I have, since this poor attempt at a blog’s first introduction to the indiscoverably infinite ramblings of the internet, presented it in the form of an early newsbook. So I thought I’d present my brief understanding of the early history of British newsbooks and newspapers here, and explain why some of the earliest journalists of our shores were in fact quite against them.
Newsbooks first started appearing in Britain in the first few decades of the 17th century. The first of these appeared in 1621, when the mysterious N.B. (most probably the publisher Nathaniel Butter) produced the Corante, and by September that year it was giving Englishmen the first ever summary of present international events in their own language. Rather than really being the work of our first English journalists, it was in fact just translated from a Dutch newspaper. Not long after this appeared, it’s printer, Thomas Archer, was arrested for distributing copies without a license and had his press shut down until he had negotiated getting one. Fortunately for the history of our newspapers, he received such a license so long as they were ‘translated out of the Dutch‘ – so still the hand of English journalists remained absent from our newspapers.
Numerous other small papers occurred here and there with variable success. The reason that newspapers and in fact news itself wasn’t widespread among people at this time has everything to do with politics and power. Partly because the king and his parliament were always wary of plots, and the spreading of unflattering news about their actions, and the fear that news of uprisings and religious problems in Europe could unsettle the delicate peace of their kingdom. The main reason for newsbooks not being of great interest to most people, however, is how far from politics your average man was and therefore how unimportant even useless it was to be constantly up to date with news.
There had been plenty of power changes in the century beforehand, and with the great monasteries being closed down there were several power vacuums where odd preachers and other ordinary people had their moments to try and make changes, but those days had quickly passed and now a new generation of noblemen took care of the country’s woes. Being so distant from the decisions at a national level, then, many people took little interest in news of it, and even less interest in the distant goings on internationally.
The more successful form of printed news at this time were pamphlets and the more old fashioned broadsides, which would be a short discussion or explanation of a single subject. These would usually only be on political or religious subjects, since science was better discussed in longer works, and the short nature of a pamphlet made it a quick any handy thing to produce to get your opinion into the world. And that is what these were chiefly filled with – opinion – it was very hard to gauge the wider state of the kingdom from them, but they were very useful to understand the political feelings of the time.
One great event changed all of this, the English Civil Wars, and the important political change that the wars brought was how close people were to politics, and it made the country very aware of the real power that the public actually held.
The Civil Wars were the first time that the ‘common people’ of Britain had a great say in affairs of state. With so many noblemen up in arms for or against the king, and the remainder keeping quiet and trying to stay out of the trouble, all kinds of people were able to speak out and make their mark on the country and its history.
During this time the newsbooks became a vital device for transporting news and information across the kingdom, and with constant debates, battles, and other exciting events happening on both sides of the war they were never without something to report upon. With the printing presses in London being under the power of the Parliamentarians, local presses across the country began turning out their own versions of the news for whichever side they preferred, and chaos in the unregulated presses of the kingdom lead to a whole host of new newsbooks appearing. Among these were great titles such as Martin Nonsense, Mercurius Melancholicus, The Parliaments Vulture, The Parliaments Scrich-Owle – in fact Joad Raymond lists almost 50 titles of separate periodicals.
November 1641 saw the first ever weekly printed newsbooks, and the flood of them carried on throughout the Civil War and were even still trickling off of the presses into the interregnum that followed. So, when that intruder on the throne died and there were rumours of a restoration, the presses were fired up again with news and it appears to have been a popular opinion among some that the resurrection of unregulated newsbooks would boil up the nation again into disarray.
To preserve the order of the nation a new role was created within the government, the Surveyor of the Imprimery, whose job it was to make sure that all books without license to be printed were destroyed, and any offending printers deprived of their living. It was in 1663 that this honour fell to the brilliant Roger L’Estrange, the so-called ‘Blood-hound of the Press’, who some would say was one of England’s first journalists.
L’Estrange, however, was quite against newsbooks and far more a fan of the old-fashioned pamphlets, where the public could be guided with opinion alongside threadbare news. The main paper at the time was Mercurius Publicus, the work of John Berkenhead, and the first ‘official’ newsbook ever to be printed.
The true terror that some of the establishment held regarding these papers at the time is summed up rather well by L’Estrange in his own words:
I do declare myself (as I hope I may in a matter left so absolutely indifferent whether any or more) that supposing the Press in order, the people in their right wits and news or no news to be the question, a Public mercury should never have my vote, because I think it makes the multitude too familiar with the actions and counsels of their superiors, too pragmatical and censorious, and gives them not only an itch but a kind of colourable right and license to be meddling with the Government
This fascinating insight rather hypocritically prefaced the first issue of his own newspaper, The Observator, which was a stunning blend of newsbook and opinionated pamphlet. Rather than being a straightforward description of events in and beyond the country, it appeared as a conversation between two people of different opinions both arguing over a different subject – with L’Estrange’s opinion always being the winning side.
With a strongly regulated press, these newsbooks became an established part of society and the days of the opinionated pamphlets were numbered – although they would remain a common produce of the printing press until the mid-18th century, and sermons and other small works would still be printed in the style of a pamphlet until the early 1800s.
And that, I hope, is an accurate enough account of the birth of newspapers.
Adieu, very kind reader.