The Paper Chase: The Printer, the Spymaster and the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers 
by Joseph Hone.
Chatto, 251 pp., £18.99, November 2020, 978 1 78474 306 2
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Tomodern eyes, The Memorial of the Church of England, Humbly Offer’d to the Consideration of All True Lovers of Our Church and Constitution might look like a benign, beard-and-sandals kind of title. It wasn’t. In 1705, a memorial was a petition and there was nothing humble about this one. In 56 snarling pages, it denounced dissenters from the established Church, excoriated moderates who promoted toleration and hinted at the prospect, indeed the desirability, of popular insurrection. ‘Occasional conformity’ – a dodge enabling non-conformists to hold public office if they periodically took communion in the Anglican Church – was opening the door, the Memorial argued, to Puritan fanaticism and the levelling politics that came with it. Daniel Defoe, an able provocateur in his own right, thought the Memorial ‘Mutinous Bluster’, ‘a Malicious Seditious Book’, an ‘Invidious Trumpet of Rebellion’. Writing from the battlefields of Belgium during the War of the Spanish Succession, the Duke of Marlborough, one of the Memorial’s main targets, called it ‘the most impudent and scurrilous … thing I ever read’ and urged speedy, crushing action be taken against those responsible. Marlborough was echoing a notorious ruling by Lord Chief Justice Holt, who directed a 1704 jury that if authors ‘cou’d not be call’d to Account for possessing People with an ill Opinion of the Government, no Government cou’d subsist’.

The hunt for the perpetrators (juiced by rewards of £200 for the author and £50 for the printer) began as soon as the Memorial hit the streets in July 1705. But when proceedings reached the Old Bailey in late August, its authorship was still an unsolved mystery and the printer, though now identified, was on the run: only the text itself could be punished. With the theatricality traditional in cases of seditious print, a masked hangman was ordered to burn copies outside the courthouse, with repeat performances at the Royal Exchange and Westminster Palace Yard in the days that followed. The ‘presentment’ of the (allegedly packed) jury rivalled the virulent language of the Memorial. This was ‘a false, scandalous and traiterous libel, secretly, but industriously spread abroad, to advance and accomplish traiterous and wicked designs … and also craftily designed to reproach and scandalise [Queen Anne’s] wise and faithful ministry, divide her councils, create variances, disputes and discords in her parliament, and to raise and foment animosities, fears and jealousies amongst all her people’. A reprint was swiftly issued to replace incinerated stock, but this was seized by the authorities and further republication outlawed by proclamation. Doggerel verses entitled ‘Fire and Faggot, or the City Bonfire’ appeared attacking the jury (‘They ne’er sat bogling how to judg and try her,/But flung her instantly into the Fire’), only for the poem’s author, a hard-drinking Tory called William Pittis, to be arrested and detained. A glutton for punishment, Pittis then produced The Case of the Church of England’s Memorial Fairly Stated, which landed him with a heavy fine and two spells in the public pillory, where crowd violence could be life-threatening. Another political offender, William Fuller, lost an eye there in 1702; in 1713 the printer of the Flying Post (Defoe called it the ‘Lying Post’) was almost killed in the pillory by a mob including, it was said, men in the livery of the secretary of state Henry Bolingbroke. David Edwards, the fugitive printer of the Memorial, was wise to lie low.

It would have surprised Edwards to be told, while in hiding, that state censorship was a thing of the past, but for many years that is what historians of the period argued. In 1695 the Licensing Act (which regulated print after the Stuart Restoration) was allowed to lapse. ‘English literature was emancipated, and emancipated for ever, from the control of the government,’ Thomas Macaulay wrote in 1848. Macaulay knew very well that the Restoration licensing system was leaky and erratic in practice, and that it ended more by accident than design – or at least for reasons unrelated to freedom of expression, a concept still in its infancy. Yet the lapse was a decisive watershed and did ‘more for liberty and for civilisation than the Great Charter or the Bill of Rights’. By the time the Memorial appeared, at least nine parliamentary attempts to restore licensing had proved unsuccessful. In 1737, during the fraught last years of the Walpole ministry, a new Licensing Act was passed to suppress opposition theatre, but rumours that press licensing would be next came to nothing. Thereafter, opinion formers such as the jurist William Blackstone insisted that ‘liberty of the press, properly understood’ was now fully established, and Macaulay’s interpretation became standard wisdom in the 19th century. As late as 1979, Alan Downie could open his otherwise still quite useful book about propaganda and public opinion under Queen Anne with the cheerful observation that ‘in 1695, with the expiry of the Licensing Act, state censorship of the press ceased.’

Few historians or theorists would now ascribe the whole phenomenon of censorship to an established system of prior restraint. No early modern state had the efficiency or reach to rely entirely on this – but there were other methods for wielding power over authors and printers, suppressing particular works and constraining public discourse in general. As Cyndia Susan Clegg writes in her studies of press control under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts, censorship had always functioned via a range of regulations and mechanisms; it was a ‘crazy quilt’ of overlapping measures (proclamations, statutes, ordinances, prerogatives) emanating from, or enforced by, ‘a disarray of entities, interests and occasions’. Some of these mechanisms no longer applied, and Robert Harley, the brilliant minister who investigated the Memorial, may have been bluffing when he wrote in 1702 that there remained ‘sufficient authoritys given by the Laws in being for suppressing’ seditious print. But new patches were being stitched onto the quilt. Anne’s reign started with a royal proclamation ‘for Restraining the Spreading of False News, and Printing and Publishing of Irreligious and Seditious Papers and Libels’. The Succession to the Crown Act (1707) made the printed expression of Jacobitism a capital offence and was used under George I to hang the printer of Vox Populi, Vox Dei (1719), an anti-Hanoverian tract. Less obviously, commercial statutes could be framed so as to make print more easily traceable to its makers, or more expensive to produce. Plainly the Stamp Act of 1712 was a revenue-raising measure. But one would have to be pretty obtuse to miss the ulterior motive. By taxing broadsheets and pamphlets and requiring their official registration at the Stamp Office, the act put several troublesome periodicals out of business and functioned as a drag on many others (though loopholes were soon found, requiring further legislation in 1725). It can’t have helped Grub Street printers that the Stamp Act also applied to soap.

New legislation didn’t matter much, however: warrants could be readily obtained (or sometimes just not obtained) to raid the premises of printers, arrest and interrogate writers, or confiscate and destroy equipment. Informal harassment was rife, as was more underhand surveillance. One low-ranking agent boasted to Harley that he could ‘read the metal as well as the print’: in other words, take in the meaning of standing type before a satire or polemic was even printed. Far more important than any of this was the ministerially directed use of common law, notably prosecution in the capacious category of seditious libel, at a time when judges, not juries, determined what counted as seditious (juries considered only the facts of production). Macaulay’s watershed, in other words, was not between censorship and emancipation; it was between one style of censorship and another, as prior restraint gave way to prosecution after the fact. Or as Joseph Hone puts it in his enthralling microhistory, in 1695 ‘the current system of pre-publication censorship was replaced by a new one of post-publication censorship.’

For a line of writers from Defoe to Bentham, it wasn’t a change for the better. The freedoms conferred by the licensing lapse were a mirage if authors still faced prison or the pillory, or if printers could be crushed with career-ending fines or large sureties in return for future docility. Official constraints on public discourse were in fact more severe than before, or so Defoe claimed, since pre-publication censorship offered a kind of protection, whereas libel prosecution hovered as an ever present threat, and placed an ongoing check on literary expression. Writers might resort to tactical ambiguity or defensive ciphers, but they could never be immune to retribution: ‘I think verily no Book can be wrote so warily, but that if the Author be brought on his Tryal, it shall be easy for a cunning Lawyer … to put an Innuendo upon his Meaning and make some Part of it Criminal.’ Defoe spoke from experience. After writing The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), a pamphlet spoofing the bilious rhetoric the Memorial would supply in earnest, he was imprisoned, pilloried and fined (and then, in a turn characteristic of the day, recruited into ministerial service). More often, printers or publishers carried the can, if only because, as Lord Chief Justice Scroggs gloated in 1680: ‘It is hard to find the Author, it is not hard to find the Printer.’ Scroggs went on to say that ‘one Author found, is better than twenty Printers found,’ but printers could always be pressured to give up writers and had fewer opportunities to cover their tracks. Edwards took what precautions he could, giving the Memorial an anonymised title page and omitting any tell-tale ornamental device that might be traced back to his printshop. But 18th-century officials were as adept as modern bibliographers in attributing print, and in any case, Grub Street was full of informants. Eventually, Edwards had to turn himself in. A rich but until now neglected archive of depositions and interrogation documents records the investigation that centred on him, and provides, in Hone’s skilled hands, the clearest view to date of the murky world of underground printing in late Stuart London.

Edwards​ was already expert in subterfuge by the time a woman in a black vizard mask (‘a very genteele woman’, though the disguise had connotations of prostitution) arrived unannounced on his doorstep with the anonymous manuscript of the Memorial. She requested 250 copies in short order, with Edwards free to sell more on his own account, and mentioned the backing of powerful men who would, if necessary, protect him. The pantomime was less outlandish than it sounds (Jonathan Swift used similar ruses with Gulliver’s Travels in 1726) but there were further embellishments, including half a page of ‘scolop’d paper’ cut with a jagged edge; Edwards must only release copies to a courier who could show the corresponding half page. On a second visit, the masked woman seemed alarmed, and pointed out ‘a man standing at the Swan door, which I am afraid is to dog me’.

Edwards was selected by those behind the Memorial as a printer sympathetic to the Tory-Jacobite fringe, but his pedigree was unusual. Born and raised in rural Wales, he was apprenticed in 1683 to a London printer, Thomas Braddyll, just weeks after Braddyll had been arrested and interrogated for his part in printing an illicit tract bearing a false Cologne imprint. But Braddyll was no Tory and seems to have been deeply implicated in the conspiratorial Whig politics of the Exclusion Crisis. He taught his apprentice the techniques of clandestine printing (he even lined his workshop windows with waxed paper) but without instilling his own political views. More significant to Edwards’s politics was his marriage by 1694 to Mary Thompson, stepdaughter and heir of the Catholic printer Nathaniel Thompson, at a time when a crackdown on Jacobite printing was devastating the underground press. There was now a gap in the market and Edwards had his father-in-law’s equipment. At first he seemed charmed, and despite printing a series of Catholic titles including prayers for Jacobite restoration, he survived several raids and arrests without further action, perhaps because the thuggish ‘messengers of the press’ (who enforced regulation) also had a reputation for taking bribes. Edwards was known to drink with one messenger, his fellow Welshman William Jones, and probably greased other palms. His luck ran out in 1696 with The Anti-Curse, a broadside poem attacking the ‘damn’d rebellious brood’ who ‘basely did King James depose’, which attracted a heavy fine and three alarming hours in the pillory. His known output over the next few years is understandably anodyne, but he may have continued to print illegal books in secret, and after 1699 he put his head above the parapet again, producing several openly Jacobite publications. He drew further attention by associating himself with the reckless Pittis, who (his Whig enemy John Tutchin said) ‘never fights but when he’s drunk, nor then neither; but when his Welch printer’s with him, to fetch him off again’.

Pittis didn’t write the Memorial, though some thought he did. As well as the follow-ups that landed him in trouble, he may have been behind one of two pamphlets that answered the Memorial ‘paragraph by paragraph’ as a pretext for reprinting the original text. ‘So the Answers are Allways Triffles, and the Design, which is Dispersing the Originall, is fully Answer’d,’ Defoe said. Advising Harley, Defoe ruled out other suspects including his bête noire, Charles Leslie. Leslie, an Irish Jacobite, thought the pamphlet a malicious hoax, perpetrated by Whigs to discredit their adversaries (and in this respect not unlike Defoe’s Shortest Way, though without the clever ironies). Other suspects came in and out of view, including Francis Atterbury, an ambitious Tory churchman who was eventually banished in the 1720s for his part in a Jacobite plot.

Some signs pointed to the Oxford milieu of Henry Sacheverell, a virtuoso of paranoia who a few years later was impeached by the Commons for his incendiary sermon The Perils of False Brethren, Both in Church and State (1709). As charismatic on the page as in life, Sacheverell practised a hyperbolic, extravagantly metaphorical style (‘an Oxford Modern Dialect’, Defoe called it) – one that the Memorial is soaked in. The Church might seem to be flourishing, the pamphlet began, but ‘there is a Hectick Feavour lurking in the very Bowels of it; which, if not timely Cur’d, will infect all the Humours, and at length Destroy the very Being of it.’ Here was an image culled straight from Sacheverell (poison, contagion, predation, disease), and opponents shot back with matching specificity: ‘It’s rather a malignant Fever,’ one commentator said (‘hectic’ meant consumptive, ‘malignant’ meant plague-like), ‘and, by the red Spots on her Breast, it appears to proceed from the fiery persecuting Humours of High Church.’ Oxford was teeming with High Church zealots, and Harley received an anonymous tip-off that the master of University College was dispersing copies across the region; at least 27 still survive in Oxford libraries. Extensive though purely circumstantial evidence pointed to the backstabbing entrepreneur Humphrey Mackworth (‘a base principled man that never did a fair thing by any body’) and his wily lawyer Henry Poley (‘a Man of a very despicable Presence, being deform’d to the Highest Degree’). Mackworth had recently lost the parliamentary election for Oxford despite Sacheverell’s vigorous support, but he still represented a Welsh constituency, and operated in the Commons alongside Poley as a Tory attack dog. He also had links with one of the most fluent and belligerent exponents of the Sacheverell style, the Cambridge-educated physician James Drake – and since the Memorial walked like Drake and quacked like Drake, many observers took Drake to be its author. Drake’s role raises the intriguing possibility that the mysterious woman in the vizard mask may have been his wife, Judith, the pioneering proto-feminist who wrote An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (1696).

Hone doesn’t speculate about Judith Drake but marshals the evidence (palaeographic clues in surviving manuscripts; clunky segues between disparate sections of text; internal contradictions, including a bizarre lurch from divine-right patriarchalism into Hobbesian theories of power) to argue that the Memorial was a collaborative work involving at least three hands. The tract was publicly attributed to Drake in 1711 (he couldn’t protest, having died in 1707 while being prosecuted for writing something else), and sleazy Mackworth’s involvement looks almost certain. The Whig historian John Oldmixon thought it ‘written by Dr Drake with the Assistance of Mr Poley in Matters of Law, and of one of the discarded Ministers in Matters of Politics’, and Defoe thought the same but put it better: ‘It is a Conjunction of Seditious Heads laid together, some of the Church, some of the State.’ In Defoe’s view, Drake was really just ‘the Drudge or Rather Amanuensis’ who wrote things up, but behind the scenes there was a big beast pulling the strings: ‘His Master the Duke of Bucks is as plainly Pictur’d to me with his Pen in his hand Correcting, Dictating and Instructing, as if I had been of the Club with Them.’ Hone discounts the urbane and by then disaffected Duke of Buckingham, but there was enough smoke billowing from his quarters to suspect a fire, and he may still have been the unnamed great man who, the masked woman promised, would ‘stand by’ Edwards if needed. If so, like many other great men, he never showed.

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