[Essay] ‘Dominic Cummings must be sacked’: Contemporary Political Engagement and Early Modern Petitions — Ellen Paterson

Dominic Cummings: the name on everyone’s lips and the topic of countless articles, posts, and tweets, as we all struggle with the reality of being separated from friends, family, and our beloved beer gardens. Since the delivery of his unprecedented press conference, Cummings’ contravention of his own government’s guidelines and adamant refusal to give up the reins of power have dominated political discussion.[1] After it was revealed that Cummings had made a 260-mile trip from London to Durham whilst displaying coronavirus symptoms to find childcare, many were outraged at this clear breach of government rules concerning self-isolation. The news that Cummings’ offence had extended even further, to a visit to Barnard Castle 30 miles from his parents’ home where he was residing, intensified public anger and led to a widespread sense of injustice. His press conference only served to heighten these emotions further as many felt his excuses were limp and bereft of any remorse.

As a national debate rages in the press, across dinner-tables, and on social media as to whether Cummings acted with the ‘instincts of every father’ or merely with an arrogant disregard for the rules he imposed on others, many have turned to an ancient and powerful form of communication to express their discontent and demands: petitioning.[2]

A change.org petition written on Saturday, entitled ‘Dominic Cummings must be sacked’, has at the time of writing gathered well over a million signatures.[3] The petition, addressed to the UK parliament, calls for Cummings to be sacked and allows members of the public to include their reasons for signing. Motivations range from the murky legality of his actions to the fact that Cummings’ behaviour is symptomatic of the Conservative government’s tendency towards unfairness. After all, how many other parents faced the same difficulties and concerns surrounding childcare yet stuck to the rules the government urged us all to follow? The petition aims to gather a total of a million signatures, something which is entirely possible: a petition to ‘Test frontline NHS staff for COVID-19 as a priority’ has at the time of writing amassed a staggering 1,512,457 signatures as citizens frustrated by the government’s testing policy have attempted to instigate change through a collective petitioning endeavour.[4] British citizens have turned eagerly to petitions in an effort to voice their views, with the ultimate aim of influencing government policy. 

A polarised national debate, widespread anger over evil counsellors, and the exercise of agency via petitioning that currently dominate contemporary political discourse have fascinating antecedents in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, when early modern petitions demonstrate striking similarities with contemporary means of political engagement. Far from remaining uninterested or incapable of discussing political matters, early modern English subjects eagerly absorbed news and actively participated to make their voices heard.[5] From uttering seditious speech against monarchs and their advisers to far more dramatic instances of rebellion, even the humblest of early modern subjects found a way to engage in politics.

Petitions have long been used as a form of political expression and communication with the nation’s rulers.[6] Addressed to different centres of power, including parliament, the privy council, and the king or queen themselves, early modern petitions are increasingly viewed by historians as a crucial tool of communication between rulers and ruled, both at the local level (for instance, by poor suitors petitioning for poor relief), and nationally.[7]

Early modern petitions addressed a range of issues but all shared the same basic function of allowing subjects to articulate their views and demand redress from the government. The centrality of religion in the lives of all early modern citizens meant that petitioning campaigns pushing for religious reform were common. Upon the accession of the Scottish king James VI to the English throne as James I in 1603, petitions by both Puritans and Catholics capitalised on the politics of accession to call for changes in the realm’s religious policy.[8]

The intensity and extent of petitioning activity led the clergymen John Whitgift and Richard Bancroft to write anxiously to Robert Cecil of the ‘clamorin[g]e petic[i]ons against the orders and government of the church’ which the king was ‘daylie troubled’ by.[9] Furthermore, socio-economic issues remained a key motivating factor for supplications throughout James’s reign, addressing issues including the legal system, the unpopular economic practice of enclosure, and taxation. Like the backlash against Cummings today, early modern petitions also confronted the problem of bad counsel. One addressed to James shortly after his arrival into England took the opportunity to criticise the Secretary of State Robert Cecil as a ‘Crookback who would have all,’ mocking his hunched back and attacking his alleged greediness.[10] Moments of political change or crisis, much like today, saw a flourishing of political activity, with petitioning at the centre. The accession of the new monarch in 1603 constituted a clear petitioning moment as subjects rejoiced in the hope offered by the arrival of a new king in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s death. In a speech delivered to James on his arrival, the lawyer Richard Martin referred to the ‘complaints and insinuations’ that had already ‘wearied’ James, whilst another description of his progress from Scotland referenced the influx of petitioners approaching their new king.[11]

Like the supplications of the early modern state, today’s electronic petitions have adapted to meet the changing needs and new technologies of political participation. Much early modern scholarship has focused on the move away from scribal, manuscript petitions in favour of the printed petition in the context of the English Civil War.[12] With the growth of print came the opportunity to increase the production and dissemination of petitions to more effectively influence public opinion.[13] The use of electronic petitions today carries a similar purpose: in being shared online, the potential reach of these documents is dramatically enhanced. Signing them also becomes easy, as political participation can be achieved from the comfort of the home.

The transition to printed petitions in the 1640s should not lead us to underestimate the influence and power of earlier manuscript petitions and their ability to be collective endeavours. These were often produced by professional scribes or literate members of society.[14] In different public spaces, such as the church or the alehouse, subjects met to debate and draw up collective petitions. Individuals sometimes travelled widely to procure signatures for certain petitions; in November 1603, Lord Sheffield claimed that men had been ‘imployed to goe vpp and downe’ in the North to gather signatures for a Catholic petition.[15] Even the illiterate could sign them by leaving marks in the form of crosses or small drawings signalling their occupations. The form they took could also be influenced by a wish to increase their impact and reach to a wider public, as petitions could be pinned to public spaces such as church crosses,[16] not unlike the contemporary practice of ‘pinning’ an electronic petition on Facebook or Twitter.

In terms of their consequences, early modern petitions directly impacted government policy. As argued by Richard Hoyle, hearing petitions was an important part of kingship, and the office of the Master of Requests was established to deal with the frequent presentation of petitions to authority.[17] Whilst the government proved willing to respond to the requests of some petitioners, this form of participation did at times worry and alarm the government. Supplications seen as potentially seditious and disruptive prompted government investigations,[18] whilst those against certain campaigns often painted subjects as rebellious in an attempt to undermine their petitions, playing on the state’s fear of the public as the ‘many-headed monster.’[19] However, the government response was often positive. Queen Elizabeth’s treasurer and chief adviser William Cecil frequently launched commissions to enquire into claims made by petitioners on economic issues.[20] The religious petitions of 1603 also triggered James’s decision to hold the Hampton Court Conference (1604), to discuss the future of England’s religious policy.[21]

Undoubtedly, those involved in the Cummings petition will be hoping that their voice might have a similar effect. Certainly, this is a possibility; the government is obliged to respond to petitions which gather over 10,000 signatures. Past electronic petitions have successfully triggered debates in Parliament, including one calling on the government to accept more asylum seekers, which amassed over 450,000 signatures before a debate was held on 8 September 2015.[22] Other petitions dealing with contentious and divisive issues have not achieved their specified aim. The petition in March 2019 to ‘Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU’ amassed over 6 million signatures, but the government remained unmoved,[23] refusing to revoke Article 50 in an effort to ‘honour the result of the 2016 referendum.’[24]

Yet, this does not render such petitions uninfluential. As argued by Professor Leston-Bandeira, these modern ‘protest petitions’ can be successful in shaping political discourse, even if they do not lead to immediate effects.[25] The Revoke petition, while ultimately unsuccessful in its objective, clearly drew the government’s attention to the views of a large number of the public, allowing people’s voices to be heard in the political system. It also triggered a response by opponents in the form of a counter-petition, a common practice in early modern England.[26] Petitions were and are undoubtedly on the government’s radar, sometimes triggering decisive change, or simply instigating conversation and participation amongst a broad range of subjects.

The use of petitions by subjects today is nothing new, but rather an established form of political participation dating back centuries. Subjects have long used petitions to make their voices heard, to seek redress, and articulate grievances to their rulers. The use of petitions at a time of political crisis has a direct historical precedent, with James’s accession a prime example of a flashpoint in petitioning activity. During a time which we are continually informed is ‘unprecedented’, it is useful to reflect on some of the similarities between the present day and our early modern past. Only time will tell if the voice of the people in this case proves loud enough to displace Johnson’s unpopular adviser.

*

Ellen Paterson is a Clarendon Scholar at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where she is researching petitioning and political participation in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England.


[1] Bill Gardner and Anna Mikhailova, ‘How Dominic Cummings defended himself in hour-long press conference’, The Telegraph, 26 May 2020.

[2] Peter Walker, ‘Boris Johnson backs Dominic Cummings in face of Tory calls for chief aide to resign’, The Guardian, 24 May 2020.

[3] The petition can be accessed here https://www.change.org/p/uk-parliament-dominic-cummings-must-be-sacked

[4]https://www.change.org/p/test-frontline-nhs-staff-for-covid-19-as-a-priority?utm_source=grow_gb&utm_medium=media.

[5] See Tim Harris (ed.), The Politics of the Excluded, c. 1500-1850 (Hampshire, 2001). 

[6] For the early modern period, see Richard Hoyle, ‘Petitioning as popular politics in early sixteenth-century England’, Historical Research, 75:190 (November, 2002), pp. 365-389; Brodie Waddell, Jason Peacey and Sharon Howard (eds.), The power of petitioning in seventeenth-century England (2019), accessed at petitioning.history.ac.uk.  

[7] For local petitions, see Steve Hindle, On the Parish?: The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England c. 1550-1750 (Oxford, 2004).  

[8] ‘The Ministers peticion’, BL, Stowe MS 180, fos. 7r; ‘The Recusantes petitioun to ye Kynge’, BL, Add MS 29546, fos. 75r-76r.

[9] ‘Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bancroft, Bishop of London, to Cecil’, 24 Sept. 1603, TNA SP 14/1 fo. 142r.

[10] ‘Poor Man’s Petition’, 7 May 1603, BL, Add MS 22601, fo. 11v.

[11] Richard Martin, A speech deliuered, to the Kings most excellent Maiestie in the name of the sheriffes of London and Middlesex (London, 1603), sig. B2r;  Thomas Millington, The True Narration of the Entertainment of His Royal Majesty, from the time of his departure from Edinburgh till his receiving at London…(London, 1603).

[12] See David Zaret, Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in early-modern England (Princeton, 2000).

[13] Ibid., p. 15.

[14] Faramerz Dabhoiwala, ‘Writing Petitions in Early Modern England’, in M. J. Braddick and J. Innes (eds.), Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations: A collection to honour Paul Slack (Oxford, 2017), pp. 127-8.

[15] ‘Lord Sheffield to the King’, 1 Nov. 1603, Hatfield House, CP 118/36 f. 36r.

[16] For an example, see ‘The Seminaries’ Supplication’, Mar. 1604, TNA SP 14/6, fo. 176.

[17] Richard Hoyle, ‘The Masters of Requests and the Small Change of Jacobean Patronage’, English Historical Review, 126:520 (2011), p. 558.

[18] Martin Almbjär, ‘The problem with early-modern petitions: safety valve or powder keg?’, European Review of History, (2019), [doi: 10.1080/13507486.2019.1575798], pp. 1-27.

[19] John Walter, ‘Crown and crowd: popular culture and popular protest in early modern England’, in idem (ed.), Crowds and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Manchester, 2007), p. 15.

[20] Cases of this can be found throughout the Lansdowne papers in the British Library.

[21] W. Craig, ‘Hampton Court Again: The Millenary Petition and the Calling of the Conference’, Anglican and Episcopal History, 77:1 (March, 2008), pp. 46-70.

[22] ITV, ‘What are the 10 most-signed petitions and what have they achieved?’, 31 January 2017.

[23] https://petition.parliament.uk/archived/petitions/241584.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Helier Cheung, ‘Brexit debate: Do petitions ever work?’, BBC News, 26 March 2019.

[26] https://petition.parliament.uk/archived/petitions/248242.

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