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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 3



With the cases thus far studied dating from the 1570s, it is useful to examine suits from another decade in Elizabeth’s forty-five-year reign. To that end, one might turn to the 1580s: a decade marked by a fresh wave of political instability stemming from newfound succession crises and the perennial concern regarding the machinations of the immured Mary Queen of Scots.1 Despite its outcome being lost, the 1585 King’s Bench case of Coke versus Baxter is particularly noteworthy due to its plaintiff – the esteemed lawyer and later author of de Libellis Famosis – Edward Coke, whose suit, according to Boyer may be part of a long-running feud between his friend and patron, Nathaniel Bacon and local landowner Sir William Heydon.2 Unsurprisingly, given Coke’s familiarity with and knowledge of the law, one finds that the case follows familiar protocol, proceeding in what Tim Stretton identifies as the heavily formulaic language of pleading.3 Coke is characterised as the typically ‘good and faithful liegeman of the lady the present queen … [and] has been of good name, fame, condition, conversation, reputation and esteem … among divers venerable, honourable and eminent men.’ Reputation, however, is to become the key issue upon which Coke seeks damages and buttresses his case, as it is further established that this

learned expert in the laws of this realm … has been and still is retained with various honourable, venerable and eminent men … and many other subjects of the said lady the queen for counsel in law, and for his sound...

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