Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 1. Attempts at State Control under Charles I. and the Commonwealth

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIV. Book Production and Distribution, 1625–1800

§ 1. Attempts at State Control under Charles I. and the Commonwealth

THE MIDDLE of the seventeenth century is a drab tract in the history of English book production. With the accession of Charles I, the efforts of those in power to secure control over the printing press were pursued with renewed activity, culminating, in 1637, in a Star chamber decree which re-enacted the celebrated ordinance of 1586 with additional, and more drastic, provisions. The many troubles which were gathering round the government doubtless hindered the effective enforcement of this formidable measure. On the abolition of the Star chamber, in 1641, the decree ceased to carry any authority, and, for the moment, printers were freed from all control.

Now it was that, unhampered by restrictions, the press began to pour forth political pamphlets of every description—persuasive, polemical, abusive, scurrilous—of every shade of opinion, royalist against parliament man, puritan versus churchman, challenges and answers, newsbooks and gazettes. These, together with sermons and lectures, were printed and vended in such numbers as “well-nigh made all other books unsaleable.” It seemed, indeed, as if all the efforts of the press could not keep pace with the fleeting pens of ready writers and the feverish eagerness of the public to devour their productions.

Printers were soon to discover, however, that liberty of the press was no more to the taste of the Long Parliament than it had been to the hierocracy. As soon as it was able, amid the distractions of more pressing difficulties, parliament turned its attention to regulating the press in accordance with its own views. The issue of various regulations and the punishment of sundry offenders were followed, on 14 June, 1643, by an order “for the regulating of printing”: a brief, business-like document which aimed at the establishment of a rigorous censorship. In its main provisions it closely resembled the defunct decree of 1637, with the important difference that the number of printers was not limited.

It was this reactionary measure which called forth Milton’s Areopagitica, that powerful remonstrance, which, he says, he wrote

  • in order to deliver the press from the restraints with which it was encumbered; that the power of determining what was true and what was false, what ought to be published and what to be suppressed, might no longer be entrusted to a few illiterate and illiberal individuals.
  • But, notwithstanding Milton’s denunciation of the act and his scornful handling of the office of licenser, parliament could not afford, even for the sake of liberty, to lay aside this weapon of self-defence. To what extent the censorship was effective is not very clear. The aim, no doubt, was to suppress publications inimical to the government; and books which did not trench upon politics or religion were, probably, but little regarded; but the newspaper press was subjected to a rigorous system of licensing. Under Cromwell’s rule, the censorship, reinforced by a further act in 1649, was more efficiently exercised, but was again relaxed during the unrest which followed his death.