A ‘slanderous & scandalous’ petition: the Dyers’ Company and a burdensome petitioning campaign in early Jacobean England

Our latest post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is from Ellen Paterson. Ellen is a DPhil candidate and Clarendon scholar at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, researching anti-monopoly petitioning activity in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Find her on twitter at @elpatersonPhD.

In July 1605, the London Company of Dyers not only upset the Privy Council through their writing and attempted presentation of a ‘slanderous & scandalous’ petition, but also the King himself who was ‘much offended’ by their appearance before him at court.[1] Whilst petitioning was an accepted and common practice in the early modern period, the petitioning of the Dyers’ Company in this instance generated a degree of concern amongst the Council, who promptly ordered Thomas Sackville, the Earl of Dorset, to investigate their petitioning activity.

The Dyers had petitioned the King and Council to express their discontent with a new patent of monopoly granted for the product of logwood. This was a type of dyeing wood which had been introduced into England in the sixteenth century, which produced black, grey, and red dyes. The use of it was prohibited as it was thought to produce defective colours, but licences were sometimes issued allowing limited imports of the commodity, as part of the Crown’s larger reliance on patents and grants as a much-needed source of revenue. In August 1604, a group of courtiers led by Sir Arthur Aston had been given such a grant, allowing them to import logwood and to make a new dyeing mixture from it. This was a cause of vexation to the Dyers’ Company; not only did they complain in their petition that this dyeing mixture was sold at an ‘intollerable’ price, but they also alleged that it was unfit for use and consequently ‘unprofitable to the comon Welthe.’[2]

Painting of a Logwood/Sappan tree. Credit: Ming herbal (painting): Sappan tree, Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Painting of a Logwood/Sappan tree. Credit: Ming herbal (painting): Sappan tree, Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

In many ways this case was not unique. Groups of artisans and traders often came together to protest against grants and monopolies which were seen as infringing on their trades and livelihoods. However, the response of the Council and the investigation that the Dyers’ petition provoked is certainly interesting. Why was this particular petitioning episode worthy of investigation?

Dorset’s resulting report provides us with some valuable clues. Despite the Dyers’ denial that they had petitioned the King or the Council ‘either verball[y] or by writing’, on further questioning they admitted that ‘their purpos[e] was to haue exhibited a complaint vnto the L[ords].’ The ‘slanderous’ petition they wrote was thus forwarded by Dorset to the Council. Yet the Dyers had not just composed one supplication on this issue; Dorset found that they had also petitioned Henry Howard, the Earl of Northampton verbally, informing him of their ‘greifes’ at court. Dorset also learned that Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, had received another petition, ‘some fewe daies past, of on[e] & the same effect’, to which he had already given a ‘iust & reasonable’ answer. Despite this supplication receiving a response, the Dyers had still intended to send another petition on the same subject to the Council. It was this which Dorset found especially irksome, claiming that the Dyers refusal to listen to Salisbury and their intention to continue to petition on this topic ‘excedingly increase[d] their offens[e]’. Dorset’s report highlights an important feature of early modern petitioning: the concern of the state towards any untoward or incessant petitioning activity.

Petitioning was a crucial way through which the voices of the people were heard in early modern England. It was a form of communication which was sometimes encouraged by the state; on James’s arrival into England in 1603, he issued a proclamation which urged subjects to petition if they found any Crown grants or monopolies to be vexatious. Yet this also made clear that there were limits to what the state would accept as legitimate petitioning activity. Subjects were only to petition in a ‘decent’ fashion, ‘without numbers, without clamo[u]r, or any other kind of disorder.’[3]

Whilst there is no indication that the Dyers petitioned with a menacing crowd, their incessant petitioning clearly tried the patience of the King and Council, creating the type of ‘clamour’ which James had strictly forbidden. In his letter, Dorset made clear that grievances surrounding this patent had already been heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Attorney General, and the Master of Requests, who had upheld the grant. That the Dyers had then attempted to ‘recomplain & petition a new’ despite this ruling was thus an act undermining their authority. If Salisbury confirmed that he had indeed answered previous petitioning complaints on this issue some days previously, then the Dyers were ‘iustly to be comitted’ to prison for burdening the Council further.

King James I of England and VI of Scotland. Engraving by G. Vertue, ca. 1732, after P. van Somer.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This case provides an example of the workings of James’s petitioning policy in action. Subjects were encouraged to petition to gain redress from grievances, but the capacity for the ‘many-headed monster’ to rear its head meant that the state remained wary of any campaigns which they perceived as dangerous, or in this particular case, as troublesome. Indeed, the incessant petitioning by the Dyers led Dorset to prohibit the patentees and Dyers from troubling the Lords with further petitions until Michaelmas. Yet if the Council hoped this would be enough to end the controversy surrounding this patent, they were sorely mistaken. Further mention to the results of Dorset’s investigation are lacking, but in November 1605 Aston’s patent was re-issued, with logwood now set at more reasonable rates, as per the Dyers’ requests. The grant itself made mention to the Dyers’ petitioning activity as a key factor prompting this new agreement, suggesting that further petitions on the issue may have been presented, perhaps after the expiry of their petitioning ban.

This episode reminds us that whilst the state welcomed petitioning as a more acceptable form of political communication than methods such as riots and rebellions, there still remained limits on how much petitioning activity they would condone. The frequent petitioning of the Dyers amounted to a burdensome petitioning campaign of a type forbidden by James’s own proclamation. Yet its outcome suggests that, in practice, the adoption of such tactics could sometimes prove successful in securing petitioners’ aims.

Further reading

Brodie Waddell, Jason Peacey and Sharon Howard (eds.), The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-century England <petitioning.history.ac.uk>.

Richard Hoyle, ‘Petitioning as popular politics in early sixteenth-century England’, Historical Research, 75:190 (November, 2002), pp. 365-389.

Joan Thirsk, Economic policy and projects: the development of a consumer society in early modern England (Oxford, 1978).

W. Price, The English patents of monopoly (London, 1913).

J. Hübner, ‘A contribution to the history of dyeing’, Journal of the society of chemical industry, 32 (1913), pp. 1043-1053.


[1] All quotes unless otherwise referenced are from Hatfield House, Cecil Papers (CP) 190/141, fo. 141r.

[2] CP Petitions 2090.

[3] ‘By the King. A Proclamation inhibiting the use and execution of any Charter or Graunt made by the late Queen Elizabeth, of any kind of Monopolies, &c. [Theobalds 7 May 1603]’, in J. F. Larkin and P. L. Hughes (eds.), Stuart royal proclamations, Volume 1: royal proclamations of King James I 1603-1625 (Oxford, 1973), pp. 11-14.

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