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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 16



The Puritan arguments against the established Church – which had their literary roots in the Admonition series of tracts and counter-tracts – were to continue throughout the 1570s and 1580s. Finally exhausting the convoluted argument and counter-argument surrounding matters of doctrine in 1587, Dean of Lincoln John Bridges’ weighty Defence of the Government Established in the Church of Englande was, in the view of Cyndia Clegg, to herald a new form of religious debate. Whilst the Puritans’ anonymous assaults on the polity of the established Church had become a familiar sight to authorities, the resultant counter-texts and accusations of slander and sedition had largely focused on the willing debating of Protestant dogma. From 1572’s Admonition to the Parliament onwards, the Anglican Church had proved a curiously responsive – if exasperated – interlocutor attempting to exercise its role as state-authorised custodian of public fame and protector of official religious policy.

By 1588, however, the plethora of theologically argued illegal and authorised texts which had passed between Puritan and conservative Protestant had reached a point of stalemate rather than continuing to advance the argument into new territory. It was small wonder that, in such a climate, a new voice – in rhetorical terms – sought to refresh the dispute. The first manifestation of this contentious and troublesome new style of argument was to appear in October of that year. Commonly entitled An Epistle, the pithy publication was pseudonymously ascribed to one Martin Marprelate: the author (or, more likely, the team of authors) who was to go...

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