Introductory Essay


Manuscript Pamphleteering in Early Stuart England brings together bibliographical data, texts (transcriptions) and manuscript images to help students and scholars access the rich world of early Stuart handwritten political discourse. This introductory essay is intended: to explain what we mean by 'manuscript pamphleteering' and 'manuscript pamphlet'; to give some context to the production, circulation and reception of these works; and to explain how the resources here relate to the historical phenomenon – that is, what has been included and what has been left out.

In our usage, a manuscript pamphlet is a handwritten text, usually from a particular set of genres – speeches, letters, petitions, briefs, treatises, dialogues – that circulated through the particular matrix of scribal practices that prevailed in early Stuart England. Thomas Alured's Letter to the Marquess of Buckingham (1620), for example, was originally composed as an intervention in the marriage-treaty negotiations that Britain was conducting with Habsburg Spain in 1620, and briefly landed the author in prison; it was also copied by hand and sold commercially by professional scribes and manuscript dealers. Handwritten copies circulated throughout the kingdom, and contemporary transcripts survive in the notebooks of clergymen and gentlemen from Norfolk to Shropshire and from Kent to Cornwall. The goal of this resource is to give students and scholars better access to the sorts of texts that belonged to the world of Alured's Letter.

Why copy by hand?

By the late sixteenth century, England had a well-established and well-regulated printing industry, based partly in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge but mostly in the rapidly expanding metropolis of London. Nevertheless, for a great many tasks, early modern men and women preferred hand-copying to printing. There are four reasons for this.

First, in many circumstances, copying out something by hand was simply easier than arranging for it to be printed. To get something printed, someone had to physically bring the handwritten text to the printer's shop, negotiate a price with the proprietor, and wait for the job to be finished. Alternatively, a writer might negotiate with a stationer, who could provide the capital needed for larger print runs. Printing required the time-consuming process of setting type in the first place, but after this was completed, multiplying copies was much faster than hand copying. Printing was a better option if you needed dozens or hundreds of copies. To make a single copy of a text of a few hundred words, it was much easier and faster to dash off a copy yourself (or, better yet, task a servant or professional copyist with doing it). These incentives were multiplied if you lived any distance from London, where the printing industry was mainly based, since in the early seventeenth century travel time was measured in days or weeks instead of hours. If you wanted to copy a recipe, poem or speech for a friend in Chester or Shrewsbury or Exeter, hand-copying was the obvious medium to use.

Secondly, certain industries and professions – notably, lawyers – had developed working methods or practices based on the production and circulation of handwritten material, and these practices were very resistant to change. In the early seventeenth century, legal documents – land deeds, indentures, contracts, wills and pleadings of all sorts – were all handwritten. So were most 'reports', or informal records of legal decisions that were part of legal education. The late Tudor and early Stuart period was a notoriously litigious age (one scholar has estimated the total number of actions begun in the kingdom at a million a year), and the documents produced in and for that litigation were written by a huge, dispersed army of legal clerks and scriveners. Many such documents could have been printed, and indeed in later centuries were printed; but in the early seventeenth century they were written by hand, often at enormous expense. Movements for legal reform did try to limit the costs associated with hand-copying, but there were more pressing problems with the legal system, such as competing and overlapping jurisdictions, and the fact that much of the pleading was still conducted in a form of French. If you were involved in the legal system, and most people were at some point in their lives, you would have to deal with handwritten documents.

Thirdly, some scholars have suggested certain kinds of works were more highly valued in manuscript than in print. The so-called 'stigma of print' supposedly made certain authors of, for example, lyric poetry, and living in particular social contexts, prefer manuscript to print in order to lend their work more dignity, or to limit exposure to small groups of readers, or even a single reader. Certainly, certain genres, particularly examples of English oratory, appear to have circulated exclusively in handwritten forms, though why precisely this was the case is not always clear. As any single manuscript naturally limited the size of its readership, access to manuscript copies of works was at times a matter of privilege, or of knowing the right kinds of people. Accordingly, scholars have long been interested in the ways in which manuscripts served small communities, connected by ways of family, kinship, profession, religious or political persuasion, and so on. The ways in which certain communities shared certain kinds of texts tells us much both about these people, and about the texts.

Finally, some works were considered too dangerous to print. Although print regulation or censorship was never exhaustive or systematic, it was nevertheless quite effective. Clandestine printing could be very costly and dangerous; master printers were rarely willing to risk their privileges by printing something offensive to the government; and, given the relatively small number of printers and printing presses, it was often quite straightforward for the government to discover who was responsible for a piece of illicit print. Nevertheless, numerous groups wanted to air views outside the permitted mainstream: some were political or religious dissidents – critics of policy in church or state, or Roman Catholic or Puritan separatists – while others were supporters of the Stuart regime, whose views on the extent of royal authority or the importance of religious conformity were considered too extreme for a public hearing. For these groups, manuscript was a relatively accessible medium. An easy way to see this dynamic in action is with works like Thomas Scott's Vox Populi (1620), a criticism of the regime policy of rapprochement with Spain, or George Eglisham's Forerunner of Revenge (1626), which accused a prominent courtier of murdering the recently-deceased King James I. Both were initially printed, but demand soon outstripped the small clandestinely produced supply, and both were often copied by hand.

From this cacophony of forces and incentives emerged the phenomenon we call manuscript pamphleteering. Manuscript pamphleteering refers primarily to a set of copying and circulation practices through which certain works became known to (some) readers. We will refer to works that were taken up by these practices as manuscript pamphlets.

Who copied out manuscript pamphlets?

One of the biggest obstacles to the study of manuscript pamphleteering is scribal anonymity: in the vast majority of cases, copyists did not sign their names to a piece of work, so it is very difficult to know who was responsible for the writing. Even copyists who had very distinctive handwriting, and whose work survives in many examples, often remain anonymous: the 'Feathery Scribe', identified by Hilton Kelliher and Peter Beal, is the most famous. Dozens of examples of Feathery's handwriting have survived (a few feature in our database), and we can work out a bit about where he was working and who his colleagues were, but we do not know for certain who he was.

One thing we can say about Feathery is that he was a professional: he wrote out manuscripts for money, and this was almost certainly his main occupation. At various points in his career, Feathery appeared to be part of a 'shop' or team of manuscript-copyists who wrote out texts for sale to clients. These manuscript copyists probably had a catalogue that clients could consult to choose which works they wanted copied (in fact, there are a few surviving examples of such catalogues, including here). The prices they charged were probably very high: surviving evidence (again, quite limited) suggests that buying manuscripts from Feathery and his associates was an order of magnitude more expensive than buying cheaply printed books: a few shillings rather than a few pennies.

But Feathery and his associates were a luxury, professional operation, mostly serving wealthy clients. In early Stuart England, avoiding printing presses meant avoiding copyright, and set very low barriers to entry: instead of having to belong to a special guild, anyone with a pen could decide to become a manuscript copyist. And so there were many other people – schoolteachers, chaplains, secretaries, apprentices, legal clerks – who wrote manuscript pamphlets for money, often as a side job. Such people seem to have charged much lower prices, from one-fifth to one-third what a prestigious operation like Feathery's would have charged. Thanks to the work of part-time copyists, manuscript pamphlets could sometimes be bought not only from dedicated manuscript-dealers but in lawyers' chambers, from scriveners, or in bookshops. When a particular item was in great demand, part-time copyists would sometimes jump into the market, increasing the supply.

Most copying probably was not commercial; it was instead what the scholar Harold Love called 'user publication'. Members of communities (or coteries), however loosely associated, helped each other out: a person who had a manuscript text might show it to his or her friends; one of those friends might want a copy for himself or herself, and so ask to borrow the copy for a few days; and so on. These copying-chains were an important mode of circulation everywhere, even in London where commercial copying also thrived. Outside London, it was essential. The clergyman John Rous, whose parish straddled Norfolk and Suffolk, borrowed texts from his circle of friends and acquaintances, especially when they met together for assizes or ecclesiastical visitations. On the other side of England, in Shropshire, the clergyman Robert Horne had a similar network of friends and associates, who shared texts amongst themselves. Gentlemen with interests in manuscript collection could make stately homes into centres of manuscript reproduction: a manuscript now in the University of London was copied at Sir Roger Mostyn's house in Flintshire, from a volume that was brought there by Mostyn's visiting son-in-law, Richard Grosvenor. Other texts were written out in the universities, professional organisations like the Inns of Court, country alehouses or inns, workplaces, or anywhere where travellers met and talked about the news.

Together, this multiplicity of practices, commercial and sociable, metropolitan and provincial, produced a huge volume of copies – on the order of ten thousand surviving examples, with no obvious way of knowing what proportion that represents of the original quantity produced. These survive in a multiplicity of forms: as unbound paper separates, or copied into newsletters, personal diaries or commercially produced volumes. The photographs of manuscripts have been chosen to illustrate this range.

What kinds of works became manuscript pamphlets?

For the most part, though not exclusively, manuscript pamphlets were concerned with recent events or the near past. The paradigmatic manuscript pamphlet is perhaps the transcript of a speech delivered by a significant legal or political figure (such as the philosopher, lawyer and statesman Francis Bacon) on a particular occasion (perhaps at the arraignment of a disgraced courtier, or the elevation of a judge). There are also: position papers on particular government policies, like Robert Cotton's remarks On the Alteration of the Coin (1626); apologies for, or attacks on, major public figures, like William Tourneur's Character of the Earl of Salisbury (1612) or William Fleetwood's Unhappy View of the Whole Behaviour of the Duke of Buckingham at the French Island (1627); important criminal trials, such as the trials of those involved in the Overbury Poisoning (1615-15) or of the Puritan pamphleteers Henry Burton, John Bastwick and William Prynne (1637); and elaborate considerations on recent events, like the Five Years of King James or Tom Tell-Troth. English foreign policy and news from abroad also featured extensively, as did works concerned with religious controversies at home and abroad. Beyond these paradigms, we have included some works and genres that reflect on essentially political events or figures of the recent times in more oblique ways, for example, a number of prophecies, or poems (but cf. below on what is not contained in the database).

These works have many important and interesting features, which this essay cannot explore in any depth (see 'Further Reading' below for more sustained analyses of particular items or genres). A few minor points are worth making:

First, and perhaps most obviously, a very large proportion of the manuscript pamphlets described here had content that would have made them difficult or dangerous to put into print before the Stuart regime began to collapse in late 1640 and 1641. Where print has demanded scholars 'read behind the lines' in order to see how the authors of printed books might be responding to current events, the discourse of manuscript pamphlets tends to be much more overt. This does not mean the works are straightforward – far from it – but rather than hiding their references to current or near-current events under allusions or deniable parallels, the writers of manuscript pamphlets tended to draw those connections openly.

Secondly, the occasional, or historical, nature of these works is quite distinctive; readers and copyists were often very interested in the circumstances under which the work was composed, who composed it, and why. When these details are missing from a particular work they were often supplied conjecturally by readers: anonymous works were regularly attributed to particular authors; undated or misdated texts were often assigned to particular times, all by contemporary readers. Different copies of the same work vary, sometimes considerably; many contemporary were alert to this aspect of manuscript circulation, and compared or collated variant copies when they could.

Finally, many of the works in the MPESE database are not quite what they appear to be. For example, the work we have titled Pseudo Abbot (1623) presented itself as a speech delivered at the Privy Council board by Archbishop George Abbot. In the speech, Abbot spoke eloquently against some concessions made by King James I to the King of Spain with respect to the toleration of Roman Catholicism. In real life, Abbot never made the speech, and insisted he had nothing whatever to do with it. The work was a forgery, foisted on Abbot by an anonymous pamphleteer.

What is missing from this database?

The MPESE database does not (yet) contain everything that was passing through early modern manuscript culture. In other words, it is important not to take what we've presented as being a full inventory of what was circulating in manuscript in early Stuart England. However, with consideration of what has been left out, we hope that such a synoptic view might in fact be possible.

Four sorts of things have been systematically excluded from the database:

A) Verse (and other overtly literary forms, e.g., drama). Many of the texts that people copied and then circulated among one another were in verse, while only a very small number of verses have been included in this collection. We have excluded both 'literary' verse, by the likes of John Donne, William Herbert and Robert Herrick, so-called coterie poets who circulated their work in handwriting; and most topical verse or libels. Both are covered by existing resources: the former by the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts (CELM), compiled by Peter Beal; and the second by Early Stuart Libels, edited by Alastair Bellany and Andrew McRae. We ultimately aim to include topical verse that escaped the notice of Early Stuart Libels, and have included a handful of examples, but generally speaking poems have been left out.

B) Parliamentary documents. Parliamentary speeches, declarations, remonstrances and other documents originating in Parliament were widely circulated in manuscript. Or some of them were; as Millstone has demonstrated, the proportion of parliamentary material entering the matrix of manuscript reproduction escalated sharply in the 1620s but was never comprehensive. Although this resource does not provide a survey of parliamentary manuscript circulation, much of the data for such a survey has been collected and can be obtained from Dr Millstone directly. Many parliamentary manuscript separates have been printed in the modern editions of the parliamentary debates.

C) Tudor survivals. A number of documents originally composed in the Tudor era were copied and circulated alongside early Stuart materials. These included a widely copied letter of Anne Boleyn; an account of the trial and execution of Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk; the Catholic libel Leicester's Commonwealth; an Apology of Philip Howard, earl of Arundel; a number of orations attributed to Sir Nicholas Bacon; Sir Philip Sidney's Letter on the Anjou match; and a number of documents relating to the rise and fall of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex.

D) Sermons. Whereas sermons are obviously different works in kind and purpose from our manuscript pamphlets in many ways, the pulpits were places where political issues were discussed in depth, and some were in fact sites of significant dissent. Manuscript sermons are currently being catalogue by a project that is akin to ours: the 'Gateway to Early Modern Manuscript Sermons' (see Further Reading for details).

These four categories of material were very often copied and transmitted in the same ways as the materials that are included in the present database; indeed, they often occur in the same collections in the same hands. For a proper understanding of early Stuart manuscript culture as a whole, it would be necessary to add these materials into the mix.

There is a final category of excluded material: items that we have good reason to believe did in fact circulate in manuscript, but for which no manuscript examples have yet come to light. Many books that were printed later (often in the 1640s) refer to, or even reproduce, material that was said to have circulated in manuscript during the early Stuart era. These claims are often plausible, if not always verifiable.

What happened to all these texts after the early Stuart period?

It is almost certain that the majority, and probably the vast majority, of the manuscript pamphlets produced during the early Stuart period have been lost.

Luckily, some copies of the manuscript pamphlets remained among the personal papers and libraries of people who owned them. Many of them had been collectors, and the impulse to collect continued to be a major force for the accumulation and dispersal of these materials over time. Papers collected by Sir Simonds D'Ewes in the 1620s became part of a larger collection put together by the Harleys in the eighteenth century, before being acquired by the British Museum. The papers collected by the Shropshire clergyman Robert Horne in the late 1610s were acquired by Richard Rawlinson in the eighteenth century, finally coming to rest in the Bodleian Library. Other copies remain among the papers of the family or corporation that originally acquired them, either in local record offices or in aristocratic collections like Woburn Abbey or Alnwick Castle.

A few of these texts were printed in the early Stuart era itself; many more were printed during the Civil War and Interregnum periods. The texts of manuscript pamphlets have also been reprinted as part of the waves of antiquarian and historical publication that began in the 1650s and have continued ever since. We have indicated what we know about the print history of the pamphlets, though this has not in all cases been systematically investigated.

Further Reading

Ian Atherton, 'The Itch Grown a Disease: Manuscript Transmission of News in the Seventeenth Century', Prose Studies 21 (1998).

Peter Beal, In Praise of Scribes (Oxford, 1998).

Anna Beer. Sir Walter Ralegh and his Readers in the Seventeenth Century (Palgrave, 1997).

Pauline Croft, 'The Reputation of Robert Cecil', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth series, 1 (1991).

Richard Cust, 'News and Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England', Past and Present 112 (1986).

Joshua Eckhardt, Manuscript Verse Collectors and the Politics of Anti-Courtly Love Poetry (Oxford, 2009).

Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2000).

Chris Kyle, Theatre of State (Stanford, 2012).

F.J. Levy, 'How Information Spread Among the Gentry, 1550-1640', Journal of British Studies 21 (1982).

Harold Love, Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, 1993).

Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Wisconsin, 1986).

Arthur F. Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Cornel, 1995).

Noah Millstone, Manuscript Circulation and the Invention of Politics in Early Stuart England (Cambridge, 2016).

Jason Peacey, Print and Popular Politics in the English Revolution (Cambridge, 2013).

H.R. Woudhuysen, Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts 1558-1640 (Oxford, 1996).

Web resources

Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts

Early Stuart Libels

Gateway to Early Modern Manuscript Sermons