Philobiblon: Pinned to the hearse

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Pinned to the hearse

While digging around the Gatehouse, I came up with a lovely piece that I printed out at the British Library (at the ridiculous cost of 20p a page - such a rip-off!) for no reason other than I thought it was a brilliant tale: "A Poem on the archbishop's hearse: puritanism, libel and sedition after the Hampton Court Conference," by Alastair Bellany. It is a reminder there's really nothing new about the activities of Greenpeace et al.; people have been engaging in spectacular stunts to get their views across for a very long time indeed.

Imagine the scene: the solemn funeral of Archbishop John Whitgift in March 1604, at the Croydon Parish Church. As is traditional, wellwishers (and toadies) have placed laudatory epitaphs on the hearse, but - shock horror - among them is a tirade of doggerel against the dead man and his successor ("dumb dickye").

An extract:
"Your great Patron is dead and gone,
& Jockey hath left dumb dickye alone.
Popishe Ambition, vaine superstition,
couloured conformity, canckared envye,
Cunninge hipocrisie, faigned simplicity,
macked impiety, servile flatterye,
Goe all dance about his hearse,
& for his dirge chant this verse ... (p. 138)

The author explains that many of the complaints are typical of those of the Puritans of the time, and he compares it to "the mocking songs of the carivari. (See
earlier post.)

The culprit, it emerged nearly a year later, was one Thomas Bywater, a suspended preacher. Dragged before the Star Chamber, attempts to claim you could not libel a dead person failed (the perfect defence today, provided there are no inconvenient relatives around), because it was held that it had offended a representative of the Church, and therefore Queen Elizabeth, and therefore that legal entity called "The Crown"(p. 158).

Pickering was sentenced to pay a fine of £1,000, a year's jail and to be pilloried in London, Croydon and Northampton. If he did not confess, his ears were to be nailed to the pillory. (p. 160) He did not suffer all of these punishments, although certainly spent from time in jail.

Interesting thought on the punishment: the pillory and, not infreqently, mutliation. "Punishment for libel was, in itself, a ritualized form of libel." (p. 159) For a great example: William Prynne.

Editors today might count themselves lucky.

From: Journal of British Studies 34, April 1995, pp. 137-164.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Punishment for libel was, in itself, a ritualized form of libel."

Absolutely. And having read quite a lot of cases in the past, I sometimes think that could equally apply to the legal processes of slander litigation - particularly the extended cases that spin off into discrediting/defending witnesses... But now I've got my old MA diss files on my laptop's hard drive, I hope to be blogging about that before too long!

I've read stuff by Bellany in the past, but I don't think I've seen this piece. What's the bibliographical reference?


10/12/2004 09:18:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I've just added the reference to the body of the post. Sorry! That's what comes of blogging at 2am.

10/12/2004 12:50:00 pm  

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