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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 15



Whilst slanderous and seditious Catholic texts proved to be a perennial source of trouble for the High Commission and Privy Council, matters were certainly not helped by growing intolerance of the Settlement established in 1559. In turn, the establishment was forced to turn the arsenal of state not only on the threat from the Papacy, but on that posed by its own non-conformist subjects. Just as Edmund Tilney’s accession to the role of Master of the Revels represented a general shift towards a more active Revels Office, the investiture of John Whitgift as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583 (following the tenures of Parker and Grindal, respectively) heralded an increased lack of tolerance towards the ever more querulous voices of reformist dissidents. Having clipped the wings of popular Puritan churchman Thomas Cartwright prior to his accession to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, Whitgift was no stranger to the methods by which Protestant divines loyal to the established Church could best serve the state by responding to Puritan appeals through official and unofficial channels. Indeed, he had gained first-hand experience during the Puritans’ earliest attempts to subvert the Anglican Church’s authority.

1572’s Admonition to the Parliament (likely authored by London clergymen John Field and Thomas Wilcox) marked the first of several coordinated Puritan ‘manifestos,’ in which the perceived faults in Elizabethan Church doctrine and practice were laid down and widely circulated.1 Described by Patrick Collinson as a ‘public polemic in the guise of an address to parliament,’ the Admonition...

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