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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 4



Of course, as the opportunity for subjects to air private grievances and seek financial redress for civil disputes was reserved for the secular courts, it is unsurprising that civil cases fought between subjects of the lower and middle classes dominate the plea rolls of the Common Pleas and King’s Bench. Conversely, the powerful court of Star Chamber had, by the reign of Elizabeth, become an exclusively criminal court and, provided the Grand Jury were willing to indict defendants, focused its attentions on punishing or protecting the interests of high-ranking individuals involved in (often politically sensitive) criminal cases. In terms of slander, this proved problematic, as prior to the birth of the crime of seditious libel, jurists in the criminal court of Star Chamber were placed in the invidious position of having to cobble together existing civil libel law (which, as we have seen, proscribed slanderous speech and did not tolerate slanderous writing, but was focused on financial recompense) and statutory laws (such as felony statutes, Scandalum Magnatum, and treason laws) to punish offenders as criminals – a task that was probably made easier by the fact that felony trials admitted no counsel for the defence.

So named for the gilded stars which decorated the ceiling of the chamber in which the court sat, its jurisdiction was, strictly speaking, available to anyone who wished to bring criminal activity to the attention of the Crown (although the costs of attempting to sue in the Star Chamber were both prohibitive for those...

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