Slander and Sedition in Elizabethan Law, Speech, and Writing

by Steven Veerapen (Author)
©2020 Monographs VI, 330 Pages


The Elizabethan era is generally understood to coincide with the blossoming of English language – it was the age of Shakespeare, Sidney, and Marlowe. Yet it is known also as a period of brutality and repression: saying or writing anything against the state, the queen, or its governors might result in hanging, fines, or the loss of limbs. Defaming neighbours could and frequently did result in a day in court, with slander emerging as a byword for unacceptable speech and writing.
Academic interest has long been divided into studies which focus on the power relations underpinning literary production, the ways in which authorities sought to suppress and censor transgressive material, or the role slander played in religious polemic. This book will explore the legal backdrop which helped and hindered the production and curtailment of slanderous and seditious material across multiple sites. In so doing, it will seek to uncover exactly how slander and sedition were defined, regulated, punished, and, ultimately, negotiated by those who grappled over control of discourse.
Through examination of the legal, theatrical, and religious conditions of the age of Elizabeth, this study will provide an explanation of the rise of the flagrantly slanderous political discourses of the seventeenth century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Slander, Sedition and Libel: An Elizabethan Cerberus
  • Part I Slander in the Elizabethan Courts
  • Chapter 1
  • Elizabethan Slander and Sedition in Law and the Law Courts
  • Chapter 2
  • Slander in the Secular Courts
  • Chapter 3
  • A Flood Tide of Litigation?
  • Chapter 4
  • Slander in the Court of Star Chamber
  • Chapter 5
  • After Elizabeth: Slander in the Early Jacobean Star Chamber
  • Chapter 6
  • Conclusions on the Courts: Clarity or Confusion?
  • Part II Slander and Sedition in Elizabethan Drama
  • Chapter 7
  • Slander and Sedition in Elizabethan Dramatic Performance
  • Chapter 8
  • Staging Slander in the Inns of Court
  • Chapter 9
  • The Politics of Publication and Performance in Closet Drama
  • Chapter 10
  • The Commercial Stage
  • Chapter 11
  • Mastering Language
  • Part III Slander and Sedition in the Elizabethan Church
  • Chapter 12
  • Slander and Sedition in the Elizabethan Church
  • Chapter 13
  • Defamation in the Ecclesiastical Courts
  • Chapter 14
  • The High Commission and the Catholic Threat
  • Chapter 15
  • The Problem of Non-conformity
  • Chapter 16
  • Martin Marprelate and the Slanderous Press
  • Chapter 17
  • The Crises of Church Control
  • Conclusion
  • The Stuart Verse Libel: Years in the Making
  • Bibliography
  • Index



Slander, Sedition and Libel: An Elizabethan Cerberus

In 1640, an illegal, handwritten poem which boldly proclaimed itself ‘A Libell upon William Lord, Archbishop of Canterbury, in Parliament-time’ was produced and circulated in manuscript.1 The fact that the anonymous poet was unashamed in his recognition of his work as libellous is worthy of consideration, as Kevin Sharpe notes the ‘multiple negative associations’ of what remains a pejorative term.2 What might have prompted a poet to associate his work with the much-criticised practice of defamation? The scene – literate readers passing handwritten verses full of vituperative comments about a dead political figure – calls to mind images of Ancient Romans gathered in shadowed corners on the Palatine Hill doing much the same, as much as it anticipates sniggering Georgians sharing satirical drawings. It is probably due to the former association that so much has been written on the verse libel’s classical antecedents. It has been well recognised, certainly, in the work of David Colclough, who traces the history of poetic means of ‘dispraise.’3 More recently, the Early Stuart Libels website has opened up study of seventeenth-century libellous verses by providing an online database of surviving verses along with excellent commentaries.4

←1 | 2→

This form of attack was not suddenly born – or reborn – in the Stuart period, despite the seventeenth century witnessing its most celebrated examples. Indeed, Steven W. May’s edited collection of fifty-two sixteenth-century verse libels with accompanying scholarly commentary provides a glimpse into earlier uses of the genre. In examining the earlier period, it becomes obvious that libelling was a lively if subversive pastime. As Alan Bryson puts it,

the scurrilous, sometimes seditious, nature of verse libel made it immensely popular in Elizabethan England, although, while also restricting it mainly to manuscript circulation. Few examples found their way into print, rendering the genre largely invisible until today. Despite this, verse libel was one of the most pervasive forms of the period, nurtured with imagination and verve by a broad range of poets. Poems were passed – and not necessarily secretively – from one person to the next, they were cast into pulpits and public places, scattered about the streets, posted on walls. Some were even sung to popular tunes, the better to humiliate their victims while also introducing the genre to the illiterate (and thus broadening the public debate contained within them beyond the elite). Libellous verse was part of everyday life decades before scholars have thought; its impact largely unknown today.5

Here we have a vivid picture of the living libel – a word which having meant ‘little book’ had come to mean written attack – playing a role in sixteenth-century public discourse. The historical record attests to this, replete as it is with notorious cases such as that of the Dutch libel fixed upon a church wall in 1593, which drew on Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and appropriated policy by telling immigrants to go home and threatening riots if they did not; the libellous writings which appeared daubed on Robert Cecil’s home in London, calling him a toad; and, even earlier, the 1561 libellous writings thrown in the streets at Westchester following the fire at St Paul’s cathedral.6 Crucially, in these cases, the texts did not declare themselves ‘libels’: the state did that with the aim of condemning them. But then, ‘the state’ was itself in a process of formation, with overlapping jurisdictions, personal and idiosyncratic government in various areas, and ←2 | 3→a legal system which, based as it was on precedent, was continually being written. Further, defamatory words were not only sung to popular tunes but, once those tunes had acquired scurrility via association, their apparently innocuous original versions could be sung and retain dangerous traces of malicious intent.7 Despite their illegality, it is clear that written invectives played a role in public life, albeit one that authorities would like to see snuffed out, throughout the sixteenth century. But why?

The conventional answer lies in the name we have given the period: the renaissance. In this heady era, classical texts, writers, and modes of expression were reborn and, in England as across Europe, educated people rushed to adopt them. Hence Clare Bucknell notes that

satiric poetry has existed in some form since the Ancient Greek period, but the Romans were the first to categorize it as a genre in its own right. The 1st-century rhetorician Quintilian claimed that satire was a distinctively Roman achievement, originating in the verse satires of Lucilius and becoming progressively refined by the poets Horace, Persius, and Juvenal. From the Renaissance to the Romantic period, satirists and commentators continued to look to the classical heritage of the genre in order to provide an authoritative basis for their enterprise. Elizabethan writers on satire argued that the genre was rough, wild, and vituperative, originating in the misanthropic ‘satyr’ figure of Greek drama. This image suited the group of angry young men who wrote verse satires in English in the 1590s, modelling their attitudes on the ‘biting’ satiric rage of Juvenal and Persius.8

There are problems here. On the one hand, it is tempting to imagine that renegade classicists sought to sharpen their political claws on a genre condemned by their peers as an embarrassing vice of the writers of antiquity; on the other, it is evident that verse libels were utilised prior to the much-examined 1590s, and, further, that neither the 1590s wits nor other libellers made overt or serious attempts to bring the genre into a higher degree of repute. Libel, as a mode of expression, remained murky, often funny, eminently creative, and perpetually underground. The classical associations of the verse libel as genre were more a justification, and an admittedly sophisticated dressing up, of transgressive language than a cause.

←3 | 4→

If we are to discover why the genre exploded in the seventeenth century, it will be necessary to gain a fuller understanding of how it developed in the earlier period not just as a toy of ‘angry young men’ (often educated and aristocratic) but as a living, breathing genre which, though unashamed, never did gain absolute respectability. Throughout the early modern period, such poems continued to be traduced as ‘slanderous’ and ‘seditious’ by opponents and victims – terms which were used interchangeably with ‘libellous’ and helped those using them condemn condemnatory writings.

It will be the purpose of this study to examine the conditions which led to libellous poetry being produced in such volume, in addition to tracing the writing practices, cultural movement and resistance to official methods of censorship and regulation which resulted in the popularity of seventeenth-century libellous writing. In order to do so, it will focus not on the explosive politics of the mid-1600s, but rather the operations, failings and negotiations of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean regimes in asserting control and authority over speech and writing. What will be revealed is a state which sought to regulate language through multiple institutions, legal and religious, and yet lacked the resources and machinery to combat increasingly muscular dissidents; which faced attacks on several fronts; was riven by internal competition for jurisdiction; relied on idiosyncratic offices; and was hampered by fierce debates about whether state authorities or literary figures ought to be the masters of language. As will be seen, ‘slander’ and ‘sedition’ were terms which, though possessed of legal definitions, were apt to be used with a degree of latitude in neighbourly disputes, in religious and political debates, on the stage, and against playwrights. To understand what slander and sedition actually were, how they came to be used so loosely, and how poets could appropriate them as political tools, it will be necessary to look across the courts, the church, and the burgeoning dramatic sphere.

At the heart of this book will not only be the ways in which slander and sedition were defined and deployed as accusations by the state and its various arms (and its various manifestations), but the ways in which such accusations were negotiated and resisted. As such, different approaches to slanderous speech and writing will be considered, in addition to such defences as the justification of truth, parliamentary privilege, the rhetoric of ←4 | 5→counsel, counter-accusations of defamation, artistic satire, anonymity, the use of manuscripts and secret presses and, ultimately, the embracement of the term ‘libel’ as an artistic (and often political) written endeavour used at variance with less well-regarded (and more easily caught) forms of slanderous speech.

That the Elizabethan period coincided with a rise in cases of defamation is well recognised, with M. Lindsay Kaplan noting the increase in libels, defamatory ballads, epigrams and other forms of speech as well as the consequent linguistic and material obstacles faced by the law in its attempts to control and regulate transgressive language.9 Further, as Debora Shuger has astutely recognised, academic research has in recent years begun to critically reconsider the ways in which state power was revealed by the clashes between authoritarian, regulatory censorship, and the individual capacity for resistance.10 This trend in scholarship has repercussions for any critical study of slander: an offence which itself crossed the thresholds of tort law, criminal law, seditious libel and ecclesiastical misconduct.

At root, a slander represents a malicious imputation against an individual’s title, morals, reputation or, in early modern parlance, fame and honour. Common slanders therefore typically centred on allegations of bastardy, cuckoldry, and whoredom. The slanderer’s danger lay in his or her ability to use defamation in order to breach social hierarchies and destabilise existing, civil social orders. So it was with libel. As Hickson and Ruck recognise, modern libel denotes written defamation whilst slander refers only to the spoken word.11 In the Elizabethan period, however, the precedent-based common law courts drew only a faint line between libel and slander – a notion certainly borne out by the various contemporary proclamations which decry ‘slanderous libelling’ and forbid ‘bookes sclanderous to the state.’12 Spoken or written, harmful language was harmful. Whether they used the word ‘slander’ or ‘libel,’ to a great many Elizabethan minds, it ←5 | 6→was a pervasive and mischievous force, with ecclesiastical and common law court jurisdictions embroiled in suits aimed at punishing slanderers as malefactors or seeking religious restitution or civil damages for individuals whose reputations and honour were maligned. Few would support the circulation of slanderous material for the simple reason that if laws against it were to be relaxed, any neighbour might freely attack the reputation of another without consequence or recourse on the part of the defamed. Worth bearing in mind throughout are the triple pillars on which slander lay, any of which authorities might choose to rest cases against: intent (whether words were maliciously spoken or written); audience (did people of sufficiently good credit – or people likely to breach the peace as a result – hear or read those words?); and effect (did someone suffer or might a tumult or disorder have arisen?).

The modern distinction between slander and libel has its roots in a particular judicial body which flourished under Elizabeth – that of the prerogative court of Star Chamber, the motives of which were ‘not those of private law, or of the compensation of injury, but of criminal law.’13 In short, it was the prerogative of the Star Chamber to ‘repress [dis]order and disaffection.’ Providing legal muscle in the pursuit of certain slanders as criminal, the statute of Scandalum Magnatum – which can be traced to 1275, and provided for the punishment of those who spread defamatory rumours about important personages of the state – was re-enacted with changes in the second year of Elizabeth’s reign.14 Prior to Elizabeth’s accession, it had been reissued by Mary I, and it never lost its political associations (its perennial intent being to prevent rebellions and the spread of popular disaffection, rumour, false prophecy, and untrue stories which might provoke civil disobedience). As the common law did not outlaw slander, but rather treated it as a civil wrong, a heavy burden fell on the statute: it was often invoked to deal with those whose words attacked public figures.

←6 | 7→

That the statute was utilised during the Elizabethan period is telling, suggesting as it does a contemporary preoccupation with the dangers inherent in political dissent voiced through the slander of public figures. It is here that one finds the origins of a doctrine which was to bloom with vexatious speed in the seventeenth century – that of sedition – or words of such potentially provocative and explosive import that they might have resulted in a breach of the peace.15 Throughout the reign of Elizabeth, the severity with which one might expect to be treated for slander varied wildly depending on the nature and form of the words spoken, the target of calumny, the political climate and the region in which the words were investigated. Such variety could prove useful in exercising clemency. The blurred line between slander and sedition certainly ensured that the state, in certain cases, could charge malfeasants with slander rather than the more serious crimes of sedition or treason, thus sparing them more serious penalties – treason, especially, being the ultimate crime and carrying the ultimate penalty.16

So, in this welter of developing legal thought, political tumult, and experimental poetic expression, what exactly was slanderous, what was seditious, and how did people know? How, too, could transgressive language be reclaimed and the accusations of slanderer and libeller turned on the state? The answers lurk in various aspects of Elizabethan daily life, from its network of law courts, secular and religious, to its reformed faith, which sought to govern language whilst fending off attacks from Catholics and non-conformists, to the stage, which became a locus for exploring the power relations inherent in the use of language.

←7 | 8→

Models of Censorship

Attempts at controlling slanderous discourses, whether handwritten or printed, are inextricably linked with censorship and press control. It is therefore unsurprising to note that ‘the Star Chamber, assisted by statute, quickly assumed a strict control over all printed matter,’ rigorously punishing slanderers whose words fell under its jurisdiction on the basis that they constituted a threat to the security of the state.17 In recent years, a variety of models of censorship have been proposed by scholars, with M. Lindsay Kaplan providing a critique of the most well-known. In The Culture of Slander in Early Modern England (1997), Kaplan explores slander as a ‘model for the analysis of power relations between poet and state’; she recognises the dynamism inherent in state attempts to control slander whilst tracing the government’s own employment of slanderous activity in humiliating, defaming and discrediting its enemies. In advancing this argument, Kaplan further recognises the limitations of such influential critics as Annabel Patterson, whose Censorship and Interpretation (1984) is held to lack historical perspective.18

Similarly, Janet Clare’s Art Made Tongue Tied by Authority (1999), though recognised for its meticulous scholarship, is held to be overly speculative and presumes to suggest that the thoughts of writers were actively controlled by all-powerful state mechanisms. Richard Dutton, in his Mastering the Revels (1991), is considered to have tacitly revealed connections between the structures of defamation and censorship and it is here that Kaplan explicates a notion critical to any study of slander: that the state’s overt concern with suppressing and censoring seditious printed works (especially at times of political turbulence), is symptomatic of a wider concern with a range of transgressive and unlawful discourse. The problem here is that if we accept that the Elizabethan government deplored dangerous speech and writing, it must have been remarkably ineffective at doing anything about it. Much material seems to have reached readerships (and listeners), ←8 | 9→leaving the state to hunt down those it called slanderers after their words had got into circulation.

Naturally, given the aims and objectives of Kaplan and those she critiques, focus is placed on literary and theatrical censorship. This, unfortunately, reduces the scope of study to the relationship between poets, playwrights and the state, despite the fact that legal bills were intermittently issued which, rather than focusing on dramatic or literary work, recognised the need to curtail and, where necessary, destroy all ‘slanders against the present government of the realme in causes eyther Ecclesiasticall or Temporall’ as well as ‘against Slanderous Books and Libels.’19 The commercial stage comprised only a small, London-centric – though obviously important – part of the relationship between slanderous language and the state.

As Cyndia Clegg notes, press control in Elizabethan England hardly corresponded to the ‘overwhelming systemization’ identified by such scholars as Annabel Patterson.20 Instead, she argues, it comprised a

pragmatic response to an extraordinary variety of particular events … government enactments affecting printing, as well as practices in the printing trade, were contradictory and idiosyncratic: a crazy quilt of proclamations, patents, trade regulations, judicial decrees, and privy council and parliamentary actions patched together by the sometimes common and sometimes competing threads of religious, economic, political and private interests.

Clegg’s perception of the ways in which slanderous printed material was repressed is suggestive of a government which responded to events rather than pre-emptively sought to control them. In essence, she provides a dynamic view of press control akin to Kaplan’s understanding of literary censorship. To Shuger, the similarity is obvious, with censorship (whilst retaining the potential to be viciously repressive) ‘apt to be hijacked in all manner of directions.’21 If instances of censorship – be they of dramatic, literary, printed or religious complexion – suggest the state’s anxiety over ←9 | 10→suppressing disorder, it is also worth considering the difficulties faced by the government in dealing with a society which still retained a thriving manuscript culture.

Attempting to address the question of why calls for a free press were relatively unheard of prior to Milton’s Areopagatica (1644), Shuger has in many ways refreshed the study of censorship with a convincing new model which holds that English censorship differed significantly from the ideological war on heresy and thought common in Papal Europe. Instead, she argues, the regulation of language in Tudor England centred on the prevention of defamation and hate speech. Rather than controlling ideas, Shuger’s model posits a system which did not seek to ban ideas, but rather attempted to avoid giving official approval to unlicensed and inflammatory words. Excavating the rich, intertwined and complex Roman and common law roots of English law, it is Shuger’s ultimate contention that the English remedy for defamation and slander (as it developed in the common law) was especially derived from the Roman concept of iniuria – a concept which held that verbal attacks carried the same weight as physical assault.22 In this she is undoubtedly correct. However, she goes a little far. The implication of her model is that slanderers and libellers were roundly viewed as transgressors, with the law a protective force geared towards safeguarding reputation and righting wrongs, at least on the surface. It certainly could be. Yet it could also be a monstrous and autocratic beast with a number of legal tools at its disposal, including much-used statutory laws popular with the Tudor monarchs. Which it would use the slanderer could never be entirely sure.

Nevertheless, Shuger’s argument is not only rooted in legal history but presents an important understanding of why Elizabethans did not call for a free press (such calls being tantamount to calling for the removal of protection from verbal attack) and hence why severe repression of texts was relatively rare. As will be seen, several texts labelled ‘slanderous’ by the state, both literary and religious, escaped the authoritarian retribution inflicted on John Stubbs for his Discoverie of a Gaping Gvlf. The state, it will be seen, was more adept at refuting and answering charges of slander than ←10 | 11→it was at cracking down on dissenting voices. Further, the legal recourses to which the Elizabethan government could turn were legion. Indeed, it is probably more useful to consider the laws which were used by the state (in its various ecclesiastical and secular courts) than the courts themselves. Shuger usefully provides five main, substantive legal categories available to those charged with punishing slanderers:

I.Ecclesiastical law (spiritual defamation);

II.Civil law (the common law action on the case for words, i.e. civil defamation);

minal law (scandalous libel);

IV.Statutes (in particular, those concerning religion, treason and sedition);

V.Royal proclamations.

The first was the domain of the Church courts, which had a long history of power over defamation, and which ostensibly sought community harmony. The second was a branch of the common law: it was the province of the secular courts and focused on righting civil wrongs, basing its rulings on precedent. The third is problematic; under the precedent-based common law system, slander and libel would not be adequately addressed until 1605, when ‘seditious libel’ entered the law books. This did not mean, however, that the Tudors did not prosecute as criminals those who spoke (and wrote) words considered dangerous. Prior to 1605, the crime-focused Star Chamber did (arguably mis-)use the existing law of libel to fine and punish people whose slanderous words were held to provoke unrest, though the law itself was intended to allow redress to private individuals. This was useful in extorting fines, with the state as the injured party, but it put jurists on less secure ground in maiming and imprisoning malfeasants as criminals. More reliably, the fourth, statutory law, provided a number of legislative means of doing so. Royal proclamations followed suit, often outlawing specific texts and behaviours.

Not only were the laws against slanderous discourse divided between a hive of law courts, but they were further presided over by a vast array of officials, from judges to Masters of the Revels, High Commissioners and Privy ←11 | 12→Counsellors. Still further were they complicated by a multitude of minor rules and legal precepts which were applied with varying severity regionally and according to fluctuations in the number of cases tried throughout the period, as English law absorbed and engaged two aspects of the Roman law of defamation: mala carmina (which protected a person’s name) and mala calumnia (which aimed to protect people from false accusations which put them in danger of the courts). Shuger’s study, whilst providing a convincing and welcome new model of censorship which foregrounds slander and defamation law as pivotal is nevertheless troublesome. Though the fusing of law, literature, libels, and consensual cultural practice sheds a new light on censorship as it likely worked in practice, whilst moving away from the conjectural and extrapolated, case-specific models previously noted, it may be argued that the presentation of any ‘model’ of censorship remains constricting. Furthermore, as Joad Raymond recognises, Shuger’s ‘cultural case’ precludes a close look at the procedural.23 The two were necessarily intertwined, with cultural attempts by state bodies to answer slanderous attacks frequently following the procedures of the law courts. This we should expect. The Elizabethan law courts were well used to dealing with slander, and the path involved a tedious back-and-forth of answer, rejoinder, and surrejoinder between plaintiff and defendant. When the state itself played the plaintiff, a similar dance followed.


VI, 330
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. VI, 330 pp

Biographical notes

Steven Veerapen (Author)


Title: Slander and Sedition in Elizabethan Law, Speech, and Writing
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