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Back in 2012 we drew attention to what we believed to be a phantom reference in an online bibliography of first-person accounts of mental distress. “As far as we know,” we wrote on our blog, “the existence of a 1620 Petition of the Poor Distracted Folk of Bedlam is no more than a rumour”. We added, “Naturally, we would be delighted to be proved wrong about this!”

Well, the 1620 Petition remains as elusive as ever. However, the UK Parliamentary Archives recently tweeted an image of a manuscript petition presented to the House of Lords in November 1675 by one John Taylor, a rare documented example of a political prisoner (as he might be called today) in Bethlem.

Taylor writes

“To the Right Honourable the Lords Spirituall and temporall in Parliament assembled, the humble Petition of John Taylor, a distressed Prisoner in the Hospitall of Bethlehem.”

And “Sheweth that by your Lordships’ order of the 14th May last, your petitioner was justly committed for several irreverent Speeches which your Lordships apprehended to be blasphemous, but he owned the Same under the reservations they were Spoaken by, and he hath ever since been allowd nothing but bread and water for his support”.

In other words, he never meant to blaspheme, but he mis-spoke, and had been misunderstood; and in any event, he was being mis-treated.

Then Taylor begins to set out his case.

“Forasmuch that your petitioner intended not to Committ blasphemy neither hath he persisted in such like speeches but made most Dutiful Expressions concerning the holy Trinity to the satisfaction of Doctor Allen and several divines”,

(Thomas Allen was Bethlem’s Physician)

“And Forasmuch that your petitioner is heartily grieved for having used such Speeches and is resolved to avoid the like occasion of Offence for the future”,

(Here comes his petition)

“Hee humbly beseecheth your Lordships to have compassion on him and to discharge him of his severe and insupportable imprisonment”.

Though rare, Taylor’s case was not unique, as the chapter on ‘the politics of committal to early modern Bethlem’ in Jonathan Andrews et al, The History of Bethlem (Routledge, 1997), makes clear. “The authorities sought to distinguish political [and, we may add, religious] deviancy from lunacy and respond appropriately”, according to Andrews, but “it was not always easy for the authorities to determine whether an offender was mad or not” and “many individuals were sent to Bethlem by the Government upon slandering or questioning the Establishment” (pp. 349,350, 352).

John Taylor’s petition was aimed at convincing the powers-that-be of four things: his sanity, his innocent intentions, his remorse, and his resolve not to re-offend. Did it achieve its aim? We cannot say for sure, but we do know that a patient named John Taylor was discharged from Bethlem in late December 1677 or early January 1678, some two years after he fired off his petition.

If and when the 1620 petition ever does come to light, within the holdings of the UK Parliamentary Archives or elsewhere, the likelihood is that it will be of a similar nature to that of John Taylor, and will shed more light on the experiences of Bethlem’s seventeenth-century residents.