Initially yours

by Nick

I’ve been reading Kevin Sharpe’s excellent Reading Revolutions, and came across a footnote drawing attention to a woodcut initial on an early proclamation by Charles II. Sharpe contrasts the imagery it uses with what had come before it during the Commonwealth:

Proclamation 1660

It reminded me of another footnote about another royal proclamation, this one by Charles I, in John Adamson’s Noble Revolt. Most royal proclamations from 1640 to 1642 have plain, ornamental woodcuts, such as this ‘W’ typically used for ‘Whereas’.

W proclamation

However, A proclamation for the attendance of the members in both houses in Parliament used this woodcut initial:

Proclamation H

It shows Hercules battling the many-headed hydra, something that becomes significant when you consider that the proclamation was issued on 12 December 1641 – just after the printing of the Grand Remonstrance (Parliament’s appeal to the people against Charles I), at a time when crowds were massed outside Westminster and a flurry of popular petitions were arriving at Parliament. To many political grandees, the danger of the many-headed monster would have foremost in their minds. Sir Edward Dering famously objected that ‘I did not dream that we should remonstrate downeward, tell stories to the people, and talke of the King as of a third person. Sir John Culpeper wrote in his diary that ‘this is a Remonstrance to the people. Remonstrances ought to be to the king for redress…. Wee [are] not sent to please the people’.

There are a few other examples of initials being paired appropriately with their content. Here is the woodcut from A proclamation prohibiting the payment and receipt of customes, and other maritime duties upon the late pretended ordinance of both Houses of Parliament:

Proclamation maritime

There is also one which I lack sufficient knowledge of emblems to interpret – it appears to show a woman with two doves in her lap, and a man reclining in a tree – or a cloud? – above her. It was the initial for A proclamation for a generall fast thorowout this realme of England.

Proclamation H two

I think Sharpe and Adamson are undoubtedly right to point out how contemporaries would have created meaning from these woodcuts. They were part of the message itself as well as the medium through which it was delivered. Where it gets more fuzzy is in the intentions behind the creation of meaning. Not much seems to be known about the process of drawing up and printing proclamations. Who wrote them? Who agreed them? Who took them to the printers? How much scope did the printers have to choose the iconography – was it discussed between printer and author, or did the printer happen to alight on what they thought would be an appropriate woodcut? Was it just the nearest woodcut initial that happened to be at hand?

What is both fascinating and frustrating is the question of the extent to which the state might have deliberately used the typography and iconography – not just the text – of proclamations and other official printed documents to influence the reading public. Fascinating because it could tell us a lot about the use of print by the state during this period: and frustrating because we will probably never know the complete answer.