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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 5

CHAPTER 5

Extract

Despite the various attempts of the government to quell the tide of slanderous and seditious speech, the Queen’s Attorney was to note in the penultimate year of Elizabeth’s reign that ‘[libel] is a growing vice, and there are more infamous libels within a few days than ever there were in the ages last past.’1 Certainly, the Star Chamber of the Jacobean period was to continue to be inundated with suits against slanderers and writers of seditious material. Addressing the jurisdiction of the court, Adam Fox has recognised the varied types of slanderous activity there punished – from ‘derogatory songs or verses to derisive letters, pictures or objects with some scandalous imputation or false allegations made before another authority against an individual or group.’2 Despite increasingly stringent measures and a pragmatic and expedient attitude towards punishing malfeasants, slander continued to flourish throughout the early modern period. However, the Elizabethan age represents an enormously important era in the development of the legal status of, and legal attempts to discourage and punish, slander. In particular, the decisions and precedents set down in the Star Chamber when dealing with spoken, scribally produced, and printed material were to have repercussions on the legal treatment of defamation as exercised throughout the early modern period. The legacy of the Elizabethan Star Chamber has particular resonance in the period immediately following the Queen’s death, and of especial interest to any study of the reputation which slanderous manuscripts had acquired by the close of the Elizabethan age is the 1605...

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