Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: books

Grumpy rants

This was the headline that loomed out of the Metro on my morning commute today. (Note to non-UK readers: the Metro is a free newspaper handed out at tube and train stations every weekday morning).

Things have changed since the 1640s, and in 2011 there is not really a mass market for puritan pamphleteers any more, so I was pleased to see that the Metro had covered the forthcoming auction of a number of Prynne’s works at Bonhams on 22 November. No other newspapers bothered to report it.

I smiled at the reference to Prynne’s books, ‘the vast majority with long-winded titles’: as if Prynne was the only early modern writer to succumb to that particular vice… but the way in which the article describes Prynne did make me stifle a groan. Calling Prynne a moralist is a bit like saying that Ian Paisley isn’t that keen on Catholics: it’s not inaccurate, but it doesn’t really begin to capture the complexities of his political and religious beliefs.

Although Prynne harked back to an idealised vision of the Elizabethan church under Whitgift, his critique of the duels, drinking and masques of the 1630s was far more than the nostalgia of a grumpy old man. It was an urgent and intensely political critique of the damage Prynne thought was being done to the Church of England by Laud and anti-Calvinism. He stood up for the principles he argued for with some courage: in 1637, when Prynne’s cheeks were branded and the remains of his ears cropped, the executioner cut some of his cheek away by mistake and left part of his ear dangling.

The article also skips over Prynne’s role in the outbreak of civil war, fast-forwarding from the Personal Rule to the Restoration. It doesn’t mention the mixture of martyr and hero that he became for many of those disaffected with Charles I’s political and religious innovations, or his role in the trial of Laud. I found this interesting given the language the article deploys, consciously or sub-consciously, to describe Prynne: ‘grumpy’, ‘rants, ‘railed’. This vocabulary, or its early modern equivalents, is not a million miles away from that used by some of Prynne’s opponents: in particular, Peter Heylyn.

Heylyn first became involved with Prynne when compiling a scathing critique of Histriomatix for Prynne’s trial in 1634, and clashed with him in print on numerous occasions during the 1640s and 1650s. After the restoration, Heylyn set out to rehabilitate Laud, and in the process did a good job of doing down Prynne. This, combined with the stereotype of the Puritan killjoy and hypocrite, spreading division and sedition while preaching moral reform and unity, has cast a long shadow on popular views of Prynne (and on the Wikipedia entry about him, which I suspect may have been the source for some of the information in the article).

So two cheers for the Metro for covering Prynne and his books: but minus one for the comparison to Victor Meldrew. I don’t believe it…

Sign of the times

How much can you tell about a person from their signature? One legitimate answer to that question is nothing. That’s probably the right answer if you interpret the question in terms of whether the idiosyncrasies of someone’s handwriting reveal anything about their personality.

In other respects, though, a signature can be incredibly revealing. This is particularly the case for the early modern period, where a person’s signature – on a title deed, on a will, on a book – may be the only surviving material trace of their existence. From a humanist perspective, seeking to recover what we can of the past, finding someone’s signature is exciting.  It is a way of connecting with someone long gone, across a void of hundreds of years. And while trying to discern actual personality traits from signatures may be a dead end, the material aspects of a signatures can still tell us things.

Signatures are a means of expressing one’s identity in textual form. The fact that they became, and remain, the primary legal means of asserting one’s identity means that there are all sorts of culturally-specific assumptions bound up with them. To know how to write, you had to know how to read: the latter was taught before the former. The fact that a person in the sixteenth or seventeenth century could write their name instantly tells you something about them. It also tells you something about how their contemporaries might have perceived them.  The ability to sign one’s name demonstrated to others that you had at least some degree of education, and that you had a certain amount of agency with which to engage in the worlds of commerce, politics or law.

Nor were signatures simply a passive means of asserting a pre-set identity to others. They also provided a means for early modern men and women to fashion and refashion their own identity. Commonplace books, for example, often contain the owner’s signature, in many cases written out over and over again, or in different styles of handwriting. In some cases these signatures show an identity which was already worked out; in others, one which was still being tried on for size.

I recently managed to find the signature of a civil war pamphleteer from a very early stage in his life. This is the signature of Henry Walker, in the book of oaths sworn and signed by apprentices of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers:

The full oath reads:

Me[mora]nda that I Henry Walker being apprentice unto Robert Holland Ironmonger doe promis by my faithe and truste to be obedient unto the M[aste]r and thees our wardens of the company of Ironmongers of London and to their successors all the days of my life in witnesse whereof I put my hand Henry Walker

Walker made and signed this oath at Ironmongers’ Hall in Fenchurch Street, near Aldgate, on 20 January 1629. He was sixteen years old, and had probably only recently arrived in London after a comfortable childhood spent in Derby, a member of one of the town’s governing class.  His father had died in October 1627 and it seems likely that Walker was forced to seek his living rather earlier than he might otherwise have done. Later in his life he complained he had been ‘taken from the school to the shop’.

The Ironmongers’ Hall that Walker knew does not exist any more. Its current version sits hidden behind the concrete barrier of the Barbican on Aldersgate Street. The building Holland and Walker were familiar with dated from 1587, when a new building had replaced the ramshackle collection of houses that were there beforehand. We can only imagine what it looked like inside when Walker took his oath: wood-panelled or maybe plaster, perhaps hung with tapestries. But Walker’s signature does give us a means of connecting with the sixteen-year old who stood in that building: newly arrived in London, having left his brothers and sister behind to start a new life with a strange master.

By signing his name, Walker was stepping from one world into another. He was leaving behind Derby, a town of about 3,000 people in which he would have known most people by sight, if not by name. And he was entering London, a city with a rapidly shifting population  nearly one hundred times bigger than that of Derby, in which he knew nobody. London was a terrifying city for those who were not born there. One apprentice called Thomas Raymond, sent to the capital to live with his uncle William Boswell, found the violence which ‘young lads do undergo’ upon arriving in London ‘a very dreadful sight to a young country boy’. Another, Edward Barlow, from Prestwich in Lancashire, was greatly confused by the sight that met him at London Bridge:

‘seeing so many things in the water with long poles standing up in them and a great deal of ropes about them, it made me wonder what they should be’.

He did not realise that they were ships, ‘for I had never seen any before that time’.

Of course, Walker’s signature does not tell us anything about his reactions on moving from Derby to London. As he signed his name in the Ironmongers’ records, he may have felt confident or he may have been nervous. We have no way of knowing. But his signature in itself reveals an aspect of his life that has not been known about before: his years as an apprentice in trade, before a belated period of study at Cambridge and entry into bookselling and pamphleteering. It is a snapshot of a time when he had little power or agency, separated from his family and bound by strict codes of behaviour to a master for seven years.

By contrast, another record of Walker writing his name survives from the end of his life. This is from a book he donated to the Ironmongers’ Company in 1681:

Walker made his gift shortly before the end of his life: he died in February 1687. We can see a very different identity being asserted here. Walker was by now one of the eldest yeomen in the company, and while he had given up participation in the trade by 1642, he continued to be an active member of his Company. He continued paying quarterage until the end of his life, and served as warden of the yeomanry during the 1670s. The way Walker seeks to fashion his identity in this inscription is very different to what he had written 52 years earlier:

This book of Dr Willets Synopsis was given to the Worshipfull Company of Ironmongers by Henry Walker minister of Petersham in the county of Surry, and surrogat to the bishop of Winchester, and a [..] of the said Company of Ironmongers and sometimes Hebrew professor at the ahcadamy in Whitefryers and ordinary at the assizes in Surry by the appointment of the bishop of Winchester.

Here again, Walker’s signature and inscription cannot tell us much about his feelings when he donated the book: whether he was proud, regretful or bitter about the progress of his life. But they do show a man who placed some kind of value on membership of the Ironmongers’ Company, and who wanted to make clear his achievements outside the Company’s trade. The book he donated may also have been significant: it was a 1634 edition of Andrew Willet’s Synopsis Papismi, printed in the same year that Walker was made free from his apprenticeship. I cannot prove that Walker obtained this book in that year, but it is just possible that it was a gift to himself or from others to mark his emergence into the adult world.

Walker’s signatures hint at all sorts of lines of inquiry that have been helpful in uncovering other areas of his life. Just as importantly, though, they have enabled me to feel a connection, of sorts, across hundreds of years to someone whose humanity might otherwise have been lost on me.

For Ada Lovelace Day: Jane Coe

Ada Lovelace Day exists to raise the profile of women working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This post is about a woman who played a significant role in the printing trade in seventeenth-century London: Jane Coe.

As Sarah Werner has made clear – in another post for Ada Lovelace Day – women played a significant role in trades related to books and printing in early modern London. However, their role can often be obscured by the slender evidence that survives about early modern printers and booksellers. Even where evidence does survive, it has to be read carefully: like all trades of the period, printing was dominated by men, and the terms in which female printers are described by contemporaries can underplay their importance.

Jane Coe is no exception. We know a lot about what she printed. The English Short Title Catalogue lists over seventy titles printed with either “Jane Coe”, “I. Coe” or “J. Coe” on the imprint. Some of these were serials that ran over a number of years, so the actual number of books she printed must run into the tens of thousands.  In the main, these were short quartos: printed versions of letters, satirical pieces accompanied by woodcuts, news pamphlets giving accounts of battles and negotiations, and above all newsbooks. Their emphasis is overwhelmingly Parliamentarian. However, we know very little about Jane herself.

Jane’s original name may have been Jane Bowyer. On 27 December 1634, a Joane Bowyer married Andrew Coe in the church of St George the Martyr in Southwark.

Andrew was an trainee printer who was served an apprenticeship with the Stationers’ Company. He was not made free until 1638, having been bound to his master George Miller in 1630. This makes a 1634 marriage seem, on the face of it, unlikely. Under the terms of their indentures apprentices were not allowed to marry. To do would technically prevent them from qualifying for their freedom. However, there were good reasons why apprentices might break the rules. One is financial gain. It is not uncommon to find apprentices marrying well-heeled widows (sometimes the wives of their masters), presumably calculating that it would be financially worth their while or that the widow’s resources would enable them to purchase their freedom by redemption. The other is love.

If this is Jane  – and I can find no other marriage records for an Andrew Coe – then we have no way of knowing what prompted their marriage, or whether they lived together afterwards. The next time they appear in the records is in the parish registers of St Giles Cripplegate, where Andrew had set up business. We can hazard a guess about the family’s financial status by looking at the type he used, which was old and worn. He presumably did not have enough capital to buy a new set, and either inherited an old set or purchased it from another printer.

Cripplegate was a parish just outside the City walls, and with a high concentration of printers and booksellers. Grub Street, soon to become synonymous with a certain kind of printed book, is within the parish boundaries. Many of its parishioners also seem to have had puritan leanings. In 1641 there were conflicts between the parish and its high Anglican vicar and churchwarden, William Fuller and Thomas Bogh. Bogh went as far as to assault a Parliamentary messenger sent to enforce an order to remove the parish’s altar rails. So it is possible, especially given the subsequent output of their press, that Andrew and Jane’s religious leanings ran this way, although again there is no way of proving it.

In February 1640, the couple had a son, named after his father:

Jane, again, is entirely absent from this record. All that is recorded is the name of her husband and his profession. However, it’s clear that she must have had some involvement in the business. At some point around the end of June 1644, her husband died, and Jane took over the running of the press. An illustration of how difficult some historians have found it to accept that this was possible can be found in H. R. Plomer’s Dictionary of Printers for the period, which says this about Andrew’s death:

The younger Andrew was six years old at this point, and presumably in no position to run anything in relation to the business. And yet Plomer’s assumption – despite the fact that it was Jane’s name that appeared on the imprints of the press’s books after this date – seems to have been that the couple’s son must have been the real head of the operation.

After the older Andrew’s death, Jane continued to print the same kind of books that the press had already become known for. Between 1644 and 1647 she was involved in the production of several newsbooks, including Perfect Occurrences, The Moderate Messenger, and The Kingdomes Scout. In 1645 she took on an apprentice, Samuel Houghton, who came from Mowsley near Market Harborough. It was Jane whose name appeared in the Stationers’ Register for many of her titles, and Jane who presumably took the copy there for the licenser to approve.

What happened to Coe after the 1640s is not clear. At some point, the business was finally handed over to her son: his name appears on a few imprints in the 1660s, by which stage he would have been in his twenties. His name also appears at various points before that, with the formulation “Printed by J. Coe and A. Coe”. So it does seem clear that Jane’s eventual aim was to set her son up in her and her husband’s trade. By October 1664, Andrew was firmly ensconced in Cripplegate, had a wife named Hannah, and had a son (a third-generation Andrew):

Again, however, the surviving evidence about Jane is very slim. I can find no record of Jane’s death anywhere in the registers of St Giles Cripplegate or other London parishes. No wills survive for either her or her husband.

So Jane remains something of an enigma. She was clearly something of a publishing force in the world of cheap print in the 1640s, but tantalisingly little remains about who she was. I hope this post brings her achievements to a slightly wider audience.

For more on the Coes’ business, the best work is the recent article by Sarah Barber, ‘Curiosity and Reality: the context and interpretation of a seventeenth-century image’, History Workshop Journal vol.70 (2010), pp.21-46. Some of the details above I owe to this article, although others are based on my own trawls of Jane’s books and of London parish registers.

Of mice and microfilm

I am spending the day at the Guildhall Library and thought I would take a break to share this. (Apologies for the poor quality: it’s a camera-phone picture of a microfilm). It’s in the inside front cover of one of the quarterage books of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers. Someone has added a pencil sketch of the Company’s coat of arms, echoing the printed one that already decorates the book’s binding. However, it is different in one important way to the actual coat of arms: in this case a carving from outside Ironmongers’ Hall in Aldersgate.

The crest is supported by salamanders, appropriate for a Company connected with iron because they were reputed to be able to survive fire. It’s a little hard to see on my photo but the salamanders seem to have become mice! I would love to know who drew it and when. All I know is that it must be before 1985 when the manuscript was filmed.


In four years of burrowing through the Thomason Tracts I thought I’d got used to George Thomason’s handwriting. This particular annotation, however, has stumped me slightly: both in terms of what it says and how to decipher it. It’s from the newsbook Perfect Occurrences of Parliament, for 15-22 November 1644.

This is what I think it says:

The author of this is Walker the Ironmonger

Who hath Wm Laud’s license to preach. Witness

John Partridge & others this 22 June.

I think this is the right transcription. The William Laud part certainly makes sense: in 1640 Walker was ordained a deacon by Laud, or at least by one of Laud’s chaplains. But why has Thomason got John Partridge – a fellow bookseller (not the astrologer of the same name, who was only born in 1644) – and others to witness it? He had scrawled much the same on a publication of Walker’s in early 1641 without feeling the need to get another person to verify it. And why the reference to 22 June given the pamphlet was published on 22 November – or could it actually say 22 Nov?

Another marginalia mystery related to Perfect Occurrences that I am trying to solve is related to its author(s). The Edwardian historian J. G. Muddiman attributed it to the antinomian preacher John Saltmarsh, citing a marginal note by Thomason. He argued that Walker only took over in 1647, when his pseudonym Luke Harruney appeared on the colophon. But as with most of Muddiman’s assertions, he doesn’t provide a citation for this. As a result, I can’t find the marginal note.

Much more recently, Carolyn Nelson and Matthew Seccombe – seemingly drawing on Muddiman – attributed the title to Saltmarsh and Walker in their short-title catalogue of newsbooks. Joad Raymond has subsequently mentioned that Saltmarsh might have had a hand in the publication – although implying heavily that Walker was the lead – and referenced Thomason’s copy of a very early edition of Occurrences from 5 April 1644. Is this the marginalia Muddiman mentions? But having looked at this on EEBO there are no annotations on it (at least none that I can make out). And the text itself doesn’t mention anything about the author. I am not sure whether it is the quality of the scan making Thomason’s scrawls illegible, an incorrect footnote, or something else.

Given Thomason’s marginalia above, and other self-aggrandising references to Walker in the paper from 1644, it seems pretty clear to me that Walker was involved with it from early on in its life, not just from 1647. And Saltmarsh seems a strange candidate for editor. In 1644 he was preaching in Northampton then became vicar of Cranbook in Kent. Quite how this gave him time or the capacity to edit a London newsbook is unclear to me. There is also the fact that in 1644 and 1645, Saltmarsh’s occasional religious pamphlets were published by Giles Calvert, not by Andrew and Jane Coe, the early publishers of Occurrences.