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Unseemly Pictures: Graphic Satire and Politics in Early Modern England

Mark Stoyle is impressed by this decoding of printed monsters, devils, and licentious friars

Published: August 7, 2009 at 7:52 am

Reviewed by: Mark Stoyle
Author: Helen Pierce
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £35


Many-headed monsters; friars assailing maids; devils excreting soldiers; and Spanish ambassadors hatching cockatrices’ eggs. These are just a few of the bizarre and arresting images which throng the pages of Helen Pierce’s splendid new study of graphic satire in England between the accession of James I and the execution of Charles I.

In the introduction to her book, Pierce observes that previous scholars have “neglected the visual impact of political ephemera” on the early Stuart scene, and over the following pages she sets out to redress the balance: not only providing a general history of the production and reception of graphic satire in England during the first half of the 17th century, but also interrogating and deconstructing a series of particularly influential individual images along the way.

Pierce’s central argument is that the scores of vivid pictorial satires which were produced during the political upheavals of the early 1640s were by no means as innovative as has often been assumed. Instead, she shows, many of these satires had developed out of an earlier tradition of anti-Catholic imagery – one which had already become firmly established in England by the 1620s. This had developed, in its turn, out of the savage attacks which had been launched against the Catholic Church by continental illustrators and polemicists in the 16th century.

In the first part of her book, Pierce demonstrates how this “established visual vocabulary” was used by English satirists to criticise prominent figures at the royal court who were suspected of Catholic leanings before the Civil War. Next, Pierce goes on to explore how that same vocabulary was taken up and redeployed by Parliamentarian satirists during the conflict itself, in an efflorescence of graphic images that “commonly twinned Catholicism with Royalism”.

She also considers the Royalist response to this onslaught and concludes that the pictorial propaganda of the King’s supporters was “ill-defined and ill-judged in comparison”. Finally, Pierce turns to the polemical battles which raged between the ‘Independent’ and ‘Presbyterian’ factions on Parliament’s side during the immediate postwar period and suggests that – although “the term ‘popular Presbyterianism’ has [usually] been regarded as… an oxymoron” by historians – some Presbyterian activists were as ready as their opponents to make use of irreverent images in order to appeal to a wider audience.


This is a thought-provoking and beautifully illustrated book: one that will surely prompt many of its readers to return to the graphic satire of the early Stuart period with a new – and much more appreciative – eye.


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