A pamphlet is a short piece of polemical writing, printed in the form of a booklet and aimed at a large public. The character of a pamphlet is oppositional, its contents more often than not politically subversive. Pamphlets are circulated for their impact upon public opinion. The English word pamphlet entered the vernacular in the fifteenth century. Early printers used black-letter (or Gothic) type for news pamphlets, a typeface generally reserved for ballads, proclamations, and other publications intended for a wide audience. Pamphlet writing rose in importance with the growth of the letterpress. Pamphleteering thrives in an atmosphere of controversy. During the mid-seventeenth century French Fronde more than 5,000 political pamphlets appeared (called ‘mazarinades’ after their usual subject, Cardinal Mazarin). One legacy of the French Revolution is a substantial body of pamphlet literature. The most effective political pamphlet ever produced was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776). This passionate plea for American independence sold 100,000 copies within a period of three months. Until the emergence of the mass media, the pamphlet remained an important vehicle for shaping public opinion and expressing political dissent. In the history of censorship, it was the pamphleteers who suffered the most vicious attacks on both work and body.
Queen Elizabeth never married. Until bearing a child became impossible, she considered several suitors. Her last courtship, ending in 1581 at the age of forty-eight, was with François, Duke of Anjou, who was her junior by twenty-two years. In August 1579, Cambridge-educated Puritan pamphleteer John Stubbe wrote The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf whereunto England is like to be swallowed by another French Marriage, in which he objected to Elizabeth’s proposed marriage with Anjou. He argued that it was against God’s law for a Protestant to marry a Catholic. Moreover, English values, customs and morality would be undermined by mixing with the French. National identity is a serious matter – then and now. The book was printed by Hugh Singleton. Elizabeth was incensed by the publication and a proclamation was issued prohibiting its circulation. Copies of the pamphlet were publicly burned. On 13 October 1579, writer and publisher were arrested. Elizabeth wanted to hang them both by Royal prerogative, but agreed instead to their trial for felony. The jury refused to convict. The accused were charged with conspiring to excite sedition. They were sentenced to have their right hands cut off, though it appears that Singleton was pardoned because of old age. The sentence was carried out at the market place in Westminster. It took three blows to chop off Stubbe’s hand. Surgeons were present to prevent him bleeding to death. He subsequently signed his name ‘John Stubbe, scaeva’ – the left-handed.
Why were punishments so severe for pamphleteers who responded critically to public or political affairs? The authorities lived in fear of the ‘lethal power’ of the printing press. Writing rebellious pamphlets was a criminal act to be punished by public humiliation and physical marking. The aim of punishment in general was to set a disturbing example to others to restrain from criminal or subversive activity. The legal spectacle was designed to shock and prevent. The law was about impact. Early descriptions of hell gave precise descriptions of punishments for specific sins. These were detailed catalogues of crime and its consequences. Temporal and ecclesiastical courts followed a similar line of proceedings. Every potential criminal knew exactly what to expect if he/she was caught. Punishment was a public affair. It was a spectacle, a drama, attended by large crowds who were there to witness that justice had been done. To the pamphleteer, writing controversial documents was a serious and dangerous undertaking. It did not stop authors from expressing their criticism or concern in print. Far from it. The seventeenth century was the age of the pamphlet. London was the centre of printing activity. There, during the time when censorship laws were enforced, twenty formally licensed printers were the only authorized publishers. Of course, there were far more than just twenty printers at work. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the capital housed several hundred unlicensed printing presses, and by the middle of the century, printing facilities were to found in a range of locations outside London. However, the cost of printing remained relatively high. It was not until the 1620s that less expensive type-face technologies reduced the cost of production. This coincided with the revolutionary unrest that would lead to the Civil War. The printing press played a significant role in the outbreak of armed conflict.
The most direct form of expression was the pamphlet. Once printed, a pamphlet would be sold on street corners and in coffeehouses. Pamphlets could easily be transported to more distant locations. The ever increasing level of literacy allowed the messages of printed pamphlets to spread to all corners of the country. It became impossible to maintain the rigid censorship of old. Regulations dating from the sixteenth century required that every prospective publication must be licensed by a censor and then recorded in the Stationer’s register. After 1637 printed materials had to include the name of the person who authorized the publication. Enforcement of these laws went under the jurisdiction of the Star Chamber (a Soviet sounding name if ever there was one) which sat at the Palace of Westminster. The court was set up to ensure the enforcement of laws against prominent or wealthy people who otherwise may escape justice. Court sessions were held in secret and evidence was presented in writing. There was no right of appeal, there were no juries. The court could punish offenders with fines, imprisonment, or corporal mutilation. King Charles I used the Court of Star Chamber as a political tool during the eleven years when he ruled without a Parliament. The Chamber became notorious for judgments favourable to himself and to Archbishop Laud. Their Puritan critics were treated brutally. In his campaign for church uniformity, Laud dismissed nonconformist ministers and suppressed Puritan preachers.
In November 1630, Alexander Leighton was brought before Star Chamber for circulating a petition that demanded the abolition of episcopacy. He was sentenced to be flogged, mutilated and imprisoned for life. Leighton was the first of many Puritans to be punished for their beliefs during the 1630s. In June 1637, lawyer William Prynne, clergyman Henry Burton and physician John Bastwick were prosecuted by the Chamber for publishing pamphlets that criticized Laudian doctrines. All three were sentenced to be stood in the pillory. The letter S and L were branded on William Prynne’s cheeks (Seditious Libeller: he would later say that the letters stood for ‘Stigma of Laud’). So large was the crowd which flocked to see William Prynne branded that Sir Kenelm Digby complained that even the appearance of royalty would bring out fewer people. The Chamber also ordered the physical mutilation of Burton and Bastwick. They had their ears cut off. An account of the execution has been left by John Rushworth, Oliver Cromwell’s personal secretary: ‘The executioner cut off [Burton’s] ears deep and close, in a cruel manner, with much effusion of blood, an artery being cut, as there was likewise of Dr Bastwick. Then Mr Prynne’s cheeks were seared with an iron made exceeding hot which done, the executioner cut off one of his ears and a piece of his cheek with it; then hacking the other ear almost off, he left it hanging and went down; but being called up again he cut it quite off’.
The punishments became the focus for popular demonstrations against Laud and made Prynne, Burton and Bastwick into Puritan martyrs. The practices of censorship and punishment became hotly debated issues. Early in 1641 Parliament decided to dissolve the Star Chamber. From that point until the Royalist regained control over the press in August of 1642, England witnessed a participation in national politics as never seen before. The statistics are staggering. The British Library holds the so-called Thomason Tracts, one of the most important sources relating to the English Civil War. These are a vast collection of printed pamphlets, books, and newspapers, printed in London between 1640 and 1661, originally brought together by bookseller George Thomason. An analysis preserved in the collection shows that although only twenty-two pamphlets were published in 1640, more than 1,000 were issued in each of the succeeding four years. Once censorship was abolished, fear of repression and mutilation disappeared, and all brakes were taken off. The age expressed itself in a flood of hostile pamphlets and an unprecedented violence of words. In contemporary terms, the pamphlet was a petrol bomb of controversy.