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Slander and Sedition in Elizabethan Law, Speech, and Writing

Steven Veerapen

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.

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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

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...

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