘set new precedents for the engagement of public opinion’.[2] This may well have been the case, but it raises questions about earlier periods.

There may not have been either ‘public opinion’ or a ‘public sphere’ before 1699, but – following Peacey – I would like to suggest that petitions offer other ways of thinking about subtle, yet important, developments in the nature of political participation during the era of the Scottish Revolution.


It seems to have been generally accepted in Scotland, as elsewhere in early modern Europe, that the principles of justice and good governance permitted petitioning of the authorities, provided the petitioners adhered to supplicatory forms that underpinned their subordinate status and eschewed overt claims to be exercising a right.

Very little systematic work has been done on petitioning of any kind in early modern Scotland. The petitions that have received the most interest from early modern scholars are those that voiced opposition to King Charles I’s religious reforms at the end of the 1630s. This campaign was triggered when King Charles imposed a Prayer Book on Scotland, by royal prerogative, in 1637. It was spearheaded by presbyterians who had lost the argument against the restoration of episcopal jurisdiction in the early seventeenth century and had been unable to prevent the concomitant decline in meetings of the Kirk’s national forum, the general assembly. With the general assembly in abeyance, opponents of royal policy could no longer petition king and parliament directly from a body that was widely regarded as the legitimate public voice of the Kirk.

The status of petitioning on religious matters consequently became more ambiguous. It became easier for the government to dismiss presbyterian petitions as the work of private factions. Presbyterians nonetheless argued that it had always been acceptable for anyone to petition the authorities: as one sympathizer pointed out, ‘thair is na offence to supplicat’.[3]

Edinburgh 1637, from John Vicars, The Sight of ye Transactions of these latter years (1646)

Edinburgh 1637, from John Vicars, The Sight of ye Transactions of these latter years (1646)

It was in this context that a petitioning campaign was launched against the Prayer Book in 1637. After the riots of 23 July, in which a carefully stage-managed disturbance in the capital failed to secure at least a postponement of the policy, the presbyterian leadership resorted to petitions. In the first instance, a small number of petitions were quietly presented to the privy council and this had the desired effect of persuading the council to back-pedal: it conceded that ministers would not be compelled to use the Prayer Book.

Towards the end of September 1637, a meeting was convened in Edinburgh to coordinate more petitions from a wider range of localities. Copies of forty-six of the petitions have survived, plus a general petition, although it seems highly likely that sixty-six were drafted.[4] The majority are unsigned, but most are the work of individuals who claim to represent a wider community of people. Ambiguities about who, exactly, constituted these communities are evident. One petition, produced by the presbytery of Kirkcudbright, southwest Scotland, is untypical. Larger than the other supplications, it has been prepared on vellum rather than paper. It carries hundreds of signatures, some from relatively humble people, grouped together in ways that suggest the petition was passed from parish to parish. The petition does not mention the word ‘covenant’: that accolade goes to one drawn up on 17 October and signed, significantly, by the men who were regarded as being the legitimate public voice of the kingdom: the titled nobility. These developments presaged the National Covenant of February 1638 – a document that was sought to construct presbyterian demands for reform as the will of the Scottish people.

None of the petitions were printed and, while it is probable that they were circulated amongst the supplicants, there appears to have been no attempt to copy them for wider distribution. Given that the printing of petitions seems to have remained uncommon in Scotland during the 1640s, it is hard to argue that petitioning suddenly became an independent driver of Scottish public opinion in this period. Part of the explanation for the limited recourse to print may lie in that fact that the people now known as Covenanters achieved what their English brethren could not and secured a settlement involving the king. Politics was stabilised, civil war was averted, and Scotland’s representative institutions were reinvested with legitimacy. Petitioning did not become a means thereafter of breaking with established political norms. Hence, the practice remained bound by the conventions that had defined it prior to the Prayer Book crisis.

Some scholars have argued that the culmination of the petitioning process, the petition par excellence, was the National Covenant, which was signed and sworn by many thousands of people, and disseminated in many forms, both print and scribal. We have seen that there clearly was a connection between the two. In one critical respect, however, the Covenant was not a petition: there was none of the supplicatory language of a subordinate to a superior and it did not ask for the latter’s intercession to right a perceived wrong. More than this, the Covenant is problematic as an expression of either ‘public’ or ‘popular’ opinion. The petitions that augured its emergence point to the reasons why.

The petitions of 1637, like the Covenant, were part of a wider strategy that had a key tension at its heart: although the presbyterians who coordinated this activity were seeking to appeal, in an overt and aggressive manner, to popular audiences, most notably through the practice of protesting against royal proclamations, the Covenanter leadership was doing all it could to contain the possibility that popular audiences might make normative claims to a legitimate role in political processes. In this respect, the supplicants’ careful acknowledgement of the accepted conventions of petitioning checked the potential for such devices to become engines of a more participatory kind of politics.

Rather than seeing this development as evidence that political elites were controlling or manipulating popular audiences, I would like to argue that it exemplifies the tensions and ambiguities embedded in presbyterian thought about the role of ‘the people’ in politics. These tensions and ambiguities were further entrenched by the manner in which the National Covenant was made public. The vast majority of the men and women who took the Covenant did so in their parish churches, gathered together as a congregation, led by the minister and male householders. At the moment when the Covenant seemed to promise a new departure in public politics, by generating the idea that ‘the people’ had given their consent to a presbyterian church and a parliamentary constitution, the manner in which they had taken it served to reinforce established hierarchies and contain possibilities for further debate.

For the rest of the 1640s, petitioning remained closely controlled by the institutions of governance, both secular and ecclesiastical. It was only under the very different conditions of the Restoration era that some presbyterians, drawing on the experiences of the later sixteen-thirties, began explicitly to argue that the ‘common people’ had a right to act in defence of their ‘Religion and libertyes’.[5]

[1] Jason Peacey, Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 268-9, 398-9.

[2] Karin Bowie, Scottish Public Opinion and the Anglo-Scottish Union, 1699-1707 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007), 28.

[3] The Grievances given in by the Ministers before the Parliament holden in June 1633 … (n.p., 1635). NLS, Wod.Qu.IX, fos 358v.

[4] RPCS, 2nd ser., vol. vi, pp. 699–715. NRS, Privy Council Papers, 2nd series, PC11/6B, nos 289–314.

[5] James Stewart, Ius Populi Vindicatum (1669).

2 thoughts on “‘Thair is na offence to supplicat’: Presbyterian petitioning in early modern Scotland

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

  2. Pingback: Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts | the many-headed monster

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