Parliaments, Estates & Representation

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Petitions, Gravamina and the early modern state: local influence on central legislation in England and Germany (Hesse)* [=pre-print version of article in Parliaments, Estates & Representation 1997)
Beat Kümin and Andreas Würgler
Historiographical perceptions of early modern politics and government are undergoing a process of rapid reassessment. As a result of ever more detailed research on state-formation in general and the growth of regulatory activities in particular,1 long-cherished generalisations such as ‘absolutism’ are being applied with increasing caution.2 While central governments throughout Europe certainly tried to devise administrative machineries allowing them to run their countries with maximum efficiency and minimum interference by rival authorities, the reality ‘was not so simple’.3 Quite apart from the problems presented by the persistent survival of local peculiarities and the lack of a fully developed bureaucracy to enforce all the new directives, the role of the estates and the ‘people’ attracts increasing attention; not only their continued influence on the government of villages, towns and parishes,4 but also on the larger political units of counties, provinces and entire kingdoms. State formation, to summarise the overall impression, now appears more like a dynamic process of communication between centre and localities rather than a one-sided drive towards ever greater penetration or acculturation.5

This essay hopes to throw some more light on these developments by focusing on two very heterogeneous case studies in the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.6 It will examine the range of means employed by the subjects of the Holy Roman Empire, mainly the territory of Hesse, and England to influence the laws by which they were governed. The emphasis, however, is not so much on spectacular, extraordinary occurrences such as riots and rebellions (whose impact is by now widely acknowledged),7 but on the sort of routine activities which marked everyday political life all across the Continent. Having sketched (i) the differing institutional frameworks of the two case studies, we will proceed to (ii) a comparative discussion of popular participation in legislative activities and propose (iii) some general conclusions about the importance of this phenomenon for our understanding of the making of the modern state.


The problematic nature of pan-European generalisations emerges from even the quickest glance at the early modern political landscape. The regimes of France and Prussia, conventionally identified as the most striking examples for the growth of ‘absolutist’ tendencies, coexisted with surviving ‘republican’ constitutions such as those of Venice or the Swiss Confederation and a whole host of intermediary systems. No one bi-national comparison can hope to do justice to this enormous variety, but in the following the emphasis will lie on two examples representing the vast middle ground between ‘tyrannical’ and ‘popular’ forms of government.

The county of Hesse, with some 250,000 inhabitants in the second half of the sixteenth century, formed a medium-sized component of the Holy Roman Empire. The most important of its territorial subdivisions was Hesse-Kassel, consisting of approximately 190,000 inhabitants in 1580 and about half a million at the end of the eighteenth century. After the Landgrave had converted to Calvinism in 1605, most of his subjects followed suit, but a substantial minority remained Lutheran and roughly two per cent (in 1800) were Jews.8 The first evidence of a territorial Landtag or diet dates from the late fourteenth century. Convened by the Landgrave on a more regular basis from the fifteenth century,9 it served as a forum to approve demands for taxation. The diet consisted of nobles and prelates on the one hand, and delegates from towns on the other, which allowed Hesse’s subjects a considerable degree of influence. Those summoned to attend met in advance to condense their demands and complaints into a series of Gravamina - also known as Desideria or Petita - to be presented to the Landgrave. Although this customary practice was not formally recognised as a right until 1764,10 the estates nevertheless managed to put their own interests on the diets’ agenda and to contain absolutist tendencies in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War with at least partial success. They retained the right to approve taxes and fought an incessant battle against the Landgrave’s increasing demands to fund the new standing army. The prince thus sought to ease his financial problems by letting parts of the armed forces to his allies, when they were not needed at home.11

England, of course, was a much larger state and an independent monarchy (with growing overseas interests) in its own right. Nationwide legislation took the form of ‘acts’ passed by the ‘King in Parliament’ after a complex procedure involving consideration of the issues by both Lords and Commons. Here lies a crucial difference between English and German representative assemblies: the former had an institutionalised share in the proposing and passing of laws, the Hessian estates were merely allowed to present their Gravamina at a diet. At the same time, the jurisdictional functions of both Houses allowed Englishmen to play their part in defining and safeguarding the rule of Common Law.12 Tudor and Stuart monarchs exercised the right to call and dissolve assemblies at their pleasure,13 but if a parliament was summoned, elections could - at least by the seventeenth century - present opportunities for genuine political debate and involve up to forty per cent of the adult male population.14 Another striking feature of the English system, ‘by comparison with most continental countries, was the wide degree of participation in local government enjoyed by men of humble status’.15 As there was no host of professional royal officials, middling-sort constables and churchwardens relieved the poor and mended the highways under the watchful eyes of unpaid Justices of the Peace, who were drawn from the ranks of the gentry. All this contributed to a certain local awareness of wider political and administrative issues.16 Even after the fundamental upheavals provoked by civil war, Commonwealth and Glorious Revolution, early modern England remained an essentially localised society, where central institutions were by no means limp or powerless, but accountable and kept in check.17

Whatever the obvious differences in institutional frameworks, franchise and constitutional powers, both Englishmen and their contemporaries in Hesse-Kassel had formal channels to make themselves heard. Gravamina and Landtagsabschiede , as well as bills and acts are thus well-known to students of representative assemblies in the two countries. Less familiar, perhaps, is another, and arguably yet more prominent, means of informal influence: the drafting of petitions.18 In spite of its prominence in almost all political cultures, the phenomenon has only recently attracted more extensive scholarly attention; above all through its potential to enable historians to look into people’s minds and souls,19 but also as a key to popular participation in numerous political processes and chronological periods.20

The roots of petitioning reach to Western Antiquity and beyond. From the early Middle Ages, the Roman law term supplicatio was gradually adapted to cover all sorts of requests by European subjects.21 After about 400 the pope became one of the most popular recipients, particularly in his capacity as highest ecclesiastical judge, patron of benefices and dispenser of many other favours.22 The enormous number of surviving documents testifies to the attraction of such direct appeals and provides the empirical basis for much recent research into the history of past mentalities.23 Princes and other worldly dignitaries were also approached by suitors from the early Middle Ages, with the first procedural guidelines drawn up in Sicily under Frederick II and a gradual ‘bureaucratic’ institutionalisation thereafter.24 From the later Middle Ages, furthermore, petitions were addressed to representative bodies such as the German Imperial Diet and the English Parliament.25 It is important to note that they came from people of all social standings, including the very poor and the very powerful, from individuals, corporations and ad-hoc pressure groups alike.26 The Imperial Diet, for instance, regularly received Supplikationen from reigning monarchs. Petitioning was thus by no means a sign of poverty or despair, but simply reflected the respective legal and political positions of writers and recipients in a given situation. Both proceeded on the understanding that it was the duty of any Christian authority to take note of its subjects’ problems and - in line with the Gospels - to show mercy wherever it could.27 The sheer volume of petitions, however, soon presented the recipients with very real logistical problems and stretched both their patience and administrative resources. It is quite clear that they monitored the phenomenon with mounting resentment.28

The popularity of petitioning owed much to the fact that it offered a very flexible means of expressing concern, available in theory at least to everybody at any time, whilst the drafting of Gravamina was reserved to a small number of delegates in the short time-span before and during a diet. Hessian registers suggest that the central authorities received some 1,000 petitions a year at the end of the sixteenth century and no fewer than 4,000 at the end of the eighteenth (1787).29 This, of course, was only the tip of the iceberg, as officials were under orders to deal with interventions at the lowest-possible level of the administrative hierarchy.30 All types of courts, all seigneurial institutions as well as all urban authorities heard written (and oral) requests on a daily basis. In Hesse, however, it does not seem to have been customary to petition the diet, in marked contrast to the situation in Württemberg, Bavaria, Lower Austria or England.31 The Imperial Diet, a common port of call in the sixteenth century, saw a marked decline in the number of Supplikationen after 1603, leaving the Emperor or his Council as the sole possibilities for those intent on approaching imperial institutions. The lion’s share of petitions now accrued to the secular and ecclesiastical princes, in line with the increasing territorialisation of the German political landscape.32 As for subject matter, petitions to the Hessian Landgrave were very heterogeneous: Suppliken um Almosen and in Gnadensachen contained pleas for assistance after harvest failures, fire damage or accidents; Erlaß-Suppliken and requests for Dilation aimed at the waiving or reduction of financial dues, taxes or fines; Justiz-Suppliken concerned jurisdictional matters, and supplications against officials and civil servants alerted the prince to faults in his administration by circumventing the usual intermediate channels.33

There were, however, alternatives to the German tendency to focus petitions ever more closely on an all-powerful prince. England can serve as a striking example for the continuing prominence of all sorts of different recipients elsewhere. Kings and queens, of course, were by no means excluded, but members of the Privy Council, the Houses of Lords and Commons, individual MPs, county courts, Justices of the Peace, town councils, parish vestries, churchwardens, constables and many other bodies or officials appear just as regularly. Among the latter, to provide an idea of the sort of examples not studied in more detail below, are hundreds of ‘Memorials and Petitions presented to the Bedford Level Corporation’, which managed the draining of the East Anglian Fens from the early seventeenth century.34 In 1636, meanwhile, the inhabitants of a prosperous area within the City of Cambridge petitioned two assize judges for a reduction of their excessive share of local taxation, while those of a Suffolk parish attempted to prevent Reformation-related confiscations of communal property by means of a direct appeal to royal commissioners.35 Ecclesiastical dignitaries continued to attract petitions, too. Up to the break with Rome in 1534, the pope was inundated with requests for promotion, reallocation of church revenues and everyday pastoral problems.36 Further down the hierarchy, petitioning was no less intensive: in a rather moving illustration of the trust placed in church officials, the churchwardens of Linwood in the diocese of Lincoln informed their visitors in 1473 of the long-standing debt of a parishioner and implored them that ‘with owt my lordys help they gete it neauer’.37 In 1630, to cite one last early modern example, the Bishop of London ordered the church of St Laurence Jewry to adopt to a more broadly-based form of communal government ‘upon the humble peticion of the parishioners’.38 The sources’ eloquent, although not consistent, use of terminological varieties such as ‘petition’, ‘complaint’, ‘request’, and ‘appeal’ reflects something of the multi-functional, secular as well as religious dimensions of the phenomenon.

Whatever their subject matter, both English ‘humble petitions’ and German ‘untertänige Suppliken’ attempted to flatter their recipients. This apparent emphasis upon deference and submission has led modern interpreters to stress the authorities’ discretion or ‘grace’ and the essentially apolitical and particular character of most of these documents.39 And yet, while there were, of course, countless pleas by individuals and genuinely impotent subjects, we also find lobbying by influential officeholders, powerful interest groups and urban magistrates. It is the latter we now have to turn to for an examination of the wider and more permanent impact of such initiatives in the early modern state.

How exactly could common people influence new laws and regulations? According to contemporary political theory, there was no room for popular participation in the government of the well-ordered police state. The passing of laws formed part of the princely superioritas territorialis.40 ‘Et par ainsi nous conclurons’, argued Bodin in 1576, ‘que la premiere marque du prince souverain, c'est la puissance de donner loy à tous en general, et à chacun en particulier: mais ce n'est pas assez, car il faut adjouster, sans le consentement de plus grand, ny de pareil, ny de moindre que soy’.41 Legal historians tend to argue a similar case for the Holy Roman Empire,42 for in the age of absolute monarchies legislation had become ‘eine ausschließliche Funktion des Herrschers’ and laws an exclusive ‘Ausgeburt des Herrscherwillens’.43

And yet, German political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not fail to recognise constraints preventing princes from acquiring the extent of Bodin’s sovereignty. In his Teutscher Fürsten Stat, a textbook for generations of German students and officials, Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff identified four restrictions on princely omnipotence: religious autonomy, the equitable administration of justice, the approval of taxes by the estates and the upholding of treaties and agreements.44 The idea of a limited monarchy was thus rather more common than that of an absolutist regime,45 and many princes consulted their estates on a voluntary basis.46 Let us now turn to Hesse to examine these issues in practice.47
The Hessian estates may have lacked corporate status, independent financial resources, formal legislative competence and their own archive, but they still exercised considerable influence. In return for the approval of taxes they were allowed to present their Gravamina at the diet (also known as the ‘communication day’), with the chance to affect its resolutions (Landtagsabschiede) as well as subsequent territorial ordinances (Landesordnungen) and princely edicts. Resolutions passed by the Diet were drafted in the form of contracts and signed and sealed by the Landgrave as well as the estates. Due to their consensual nature they acquired a particularly prominent place in Hesse’s constitution.48 The same applied to the ‘fundamental laws’ (Landesgrundgesetze), i.e. the mutual agreements between prince and estates concerning important issues such as the settlement of religion,49 the sale of territory,50 or the distribution of powers between Landgrave and knights.51

In addition to major matters of state, however, resolutions also covered other concerns voiced by the estates. The Abschied of the Diet of 1731, in fact, dealt with nothing else but their Gravamina. As it was - very unusually - published, it commanded added authority and exemplifies the estates’ influence on the law-making process particularly clearly.52 Diets thus provide the best illustration for the ‘mechanism’ of the early modern Ständestaat:53 the transformation of princely propositions, tax demands and suggestions by the estates into mutually agreed resolutions.54 Some of the issues raised by the knights and burghers, however, were addressed elsewhere, for instance in a new set of territorial ordinances. The latter, a condensation of numerous orders, edicts and instructions may have been formally issued by the Landgrave, but many were still influenced by the estates. On several occasions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, princes voluntarily consulted their subjects. The Reformation Ordinance of Landgrave Philipp in 1524, for instance, regulating areas such as the wool trade, weights or usury, was issued ‘mit unserer Landschafft von den Stetten bedencken, Rath, wissen und willen, zu fürderung gedeien und wolfahrt gemeines nutzes’.55 Similarly in 1581, a crafts and labourer ordinance was published ‘auf Gutachten und Mitrath gemeiner Landschaft’,56 while a whole series of regulations appeared in 1591 ‘mit gemeiner Landschaft Rath und Zuthun’.57 At the end of the Thirty Years War the estates were asked to comment on an ordinance concerning Jews,58 a Policey- und Tax-Ordnung,59 and matters affecting the militia,60 but in the ‘age of absolutism’ such direct forms of participation became increasingly rare.61

Undiminished, however, was the potential of Gravamina to alert central authorities to the existence of pressing social problems.62 Many preambles of princely edicts openly acknowledge the initiative or influence of the estates. The Diet of 1731 provides the best example: at least fifteen Desideria are mentioned as impulses for ordinances, edicts and orders.63 Between 1764 and 1767, ‘initiatives from below’ triggered six ordinances concerned with matters as diverse as tithes or brewing,64 as well as numerous edicts on taxation, urban jurisdiction, fire insurance and many other issues.65 Further legislative acts were undoubtedly influenced in a similar way without saying so explicitly.66 Commenting on the sixteenth century in particular, Hans Siebeck credited the estates with a considerable share in the shaping of Hesse’s administration,67 even though many individual Desideria remained unanswered. The ‘communication days’ acted as filters to produce a condensed version of the most pressing complaints, with minority interests or controversial proposals marginalised as ‘particular’ rather than general concerns, allowing the Landgrave to play the part of a powerful mediator.68 The substance of some Gravamina, in contrast, appealed so widely that they became law more or less unaltered. Attempts to renew an ordinance concerning the Jews during the 1730s, for instance, can be traced back to a proposal made originally by the knights and burghers in 1731. In the process, a government draft was rejected, measures devised by the estates were adopted on a temporary basis and the final version of 1739 still owed a great deal to the initiative of 1731.69 While Jewish affairs were in theory the prerogative of the Landgrave, the estates managed to inject their - anti-Jewish - ideas by means of Gravamina.

Advanced or innovative ideas, too, were by no means the preserve of the enlightened bourgeoisie. Many originated with the estates,70 for instance the request for a common law code covering all parts of the Hessian territory (suggested as early as the sixteenth century),71 the improvement of schooling in 1731, 1754 and 1764,72 the promotion of manufactures in 1731 and 1764 as well as the economical use of timber and the reduction of ecclesiastical feast days; the estates also called for more ‘open government’ through the publication of all current ordinances (1764), court sentences (1785/86) and resolutions agreed by the diets (1773/74 and 1797).73 A new fire insurance fund, to take a final example, was set up in consultation with town representatives in 1767, as a late response to an initiative taken by the estates in 1731.74

The Hessian situation was by no means unusual. The compilation of Gravamina had become a very widespread phenomenon in early modern Europe and its effect on legislative processes in territories such as Lower Austria, Hohenlohe or Württemberg, and even ‘absolutist’ kingdoms such as France, was comparable to that outlined here.75
English subjects, in contrast, had reached an even more advanced level of influence. Instead of dealing with Gravamina, the Houses of Parliament read ‘bills’ (documents of draft legislation), which they transformed - in a complex process, involving both Lords and Commons - into ‘Acts of Parliament’. Upon closer inspection it is apparent that interventions from town and country could affect almost all stages of the proceedings, with MPs explicitly accepting ‘the right of the subject to petition’.76

The very conspicuous degree of local participation in English central legislation from the late Middle Ages owed much to the fact that the Westminster Parliament discussed not only high matters of state, but also a good deal of ‘parochial’ business. The statute books are full of acts providing for the building of bridges, the reorganisation of the local ecclesiastical network or the foundation of schools.77 It was thus important for all parties concerned to put their case to those involved in the legislative process (from the monarch down to the Commons), be it through the mediation of the local MP or by means of a petition presented in person.78 In both cases proposals from below could take the form of ready-made drafts for particular acts - neither the initiative nor the formulation of a piece of legislation needed to originate with the king or his council.79

The head of state was always an obvious target for the subjects’ petitions. Among the most persistent topics are requests for the granting or renewal of borough charters. Thomas Menesse, for instance, acting for the Cinque Ports in Kent at the coronation of Queen Mary in 1553, incurred expenses of £42 in presenting their petition.80 The impact of other public concerns can be gauged from the preambles of many pieces of legislation. One statute of the 1580s revoked previous regulations with the argument that they had proved ‘by Experience ... verie harde and extreme to many of the Queenes Majesties Subjectes’.81 Mass petitions from no fewer than thirty-eight of the forty English counties reached Charles I between December 1641 and August 1642 to complain about unapproved taxes, autocratic government and unpopular religious innovations. Most had been initiated by exponents of the local gentry, but the latter spared no efforts to obtain the support of as many people as possible. Almost 30,000 signatures were gathered for a petition from Essex, which must have involved a campaign reaching very far down the social scale.82 The House of Commons itself approached monarchs by means of petitions, too, most famously perhaps with the ‘Supplication against the Ordinaries’ of 1532, a polemical denouncement of the secular powers of the Church on the eve of the Reformation, and the ‘Great Remonstrance’, a catalogue of royal failures, in the troublesome 1640s.83

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