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The Kentish Petition of 1701

31 May 2019

This month, Dr Paul Seaward explains the background to the Kentish Petition of 1701, a famous case in which politicians argued over whether people had a right to petition Parliament.

Do citizens have the right to petition Parliament? Of course they do, and they have done for centuries: the whole idea of how Parliament operates is in some ways based on the principle of people bringing their grievances to the attention of the government. But in the past, some politicians were deeply nervous about the implications of it. As long as petitions were respectful, and limited in nature, they raised few problems. But petitions that made demands, rather than requests; that were critical of the actions of the government or the elite; or that were presented in a confident or even aggressive manner, were more of a problem. And often, petitions were recognised to be more than just a way for people to explain their problems and seek redress, but a means by which politicians created an impression of widespread support for their projects and themselves.


Petitioning, sedition and violence

In 1640 and 1641 mass petitioning campaigns were one of the tools that leaders of the movement for reform in the Church and government of Charles I used to push forward their demands within Parliament. They helped to generate an atmosphere around Westminster that was at times exuberant and celebratory but turned quickly to threatened and actual violence, which eventually led to the King's withdrawal from London, and ultimately to Civil War and the abolition of the monarchy. Twenty years later, after the monarchy was restored, a new Parliament passed a law, the Act against Tumultuary Petitioning of 1661, that placed severe limits on how petitions could be circulated, and how they could be presented. Remarking that such petitions ‘have been made use of to serve the ends of factious and seditious persons gotten into power to the violation of the public peace and have been a great means of the late unhappy wars confusions and calamities in this nation', the Act required that petitions for any reform in church or state had to be endorsed first by a local authority, and they could be presented to the King or to Parliament only by a limited number of people. Around two decades afterwards, as people reacted to the news that the heir to the throne, the future James II, had become a Catholic and demands grew for his exclusion from the throne, petitions again became a device to support a demand for political change. After James was removed from the throne by the Revolution of 1689 and replaced by his daughter, Mary II, and her husband, the head of the Dutch state, William III, Parliament's Bill of Rights explicitly defended the right to petition, at least to the monarch. With politicians now deeply divided in the aftermath of the Revolution into ‘Whig' and ‘Tory' camps, the temptation to try to manipulate petitions for political advantage, and the anxiety about the consequences that might follow, were both considerable.


The Kentish Petition

In elections held in 1701 the Tories gained the upper hand in the House of Commons, and hardliners among them gave full expression to their opposition to the policies pursued by the government of William III – especially to his involvement in the politics of Europe, especially to prevent the rapid growth of the power of France. Whigs tried to counter them by organizing a campaign of petitions and addresses. In one of them, which had been agreed by the grand jury of Kent (in the manner authorised by the 1661 Act) and signed by more than 250 people, the petitioners said that they were ‘deeply concerned by the dangerous estate of this kingdom, and of all Europe; and considering, that the fate of them, and their posterity, depends on the wisdom of their representatives in Parliament', and urged the House of Commons ‘to answer the great trust reposed in their said representatives by the country'. It requested ‘that this House will have regard to the voice of the people', and that it would take steps to support the king in his endeavours. Though the petition used respectful enough language, the implication, that Parliament was failing in its duty, was unmistakable and prominent Tories vented their fury on the petitioners. It was said that they were aiming to ‘destroy our constitution and bring us to 41' – i.e., to go back to the tactics of 1641, with the same potential results in bringing about Civil War and revolution. The House of Commons had the promoters arrested and held in custody.

Their action provoked a political storm. Whigs mounted an angry campaign in the press condemning the treatment of the petitioners. The journalist and novelist Daniel Defoe was among them. His bitter pamphlet, Legion's Memorial, boldly told the Speaker that ‘a serious regard to it is expected; nothing but justice, and their duty is required, and it is required by them who have both a right to require, and power to compel, viz., the People of England.' In a second contribution, The History of the Kentish Petition, he described how the petition came to be presented and the behaviour of the Commons. ‘To punish for humble petitioning!' it concluded: ‘ ‘tis nonsense in itself'. Tories countered that they did not oppose the right to petition; they were just acting to prevent the actions of a subversive minority trying (as they argued) to manipulate public opinion.

The petitioners were released at the end of the session, a month or so after their arrest; and a second general election in 1701 and the death of King William in early 1702 would transform the political situation. But the Kentish petition would remain famous for many years as the key case in which the fundamental questions of the right to petition and the way in which petitions could be used for partisan political ends were rehearsed.


Paul Seaward is the British Academy / Wolfson Foundation professor at the History of Parliament Trust.


Image: The House of Commons in Session, Oil painting by Peter Tillemans,
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2737.