Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: 1640s

Describing the news

How do you describe what “news” means? If you try define it – whether simply as new information, or as information about current affairs presented through various media – it renders it almost banal.  Equally, to analyse in detail the range of overlapping shapes and identities that news as a concept can take is also very difficult.

And yet like art, or pornography, we all know what news is when we see it. Living in a news-saturated culture, almost without thinking we use a range of linguistic and conceptual shortcuts to make sense of what we understand by news. Many of these draw inspiration from the communication circuit in which news exists. Titles are one such short-cut. We know instinctively what we will find in the Daily Mail – “asylum seekers cause cancer” – just as much as we know what to expect from the Sun – “Tracy, 18, says she’s supporting David Cameron because of his policies on tax breaks for glamour models”. We are so familiar with some titles that we give them nicknames: the Thunderer, the Grauniad, the Indie.

Authors are another shortcut. The names of columnists like Polly Toynbee or Richard Littlejohn will forever be associated with particular styles of writing and world-views. Mention “Dave Spart” to any Private Eye reader and they will instantly call to mind the kind of left-wing pundit the term satirises. Verbal and sartorial tics single out newsreaders and the editorial line they represent much more quickly than any kind of analytical language. John Snow’s ties are Channel 4 News in the same way that Martin Bell’s white suit symbolised something about his particular style of foreign news reporting. We know what is going to happen when Trevor McDonald utters the words “and finally”.

Paper size is yet another. We have tabloids, and we have broadsheets, and the two have very diffierent associations, which is perhaps why the Guardian caused such a fuss when it moved to the new Berliner-style format a while back. The chances are these two terms will remain in use long after newspapers – in the sense of news printed on paper – have died out. This is certainly true of another term linked to the production of papers. Fleet Street is still the collective term for the British press thirty years after Rupert Murdoch killed off any physical association between that area of London and journalism. Readers can also define particular types of news. “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” lives on fifty years after the term was first popularised, despite the likelihood that very few people remember its origins.The regulars of the BBC News “Have Your Say” section are, for me at any rate, swiftly becoming Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells 2.0.

Our understanding of what news means is thus deeply shaped by and rooted in the cultural forms and agents that bring it to our attention. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that people in mid-seventeenth century England – who lived in an equally news-saturated culture – used the same kind of techniques to make sense of news as it evolved in front of them. What follows is a scattered account of various primary sources I have come across that, in some way or another, use various stages in the news market’s communication circuit to try to analyse or define the concept of news in civil war England. Rather than try to analyse them at this stage, I have simply described them. (This may or may not turn into a more considered post at some point).

As quickly as newsbooks were born, their titles took on an identity of their own. The 1642 tract A Presse Full of Pamphlets traced the corruptive influence of print to the invention of the first ever newsbook:

But in hope of more gain to himself by undoing of others, put the first Copy of the Diurnall Occurrences that was printed to a Printer, and then came all other things true and false to the Presse.

From this point on, individual titles started to stand for particular styles of writing and different shades of politics. Here for example is the frontispiece to a satirical pamphlet poking fun at the early royalist newsbook Mercurius Aulicus:

AN352667001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

A reader has written “Sir John Birkinhead” [sic] underneath the woodcut, but it is worth noting that the original pamphlet didn’t need to name the newsbook’s editor: the title was enough. During the 1640s newsbooks were as much the subjects of pamphlet literature as politicians or generals. The image below, which shows the front pages of two warring pamphlets laid out alongside each other, is a good example:

For a time there was even a trend for editors to bring out titles diametrically opposed to their enemies, and signified as such by having the prefix “Anti” in their title. Probably the most meta and paradoxical of these is Mercurius Anti-Mercurius, which tries to do itself out of a job even in its very title:

In layout and style this is (deliberately) almost identical to real newsbooks, from the title and series numbering through to the poem on the front page; and yet it proclaims itself not to be a newsbook. Pamphlets like this are an indication of how quickly the innovations of the 1640s – bear in mind the newsbook was only invented in 1641 – became normalised and integrated into the political and cultural vocabulary of contemporaries.

Nevertheless, editors themselves also became a recognisable shorthand for certain types of journalism. Of all the newsbook editors, Henry Walker probably attracted the most mud-slinging. Royalist newsbooks developed a range of nicknames for him, including ‘Beelzebubbs  brindled  Ban-dogge’,  ‘Sirrah  saffron-chapps’,  ‘Athiestical  liar’,  ‘Parliaments News-Monger’,  and ‘Rusty  Nuncio’ (the second and last a reference to his red hair). Ever since, Walker has been associated with a kind of pedestrian journalism that relies on press releases and official titbits rather than ‘real’ investigative scoops. This is to impose Victorian and twentieth-century categories of journalism onto a period in which “journalism” (if we can even use that word) meant rather different things, and is also a bit unfair on Walker. But informed contemporaries would probably have known what royalist editors were getting at when they presented Walker as the symbol of  what they saw as an arrogant, godless Puritan regime.

The 1647 pamphlet A fresh whip for all scandalous lyers went so far as to assemble a mock-encyclopedia of newsbook editors. Its primary aim was probably satirical, so it is problematic to seek to match the personalities it describes too closely to real editors. As a source of biographical details it may well be inaccurate. Nevertheless, for contemporaries to have found it funny it must have at least had the ring of truth. Here are some extracts from its pastiches of Samuel Pecke and Henry Walker:

I must beginne with the Diurnall Writer first… I may not unfitly tearme him to be the chief Dirt-raker, or Scafinger of the City; for what ever any other books let fall, he will be sure, by his troting horse, and ambling Bookselers have it convey’d to his wharfe of rubbish.

The Perfect Occurrence Writer… his whole face is made of Brasse, his body of Iron, and his teeth are as long as ten-penny nayles… Witnesse how many times hath he taken and killed Prince Rupert, and Prince Maurice, and Sr. Ralph Hopton: he hath an excellent faculty to put a new title to an old book, and he will be sure to put more in the Title page than is in all the booke besides.

The means through which newsbooks were produced and distributed also seem to have become associated with particular definitions of news. The title of one early critique from 1642 name-checks everyone involved in this process:

This is not to suggest that titles, editors, printers and sellers were the only language through which contemporaries were able to analyse and discuss the news market of the 1640s. There are various sophisticated critiques of newsbooks and the news industry from many contemporaries. My favorite of these is probably still this jaundiced editorial from an early edition of the Briefe Relation, one of the first ‘official’ newsbooks issued by the Commonwealth after the execution of Charles I:

To have no Newes is good Newes, it is a symptome of a placid and quiet state of affaires. The subject of newes which is most enquired for, is for the most part of Wars, Commotions, and Troubles, or the Composing of them.

Even for the lay reader, though, there were other ways to approach the concept of news than its constituent actors. The woodcut below – from Matthew Hopkins’s 1647 pamphlet A Discovery of Witches – is famously used to illustrate many textbooks’ accounts of early modern witchcraft:

But almost unnoticed at the bottom left, it also personifies news as a bit-part character in the form of a weasel:

J.B. Williams

A History of English Journalism to the foundation of the Gazette (1908), by J.B. Williams, is now available in its entirety to download from the Internet Archive. His chapter in the Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907-21) is also available in full on Bartleby.

Williams’s work is important for those studying English print culture during the seventeenth century. It was the first modern history of early seventeenth-century newsbooks, and spans the trade in corantoes in the 1620s and 1630s as well as the development of the newsbook proper in the 1640s and 1650s. Much like the political histories of the period by S.R. Gardiner and C.H. Firth, it has cast a long shadow over historians’ interpretation of early modern news culture.

Williams’s narrative is Whiggish and sees the 1640s as the crucible of the modern newspaper. In particular, he introduces a cast-list of “pioneering journalists” that have influenced how historians have interpreted newsbooks and used them as sources. Williams actually wrote under a pseudonym, at least during the early stages of his career (he abandoned it in 1914 although I haven’t yet discovered why, or found much else out about his background). His real name was J.G. Muddiman, and he was a descendant of the Restoration journalist Henry Muddiman (perhaps a reason for the pseudonym). For Williams, Muddiman is a “patriarch of English journalism”:

From the founding of the Gazette, until his death in 1692, he was little less than an institution, and the reason why up to the present he has been forgotten is because he devoted himself entirely to journalism, was not a pamphleteer, and engaged in no controversies. (p. 176).

Other newsbook writers receive short shrift compared to Muddiman. Marchamont Nedham, for example, is dismissed with the following words:

He was no patriarch of journalism, invented nothing, originated nothing, and his name is chiefly to be associated with the retrogressive and decadent Mercurius Politicus. (p. 178)

Only recently have scholars like Blair Worden and Joad Raymond restored Nedham’s reputation, together with the importance of Mercurius Politicus as a publication.

By contrast, Williams is intrigued by more eccentric personalities. For example, he has a love-hate relationship with Henry Walker, the independent preacher and pamphleteer. He takes gossip and invective about Walker by his enemies at face value, eager to cast him as an ugly red-headed Judas figure (p.73), who employed a “ragged regiment of tatterdemalions, Mercuries, and hawkers” to sell his books (p. 72). But he also wants to portray Walker as an early news pioneer – pioneering the newspaper advertisement and bringing a capitalist business sense to civil war journalism. This portrait of Walker as part purveyor of titillation, part Fleet Street editor is to misunderstand his complex personality. Walker was not just a newsbook writer: he worked as an ironmonger, seems briefly to have been ordained a deacon, was a well-known preacher, and later in the 1650s ministered to a parish. Walker is still misunderstood and his works sometimes dismissed, a mistake that derives in some part from Williams’s portrait of him.

While Williams was a pioneer in trawling the Thomason Tracts for newsbooks, his scholarship is not always perfect. Writers sometimes have titles mistakenly attributed to them, or attributions made without evidence. This focus on editors also ignores the role of printers, patrons and readers in bringing newsbooks to print.

Williams was also an ardent royalist. This is obvious from the moment you open his book, where you are confronted by a print from the Thomason collection of Charles II. The link to Thomason seems to be the only sketchy link to the book, given that it stops its main narrative in 1659 a year before Charles was restored to the throne, and deals only in conclusion with what happened in the early years of the Restoration.

So why still read Williams? Partly because his fascination with gossip makes for a good read. But he’s also important because, much like Gardiner, his work set the tone for subsequent generations of scholars. His history is a good starting point for anyone interested in understanding mid-seventeenth century newsbooks, although it needs to be read alongside more recent work on the subject. The extent to which Williams was himself influenced by the powerful narratives established by contemporary newsbook writers and historians is, however, another story…


Unlike English pamphlets of the seventeenth century, which are easily accessible on EEBO, I’ve found it harder to track down their French equivalents. I’ve been looking at Mazarinades of the mid-seventeenth century: libelles or political pamphlets mostly directed against Cardinal Mazarin during the Fronde. They take their name from a libelle by Paul Scarron, La Mazarinade, of 1651:

Buggering bugger, buggered bugger,
Bugger to the supreme degree,
Hairy bugger and feathered bugger,
Bugger in large and small volume,
Bugger sodomizing the State,
And bugger of the purest mixture…

Below are a few sources of Mazarinades and details about them online:

Christian Jouhaud and Hubert Carrier’s secondary works on the Mazarinades sadly aren’t available online, let alone in translation, but Jeffrey Sawyer’s book on earlier libelles of the seventeenth century, Printed Poison, is available in its entirety here.

Forthcoming books

Skimming through the Palgrave catalogue, I’ve noticed a couple of books that will be out in December that may be of interest.

The first is a collection edited by John Adamson on the English civil wars. The contributors and essays are:

– Introduction – High Roads and Blind Alleys: The English Civil war and its Historiography: John Adamson.
– Rethinking Royalist Politics, 1642-49: David Scott.
– Anglicanism and Royalism in the 1640s: Antony Milton.
– Perceptions of Parliament: Faction and ‘The Public’: Jason Peacey.
– The Baronial Context of the Irish Civil Wars; Jane Ohlmeyer.
– The ‘Scottish Moment’, 1638-45: Alan Macinnes.
– Centre and Locality in Civil War England: Clive Holmes.
– The Politics of Fairfax’s Army, 1645-49: Ian Gentles.
– Rhetoric, Reality, and the Varieties of Civil War Radicalism: Philip Baker.

The second is edited by Patrick Little and is on Oliver Cromwell. It looks very much like a successor to John Morrill’s outstanding edited volume of essays on Cromwell from the early 1990s.

– 1636: The Unmaking of Oliver Cromwell?: Simon Healy.
– ‘One That Would Sit Well At the Mark: The Early Parliamentary Career of Oliver Cromwell: Stephen Roberts.
– ‘Lord of the Fens’: Oliver Cromwell’s Reputation and the First Civil War: S.L. Sadler.
– ‘A Despicable Contemptible Generation of Men’?: Cromwell and The Levellers: Philip Baker.
– Cromwell in Ireland Before 1649: Patrick Little.
– Oliver Cromwell and the Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms: K. MacKenzie.
– Oliver Cromwell (alias William) and Wales: L Bowen.
– The Lord Protector’s Servants and Courtiers: Andrew Barclay.
– John Thurloe and the Offer of the Crown to Cromwell: Patrick Little.
– ‘Fit for Public Services’; The Upbringing of Richard Cromwell: Jason Peacey.

God’s Fury, England’s Fire

God’s Fury, England’s Fire. A New History of the English Civil Wars.
by Michael Braddick.
London: Penguin Books, 2008.

In the summer of 1642, the bookseller Nathaniel Butter [DNB] put on sale a quarto pamphlet about a strange fish caught at Woolwich. A relation of a terrible monster [EEBO] told the story of a fish shaped like a toad, but with the hands and chest of a man. It was five feet long, with the tail alone a foot long, with two huge fins on each side. The wife of a butcher was so terrified by it that she swooned and exclaimed: “Oh the devil in the shape of a great fish”.

What has this got to do with a history of the English civil wars? An obscure tale to us, the significance of the fish to contemporaries was easier to see. Toad-fish and other monstrous births were omens: Pliny the Elder, for example, had said that toad-fish only came ashore in exceptional circumstances. The only time known to Pliny was during the year Nero was born. The Jewish historian Josephus likewise told a story about a heifer giving birth to a lamb in Jerusalem, six months before the city was sacked by Vespasian. There were also more recent examples, such as a whale being beached at Dieppe just before Francis I was taken prisoner at the battle of Pavia. The author of the pamphlet did not mince his words about the possible significance of the toad-fish:

These unnaturall accidents though dumbe, do not withstanding speake the supernatural intentions and purposes of the Divine Powers, chiefely when they meete just at that time when distractions, jars and distempers are a foote in a Common-weale or Kingdome.1

The fish was landed at Woolwich on 15 July 1642. Three days earlier, Parliament had resolved to raise an army for the defence of the king and for the preservation of true religion. The pamphlet underlines the fact that England stood on the brink of military conflict by bundling the toad-fish story with an account of a skirmish at Hull, which was being besieged by the king’s forces. The immediate question of any reader would have been whether Pliny and Josephus were right: was the ominous creature a sign of destruction to come?

The story of the toad-fish helps to give us some of the social context as England went to war. It’s the kind of story that would never feature in a straightforwardly political or military history of the civil wars. But it’s just one of a huge range and number of sources that Michael Braddick uses to write his history of the wars, a history which shows the renewed influence of social history on the study of early modern politics. In recent decades, English seventeenth century historiography has been split between the two: revisionist historians of the politics of the civil wars moved away from Marxian analysis in a rejection of interpretations like that of Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, but in doing so arguably lost some of the wider social context to the period. By contrast, although the “new” social history of early modern England also moved away from Marxian historiography, it did so by finding inspiration in other disciplines, like anthropology and sociology. As a result, the two became for a time rather separate. God’s Fury marks a growing trend to reconnect the two strands. It firmly answers Patrick Collinson’s call in 1990 for “social history with the politics put back in, or an account of political processes which is also social”.2

Braddick’s structure is both chronological and thematic. The narrative starts with a summary of Reformation politics in the three kingdoms, and a character sketch of the Personal Rule, before proceeding through the Bishops’ Wars, the politics of the Long Parliament, the Irish rebellion, and then into the war and its key landmarks – Edgehill, Marston Moor, Naseby, the Putney debates, the trial of Charles I. So far, so traditional. But Braddick breathes new life into this structure by using each chapter as a jumping-off point for wider social or political themes.

A chapter on the Irish rebellion, for example, allows him to dwell on the construction of factional politics in print, as pamphlet and newsbook writers sought to counter each other with increasingly lurid stories. Braddick analyses some of the atrocity stories that started to circulate once news of the rising broke in London. He also carries out a close reading on a pamphlet that relates how John Pym was sent a plague-sore plaster in the post, and how he unwrapped it theatrically on the floor of the Commons. The pamphlet carried a large woodcut of Pym on the front and generally does much to impress on its readers Pym’s importance to the defence of the kingdom. The pamphlet was printed for W.B., who Braddick deduces to be the bookseller William Bowden. Bowden had published a number of tracts about Catholic plots, and was quick to stock pamphlets about the alleged atrocities carried out during the rising. Braddick hypothesises, convincingly, that Bowden was part of a network of printers and booksellers publishing rumours about the rising but also bolstering Pym’s position within the Junto. But he goes further than this, too, linking the incident in to a wider treatment of the development of the newsbook, something which would transform the political and public sphere in the 1640s and onwards. Braddick is particularly strong on the importance of print culture more generally. Joad Raymond and Jason Peacey are both thanked in the acknowledgements and the influence of their work is clear – Braddick is very good at analysing print culture as a thing in itself rather than just as a source for other themes, in other words as something that was one of the drivers of events.

Another very effective example is a section looking at astrology and prophecy. Braddick uses a foray into the works of William Lilly as a wider exploration of the importance of astrology: how astrologers took sides, how the popular market for astrology developed, and the importance of prophecy too. He explores the influence of Mother Shipton, as well as looking at the royalist George Wharton’s famously inaccurate prediction about the battle of Naseby. Braddick uses thematic passages like this extremely effectively to place the political, military and religious conflicts in a wider social context. They are interesting in themselves as self-contained summaries of the latest academic thinking on particular points – some of the footnotes are discursive essays in themselves. But they are never digressions. They serve to explain not just the course of events, but why things happened as they did: what it was about 1640s England that meant the wars turned out in a particular way.

It’s significant that Braddick starts his book with a summary of Reformation politics. Even the title immediately makes it clear that religion is going to play a central role in his narrative. The narrative that Braddick is outlines is of a religious crisis with political implications – Charles I’s mishandling of the Personal Rule may have been a trigger in the shorter term, but for Braddick the conflicts of the 1640s hark back to the crisis of the 1620s, and even before that to the unfinished business of the Elizabethan settlement. 25 years on from John Morrill’s seminal lecture to the Royal Historical Society about Britain’s wars of religion, Braddick’s account picks up and expands these themes.3 He combines this with a strong sense of popular agency and ideology in explaining why it was that those outside Westminster went to war. He is sensitive in dealing with the fact that views held in one year could mean one type of allegiance, whereas the same views held 12 months later might mean choosing an entirely different allegiance. And (drawing on John Walter and Andy Wood) he unpicks the complexities of popular allegiance exceptionally well, sketching out how local political and religious ecologies could drive allegiance in particular directions while not making it inevitable – a good example being the Derbyshire tin miners, who on paper ticked all the boxes to side with Parliament, but who supported the king in return for remission on the tithe of tin. The political turn in social history makes its influence felt here, with Braddick being careful to suggest that what might on the face of it look like economic motives to choose sides should not be dismissed as non-political.4

If I have any criticisms, one is that the book, for me, slightly fails to capture fully the military aspect to the wars. Descriptions of battles fall slightly flat, although they are certainly detailed and comprehensive. Another slight letdown is that the book does not fully engage with the arguments of John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt, although this is not Braddick’s fault: The Noble Revolt emerged as God’s Fury was going to press. But Adamson’s book is likely to change the high political narrative of the early 1640s, as well as make historians think further about the connections between the Junto and London crowds. It will be interesting to see what future works of synthesis make of Adamson’s arguments.

But this is a rich and rewarding book. I learned a lot from it, and it has made me reconsider my approach to some of the key issues in this period (for instance my views on the politics of the Personal Rule). And I suspect I will be dipping in and out of it for some months to come. It manages to combine an incredibly comprehensive synthesis of current scholarship with a pacy narrative and strong arguments. If you’ve got any interest in the period at all, it’s a must-buy.

If you’re interested in getting some other opinions about the book, there have been a number of reviews elsewhere:

  • Guardian. Keith Thomas liked the book but felt let down by Braddick’s post-modern conclusions.
  • Spectator. Robert Stewart praised it for marrying an account of high politics with a dissection of why the English people went to war.
  • FT. Diane Purkiss gave it a mixed review, criticising the book for summarising topics she would rather have seen more on, but acknowledging the book’s usefulness for undergraduates.
  • THES. R.C. Richardson disagreed with Purkiss, arguing that it was unlikely to be used as a textbook but praising the narrative and its coverage.


1. A relation of a terrible monster taken by a fisherman neere Wollage, July the 15. 1642. and is now to be seen in Kings street, Westminster (London, 1642), p. 3.

2. Patrick Collinson, De Republica Anglorum: or, History with the Politics Put Back (Cambridge, 1990), p. 14.

3. John Morrill, The Religious Context of the English Civil War, in Morrill (ed.), The Nature of the English Revolution, (London, 1993), ch. 3.

4. Andy Wood, The Politics of Social Conflict: the Peak Country, 1520-1770 (Cambridge, 1999), and Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2002); John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge, 1999).