William Petyt

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William Petyt Holding a Copy of the Magna Carta (c. 1690) by Richard van Bleeck, in the collection of the Tower of London

William Petyt (or Petit) (1640/1641 – 3 October 1707) was an English barrister and writer, and a political propagandist in the Whig interest.


Petyt was born in 1640 or 1641 in the village of Storiths, near Bolton Abbey, Skipton, Yorkshire,[1] and educated at the Free Grammar School (now Ermysted's Grammar School), Skipton, and Christ's College, Cambridge.[2] He was admitted as a barrister to the Middle Temple in June 1660, and to Barnard's Inn in June 1661. He was specially admitted to the Inner Temple on 25 November 1664, and subsequently called to the Bar there in February 1671 and made a bencher in 1689.[1][3] He served as Treasurer (that is, the head) of Inner Temple in 1701–1702.[4]

On 25 July 1689, Petyt was appointed Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London by William III,[1][5] replacing in that position Robert Brady who had made a very effective attack for the Tories on Petyt's The Antient Right of the Commons of England Asserted (1680).[6] Petyt was attacked also from his own side, the Whigs, by Thomas Hunt.[7]

Petyt wrote against the separation of powers, and in favour of Parliament's control of the judiciary.[8] Influential in its time, in particular on John Locke, was a version of "ancient constitutionalism" propounded in the writings of John Sadler, James Tyrrell and Petyt.[9]

The title pages of Petyt's Miscellanea Parliamentaria (1st ed., 1680)[10] (left), and Jus parliamentarium (1st ed., 1739)[11] (right)

Petyt died unmarried in Chelsea, London, on 3 October 1707, and was buried in the west part of Temple Church.[1][12] In his will he left £50 to the Free Grammar School in Skipton which was used to purchase books for needy students. He also left £200 for the maintenance of alumni of the Free Grammar School who had been admitted as scholars at Christ's College, Cambridge.[13] In addition, he entrusted to his trustees his books and manuscripts together with £150 for buying or building a place to preserve them. Inner Temple Library was enlarged for this purpose, and in 1708 Petyt's trustees deposited his collection there,[4] except for about 2,000 items which his brother Sylvester (1640–1719) took to his home in Yorkshire.[1][14] Sylvester, who also attended the Free Grammar School, eventually bequeathed to the school the generous sum of £30,000 to form the Petyt Trust, and also books belonging to himself, his brother and friends which became the Petyt Library.[13]


Modern verdicts on Petyt as a historian have been harsh. David C. Douglas[15] comments that he and William Atwood, though distinguished jurists, "took what was worst" from the earlier works of their century on constitutional history. J. H. Plumb wrote that it was hard not convict Petyt, "not only of error, but also of deceit".[16]


  • The Antient Right of the Commons of England Asserted (1680)
  • Miscellanea Parliamentaria (1680)[10]
  • The Pillars of Parliament (1681)
  • Jus Parliamentarium (1739)[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e Janelle Greenberg (January 2008), "Petyt [Petit], William", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22074 .
  2. ^ "Petit, William (PTT660W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ Andrew Pyle (editor), The Dictionary of Seventeenth Century British Philosophers (2000), Thoemmes Press (two volumes), article Petyt, William, p. 656–657.
  4. ^ a b Adrian Blunt (August 2015), Petyt Manuscripts: Based on an Article by Adrian Blunt in the Inner Temple Library Newsletter Issue 28, April 2012 (PDF), Inner Temple Library, archived from the original (PDF) on 30 July 2016 .
  5. ^ "Library History: 18th Century", Inner Temple Library, 2000, archived from the original on 19 December 2000 .
  6. ^ Alan Harding, England in the Thirteenth Century (1993), p. 29.
  7. ^ Andrew Pyle (editor), Dictionary of Seventeenth Century British Philosophers (2000), pp. 457–458.
  8. ^ Jeffrey Denys Goldsworthy, The Sovereignty of Parliament: History and Philosophy (1999), p. 153.
  9. ^ John Marshall, John Locke: Resistance, Religion and Responsibility (1994), p. 278.
  10. ^ a b William Petyt (1680), Miscellanea Parliamentaria: Containing Presidents 1. Of Freedom from Arrests. 2. Of Censures. 1. Upon such as Have Wrote Books to the Dishonour of the Lords or Commons, or to Alter the Constitution of the Government. 2. Upon Members for Misdemeanours. 3. Upon Persons not Members, for Contempts and Misdemeanours. 4. For Misdemeanours in Elections. Besides other Presidents and Orders of a Various Nature, both of the House of Lords and Commons. With an Appendix, Containing Several Instances wherein the Kings of England have Consulted and Advised with their Parliaments, 1. In Marriages. 2. Peace and War. 3. Leagues. And other Weighty Affairs of the Kingdom. By William Petyt of the Inner-Temple, Esq; (1st ed.), London: Printed by N. Thompson, for T. Basset at the George, and J. Wickins at the White Hart in Fleetstreet, OCLC 12430989 .
  11. ^ a b William Petyt (1739), Jus parliamentarium: or, the ancient power, jurisdiction, rights and liberties, of the most high court of Parliament, revived and asserted. In two parts. By William Petyt, Esq; Late of the Inner-Temple, and Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London (1st ed.), London: Printed for and sold by John Nourse, at the Lamb without Temple Bar; M. Green, at Charing Cross; Cæsar Ward, and Richard Chandler, at the Ship without Temple Bar, and at their shops in Coney Street, York, and at Scarborough Spaw; George Hawkins, at Milton’s Head between the Temple Gates in Fleet Street, and at Tunbridge Wells; and Thomas Waller, in the Middle Temple Cloysters [London], OCLC 613603611 .
  12. ^ "PETYT, William", The Chelsea Charities. 1862. Report of the Committee of the Vestry, London: Printed by H. D. Pite and Son, 37, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, S.W., 1863, p. 119, OCLC 21980289 .
  13. ^ a b A Brief History of EGS, Ermysted's Grammar School, archived from the original on 22 February 2014, retrieved 22 February 2014 .
  14. ^ F. A. Inderwick, ed. (1901), A Calendar of the Inner Temple Records (PDF), III (12 Charles II. (1660) – 12 Anne (1714)), London: Published by order of the Masters of the Bench [of the Inner Temple] and sold by Henry Sotheran and Co.; Stevens and Haynes; Stevens and Sons, Lim., pp. 418–420, OCLC 6194374, archived from the original (PDF) on 11 September 2014 .
  15. ^ David C. Douglas, The English Scholars (1939), p. 163.
  16. ^ J. H. Plumb, The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675–1725 (1967), p. 29.

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