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Edmund Felton's petitions for justice

4 September 2020

This month, Professor Jason Peacey looks at how Edmund Felton used petitions to fight for justice during the 1600s.

In 1653, an embittered petitioner called Edmund Felton printed 'An Out-cry for Justice', reflecting upon the failure to get his complaints addressed, and upon a long struggle against a powerful opponent. His enemy, Sir Henry Spiller, was accused of foul deeds, including bribery, corruption, and conspiracy, as well as imprisonment and attempted murder, and Edmund wondered whether ‘anyone can tell where he may have justice against oppressors’. He bemoaned the danger posed to the ‘commonwealth’ by ‘want of justice’, and exclaimed that men were ‘made poor by oppression, and then despised because poor’.

It is difficult to know what to make of such claims, but it is vital not to dismiss them, just as they were not written off at the time. Edmund Felton’s tale of woe demands attention because it is loaded with lessons about how to study petitioners, their experiences, and their behaviour.

Edmund was the son of an impoverished Exchequer official, Thomas Felton, who raised money for the crown by identifying lands of ‘recusant’ Catholics that could be milked by the government. Thomas was zealous, and fell out spectacularly with Spiller, whose more lenient approach raised suspicions that he connived with recusants for pecuniary gain, thereby defrauding the state. Thomas lost the argument, and wound up indebted and imprisoned, ending his days in ‘great misery’.

Edmund then took up the fight, but with no more success. By 1626 he was in King’s Bench prison, for which he blamed both Spiller and the gaoler, whose extortionate fees kept him in debt and in detention. Edmund thus began to rail not just against Spiller’s ‘frauds and deceits to the crown’, but also against his ‘malicious practice’, which had undermined Thomas ‘till he died, not without… a strong presumption of an untimely death’.

Spiller’s ‘sinister practices’ were allegedly sustained for decades. He engaged in bribery, and detained ‘writings and evidences’ to prevent hearings, and even tried to ‘take away the life’ of one witness, ‘for a rape… committed on one of his men’s children’. Edmund was repeatedly arrested, and rumours were spread to ‘disgrace and discourage’ him, not least that he was ‘a mad man, crazed in his brains’. In prison he was beaten, ‘violently and barbarously’, and he claimed that three attempts were made on his life, involving a conspiracy between Spiller and the guards, ‘with whom he is very great’. Eventually, Edmund was moved to a common gaol and a ‘dark dungeon’.

Behaving in ‘a most wicked manner’ reflected Spiller’s determination to effect Edmund’s ‘ruin and undoing’, and it had a disastrous effect upon his family. Mrs Felton suffered a miscarriage and was ‘ready to depart this life’; impoverishment caused the death of another child.

Edmund Felton’s story – of ‘wicked plots’ and ‘oppression’ – sounds fantastical, although Spiller was notorious as a ‘knave’, and some claims had apparently been substantiated by witnesses, becoming matters of public record. As such, what makes Edmund fascinating is less the veracity of his claims than the response they elicited.

A petition to the House of Commons in 1621 was unsuccessful, and when Edmund turned to the Lords in 1624 his case was rejected, on the grounds that MPs were better placed to judge his case. This placed him in procedural bind, and while subsequent petitions were ostensibly humble they also hinted at frustration. A plea in 1626 conceded that MPs had failed to take action in 1621 due to their ‘extraordinary employments for the weal publique’, and because the king had dissolved Parliament, but it also reminded peers that ‘abuses’ required a ‘reformation’, and that witnesses had given evidence under oath. Edmund also made veiled criticisms of an unnamed Lord Treasurer.

When the Long Parliament assembled in November 1640, Edmund bombarded MPs with further petitions and ‘articles’ of accusation, but while Spiller was arrested and his case referred to a committee, real progress proved difficult. Subsequent months saw further petitions, as Edmund pleaded to be released from prison to pursue the matter. But it was all to no avail. The matter was dropped, and Spiller was released. He went on to fight for the king in the civil war (for which he was punished by Parliament), and died in April 1649.

Edmund Felton’s case is illuminating in terms of the grievances that drove him to Westminster, and the challenges he faced as a petitioner, but also in terms of how he responded to his experience as a frustrated supplicant. In 1639, Edmund apparently ‘scattered’ his accusations against Spiller around the streets, and was charged with having ‘scandalised him’. In 1642, another ‘humble petition’ was printed as a pamphlet, suggesting a determination to place matters before court of public opinion.

Eventually, Edmund supplemented lurid accusations about Spiller with complaints about Parliament, in terms of how difficult it had been to get official hearings, and about how little had been done about his repeated imprisonment. It was this lack of official assistance that justified going public, and that eventually provoked his 'Out-cry for Justice'.

Ultimately, Edmund came to doubt the parliamentary process. In 1628, he had charged Spiller ‘to his face’ in the Commons, only to discover that, as an MP, his enemy was protected by parliamentary privilege. In 1640, Spiller was allegedly ‘befriended’ by ‘fellow justices and courtiers’, making it impossible for Edmund to ‘get his charge reported’ in the House.

Edmund thus felt ‘necessitated’ to pursue more aggressive strategies and more extreme language. He ‘thrice printed books… and presented them to every member’, before deciding to ‘write and publish his oppressions to the world’, and to complain how he ‘humbly prayed for justice, but found it not’. He quoted a well-known couplet: ‘who hath great friends, lives free and hath no faults / but without friends the most innocent halts’. However, he also quoted an Army document from 1647, about how ‘the people of this nation are subject to grievous oppressions, through the obstruction of justice’.

That Edmund Felton ended up sounding like a civil war radical is important, because of the route by which he reached this point. The dispute may always have been politically and religiously charged: he referred to Spiller as a ‘great malignant’, while boasting of his service to Parliament during the civil wars. However, it was largely framed as a story of someone who turned to Parliament with grievances about corruption, whose complaints provoked abusive ‘practices’, and who felt let down by the parliamentary process.

Felton’s case is instructive because this all proved to be eye-opening and dispiriting. Whatever the truth of his claims, Edmund’s experience animated him, as he learned to navigate official processes, pursued dramatic ways of making himself heard, and made sense of his experience through political reflection.

Edmund Felton was poor and obscure, and was last heard of pleading for employment with Cromwell, as someone lacking ‘wherewithal to wage law to obtain justice… having spent himself to the last’. But this is no reason to dismiss him. He may not have achieved the notoriety of his brother, John, the Duke of Buckingham’s assassin, largely because he pursued his grievances with a pen, rather than with a dagger. Nevertheless, as a petitioner who became a familiar face around Westminster, he highlights an important and largely overlooked phenomenon in early modern England: the disillusioned petitioner.

Professor Jason Peacey is Professor of Early Modern British History at UCL
Image: Portrait of Sir Henry Spiller of Laleham by a follower of Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen (in public domain)