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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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Chapter 2



In the King’s Bench case of Netlingham versus Ode (1578), the allegation of slander was brought against one Ralph Ode, whom William Netlingham claimed had uttered the following words: ‘If there ever were any witch, thou (speaking to the aforesaid William the plaintiff) art one.’1 It is further alleged that ‘by reason of the utterance and recitation of which words not only is the aforesaid William Netlingham grievously injured and harmed in his good estate and name, in his dealings to which he was accustomed, and in the company which he had with honest persons and subjects of the said lady the present queen, but also the same William has been compelled and coerced to lay out and spend divers sums of money for clearing himself in the matter … and therein he produces suit.’

It is a case in which parallels with Stubbs’ accusations of sorcery against the Queen’s counsellors and allies can certainly be drawn. According to custom, the previous good character of William Netlingham is established in a prolix defence which renders him ‘a good, true, faithful and honest liegeman and subject of the lady the present queen,’ in addition to being

of good name, fame, conversation and condition, and [he] has been held, spoken of, named, reputed and taken of such estate and bearing both among many magnates and all other subjects and liegemen as well of the said lady the present queen … from the time of his birth to the present,...

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