Archbishop Lauds the blogosphere.

I want to belatedly pick up the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech on the media last week, previously mentioned by the Observer blog and Slugger O’Toole.

Dr Rowan Williams had this to say about the online media:

Unwelcome truth and necessary and prompt rebuttal are characteristic of the web-based media. So are paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry. The atmosphere is close to that of unpoliced conversation – which tends to suggest that the very idea of an appropriate professionalism for journalists begins to dissolve.

Reading this, I was immediately struck by a comparison with one of Dr Williams predecessors who was also worried about the rise of new media.


William Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury during the latter years of the reign of Charles I. He played a key role in the attempt to control the rise of cheap printed pamphlets, which contributed to the religious and political controversies of the time.

Laud, a High Church Anglican, persecuted puritan pamphleters through the Court of Star Chamber. In 1632 the chamber banned the printing of all news books, which thereafter had to be smuggled from Amsterdam.

In 1633, Laud’s opponent William Prynne had his ears cropped for publishing his book, Historio-Matrix.

In 1637, Prynne was punished again for publishing News from Ipswich, by being branded on both cheeks. In the same year, the Star Chamber issued its Decree Concerning Printing, which refined the system of censorship, enforced by a Government approved publish monopoly, the Stationers’ Company.

In December that year, Prynne’s disciple, the young John Lilburne, was arrested by the Stationers company for printing unlicensed books in what appears to have been a sting operation.

Lilburne was brough before the court of Star Chamber, but refused to enter a plea, unless he was told the charges in English rather than Latin, or to take an oath. This incident was  ultimately to prove an important episode in legal history in establishing the rights of defendants.

in 1638 Lilburne was whipped from the Fleet Prison to Westminster. While in prison, Lilburne continued to write pamphlets. He was eventually freed in 1640 by the Long Parliament, which a month later would accuse Laud of High Treason, for which the Archbishop was eventually executed in 1645.

The atmosphere of puritan agitation and establishment repression contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. The resulting collapse of censorship saw the emergence of a free press and a huge wave of pamphleteering.

Emerging as leader of the Leveller party, Lilburne used the new freedom to push for a written constitution with a broad franchise.

However, the the defeat of the Levellers, and the replacement of the Commonwealth with Cromwell’s Protectorate, saw the brief period of freedom replaced by renewed censorship.


Obviously, the comparison between Laud and Dr Williams is facetious, but the comparison between the role of pamphleteering and blogging is not, particularly if one considers the role of the latter in places like Iran today.

For more on the role of pamphleteering in the Seventeenth Century, visit the Civil War section of the History of Publishing website at Oxford Brookes University.

For a comparison with the rise of digital media see this online work by Amanda Griscom at Cyberartsweb, especially the three chapters beginning with The British Civil War: A Revolution of the People.






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