Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious, and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England
John Spurr enjoys a book that examines a period when free speech could be a crime, and loose talk could cost lives
Reviewed by: John Spurr
Author: David Cressy
Publisher: John Spurr
Price (RRP): £25
Few of us speak our minds. We are constrained, whether by the weight of social convention or legal prohibition, in what we say about race, sex, religion, politics, or each other, even in our most casual or private conversations. But as historians of speech crime such as insult, defamation, obscenity or blasphemy have found, things really become interesting once the rules are broken. Although “words are but wind”, the supposedly ephemeral language of long-forgotten taunts and exclamations remains embalmed in the records of the civil, ecclesiastical and criminal courts.
Each of these pointed slanders or intemperate outbursts was the product of a unique set of circumstances and personalities and a manifestation of the social codes governing politeness, honour, sin, and deference.
So when in 1591 John Massee, a Kentish tailor, said it would never be “a merry world” until there was “a new alteration” and that “by god’s wounds, the queen is a whore”, his offence was a blasphemous ‘sin of the tongue’, an insult to Queen Elizabeth, a threat to the state, and potentially treason. No wonder he was dragged before the assizes, convicted, pilloried and “well whipped”. He was just one of hundreds of people in Tudor and Stuart England whose scandalous contempt for monarchy got them into trouble with the nervous authorities, and so into the legal records, and thence into David Cressy’s comprehensive account of seditious speech.
In this splendid catalogue of outspokenness, we hear monarchs and rulers called “harlot”, “rascal”, “rogue”, “turd”, “stuttering fool”, “google-eyed whore,” and even, in the case of poor Queen Anne, “brandy-nose bitch”. Once hauled before a JP or the Privy Council, the bold spirits who had uttered these dangerous words often lost heart and pinned the blame on strong drink, mental feebleness, or the malice of their accusers. Some – papists, puritans, even republicans – were defiantly asserting a principle: the unrepentant Henry More, a Catholic prisoner, would not shut up even in gaol, and paid the price of cropped ears, a slit nose, branding, a public whipping, and a £12,000 fine.
More was lucky compared to the Redruth surgeon who was hung, drawn and quartered for allegedly saying “King Harry, King Harry, a vengeance upon King Harry”. Cressy shows that the law was murky and that, despite a widespread reluctance to see words alone as constituting treason, there were periods – such as the ‘Henrician bloodbath’ – when seditious speech was not just dangerous but frequently fatal.
Content to let his vivid sources speak for themselves, Cressy offers only a light gloss: to him these voices represent a form of plebeian political participation, while the prevalence of dangerous talk is a gauge of a regime’s strength – an emphasis that nicely balances current attention to how early modern monarchy was ‘sold’ to the people. Direct, generous in its chronological coverage, but most detailed in its account of how Charles I lost the respect of his subjects, this engaging book opens a window into the social history of pre-modern politics.
Professor John Spurr is head of the School of Arts and Humanities, Swansea University