Peck's reprint series
Government Suppression of
Elizabethan Catholic Books
of Leicester's Commonwealth
volume 47, number 2, pp. 163-77
Suppression of Elizabethan Catholic Books: the Case of Leicester's Commonwealth"
D. C. Peck
Copyright © 1977 by The
University of Chicago
note: The University of Chicago Press, which publishes Library Quarterly,
employs a rather odd method of bibliographic referencing, or at least it did
in the 1970s. In the article below, one finds both conventional footnotes,
which in this reprint are grouped at the end of the article, and bibliographical
references found within the text in square brackets; these latter are keyed
by number to a list of references also at the end of the article. --
DCP, August 2000.]
GOVERNMENT SUPPRESSION OF
ELIZABETHAN CATHOLIC BOOKS: THE CASE OF LEICESTERS COMMONWEALTH
D. C. Peck
Abstract: The Protestant government of
Elizabethan England had at its command a large number of means to prevent the production
and circulation of Catholic books. To meet the challenge posed by the scurrilous tract
known as Leicesters Commonwealth (1584), the officials employed all of those
normal means and invented some extraordinary ones for the occasion. From the evidence of
the books circulation and its later effects, however, the governments attempts
at suppression must be said largely to have failed.
Perhaps at no time in history has the word
"sedition" been so regularly and so frequently invoked as in the Elizabethan
English governments attempts to control the printed propaganda of its enemies. In
document after document, in statute, proclamation, Privy Council warrant, and official
correspondence the phrase "seditious books" appears sufficiently often to
suggest that there was design in its use and that the government, having adopted the
phrase, intended to see that it should become familiar. All Catholic books, whether
political, controversial, or purely devotional, were "seditious" because they
were divisive of the officially Protestant realm and because they encouraged allegiance to
a foreign "head of state," the pope, who in 1570, by the bull Regnans in
excelsis, had deposed the heretic queen and absolved her subjects from their
The English government fully understood the power
of the press in shaping public opinion, as it understood its own dependence upon the
goodwill of its subjects. It made ample use of the press in its own behalf, not only in
the publication of proclamations and statutes with their self-justifying preambles, but
also in a constant flow of official and semiofficial news reports, controversial
treatises, even ballads and public prayers [3, 4]. Consequently, after its harassment of
Catholic laymen and its indefatigable persecution of priests, the suppression of papist
propaganda was among the governments chief activities in combating the old faith.
The present study is an attempt to reconstruct, in the light of our general knowledge of
Elizabethan methods, the case history of the governments response to one book in
order to observe those methods in operation, the steps taken to circumvent them, and to
attempt to gauge their efficacy.
Leicesters Commonwealth is a
particularly good example for this purpose, because both sides exerted themselves
extraordinarily over it. The pamphlet, justly celebrated for its ferocious satire of the
queens chief favorite, Robert Dudley (1533-88), the Earl of Leicester, became almost
instantly a cause célèbre and inevitably evoked more emotion and activity than milder
books. Nevertheless, one must bear in mind that the whole range of English Catholic
printing remained, despite the governments vigilance, a formidable weapon in the
Counter-Reformation arsenal, for, as the expatriate, former Secretary Sir Francis
Englefield, wrote to a friend: "In stede therfore of the sword, which we cannot
obtayne, we must fight with paper and pennes, which can not be taken from us". In
the first decade of the reign, the Louvainist doctors believed that by skillful
controversial argument (and the undoubted weight of truth) England might be recovered to
the ancient faith by books alone [6, p. 30]. Dr. William Allen, himself an able
controversialist, also understood that if the religion were to remain alive in England at
all purely devotional works must be provided for the edification of the surviving
faithful. Robert Parsons, S.J., the most vigorous Catholic political writer of the age,
"also wrote what was incomparably the most popular book of spiritual guidance in
sixteenth century England" [7, p. 205]. And, of course, the political agitators of
the Roman side understood the value of propaganda in weakening the opposition. In the
plans for the abortive "Lennox Plot," for example, it appears that the Catholics
"have most infamous and sclaunderous libels ready made, but not yet printed, which
then [upon invasion] shall be published with other proclamations; to which end they
appoynte to have a printer with them."2 Similarly,
Allens Admonition to the Nobility, which called upon English Catholics
"to adventure your selves in a quarell most honorable" by rising up to support
the Spanish liberators, was intended to accompany the Armadas forces into the realm.3
Some general remarks on the problem may be
ventured by way of background before we turn to the Commonwealth. First, it should
be noted that the output of Catholic printing was quite high. In the course of the reign,
from 1558 to 1603, some 260 different books in English which are still extant appeared
from papist presses, most of them printed on the Continent but many on the
"wagonback" presses operating surreptitiously in England. Of this total, some
62.6 percent date from the latter half of the reign, indicating the same general growth
that occurred in the industry as a whole.4
The Catholic presses were prolific and much
feared, and the government employed a number of means to suppress them. Largely by means
of its licensing system it undertook to drive papist printing out of the legitimate book
trade. Regular licensing of books "for expellinge and avoydinge the occasion of
errours and seditiouse opinions" was set up in Henry VIIIs proclamation of
1538, but it was irregularly enforced [11, p.48]. A more thorough apparatus was
established in the charter of the new Stationers Company in 1557 and in
Elizabeths injunctions to the guild two years later. In these it is laid down that
virtually all new works must be seen and allowed either by privy councillors or by highly
placed ecclesiastical officials. Moreover, the company was granted a categorical
"search and seizure" warrant which permitted its officers to destroy any works
printed contrary to regulations. The company was only too glad to make use of its powers,
for, while enforcing the governments political aims, it simultaneously was able to
protect its own monopolies and copyrights. So the master printers carried out most of the
routine control of the trade, and according to some authorities they seem to have taken
over the routine tasks of licensing as well [10, p.60]. The Star Chamber decree of 1586
tightened things up still further, and thereafter all works claiming legitimacy had to be
previewed by agents of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London.
The papist writers were thus denied virtually all
access to the regular publishing industry.5 So they printed
clandestinely, both at home and abroad, and to this activity as well the government
responded with vigor. Customs officials had authority to examine all cargoes, and
searchers were employed in all the great ports to watch for printed contraband. The havens
and creeks were left to the local pursuivants, who also conducted from time to time and
with apparent relish house searches of known recusants. Arrests for smuggling occurred
frequently enough.6 But compared with the amount of
importation which seems to have been going on, they seem to have been quite few. This
relative lack of success must be blamed on papist ingenuity and the technological
inefficiencies of government in those times, certainly not on any want of trying.
The best shaft in the Privy Councils
quiver, however, was to strike the fear of both God and the queen into the moderate
Catholics who were a potential audience for such books and into their inquisitive
Protestant neighbors as well, for the latter, if they saw a "seditious book" and
failed to report it, might find themselves jailed at the queens pleasure. Various
acts of Parliament strictly prohibited certain limited kinds of propaganda, in most cases
Puritan as much as Catholic attacks upon the queen. In 1 Elizabeth, cap. V, iv (1559),
anyone affirming in print that the queen was not the lawful sovereign was guilty of high
treason [13, p.24]; 5 Elizabeth, cap. I, i (1563) provided that anyone
holding for the popes jurisdiction in print was guilty of praemunire [13, p
39].7 Issued the year after the Bull of Excommunication, 13
Elizabeth, cap. I, i (1571) made treasonous any writing or printing which
called the queen a heretic or usurper, and article v, the famous "statute of
silence," prescribed a years prison for anyone who named in print any person as
heir to the throne except her own "natural issue" [13, pp. 60-62]. Also, 23
Elizabeth, cap. II, iv (1581) proscribed any book which contained slanderous matter
against the queen herself or encouraged active rebellion [13, p. 78].
One notices in reading them how impeccably legal
are these laws. They provide sensible penalties and ample due process. In prohibiting
"seditious books" they aim at books which are genuinely seditious those
which attack the legitimacy of the queens authority or actually incite to
revolution. The prerogative laws, the proclamations which had not had the status of
genuine statutes since 1547 but which continued to be treated as if they had, were less
scrupulous of semantics. The proclamation of March 1, 1569 prohibited any "matter
derogatory to the sovereign state of her majesty," but then included any matter
"impugning the orders and rites established by law for Christian religion and divine
service within this realm, or otherwise stirring and nourishing matter tending to
sedition" [14, no.561]. Defending the efficacy of the mass was now sedition, and one
read such a defense "upon pain of her majestys grievous indignation."
The proclamation of July 1, 1570, against
circulating seditious books and bulls [14, no.577], went still further, establishing
elaborate rules for turning over to the authorities any copies one might have stumbled
across, chiefly so as to ensure total secrecy. It offered rewards to informers. Anyone
actually naming an author "shall be so largely rewarded as during his or their lives
they shall have just cause to think themselves well used." Guilty parties naming
authors earned both reward and pardon. Other proclamations of 1570, 1573, 1584, and 1588
[14, nos. 580, 598, 672, 699] also spoke out against all kinds of Catholic books and their
distributors, some amplifying directives or stiffening penalties, others merely ordering
that such books be thought badly of by the true subject. There were other proclamations
against other books as well, but those mentioned here were aimed specifically at the
Catholic printers and readers and were often occasioned by specific Catholic books.
In general, the entire legislative and police
apparatus for the suppression of seditious books must be said to have done its work fairly
well. Ample evidence exists of distributors and readers jailed, whole consignments
confiscated, treatises failing of an audience for want of the ability to print them.
Printing in England was especially perilous, and not much of it was tried, but William
Carters press did turn out 11 titles before its owner, who had been arrested first
in 1579 and again in 1581, was executed for treason in early 1584 [6, pp. 351-52; 15, pp.
20-22].8 The well-known peregrinations of Parsonss
Greenstreet House Press, which rival the story of the Puritan Waldegraves Marprelate
Press for sheer romance, ended only after some 8 books had been dispersed. And there were
several other presses, like Verstegans in Smithfield, which saw their 1 or 2 titles
into print then promptly, and discreetly, disappeared. But the governments rigor had
its effect, and the Catholic writers who tried working in England lamented constantly the
one-sided unfairness of the controversial struggle. Robert Parsons justified his delay in
replying to an attack by the government hack, William Charke, by complaining thus:
In generall, every one can imagine by hym selfe,
how difficult a thing yt is in England at this daye, for a Catholique man to write any
book: where nether libertie, nor rest, nor librarie, nor conference, nor beinge is
permitted hym. [The author, Parsons himself, had] addressed hym selfe to a defence, and
had in greate part dispatched the same, redie for the printe, in suche sort as the
rigorous tyme of your persecution permitted hym. But God sufferinge at that verie instant,
that the sayd print . . . should be taken, there was taken, lost, and dispersed
ther-withall, not onelie all furniture there redy for this booke, but also for sundry
other thinges, partlie printed, and partlie in printing [12, p. l].
The troubled Jesuit does not mention that not
only did he lose his press and book in this raid on Stonor Park, Henley (August 8, 1581),
he also lost his pressman Stephen Brinkley and four assistants to the Tower of London [6,
Presumably as a consequence of the perils
attached to printing within the realm, most Catholic books were produced in the various
centers of English refugees on the Continent. There still remained, however, the problem
of transporting the materials into England. At first this was done more or less
haphazardly, but after Parsonss retirement to France in 1581 he began the
development of an increasingly sophisticated network of routes and contacts for the
importation of priests, books, and holy apparatus, usually to obscure ports in the north
country or the Sussex coast and thence to London. In this rather loose "system"
for infiltration, a singular method of distribution was contrived to evade detection:
"all the books are brought together to London without any being issued, and after
being distributed into the hands of the priests in parcels of a hundred or fifty, are
issued at exactly the same time to all parts of the kingdom." Care was taken to see
that many copies were left in the homes of irreproachable Protestants, too, "into
workshops as well as palaces," in order that Papists might not stand condemned for
possession alone.9 Clearly, though the officials made their
road a hard one, what ingenuity could supply the Catholics had in abundance.
It was in this manner that Leicesters
Commonwealth first appeared before the world, though anonymously and under its proper
title . It quickly acquired the name "Leicesters Commonwealth" in
contemporary gossip, and this became the title given on the title pages of its reprintings
in 1641.10 The pamphlet was written, probably in Paris, in
late spring 1584, though it seems to have incorporated materials brought out of England
some months earlier. It was printed, probably in Rouen, during that summer.11 Its authors, principally Charles Arundell but several others as
well, were not priests but Catholic ex-courtiers some of whom, bested in factional
intrigues at court, had been hounded into exile by the Earl of Leicester in the preceding
autumn [19, pp. 100-101]. Their book is a final desperate attempt to present the views of
the conservative old nobility who had been all but finally superseded in power by the
"new men" and their Puritan allies. In the tract, they argue eloquently for
religious toleration of all faiths, and they restate the claims to the throne of their
patroness Mary, Queen of Scots. Most readers, however, then and now, have missed these
more sober remarks because they lie buried amid a shocking mass of invective against the
Earl of Leicester himself, who is presented as a murderous aspirer who had brought England
to the edge of ruin in his unrestrained quest for absolute power. Well-known facts,
persistent rumors, and bold lies were woven skillfully by the authors into nets of
circumstantial evidence which convict the earl of murders, adulteries, hypocrisy, manifold
abuses of patronage, and sinister conspiracies against the queen. Historical anecdotes are
served up liberally to link him, for example, with Brutus and Catiline for treachery, with
Sardanapalus and Heliogabalus for insatiable lust, with Attalus, Piers Gaveston, and the
Spensers for wicked sycophancy, and with Nero and Phalaris for tyranny.
Leicester had many enemies who charged him with
many crimes. Many of the charges seem to have been at least partially true. But he was
still a privy councillor who, for better or worse, enjoyed the favor of the queen, and so,
even though the Commonwealth speaks of Elizabeth, Lord Burghley, and Secretary
Walsingham in the most solicitous and kindly terms the government treated the book as an
attack, not upon Leicester the man, but upon the entire regime and upon the queen from
whom Leicester drew his power.
Hints of the pamphlets existence first
appear in August 1584. On the twenty-fourth of that month Sir Edward Stafford, the English
ambassador in Paris, reported rumors of newly printed libels having been carried into
England, "200 in a companie, to land some of them Westward, some by the long
Seas."12 Some days earlier, Fr. Parsons had sent word
from Paris to his superiors that his man Ralph Emerson had just opened two new routes into
England and had smuggled in four priests and 810 books. Among these various shipments may
well have been copies of the Commonwealth.13
On his next trip, however, Emerson was certainly
bearing a consignment of Commonwealths. In London he somehow aroused the
suspicion of the host of the inn where he was staying and found himself and his books
attached.14 He was committed to the prison called the
Poultry Street Counter, after interrogation, on September 26, 1584 [22, p.249].15 Immediately recognizing the potential for scandal which the Commonwealth
presented, the government set about trying to determine its provenance. Lord Mayor Sir
Edward Osborne sent a copy to Secretary Walsingham, who in turn read it and then, on the
twenty-ninth, forwarded it to Leicester himself with a few shrewd guesses as to its
authorship and the assurance that he had had the other copies sealed up close .16 Leicester was enraged. He sent Richard Hakluyt,
Staffords embassy chaplain, back to Paris in early October with a demand that the
ambassador find out where and by whom it had been published [19, p. 95]. Stafford was
really on better terms with the exiles (his kinsmen) than with Leicester and Walsingham,
and there is some reason to think he may have had something to do with the Commonwealths
production himself. Nonetheless, he duly made his inquiries among the exiles and
reported back on October 29 that it had probably been printed in England, certainly not in
Paris or Rouen! He recommended the matter be left alone .
Walsingham had confiscated one consignment but
apparently other copies had got through, for in the meantime, a proclamation had had to be
issued from Hampton Court, against seditious books in general but occasioned principally
by the Commonwealth [14, no. 672]. In it, the queen denounced its abominable lies
in general terms and required all copies to be surrendered to privy councillors if within
twenty miles of the court (or to the custos of each shire if further off), offering
amnesty to all persons who immediately surrendered their copies. Those possessing copies
who did not come forward were to face indefinite imprisonment. But the proclamation was
not enough. On December 16 a bill against "scandalous libelling," also
occasioned chiefly by the tract, received a second reading in the house of Lords and was
sent into committee. It seems never to have emerged from committee, however, perhaps
because the provisions of 13 Elizabeth, cap. I (1571) against discussing the
succession to the crown were considered adequate to the Commonwealths transgressions
[26, p. 317]. On March 17 following, a similar bill was read to the Commons and rejected,
probably because the Puritan members feared it could be turned against themselves [26, pp.
368-69; 27, pp. 94-95]. But the book continued to circulate. In April 1585, for example, a
copy found its way to William Shelley, a state prisoner in the Tower, and back out again
without detection [28, p. 76].
As time passed, the furor did not pass away, and
the government tried other means to suppress the tract. Pressure was brought upon King
James of Scotland, and on February 16, 1585 there issued from Holyrood House a
proclamation against this book so "full of Ignomineis and reprochfull
calumpnies" and vindicating "the honour and reputacion of our ryt trusty and ryt
welbelovit cousing the erle of Leycester" . Later, an even more extraordinary
move was tried: in June 1585 the Privy Council sent out circular letters to the officials
in several (and probably all) counties. In these letters, the council alludes to the
proclamations already made but complains that despite them the very same "shamefull
and devilish Bookes and Libells have bin continually spreadd abroad." It goes on to
deplore the Commonwealths charges against Leicester, "of which
most malicious and wicked imputacions her Majesty in her own clear knowledge doth declare
and testify his Innocence to all the World" .17 It
is significant that, as in the case of the Marprelate attacks, the government felt obliged
not only to suppress the Commonwealths slanders but to deny them as
best it could as well.
Sometime during the winter of 1584-85, Sir Philip
Sidney undertook to defend his uncles reputation. In his "Defense of
Leicester" [34, pp. 129-41], which was evidently intended for publication but did not
in fact find print, Sidney ignores the calumnies on the earls morals and
concentrates instead upon refuting what had been only a secondary line of attack, the
charge that Leicester was newly risen from base lineage a reaction perhaps
forgivable in a very proud young man whose lineage on his mothers side was identical
with Leicesters own. He ends by challenging the unknown libeler to meet him in a
duel within three months time. It is difficult to guess whether Sidney wrote upon
request, as he did when a few years earlier he obliged the Leicestrian party with a
treatise dissuading the queen from marriage [35, p. 108]. In any case his
"Defense" was not published, probably because the government was at that time
wary of opening up a public disputation on the subject of Leicesters morals.18
Similarly during that winter, still another
complication developed. In March 1585 Stafford reported to his superior the appearance of
a French translation of the Commonwealth, one which included "a verye
villienous addition" of new matter. In his dispatch the ambassador recommended that
it be ignored, "for to compline of ytt were to have the matter more to be divulged
abroade," especially since, as his "nearest have a touche in ytt" (that is,
since it mentions Staffords wife, the former Douglass Sheffield), he might be
suspected of personal motives should he make official representations to the French court.
His greatest fear, however, seems to have been that he would be blamed for it, or at least
associated with it in Leicesters wrath: "Yf you commande me I wille send you
[one] of them, for else I wille nott, for I kanne nott tell howe ytt wille be taken."
At the end of his report, it appears that he had known something about it for some time,
something which so far as we can tell he had not reported before: "I have kept ytt
from the beginning that the other [the Commonwealth] camme out from translatinge
heere, for Throgmorton19 was even then in hand with ytt, and
by meanes thatt I founde left ytt off, and ever sence ytt hathe slept, and is butt nowe of
a sudden gushed owte" .
This French edition  is an extremely close
and accurate translation of the Commonwealth, pretty certainly an attempt by
the same group of men to give Leicesters notoriety a continental coverage. Its chief
"villainous addition," a very amusing 20-page essay at the end, is aimed more
explicitly at a French audience and expends considerable energy upon charges against the
earl (such as his subversion of the Duke of Anjou in the Low Countries) which might
particularly offend the French reader. More important, there are signs that this addition
was considered by its author to be the second installment of a continuing campaign against
the earl. He mentions, for example, further translations into Latin and Italian shortly to
appear (but which, so far as is known, never did), and promises that other men (to quote a
contemporary retranslation into English) shall "adde from day to day such his accions
as the tyme shall discover . . . as soon as they can receave more large advertisement from
England, from whence thear ys allredy gathered, as I hear, a good quantytye that shalbee
augmented from more to more" [39, p. 203]. There is other evidence as well that a
continuing campaign had been intended. The Commonwealth itself had spoken
confidently of an anticipated second edition with more current material [17, p.58], and in
Sir Francis Englefields letter of March 1586 that gentleman had wondered at several
omissions in the Commonwealths charges and suggested several new allegations
to be included in subsequent ventures . Despite his hopes, however, the French
translation was the second and last production of the exiled courtier group.
Meanwhile, interrogations were being made of all
state prisoners who might have had any knowledge of the book or its authors. Sylvan Scory,
the Bishop of Herefords scapegrace son, was examined on February 12, 1585. He
"never sawe the book" but "hath hard talk of the said libell . . . comenly
at tables" [40, art. 1]. George Errington was examined on August 30, 1585, about a
man who had been intercepted at Scarborough bearing copies of the Commonwealth .
Hugh Davies gave evidence on September 6, 1586, about a Robert Atkins, who had extolled
the books virtues to him at offensive length [42, art. 5]. William Wigges, on June
22, 1587, professed to believe the Commonwealth "worthy to be burned"
[43, arts. 1, 12, 13). In early 1586 Ambassador Staffords own man, one Lilly, was
detained in London and examined for complicity. The ambassador defended him by explaining,
erroneously, that merely to read such a book was no crime and by insisting that Lilly was
being harassed because of Leicesters malice toward himself . Robert Poley, the
same "poolie" whom the Commonwealth calls one of Leicesters
henchmen [17, pp. 96-97], was also interrogated for possessing a copy .
In addition to these measures, spies were
instructed to root out the books authors and distributors. In April 1585 Thomas
Rogers (alias Nicholas Berden) learned that 1,000 copies of the tract were being stored by
George Flinton, the Rouen printer [28, pp. 72-73]. Later in the year, having infiltrated
the exile community in Rouen, he reported that copies of the French translation were being
kept in Charles Arundells lodgings in Paris . In May 1585, the French ambassador
in London wrote home that Leicester was still on the hunt for its perpetrators [28, p.
112], and on June 1, Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador formerly in London, then in Paris,
reported that Stafford had been ordered to bring pressure upon the authorities there [47,
p. 538]. In fact, Stafford was instructed to do this on several occasions, but he kept
insisting there was nothing he could do since as a government representative he could not
act for a private citizen, and he maintained that in any case he could never expect
cooperation in such a matter from the French officials.20 But
Stafford did his best, or so he claimed. He burned some 33 copies as they came into his
hands  and may have gone further. Mary, Queen of Scots at least believed that Thomas
Morgans imprisonment in the Bastille in March 1585 had been procured at
Leicesters instance, because the earl had come to the opinion that Morgan was one of
We have seen the English government employing a
large number of devices in its attempt to suppress this inflammatory treatise. Port
searchers seized the colporteurs and confiscated their burdens; the queen issued a
monitory proclamation to the public at large; the council applied further pressure in its
circular letters to local officials throughout the realm; the government interrogated
prisoners and unleashed its undercover agents in search of the authors, and attempted to
gain aid in its censorship efforts in the courts of the Scottish and French monarchs. It
even tried getting new parliamentary legislation enacted, though in this instance the
attempt was given over. It was probably behind Sidneys literary reply as well.
Many members of the council hated Leicester fully
as much as the Commonwealths authors did, but in cases like this the
government closed ranks and acted as one. Leicester himself may have gone even further. In
January 1585 it was reported in Paris that he had sent a man over to assassinate Charles
Arundell, and two months earlier Thomas Morgan had been advised to go into hiding because
the earl would punish him similarly for his supposed participation.22
But this is probably expatriate paranoia, and in any event it adds nothing to our
understanding of the regular methods which the government had at its command.
In all of these somewhat hysterical efforts to
suppress the offensive book, the government must have been successful in some measure, as
the relative scarcity of extant printed copies suggests. But in another sense its program
was signally a failure. Leicesters Commonwealth, ignored for its political
arguments and received as a chronique scandaleuse, had become notorious and thus
avidly sought, so that, even if the numbers of its printed copies were much reduced, it
found its readership. At least one Puritan reader, vehemently unsympathetic to the
books message, was sufficiently undeterred by the official threats to procure a copy
and fill its margins with refutations and abuse.23 When
printed copies were scarce, the few that survived were made to serve as copytexts for
manuscripts which were circulated freely and recopied again and again. More than 65 of
these are still extant. Some of them show the work of several hands from the same family,
as if the copying had been done as a family enterprise, whereas others, owned by gentlemen
or by such noblemen as the Earl of Stamford, show the hands of professional scribes, whose
employment must have involved some expense.24 Extracts of
its more vivid passages were sometimes copied out and passed about like the dictes of
the philosophers.25 It was read so openly at court that the
Earl of Ormond teased Sir John Harington by greeting him in the Earl of Leicesters
presence with, "Good morrow, Mr. Reader." When asked by Leicester what he read,
Harington blushed and ("God forgive me for lieng") answered, "They were
certaine Cantoes of Ariost" [52, p.44]. As late as December 1619 the Lady Anne
Clifford was having the book read aloud to her by one of her servants [53, p.111].
There are still other signs that the treatise was
widely read. Quotations from the Commonwealth, allusions to it, and the influence
of its theoretical arguments and its portraiture of the earl fill the literature of
subsequent years. A number of other libels drew heavily upon it for their matter. The
manuscript tract known as the "Leter of Estate" of about 1585 borrows so
liberally from the Commonwealth that, despite its antiquated and rather inept
style, it was once thought to have been a rough draft [54, 55]. The Flores
Calvinistici, a tiny Latin pamphlet by Julius Briegerus, was published in the
Netherlands in two editions in February or March 1586. Over one-third of it comprises
anecdotes from the Commonwealth aimed at discrediting the Protestant military cause
in those countries, then being led by Leicester. A curious 20-page prose tract of about
1590, which elsewhere I have called "News from Heaven and Hell," largely by deft
manipulation of Commonwealth material comically portrays the earls vain
attempts to enter Heaven and his subsequent reception in Hell . Thomas Rogerss
long poem of about 1605, a rhyme-royal tragedy after the manner of The Mirror for
Magistrates, is almost entirely a versified paraphrase of the Commonwealth [57,
58], and many of the short poetical squibs written against the earl are likewise indebted
to the tract [for example, 59]. A list of the important contemporaries who can be shown to
have read the book would include William Camden, Sir Robert Naunton, Robert Parsons and
William Allen, Harington, [Thomas Nashe], Thomas Wilson, the playwrights John Webster and
Ben Jonson, and the author of The Yorkshire Tragedy. The Commonwealths image
of Leicester himself has persisted, through the antiquarians of the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, almost unqualified until the present era.
However many and varied were the means the
government had at its disposal for the suppression of unwelcome books, in this instance at
least they appear to have been insufficient. Doubtless, by confiscation of copies and by
harassment of carriers and readers, officials reduced its readership, but they were unable
to control circulation of the tract entirely. Given the vicious and hyperbolic nature of
its libel, it would be inappropriate to remark here upon the power of the truth to
overcome suppression. Perhaps we can conclude, so far as this case instructs us, that when
the public wants badly enough to read a book all government can hope to do is to make
reading it inconvenient.
1. Meyer, A. O. England and the Catholic
Church under Queen Elizabeth. Translated by J. R. McKee. London, 1914; reprint ed.,
New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
2. Clancy, Thomas H., S.J. Papist
Pamphleteers: The Allen-Persons Party and the Political Thought of the Counter-Reformation
in England, 1572-1615. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1964.
3. Read, Conyers. "William Cecil and
Elizabethan Public Relations." In Elizabethan Government and Society, edited
by S. T. Bindoff, J. Hurstfield, and C. H. Williams. London: Athlone Press, 1961.
4. Jenkins, Gladys. "Ways and Means of
Elizabethan Propaganda." History, n.s. 26 (1941): 105-14.
5. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
53/15/552. Sir Francis Englefield to a correspondent, March 9,1586.
6. Southern, A. C. Elizabethan Recusant Prose,
1559-1582. London: Sands, 1950.
7. White, Helen C. Tudor Books of Saints and
Martyrs. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963.
8. Knox, T. F., ed. Letters and Memorials of
William Cardinal Allen. London: D. Nutt, 1882.
9. Allison, A. F., and Rogers, D. M., comps. A
Catalogue of Catholic Books in English Printed Abroad or Secretly in England, 1558-1640. Bognor
Regis: Arundel Press, 1956; reprinted., London: W. Dawson, 1968.
10. Bennett, H. S. English Books and Readers,
1558-1603. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
11. Siebert, Frederick S. Freedom of the Press
in England, 1476-1776. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1952.
12. Parsons, Robert, S.J. A Defence of the
Censure. STC 19401. Rouen, 1582.
13. Prothero, G. W., ed. Select Statutes and
Other Constitutional Documents. 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.
14. Hughes, Paul L., and Larkin, James F., eds. Tudor
Royal Proclamations. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964.
15. Rostenberg, Leona. The Minority Press and
the English Crown, 1558-1625. Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1971.
16. Hicks, Leo, S.J. Letters and Memorials of
Father Robert Persons, S.J. Publications of the Catholic Record Society, vol.39.
17. The Copy of a Letter Written by a Master
of Art of Cambridge. STC 19399. Rouen (?), 1584.
18. Wing, Donald, comp. Short-Title Catalogue
. . . 1641-1700. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1948.
19. Hicks, Leo, S.J. "The Growth of a Myth:
Father Robert Persons, S.J., and Leicesters Commonwealth." Studies: An Irish
Quarterly Review 46 (Spring 1957): 91-105.
20. Murdin, William, ed. Collection of State
Papers. London, 1759.
21. Parsons, Robert, S.J. "Notes Concerning
the English Mission." In Publications of the Catholic Record Society, vol. 4.
22. "Official Lists of Catholic Prisoners,
1581-1602." In Publications of the Catholic Record Society, vol. 2. London,
23. London. British Library. Cotton MSS., Titus
B. VII, fols. l0-l0v. Walsingham to Leicester, Barn Elms, September 29, 1584.
24. Hotson, Leslie. "Who Wrote
Leicesters Commonwealth?" Listener 43 (1950): 481-83, and
exchanges with Leo Hicks, S.J., pp. 567, 659, 745.
25. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
78/12/105. Stafford to Walsingham, Paris, October 29,1584.
26. DEwes, Simonds. Journals of all the
Parliaments. London, 1682.
27. Neale, Sir John E. Elizabeth I and her
Parliaments, 1584-1601. New York: St. Martins Press, 1958.
28. Pollen, J. H., S.J., and MacMahon, William,
S.J., eds. Ven. Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel. Publications of the Catholic Record
Society, vol.21. London, 1919.
29. London. British Library. Additional MSS.
31,897, fol. 9.
30. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
12/179/44 and 45. Endorsed by Lord Burghley, "A copy of a lettre wrytten by Hir
Majestys commandment to the Mayre of London, in defence of the Erle of
31. Peck, Francis. Desiderata Curiosa, vol.1,
pt. 4. London, 1732.
32. London. Stationery Office. Historical
Manuscripts Commission, 13th Report, App. part 4. Hereford MSS.
33. Kempe, A. J., ed. The Loseley MSS. London,
34. Sidney, Philip. Miscellaneous Prose of Sir
Philip Sidney. Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten. Oxford: Clarendon
35. Pears, S. A., ed. The Correspondence of
Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet. London, 1845.
36. Boyd, W. K., ed. Calendar of State Papers:
Scotland, 1574-1581. London: Stationery Office, 1907.
37. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
78/13/86. Stafford to Walsingham, Paris, March 30,1585.
38. Discours de Ia vie abominable . . . le my
Lorde of Lecestre. 1585. British Library 10806.a.10.
39. Oxford University. Exeter College MSS. 166.
40. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
12/176/53. Examinations of Sylvan Scory.
41. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
12/181/78. Examinations of George Errington.
42. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
12/193/18. Examinations of Hugh Davies.
43. Washington, D.C. Folger Library. MS. K.b.l.
Examinations of William Wigges.
44. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
78/15/15. Stafford to Walsingham, Paris, January 20, 1586.
45. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
78/17/26. Robert Poley to Leicester, early 1585.
46. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
15/29/39. Rogers/Berden to Walsingham, Rouen, August 11, 1585.
47. Hume, M. A. S., ed. Calendar of State
Papers: Spanish, 1580-1586. London: Stationery Office, 1896.
48. London. Stationery Office. Historical
Manuscripts Commission, 12th Report, App. part 4. Rutland MSS., vol.1.
49. Petti, A. G., ed. Letters and Despatches
of Richard Verstegan. Publications of the Catholic Record Society, vol.52. London,
50. Labanoff, Alexandre, ed. Letters of Mary
Stuart. Translated by W. Turnbull. London, 1845.
51. Boyd, W. K., ed. Calendar of State Papers:
Scotland, 1584-1585. London: Stationery Office, 1913.
52. Harington, John. A Tract on the Succession
to the Crown (A.D. 1602). Edited by Clements R. Markham. London: Roxburghe Club, 1880.
53. Clifford, Anne, Countess of Pembroke. The
Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford. Edited by Victoria Sackville-West. London: W.
54. London. Public Record Office. State Papers,
15/28/113, fols. 369-388v. "A Leter of Estate."
55. Peck, D. C. "An Alleged Early Draft of
Leicesters Commonwealth." Notes and Queries, n.s. 22 (July
56. London. British Library. Sloane MSS. 1926,
fols. 35-43v. Printed in Peck, D. C. "News from Heaven and
Hell: A Defamatory Narrative of the Earl of Leicester." English Literary
Renaissance, in press.
57. Rogers, Thomas. Leicesters Ghost. Edited
by Franklin B. Williams, Jr. Renaissance English Text Society, vol. 4. Chicago: Newberry
Library and University of Chicago Press, 1972.
58. Williams, Franklin B., Jr.
"Leicesters Ghost." Harvard Studies and Notes 18 (1935): 271-85.
59. Peck, D. C. "Another Version of the
Leicester Epitaphium." Notes and Queries, n.s. 23 (May-June 1976): 227-28.
1. The meaning and effect of the Bull of
Excommunication are best discussed in [1, pp. 135-38] and [2, pp. 46-48].
2. From government abstracts of papers captured
on William Creighton, S.J., September 4, 1584 [8, p. 428].
3. Short Title Catalogue (hereafter cited
as STC) 368 (1588). Nearly all copies were destroyed when the Armada failed to make
4. These figures are by my count from the
chronological index in [9, pp.176-77]. Southerns count of 206 [6, p. 31] omitted
titles subsequently discovered, while H. S. Bennetts figure of 250 [10, p.75]
results from a slightly different use of the index. The new STC will doubtless turn
up still more.
5. The frustrations occasioned by this want of a
license sometimes compelled the Catholic authors to beg. In one preface, Fr. Parsons
called upon his opponent William Charke to "procure us but a litle passage for our
bookes: at leastwyse you [M. Charke] shall doe an honorable acte, to obtayne licence of
free passage for this booke, untill it be answered by you" [12, p.11].
6. See, for example, [6, pp. 35-36].
7. Praemunire was the offense "of
prosecuting in a foreign court a suit cognizable by the law of England, and later, of
asserting or maintaining papal jurisdiction in England, thus denying the ecclesiastical
supremacy of the sovereign" (Oxford English Dictionary).
8. Rostenberg misdates Carters execution as
January 11, 1583 instead of 1583/84. Carter was the only Catholic printer executed in the
reign, though two distributors (one a priest) were hanged in 1585 [11, p.88].
9. Parsons to Fr. Agazzari, England, August 1581
[16, p. 85].
10. The 1641 reprintings are entries L968 and
L969 in .
11. STCs conjectural
"Antwerp" is demonstrably mistaken, as that city lay in Protestant hands until
its fall to Parma after a twelve-month siege in August 1585.
12. Stafford to Sir Francis Walsingham, Paris,
August 24, 1584 [20, pp. 418-19].
13. Parsons to Agazzari, Paris, 10/20 August 1584
[16, p. 227].
14. From an account left by Fr. Weston [21, pp.
15. He was released after the queens death
in 1603 and died at St. Omers in 1604.
16. For debate over the value of this letter as
evidence of authorship, see .
17. Virtually identical copies: to the officials
of Lancashire and Cheshire [31, p. 45], to the Council in the Marches [32, p. 332], to the
Justices of Surrey [33, p. 492], all dated June 20, 1585.
18. When in 1573 the publication of the Treatise
of Treasons (STC 7601) so deeply offended Lord Burghley, he drafted notes for a
rebuttal [36, pp. 554-61], but eventually followed Archbishop Parkers advice, that
"some things are better put up in silence, than much stirred in" (Parker to
Burghley, Canterbury, September 11, 1573 [20, p.259]). In this and other cases, though
there was no settled policy the officials chose rather to offer categorical denials in the
queens name than to attempt detailed self-exculpations.
19. Thomas, one of the Paris exiles responsible
for the Commonwealth and brother of Francis (executed July 10, 1584) of the
20. On other occasions, however, for example when
Verstegans libel (with copperplate illustrations) against Elizabeths
persecution of Catholics appeared in late 1583 or early 1584, the ambassador found no
difficulty in having the books suppressed and both author and printer jailed. On this
occasion, of course, Stafford was able to speak officially for the queen as head of his
government. (Henry Constable to the Earl of Rutland, Paris, January 16,1584 [48, p. 158];
see [49, p. xxxix].)
21. Mary to the Archbishop of Glasgow, Chartley,
May 18,1586 [50, p. 362]. There is ample evidence, however, that the Earl of Derby, acting
officially, arranged Morgans arrest for his alleged complicity in the "Parry
Plot" (see, for example, Morgan to Queen Mary, Paris, March 30, 1585 [51, p.603]).
22. Morgan to Queen Mary, Paris, January 15, 1585
[20, pp. 456-57]; Hieronimo Martelli [vere Henri Samerie, S.J.] to Morgan, November
1584 [51, p. 421].
23. Consult the copy in Marshs Library, St.
24. The arms of Henry Grey, first Earl of
Stamford, are stamped on the contemporary copy, Folger MSS. G.b.11.
25. For example, British Library, Hargrave MSS.
168, fols. 395-403, and the "Earl of Derbys Historical
Collections," Sloane MSS. 874, fols. 7-12v.
do not reproduce this text in any form for commercial purposes. Further historical
references can be found in D. C. Peck, Leicester's Commonwealth: The Copy
of a Letter Written by a Master of Art of Cambridge (1584) and Related Documents
(Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985). Feedback and suggestions are welcome,
published in Library Quarterly, 1977, posted on this site 23 August