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Licensers Of The Press
by [?]

A curious literary anecdote has reached us of the times of Henry VIII. Tonstall, Bishop of London, accused at that day for his moderation in preferring the burning of books to that of authors, which was then getting into practice, to testify his abhorrence of Tindal’s principles, who had printed a translation of the New Testament, a sealed book for the multitude, thought of purchasing all the copies of Tindal’s translation, and annihilating them in the common flame. This occurred to him when passing through Antwerp in 1529, then a place of refuge for the Tindalists. He employed an English merchant there for this business, who happened to be a secret follower of Tindal, and acquainted him with the bishop’s intention. Tindal was extremely glad to hear of the project, for he was desirous of printing a more correct edition of his version; the first impression still hung on his hands, and he was too poor to make a new one; he gladly furnished the English merchant with all his unsold copies, which the bishop as eagerly bought, and had them all publicly burnt in Cheapside. The people not only declared this was a “burning of the word of God,” but it inflamed the desire of reading that volume; and the second edition was sought after at any price. When one of the Tindalists, who was sent here to sell them, was promised by the lord chancellor, in a private examination, that he should not suffer if he would reveal who encouraged and supported his party at Antwerp, the Tindalist immediately accepted the offer, and assured the lord chancellor that the greatest encouragement they had was from Tonstall, the Bishop of London, who had bought up half the impression, and enabled them to produce a second!

In the reign of Henry VIII. we seem to have burnt books on both sides; it was an age of unsettled opinions; in Edward’s, the Catholic works were burnt; and Mary had her pyramids of Protestant volumes; in Elizabeth’s, political pamphlets fed the flames; and libels in the reign of James I. and his sons.

Such was this black dwarf of literature, generated by Italian craft and Spanish monkery, which, however, was fondly adopted as it crept in among all the nations of Europe. France cannot exactly fix on the era of her Censeurs de Livres; and we ourselves, who gave it its death-blow, found the custom prevail without any authority from our statutes. The practice of licensing books was unquestionably derived from the Inquisition, and was applied here first to books of religion. Britain long groaned under the leaden stamp of an Imprimatur. Oxford and Cambridge still grasp at this shadow of departed literary despotism; they have their licensers and their Imprimaturs. Long, even in our land, men of genius were either suffering the vigorous limbs of their productions to be shamefully mutilated in public, or voluntarily committed a literary suicide in their own manuscripts. Camden declared that he was not suffered to print all his Elizabeth, and sent those passages over to De Thou, the French historian, who printed his history faithfully two years after Camden’s first edition, 1615. The same happened to Lord Herbert’s History of Henry VIII. which has never been given according to the original, which is still in existence. In the poems of Lord Brooke, we find a lacuna of the first twenty pages; it was a poem on Religion, cancelled by the order of Archbishop Laud. The great Sir Matthew Hale ordered that none of his works should be printed after his death; as he apprehended that, in the licensing of them, some things might be struck out or altered, which he had observed, not without some indignation, had been done to those of a learned friend; and he preferred bequeathing his uncorrupted MSS. to the Society of Lincoln’s Inn, as their only guardians, hoping that they were a treasure worth keeping. Contemporary authors have frequent allusions to such books, imperfect and mutilated at the caprice or the violence of a licenser.