As a historical source, warrants are generally overlooked by early modern historians. The reasons for this are unclear. It is possible they are deemed relevant only by those pursuing legal history. More likely, however, it may be attributable to a lack of understanding both of what a warrant is and what it does. Put simply, a warrant is a document issued by a sovereign or representative body permitting those to whom it is addressed to perform a specific action.
Having recently edited and published over 600 early Stuart Irish warrants issued between 1623 and 1639 (see my book here: bit.ly/1L5O4Yb), these sources provide a wealth of information. They cover a broad spectrum of political, religious, social, cultural, economic and administrative affairs. Their focus is primarily on Ireland but English and Scottish matters also feature in the collection.
One way of demonstrating the scope of warrants is to examine the activities of women. Some relate to mundane affairs such as Margaret Logan, who appealed for the retention of her deceased husband’s lease of four mills and land in Antrim. Other warrants offer more intriguing insights into early modern life such as the unnamed couple ‘W.P. and his wife C.’ They requested a license for ‘exercising their quality of dancing on the ropes, and other feats of activity’ at townhalls or guildhalls in towns and cities across the kingdom.
Perhaps the most striking aspect is the number of petitions from women. In cases where the original petition is no longer extant, a warrant can often fill the void. For example, the wives of the bishops of Derry and Limerick, Lady Margery Roe and Elizabeth Gough, pleaded with Lord Deputy Wentworth to retain rents from the diocese after their husband’s death.
Several petitions requested protection from creditors. This usually happened when women inherited the debts of a recently deceased husband or father. In April 1634 Katherine Maisterson alias Butler, a widow, was safeguarded from debt collectors for six months after claiming she had been ‘violently press[ed] for present payment’ by Mr Cleere.
Protections were also granted to assist those who encountered misfortune. Elizabeth Aslaby, for example, successfully petitioned for the collection of benevolence for eighteen months after she and her husband sustained great losses by ‘thieves, fire and otherwise’.
Unruly behaviour was by no means confined to men. The warrants highlight women involved in various disorders. A group of eleven people were (falsely) accused of murdering James Morish. This included three females, Eleanor Mollony, Honora Ní Connor and the unfortunately named Finola Ní Killin. In 1634, Margaret Duckett was sent to prison for committing several ‘misdemeanours and abuses’. Although she managed to escape in men’s clothing when the jailor stepped out for air, her luck ran out shortly later when she was recaptured by the authorities and committed to Mallow prison for a second time.
Finally, in October 1634 officials received news of a land dispute between Valentine Paine and Mrs Bagnoll from Newry.
In pleading for help, Paine complained that Bagnoll in a ‘most riotous & rebellious manner’ ordered 150 armed men with ‘swords pikes, darts and fowling-pieces’ to attack him. Worse still, after he was assaulted Bagnoll took his livestock and placed them in her possession. Clearly not a woman to mess with.
So what’s the moral of the story (or blog) then? Simple. Next time you uncover warrants in your research, check them out. You just never know what you might find.
The author would like to thank Marsh’s Library, Dublin, and The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, for permission to use images from manuscripts in their possession.