Censorship and freedom of the press in England: a quick history

Let’s talk about freedom of the press in England.

Why not in Britain? Because we’ll start before Britain became a country and because English law doesn’t apply to all of Britain. It’s enough to make a non-Briton dizzy. Don’t think about it and you’ll be fine.

We’ll start in 1403, before the printing press was brought to England. Before, in fact, it was invented. That’s when the Guild of Stationers was recognized by London, and it’s an important part of the story, so stay with me. The guild’s members were text writers, book illuminators, booksellers, bookbinders, and suppliers of parchment, pens, and paper. Just to confuse things it’s also called the Stationers’ Company.

They were called stationers because they set up stations–what we’d be more likely to call stalls–around St. Paul’s Cathedral. So there’s one mystery solved. 

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, getting ready to bloom.

Then the printing press came to England and printers joined the guild. 

Printing was the hot technology of the day, so what would any sensible government do but restrict it? When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English–both Henry VIII and England were still Catholic at this point–he played hide and seek with government agents in print shops all across Europe, where he’d fled. Copies of his translation were printed in Germany and smuggled into England.

In England, though, printing could be done only by English citizens, and anything that was going to be printed had to be approved by the privy council. 

Eventually Mary Tudor became the queen and the Guild of Stationers got a royal charter. That gave them a monopoly on printing, so members didn’t face competition from outside the guild. They could only have seen that as a good thing. They also had to settle disagreements over who owned what works within the group, and that led to the invention of copyright. 

We won’t go down that rabbithole today. 

The royal charter also meant that the guild had the power–and presumably the responsibility–to search out seditious and heretical books. Or, as its preamble puts it, “seditious and heretical books rhymes and treatises [that] are daily published and printed by divers scandalous malicious schismatical and heretical persons”.

The heresy du jour  was Protestantism, but after Mary died the heresy du jour was Catholicism, along with more Protestant forms of Protestantism than the approved form of Protestantism. 

So the content of sedition and heresy changed but the concept itself didn’t. 

Isn’t the world a strange place?

In their search for heresy etc., the stationers had to power search, seize, and destroy

Didn’t they get to have all the fun? 

This wasn’t exactly state censorship. It was censorship by a body chartered by the state but working in response to its own interests. I’m speculating here, but you might have been safe enough printing heretical pamphlets on the quiet if you kept on the good side of the guild’s more powerful members. And you might have found some surprising pamphlets stashed in a quiet corner of your workshop if you pissed off the wrong person.

We won’t slog through the period Tudor by Tudor. Let’s just acknowledge that each of them had an interest in stamping out sedition and heresy, in all its alternating forms. Freedom of the press was the next-door neighbor of sedition and would’ve been a dangerous concept to defend in public. If you had nothing to hide, you wouldn’t have any problem showing it to the privy council. 

During the Civil War and under the Commonwealth–that brief period when England was a republic–religious and political thinking went in directions no one could have predicted and no one could control, and print, being the social media of the day, was what all that intellectual ferment poured itself into. 

Given that this was during and just after a civil war, if you’d wanted to argue that freedom of the press and anarchy went together, you’d have found a good stack of evidence for your argument.

Then Cromwell died and Charles II took the throne, and he needed to put all that debate and argument and printing back in the box. The government passed the Licensing Act of 1662. Anything printed now had to carry the name of its printer and its author, and it had to be submitted to a licenser–that was a government official–before it could be printed. 

The licenser kept a copy to check against the printed version, just in case some sly devil inserted a disparaging paragraph about the size of Charles’s wig.

If the text was approved, then it had to be registered with–they’re back again–the stationers. 

The act was meant to be temporary–a placeholder until something better could be pieced together–so it came with an end date, but when nothing better appeared it was renewed. Until 1679, when everyone important got into a tizzy because of Titus Oates’ fantasies about a popish plot, and the act lapsed.

Newspapers moved into the empty space where censorship had once been.

Six years later, the act was reinstated, but the fun had gone out of it, somehow. Licensing print didn’t have the appeal it had once had. It had grown a pot belly and a chicken neck, some mornings it didn’t bother to shave, and heads didn’t turn anymore when it walked down the street. 

But guess what: The government found it could still punish treason, seditious libel, and blasphemy, and it could keep the press in line pretty well that way. And it was all so much more efficient.

A Jacobite printer was executed to prove the point. 

The threat of prosecution was enough to keep most publishers well back from the political edges. And those didn’t stay back? Some were fined. Some were jailed. Some fled abroad. Most played nice.

Before long, London had multiple newspapers and towns around the country had their own papers. The newspaper had become an integral part of the political landscape and that’s glorious but a lot less interesting.

English defamation law has worked at times to limit freedom of the press, since it puts the burden of proof on the defendant, not the plaintiff. In other words, if someone wants to shut you up, unless you have enough money and sheer cussed energy to defend yourself in court, you might just consider shutting up. 

And there are specified limits on freedom of expression. They include making threats, harassment, glorifying terrorism, incitement to racial hatred, or–oh, hell–calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Or imagining overthrowing the monarchy.

That last one carries a life sentence, although the law hasn’t been enforced since 1879. The Guardian challenged it in court and lost on the grounds that the law was a relic of a bygone age and that any change was unnecessary.  

And with that, we’ve come to the present day, so let’s check in with the Stationers’ Company and see what they’ve become now that they can’t stamp out heresy and search other people’s premises. The organization says it has almost a thousand members and sounds deeply snoozeworthy. Most members are “senior executives in the complete range of trades within the Communications and Content industries.” That’s so dull I had to copy it and paste it into place. I tried typing the words but kept passing out.

One of the group’s goals is to create a broad balance of membership. Toward what end? Why, so it can maintain balance, of course. In its membership. 

Listen, don’t ask me these things. They have a hall. You can rent it if the pandemic ever ends.

43 thoughts on “Censorship and freedom of the press in England: a quick history

    • Interesting comment. My response depends on what we mean by evil deeds. If a person’s harming another person, then I’m very much in favor of the right to film. Think about the death of George Floyd, which would never have been known or believed if it hadn’t been filmed. On the other hand, if we’re talking about private acts that harm no one but that some people may consider evil, then it’s a whole different discussion. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Journalists absolutely do criticize the government. There are a few limitations that I’m aware of: One is the threat of libel and slander lawsuits, which can be devastating. Britain is considered a world libel lawsuit capital, and that can be devastating for a smaller publisher or writer. Another–and I’m not sure of the law behind this–came up when the Snowden stories broke in the press. The government insisted that the Guardian, which had published them, destroy the computer housing his files, even though the files had been shared to computers elsewhere in the world. It was an empty gesture, but they did it, including, if I remember correctly, drilling into the disk that held the memory. And a third limitation affects only the BBC, which is government funded and should be neutral, but recent governments have leaned on it heavily for critical–and honest–coverage.

      You’re right to ask. I should’ve brought the post up to the present but I was a little further out of my depth than usual, so I dodged.


        • I checked exactly what’s the European Convention on Human Rights has to say about it (through our Human Rights Act, this is as near as we get to a legal definition). It isn’t as absolute as in the US Constitution, but writes in the the sort of exceptions and modifications that, as I understand it, have arisen in the US through Supreme Court decisions:

          “1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right
          shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart
          information and ideas without interference by public authority
          and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States
          from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema
          2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it
          duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities,
          conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and
          are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national
          security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention
          of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for
          the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing
          the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for
          maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

          National security and the Official Secrets Act turn up, from time to time, contested issues, as in the Snowden/Guardian business (and, if you’re really interested, the Clive Ponting and Katherine Gunn cases). There used to be a system where the government could issue what was called a “D-notice” to the media, basically telling them that this or that topic were really off-limits as a national security issue, but now I think any interference comes after the event.

          And, as you say, the way the libel laws work can have a chilling and self-censorship effect unless you’re really willing to go to a lot of expense and trouble – but that cuts both ways, as when an ordinary person finds their reputation trashed by one of the more deep-pocketed tabloids.

          Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah. When publishing consisted of someone with a quill pen, it would’ve been solved a problem nobody could’ve imagined. It would be worth tracing its evolution from there, because I’m pretty sure the story has a few more twists and turns before it becomes what we know as copyright. It’s on my list of things to read up on, but then so are any number of things I never seem to get to.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Another great read, thank you. I am still reeling from the the court ruling that deemed changes to relics of bygone ages are unnecessary……maybe we should go back to Stone Age Law, if such a thing existed. Or maybe we have never progressed beyond it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a little hard to get your–or my–head around that. I think, although I can’t swear to this, that every so often someone or other goes through the statutes and clears out the strangest and most out of date. The kind that publisher love to compile and issue as one-of-a-kind booklets. I seem to remember that it’s illegal to cross a street in Wisconsin with a duck on your head, but I never did confirm that with any reputable source. I mean, where would you start?

      Okay, I started in the obvious place, with Lord Google, who tells me it’s illegal to cross the Minnesota border into Wisconsin with a duck on your head. This bears looking into.

      Where were we and how did we get here? I have no idea, but thank you for giving me a shove in this direction. My addled mind is fizzing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The City of London guilds (“livery companies”) are a hangover from mediaeval days, working nowadays as one of those many forms of in-crowd networking (complete with arcane semi-public customs and rituals), though which people in some form of association with the relevant trade or business can, if they’re so minded, get themselves into positions of influence through the City of London Corporation (local government of the key business/finance district in London) or elsewhere, but also engage in various forms of charitable and good cause work. Some have real power over trade education and qualifications in their field (e.g., off the top of my head, the Goldsmiths and the Watermen, but no doubt others as well), and most will be in some sort of sponsorship of educational organisations. I doubt if the Stationers’ Company has much regulatory power nowadays, though.

    The livery companies are on full display at the Lord Mayor’s Show procession in November (if such things will be possible by this autumn). The phrase “at sixes and sevens” comes from an old dispute between two of them as to which took which place in the procession.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I live in this country for a thousand years, I’ll never really understand it. Or believe it. Which is another way of saying that I really appreciate your contributions here.


    • Somehow I don’t think I’m what they have in mind. And if I am, I’ll change my name. And address. And as Huck Finn said (American reference; hope you’re with me here) light out for the Territories. They’ll never find me.


  3. Excellent dissertation on the subject Ellen and I’m not surprised you ducked the bring it up to date bit for there lie way way WAY too many horrors.

    Oh & thank you for the photo of St John’s Wort – I’ve never seen the plant before :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a beautiful plant, both before it blooms and when it does.

      I wasn’t so much ducking the horrors–that we need to know about. It’s just that it’s complex enough that I’m not sure of myself and I’d rather duck than get it wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is a complex subject indeed. In needing to be confident of your subject, you’re much like me. Being wrong is bad enough, but being wrong through not having done the homework – ouch!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Good post on history of censorship. Interesting how what us allowed can change so fast.

    Over here there is an ongoing squabble over free speech. Riots on college campuses (or campii, I never took latin). People who are woke against people who are not woke. If you are not woke you are not allowed.

    Don’t see any consensus in sight, and if there was one, it would not last long. So dissenter would come along with new ideas and another revolution would take place. I think we are now in a war over here now. Don’t see any peace in our time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Censorship and freedom of the press in England: a quick history — Notes from the U.K. – Truth Troubles

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