Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: pamphlets

Recycled woodcuts

A recent post at Mistris Parliament, with its woodcut of the leatherseller Praisegod Barebone preaching from a tub, reminded me about the provenance of that particular image. Below is the woodcut of Barebone, which is taken from the frontispiece of John Taylor’s New Preachers, New (London, 19 December 1641). The poor quality of the paper has meant text from the other side of the page has bled through:

But this woodcut actually appeared on the front of at least four pamphlets. The first appearance was in June 1641 on the front cover of another of John Taylor’s works, A Swarme of Sectaries (London, June 1641). It seems to have been designed specifically to match the content, which was a description of London’s various “mechanic preachers” – in other words, Independent preachers without a benefice.

The sign to the right shows that the preaching is taking place in the Nag’s Head in Coleman Street, supposedly a notorious gathering place for independent congregations. “Sam How” is Samuel Howe, a cobbler who had actually been dead for almost a year by the summer of 1641, but whose notoriety was clearly still news-worthy.

The woodcut was then reused in October on the front of The sermon and prophecie of Mr. James Hunt (London, 9 October 1641). This time the sign was cropped, and the top of the block was chiselled away to allow type to spell out the name of yet another preacher, a farmer from Kent:

The woodcut then made a third appearance in December on the back page of John Taylor’s Lucifers Lacky (London, 4 December 1641), almost as an afterthought. By this point, the quality of the woodblock was getting significantly worse. Nor was the illustration as well matched to the pamphlet’s content.

After being used for New Preachers, New on 19 December, it then appeared a fifth time on the front of A tale in a tub, or, A tub lecture as it was delivered by Mi-Heele Mendsoale (London, 21 December 1641), a mock sermon also by John Taylor:

We know very little about who made woodcuts like these, or exactly how they fitted into the communication circuit in which cheap pamphlets existed. Were woodcut makers independent craftsmen who offered their services to printers? Or were they based in print houses directly? Was it even a specialised trade, or was it carried out as part of a wider range of woodworking or printing skills? How many people were involved in cutting woodcuts? Who chose and designed the illustration – the author, the printer, or the bookseller? So little evidence about the skill survives for the seventeenth century that it is hard to tell.

However, there are things that can be deduced about the trade from woodcuts like the one above. The first half of the seventeenth century appears to have seen an increasing use of illustrations for cheap print, increasingly matched to the content. From the mid-1610s, pamphlets about murder, natural disasters and other strange news often had one-off illustrations cut to match. This implies that readers were starting to demand illustrations: pamphlets with woodcuts may have sold better, or been hung up outside the shop to tempt in passing trade. It also implies that authors, printers and booksellers could afford to commission new woodcuts for one-off works. The biggest cost of any book was normally the paper it was printed on, so compared to that the cost of a woodcut for a short quarto pamphlet with a print-run of perhaps 200-1,000 copies must have been outweighed by the benefits.

So why does this woodcut crop up so many times in 1641? Well, partly because anti-separatist literature sold well. But why not commission new woodcuts for each pamphlet? A clue might lie in the authors, printers and booksellers of all four pamphlets:

  • New Preachers, New. Written by John Taylor, for an anonymous bookseller and printer.
  • Swarme of Sectaries. Written by John Taylor, again for an anonymous bookseller and printer. However the imprint declares it was “printed luckily, and may be read unhappily, betwixt hawke and buzzard”. This is very similar to the fictitious imprint of The Downefall of Temporizing Poets (London, 1641), which declared that it was “printed merrily, and may be read unhappily, betwixt hawke and buzzard”.
  • The sermon and prophecie of Mr. James Hunt. Purports to be by Hunt, but is probably a satire – perhaps even by Taylor, who had something of a specialisation in anti-separatist works. Printed for the bookseller Thomas Bates, a shady operator specialising in cheap and often scandalous pamphlets. He was based at the Old Bailey outside the City limits, and was often in trouble with Parliament for seditious printing.
  • A tale in a tub. Written by John Taylor. Printed, according to the imprint, “in the yeare when Brownist did domineare”. What is interesting about this use of the woodcut is that it was not the first edition of the pamphlet. The first version was printed in 1641, without any illustration. This suggests it was a good seller that was repackaged along with the woodcut to drum up additional sales.
  • Lucifers lacky. Written by John Taylor, printed for John Greensmith. Like Bates, in 1641 he got into trouble with the Commons for printing scandalous pamphlets.

Both Bates and Greensmith often sold pamphlets printed by Bernard Alsop and Thomas Fawcett, two printers who also operated on the fringes of the law. They too were hauled before Parliament on a number of occasions in 1641 for illicit printing. Works with their imprint are distinguished by their worn type and hasty typesetting. A detailed analysis of the ornaments and typefaces, comparing them to works known to be printed by Alsop and Fawcett, might reveal more about whether these five works were printed by them. For example, Lucifers Lacky uses an ornament identical to that used in a work called The Vertue of Sack, printed by Alsop:

If they were printed by Alsop and Fawcett, it may indicate that they were trading in tough circumstances. Despite the explosion of print in 1641, operating in illegal or semi-legal ways may have meant more financial risks. Short 8-page quarto pamphlets could be printed relatively quickly to make a quick sale. If they didn’t sell, the losses were relatively minimal. So the recycling of woodcuts may indicate that Alsop and Fawcett were trying to preserve their bottom line: either by speeding up the process of printing (saving the time that would have been spent commissioning special illustrations), or minimising the cost of production by reusing a woodblock hanging round the print house. Or perhaps it indicates that books needed in 1641 needed illustrations to stand out from the huge numbers of competitors: perhaps any old woodcut would do, so long as it caught the eye.

If they are by different printers, it has a rather different impliation. It would mean that printers were sharing woodblocks, which would point to a degree of cooperation amidst financial competition. And equally if John Taylor wrote all five, it is possible perhaps that it was he who commissioned the woodblock, and requested that his booksellers use it for particular pamphlets. But I have a suspicion the answer may well lie with Alsop and Fawcett.

Milton and licensing


I’m currently reading Randy Robertson’s extremely interesting Censorship and Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England: The Subtle Art of Division, which was published earlier this year. In one of his chapters Robertson focuses on John Milton and his attitudes to censorship. This is one of the great paradoxes of Milton’s life: particularly his decision, in 1649, to take on responsibility for pre-publication licensing for the Commonwealth of newsbooks and other publications. How could Milton, champion of freedom of the press, take up a position that was directly contradictory to the critique of pre-publication licensing that he had set out five years earlier in Areopagitica?

For some scholars, like Milton’s early biographer David Masson, and more recently others like Christopher Hill, William Riley Parker and Sabrina Baron, Milton never gave up his radical commitment, and either carried out his duties rather perfunctorily or was able to work for reform from the inside. For others, like Stephen Dobranski and Abbe Blum, Milton acted inconsistently.  This is one of those questions that scholars will probably argue about forever, because of the lack of surviving evidence. We have the Stationers’ Company records for the issues of Mercurius Politicus which Milton approved – although these don’t tell us whether content was ever altered or deleted before editions were licensed. The minutes of the Council of State record various licensing or censoring tasks which they asked Milton to carry out. And that’s about it, save for second-hand remarks by contemporaries and a later reference Milton made to the Licensing Act of 1649. Unless other evidence turns up, we will probably never know for certain what made Milton take on the role.

Robertson’s argument is that there is less conflict than many have thought between the Licensing Act which the Commonwealth introduced in September 1649, and the critique of pre-publication licensing set out in Areopagitica. There are two central planks to his argument.

First, he suggests that Milton helped soften the drafting of the 1649 Licensing Act, and was hence happy or at least grudgingly content with the end product. However, there is no direct evidence for this. The only person we can be confident was involved in actually drafting the act was John Bradshaw, because the Council of State minutes record an agreement that he should lead the work on the Bill. The Commons journal also records a committee being appointed to steer the Bill through, but we should be wary of assuming that nomination to a committee necessarily meant an MP actually sat on it or contributed to it. Behind the scenes, there’s a good chance that Bradshaw probably did talk to Milton about the Bill. They were colleagues and perhaps also relatives, who shared an interest in the book trade.  Bradshaw had acted as legal counsel to Milton earlier in the 1640s. But there is no way of telling from this circumstantial link what impact Milton may actually have had on the legislation.

Secondly, Robertson argues that the 1649 Act only introduced pre-publication censorship for newsbooks. Other books and pamphlets, he suggests, were to be pursued after publication if they had objectionable content. I think this is a misreading of the Act. It’s true that, on the face of it, the only licensing arrangements set out by the Act were to introduce three new licensers to approve newsbooks before they could be published: the clerk to Parliament, the secretary to the army, and an appointee of the Council of State. But the Act is also clear that previous licensing arrangements from the licensing ordinances of 1643 and 1647 were to remain in place, save for where the 1649 Act repealed or strengthened them:

“Be it by the authority aforesaid Enacted and Ordained, That the Laws made formerly, and at this present Parliament, now in force for punishment of devisers and spreaders of false and seditious news, lyes and rumors, by writing, printing, speaking or otherwise, shall be put in due and diligent execution, according to the tenor of the same Acts”.

“So much of the said Ordinance as specifies the imposition of Penalties upon such Offenders as are beforementioned, in respect that higher Penalties are in stead thereof herein limited and designed, shall stand from henceforth repealed, and be of no further effect”.

An Act against Unlicensed and Scandalous Books and Pamphlets, and for better regulating of Printing (1649).

For me, at least, the 1649 Act is fairly clear in reinforcing the pre-publication licensing regime that the 1643 licensing ordinance had started.

Other scholars have suggested Milton was able to radically reinterpret the 1649 Act, so as to work for reform of the system from within. Sabrina Baron draws attention to Milton’s possible involvement in licensing the Rachovian Cathecism, a work that denied the existence of the trinity. The work’s printer, William Dugard – an old acquaintance of Milton’s – shopped him to the Council of State as having licensing its publication. Milton’s role as licenser ended after this, although it is not clear whether this was due to losing his sight or because of actual links to the controversial publication. Milton did later comment in a letter to Samuel Hartlib that:

‘There are no licensers appointed by this last Act, so that everybody may enter in his book without license, providing the printer’s or author’s name be entered, that they may be forthcoming if required’.

But this is surely wishful thinking on Milton’s part: his role in licensing a range of publications for the Commonwealth must have made him aware that in practice, even if he interpreted the legislation differently, his role was to ensure controversial publications did not make it as far as the reading public. In June 1649, for example, Milton was ordered to ‘examine the papers of [the royalist newsbook] Pragmaticus”, an ad-hoc investigatory role that he played with a number of other writers or pamphlets considered scandalous by the Commonwealth.

As for me, I have a lot of sympathy with the arguments of Stephen Dobranski on this issue:

‘We can use his inconsistency to see beyond the theoretical construction of “the author” and glimpse the real person, John Milton, operating wihin his specific historical environment’.

Stephen Dobranski, Milton, Authorship and the Book Trade (Cambridge, 1999), p. 133.

Or to put it another way, Milton was a human being like the rest of us. Nobody’s political or religious ideologies are internally consistent, let alone consistent over time, so why do we expect Milton’s political ideals to have remained constant? Dobranski suggests it is because of the assumption that Milton, one of the foundation stones of the Western canon, must have possessed authorial autonomy. He quotes Foucault’s observation that the author “constitutes a principle of unity in writing” and “serves to neutralise the contradictions that are found in a series of texts”. There may be something in this: compare the adjectives Sabrina Baron uses to describe Milton and those she uses to describe his predecessor as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, George Weckherlin:

‘Milton’s was a radical interpretation of the law and a radical involvement of personal authority that a professional bureaucrat like George Weckherlin could never have made’.

Sabrina Baron,  ‘Licensing readers, licensing authorities in seventeenth-century England’, in Jennifer Andersen & Elizabeth Sauer (eds.), Books and readers in early modern England: material studies (Philadelphia, PA, 2002), p. 235.

But Weckherlin was a poet, just like Milton, in the same way that Milton was a bureaucrat, just like Weckherlin. Dobranski’s efforts to historicise Milton’s actions and ideas within their wider social and political context seems to me a more successful way of trying to unpick his motives during the heady days of the late 1640s. Dobranski suggests that Milton’s commitment to classical republicanism was what convinced him that supporting the Commonwealth supported a greater good. Possibly, too – although we cannot know it – there was an element of personal gain or even fear that lay behind Milton’s decision to accept a role as one of the Council of State’s spin doctors. There need not necessarily have been one sole reason that convinced him to take on the role. 1649 was a year, if ever there was one, when the world was turned upside down. Friendships, allegiances and entire political systems were being broken, changed and reshaped at astonishing speeds. It was left to Milton, like his contemporaries, to make sense of these changes and feel his way into a new era of government.

My image is an etching of a bust of Milton made by Jonathan Richardson Jr. in around 1730-1750; AN339250001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Reading early modern pamphlets

There is an interesting discussion going on over at the SHARP e-mail list about the differences between reading on paper and reading on a screen.The conclusion of most posters is that while we may not need a new word to describe reading on a screen – viewing? screening? diging? – there is nevertheless a difference between the two. Defining that difference, on the other hand, is a bit harder and is something many scholars are still thinking about.

I blogged about this a while ago, in the context of Early English Books Online (EEBO) and whether reading seventeenth-century pamphlets on screen can change how you read them. Prompted by the SHARP discussion, I’ve been doing some more thinking about this. It occurred to me that this has been an interpretative issue since before the creation of EEBO and other digital reproductions of sources. Microfilm versions of pamphlets also carry with them some of the same issues.

In the case of the Thomason Tracts, for example, a microfilm edition by University Microfilms International (UMI) has existed since 1977. This is the way that most scholars have probably read them between that time until a few years ago. Although you can print out pamphlets from both EEBO and from microfilm, both methods of access are primarily through a screen. So what are the similarities and differences between reading a pamphlet in its original format, via a microfilm reader, or through your computer monitor? And do the differences make any practical impact on how you absorb and understand the text?

My own answer is that I’m not completely sure, but I feel instinctively that there must be differences, which in turn must impact on the experience of reading. But I was worried that this instinct is more to do with the book historians I’ve been reading – for whom the importance of the reader is a pre-requisite – than anything that could be demonstrated empirically. So here are a few thoughts about how those differences might actually have a practical impact on reception.

One is colour. A bit obvious, perhaps, but microfilm often only reproduces texts in black and white. This is certainly the case with the Thomason Tracts, and in turn EEBO reproduces the microfilm edition of them so retains this monochrome reproduction. This can potentially blur the subtleties of early modern printing. Here for example are two images of the title page of John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (unfortunately I couldn’t find two versions of the same copy, although they are the same edition):

Eikonoklastes monoEikonoklastes colour

The notes page on EEBO does say that the title page is in red and black, and if you look closely you can distinguish in places where it must have been red. But it’s still very unclear. Why does this matter? One reason is in helping to distinguish between the impact of author and printer on the finished text. Was it the printer Matthew Simmons, or the author Milton, who decided to use red ink – which would have complicated the printing process significantly? Another reason is in thinking about the impact the text had on its readers. How would they have read the title page? Does it matter that the Greek letters are printed in a different colour, given that many readers would not have understood them? Does it matter that “Published by Authority” is in red, given the severe Licensing Act that the Rump Parliament had passed the month before publication had re-introduced pre-publication censorship. To answer these questions properly, you really need to look at the original edition.

Another is environment. The original Thomason Tracts have to be read in the British Library. Typically the microfilm version would also have to be read in a university library, unless you could persuade the librarian to run off copies. This imposes certain physical conditions, such as near-silence, the presence of other scholars, and the absence of other distractions. You can read EEBO at home in your dressing gown. I certainly work differently in libraries when I know I’m probably going to be there for most of the day, compared to at home where I might be snatching half an hour to have a look at something. Looking at EEBO, you also have the rest of the internet to distract you. You can imagine spotting things in one state that you might not in the other. One silly example of mine is searching late at night for something and forgetting that EEBO’s search engine doesn’t automatically include AND for strings of words. Two weeks later when I tried again at a more sensible hour I found what I was looking for. On the other hand, being able to read EEBO outside library hours does increase the time you have available to work on it. For time-limited projects like dissertations, this can make a big difference to the amount of texts you are able to read or the amount of analysis you are able to devote to a text.

A third is searchability. Apart from wider short-title catalogues, the Thomason Tracts have been catalogued at least three times: once by Thomason himself, secondly by G.K. Fortescue in a two volume edition published in 1908, and thirdly by the UMI microfilm edition. Before EEBO, you were reliant on these indexes, compiled by someone else with limited search variables, to find what you were looking for. Now you can search not just for author and title but also for subjects and keywords. Fortescue also altered Thomason’s cataloguing order and sometimes gives his own dates. In turn Thomason’s dates are more idiosyncratic than used to be thought, and don’t necessarily mean the day the pamphlet was actually published. The UMI catalogue then restored Thomason’s cataloguing. Using EEBO lets you search by Thomason’s ordering, but also by your own. Inevitably this gives you much more freedom to navigate the collection and find new things. Particularly powerful is the gradual conversion to free text that EEBO are making of early modern pamphlets. This in particular is still a greatly untapped feature when it comes to identifying links between texts, making authorial attributions, and so on. But while such freedom has its benefits – making connections that would perhaps not have been possible otherwise – it can also have its drawbacks in terms of making mistaken connections, as the story about William Lilly in the latest edition of Early Modern Literary Studies makes clear.

There is also the fact that pamphlets are three-dimensional objects made of particular materials. Again it is almost banal to point it out, but microfilm and EEBO reproduce these objects in two dimensions. Here is a title page from the royalist newsbook Mercurius Elencticus, singled out by Jason McElligott in his study of the later royalist newsbooks as an example of one printed on particularly thin paper:


You can partly deduce this from the digital version by the fact that print from the other side of the page has leached through, but you can’t get any real sense of comparison with other issues or other titles. Again, why does this matter? Partly because paper quality can tell us something about the cost of the title – how much the printer was prepared to invest in it, how much it sold for – and something about the audience – who could afford it. But in the royalist newsbooks’ case it also relates to the fact that they were produced underground in opposition to a strident Parliamentarian censorship regime, with limited access to raw materials, and printers had to make do with what they could.

Then there is the issue of resolution. All three types of media are ultimately viewed with the naked eye, but there are various ways they are mediated before we see them. Original pamphlets can be zoomed in on with a magnifying glass. Microfilm and EEBO versions can be zoomed in on mechanically or digitally. The resolution at which EEBO reproduces pamphlets could be an issue here – they can get slightly pixellated if you are looking at them at a particularly high level of zoom. On the other hand, it’s much easier to zoom on a computer than it is by hand. A ractical example of this is a pamphlet called The Perfect Politician about Oliver Cromwell, by a pseudonymous author. In his 1990 essay on Cromwell’s contemporaries, John Morrill identifies this as being by L.S.


It certainly does look like L.S. When you zoom in, though, it seems clear that it is probably by I.S and that L.S. is a misreading because of the full stop merging into the I.


The pamphlet is probably by John [Iohn] Streater, a radical and veteran of the New Model Army. Knowing this puts the pamphlet in a very different context. So the ease with which type can be examined through EEBO – despite issues with resolution – may well have an important role in bibliographic analysis of texts that have otherwise been well-examined.

These are some initial thoughts about the differences between original sources, microfilm and digital reproductions. I’m sure you’ll have more – what do you think? But in closing it occurs to me that all three have an important similarity. One thing that original pamphlet, microfilm and EEBO all have in common is a relatively static bibliographical apparatus. They all still draw on Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue  of Books Printed  in England, Scotland,  Ireland, Wales  and  British  America  and  of  English Books  Printed  in  Other  Countries  1641-1700. Some of the attributions in Wing can be dubious. The Perfect Politician is a good example of this. Here is what the information page in EEBO says:

Attributed to Henry Fletcher by Wing.
Sometimes attributed to William Raybould.

A quick look at the title page makes it obvious that Fletcher and Raybould are the booksellers, not the authors.

Perfect Politician

This misattribution is fairly easily sorted out. However there are others where it’s not so clear, or where recent scholarship has moved beyond Wing but EEBO doesn’t reference this. For me a great improvement to EEBO would be to give users the ability to set up an account with a real-life identity and let them annotate texts. You would know which scholars were working on something of interest to you; you would be able to flag where you disagreed with an attribution, giving reasons; and you could contact the person who’d made an annotation to ask them about any attributions you were unsure of. Until bibliographical catalogues go properly digital, there will remain this odd juxtaposition between digital texts and analogue descriptions.

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:

Because non else would

In the early 1640s, the bookseller George Thomason started collecting the growing numbers of pamphlets being published in London. Like any serious collector, he imposed order on his collection, annotating the front of pamphlets with the day he acquired them. But occasionally, you also find other marginalia, like on the title page of this printed sermon (the capital for which was presumably paid for by the author):

From Thomas Cheshire, A sermon preached at Saint Peters Westminster on Saint Peter’s Day (London, 1642).