« ZurückWeiter »
the furious persecuting spirit of this princess, passed an act whereby it was declared, "That if a libeller doth go so high as to libel against king or queen by denunciation, the judges shall lay no greater fine on him than one hundred pounds, with two months' imprisonment, and no corporeal punishment: neither was this sentence to be passed on him except the accusation was fully proved by two witnesses, who were to produce a certificate of their good demeanour for the credit of their report.'
This act was confirmed by another, in the seventh year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth; only the penalties were heightened to two hundred pounds and three months' imprisonment. Notwithstanding she rarely punished invectives, though the malice of the papists was indefatigable in blackening the brightest characters with the most impudent falsehoods, she was often heard to applaud that rescript of Theodosius. If any person spoke ill of the emperor through a foolish rashness and inadvertence, it is to be despised; if out of madness, it deserves pity; if from malice and aversion, it calls for mercy.
Her successor, King James I., was a prince of a quite different genius and disposition; he used to say, that while he had the power of making judges and bishops, he could have what law and gospel he pleased. Accordingly, he filled those places with such as prostituted their professions to his notions of prerogative. Among this number, and I hope it is no discredit to the profession of the law, its great oracle, Sir Edward Coke, appears. The Star Chamber, which in the time of Elizabeth had gained a good repute, became an intolerable grievance in the reign of this learned monarch.
But it did not arrive at its meridian altitude till Charles I. began to wield the sceptre. As he had formed a design to lay aside parliaments and subvert the popular part of the constitution, he very
well knew that the form of government could not be altered without laying a restraint on freedom of speech and the liberty of the press: therefore he issued his royal mandate, under the great seal of England, whereby he commanded his subjects, under pain of his displeasure, not to prescribe to him any time for parliaments. Lord Clarendon, upon this occasion, is pleased to write, "That all men took themselves to be prohibited, under the penalty of censure (the censure of the Star Chamber), which few men cared to incur, so much as to speak of parliaments, or so much as to mention that parliaments were again to be called."
The king's ministers, to let the nation see they were absolutely determined to suppress all freedom of speech, caused a prosecution to be carried on by the attorney general against three members of the House of Commons, for words spoken in that house, Anno 1628. The members pleaded to the information, that expressions in parliament ought only to be examined and punished there. This notwithstanding, they were all three condemned as disturbers of the state; one of these gentlemen, Sir John Elliot, was fined two thousand pounds, and sentenced to lie in prison till it was paid. His lady was denied admittance to him, even during his sickness; consequently, his punishment comprehended an additional sentence of divorce. This patriot, having endured many years imprisonment, sunk under the oppression, and died in prison: this was such a wound to the authority and rights of Parliament, that, even after the restoration, the judgment was revered by Parliament.
That Englishmen of all ranks might be effectually intimidated from publishing their thoughts on any subject, except on the side of the court, his majesty's ministers caused an information, for several libels, to be exhibited in the Star Chamber against Messrs. Prynn, Burton, and Bastwick. They were each of
them fined five thousand pounds, and adjudged to lose their ears on the pillory, to be branded on the cheeks with hot irons, and to suffer perpetual imprisonment! Thus these three gentlemen, each of worth and quality in their several professions, viz., divinity, law, and physic, were, for no other offence than writing on controverted points of church government, exposed on public scaffolds, and stigmatized and mutilated as common signal rogues or the most ordinary malefactors.
Such corporeal punishments, inflicted with all the circumstances of cruelty and infamy, bound down all other gentlemen under a servile fear of like treatment; so that, for several years, no one durst publicly speak or write in defence of the liberties of the people; which the king's ministers, his privy council, and his judges, had trampled under their feet. The spirit of the administration looked hideous and dreadful; the hate and resentment which the people conceived against it, for a long time lay smothered in their breasts, where those passions festered and grew venomous, and at last discharged themselves by an armed and vindictive hand.
King Charles II. aimed at the subversion of the government, but concealed his designs under a deep hypocrisy a method which his predecessor, in the beginning of his reign, scorned to make use of. The father, who affected a high and rigid gravity, discountenanced all barefaced immorality. The son, of a gay, luxurious disposition, openly encouraged it; thus their inclinations being different, the restraint laid on some authors, and the encouragement given to others, were managed after a different
In this reign a licenser was appointed for the stage and the press; no plays were encouraged but what had a tendency to debase the minds of the people. The original design of comedy was perverted; it appeared in all the shocking circumstances of immod
est double entendre, obscure description, and lewd representation. Religion was sneered out of countenance, and public spirit ridiculed as an awkward oldfashioned virtue; the fine gentleman of the comedy, though embroidered over with wit, was a consummate debauchee; and a fine lady, though set off with a brilliant imagination, was an impudent coquette. Satire, which in the hands of Horace, Juvenal, and Boileau, was pointed with a generous resentment against vice, now became the declared foe of virtue and innocence. As the city of London, in all ages, as well as the time we are now speaking of, was remarkable for its opposition to arbitrary power, the poets levelled all their artillery against the metropolis, in order to bring the citizens into contempt: an alderman was never introduced on the theatre but under the complicated character of a sneaking, canting hypocrite, a miser, and a cuckold; while the court-wits, with impunity, libelled the most valuable part of the nation. Other writers, of a different stamp, with great learning and gravity, endeavoured to prove to the English people that slavery was jure divino.* Thus the stage and the press, under the direction of a licenser, became battering engines against religion, virtue, and liberty. Those who had courage enough to write in their defence, were stigmatized as schismatics, and punished as disturbers of the government.
But when the embargo on wit was taken off, Sir Richard Steel and Mr. Addison soon rescued the stage from the load of impurity it laboured under⚫ with an inimitable address, they strongly recom mended to our imitation the most amiable, rational manly characters; and this with so much success that I cannot suppose there is any reader to-day, conversant in the writings of those gentlemen, that can taste with any tolerable relish the comedies of
* By divine right.
the once admired Shadwell. Vice was obliged to retire and give place to virtue this will always be the consequence when truth has fair play: falsehood only dreads the attack, and cries out for auxiliaries: the truth never fears the encounter: she scorns the aid of the secular arm, and triumphs by her natural strength.
But, to resume the description of the reign of Charles II., the doctrine of servitude was chiefly managed by Sir Roger Lestrange. He had great advantages in the argument, being licenser for the press, and might have carried all before him without contradiction, if writings on the other side of the question had not been printed by stealth. The authors, whenever found, were prosecuted as seditious libellers; on all these occasions the king's counsel, particularly Sawyer and Finch, appeared most obsequious to accomplish the ends of the court.
During this blessed management, the king had entered into a secret league with France to render himself absolute and enslave his subjects. This fact was discovered to the world by Dr. Jonathan Swift, to whom Sir William Temple had intrusted the publication of his works.
Sidney, the sworn foe of tyranny, was a gentleman of noble family, of sublime understanding and exalted courage. The ministry were resolved to remove so great an obstacle out of the way of their designs. He was prosecuted for high treason. The overt act charged in the indictment was a libel found in his private study. Mr. Finch, the king's own solicitor-general, urged with great vehemence to this effect, "that the imagining the death of the king is treason, even while that imagination remains concealed in the mind, though the law cannot punish such secret treasonable thoughts till it arrives at the knowledge of them by some overt act. That the matter of the libel composed by Sidney was an imagining how to compass the death of King