Christopher O'Riordan
© the author 1982, 2001

(This article originally appeared in East London Journal, no. 6 (1983), pp.17-27. This version is slightly amended.)

During the English Revolution of 1640 - 1660 there was a widespread attempt to democratise the gilds of London.[1] `It is highly probable that few of the companies containing a rank and file of craftsmen escaped the contagion of the democratic movement'.[2] It would appear from the usual accounts that this movement won only trifling concessions. In the case of the Thames watermen however, it achieved real success, as will be seen.

     The watermen carried passengers along and across the Thames in tiltboats, wherries and sculls. Theirs was an important job in an age of poor roads and land transport, and when London Bridge was the only bridge. They numbered at least 4,000 in 1641 (a figure including those retired),[3] and claimed to be the most numerous company in London.

     The watermen were not one of the livery companies, i.e. they did not have a political elite or livery who were privileged to sit in Common Hall, one of the organs of the London government. They were not counted among the ranks of the handicraftsmen of the `middle sort' of people, and could not really be called skilled workers (although apprentices were required to serve seven years before being made free.)

     An act of Parliament of 1555 imposed a government on all the watermen plying between Windsor and Gravesend, in an attempt to end the state of anarchy in the trade. further measures were taken in 1603. The Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London were given the power to appoint (`elect') eight rulers or overseers over the watermen. The rulers were to be chosen anew each year, at the first Court of Aldermen to be held after 1 March.[4]

     Some of the rulers were changed every year. To maintain the continuity of the ruling group, it was provided that former rulers (and only these) could become `assistants' to the current ones, or could become company officers. In an apparent self-description, the oligarchy consisted of `40 ancient men, 14 of them being his Majesty's servants, 2 of them being Esquires, and the most of them subsidy-men [well-to-do payers of a property tax]'.[5] They thus formed an elite social group within the company.

     The material condition of the rank and file, or `generality', of watermen was deteriorating. They were used as a naval reserve, and in Queen Elizabeth's reign their numbers were kept artificially high for that purpose. With the decline of England's international position under the Stuarts, the requirements for naval strength fell, and with it the number of watermen. Their numbers perhaps halved between the early and mid 17th century. Inflation since the 16th century was reducing the real value of the watermen's fares, which also perhaps dropped by half from the 16th to mid 17th century. A particular misfortune struck them in 1612, when the theatres moved from the south bank of the Thames to the north and there was a consequent great loss of income from passengers.

     From time to time the watermen made complaints about the `unfitness and corruption' of the rulers (which they blamed for their poverty), and in 1621-3 and again in 1631-2 revolts broke out in the company. The watermen requested a form of democratisation of the company, which they appeared to see as a solution for their grievances. Hundreds of watermen then `broke' with the rulers' government. Orders were issued by the Privy Council for the suppression of these offenders, and steps taken to redress grievances (as dissent recurred, these were evidently ineffective or unsatisfactory). The pattern of these revolts foreshadows that of the revolution of the 1640s.[6]

Revolution at the Grassroots, 1641

On 10 March 1641 a petition from the generality of the watermen was read in the House of Lords, and referred to the committee of petitions.[7] It complained of the oppression of the generality by the rulers, and asked that the rulers might be chosen by general election in future:
... the election of the said Rulers and Assistants for the ensuing year is already past, which the petitioners did well hope to have prevented, and now leave to your Lordships' considerations ... they most humbly pray that their said Rulers and Assistants hereafter to be nominated and chosen, may be by a free [full?[8]] election of the Generality of watermen, and by them presented yearly to the Lord Mayor of London to be sworn ...[9]
     The petition of the generality is expanded in a `statement of grievances' annexed to a later petition of the rulers to the Lords. This document requested that the generality, or the greatest part of able and sufficient watermen, be permitted to meet between 14 and 20 February, yearly hereafter, to elect the rulers. It also requested that the most able of the generality be empowered to meet with the rulers at six-monthly intervals to make laws for the government of the company. The generality saw the solution to their alleged problems of misgovernment in democratic self-government. Another of the grievances was competition with other boatmen, and the watermen probably saw self-organisation as a means of promoting their material interests.[10]

     From the petition of 10 March it appears that the watermen had already unsuccessfully attempted to get the government of the company democratised. There is, however, no reference to such an application to the Court of Aldermen in the Mayoral records.[11]

     The watermen, or a radical faction within their ranks, began to resort to militancy and direct action. On 3 May the rulers presented two petitions, one to the Lord High Admiral, the other to the Lords. These petitions illustrated how the generality were defying the rulers' authority, even to the threat of the lives of some of the rulers. The second petition showed

that diverse refractory watermen boasting that they may do what they list (because now it is Parliament time) have took such lawless liberty upon them[selves] as to go to all the places where watermen ply, encouraging thousands of them not to obey the petitioners' government, nor to come to their Hall [which was the place of company government] when they are complained on or warned thither for any misdemeanours; and also some of the rude apprentices have come to the Hall in troops to offer [i.e. threaten] violence to the petitioners ... for all their abuses and vilifying the petitioners, they will not appear at our Hall, or if they appear they break from our officers; the chief leader of this faction being one Joshua Church, who being told that he ought to be obedient to law, order and the Lord Mayor, replied that it was Parliament time now, and that the Lord Mayor had nothing to do with them, and that the Lord Mayor was but their slave.
The petitioners asked that a messenger be sent to every pair of stairs or a proclamation made `to quiet this growing mischiefs [sic]'.[12]

     On 9 March a bill concerning an addition to the statutes of 1555 and 1603 had been read in the House of Commons.[13] A petition of the generality was exhibited to the Commons on 16 April,[14] and on 21 May it was referred to the committee on the watermen's bill, which had been committed the same day.[15]

     A petition of the rulers to the House of Commons was printed in 1642. Presumably it is based on an earlier manuscript. Its content and context suggest that it portrays a closely following development of events indicated in the petition of 3 May. It states

that whereas divers months past the petitioners presented to the Honourable Assembly a Bill to be passed as an Act of Parliament, for the better government of the generality of watermen, which Bill being twice read was committed; that the said watermen exhibited a scandalous petition against the petitioners, thereby most unjustly charging them with divers grievances, which petition was likewise committed to the same committee: that some of the watermen (though the Bill was preferred by the consent of such who are trusted by the generality, and contained nothing but that which tended to the good of the company,) were so far enraged and incensed against petitioners, that they threatened to raise many thousand watermen to be present at the committee, to oppose the petitioners' proceedings, and that they would cut some of the petitioners in pieces, and destroy some of them ... and they so affronted and threatened petitioners' counsel, that (at one time) they durst not appear for petitioners at the committee, and some of them, namely Joshuah Church, boasted that now during this Parliament time they were free from all government, and needed not in anything to obey petitioners, their rulers, insomuch as by means whereof, divers great disorders and outrages have lately been committed by some of them, even in the view of some of the petitioners, who for fear of being murdered by them, did not dare to interpose their authority. Now forasmuch as by reason of your far more weighty and important affairs, you have been pleased for a time to surcease any further proceedings in the petitioners' cause ... [we fear that] there will be ... many other outrages committed by the rude multitude, who (in all their courses,) are much guided and persuaded by the said Joshuah Church.
The petition asked the House of Commons `to convent before you the said Joshuah Church, and the rest above named [whose names have been omitted from the printed version]' and to enjoin them to cease their activity and obey the rules of government.[16]

     Further details of the watermen's movement to February 1642 are to be found in a tract by John Taylor, the water poet.[17] Taylor gives interesting information about himself in this pamphlet; he is a member of the watermen's oligarchy, and was clerk of the company at the time of writing. The tract gives a scurrilous description of Joshua Church, his lowly origins and alleged bad character; it also portrays him as the chief instigator of the movement. This document is worthy of extended quotation:

... you [Church] have (for many years) practised to overthrow all order, rule and government [in the watermen's company], you did eleven years past raise many hundreds of Watermen in a combination for that wicked intent; yet all your knavery was covered with a cloak of Reformation ... you taxed [the rulers] with bribery, corruption, and many vile abuses ... [but a committee of the Court of Aldermen cleared us of those scandals] ... by which means we were free from your malice, till within these two years. In which time you have ... made a strong combination with many thousands of watermen, persuading them not to obey the Rulers ...

You [on one occasion] pointed with your finger to our Hall, and called it a Rook's Nest and [said] that you had one hand in the Nest already, and that shortly you would pluck all the Rooks out: and we have since that time been three several times assaulted in our Hall, so that we have at every one of those times been forced to call the Constables to protect us from violence ...

You (Mr. Church) came lately into our Hall, and in a pilfering manner you took close up out of an Outward Room a Table of Orders that hung there by the Lord Mayor's command, that watermen might read and hear how they should be governed: for the which fact I had you with a warrant before a Justice, who would not bind you over to the Assizes, because you Bawled and lied to him, that our grievances were to be heard by a Committee in Parliament within fourteen days after. I am sure you lied then: for it was much about All-hallowtide and we have no hearing yet ... [The Journal of the House of Commons (vol. 2, p.274) shows that the committee on the watermen's bill was to meet on 10 November; it does not mention the generality's grievances on this occasion, but the quantity of information which the Journals give is very inconsistent: Church may well have been reporting fact.]

You framed fifty Articles against us in Parliament ...

By your doings and rebellious courses you have made the Thames a wilderness: for there is neither command nor obedience ... you have brought the River to that pass, that watermen ply how and where they list, that they abuse Fares [passengers] and exact upon them, that they fight ...

you now seek and strive to be a Ruler or Governor of the Watermen's Company, for you would have 8 honest men to be sworn (I doubt not but you mean yourself to be one) ...

... [members of Parliament] sitting late about the great affairs of the Church and Kingdom, their coaches that waited upon them, have had their Axletree pins stolen by Watermen, on purpose to make the Gentlemen go by water ... such Villany was never use till you overthrow our Government. [Perhaps this was an unorthodox method of obtaining the ear of M.P.s for the watermen's grievances.]

     To add an interesting note on the political scene at large, on 6 February 1642 Joshua Church jibed that if the King stayed but a little longer at Windsor, they would make him mayor of the town.[18] Charles I had fled from London on 10 January 1642, an event which was to lead to the Civil War.

     The rulers' tracts provide a hostile and negative description of the watermen's revolution. In particular, they portray it as merely anarchistic, and avoid all reference to its democratic ideals. Why was this? It was no doubt disgraceful enough, in the 17th century, for an established oligarchy to have to admit to the overthrow of its authority by the `common multitude', without adding the (still more revolutionary) implication of democratic government as well. (In a similar way it was more comforting to attribute responsibility for it to certain radical leaders like Church, rather than admit to any collective initiative of the rank and file.)

     There is no concrete evidence that the rank and file were actually attempting to run their own government. But are we to suppose that these vehement democrats had exerted such efforts to overthrow their rulers' authority - merely to do nothing? The generality saw the answer to their alleged problems of misgovernment, and poverty (which was brought about by the rulers' corruption), in direct democracy, and they would have seen it as being in their own interests to organize themselves for protection from the competition of other river workers - and from their rulers - and not let their movement merely be an anarchic every-man-for-himself. The watermen's tracts offer fairly strong circumstantial evidence of an attempt at self-government by the rank and file.

     It should also be noted that the repressive forces of the state had partially broken down in 1641, and it would consequently have been easier to carry out such democracy. The convening of the Long Parliament in November 1640 led to the taking up of `law' and `constitution' as revolutionary banners for fighting the `injustices' of the ancien regime. The militant autarky of the watermen was evidently pursued through just such a `legal' framework, their charges against the rulers. `Parliament time' was more than a mere catchphrase.

The Overthrow of Oligarchy in 1642

On 1 February 1642 a petition from the generality was read in the Court of Aldermen. It asked for the benefit of the 1555 Act for a general election of the rulers.[19] The Court referred the matter to a committee on 3 February.[20] John Taylor describes how, as clerk of the company, he was to represent it on that day:
... the Rulers of our Company were warned that day to appear before the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen (upon your [Joshua Church's] complaint) ... Then ... you went or sent for a Deputy to a Sergeant at Arms, to attach me and bring me before an Honourable Committee of the House of Commons [for alleged `bad speeches'] ... But ... I had that favour to stay and do my service [at Guildhall], and afterward I went before the Committee [of the House] ...[21]
Taylor continues his account:
... you [Church] with some others did on Wednesday last [9 February] (before a right Worshipful Committee) at the Guildhall ... abuse and accuse myself and all others who have ever been Rulers ... you with some others made haste to the Thames side, and at divers place you did brag, that you had cast the Master [rulers] and old Assistants out from all manner of further government: and so saying, you showed yourself a boasting, lying, Rogue.[22]
But it was Taylor who was mistaken.

     On 15 February the committee delivered its verdict to the court. It stated that the 1555 act gave the choice of rulers to the Court, but recommended that fifty-five of the most honest and sufficient watermen should yearly nominate twenty of the most able and best sort, out of which the Court could choose eight. It specified, however, that the Court could reject any of the names and select others as it thought fit. The committee's recommendations were agreed to by the Court.[23]

     The fifty-five electors appear to have been chosen by the `towns and stairs' between Windsor and Gravesend, i.e. by the body of the Thames watermen (a practice which continued for many years.)[24] The electors appear to have constituted themselves as a court of Assistants - a powerful body in 17th century gilds - and at later times it is known that they participated in the government of the company, and controlled its finances.[25] The electors were thus a long term democratic gain of the English Revolution.

     The rulers record that the radicals had preferred their charges against them in a bill to the House of Commons. Such a bill must surely also have contained provision for company democratisation.[26]

And on the 3 of March last [the day the new rulers were sworn at the Court of Aldermen[27]], they most falsely and maliciously affirmed before the Right Honourable, the Lord Mayor, and Court of Aldermen, that the Rulers were twice voted against in Parliament, which is so far from truth, that it is certain, the cause was never yet heard in Parliament: and that Honourable Court will never Vote against men before a hearing. Thus by slanders, clamours, threatenings, multitudes, noises, voices, most odious and shameless lies carried it against us; some of them have not been sparing to abuse his Majesty,[28] to wrong the High Court of Parliament, to vilify the Lord Mayor, and Court of Aldermen, using all bad means (to the furthering of their Projects) against us ...[29]
     The old ruling group was completely and permanently expelled from power in 1642.[30] Of those who had served more than twice as rulers up to 1641, not one returns after this date. Examples of leading oligarchs removed are Robert Clarke (served as ruler eight times, 1625-41), Thomas Consett (six times, 1628-38), and John Taylor (six times, 1623-39). There were many rulers who had served just once or twice; of these, only two or three bridged the gap. Robert Meredith, who had served in 1639 and 1640, served six times in the period 1647-61; he was the most frequent ruler in what seems to have been a fledgling new oligarchy. Robert Coomes served 1641, 53, 60, 61. Thomas Blackman, whom the oligarchy alleged to have been a previous ruler, served in 1643. Blackman had been an oppositionist - see later.[31]

     It had been a regular practice for rulers to serve two consecutive years. From 1620 to 1640, between one and four of those who had served one year, returned the following year. After 1641 this practice ceased for a few years, returning in the mid 1640s. Here is an indication of the short term breakdown of oligarchy.

     Who were the new rulers? I have not been able to assign any other connexion to the large majority of them; put of the few names I have otherwise identified, all (except perhaps one) were former opponents of the oligarchy, or democrats. Richard Perkins (1644) had signed the democracy petition of March 1641. The name of Robert Browne (1648) also appears on the petition (as `Robbert Broune'); both the first and last names are very common, so one shouldn't jump to conclusions. However, one Robert Browne is cited as an oppositionist in 1640; in that year he brought the company before the Master Recorder over the issue of quarterage. The three references may well apply to the same man. The generality alleged that the oligarchy had extorted money from Christopher Parker (ruler 1644, 45, 59, 60). It is not clear whether Mathewe Price (1643) had had money extorted from him or had submitted a bribe to the rulers, and consequently which side he might have been on. Thomas Blackman (1643) had previously been `dismissed from any more being Ruler or Assistant' by the Court of Aldermen after having brought various charges against the rulers, although it is not stated when this happened. Blackman's name does not appear in the Aldermanic repertories at the usual times for the swearing of rulers before 1643. Thomas Rowe (1645) had been petitioned against by the rulers in May 1641 for defying the press. I suspect, in view of the time and context, that the rulers may have had rather more `political' reasons for suing Rowe; perhaps he was an oppositionist. William Goodale (1648, 49, 53) was possibly the oppositionist Goodale who in 1641, according to Taylor, `swore he would have my heart in his hand'.[32]

     Joshua Church does not appear among the rulers. Neither was he a signatory to the generality's petitions of 1641. Although he was a leader of the 1631-2 revolt, the old rulers may have been mistaken in believing him the `chief leader' in 1641. Perhaps by this time Church was only a respected senior revolutionist who helped to organise the rebellion. The old rulers may have been living in the past.

What Happened to the Democracy

An element of the popular force continued to oppose the new rulers. A petition of the latter to the House of Lords complains of
divers obstinate and refractory watermen, who despise government, oppose themselves against the petitioners, ... and in contempt of them ... abuse the petitioners' officers, the Lord Mayor of London's officers, and passengers they carry ...; which the petitioners endeavouring to redress [i.e. correct], the said watermen combine themselves to gather to suppress the petitioners' government and live under no law or government but their perverse and wicked humours, and to that end raise tumults and mutinies upon the River, to the utter destruction of government and disheartening of the petitioners and other well affected watermen.
The petitioners note that in 1631 the rulers obtained a Privy Council warrant to suppress similar disorders; and as this warrant was `of no force now', they ask that similar means be granted them to apprehend all such offenders and convent them before the Lord Mayor or other justice of the peace. The petition is undated but perhaps originates in early 1643.[33]

     I venture to say that the tone of this petition is more confident than that of those of the old rulers in 1641. The residual opposition seems to have lost its justification in law (a part of the petition not quoted here may indicate this) and to rely solely on mob force to survive.[34]

     Several petitions were made by `the watermen' to the Court of Aldermen against the rulers in the 1640s. On the rulers' side, measures were taken to increase control and order in the company in the same period. In 1648-9 there was a dispute between the rulers and the `well affected' watermen over company finances and the election of the rulers. The `well affected' watermen may have been the descendants of some of the radicals of 1640-2; but I think it significant that they describe themselves as householders, emphasising their social respectability. After this, evidence of conflict in the company fades out.

     What was the subsequent history of the watermen's democracy? By 1692 the assistants had ceased to be elected and had become a self-perpetuating clique. In that year the Court of Aldermen ordered that a modified form of democracy be restored. No mention was made of the assistants' nomination of candidates for rulers, and the rulers were empowered to remove assistants for `misdemeanours'. An act of Parliament of 1700 combined the watermen with the Thames lightermen, who carried goods. By this act the rulers and assistants were annually to appoint the watermen of the principal places of plying, `or the major part of them', and such watermen were to choose forty to sixty assistants. The lightermen were to choose nine of their number each year to be assistants as well.

     It appears from the act of 1700 that inspection of company accounts was part of the democracy. The act specified that the rulers and assistants were to nominate five watermen and two lightermen every year to audit the accounts of the rulers `and others of the Company', and to place the results `in some public place of the Company's Hall, to be inspected by any person concerned'.[35] Open financial accountability had been one of the aims of the revolutionaries in 1641.[36]

     A new act of Parliament in 1827 nullified the remaining democracy. Assistants were not mentioned. New rulers were to be selected out of three candidates presented by the existing rulers (the old assistants in any case seem to have lost their ability to choose candidates at least as far back as 1692). In the later 19th century the company was run by a self-selecting group consisting of a master, four wardens and nineteen assistants.

     In the early 20th century the day to day duties of the watermen's company were taken over by the Port of London Authority.


In the 17th century the year was reckoned as beginning on 25 March and not 1 January.

1. George Unwin, Industrial Organisation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1904), pp.204-10; George Unwin, The Gilds and Companies of London (1908), pp.335-6, 339-43, 353; Margaret James, Social Problems and Policy During the Puritan Revolution 1640 -1660 (1930, reissued 1966), chapter 5, part 1.
   James' account, which portrays the democracy movement as an unmitigated failure, is too pessimistic. On the other hand Unwin's statement that the lower ranks of the gilds met with `some degree of temporary success' (Gilds and Companies, p.339) may be too optimistic on the basis of the evidence he supplies to justify it.

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2. Unwin, Industrial Organisation, p.207. Back to text

3. John Taylor's Manifestation (1642) (see note 17). Back to text

4. Henry Humpherus, The History of the ... Company of Watermen and Lightermen ... (3 vols, 1874-86), vol. 1, pp.101-2.

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5. John Taylor, Commons Petition (1642) (see note 16), appendix; quoted in Humpherus, 1, pp.241-2.

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6. Humpherus, 1, pp.201-6, 221; Privy Council Registers; Repertories of the Court of Aldermen.

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7. Journal of the House of Lords, 4, p.180. Back to text

8. The writing is ambiguous. Back to text

9. Manuscripts of the House of Lords, Main Papers series, 10 March 1640/1. Back to text

10. Lords MSS, 3 May 1641. Back to text

11. One was made a year later - see later. Vol. 55 of the repertories (the records of the Court of Aldermen) covers November 1640 to August 1642. Corporation of London Records Office, Guildhall.

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12. Lords MSS, 3 May 1641. Back to text

13. Wallace Notestein (ed.), The Journal of Sir Simonds D'Ewes (1923), p.457; Journal of the House of Commons, 2, p.100. This bill, and subsequent ones, are probably not extant, as the manuscripts of the House of Commons were destroyed in the fire of 1834. (I may as well add here that the records of the watermen's company were almost entirely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.)

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14. Commons Journal, 2, p.122. Cf. Calendar of State Papers Domestic, 1640-1, pp.583-4; according to this petition the bill, which had been introduced by the rulers, would have given unprecedented power to them - and therefore allowed unprecedented scope for their corrupt practices.

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15. Commons Journal, 2, p.152. Back to text

16. John Taylor, To the ... House of Commons. The Humble Petition of the Ancient Overseers, Rulers and Assistants of the Company of Watermen. A statement of some of the generality's grievances with the rulers' answers thereto, is appendixed. The petition itself is quoted in extenso in Humpherus, 1, pp.239-42.

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17. Iohn Taylors Manifestation and Ivst Vindication Against Iosva Chvrch His Exclamation (1642). The Manifestation was evidently written in early 1641/2. A biographical sketch of Taylor can be found in Wallace Notestein, Four Worthies (1956), pp.169-208. {Since this article was written, a full-length biography of Taylor has been published: Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water Poet.} (1994)

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18. Taylor, Manifestation. Back to text

19. Repertory 55, ff. 355, 373b-374. Back to text

20. Ibid., f. 368. Back to text

21. Taylor, Manifestation. Back to text

22. Ibid. Back to text

23. Repertory 55, ff. 373b-374. Taylor's Manifestation seems to have been written before 15 February, as it does not mention the Court's ruling.

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24. Humpherus, 1, pp.372-3, 376; cf. Humpherus, 2, p.10. Back to text

25. Humpherus, 1, pp.285, 344, 372-3; cf. Humpherus, 2, pp.10-11. Back to text

26. Taylor, Commons Petition, appendix. About this time the Commons made an order concerning the watermen's government (cf. Commons Journal, 2, p.946). It would obviously be of great interest to know what it was, but I haven't been able to trace its contents.

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27. Repertory 55, f. 383b. Back to text

28. In 1630 the King had issued warrants to the rulers for a press of watermen to serve in the Thirty Years' War in Germany. This press was a primary grievance of the watermen, and no doubt there was ill-feeling against the King. Humpherus, 1, p.221.

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29. Taylor, Commons Petition, appendix. Back to text

30. For the remainder of this section, see the Aldermanic repertories, except where otherwise stated.

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31. Taylor, Commons Petition, appendix. Back to text

32. Taylor, Manifestation. Back to text

33. Lords MSS. The petition was found with the papers of 1642. The Privy Council ceased to be effective after 1642 (modern calendar style) (Pennington and Thomas [ed.], Puritans and Revolutionaries [1978], p.206). The petition may therefore have been issued between 1 January and 24 March 1642/3 - perhaps by the newly chosen rulers of 1643 in March 1642/3.

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34. I have not traced any further complaints by the rulers about opposition by direct action.

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35. Humpherus, 2, p.10. Back to text

36. Taylor, Manifestation. Back to text