The politics of saltpetre

by mercuriuspoliticus

While digging through the Calendar of State Papers Domestic for Charles I, I came across an interesting dispute from 1630s Gloucestershire about the production of  saltpetre which I thought I’d share.

Saltpetre is another name for potassium nitrate, a critical ingredient for gunpowder. It was typically generated by collecting vegetable and animal waste into heaps and mixing it with limestone, mortar, earth and ashes. These heaps were kept moist from time to time with urine or other waste from stables. Digging for ingredients in outbuildings such as dovecotes and stables was thus an important part of ensuring adequate supplies of gunpowder for the navy. From the reign of Elizabeth I onwards, official saltpetre men were given powers to requisition any suitable deposits they came across.

Collecting saltpetre could prove enormously disruptive to local areas. Backed by support from the centre, the saltpetre men seem to have pushed their weight around in communities:

The saltpetre men care not in whose houses they dig, threatening men that by their commission they may dig in any  man’s house, in any room, and at any time, which will prove a great grievance to the country. In the town where the writer lives they have digged up some malting rooms, and threaten to dig more. They dig up the entries and halls of divers men. If any oppose them they break up men’s houses and dig by force. They make men carry their saltpetre at a groat a mile, and take their carriages in sowing time and harvest, with many other oppressions.

Sir Francis Seymour to Secretary Coke, 14 February 1630 (CSPD)

This clash of priorities has been used by Conrad Russell amongst others to illustrate tensions between crown and gentry during the early seventeenth century as costs and methods of warfare grew during the military revolution of the early modern period. But it also provides examples of clashes of priorities at a much more local level too.

John Giffard was one of the bullying saltpetre men Seymour mentions. He was described by Sir Thomas Roe as “such as would reign over poor
men in their office”. He appears to have come from the Forest of Dean, but crops up as a saltpetre man across the south west of England.

In 1634, Giffard got fed up with resistance from the inhabitants of Gloucestershire and petitioned the Lords of the Admiralty about the difficulties he was having with a William Browne:

Petition of John Giffard saltpetreman to the Lords of the Admiralty. Petitioner being at work at Thornbury co. Gloucester. William Browne who has a good living at Westerleigh and keeps a sufficient plough or team thereupon being charged by the officer to join with one of his neighbours to carry one load of coals from the coal pits adjacent to the boiling house in Thornbury obstinately refused. Petitioner complained of Browne to two justices of the peace who admonished him to do the service but he refused and further assistance the justices said they could not give. And since Browne being warned again to carry one load of liquor from Acton to the boiling house refused. Further Henry Webb of Wotton under Edge has a pigeon house at Wickwar which he keeps in his own hand but has let the land to Richard Batten of Yate, which pigeon house would have yielded a great quantity of saltpetre but Webb and Batten have utterly destroyed the same by carrying the good earth out of the house and laying the same on their pasture ground and divers others in imitation thereof have done the like which will be the utter destruction of that service without timely prevention. Prays that some course may be taken with the party complained of and petitioner satisfied for his loss and hindrance.


Browne appears to have been the same William Browne who is listed as a carpenter on the 1608 muster roll for Westerleigh. In other words, he was a craftsman from amongst the middling sort of people, with enough land in 1635 to have earned some money from it. Browne was imprisoned in Marshalsea prison while the case was heard. But rather than submitting, or languishing in hail, Browne fought fire with fire. He was able to mobilise substantial support to put his case to the Lords of the Admiralty. He managed to enlist Sir Thomas Roe, whose mother had remarried into the Berkeley family in Gloucestershire, to put his case:

Sir Thomas Roe to [Secretary of State] Nicholas. Pain prevents his waiting upon the Lords. Begs Nicholas to read the enclosed, and inform the Lords a truth in behalf of an innocent and honest man, maliciously persecuted by such as would reign over poor men in their office. Would not plead for this bearer [William Browne] before such an audience, and in such a cause as the King’s service, but that he was well grounded that Browne performed his duty willingly, and the testimony he has is from the best men in that division. It is not a less heroic and honest work to protect the innocent than to chasten the refractory, therefore he hopes the Lords will give credit to the informations and discharge him. Prays Nicholas to aid Browne, who, perhaps, in such a presence cannot speak for himself.

Browne and Roe’s tactics here were shrewd. Working people were not supposed to speak up in early modern England. As Andy Wood has argued, popular unrest was conceived of in overwhelmingly auditory terms: as “ill words”, as “hurly burly”, as “commotion”, as “noise”. Only after the civil wars did the word “mob”, from the Latin mobile vulgus, become the favoured description. In presenting Browne’s case in this way, Roe was seeking to appropriate and work within the confines of a normative elite vocabulary that would have otherwise rejected his petition out of hand.

But Browne and Roe also realised that they needed to draw on other cultural capital to get him off the hook: namely the support of local people in presening Browne as a pillar of his community. Roe attached the following letters to support his case:

1. Thomas Chester to William Browne. Replies at length to a letter from Browne on the power given to Giffard under his deputation to take carts and ploughs for the conveyance of saltpetre liquor, and his remedy in case of refusal or interruption by appeal to the next Justice of the Peace. Orders for facilitating the service had been made by the justices at Thornbury. Does not believe that Giffard would have any cause of complaint if he appealed to the justices when there was reason for so doing. Alman-Knowle, 19 December 1634.

2. Inhabitants of Alveston, co. Gloucester, to the Council and Lords of the Admiralty. William Browne has been a willing payer towards carriage to the saltpetre works at Thornbury; also, when his plough was pressed for their parish for the carriage of a load of coal, he agreed with Montague, a coal carrier by horse, to convey it in, because his plough was weak and the ways unpassable. 16 January 1635.

3. Inhabitants of Westerleigh, co. Gloucester, to the same. Certify that William Browne never refused rate for carrying water and coal to the saltpetre works at Thornbury, but, being pressed for two places at once, remarked, that he thought it unreasonable, having but one plough, and that many men paid nothing in this service because they kept no ploughs. 18 January 1635.

4. John Street and others to the Council. Certify that the plough of William Browne, when he was warned last for Westerleigh parish, for carriage to the saltpetre works at Thornbury, was unable to carry above half a load, by reason of their poverty and weariness with other carriages, whereupon Browne excused himself to Giffard by letter. 18 January 1634-5.


Browne’s case is not remarkable. Seventeenth-century working people seem to have appealed on many occasions to the law, and were able to take their cases to the highest courts.  But there were still limits to the agency that this gave them. The odds were still stacked overwhelmingly against plebeian people in early modern England. Like they were for Browne: on 0n 30 January he decided discretion was the better part of valour and took a different route to getting released.

Petition of William Browne prisoner in the Marshalsea to the same. Upon complaint of Mr Gifiard master of the saltpetre works at Thornbury co. Gloucester was sent for by a messenger and is now imprisoned. Expresses sorrow for any offence and prays enlargement.


The Lords of the Admiralty quickly decided that Giffard’s complaint was justified:

Lords of the Admiralty to the Keeper of the Marshalsea. Warrant to set Edmund Barker at liberty. Minute of a like warrant to set at liberty William Browne with a clause that he should pay 6l. to John Giffard and all fees. The same to Thomas Chester Justice of Peace for co. Gloucester. In examining the complaint against William Browne perceive there has been great neglect in Chester in not assisting the deputy saltpetreman in the performance of his works and this fault lie has aggravated by certifying on behalf of Browne whom he could not but know to be a delinquent, Browne having been complained of by the deputy to Chester and another Justice of Peace Forbear to call him to account for this neglect hoping this admonition will render him henceforth more ready to give assistance in that service as there shall be occasion. 31 January 1635.


As Andy Wood has put it, popular agency could be exercised in early modern England by those who were determined, clever or lucky enough, but it was “something won from a profoundly unequal, and often cruel, class structure”.

For more on saltpetre men see:

1. Charles Edelmen, Shakespeare’s military language: a dictionary (2000), pp. 295-296.

For more on the politics of silence and the limits of popular agency see:

1. Andy Wood, The 1549 rebellions and the making of early modern England (Cambridge, 2007).

2. Andy Wood, ‘Subordination, Solidarity and the Limits of Popular Agency in a Yorkshire Valley, c.1596-1615’, Past & Present, 193 (2006), pp. 41-72.