restricted access Handmaids of the Lord in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk
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Handmaids of the Lord in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk

Writing in Quaker History in 2008, Stephen A. Kent showed how a nationwide petition sent to the English Parliament in 1659 could be used to shed light on the early Quaker movement and its sympathisers.1 In this article I hope to show that the petition, printed and published in 1659 as part of a nationwide campaign, enjoyed support from women from King’s Lynn and west Norfolk but contributed to the fears and anxieties which led Norfolk gentry to support General Monck and the restoration of monarchy.

The petition was published as These Severall Papers were sent to the Parliament but is perhaps better known as “The Petition of the 7000 Handmaids and Daughters of the Lord.”2 The petition was undoubtedly designed, on one level, to try to influence Parliament. But the petition also revealed the depth of the chasm between the world views of those that signed and those who read the petition. For the latter, the petition was a sign of more conflict to come.

An analysis of their individual and collective biographies of the west Norfolk Handmaids reveals that the women petitioners were not merely living within the borough of King’s Lynn and its neighbouring villages but closely enmeshed with the merchants and traders who formed the local elite. This merchant elite in their own printed petition of 1642 had drawn public attention to a manifesto of demands and issues in a way which implied united conviction and commitment.3 Subsequent events had shown that that unity was a false one. In the summer of 1643, King’s Lynn—a port strategically situated at the hub of a considerable network of inland and ocean waterways—declared for the King. After a brief siege, the heavily fortified town fell to the Parliamentarians. While it continued in Parliamentary control for the rest of the civil war and interregnum, its loyalty was never taken for granted. Analysis of the women’s petition of 1659 suggests that the King’s Lynn community was still a fundamentally divided one.

First I will briefly describe the petition as published and name the women signers who can most securely be identified as coming from Kings Lynn and west Norfolk. I will describe the national context and significance of the petition before considering the text itself. I will then move to the local context and especially the Quaker community to which the local signers belonged. This will be followed by a consideration of subsequent events, the fears of the Norfolk gentry and the sufferings of the Quaker community. [End Page 12]

Seven thousand names

On 20 July 1659, two unnamed women presented a petition to the House of Commons.4 Despite, or because of, the fact that the Commons would not accept the petition, it was published by Mary Westwood as a 72-page pamphlet. It has been described as a densely printed collection of petitions by different groups of Quaker women from various parts of the country collated together as a single female response to the “oppression of Tithes.”5

Women were much travelled evangelists within the Quaker movement. Sharon Achinstein estimates that over 500 Quaker pamphlet titles appeared in the years 1653–1657 and another 500 in 1658-1660.6 The pamphlets helped consolidate the movement’s identity. Distribution generated a need for at least an embryonic organisation. It was the effectiveness of that organisation which made the Handmaids’ petition possible. The first name on the petition is that of Margaret Fell, the judge’s wife who co-ordinated the Quaker missionary efforts of the 1650s from her home at Swarthmore Hall in Lancashire.

These Severall Papers consists of a number of sections based on geographical areas, each of which has its own introductory passage followed by columns of the names of women. The structure of the pamphlet enables the tentative identification of named individuals from mixed social backgrounds. Stephen A. Kent has analysed the signatures appended from Somerset and from Lincolnshire and Cheshire.7 The section for Norfolk and Suffolk contains more than 550 un-duplicated names. Of these about sixty names can...