James I and note-based passive aggression in early modern England

07 May 2020

History | Politics

It's surely a known thing that leaving a post-it note for someone taking them to task for an aspect of their behaviour - for instance a flatmate who uses up the milk without replacing it, doesn't wash up or who consistently leaves the loo seat up, and so forth - is a classic form of passive aggression. I believe with this 1604 incident discovered in Early Modern England: Society, Culture & Everyday Life we may have one of the earliest mentions of note-based passive aggression on the historic record. Though this story recounts that the message was stuck to a hunting dog rather than the fridge. In addition, in this instance you can forgive the perpetrators for their non-direct form of complaint as the target of their ire was no less than the king of England and Scotland himself, James I and VI.

I should add that the source does offer alternative readings and interpretations: if 1) is early modern passive aggression, 2) could describe it as an imaginative act of defiance and protest, 3) a combination of those previous two possibilities, or 4) early modern banter.

This incident struck a particular chime with me as it took place in the town of Royston, ten minutes from where I grew up. I never had a great affinity for the place but this letter in the Talbot Papers, held at Lambeth Palace Library, makes me hope that it was possibility number 2) and the people of Royston were standing up to power. Modern US Presidents are sometimes criticised for taking too much time off to play golf and it seems the early modern equivalent of golf was James taking time out from commissions on the union of England and Scotland to go hunting at Royston. An aside: the only hunting I ever experienced in Royston, many years ago, was being hunted down by my big brother one snowy day while sledging on the heath and having my head shoved into the slush and held there - I still don't recall what I did to provoke it.

But to the incident: this letter from Edmund Lascelles, one of James' entourage, to the Earl of Shrewsbury recounts how one of the king's favourite hunting dogs went missing one day, much to James' disappointment. Some time later the dog, named Fowler, reappeared with a letter tied to its neck. It read: "Good Mr Fowler, we pray you speake to the King, for he hears you every day and so doth he notis that it will please his majestie to go back to London, for else the country will [illegible], all our provisions is spent already and we are not able to intertayne him longer". In other words, get out of Royston, you're eating us out of house and home. I was momentarily delighted by this display of defiance or highly-imaginatively delivered passive aggression by my near brethren.

Edmund Lascelles to the Earl of Shrewsbury, Privy Councillor, [Whitehall], 4 December 1604
Talbot Papers MS 3201 Volume 10 © Lambeth Palace Library

The next sentence though disappointingly brought the possibility of option number 4) though as it seems "it [the letter] was taken for a jest and so passed over". Mere banter between the people of Royston and their king, if they read it right that is and weren't just brushing off an act of dissent.

Nonetheless, a revealing episode showing how townspeople people interacted with their monarch, passive aggressive or not, and the burdens or benefits to such royal residencies. The real point of reading this stuff of course.

Early Modern England: Society Culture & Everyday Life, 1500-1700 is available now. For more information about this resource, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Felix Barnes

Felix Barnes

I have been an editor at Adam Matthew since September 2013. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with some fascinating collections including Global Commodities, the Foreign Office Files for China, American History, 1493-1945, Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters, Socialism on Film and J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America.