Thomas Harper

by Nick

I have spent the last week trawling through EEBO to try to track down the printers of various pamphlets during the 1640s, by matching type, ornaments and initial letters from one pamphlet with those in another. One thing I have found is that the owner of a distinctive cracked decorative ‘T’ was not, as I had surmised in a previous post, Bernard Alsop, but another printer called Thomas Harper. Here is the T in Warlike directions, or, The sovldiers practice (1642), whose title page states that it was printed by Harper:

And here is an identical T from a 1641 pamphlet,  A discovery of the notorious proceedings of William Laud (London, 15 October 1641), whose imprint claims it was ‘Printed, and are to be sold by Henry Walker’:

The most likely scenario, I suspect, is that Walker commissioned Harper to print this pamphlet, but for some reason had his own name listed as printer. Perhaps anonymity was part of the price that Harper demanded of Walker to print his pamphlet.

One possible explanation for this desire for anonymity is that A discovery of the notorious proceedings of William Laud might have attracted the attention of the authorities. The pamphlet purported to give an account by John Browne, a Jesuit priest imprisoned in Gatehouse Prison, of Laud’s attempts to turn England into a papist country. However, by October 1641, Laud was in custody and Parliament had started to roll back the innovations of Laudian ceremonialism. The Junto was theoretically triumphant, and the attempts to crack down on anti-Laudian books that one sees in early 1641 before Laud’s impeachment and imprisonment had dried up by this point. Still, Harper had been in trouble with the authorities before, and perhaps he thought better of exposing himself to unnecessary risk.

An alternative explanation is that Harper objected in some way to the pamphlet’s content. In his few appearances in the historiography of mid-seventeenth century England, Harper has been seen by historians as a firm royalist. Here is H. R. Plomer, the pioneering bibliographer of the early twentieth century:

HARPER (THOMAS), printer in London; Little Britain, 1614-56. The son of William Harper, of Woolraston, co. Salop, minister. Apprentice to Melchisedeck Bradwood, September 29th, 1604.  Took up his freedom October 29th, 1611. First book entry July 14th, 1614, at which time he appears to have been in partnership with his brother William. In 1634 he bought the printing business of George Wood and William Lee, which had previously belonged to Thomas Snodham, who in his turn had succeeded Thomas East or Este. Wood brought several actions against Harper in the Court of Requests and the Court of Chancery, in all of which he was non-suited. In 1639 Harper was in partnership with Richard Hodgkinson.  During the early years of the Rebellion he was more than once in trouble for printing pamphlets against the Parliament. He died March 22nd, 1656.

Subsequent historians seem to have taken Plomer to mean that Harper was a both a royalist and a Laudian. Here, citing Plomer, is Erin Henriksen:

Harper, a London printer from 1614 to 1656, was associated with many Catholic and Royalist publications.

Michelle M. Dowd again references Plomer to argue that Harper prioritised royalist and Laudian publications, citing books as far back as 1625 with connections to those two terms:

What little we know about Harper and his role in the book trade suggests that he may have developed a specialty in Royalist and Laudian books.

Randy Robertson, too, cites Plomer and a range of Harper’s publications to describe him as a royalist:

Lovelace’s royalist printer, Thomas Harper.

But note that Plomer nowhere states that Harper was a royalist. “Royalist” is a tricky category to use for the early 1640s in any case, and “printing pamphlets against the Parliament” could imply all sorts of political and religious positions. Assessing a printer’s political or religious ideology by the output of their press is also problematic. It is possible to cherry-pick Harper’s surviving publications for proto-royalist or anti-Calvinist works. However, it’s equally possible to find proto-Parliamentarian or Puritan books he printed. For example:

  • Faith and good workes united in a sermon preached at the Spittle upon Wednesday in Easter weeke (1630). A sermon by the moderate Puritan Richard Reeks, vicar of Little Ilford in Essex.
  • The soules watch: or, A day-booke for the devout soule (1632). A translation of a German book by the Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard.
  • The Ethiopian eunuchs conuersion. Or, The summe of thirtie sermons vpon part of the eight chapter of the Acts (1632). By the puritan cleric Samuel Smith.

If Harper was happy to print pamphlets for Henry Walker – assuming this is what the similarity between initial letters implies – then he would have been doing business with a staunchly anti-episcopal Calvinist who had already been tried by Parliament for publishing anti-Laudian books. Needless to say, this is not a good fit with the prevailing picture of Harper as a royalist printer.

Now I could well be wrong about the initial letter. The pamphlet might not be Harper’s at all. But my confusion this weekend in working through this at least confirms that political and religious allegiances – then as in any period – are complicated. We have a tendency to try to fit people of the past into ideological boxes or grids, and above all to try to make things look tidy. But beliefs are messy. They exist in the real world, and are softened or compromised by social, economic or personal pressures. Nor are they necessarily internally consistent – not just over time but even in the heat of the moment.

In Harper’s case, the only evidence that survives is some of the books he printed. I haven’t been able to find his will to see the terms in which he described his faith. We know nothing else about his professional, political, personal or confessional life. And so the best we can probably do is to say that he printed some royalist or Laudian books. Whether this makes him a royalist or a Laudian is a different question.