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.

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