Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

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Today is the anniversary of the birth of Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon: adviser to Charles I and Lord Chancellor under Charles II, and author of the History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England.

I first read bits of of Clarendon’s history of the civil wars while an undergraduate, returned to it again in extracts as a postgraduate, but became gripped by it when I killed some of my commute by reading it all the way through a few years ago, having downloaded a free version from Google Books. It remains one of the great narratives of England’s troubles during the mid-seventeenth century, and not just because of Clarendon’s ability as a writer to capture in a single phrase the essence of the period’s key figures: describing John Hampden, for example, as having ‘a head to contrive, a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute any mischief’, or Oliver Cromwell as a ‘brave bad man’. It’s also because he managed that rare thing of being both protaganist and commentator, combining first-hand knowledge of the political intricacies of the period with a much wider understanding, inspired by his readings in Roman history, of the compromises inherent in any political regime. Of course his views are partial, and he makes that clear from his first sentence: expressing his intention that ‘posterity may not be deceived, by the prosperous wickedness of these times’. But it has taken modern historians a long time to rediscover some of Clarendon’s insights: for example, that ‘paper-skirmishes’ went hand in hand with actual combat, as in this passage:

There was one circumstance not to be forgotten in the march of the Citizens that day, when the shew by Water was little inferior to the other by Land, that the Pikemen had fasten’d to the tops of their pikes, and the rest in their hats or their bosoms, printed Papers of the Protestation which had been taken and enjoyned by the House of Commons the year before for the defence of the Privilege of Parliament; and many of them had the printed Votes of the King’s breaking their Privileges in his coming to the House, and demanding their Member.

As a pamphleteer for the royalist cause, of course, Clarendon was closer than most the world of ‘paper bullets’ that he foregrounds in his account of the outbreak of the wars. Perhaps it’s this that means the History is still remarkably fresh for a modern reader, much closer in spirit to contemporary political diaries like those of Tony Benn or Alan Clark than to a drier work of political commentary.

All of which means I thought I should break my rather long period of silence here to mark Clarendon’s anniversary. There are various free editions of the History on Google Books and the Internet Archive, as well as a modern selection of extracts edited by Paul Seaward. The best book about Clarendon’s own role in the English civil wars remains, 62 years on, Brian Wormald’s Clarendon: Politics, History and Religion. Wormald was a retired fellow at my college when I was an undergraduate: in retrospect I would rather my only encounter with him had been to talk to him about the book, rather than him catching me climbing over a wall taking a shortcut to the pub.

The engraving of Clarendon is a print by David Loggan after Sir Peter Lely, from around the 1660s or 1670s: AN394659001, © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Then and now

Westminster Hall on the first day of the legal year circa 1750, when the hall was still a courtroom:


The same view yesterday, the day after Parliament rose for the Christmas break:


First image is an engraving sold by the printsellers Robert Laurie and James Whittle of the Golden Buck at 53 Fleet Street in 1797, based on an earlier state dating back to c. 1750 or so. AN1082748001, © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Second image taken by me on my way through to the Commons gift shop to finish my Christmas shopping.

Observations upon an inquiry

Some scattered thoughts about the section of the Leveson Inquiry report titled “A brief history of press freedom in the United Kingdom”. You can find this at part B2 of volume 1, starting at page 58.

  • The chapter’s sub-title is “A brief history of press freedom in the United Kingdom”. Not “A brief history of the relationship between the press and the state in the United Kingdom”, or even “the newspaper industry and the state in England” (which is what the report is really about). Much of the legislation the report cites was targeted at all printed materials, and indeed before the early seventeenth century the concept of printed news or a printed news industry is a bit problematic. This is an important distinction, given the extent to which the various Licensing Acts of the seventeenth century are being referenced by media commentators arguing against statutory regulation. They are not particularly apt historical parallels with Leveson’s idea of a statutory backstop for the Press Complaints Commission.
  • The report presumes that the pre-modern state was able, if it wished, to control or suppress the content and output of printed publications. While there are certainly examples of early modern states preventing publication, altering content, and taking books out of circulation once printed, there are many more of states failing to do so. And there are lots of examples, too, of authors falling into line with licensing when it suited them (not least John Milton, of whom more below). The story of press and state interaction is much messier than a simple narrative of bureaucratic, censoring governments seeking to crack down on radical libertarian journalists who might otherwise have let daylight in on the workings of government.
  • The report doesn’t distinguish between political regulation of printed texts and mechanisms to regulate economic ownership and exploitation of the same texts. The 1538 proclamation by Henry VIII that the report cites was linked to the break with Rome and required those writing, printing or selling religious texts to have them examined by a representative of the king or the church. The report claims the proclamation was linked to the Stationers’ Company, but this wasn’t actually incorporated until 1557 – the point at which its charter began the procedure of stationers registering their rights to a text by entering their name and the book’s title in the Company’s Register. For the Stationers’ Company, cracking down on ‘rogue’ printers and booksellers was cementing it and its members’ economic position. Considerations of profit like this are largely missing from the report’s narrative, despite the fact that profit has, since the beginning of the English news industry been at the heart of the trade’s relations with the state.

It’s interesting that the report focuses – like many broadsheet and tabloid editorials of the last few weeks – on John Milton as a crusader for press liberty. But Milton is much more complicated a historical figure than this. Despite writing Areopagitica in the 1640s he went on to play an important role in the Commonwealth’s system for licensing printed newsbooks during the 1650s. Milton’s life was full of so many ambiguities like this that he is actually a fairly apt metaphor for how complicated the relationship between press and state is.

Of course the section in the Leveson report that deals with the news trade’s history is only a few pages out of hundreds, and so it has to simplify things by default. But it does make me wonder if, in creating black-and-white narratives about how modern problems have arisen, we are pushed – consciously or sub-consciously – towards black-and-white answers. The report’s bibliography doesn’t, as far as I can tell, cite any works by academic historians. Would the inquiry have benefited from calling historians as expert witnesses, or by setting out a longer, messier analysis of the development of the news trade?

Crowdsourcing the early modern blogosphere

It has been far too long since I posted anything here: the last few months have been exceptionally busy, and once you get out of the rhythm of blogging it’s hard to get back into it. But I thought I should break my silence to link to Newton Key’s draft article on the early modern blogosphere, which you can find an open source peer review version of here.

Newton has been blogging himself over at Early Modern England since 2007, so is well-placed to offer a critical analysis of how early modern blogging has developed over the last decade or so. His argument, which I have a lot of sympathy with, is that blogs about early modern history have lots in common with the ways in which people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conceived of, produced, shared and engaged with knowledge and information. Whether it’s sharing the ideas of others with commentary, back and forth debate, creative reimagining of texts as they are shared, reused and reworked, or heated debates and flame wars, all of these have their equivalents in early modern print and manuscript cultures.

How much of this is a product of the interests of early modern bloggers? As Newton notes, a lot of the early modern blogosphere is focused on English history; a lot of bloggers are from the UK and the US; and a lot are interested in book history (widely defined). It’s not surprising that at least some of us have gone into blogging with an eye to text, genre and medium-related parallels. I certainly started blogging with at least some sense of the similarities it had with authorship and publication in the early modern period. My choice of title for this blog was very deliberate, although in retrospect part of me wishes I’d picked Perfect Diurnall (if only because I think a lot of people got me and another blogger I’d rather not be mistaken for confused for a time). And there was a point after I finished my Masters where I wondered more explicitly about some of the parallels.

Part of me, though, wonders whether the parallels that Newton identifies are more a product of certain characteristics inherent in both early modern and twenty-first century genres and media. We are used to thinking of blogging as a social medium (social media being one of those phrases that is so widely used that one can forget what it actually means). We’re probably less used, at least until recently, to thinking about pamphlets and letters as social media too: but early modern cultures of animadversion, annotation and text-sharing owe a fair amount to some of the inherent material and textual qualities of these media. Some of the parallels may be simply be a by-product of similarities between blogs and early modern media.

I was particularly interested by Newton’s attempt to bring network analysis to the early modern blogosphere, which is (I think) the first time anyone has tried to do this. I’m not entirely convinced by the metric he uses – blogrolls, which at least some of us have gradually ceased to maintain in recent years – but it is noteworthy that certain key hubs do emerge within the network he maps. Sharon Howard’s blog is one obvious one, and indeed it’s thanks to Sharon that there was an early modern blogosphere at all, at least during the late 2000s (I was certainly inspired by her blog and I suspect others who started blogging around the same time as me were, too). One that doesn’t appear on Newton’s map, but I think deserves to be there, is Gavin Robinson’s site, which certainly between around 2007 to 2009 was the focus for a lot of really innovative experimentation with blogging as a form, and of lots of discussion in the comments. Going further back, Blogging the Renaissance was the focus early on of a small but lively community of posters and commenters.

One further parallel that strikes me, which Newton does not raise in his article, is that the difficulties facing a scholar trying to analyse early modern blogs are not unlike those facing their counterpart trying to analyse early modern texts. Much of the writing, production and sale of early modern texts must have happened in ways that have not survived in the sources, in particular through spoken conversations. Many texts simply haven’t been preserved for us to read. And the anonymity of some writers, many printers and booksellers, and nearly all of those otherwise involved in the production and reception of texts, brings a similar challenge. These are problems that anyone writing the history of blogs also has to grapple with. It’s too easy to think of digital sources as somehow more permanent than material ones, but of course that’s not true: bloggers stop blogging, sites get closed down or pulled, and they aren’t always preserved at the Internet Archive or elsewhere. Anyone trying to reconstruct the controversy sparked by several posts and comments by Mercurius Rusticus, for example, now only has one side of the debate to analyse. None of Rusticus‘s own posts are now online, although some of the comments he (and I’m presuming it was a he) left on other blogs survive.

And of course the lack of sources goes a lot deeper than that. Early modern bloggers are, I think, largely a virtual or imagined community, rather than a physical one (in the sense that I’ve met few other bloggers in real life – I think I can count four I’ve met, and two of them I knew as friends before they started blogging anyway). But like any community, its members communicate with each other in lots of different ways. There are e-mails, Twitter DMs, Facebook messages and so on sitting in inboxes and archive folders at the moment which would probably produce a rather different picture of the network between early modern blogs – not to mention conversations at conferences and in the pub. Already, despite the infancy of the early modern blogosphere, a lot is probably lost to those wanting to study it.

But that’s not to say, as with any historical topic, we can’t try to recover what’s lost. Newton’s article is a good start, and it’s only appropriate – given his argument – that he’s put a draft version up for peer review via WordPress. So go and have a read, and annotate it in the style of a sixteenth-century scholar; or do what a seventeenth-century pamphleteer would have done, and leave an answer, rejoinder or animadversion here.


Sotheby’s has got various royal proclamations and Parliamentary acts and ordinances from the mid-seventeenth century up for auction this Tuesday. The lots include:

The Daily Mail picked up the story on Saturday. While it’s nice to see early modern book history in the news, it’s a bit depressing to pick out the cliches in the way the article is framed.

First there is the portrayal of Oliver Cromwell as a killjoy sourpuss:

One thing is certain – Oliver Cromwell was hardly known for his sense of humour.

Anti-puritan stereotypes of the early seventeenth century seem to be so well-built as to be indestructible, to judge by how frequently they still appear today. Ben Jonson would be proud that Zeal-of-the-land Busy has cheated death for nearly four hundred years. In fact while many aspects of Cromwell’s life and career defy settled interpretation, one thing about which we can be certain is that he did have a sense of humour. This was a man who had snowball fights with his servants; who, growing bored of a meeting, hurled a cushion at Edmund Ludlow then fled the room; who was supposed to have flicked ink at Henry Marten after signing the king’s death warrant. Patrick Little’s excellent article in Cromwelliana (sadly not online) on this topic deserves a wider audience.

Then there is the reference to:

Tempestuous times facing ordinary Englishmen as their leaders tussled for power.

The phrasing here is I’m sure simply unthinking, but the political and religious battles of the 1640s and 1650s penetrated far deeper into society than just the ruling classes. Power struggles at Whitehall and set piece battles at Marston Moor and Naseby were reflected in parishes across England: and they involved Englishwomen as well as Englishmen.

Finally there is the slightly anachronistic reference to the various texts as posters nailed to trees. This conjures up pictures of Billy the Kid-style wanted posters, and perhaps some did end up on trees, but I suspect most proclamations, acts and ordinances reached their widest audience by being read aloud: in churches and at sermons, at assizes and market days, within communities and army regiments. Those that were pasted up must have been fixed in prominent places – maybe a tree if it was a prominent landmark in a parish, but more likely at the front of a church, town gates, or near taverns or market crosses. Kevin Sharpe’s Image Wars is particularly good on the use both Charles and Parliament made of published proclamations and ordinances.

I should suppress my curmudgeonly tendencies at this point and give the Daily Mail credit for running a story where no other newspaper has – and which, to judge by their website’s comments, does seem to have attracted lots of interest. But I would love to see some coverage of early modern books from mainstream news organisations which foregrounds the texts and their readers, rather than simply their authors. Their absence from stories like this does seem surprising, given that the news industry is so bound up with both.

(No 3 in an occasional series. Previously: 1, 2)

Bugby Chapel


If you come out of Epsom station, cut round the back of the library, and keep heading east you will find a main road lined by 1980s office blocks, inhabited by a jobcentre and various financial services companies. The streets behind them are a mix of late-Victorian two-up two-downs, built around the time the railways came to Epsom, and 1970s terraced houses. This part of the town used to have lots of bigger eighteenth- and nineteenth century buildings, but most of them have long since been demolished.

One which does survive, though, is Bugby Chapel. It sits in the middle of an estate full of bungalows and maisonettes, and it is easy to walk within 50 yards of it and never realise it is there. It was built in 1779, as a chapel for the nonconformist minister William Bugby. Nine years later the vicar of Epsom, Jonathan Boucher, described it thus:

There was formerly a congregation of Presbyterians here, and a meeting-house, but they are all gone or have conformed; and the meeting-house is shut up. A few years ago, a gardener of the place, by traversing, it is said, a great part of the kingdom, collected money enough to build a small house, where he now has a small and uncertain congregation of Methodists. He has a licence, as a protestant dissenter. Of the inhabitants of Epsom, I cannot learn that there are so many as 20 who are his stated and constant attendants, and they are chiefly people of the lowest class. Yet he sometimes has large congregations. This preacher’s name is Bugby.

W. R. Ward, Parson and Parish in Eighteenth-Century Surrey (Surrey Record Society, 1994),  p. 109.

In fact the congregation seems to have been Calvinists – presumably Particular Baptists – rather than adherents of Wesleyan Methodism. The church’s small numbers seem to have petered out altogether by the early nineteenth century, but it was then revived and at some point became a Unitarian Baptist congregation, when it was known as Salem Chapel.

This congregation in turn moved to new premises at the other end of the town, and in 1954 the building was reconsecrated as a synagogue. It lasted in this role until the 1990s, at which point the building was renovated and turned over to use as an office. It had been listed in 1975 with this description:

C18.  Rendered. Hipped and sprocketed tile roof. 1 storey. Brick modillion eaves cornice. South side has 2 round-arched windows with intersecting glazing bars. Panelled double doors, gabled hood with
pitched tile roof and bargeboards. North side has 2 round-arched sashes.

According to the listing entry the building seems to have been part of a much longer row of eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses, which presumably were demolished and replaced.

For more on Bugby Chapel:

I was delayed, I was waylaid

The latest issue of the London Review of Books has this wonderful letter in it:

I have just seen Brian Harrison’s 1986 review of my book Victorian Lives (LRB, 19 June 1986). He says my sources were not typical of contemporary prisoners; that I paint too bleak a picture of their experience; and do not recognise the ‘Victorian activism’ of the reformed prison. He is wrong on all three counts.

Philip Priestley
Wells, Somerset


I just hope Brian Harrison replies in another sixteen years’ time to say that it’s Priestley who’s wrong.