Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: pamphlet

Bloody newes from Dover

AN363033001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

I found this gruesome woodcut from the title page of a 1647 pamphlet while looking for illustrated news pamphlets. Bloody Newes from Dover tells the story of John Champion, a tradesman from Dover, and his wife Mary. After the birth of their child, John wanted to have it christened. Mary disagreed, and when the baby was six or seven weeks old, she took a knife and cut off the child’s head:

And when her husband came in, she called him into a little Parlour, where the poore Infant lay bleeding, uttering these words.

Behold husband, they sweet Babe without a head, now go and baptize it; if you will, you must christen the head without a body: for here they lye separated.

Here is the husband’s shocked reaction:

O thou bloody and inhumane wretch, what haste thou done.

Mary was apprehended for trial at the Assizes, and went on to suffer some kind of post-traumatic shock disorder while in prison awaiting trial:

For, shee can no wayes fixe her eyes upon anything, but presently (she conceives) the poore Babe to appear before her without a head.

This kind of repenting was traditional for early modern murder pamphlets, as was the moral lesson to be drawn from the horrible incident:

Thus may we see, that where division and controversie doth arise, sad effects will suddenly follow: for no sooner can there a beach appear; but presently Sathan is ready to stop it up, by infusing his deluding spirit into their hearts, for the increasing of variance, discord and contention, and when once it had taken possession, it is a hard matter to remove it, but shall lyeth open to the deluding snare of the Divel, being ready to Be entrapped on any occasion.

Dirty book

In 1647, the bookseller George Thomason was asked to lend a book to Charles I. Thomason wasn’t sure at first, but eventually decided to loan it to his king. Charles – not unlike a few of the people I lend my books to – didn’t look after it as well as he might have, and ended up dropping it in some mud.

Years later, in the early 1660s, Thomason took stock of his collection of almost 23,000 tracts from the civil war period and began binding them into nearly 2,000 volumes. The 100th volume – shelfmark E.95 under the British Library ordering – starts with a handwritten note by Thomason, recalling the incident:

Memorandum that Col Will Legg and Mr Arthur Treavor were imployed by his matie K. Charles to gett for his present use, a pamphlet which his matie had then occasion to make use of, and not meetinge with it they both came to me, havinge heard that I did imploy my selfe to take up all such things, from the beginning of the Parlement, and findinge it with me told me it was for the kinges owne use. I tould them all I had were at his matis command & service, and withal tould them if I should part with it, & loose it, presuming that when his matie had done with it, that little accompt would be made of it, and yet if I should loose it, by that losse a limbe of my collection, which I should be very loth to see, well knowinge it would be impossible to supplie it if it should happen to be lost, with which answer they returned to his matie at Hampton Court, (as I take it) and and tould him they had found that peece he much desired and withall how loath he that had it was to part with it he much fearing its losse; wheruppon they were both sent to me againe by his Mâtie to tell me that upon the worde of a kinge (to use their own expressions) he would safely returne it, thereuppon immediately by them I sent it to his matie who having done with it and having it with him when he was going towards the Isle of Wight (11-13 Nov. 1647) let it fall in the durt, and then callinge for the two persons before mentioned (who attended him) delivered it to them with a charge, as they should answer it another day, that they should both speedily and safely return it to him, from whom they had received it, and withall to desire the partie to goe on and continue what had begun, which booke together with his Matie signification to me by these worthy and faithfull gentln I received both speedily and safely. Which volume hath the marke of honor upon it, which noe other volume in my collection hath, and very diligently and carefully I continued the same, until the most hapie restoration & coronation of his most gratious Matie Kinge Charles the Second whom God long preserve.

Geo. Thomason.

The “marke of honor” was the mud stains which the pamphlet was left with.

There seems to be some doubt about which pamphlet Charles actually wanted to borrow. The tract which follows Thomason’s annotation is The Reasons of the Lords and Commons why they cannot agree to the Alteration and Addition in the Articles of Cessation offered by his Majesty. With His Majestie’s gratious Answer thereunto, printed onApril 4, 1643. The version on Early English Books Online doesn’t appear to have any mud stains, though – but apparently there is a different version in the British Library which does. I have come across another account which thinks it was the pamphlet at the end of the volume, A remonstrance of the right honourable Iames Earle of Castlehaven and Lord Audley, which was the one dropped. The entry on EEBO for this says that it has been “reviewed, corrected, and augmented” – perhaps implying that mud stains have been digitally removed – but doesn’t give any further information. [NB – it has subsequently been pointed out to me that this is a quote from the title page rather than a bibliographic description, and that The Reasons of the Lords and Commons was the pamphlet Thomason dropped. See this post at EEBO Interactions for more details].

However, my understanding is that Thomason only bound his volumes when he came to catalogue them in the 1660s. His note talks about lending a pamphlet, not a volume of them. So it must have been an individual tract which was dropped in the mud, not a collection of them. Logically, then, only one pamphlet in this volume should have mud stains.

My suspicion is that The Reasons of the Lords and Commons was Charles’s choice of reading. The reference to Hampton Court dates this incident to between August and November 1647, when Charles was under house arrest by the New Model at that palace. He had moved there after his failure to engage with the army’s Heads of Proposals. In September he turned down a further set of negotiations, closely based on the Newcastle Propositions of 1646. It seems plausible that Charles might have wanted to consult previous records of negotiations with Parliament, to remind himself of previous statements they had made.

(The image above is a composite made up of the two sides of paper on which Thomason wrote his annotation – the left hand side is from the verso of one page, the right hand side from the recto of another page).

The Strange and Wonderful Elephant


Seventeenth-century Londoners were used to exotic animals. As a port London had its fair share of sailors and traders bringing in animals from abroad, like parrots, monkeys and lions. Even so, you can imagine the wonder it must have caused when in 1675 Lord George Berkeley imported an elephant to London.

The illustrations above are taken from two pamphlets describing the elephant. They are part of a long tradition of cheap books describing wondrous beasts: 77 years earlier, for example, Londoners had been able to read about A Most Strange and Wonderfull Herring (1598), with pictures on its sides of men fighting and of strange runic letters. The difference with Berkeley’s elephant and the Dutch herring is the the latter was written about in a heavily didactic way. Readers were meant to see the herring as a portent to be linked to contemporary events. By 1675 the elephant could be presented as a curiosity of the natural world rather than something linked to the supernatural.

Both authors are at pains to describe the elephant’s physical details, its age, and the likely size it will grow to. The woodcuts would also have given a (not too inaccurate) sense of what the animal looked like. In other respects, though, readers still would have taken away a perception of the elephant filtered through very old-fashioned lenses.

Like many early modern descriptions of elephants, A Full and True Relation is taken almost entirely from Pliny the Elder’s account of elephants:

  • The closest of all the animals to man in intelligence.
  • They understand the language of the country they were bred in.
  • They excel in goodness and honesty.
  • They fight to the death with dragons/snakes.
  • They carry castles full of men on their back.
  • They have 2 year pregnancies and live for 200 to 300 years.

The author also adds a detail from Isidore of Seville that they are afraid of mice, and another from Bartholomaeus Anglicus that they go down to the river at new moon to wash themselves.

A True and Perfect Description sneers at Pliny and other classical and medieval authors, saying that it will not repeat lies that the reader can look up in those texts. The author corrects Pliny’s assertion that the elephant does not have joints. Certainly it seems that there are more first and second-hand accounts of elephants within the text. This anecdote was particularly nice:

They are said to be very amourous of handsome women, (whence it appears that he is worse than a Beast that hates them), and to be very Kind and Grateful to their Keepers, insomuch as one upon a time (as the story has it) one of them seeing in his Masters absence a Man lying with his Mistris, as soon as he came from her, fell upon him and Killed him, I wish every Citizen had one of them for that trick.

But other details are still taken from standard bestiaries: the story that elephants bury their teeth to hide them from men, and that they are chaste animals.

Apart from the pamphlets, and a mock-speech by the elephant to celebrate it being shown at Bartholomew Fair, the only contemporary reactions to the elephant that I can find are one by Robert Hooke, and one in a newspaper. In Hooke’s diary he recorded the following:

12 August. Elephant sold for £1600.

2 September. Walkd to see elephant.

1 October. Saw elephant 3sh.

Meanwhile the City Mercury‘s edition of November 2 described how Berkeley had been sold the elephant for £2,000, and that the elephant:

was now to be seen at the White Horse Inn over against Salisbury Court in Fleet Street, at which place there is provided accommodation for the Nobility, Gentry and Commonalty for that purpose.

It’s also possible that it inspired Francis Barlow’s picture of a fight between an elephant and a rhinoceros (1684). Barlow’s print-shop, as Aubrey Noakes has pointed out, was just round the corner from Salisbury Court. On 25 August 1684 a rhinoceros was imported into London, and it seems possible that Barlow matched the pair in the death-match to end all death-matches…

1. Anonymous, A full and true relation of the elephant that is brought over into England from the Indies, and landed at London, August 3d. 1675. Giving likewise a true account of the wonderful nature, understanding, breeding, taking and taming of elephants (London, 1675).

2. Anonymous, A True and perfect description of the strange and wonderful elephant sent from the East-Indies and brought to London on Tuesday the third of August, 1675 : with a discourse of the nature and qualitites of elephants in general (London, 1675).

3. Anonymous, A description of the rhinoceros, lately brought from the East-Indies, and sold the 25th. of this instant August, to Mr. L. for 2320£ (London, 1684).

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.

The Mowing-Devil

The Mowing-Devil is a quarto pamphlet printed in 1678.1 It tells the story of a farmer whose field of oats was destroyed by the devil, after the farmer rejected the price asked by a mower and said that the devil could mow it instead.

The pamphlet is often prayed in aid by crop circle enthusiasts as an example of crop circles being a pre-modern phenomenon. The Wikipedia article on the pamphlet puts this forward as a possibility, as do a number of crop circle websites. One, Swirled News, has carried out lengthy research into the provenance of the pamphlet, examining a copy in the British Library and discovering that there are a number of subtly different modern recreations of the woodcut illustration. At a quick glance it certainly does bear a resemblance to a crop circle – it looks like there are concentric rings of crops being pressed down by the devil.

However, the crop circle enthusiasts don’t really talk about the text of the pamphlet itself. A closer look makes the crop circle theory seem less likely. There is no mention in the text of patterns or concentric circles in the oats. The pamphlet goes on to say that after the farmer had abused the mower, his field was observed to be on fire during the night. The next morning, the field was:

totally devour’d by those ravenous Flames which were observ’d to be so long resident on his Acre and a half of Ground.

Below is a close-up of the woodcut on the pamphlet’s title page.

A close look shows what actually appears to be flames either side of the oats. Although the devil is cutting the oats down with a scythe, I’m fairly confident this is a representation of the diabolical flames consuming the field, rather than the devil cutting patterns into it. The pamphlet does then claim that the next morning, the oats were perfectly mown, and it’s possible that this may have been the way they were destroyed – but I suspect fire is the more likely explanation.

A close reading of the text reveals at least two rather different contexts that would have made much more sense to contemporary readers than speculation about crop circles. One is religious. The pamphlet starts with a proof of God: if devils exist, then there must be a Hell in which they live. If there is a Hell, there must be a Heaven, and hence there must be a God. The way in which the pamphlet deploys imagery of the devil can tell us something about its intended readership. Its imagery owes much to late medieval conceptions of the devil, in which he (or occasionally she) could appear as a physical being. This often presented the devil in a humorous or socially-inverted 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 during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.2 By the mid-seventeenth century, 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. However, this challenge was not entirely successful – medieval conceptions of the devil continued to live on amongst much of the population of England.3 So this pamphlet would have had more appeal to those in rural communities who remained attached to the rhythms of the old church, who had turned against puritan tendencies.

The second context is a classed one. The pamphlet is fairly explicit in its representation of the power relationships between the farmer and the mower. The farmer is a “rich, industrious farmer”. The mower is a “poor Neighbour”, who:

endeavour’d to sell the Sweat of his Brows and Marrow of his Bones as at dear a Rate as reasonably he might.

But the farmer won’t give him a fair price for his labour. After some sharp words, the “honest Mower” runs back and offers to do the work at a much lower price than he’d ever offered to anyone else. But the farmer is having none of it, and makes his quip that the devil will mow the field before the mower does.

The farmer here – at least as far as the pamphlet’s author is concerned – stands guilty of breaking the moral economy of their rural community.4 The mower has offered a fair price within a framework of what is acceptable, and even offers to do the work at a loss. But the farmer rejects this, and by stepping outside the moral economy pays the price. It seems likely that the fire in the field was caused not by the devil, but by the mower or at least by friends or family members within his community. Again, this context would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary readers – a cautionary tale, perhaps, for middling sort landowners, and a comforting assertion of traditional values of fair play for rural wage labourers. Only a minority of this latter group might have been able to read the pamphlet, but all would have been able to see the illustration, and discuss it or have it read to them by those who could read.

In short, The Mowing-Devil is probably not the representation of an early crop-circle that enthusiasts want it to be. In focusing on the woodcut, they’ve missed a much more interesting side to the text that tells us something about late seventeenth-century popular politics and religion.

1. Anonymous, The Mowing-devil, or, Strange news out of Hartford-Shire being a true relation of a farmer, who bargaining with a poor mower about the cutting down three half acres of oats, upon the mower’s asking too much, the farmer swore that the devil should mow it, rather than he… (London?, 1678), Wing / M2996.
2. Darren Oldridge, The Devil in Early Modern England (Sutton: Stroud, 2000), pp. 16-23.
3. Oldridge, The Devil in Early Modern England, pp. 58-89; Nathaniel Johnston, The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006), pp. 1-8.
4. E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century”, Past & Present, 50 (1971), pp. 76-136.