British bureaucracy is under constant scrutiny, from the public, the press, and even the government itself. Yet administrative paperwork and systems of protocol have a long history that underpins the growth of the modern capitalist economy and the communities who sustained it. The individuals who drove the bureaucratic revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which witnessed the significant growth of English towns, were not monarchs or famous statesmen but literate middling men who possessed the necessary skills and networks to facilitate it.
Of particular importance were civic clerks. These individuals were responsible for writing out and filing legal documents and recording the minutes of civic assemblies. Whilst the professional role of town clerk is well recorded and the individuals traceable, the lives of under-clerks are often obscure. Although their work is preserved in myriad town documents, there is often little trace of the man behind the hand. Chester’s Hugh Dod was one such clerk for whom information can be found, and as such provides an interesting case study of the life of a professional scribe and lower civic official.
Dod is traceable through a series of petitions he entered throughout his lifetime to the civic authority of Chester in pursuit of a position in one of the city’s legal courts. As the Power of Petitioning Project has shown, although early modern petitions could take a variety of forms, in essence they were handwritten documents from an individual or group to a particular authority, requesting that a specific action be granted or carried out. In short, they were a means for inferiors to appeal to superiors, seeking a positive change to their present circumstances. Petitions were usually written up by a scrivener or scribe, so as a clerk Dod would have been familiar with the form and structure of a petition. Additionally, as he worked in civic government himself, he would also have known how to get a petition heard at the assembly. Only two of Dod’s original petitions survive but accounts of the others are found in the city’s assembly books, which record the minutes of meetings of the civic officials of Chester.
The surviving petitions are written out formally and addressed to the mayor, recorder, justices of the peace, aldermen, sheriffs, sheriff peers, and common council of Chester. The language used by Dod is deferential, ‘earnestlie desiringe’ preferment and the ‘favourable consente and allowances’ of the assembly. To further his case for preferment, he emphasizes certain ‘losses’ he has sustained in ‘labouringe meanes’ to obtain letters from his friends and patrons who wrote in support of his petition, demonstrating an impressive network of influential associates. However, networks and technical skill do not guarantee that a petition will be successful. Despite being literate, skilled, and well connected, Dod’s life was characterized by precarity. His position as a clerk clearly did not afford him the lifestyle he sought and as a result he was constantly petitioning for higher, and more permanent, employment.
Dod first appears in the civic records in 1592, when his petition to be an attorney in the courts of Portmote and Pentice in Chester was considered by the assembly and deferred. The petition was either not considered again or rejected, as Dod put in another petition in 1594 to be an attorney in the same courts, which was also rejected. Dod then waited 12 years before entering another petition in 1606, in which he is described as a scrivener and petitioned the city to be made an attorney in the court of records. The petition reveals that Dod had previously served as an under-clerk in the Pentice, which was the town hall and court room in Chester for the local courts, and was looking to sidestep into another career, one in which he had no formal training. Instead, he claimed to have been ‘broughte upp under mr Knight late Clarke of the Pentice’ and ‘experimented in the premisses’. Dod had served under William Knight, who was Clerk of the Pentice from 1569 to 1600, for 17 years presumably at the end of Knight’s life, which would date his service to 1583-1600. Dod appears not to have had any prior legal training or education at a university of Inn of Court; he probably had a grammar school education. However, his training or experience as a scrivener meant that he would have been familiar with a range of legal documents. Nonetheless this informal legal apprenticeship did not satisfy the assembly and Dod’s petition was denied.
Five years later Dod petitioned the city once again. The petition from 1611 survives in the Chester archives. In it Dod claims that he had ‘the experience of a Scrivernor within the said Citie’ for the past 18 years and had throughout this period been ‘wanting sufficient preferment whereby to mentaine him selfe and his femely’. According to a manuscript written by Dod himself, clerks in Chester received a set fee of 8 pence per page for drawing up and entering of every sheet containing 14 lines in the court of Pentice and Portmote where Dod worked as an under-clerk. Professional scribes like Dod regularly earnt money outside of the courts writing up documents for private individuals, who lacked either the literacy or skill to draw up documents themselves. Indeed, Dod appears as a notary on various wills, indentures, and assignments in Chester in the period 1600-1640. However, Dod clearly believed that his earnings were not enough and requested a greater and more steady wage as an attorney in the common law courts of Chester.
For his 1611 petition, Dod did not just rely on his own protestations of experience but provided letters of recommendation from Sir Rogert Aston, Sir John Salusbury, and Thomas Ireland, who all presented their ‘harty commendacions’ to the mayor on behalf of Dod. All three men were well connected lawyers and courtiers. Aston was a courtier and Master of the Great Wardrobe to King James I, Salusbury was Esquire of the Body (a personal attendant) to Elizabeth I and a lawyer, and Thomas Ireland was a lawyer who later became the vice chamberlain of the Exchequer court of Chester. The exact relationship Dod had with these three individuals is difficult to ascertain. The letters from Salusbury and Ireland are quite standard letters of recommendation and include no specific information about Dod himself. The letter by Aston, however, further recounted Dod’s qualifications stating that he had been clerk under Knight and had ‘dwelled in the saide Citty’ ever since, suggesting that Dod did not hail from Chester originally. Dod had, Aston claimed, behaved himself ‘verie honestly’ in his role as a scrivener and ‘in respecte of his saide longe tyme of service’ was able ‘to discharge the duty of an attorney at the Comon Lawe’. Aston therefore desired the city to place him as such ‘the better to maineteyne himself when hee shall growe into further yeares’. Despite the letters Dod’s petition was again thought ‘not fit to be graunted’ and ‘utterly denied unto him.’
The votes of the assembly have been jotted down by another hand at the side of his petition on the same page and show that only 1 person voted in favour of the petition against 35 rejections. The decision by the assembly appears to have rested solely on Dod’s education. However, as Christopher Brooks has shown, to be an attorney did not require formal legal training at the Inns of Court but was more commonly learnt through apprenticeship. Either the assembly’s rejection of Dod was due to the fact he had not served his ‘apprenticeship’ under an attorney, or their decision rested on a personal issue not recorded in the assembly book.
A man of habit, Hugh Dod waited another five years before petitioning the city again in 1616. This time Dod played his trump card. He produced a letter from King James himself recommending his ‘welbeloved Subject Hughe Dod’ to an office in the courts of Chester due to the ‘acceptable service’ Dod had carried out ‘in writeinge of sundrie Instructions for the Ayde due for our deereste daughter the Lady Elizabeth’. In a further letter to the mayor Dod stated that his letter from the king proved that he ‘deserveth to be admitted’ to a position in the courts or, if he ‘happen to survive’ the incumbent William Hockenhull, to have the office of Serjeant in reversion. Despite Dod having friends in high places, his petition was once again refused, and he remained in his position as an under-clerk in the Pentice.
Dod’s situation may have improved slightly in 1627 when the current Clerk of the Pentice, Robert Brerewood, was suspended from office for negligence. It was thereby ordered, on 20 February 1627, that mayor Nicholas Ince ‘put in some fitting clerke or clerkes to execute the said place and office’ whilst Brerewood was suspended and to ‘take into his Custodye the Bookes and records of the said Office and of the Severall courts within the said Citty’. The name of the chosen individual is not recorded in the assembly book, but a manuscript written by Hugh Dod reveals that it was he who was appointed. In an account of the freemen admitted in Chester in the year 1626/7 Dod recorded that he ‘was admitted by the said Nicholas Ince in the tyme of his maioralty to write in the office of Pentice during the sequestracion thereof’. Despite his lack of formal training and prior rejections of legal office, the city was clearly happy to let Dod take on this significant role, albeit not as a permanent appointment. Clerks of the Pentice were not required to have formal legal training, although the two of the previous incumbents, Robert Whitby and Robert Brerewood, were both Inns of Court men, and the post had been filled previously by William Knight, Dod’s own patron, and Thomas Whitby who had both served apprenticeships. Therefore, Dod’s experience and training meant he had the experience needed to take up the role of temporary Clerk of the Pentice but did not possess the skills necessary for a more permanent office as an attorney.
After 11 months of sequestration a new Clerk of the Pentice, Richard Littler, was appointed and Dod was once again seeking employment. He petitioned the city one final time in 1631, requesting that in light of his service to the city, which included him writing up an official list of legal fees for the city, he deserved to be admitted to a legal office. Dod was never granted an office as an attorney and next appears in the civic records in 1636 when he petitions for an almsroom – charitable accommodation for the poor – in Chester, which had recently become available and was being allocated via ‘lott or ballettinge’. Ironically, this was Dod’s only successful petition. Dod retained the room until his death in 1639.
Dod’s petitions offer an insight into the life and career of an early modern civic clerk, a position that required literacy and a specific skill set that could be acquired through a form of apprenticeship. However, similar to being self-employed or working freelance today, Dod’s work as a clerk and professional scribe also required a certain amount of self-promotion and trading on his reputation to attract business. As such, his earnings were not set or secure and he clearly did not earn enough to support himself or his family. His skills were constantly deemed ‘not fit’ by the civic council to sidestep into the career of an attorney despite his experience and letters of recommendation. This suggests that whilst education, literacy, and patronage were important for social mobility, the exact set of skills acquired and how they had been obtained also mattered. As a result, Dod’s life was characterized by petitioning and precarity, and his social mobility and career progression were hampered by his lack of specialised education.
BL: Harl MS 1944, f. 115
CALS: ZAB/1, Assembly Book,
CALS: ZAB/2, Assembly Book,
CALS: ZM/AB/1, Apprenticeship Registers, f.27
CALS: ZML/6/57, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1611
CALS: ZML/6/58, Letter of Roger Aston, 1610
CALS: ZML/6/59, Letter of Thomas Ireland and John Salisbury
CALS: ZML/6/108, Letter from the King, 1616
CALS: ZML/6/112, Letter from Hugh Dod to Mayor Thomas Thropp, 1616
CALS: ZA/F/11/43, Petition of Hugh Dod, 1620
J. H. E. Bennett, The Rolls of the Freemen of the City of Chester, Part 1, 1392-1700, The Record Society for the Publication of Original Documents Relating to Lancashire and Cheshire Vol. 51 (1906)
Christopher Brooks, ‘Professions, Ideology and the Middling Sort in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries’, in Jonathan Barry and Christopher Brooks (eds) The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550-1800 (Basingstoke, 1994)
Famarez Dabhoiwala, ‘Writing Petitions in Early Modern England’, in Michael J. Braddick and Joanna Innes (eds), Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations: A collection to honour Paul Slack (2017)
Robert Tittler, Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community c.1500-1640 (Oxford, 1991)
Keith Wrightson, Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City and the Plague (New Haven, 2011)
Power of Petitioning, The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England (history.ac.uk)
History of Parliament, SALUSBURY, Sir John (c.1565-1612), of Lleweni, Denb. | History of Parliament Online
History of Parliament, ASTON, Sir Roger (-d.1612), of Edinburgh and Cranfold, Mdx. | History of Parliament Online