The series of Ancient Petitions draws together a large number of petitions addressed to the king, to the king and council, to the king and council in parliament, to the chancellor, and to certain other officers of state.
The earliest petitions date to the reign of Henry III, and the latest example has been identified as belonging to the reign of James I. The vast majority of the petitions date to the period between the late thirteenth century and the middle of the fifteenth century; there is a particular concentration of documents which date to the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III. The majority of petitions are written in Anglo-Norman French, although some early examples are written in Latin, and English was used increasingly as the fifteenth century progressed.
The majority of petitions were presented by named individuals (both men and women), singly or in groups. Although there are examples of petitions presented by members of the peasantry, most petitioners tended to be members of the gentry, the nobility, the urban elites and the higher clergy. In addition to petitions presented by individuals, a significant number of cases were presented in the name of communities and corporations: many examples exist of petitions presented by villages, towns, ecclesiastical institutions and mercantile associations. There are also petitions which claimed to speak in the interests of the whole realm, and were accordingly addressed from the 'commons' or 'people'. Most of the petitions came from individuals and communities within England, but a significant minority were from other lands, especially Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Aquitaine and other parts of France.
The petitions generally fall into two categories: some ask for the redress of grievances which could not be resolved at common law; others are straightforward requests for a grant of favour. The formal statement of grievance or request which lies at the heart of each petition includes detailed information about the circumstances of the petitioner, as well as a wealth of incidental material about social, economic and cultural conditions. In most cases the petition was presented in the hope that it would mobilise royal grace. Early on it was common for the crown's response to be recorded on the dorse of the petition, but from the mid-fourteenth century this practice declined as the use of authorising writs, which were usually attached to the petition, gathered momentum. In many cases it is possible to identify a corresponding writ with its original petition (see, for example, Chancery: Warrants for the Great Seal C 81). A large proportion of the outcomes to individual petitions can be identified in other records produced by central government, including: the Chancery, Charter Rolls (C 53), Close Rolls (C 54), Fine Rolls (C 60), Gascon Rolls (C 61), Patent Rolls (C 66); the Exchequer, King's Remembrancer Memoranda rolls (E 159); and the King's Bench Coram Rege rolls (KB 27). Many petitions presented in parliament up to 1334 were written up, with the corresponding replies, on the parliament rolls (SC 9; C 65).
There is no underlying logic to the organisation of the series of Ancient Petitions, because it is an artificial one created at the end of the nineteenth century. The nucleus of the series is a rearrangement of an earlier collection of petitions known as 'Parliamentary Petitions', whose contents were incorporated into the early files of SC 8 and currently account for petitions numbered 1-7768. The remainder of Ancient Petitions was created by bringing in a large quantity of material from other sources, much of it then newly discovered. The petitions in SC 8 currently numbered between 7769 and 15,570 thus incorporates a wide selection of material, variously described by Maxwell-Lyte in 1892, as 'unsorted Miscellanea of Chancery', 'Chancery Files', 'Privy Seals', 'Royal Letters' and 'Gascon Petitions'. A small number of petitions addressed to specific officers of state (in particular, the chancellor or treasurer) were also included, and at the very end of the series there are approximately 1,500 petitions which were originally from the records of the Exchequer (these cases have an 'E' prefix to their respective numbers). One of the unfortunate consequences of the nineteenth-century rearrangements was that many of the writs formally attached to the petitions were separated and placed into other series, most notably in Chancery: Warrants for the Great Seal (C 81). Although it is likely that a large proportion of the petitions contained in SC 8 were presented in parliament, the uncertain origins of the series, and the disparate nature of its contents, means that some caution should be exercised before this is assumed to be the case.
Dating of petitions
Few petitions can be directly dated unless they carry a dated endorsement or memorandum of process. They are not, however, undateable. All the petitions have been ascribed a date or a period when they are most likely to have been presented. This estimation is based on cross-references to other sources, most notably to the parliament rolls and the printed calendars of chancery rolls; in other cases it is based more impressionistically on the hand and form.
Use of the Catalogue
Details of the contents of the petitions contained in SC 8 can be accessed electronically using the Catalogue. Searchers who have already established the reference for the petition they wish to access can 'go to reference' directly in the Catalogue by typing in the appropriate full reference, for which purpose the series number, file number and petition number are all required (e.g. SC 8/60/2985). Alternatively, those who wish to search the series generally may do so within 'search the catalogue'. In this instance, searchers should enter 'SC 8' within 'department or series code', and then a key word or phrase (e.g. a personal name, place name or other distinctive word). A chronological focus to the search can be provided by entering a single date, or span of dates, within 'year range'. A search for all references to a specific word or phrase, restricted to SC 8 (and, if chosen, a range of years) will produce a numerical list of all the relevant petitions. Clicking on an individual reference then takes one to the 'quick reference' calendar of the petition, where searchers are provided with the basics details of the petition: its date; the name/s of the petitioner/s; placenames; other personal names mentioned; and a summary of the request and (where relevant) the endorsement. Further information on the petition is provided in 'full details', including an indication of whether the petition is published ('Publication Details'); where other records relating to the petition can be found ('Related Material'); and the reasons for ascribing a particular date/date range to the petition ('Note').
Please note: digital copies of these records can be searched and downloaded.