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  • The English Mercurie Hoax and the Early History of the Newspaper
  • Markman Ellis (bio)

In 1794 the Scottish antiquarian George Chalmers (1742–1825) undertook research into the origin of newspapers, "those pleasant vehicles of instruction, those entertaining companions of our mornings" for his biography of the Scottish publisher and scholar Thomas Ruddiman (1764–1757). After assessing the historical evidence, he declared that the first newspaper, which he defined as a regularly printed gazette of news, was English.

It may gratify our national pride to be told, that mankind are indebted to the wisdom of Elizabeth and the prudence of Burleigh for the first news-paper. The epoch of the Spanish Armada is also the epoch of a genuine news-paper. In the British Museum, there are several news-papers, which had been printed while the Spanish fleet was in the English Channel, during the year 1588. It was a wise policy, to prevent, during a moment of general anxiety, the danger of false reports, by publishing real information. And the earliest news-paper is entitled, The English Mercurie, which, by Authority, was "imprinted at London by Christopher Barker, her Highnesses printer, 1588".1

Although Chalmers noted some oddities about this example (it was printed in "Roman, not in black, letter" and had certain anachronisms), his discovery was celebrated in literary journals and magazines.2 Over the following decades, it was accepted as authoritative in a series of reference works, beginning with the fifth edition of Isaac Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature (1807),3 and thereafter the fourth volume of John Nichols's Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century (1812),4 Johann Beckmann's Concise History of Ancient Institutions (1823);5 and from there in various encyclopædias including Encyclopædia Londinensis (1820),6 Encyclopaedia Americana (1832),7 Brockhaus's Conversations-Lexikon (1832),8 and Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1845).9 [End Page 100]

There was only one problem with this patriotic discovery: it was a hoax. In 1839 The English Mercurie was exposed as a fake by Thomas Watts (1811–1869), Assistant Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum. His published Letter to Antonio Panizzi Esq Keeper of the Printed Books in the British Museum (dated 16 November 1839) declared that "the claims of the English to the invention of printed Newspapers are unfortunately of no validity, and that the 'earliest Newspaper' in the Museum is an imposture". Rather than merely repeating Chalmers's claim, he had examined the item himself. "On the book being brought, I had not examined it two minutes, before, to my surprise, I was forced to conclude that the whole was a forgery". Consulting with his colleagues, John Winter Jones and Antonio Panizzi, they noticed various "marks of unauthenticity" and declared it was impossible that the printing was from 1588. The English Mercurie was, he concluded, "an imposition".10

When he returned to the topic of this "spurious production" a decade later, in an article for the Gentleman's Magazine, he was able to identify the author as Philip Yorke, second earl of Hardwicke (1720–1790), from his handwriting on accompanying manuscripts. He also noted that the mercuries were mentioned in the printed but unpublished Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Possession of the Earl of Hardwicke, compiled by William Coxe in 1794.11 Watts noted that Yorke's manuscripts had emendations by Thomas Birch (1705–1766), in whose papers the mercuries were archived. Watts concluded, somewhat ruefully, that Birch (one of the founders of the British Museum) was not "the intended dupe of the mystification", but was actually "one of the parties engaged in carrying it out". He observed that The English Mercurie had "no pretension to literary beauties" and, in mitigation of his illustrious perpetrators, thought that it "seems never to have been brought forward by its authors with a view of deceiving the public". In conclusion he stated: "What was the object of the English Mercury is not easy to settle".12

This article seeks to answer Thomas Watts's question. His attribution was correct: the three printed examples of The English Mercurie dated 1588 (Figure 1) were written by Philip Yorke in 1744, and printed, but not published, by the bookseller James...


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