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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 13

CHAPTER 13

Extract

Defamation (the legal term especially associated with slanderous speech and writing in the Church courts) remained a staple in the various ecclesiastical courts of England throughout the Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. Like the royal and common law courts, the ecclesiastical courts comprised a hierarchical network of jurisdictions, from the Archdeaconry courts (which dealt primarily with local matters) to the Bishops’ or Consistory courts (which encompassed the Bishops’ dioceses and could be subdivided into smaller, Commissary courts) and the prerogative courts of the English Archbishops. Symbolising the link between sovereign and church was also the inquisitorial court of High Commission (a by-product of the Reformation), convened at the will of the sovereign and possessing significant power over both civil and religious matters. In sum, the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts extended to, as Ingram suggests, ‘some of the most intimate aspects of the personal life of the population as a whole.’1

Dealing with a range of moral offences from adultery, heresy, prostitution, recusancy and, of course, defamation, the role of the Church courts (the most active Archdeaconry and Consistory courts bearing the unenviable appellation, ‘the Bawdy Courts’) in the post-Reformation period was one of contestation. Radical proposals to strip the Church of all jurisdiction over defamation, in particular, were debated in sixteenth-century legal tracts and it was only after the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) that the remit of the Anglican Church courts stabilised (although attacks continued from the common lawyers who plied their trade in a rival concern).2...

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