14. The Petition and Pardon of Elizabeth Wright

By Emily Rhodes (@elrhodes96)

In the early modern era, women had a direct way to contact their king or queen: a petition. Women could and did take their complaints and pleas to the highest authority in the realm. While the petition would go through various secretaries and court officials — such as Gervase Holles, Master of Requests of Charles II, whose entry book lists this petition — the monarch personally had to make the ultimate decision about the lives of even his neediest subjects.[1]

In 1671, Elizabeth Wright wrote to King Charles II from the infamous Newgate Prison in London, begging for a pardon after being sentenced to death as an accessory to a felony.[2] Elizabeth divulged little about her crime. Rather, she concentrated on her familial and maternal obligations, stating that she had ‘five small children, & the one of them sucking’. As her husband had abandoned the family,  her children were, ‘(if she were executed) like [sic] to fall to the Parish.’ Her children needing to rely ‘on the parish’ also served as a threat, as English parishes were obligated to provide financially for the needy in their community in the seventeenth century.[3] Elizabeth thus stressed in her petition how her execution would be a loss for her family and community, rather than focusing on feelings of regret or atonement for her crime.   

Elizabeth’s tactics evidently worked, as here Holles recorded that Charles had instructed Newgate officials ‘to insert her Name in the next Free Pardon’. Overall, petitions can provide insight into the relationship between those at the top and those at the bottom of early modern English society, showing that even poor women could successfully argue their case to the monarch.

[1] BL Add. MSS 15632, f. 30v.

[2] All references to this petition and pardon are from BL Add. MSS 15632, f. 30v.

[3] For more on the English seventeenth century Poor Laws, start with Paul Slack, Poverty and policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Longman, 1988).

Image: Photo taken by author

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