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Licensers Of The Press
by [?]

The laws of England have never violated the freedom and the dignity of its press. “There is no law to prevent the printing of any book in England, only a decree in the Star-chamber,” said the learned Selden.[1] Proclamations were occasionally issued against authors and books; and foreign works were, at times, prohibited. The freedom of the press was rather circumvented, than openly attacked, in the reign of Elizabeth, who dreaded the Roman Catholics, who were at once disputing her right to the throne, and the religion of the state. Foreign publications, or “books from any parts beyond the seas,” were therefore prohibited.[2] The press, however, was not free under the reign of a sovereign, whose high-toned feelings, and the exigencies of the times, rendered as despotic in deeds, as the pacific James was in words. Although the press had then no restrictions, an author was always at the mercy of the government. Elizabeth too had a keen scent after what she called treason, which she allowed to take in a large compass. She condemned one author (with his publisher) to have the hand cut off which wrote his book; and she hanged another.[3] It was Sir Francis Bacon, or his father, who once pleasantly turned aside the keen edge of her regal vindictiveness; for when Elizabeth was inquiring whether an author, whose book she had given him to examine, was not guilty of treason, he replied, “Not of treason, madam, but of robbery, if you please; for he has taken all that is worth noticing in him from Tacitus and Sallust.” With the fear of Elizabeth before his eyes, Holinshed castrated the volumes of his History. When Giles Fletcher, after his Russian embassy, congratulated himself with having escaped with his head, and on his return wrote a book called “The Russian Commonwealth,” describing its tyranny, Elizabeth forbad the publishing of the work. Our Russian merchants were frightened, for they petitioned the queen to suppress the work; the original petition, with the offensive passages, exists among the Lansdowne manuscripts. It is curious to contrast this fact with another better known, under the reign of William the Third; then the press had obtained its perfect freedom, and even the shadow of the sovereign could not pass between an author and his work. When the Danish ambassador complained to the king of the freedom which Lord Molesworth had exercised on his master’s government, in his Account of Denmark, and hinted that, if a Dane had done the same with a King of England, he would, on complaint, have taken the author’s head off–“That I cannot do,” replied the sovereign of a free people; “but if you please, I will tell him what you say, and he shall put it into the next edition of his book.” What an immense interval between the feelings of Elizabeth and William, with hardly a century betwixt them!

James the First proclaimed Buchanan’s history, and a political tract of his, at “the Mercat Cross;” and every one was to bring his copy “to be perusit and purgit of the offensive and extraordinare materis,” under a heavy penalty. Knox, whom Milton calls “the Reformer of a Kingdom,” was also curtailed; and “the sense of that great man shall, to all posterity, be lost for the fearfulness or the presumptuous rashness of a perfunctory licenser.”

The regular establishment of licensers of the press appeared under Charles the First. It must be placed among the projects of Laud, and the king, I suspect, inclined to it; for by a passage in a manuscript letter of the times, I find, that when Charles printed his speech on the dissolution of the parliament, which excited such general discontent, some one printed Queen Elizabeth’s last speech as a companion-piece. This was presented to the king by his own printer, John Bill, not from a political motive, but merely by way of complaint that another had printed, without leave or license, that which, as the king’s printer, he asserted was his own copyright. Charles does not seem to have been pleased with the gift, and observed, “You printers print anything.” Three gentlemen of the bed-chamber, continues the writer, standing by, commended Mr. Bill very much, and prayed him to come oftener with such rarities to the king, because they might do some good.[4]