Elizabethan news pamphleteers

The word ‘pamphlet’ defines a form, not a function; a class of object, not the class of intellectual content contained therein. Pamphlets are, and were, “short printed work[s] of several pages fastened together without a hard cover” (OED.) In early modern times, they were typically quartos, in which four text pages were printed on each side of a sheet of paper. Then the paper was folded twice to form four leaves or eight pages counting front and back, 11-13 inches tall, sewn, not stapled. The stapler wasn’t invented until the 18th century — for Louis Quinze, fascinatingly. Love the history of the mundane!

The first newspaper is said to have been printed by Johann Carolus in Strausbourg in 1605. But the greene_quipEnglish loved news reports long before that. Paul Voss makes a good case for an English precursor in his book, Elizabethan News Pamphlets. And of course, what counts as news oft depends upon the reader.

The pamphleteers

The first Englishman who made a living from his writing was probably Robert Greene, who deserves his own post one of these days. He wrote everything that paid: plays, romances, philosophy, and pamphlets. A Quip for an Upstart Courtier is a bit long for a pamphlet, but it kind of qualifies and it’s funny, if you don’t mind the early modern language.

He had plenty of competition. Rising literacy among the middling sort created a booming market for printed works aimed at that new class of reader. A pamphlet cost as little as tuppence and could be passed around the tavern or the workshop. News from the Continent, accounts of sensational murders, reports of strange creatures caught by fishermen jostled on bookseller’s shelves alongside religious works across the spectrum from Puritan to Catholic (even though both ends were illegal.)

Some pamphleteers, like Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe, were university graduates, but most had merely grammar school educations (like Shakespeare.) Most of them descended from tradesmen. Greene’s father was either a saddler or a cordwainer (shoemaker), Nashe’s was a country parson. Thomas Middleton, a prominent writer of the Jacobean period, was the son of a bricklayer. Gentlemen might write pamphlets at the more literary end, especially of the religious variety. Martin Marprelate, a name you’re probably heartily sick of hearing by now, was certainly a gentleman.

The pamphlet writer might be paid two pounds for his piece, if he had a name like Greene or Nashe. Lesser names might be paid in copies only, which they had to go out and sell for themselves. Most writers made their living doing something else (like most writers today.) Literate young men with good manners were always in demand as messengers. They could teach gentlemen’s sons to read or pick up work as scribes, writing letters for the unlettered. Two pounds was enough to scrape by on, though not to live the literary life of London. A country parson kept the wolf from the door on twenty shillings a year — half the price of one cracking good pamphlet. You can see the attraction, even with the uncertainty of publication.

News from afar

“France at this day had been a most flourishing kingdom which now is a theatre of misery.” Francis Bacon.

By François Dubois, a Huguenot painter born circa 1529

He was writing about the French wars of religion, which began with the bloodbath of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the wedding day of Henry of Navarre, when thousands of his fellow Protestants were killed. That event cast a deep shadow on the minds of the Elizabethans. When Henry succeeded to the French throne, the shadow lightened. Was it possible that France could break from the Catholic League as well?

But France was plunged into civil war. The English sent money and soldiers led by the Earl of Essex. Back home, the hunger for news grew unabated. Elizabethans gobbled up pamphlets the way Americans stared at their TVs during the Vietnam War, unable to turn away from the ghastly reports. 

Publishers scrambled for real news, but always with the patriotic moral slant required in those days. News pamphlets emphasized the dangers of civil war and the need for English unity. It’s well to remember that this constant drumbeat of horrific news from France resounded in English ears when we criticize them for religious intolerance. Unity was the only safe course!

Both the press and the stage played vital roles in presenting ideas to the public in those days, as the authorities well knew. Here’s a snippet from Shakespeare’s King John, written during this period: “This England never did, nor ever shall, / Lie at the proud foot a of a conqueror, / But [except] when it did first help to wound itself.”

A wide variety of individuals and circumstances contributed to the reporting of news. Intercepted letters, official reports, and personal correspondence all made their way into print. Sir Henry Unton, ambassador to France in 1591, sent regular reports on military affairs, including troop movements, casualties, cost overruns, and the activities of the Earl of Essex. He dated all his letters and kept 1652_balladpictrack of how long they took to get where they were going. He complained several times about his letters being stolen and printed without his consent.

Other field correspondents seemed eager to be quoted, filling their letters with those convincing details that sold copies. “The thundering shot of the canon calleth me to my place, and therefore am constrained to cut short, leaving your good Ladieship to the consideration of all heerein expressed which is no more but what I myself have seene and know for truth.”

From the very start, publishers struggled to distinguish real news from fake. They advertised the quality of their pamphlets by the frequent use of words like ‘true’, ‘report,’ and ‘credible.’ They loudly condemned false reports, in contrast. “Some in these dayes, who either for that they know not, or care not for truth, or wil not inquire after the truth, wil be sure to publish nothing but untruth, mispending their time, misdemeaning their braine, and misusing their pen, no lesse foes to themselves, then back friends to the welminded.”

News from afield

greene3tpFrance wasn’t the only place where things happened. Englishmen and women were equally eager to read true reports of extraordinary events in their own country. Sandra Clark, in The Elizabethan Pamphleteers, says that, “Pamphlets are the Elizabethan predecessor of the features, editorials, serials, personal columns, human interest stories and news reports of our newspapers and magazines and the pamphleteers’ professional lives as those of the freelance journalists at a disadvantage in a buyer’s market.”

You could read about the latest sensational murder and, after paranoid, believe-it-all King James followed rational Queen Elizabeth to the throne, the latest witch trial. Robert Greene published several explorations of the London underworld, like The Defense of Coney-catching. (Coneys were rubes, wide-eyed innocents. Coney-catching was slang for stealing from them by trickery.)

Confessions of prisoners were also popular. “Going to prison was a sufficiently common occurrencewitch_trial in Elizabethan times for the pamphleteers to be able to draw on a large fund of cynical and familiar notions about jail and jailors as a source of bitter humour.” You could be sent to prison for debt, among other causes we would consider trivial.

We have tons more pamphlets from the seventeenth century than the sixteenth, but once you get the hang of the language, these things are fascinating and chock-full of characters we novelists can steal without shame. Heck, they did it. Many a pamphleteer made his living repackaging other men’s work. The original writer might sneer at you, but others would think it only good sense.

Before you get carried away with this fabulous new sociological resource, Clark reminds us, “The reader who knows something of Elizabethan habits of mind will have learnt to be wary of making too simple an equation between what is stated and what was true, and so to take with a pinch of salt any claim that this material gives an authentic account of first-hand observation of contemporary life.”

News of the weird

If you thought witch trials were the weird part, you have not yet come around to the early modern world view. Many, many marvels were being discovered around the globe on a daily basis. Things you could never have imagined! Read about them all right here!

elephbigI’m not sure if this counts as local news or weird tales, but thinly veiled accounts of scandalous behavior was guaranteed to entertain at the alehouse of an evening, especially if you had some idea who was being caricatured in the report.

Travel reports were hugely popular. I think they were usually published as books, being too great a tale for eight to sixteen measly pages. But you could break a big journey into many publications, if you wanted to make more hay out of your travails. Or your publisher could.

Here we find titles with the words ‘marvellous,’ ‘wonderful,’ and ‘strange’ occurring in great frequency to signal to the reader that they would find something rare and amazing inside. This vast sub-genre includes reports of unusual weather phenomena, like earthquakes and terrible storms. The point of these reports was never the storm itself, but rather the immorality that caused them and the moral lessons to be learned.

Arthur Golding wrote in 1580, A discourse upon the Earthquake that hapned throughe This Realme of England. True to the form, there’s very little description of what actually happened. Similarly, an account of the exceptionally strong winds that blew in the winter of 1613 had little to say about actual damages. “These tempests, as they have been ill windes to blow many upon the rockes of ruine, and poverty, so have they blowne some to profit”

And then there’s the odd whale caught off the coast of Cornwall and the ever-popular monstrous kent-monsterbirth. We can still read about this sort of thing in tabloids like the Weekly World News, though that stuff has probably mostly shifted to the Internet. Free, with color pictures. Elizabethans would gobble it up.

And then there’s the social commentary, like Robert Green’s self-serving The Repentance of Robert Greene Maister of Arts, 1592. Or veiled gossip (never about the upper classes, that would be too risky.) Oliver Oatmeale, whose name and fame I borrowed for Publish and Perish, wrote titillating tales of tete-a-tetes and other amorous adventures. Like this 1595 piece with the catchy title, A quest of enquirie, by women to know, whether the tripe-wife were trimmed by Doll yea or no.

It’s about Doll Phillips who posed as a fortune-teller to scam a wealthy London widow, the owner of a tripe shop in St. Nicholas Shambles. Admitted to the widow’s home, Doll requests a snippet of the widow’s pubic hair in order to divine which of her suitors she should marry. “Once she has established a homoerotic intimacy with the widow, Doll proceeds to steal her money and jewels.” the widow is thus publicly shamed by her “trimming”, she’s forced to marry the only suitor who will have her, Nick Trickes. There are three verses of doggerel in which she laments her better days, having lots of fun with the imagery of a tripe shop. “Over our heads of tripes a canopie.. I trotted from my trotter stall…”  (from Sexual Types: Embodiment, Agency, and Dramatic Character from Shakespeare to Shirley, by Mario DiGangi. I only read this snippet. Modern literary criticism makes my hair hurt!)


Clark, Sandra. 1985. The Elizabethan Pamphleteers: Popular Moralistic Pamphlets 1580-1640. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Voss, Paul J. 2001. Elizabethan News Pamphlets: Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe & the Birth of Journalism. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

The Worshipful Company of Stationers

The Stationers Company covered most of the publishing industry in the Elizabethan era, including printers, bookbinders, and booksellers. Not the writers, of course. We’ve always been too motley astationers crew to be organized. (The modern American self-styled ‘Authors Guild’ represents only a tiny fraction of American writers; mainly a group of vocal, yet abject, slaves of the corporate publishing industry, a bloated Leviathan that would have dismayed the most commercial of the worshipful stationers of yore.)


If you want a quick glimpse at the origin of something, go look up its name in the OED. The first definition, whose first citation comes from 1311, is “A person who sells books; a bookseller; (in the Middle Ages) esp. one licensed by a university. Occasionally also: a printer, a bookbinder.”

Well, that’s a little on the nose. Having started with my notes from Cyprian Blagden’s The Stationers Company, I was expecting the page to start with definition 2, “A person who has a market stall.” (A vendor who is stationary. A stationer. Get it?) That definition is rated Obsolete and its first citation is from 1616, which tells me Mr. Blagden was quoting an early modern source without bothering to check it out. Sigh.

A German parchmenter, 1568

The first book stalls sprang up around the universities in Oxford and Cambridge, way back in the fourteenth century. Books were made entirely by hand back then: skinning the sheep, scraping the parchment, mixing the ink, writing the book, and sewing the pages into the binding. Skilled craftsmen (and probably lots of unrecorded craftswomen) performed each step, except the writing, which could be done by any Shmoe with a quill. Although many a shmoe left the actual scribbling to a scrivener. Books were valuable objects in those handmade days, usually written on commission.

Scriveners and limners (picture people) had a craft guild in London by 1357. Guilds controlled quality by controlling the training of craftsmen. They could also thus control the supply of crafts in high demand, keeping their wages up. The stationer was primarily a shop-keeper, though he might be trained in a related craft. He arranged for the manufacture of a book to a customer’s order and he may have carried a stock of secondhand books.  

(Can’t) stop the press!

Then William Caxton printed the first book in England in 1477 and the publishing world changed forever. Now we had printers cranking out more books than a bookseller could sell over his own counter. Thus wholesaling was born and investment capital entered the trade.

The Stationer Company’s main functions were the registration of its members’ rights to publish caxton_press_wikicomparticular titles (thus securing their perpetual ownership), the admission of apprentices, and the regulation of the trade. To enforce this the Company was given powers of search throughout the country and, crucially, the printing of books was restricted to London and the two universities.

The Stationers’ Company was always one of the poorer City corporations – in 1557 it ranked fifty-sixth out of sixty-three. Book manufacture was a risky business. Few books were really necessary, apart from ABCs, law books, and Bibles. The appeal of the rest was anybody’s guess.

Bookseller was a broader term then, encompassing any publisher or retailer of books. The term ‘stationer’ was now applied generally to anyone who made, bound, or sold books. Printers printed pages, though they might also bind and sell books in their shops, thus functioning as publishers. Gradually, publishers became people with money to invest, who discovered or commissioned the work, then oversaw its production and distribution. Printers sank to the bottom of the hierarchy, becoming merely skilled workers. Well, not quite the bottom. That’s where the writers scrambled for crumbs.

The best sites for bookshops were near the doors of St Paul’s. 136 stationers and book craftsmen were located within 500 yards of the cathedral between 1300 and 1500. Dozens of booksellers traded from lock-up sheds and stalls leaning against the cathedral walls. Ballad-sellers would drape sheets over their arms and cry them through the city.

The right to copy

The Company’s other main role was ensuring that the ownership of copies was properly recorded, stationers_register_smduly enforced, and if necessary arbitrated. Entry in the Stationers’ Register was legal proof of ownership. Titles which proved to be valuable properties sooner or later found their way into the Register. In the earlier part of this period, first-time entries were usually made by a single tradesman in his own name; on his death his accumulated copies were assigned to his wife or sold to one or more successors. For less popular works there wasn’t much incentive to register, so the practice was inconsistent.

By 1557 the London trade in printed books was well established. Most of the important vernacular genres – law books, primers, psalms, sermons, school books, ballads and almanacs – were clearly identified. Little books were also popular, like scandalous ballads and pious chapbooks. These reached a nationwide readership through pedlars, fairs and markets.

Because we live in an awesome world full of wonderful people, you can look at pages from the real live Stationers Register online, digitized by the University of Toronto. It starts with many pages of accounts and lists of new apprentices. On page 74 we start seeing the books registered in 1554. My eyes landed on this one: “To John kynge these bokes folowynge Called a nose gaye / the schole house of women / and also a sacke full of newes.”

Technically, a new book had to be licensed by the Warden of the Stationers Company, independent of civil or religious authorization. But at least a third of the books known to have been printed were not entered in the register — typical of laws and their enforcement in this period. People seemed to obey laws when it was convenient, or at least more convenient than not.

Note that the copyrights belonged entirely to publishers, whether they were also printers or not. Writers had nothing to do with it. The idea that writers would have rights in their works was not unknown (Thomas Nashe complained about it), but wasn’t considered worthy of legal attention until well into the eighteenth and thus far beyond my tale. Read more at Wikipedia, if you want.

This wasn’t because everyone regarded writers with contempt; on the contrary. Writing for money was considered crass for centuries.

‘Ware the pirates!

Publishing on spec was risky. Paper was expensive throughout the period, often being imported from the Low Countries. Book-making was labor-intensive. “Those fashioning the text after it left the writer’s desk… included paper makers, printers, founders, and composers of type, copyists, and press correctors, booksellers, chapmen, general distributors, library promoters, and above all,pirate financing publishers.” (Raven, p.4.)

Then as now, big sellers supported less popular works. The printer Richard Tottell exploited his patent to print law books successfully enough to invest in poetry, like Songes and sonettes, a collection of poems by Lord Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Law books also raised Tottell’s family into the landowning class.

The most dependable genres were generally governed by patents or copyrights. Bitter battles were fought within the Company over the right to publish these profitable works. The inequalities that resulted provoked piracy, printing unauthorized copies and selling them cheap.

Remember that the majority of printers were clustered near St. Paul’s. There were others scattered about, but not too far: John Field, who printed Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, had his shop in Blackfriars. That’s a three-minute walk from the cathedral grounds, if you catch all the lights. This was a small world, both physically and socially, yet men could print whole books licensed to someone else, package them up, and send them forth to be sold, without anyone being the wiser.

(I am constantly bemused by the constancy of the publishing industry. All these things, including selling books at a discount to resellers and offering returns for unsold copies, began in the Tudor century.)

Crown privileges (a royal patent to publish some title or class of book) were usually acquired for life, with the right of reversion to your successors. Extension of monopolies divided the book trade still further between rich and poor. The Company had an obligation to support its members and the Crown had an interest in a healthy publishing industry, so in the 1580s solutions were devised. Poor printers were granted the right to publish books that whose copyrights had expired. Wealthy printers offered bits of work to poorer ones, like sheets of an Almanac.


According to Company rules, no books could be printed without license — the Warden’s approval. Violations were purnished by confiscating and destroying the printer’s press and type. He would also get six months imprisonment without bail. Booksellers and bookbinders got three months. The wardens had the right to search the premises of any member of the book trade, seize offensive books, and carry away offensive printing materials.

An example of a highly offensive work would be one discussing Queen Elizabeth’s possible successors. That topic was felonious, being considered a form of treason. You could get a year in prison for it. Other objectionable works attacked members of the government, which included the episcopy, which is why Martin’s Marprelate‘s works were considered treasonous.

dracoThese laws sound draconian, but they were rarely applied. The usual punishment was a fine, which went into the Company’s coffers to pay for feasts and gardeners and widows’ aid, among other things. Fines could be regarded as a cost of doing business.

From the Cambridge History of the Book: “Censorship, far from being pervasive or by the 1630s virtually totalitarian in its repressiveness, was essentially ad hoc, inconsistent, opportunistic and usually ineffective. Members of the book trade, pursuing profit, colluded with one another in the evasion of authority. Company officials impounded books in order to sell them on themselves, while other tradesmen published printed pamphlets anonymously, using shared printing and swift distribution networks to cover their tracks.  At the same time authors used indirection, allusions, parallels and fables in legitimately published works.” [I would like you all to notice the glaring lack of Oxford commas in this quotation.]

Shillings and pence

It cost sixpence to register a book and the penalties were light for not doing so. The fine depended on the content, but it could be as little as twenty pence or as much as two shillings. You could be fined four pence for keeping your shop open on a Sunday. 

Shillings from the time of Edward VI

A catch-penny pamphlet sold for two, three, or four pence and paid the writer forty shillings. Same for balladeers. A good writer, like Thomas Nashe, could get two pounds for a good pamphlet. A lesser pamphleteer would get less cash and might be paid only in copies, which he would have to flog himself.

The cheapest printed work was that penny pamphlet, which actually cost tuppence. You could stand with the groundlings at the theater for a penny, so written works had competition from oral/visual media from the beginning. Robert Greene’s wildly popular coney-catching pamphlets (explorations of the London underworld) cost three pennies apiece. You’d pool your pennies with the other apprentices in your shop and read the pamphlets aloud. 

As a last word, these books listed below are great reads, especially the old ones — Blagden and Judge. They’re filled with anecdotes about the people who inhabited the early modern book trade: their rivalries, their successes, their failures. Resources far too rich for one measly blog!


Bell, Maureen, John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie, eds. 2008. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain Volume 4: 1557–1695. [accessed through Cambridge Histories Online via UT Austin.]

Blagden, Cyprian. 1960. The Stationers’ Company: A History, 1403-1959. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clegg, Cyndia Susan. 1997. Press Censorship in Elizabethan England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Judge, Cyril Bathurst. 1934. Elizabethan Book Pirates. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Raven, James. 2007. The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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