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  • Royalist News, Parliamentary Debates and Political Accountability, 1640-60
  • Jason Peacey

Recent years have witnessed a profound transformation in historians' approach to the political culture of the first half of the seventeenth century. Driven, in part, by a concern to develop a response to revisionist accounts of the period, they have breathed new life into studies of the popular and pamphlet literature of the period, and revived interest in the early modern news revolution.1 Driven also by a desire to break down the distinctions between social and political history, and between 'élite' and 'popular' politics, historians have sought to re-examine the nature of political participation, and to reconsider public politics.2 Attempts have been made, as a result, to suggest that the period witnessed the emergence of a public sphere of open debate, and even the rise of 'democratic culture'.3 Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the way in which royalists reacted to the news and print revolutions of the mid-seventeenth century, much less still to their attitudes towards 'the public'. For the period before 1640 we are familiar with royalist views regarding the 'stigma of print', their hostility towards public engagement and participation, and their desire to protect the arcana imperii, as well as their aversion, in the language of recent historiography, to 'popularity'. Our appreciation of the way in which their ideas and attitudes developed after 1640 is less clear, even though the king's party obviously needed to engage with an expanding political nation, and to confront their apprehensions regarding the breakdown in political secrecy, and the transformation of political participation which was facilitated by the spread of popular pamphlets and the rise of newspapers. This piece discusses such issues through an examination of royalist attitudes towards the reporting of parliamentary proceedings, in terms of orders and resolutions, motions and divisions, and Commons and Lords debates. This neglected aspect of civil war print culture provides an important key to understanding early modern notions of the relationship between representatives and represented, the nature of political debate, and the role of the 'public' in national life.


Recent attempts to rehabilitate Charles I have sought to recover the 'principles' which underpinned his politics. Perhaps the most persuasive of these has been Richard Cust's argument regarding the king's aversion to popularity, and his concern regarding conspiracy and threats to the monarchy. Charles feared those who sought 'a kind of liberty in the people . . . through their puritanical itching after popularity'.4 Indeed, Cust would no doubt argue that Charles reacted against the emergence of a 'patriot narrative' which 'envisaged an integrated political system in which the localities were linked to the centre through the representative functions of parliament and in which informed and active citizens at the local level had the power to shape events in the arena of national politics'. The 'patriots', on Cust's account, 'transmitted information backwards and forwards', and 'used their rhetorical skills to persuade and influence others', and they employed such contacts in order to effect reform, particularly after 1640.5 Charles regarded this new style of politics as 'dangerously populist', objected to the way in which the secrets of the arcana imperii were exposed to the public, and denounced the way in which the people were encouraged to consider and question matters which ought to have been beyond their understanding and concern.6 Like other recent scholarship on Charles, Cust stresses the extent to which secrecy, privacy, and withdrawal from the public gaze became key aspects of court culture.7

Perhaps the clearest indication of Charles's views was the now famous royal proclamation of 1620, penned by Francis Bacon, which lambasted the trend towards 'greater openness and liberty of discourse, even concerning matters of state (which are no themes or subjects fit for vulgar persons or common meetings)', and which berated 'a more licentious passage of lavish discourse, and bold censure in matters of state, than hath been heretofore, or is fit to be suffered'. It championed instead 'that modest and reverend regard of matters above their reach and calling, that to good and dutiful subjects appertaineth', and the king's subjects were enjoined to 'take...


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pp. 328-345
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2008
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