Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: history

In compasse like unto ordinary Pewter Dishes

A close encounter – of the third kind, or of the angelic kind? – from 1651, noted in the newsbook The Perfect Diurnall:

By Letters from Cheshire we had an exact accompt of a late strange appearance in the Air at a place called Madeley, of the Sun, Moone, and sighting, and other strange things as followeth, 16 Aprill 1651. Mary Sidway, Wife unto Robert Sidway in the Parish of Madely, Gent. in the County of Stafford saith, That sitting in her doore, one of her children being playing by her, about a quarter of an houre before Sun setting, taking notice of the Sunne, thought it to be of a strange bloudy colour, looking more earnestly upon it; perceived over it a perfect halfe Moon, but she thinking she might be deceived in hersight, wiped her eyes, and looked upon it againe: Upon which the said Moone suddenly vanished, and there appeared round about the Sunne many darke bodies, in compasse like unto ordinary Pewter Dishes, all which instantly turned as red as bloud, those of the North side, flying off from the Sunne, She the said Mary Sidway upon the same, called forth her Maid, and asked her whether she saw any towards the Sunsetting? Her Maid answered no; But she pressed her five or six times, to see if she could discern any thing, upon which the Maid answered again, no, I see nothing; it may be, said the Maid, God will not let mee see what you doe; Upon which words, the said Maid Confessed she forthwith saw the same, crying out unto her Dame, ah Dame they come upon us! they come upon us! and forthwith in their view came downe from the Sun into the Court before the door, multitudes of darke bodies in the signs of men, having arms and swords discernable, but from the rest of the bodies were of a thick darknesse without fome, of which they can give no good accompt; there also in their view arose out of the ground as many like bodies in opposition unot these, which to their judgments ran violently one upon another; In their running up and down the Court they pressed so near the door where she sate and the maid stood by, that being afraid of hurt by them, they withdrew themselves into the entry of the house, but she, the said Mary Sidway, remembering her little Child to be left without doors desired her maid to fetch the Child in, who at first deneid, but through her Dames importunity, at the last adventured to the oor, who seeing the Child in the Court amongst them, ran hastily and snatched up the Child, so came in to her Dame, and made fast the Doore; upon which they both being very fearfull, they went to Prayer, which being ended, they looked out of the Window, finding them still in the same posture, two horses shapes being by them seen amongst this Company, and that which most affrighted them with the Mote beore the window, which seemed to be spotted all over in the Compass of Round Trenchers with saining blood: Her Maid then desired her to look out of the other window upon the other side of the house, (which she did) and there they beheld all the back side full of long Cannons, and holsters standing rowes, with their mouthes upwards; They being still in feare went to prayer againe, after which they looked out on both sides the house, and all was gone and seemed to be cleare; Upon which, they resolved to goe forth again, and to look for a Man and a Boy thry had in the fields (which accordingly they did) But standing by the end of the house looking again towards the Sunne, they discerned a thicke fogg to arise, out of which came flying to them a creature in the bignesse of a Canon, with a broad face all hairy, two large wings (in their description, like unto the Angels wings pictured in Churches) upon sight whereof she the said Mary Sidway, said to her maid, certainely this is an Angell, and the day of judgement is come, come let us go and hasten to our folks and die together; but while she was thus speaking came another in the like shape, and after that a third, so they going toward the field where their man was at work they met him, who neither heard nor saw any thing, so they returned home all of them being in fear that night. This is a perfect and true relation taken from the mouth of the said Mary Sidway by many Gentlemen and Ministers, and she the said M. S. being known to be a very religious Woman, and come of Godly Parents. This Madeley is upon the borders of Cheshire.

Perfect Diurnall (5-12 May 1651), BL, TT, E.785[23], pp. 1013-1014.

The great game?

‘Work?’ he said to me once, astonished, when I referred to our classroom activities as such. ‘Do you really think that what we do is work?’

‘What else should I call it?’

I should call it the most glorious kind of play.’

(Donna Tartt, The Secret History (Penguin, 1993), p. 34).

I’ve been reading newsbooks from the 1640s in recent months as I gear up for my dissertation. In doing so, I have increasingly kept returning to the question of why their editors wrote them. When I first started reading seventeenth-century printed books I think I had a tendency, subconscious or otherwise,  to assume that they were written either for ideological reasons, or for profit. At first glance, writing for pleasure doesn’t seem to fit with a purportedly rational public sphere.

And yet it’s hard to get away from the fact that some editors obviously took a mischievous pleasure in the act of writing. Editors personified their own and rival titles as larger-than life characters, like this woodcut of Mercurius Aulicus from Newes from Smith the Oxford jaylor (1645):


Ideological battles were often fought out in playful or mischievous language, like the attacks on Marchamont Nedham’s pro-Parliament newsbook Mercurius Britanicus over the spelling mistake in its title. Here is the anonymous author of a 1647 broadside called Queres to be considered having fun with Nedham’s spelling:

Whether Britannicus doth not repent, that hee made Hue and Cry after the King, and that whereas before hee spelt his name false, whether he wisheth not he had not spelt it at all, and whether he invoketh not Neptune to beare him safely to some forraigne Land?

Nedham’s tortuous justification for continuing with the mis-spelling basically boils down to an extended “it’s not me that can’t spell, it’s you”:

In the meane time, we have him quarelling at Britanicus for a letter, challenging him that he cannot spell his own name. Poore Aulicus! The Academicall Cur, (like a whelp of Lilly) begins to bark Criticisme, in stead of Slander. Any thing must serve now (in this low ebbe of Affaires) to helpe out the Pamphlet. But thou art mistaken; we doe not write, not read here, as you doe at Oxford: they are not able to spell one word true there; for they spell the Parliament Rebels; Popery, the Protestant Religion; Idolatrie and Superstition, Decencie; Episcopacie, Iure Divino; Reformation, Schisme &c and many such strange kind of spellings.

Part of the attraction of newsbooks was their regularity – a great innovation at the time. Save for sudden swoops by the authorities, a new edition came out every week with page numbering and content picking up where the last issue left off. Readers certainly found them addictive. The wood turner Nehemiah Wallington complained that his newsbook habit meant:

So many theeves… stole away my mony before I was aware of them.

Others shared Wallington’s habit. Thomas Juxon regularly copied extracts from newsbooks into his diary. Fighting his addiction, John Rous protested (too much) that:

The many occurences about the Parliament businesses… are extant in multitudes of bookes and papers (unto which God in mercy put an end!).

But I’ve started to wonder whether writing the news couldn’t sometimes be as addictive as reading it. Exposure to a national audience;  hundreds of copies of your title published every week; almost immediate responses, both positive and negative, in other newsbooks and pamphlets: all these could have been innovative and exhilarating for certain kinds of personality. The explosion of print in 1641 permanently changed the way that politics in England operated, giving public opinion a much wider role than ever and further opening up affairs of state to those traditionally outside the political classes. In such an environment, for some at least, writing newsbooks must have been fun.

None of this is to suggest that journalism in mid-seventeenth century England was a game. Being involved in unlicensed newsbooks in the 1640s and 1650s could be dangerous. Printers could have their presses confiscated, and printers and writers alike could be imprisoned. But reading some of the exchanges between rival editors, you do wonder whether a “glorious kind of play” had at least some role, alongside the political or financial gains that could be made, in popularising newsbooks.

Killing Noe Murder

news9a_0I’ve been reading Edward Sexby’s Killing Noe Murder for class this week, and it got me thinking about the mechanics of actually publishing controversial pamphlets.

Sexby was born around 1616 and served under Oliver Cromwell in his Ironsides during the early 1640s. By the time the New Model was formed in 1645, he was serving under Fairfax and went on to play an important role in the radicalisation of the army during the later 1640s. He famously set out his political views on the first day of the Putney debates:

The cause of our misery is upon two things. We sought to satisfy all men, and it was well; but in going about to do it we have dissatisfied all men. We have laboured to please a king and I think, except we go about to cut all our throats, we shall not please him; and we have gone to support an house which will prove rotten studs — I mean the Parliament, which consists of a company of rotten members.

After Putney, Pride’s Purge and the regicide, Sexby became an important figure for the Commonwealth and went to Bordeaux to try to influence his fellow Protestant Frondeurs and support them in their struggle. By 1655, though, like many fellow supporters of the Good Old Cause, he had fallen out of love with Cromwell and the Protectorate. He was involved in the plot by Miles Sindercombe to assassinate Cromwell in early 1657.

After the plot failed, Sexby – who was at this point in the Netherlands – wrote a pamphlet called Killing Noe Murder, giving biblical and classical humanist justifications for why Cromwell was a tyrant and could lawfully be killed. Although there is some debate about the extent of involvement, it seems likely that Sexby took the lead in writing it but perhaps in consultation with Silius Titus, the Presbyterian representative of the royalists Sexby had allied himself with against Cromwell. He introduced the pamphlet with this sardonic preface:

May it please your Highness,
How I have spent some hours of the leisure your Highness has been pleased to give me, this following paper will give your Highness an account. How you will please to interpret it I cannot tell; but I can with confidence say my intention in it is to procure your Highness that justice nobody yet does you, and to let the people see the longer they defer it, the greater injury they do both themselves and you. To your Highness justly belongs the honour of dying for the people; and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it. ‘Tis then only, my Lord, the titles you now usurp will be truly yours. You will then be indeed the deliverer of your country, and free it from a bondage little inferior to that from which Moses delivered his. You will then be that true reformer which you would be thought. Religion shall be then restored, liberty asserted, and parliaments have those privileges
they have fought for.

The pamphlet seems to have arrived in London by 18 May. The Publick Intelligencer reported on that day that “divers abominable desperate pamphlets” had been scattered about the streets, including at Charing Cross and other places in the City.

The former Leveller John Sturgeon (formerly a member of Cromwell’s life guard, but since the mid-1650s an opponent of the Protectorate) was arrested on 25 May with two bundles of copies on him – about 300 in all. Two days later a search was made of St Catherine’s Dock and seven parcels with 200 copies – 1,400 in all – were found in the house of Samuel Rogers, a waterman. A bundle of 140 found near steps of a house. So perhaps 2,000 were taken out of circulation.

Many more did get circulated, though. John Thurloe wrote to Henry Cromwell on 26 May enclosing a copy:

There is lately a very vile booke dispersed abroad, called Killinge noe murder. The scope is, to stirre up men to assassinate his highnes. I have made search after it, but could not finde out the spring-head thereof. The last night there was one Sturgeon, formerly one of his highness’s life-guard, a great leveller, taken in the street, with two bundles of them under his arme. The same fellow had a hand in Syndercombe’s buissines, and fledd for it into Holland, and is now come over with these bookes. I have sent your lordship one of them, though the principles of them are soe abominable, that I am almost ashamed to venture the sendinge it to your lordship.

Thurloe’s assistant Samuel Morland wrote to John Pell at the start of June that:

There has been the most dangerous pamphlet lately thrown about the streets that ever has been printed in these times. I have sent you the preface, which is more light, but, believe me, the body of it is more solid; I mean as to showing the author’s learning, though the greatest rancour, malice, and wickedness that ever man could show – nay, I think the devil himself could not have shown more.

People paid up to 5 shillings to get hold of copies. A copy even got thrown into Cromwell’s coach.

So how did Sexby and his accomplices achieve this? The first step was maximise the numbers who could have read Killing Noe Murder had. The pamphlet is 16 pages of quarto, and hence made up of two sheets of paper. Each set of 8 pages would have been printed as follows: the numbers represent page numbers in the final book.


It was printed on cheap paper – possibly ‘pot paper’, which in the 1620s had sold for between 3s. 4d. and 4s.6d. a ream. A ream contained 500 sheets, so one ream would have supplied 250 copies of the book. The 2,000 copies confiscated by the authorities would hence have cost at least £1 for Sexby and his accomplices to commission. Of course this does not include printer’s costs: by way of comparison, in 1655 Sturgeon had paid the radical printer Richard Moone 40 shillings for 1,000 copies of A Short Discovery of his Highness the Lord Protector’s Intentions. This was 8 pages long so a work double the size might have cost 80 shillings, or £4, for 1,000 copies. Assuming on top of the 2,000 confiscated copies that perhaps another 1,000 or 2,000 copies did survive and go into circulation, the whole enterprise might have cost Sexby £12 to £16.

Parcels of the pamphlet would then have been shipped across to London. Thurloe ordered a search of Dutch boats but had no luck in finding which skipper had shipped them over. It seems likely that John Sturgeon was Sexby’s London agent when it came to receiving and distributing copies. He had fled to the Netherlands after being involved in Miles Sindercombe’s failed plot to kill Cromwell earlier in 1657, so probably accompanied the pamphlets over to England from Amsterdam.

When it came to scattering copies about London’s streets, it’s impossible to know exactly how Sturgeon achieved this. However, it seems likely that he drew on radical political and religious communities within London. Sturgeon was a member of the Baptist church of Edmund Chillenden, which met at St Paul’s. In the 1630s, Chillenden had been involved with John Lilburne in distributing subversive puritan literature, and had subsequently been involved in army politics with Sexby. It seems plausible that his church was the centre for a number of London-based Levellers and Baptists whom Sturgeon may have mobilised to help. Someone else arrested along with Sturgeon was Edward Wroughton, a haberdasher who was a member of Thomas Venner’s Fifth Monarchist congregation at Coleman Street. Members of this church were mostly young men and apprentices, who would be likely candidates for dispersing the pamphlet during the middle of the night.  So it’s possible too that a network of congregations played a part in helping Sexby.

Killing Noe Murder had an impact out of proportion to its size and the number of copies distributed. It became a major talking point and the Protectorate took significant steps to take it out of circulation and arrest its conspirators. Sadly for Sexby, he was arrested after returning to London in June 1657 to foment further assassination attempts. While being held in the Tower of London he confessed authorship of Killing Noe Murder. He died there in January 1658.

My illustration is of course of the Master DI Sam Tyler John Simms as Sexby in The Devil’s Whore. For more on Sexby and Killing Noe Murder:

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]


A Halloween ghost story, from a pamphlet I came across on EEBO a while ago.

The year is 1645. Our protagonist is Paul Fox, a silk-weaver, who lived in Plaistow in the parish of West Ham, about four miles from London. He’s a man of “honest life and conversation”, with a wife, children and servants.

His troubles started when a sword hung in one of his rooms:

came flourishing about the roome, flying up and downe, no hand touching of it, nor any thing but the Sword possibly appearing.

Fox grabbed hold of it and, struggling to keep it in his hand, ran with it into the next room and put it down on a bench. Then he went back into the original room and locked the door, only for the sword to reappear there with no obvious sign of how it had got through the door.

This incident proved the start of a great deal of poltergeist activity. A walking stick hopped from the kitchen up the stairs, and danced around a table on which the sword lay for nearly ten minutes. Another evening, Fox was disturbed by a loud knocking on the door. Asking who it was, a soft hollow voice announced that it was a spirit, who wanted to live in the house. Fox bravely replied that:

He thought it to be an evill Spirit nd that he had nothing to doe there, wishing it to returne to Hell Gates, where hee thought he might have entrance without knocking.

Another day, when Fox, his sons and his servants were hard at work, objects like tiles, brickbats, oyster shells and pieces of bread started whirling round the room breaking all the glass in the windows. A great stone, “of about halfe a hundred weight”, lifted itself up from the yard and tumbled up the stairs. Fox’s wife was disturbed while making porridge: the porridge suddenly forced itself out of the pot and sprayed itself around the room.

Hundreds of people came to watch the strange events in Fox’s house. Some gentry even gave Fox money in return for seeing the strange sights. Fox put the money in a handkerchief, only for the money to fly out into the middle of the room. Only Fox’s collection of godly books escaped unscathed. When the spirit tried to scatter Fox’s book collection, other papers and books fell victim to the poltergeist, but the Bible and Fox’s other religious tracts were left untouched.

Many “Ministers, Gentlemen & great Scholers” were called to try to account for the wondrous events in Fox’s house, but none was able to. As the writer relating Fox’s tale concluded:

That which is manifest appertaineth to us, and our children, but hidden things belong unto God.

But the author also notes in closing other events in Essex: the Assizes which had reslted in many witches being condemned and executed. Were Fox’s misfortunes the result of “wicked persons”, in “confederacy with the Devill”, setting out to “make spoyle and havock of their neighbours goods”? Or is it as the author concludes:

There cannot any solid reason be given from where [these events] exceed.

My illustration is of a child levitating and is a woodcut from the frontispiece of Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus (1681).

1. Anonymous, Strange and fearfull newes from Plaisto (London, 1645).