Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: london

The consequences of gunpowder treason

I’ve been doing a bit of digging for a Bonfire Night post, and in the British Museum catalogues I came across a good example of how the event lingered in popular consciousness:


© The Trustees of the British Museum

The etching shows the collapse of a floor in Hunsdon House in Blackfriars in 1623. Hunsdon was at that point occupied by the French ambassador Count de Tillieres. On Sunday 26 October, a Catholic congregation had assembled to listen to a Jesuit called Master Drury. He had been delivering a sermon for about half an hour to a crowd of about 300 people when the weight of the crowd caused the main beam supporting the floor to give way. Drury was killed along with 95 other people; the survivors were in a part of the room that did not give away and escaped by cutting their way through the plaster walls. Crowds quickly gathered and the city authorities had to close off the accident scene to protect the survivors.

Some reacted with horror and sympathy to the accident. A broadside by Matthew Rhodes described the scene:

The Husband cries out, Oh my loving wife,
The Wife cries out, Oh save my Husband deare,
The Father cries, Would I had lost my life,
His Childrens woes doe touch his heart so neare,
All things so rufull, dreadfull, doe appeare:
Thus Tyrant death with his all-peircing dart,
Acts many a fatall Scoene, and bloudy part.

The Brother bids the Sister quite adue,
The Sister cries, Farewell my loving Brother,
The Infants losse doth make the mother rue,
The Child cries out, Oh where’s my carefull Mother?
All these (alas) stones, lyme, and timber smother.
Yea many there which on their friends had gazed,
Yet knew them not, they were so much amazed.

The Servant cries, Oh I have lost my Master,
The Master for his Servant doth complaine,
The faithfull Friend laments his Friends disaster,
Wishing that for his sake himselfe were slaine:
Thus teares gush out on every side amaine.
Some swound with feare, unable for to speake,
Which might a Christians heart with sorrow break.

Thus some were buried up alive in dust,
Some mangled, bruized, wounded with the fall,
Some brain’d with Timber, some in pieces crusht,
Of those that scap’d the number was but small;
A fearfull Doome and Summons to us All:
Calling us to repentance many wayes,
Considering well the shortnesse of our dayes.

But others saw the catastrophe differently. The etching above shows James I in Parliament in 1605, with Guy Fawkes led by the devil and the soldiers who apprehend him led by an angel. If dated New Style, the collapse in 1623 took place on 5 November. More than one broadside drew this parallel: below are a series of etchings that ram the comparison home.

First is A Plot with Powder:


© The Trustees of the British Museum

Next is A Plot without Powder, showing a conspiracy of Jesuits:


© The Trustees of the British Museum

Finally there is No Plot No Powder, with a striking image of Dury struck by the hand of God:


© The Trustees of the British Museum

For much more on the Blackfriars accident, how these broadsides may have been commissioned, and their implications for our understanding of contemporary religious and popular culture, see Alexandra Walsham’s wonderful ‘”The Fatall Vesper”: Providentialism and Anti-Popery in Late Jacobean England’, Past & Present, 144, 1 (1994), pp. 36-87. [Athens access required]

Syon House

Syon House – seat of the duke of Northumberland – taken from the Thames at dusk yesterday.

Syon sits on the site of a medieval abbey, named after Mount Zion. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the house was built by the 1st Duke of Somerset in the Italian style.  100 years later it played an important role in civil war politics: at the end of July 1647, as Westminster erupted with rioting and came under Presbyterian control, Syon was where the Independent grandees like Northumberland, Saye and Sele, Nathaniel Fiennes, Oliver St John and John Evelyn met to sketch out their tactics for restoring themselves and the army to prominence in London.

Below is what it looked like then, before it was remodelled in the 1760s by Robert Adam and Capability Brown. As you can see it didn’t have the Percy lion that now perches on top of the battlements.

A bit of a pasting

Spotted the poster above pasted onto a wall on the north side of the Millennium Bridge, on the approach to Tate Modern. The URL in the corner is – but it takes you to a defunct website. A Whois check on the URL doesn’t reveal much, either.

Still, seeing it reminded me that pasting satirical messages onto London’s walls is nothing new, so I thought it would be a good excuse for a post. For comparison, here is one of the Voyeur Card’s famous early modern counterparts: a satirical broadsheet ballad that would probably also have been glued onto walls.


© The Trustees of the British Museum

The World Is Ruled & Governed By Opinion was published in 1641 by Thomas Banks (although subsequent editions did not feature his name).  The text is by Henry Peacham, a writer and illustrator who in the late 1630s and 1640s published a number of written works. There is some suggestion that he was down on his luck and attempting to make money by doing so. At this period Peacham collaborated with Wenceslaus Hollar, who is the artist behind the ballad’s illustration. This is one of a number of works they collaborated on at this period. The dedication is to Sir Francis Prujean, a noted physician.

In the illustration you can see Opinion (the blindfolded woman), crowned with the Tower of Babel. She has a globe on her lap, a chameleon on her left arm and a staff in her right hand. In the tree are various pamphlets and broadside ballads. On the left is a jester-like man watering the tree. On the right is the aristocratic cavalier labelled “Viator” or traveller, who is the person Opinion is debating with in the ballad’s text.

The ballad and its illustration are a good example of of views held in the 1640s about the dangers of print, news and opinion – Opinion is an inversion of Justice, watered by a fool, producing nothing but confusion and a world turned upside down. This is ironic, given that the pamphlet’s publisher, Thomas Banks, was a key producer of cheap ballads, pamphlets and newsbooks during the 1640s. Paradoxically, the ballad’s very medium cuts across its message.

Where it gets really interesting are the titles it’s possible to make out of the books hanging from the tree. These are:

  • “[John] Taylor’s Reply”
  • “The Ironmonger’s Answer”
  • “Mercuries Message”
  • “News from Elyzium”
  • “Hellish Parliament”
  • “A Swarme of Sectaries”
  • “Canterburies Tooles” (not Troubles as the British Museum website has it)
  • “Brownists Conventicle”
  • “Taylors Physicke”
  • “Lambeth Faire”

Of these, Taylor’s Reply, A Swarme of Sectaries, Taylors Physicke, and The Ironmonger’s Answer all relate to the pamphlet war between John Taylor and Henry Walker.

Mercuries Message was a ballad critical of Laud. Newes from Elizium was a satirical piece using the same woodcut of Laud as Mercuries Message. The Hellish Parliament was another satirical pamphlet by Taylor. Canterburies Tooles is a pamphlet purporting to be by Prynne which reused the same woodcut. Brownists Conventicle was yet another Taylor satire. Lambeth Faire was another satirical ballad hostile to Laud.

I have a hunch – and it is no more than that at this stage – that the listed works may all have been published by Thomas Banks. Certainly Taylor had close professional connections with Banks, who printed a number of his satires. And much of Banks’s output at this time consisted of cheap satirical pamphlets and ballads. To add another layer of paradox, it may be that as well as a critical commentary on the burgeoning public sphere in 1641, The World Is Ruled & Governed By Opinion is also an advert for the very cheap print the ballad criticises.

What is also potentially fascinating for me is that works from both sides of the pamphlet war between John Taylor and Henry Walker are mentioned – not just Taylor’s but also Walker’s. Having blogged about this previously, and hypothesised that the two may have been closer than is supposed, and linked by their mutual associations with Banks and other printers, it is intriguing to wonder whether Banks actually printed all the pamphlets in the dispute. At any rate it’s something I’ll be following up.

Incidentally the ballad also inspired the title of Dagmar Freist’s excellent study of politics and communication in mid-seventeenth century London, which is now available in limited preview on Google Books, and which I would recommend if you want to find out more about print and other forms of communication in 1630s and 1640s London.

London panorama

A couple of years ago I went to the Museum of London and bought a couple of prints in the giftshop there, which between them show the panorama above of early modern London. The prints then promptly sat in a cupboard for two years until I recently got round to framing them. Below is a detail of London Bridge from the engraving – you’ll see that it is teeming with life and detail.

Since putting them up on my wall I’ve done some digging about the picture’s background, and actually it is not everything it seems. It is by the Dutch publisher Claes Jansz Visscher, the first in a printing dynasty that spanned three generations and which specialised in maps and other similar prints. The Guildhall Library has a copy dated 1616, and the Folger has a later variant from 1625.

Visscher’s panorama was long seen as an excellent source for reconstructing early seventeenth-century London, particularly the theatres on the Bankside. In the 1920s, E.K. Chambers used its depiction of the Globe to argue that it would have been octagonal. He was followed by John Cranford Adams in his book on the Globe of the early 1940s.

But later in the same decade, I.A. Shapiro demonstrated that Visscher’s engraving of the north bank was derived from Norden’s Civitas Londoni – one label gives "St Dunston in the cast", which has been copied from Norden’s print where the c’s are hard to distinguish from the e’s. The south bank is full of inaccuracies, and in fact there is no evidence that Visscher even worked in London. As a result, the picture cannot be relied upon. (My summary of this is drawn from a helpful history of Globe reconstructions by Gabriel Egan ).

So it seems that the Museum of London giftshop sold me an inaccurate picture of London… it does look good on my sitting room wall, though!

1. E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (1923) .

2. John Cranford Adams, The Globe Playhouse: Its Design and Equipment (1942) .

3. I.A. Shapiro, ‘The Bankside theatres: early engravings’, Shakespeare Survey I (1947) .

4. Gabriel Egan, ‘Reconstructions of the Globe: a retrospective’, Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999) .

John Taylor and Henry Walker, part 5: conclusion

In my previous post I looked at the publishers behind Taylor’s pamphlets – Francis Coules, Thomas Banks and Thomas Bates. I ended by posing a question about the extent to which they had a role in engineering or prolonging Taylor’s battle with Walker.

We can find the answer to this by exploring the publishers’ backgrounds. Earlier in his career, Coules had been a junior member of a partnership of booksellers who had gradually bought up the copyright to popular broadside ballads.

As these ballad partners consolidated ballad copyrights, they also developed their strategy for marketing them. During the sixteenth century, woodcut illustration was unusual: only one fifth of surviving ballads were illustrated. The ballad partners and their contemporaries began to reverse this trend: five sixths of surviving ballads from 1600-1640 were illustrated, with much more effort made to match the picture to the content. At around the same time, the ballad partners also developed a specialist trade in small editions of books other than broadside ballads. Through his association with the ballad partners, Coules would have been well acquainted with the need to develop and maintain new markets for cheap print, and with the tactics for doing so.

The role of the partners in Taylor and Walker’s dispute needs to be seen in this context. The spring of 1641 saw a significant rise in the number of books being printed. Thereafter, pamphlets branched out into a wide range of literary styles and genres. With the declining influence of the Stationers’ Company, which regulated printing, publishers were now able to meet and drive popular demand for printed books. For Taylor’s publishers, illustrated satires were one lucrative route of increasing the market for their wares. As an extension of the illustrated ballad, they would have been a relatively risk-free means of doing so. Encouraging a literary dispute would also have been an attractive way of boosting sales. So it seems possible that Bates, Coules and Banks might just have had a hand in the dispute – perhaps helping to craft a pamphlet war that could appeal to a wide range of readers and give them high sales.

What I hope I’ve shown is that Taylor and Walker’s dispute cannot be fully understood without a detailed contextualisation of every player involved in it. Pamphlet publishing strategies in the early 1640s were nuanced and complex. Authors, publishers and readers were capable of producing and reading texts in complicated and subtle ways, on a number of levels. Pamphlets existed as part of a network of authors, printers, sellers and readers. Their form and content was shaped by the creative tensions between these groups. Analysis of the two authors’ texts has revealed the extent to which they cross-refer to each other, to past works by Taylor, and to other literary disputes and genres. A geographical and contextual analysis of Taylor’s publishers has revealed a more consensual but also a more commercial side to the dispute. Walker as well as Taylor had professional and social links to booksellers specialising in cheap print. And behind the literary experimentation of both authors lay decidedly financial concerns for the booksellers. Looking at the readership also shows that it’s misguided either to dismiss the dispute as a crude scatological spat, or to react the other way and stress its sophistication.

John Taylor and Henry Walker, part 3: readers

[Note: since writing this my views on some aspects of this pamphlet exchange have evolved: if you are also researching this issue and want to get in touch please do.]

In previous posts I have outlined the importance of establishing who every player was in the communication circuit behind Taylor and Walker’s pamphlet war, and of exploring how the dispute relates to the social and political context of its time. This post looks at who might have been reading the pamphlets.

There is no direct way of assessing who those readers were, or what they thought about Taylor and Walker’s exchange. There are no diaries or other sources in which readers mention the various pamphlets. However, it is still possible to reconstruct their potential readership analysing the form and content of the pamphlets. They were printed on single sheets of quarto, making them up to eight pages long. The maximum print run would have been about 1,000 copies. They would have sold at perhaps a few pence. each. Hence, they would have been affordable to many of the middling sort: the average day wage of a building craftsman in London in 1641, for example, was 30d., and that for a building labourer was 17d.At the same time, the cost of a 4lb loaf of bread was roughly 6d. So while wage labourers might have struggled to afford them, middling-sort craftsmen and artisans would certainly have been able to purchase pamphlets at this price.

And it was not just that the books were affordable to a wider market: the wider market also existed for them. Literacy levels in London were significantly higher than in other parts of England, and spread across a wider social base. Shopkeepers and, to a less extent, artisans were often able to read print. Those who could not read might still participate in print culture, through membership of workplace or religious community that allowed them to hear texts being read. This period saw a growing expansion in forms of cheap print like sermons, newsbooks and ballads, deliberately published at a size that was affordable to middling sort readers. The size and form of Walker and Taylor’s pamphlets make it likely they were designed to attract middling sort readers.

Woodcuts from the pamphlets give another clue about their potential readers. The two most striking illustrations are those depicting Taylor and Walker with a she-devil.

Both draw on the same imagery of a large, winged demon with claws, horns and pendulous breasts. This imagery owes much to late medieval conceptions of the devil, in which he (or occasionally she) could appear as a physical being but had limited powers. Perhaps as a result, the devil was often presented in a humorous context. He appeared in medieval “merry tales” and mystery plays, often in a sexual or scatological context. Such images would have been recognisable by those at all levels of society.

By the 1640s, however, this late medieval conception of the devil was being challenged. Godly puritanism emphasised the power of the devil, putting the struggle with him at the centre of spiritual life. It has been argued that this challenge was not entirely successful – medieval conceptions of the devil lived on amongst much of the population of England. This does not necessarily mean that the pamphlets were not intended to be read by the godly. The iconography of the woodcuts would still have been recognisable even to those who had differing views of how the devil operated. But it does suggest that the pamphlets were intended to be read – and the images seen, for those who could not read – by an audience from a wide social background.

However, it is important to bear in mind the representations of Taylor and Walker that accompanied the devils. The picture of Taylor is a fairly accurate representation of him, and shows him with his ferry boat to underline his identity. Although there are no surviving portraits of Walker, the two images in A Reply as true as Steele and A Seasonable Lecture are similar, which suggests they could have been drawn to reproduce their subject. Walker is also depicted with the tools of his trade, in the form of andirons. To those that knew Walker and Taylor, it is likely that both images would have been recognisable caricatures.

The images, then, have a number of layers to them. They might have been amusing or offensive to someone living outside London, unconnected to the world of publishing, but those living in London who knew Walker and Taylor and who were involved in the world of publishing would also have recognised the images as caricatures. We can see in this the sophistication of publishers of cheap print by the 1640s in marketing their pamphlets. Woodcut illustrations were increasingly being drawn to order, using a style and iconography that could appeal to a number of audiences and hence broaden a pamphlet’s chance of selling well.

John Taylor and Henry Walker, part 2: the texts

[Note: since writing this my views on some aspects of this pamphlet exchange have evolved: if you are also researching this issue and want to get in touch please do.]

In my last post I described how I wanted to break down the communication circuit that underpins the pamphlet war between John Taylor and Henry Walker. In this post, I’ll start by trying to relate the texts to the broader social, political and intellectual context of their time.

You might think from the “shitting devil” woodcuts that the pamphlets are also fairly crude. But actually Taylor and Walker’s texts use a diverse range of tactics to outdo each other. Witty anagrams are traded: “John Talour the Poet” becomes “ART THOU IN HEL, O POET”, and “HENRIE WALLKER” becomes “KNAV, REVILER, HEL”. Marginal notes and indexes are used to orientate the reader and to lend the pamphlets an air of sophistication. Both authors try to claim the moral and literary high ground: Taylor accuses Walker of libel, and of being responsible for the increasing volume of cheap print being produced. Walker stresses how quickly he can compose responses – “I take not seven days, nor scarce halfe seven hours to bring forth my Ante-Reply for the presse”.

Both authors emphasise that literary sensibilities, not profit, are their motive for writing. This attempt to disassociate themselves from the stigma of print was typical of pamphlet writers in the early 1640s. Although such claims were ostensibly pitched at those producing cheaper forms of print, in fact authors of cheap print like Taylor and Walker were not averse to doing so in order to give themselves an edge over their competitors.

Both pamphlets also make effective use of woodcuts linked to details in the text. A Seasonable Lecture, for example, has a picture of Walker preaching from a tub, exclaiming part of the catchphrase of the pamphlet, and a parallel picture showing Tobias and his dog.

A Swarme of Sectaries also uses a picture of a preacher in a tub labelled Sam How (a cobbler well known as a mechanic preacher), juxtaposed with sign indicating the Nag’s Head tavern (well known as a meeting place for separatist puritans).

Both woodcuts use a visual language that would have been immediately recognisable to a wide range of readers. This was not just to help pamphlets catch the eye when readers were browsing in bookstalls. Integrated with the text in this way, woodcuts give pamphlets a greater imaginative depth that helps to hold the reader’s attention.

However, woodcuts are not the only means through which the two authors could achieve such an effect. For example, Walker tells a story of Taylor dining with Archbishop Laud at the Tower of London and getting so drunk that he fell into a tub. The basis of this may drawn on a real story and although this may be a greatly exaggerated form of the real incident, it is not just rumour-mongering on Walker’s part. He uses the anecdote to counter the woodcut in A Swarme of Sectaries. By claiming that the man in the tub is Taylor, Walker is able to turn Taylor’s material against him. In effect, Walker uses the anecdote to produce a textual woodcut to deploy against Taylor.

Both authors also subvert and rework other pamphlet forms. A Seasonable Lecture, for example, is a satire of the pamphlet sermon, which had been a common form of print from the Reformation onwards. In the early 1640s pamphlet sermons were generally written accounts of speeches that had actually been delivered, rather than a standalone form. Playing on this, Taylor lends his pamphlet realism by quoting the date it was supposed to have been delivered, and claiming it had been transcribed in shorthand. (Systems of shorthand were commonly used to transcribe sermons at this time).

Similarly, A Reply as true as Steele is a classic piece of “flyting” – a type of poetic duelling that originated in Scotland in the fifteenth century. In particular, it is inspired by a duel in the 1580s between two Scottish court poets, Alexander Montgomerie and Patrick Hume. As well as borrowing its form, Taylor borrows a number of phrases. For example, references to Walker being born due to a union between the devil and a dun cow, and to being suckled by a sow, are direct quotes from one of Hume’s poems.

Walker’s pamphlets are also heavily intertextual in the way they rework past texts. An Answer very knowingly bases itself on an earlier pamphlet battle between Taylor and the writer William Fennor. Walker starts by  playing with anagrams of Taylor’s name and mocking his imagined coat of arms. These verses are both direct quotes from a work by Fennor criticising Taylor. Later he goes further than simple quoting, taking various couplets and remixing them to form two entirely new poems. Walker also mines Taylor’s back catalogue – which had been published as a collected works in 1630 – for embarrassing material. For example, he quotes from a verse written by the schoolboy George Hatton, originally quoted in Taylor’s An Arrant Thiefe. In the original context the verse was complimentary to Taylor, but Walker is able to recontextualise it and turn it against him. Similarly, another section references The World Runs on Wheeles, which had criticised hackney coaches and linked them with libidinous behaviour. Walker is able to subvert references from this to claim Taylor is obsessed with sex.

However, the intertextuality in this particular dispute went even further. After Walker and Taylor’s exchange, a third pamphleteer entered the dispute with The Irish Footman’s Poetry. No other works by its purported author George Richardson survive.  The only clues in the pamphlet itself are his description of himself as a “Hibernian pedestrian”, and his note that “in Ireland I was born and bred”. However, the pamphlet’s effusive praise for Taylor makes it likely that it was connected to Taylor in some way. The pamphlet’s invention of “John the Swimmer” to contend with “Henry the Walker” has similarities to Taylor’s own description of himself in other works as the Sculler, or the Aquatic Poet. It may have been produced by friends of Taylor, or commissioned by his publishers.

Whoever the author was, it is significant that the dispute spawned a further contribution. The recycling and redeployment of both past and present texts – and the resultant multiplication of publications – became an increasingly common characteristic of pamphlets as the 1640s progressed. Walker, Taylor and their peers used the devices and vocabulary of the past in order to present continuity between their own work and that of commercially or artistically successful pamphleteers. Such strategies were used not only to affirm authors’ superiority to their rivals, but also in order to more successfully entertain or inform their readers.

In my next post I will look at those readers, to see if it’s possible to reconstruct who they might have been.