Parliament, Politics and People: The politics of impressment, 1639-41: a Gloucestershire microhistory

Today’s blog is a summary from Sonia Tycko, PhD. candidate from Harvard University about the paper that she presented, as part of the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research,’The politics of impressment, 1639-41: a Gloucestershire microhistory’

In 1641, the House of Lords received a petition from a merchant-mariner and a clothier in Gloucestershire. Their target: Sir Ralph Dutton, a courtier of Charles I and a crown-appointed deputy lieutenant for the region around Cirencester and the Cotswolds. Dutton and his clerks were said to have improperly pressed men for the army in spring 1640, extorted them to pay for their discharge, and then pressed others, in cycle after cycle. According to the petition, “This buying and selling of men continued for a long time.” The petition further accused Dutton of having raised the requested amount of coat and conduct money and then capriciously increasing the amount demanded. Coat and conduct money was a levy, meant to be used for new soldiers’ upkeep until they reached the army rendezvous point and entered the royal payroll. Charles I’s army relied on these funds for a successful war effort against the Scottish Covenanters. But to some people in Gloucestershire, coat and conduct money suspiciously resembled ship money and other levies that the Crown had imposed on its subjects without the proper calling of a parliament. On top of this, Dutton’s men were suspected of embezzling much of the coat and conduct money that they collected, for “they could not live without money.”

At the instigation of the petitioners, the Lords formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Dutton. The commissioners collected 334 depositions from people of the middling sort in the Cotswolds and Vale of Berkeley. These depositions show that military impressment of commoners took the form of a form of compulsory contract with the king. The gentry in turn used commoners’ depositions about impressment as a basis on which to contest levies. There was, then, a practical connection between the two scales of disputes about consent to being ruled by the king—whether in his role as commander in chief over soldiers, or as the state executive over subjects.

The people under examination in this case believed that what counted as consent for impressed military service varied by social and economic status. Officers of the press put lower-status men into contractual service with a range of forceful strategies that did not work on their better-off neighbors. For the poor, violence, imprisonment, and gross manipulation did not invalidate contract; it was often constitutive of contract. But common men with some money could easily break their contracts by paying a fee to be discharged.

As the commissioners gathered depositions throughout March 1641, the remit of the investigation expanded beyond Ralph Dutton, to include some other Gloucestershire deputy lieutenants: his elder brother John Dutton, Maurice Berkeley, Richard Berkeley, and the mayor and aldermen of Gloucester. The commissioners and the deponents used their examinations as a platform to attack these key men who had imposed yet another obligation to the crown without the calling of a parliament. At the end of the investigation, the Lords found only Ralph Dutton and his elder brother John to be guilty. They agreed with the deponents that these deputy lieutenants had abused their office. In the Civil Wars that followed, people continued to connect the soldier’s contract with his sovereign to constitutional debates about the role of consent in government.


Unfortunately due to the current dispute between Universities UK and the University and College Union, it has become necessary to postpone this evening’s advertised seminar. Dr Kate Peters will now deliver her paper on 12 June. Please stay tuned on the History of Parliament’s Twitter page for further information in the coming weeks and on the IHR website for next term’s programme. 


This entry was posted in 17th Century history, Conferences/seminars, military history and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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