Primary documents

Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660
Text of C.H. Firth and R.S. Rait’s 1911 three-volume collection of legislation made into law during the Commonwealth and Protectorate.

Magna Carta, 1215
A pretty amazing interactive tour of the foundation of England’s constitution.

John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (Book of Martyrs)
Variorum edition based on the four English editions published in London in the sixteenth century.

Stationers’ Charter, 1557
Organized in 1403, the Stationers’ Company was a crafts guild for those in the printing trade. In 1557 Mary (Elizabeth I’s Catholic predecessor–and half-sister), granted the Company a Royal Charter of Incorporation, which gave it a lock on England’s printing industry, conferring it monopoly status. In the 17th century,  the Stationers’ Company was one of London’s livery companies (not unlike our present-day trade unions).

From a terrific website, Primary Resources on Copyright, 1450-1900: “The grant of the Charter ensured that the Company’s licensing procedures became the standard by which members of the book trade secured the right to print and publish literary works…. The grant of the Charter by Mary is often understood as the point at which the monarchy established an effective regulatory institution to control and censure the press, in the guise of the Stationers’ Company, in exchange for an absolute monopoly over the production of printed works. Instead … censorship of the press throughout the Tudor period remained an essentially ad hoc and reactive phenomenon, and that both Mary and Elizabeth relied, not primarily upon the Company of Stationers, but on the use of statutory instruments and royal proclamations to censure heretical and treasonous texts.

Hic Mulier or, the Man-Woman, 1620
Anonymous pamphlet abhorring women who dressed like men. I love this bit: “Remember how your Maker made for our first Parents coates, not one coat, but a coat for the man, and a coat for the women…will you lose the modell left by this great Work-master of Heaven?” Prompted the anonymous publication of “Haec-vir: or, The womanish-man: being an answere to a late booke intituled Hic-mulier. Exprest in a briefe dialogue betweene Haec-vir the womanish-man, and Hic-mulier the man-woman.”

Petition of Right, 1628
Prohibited Charles from riding roughshod over certain rights of his subjects, including freedom from taxation unsanctioned by Parliament and imprisonment without just cause.

Decree of Star-Chamber Concerning Printing, 1637
Reaffirmed the Stationers’ Company’s authority over the printing trade, granting it more power than ever  before. Elaborate in its prohibitions, among the basic stipulations were that all printed books had to be licensed and recorded into the Stationer’s Register; all books had to carry the name of the author and imprint and address of the publisher; and publishers of Catholic and Puritan books could be put to death. Soon after the Decree, William Prynne had the stumps of his ears cut off (his ears themselves were removed in 1634) and his cheeks branded “SL” for “Seditious Libeller.” More commentary here. When Parliament dissolved the Star Chamber in 1641, the press was essentially unshackled.

The Grand Remonstrance, December 1641
A laundry list of more than 200 abuses England has sustained since the beginning of Charles’s reign. Accompanied by a petition that places blame on corrupt (i.e., papist) counselors. Keeping in mind that Strafford had been beheaded earlier that year and that Laud was imprisoned in the Tower of London, it’s reasonable to assume an implied threat against Henrietta Maria, his Catholic queen. As it is that talk of scheming papists in high places was a veiled attack on Charles himself.

The King’s Answer to the Petition accompanying the Grand Remonstrance, December 1641
“Much against our expectation…the said declaration is already abroad in print…we must let you know that we are very sensible of the disrespect.”

The Militia Ordinance, March 1642
The King and Parliament agreed that an army was needed to supress the rebellion in Ireland, but neither side trusted the other with control of the armed forces. Parliament’s Militia Bill proposed that Parliament should have the right to nominate the commanders of the armed forces rather than the King. The bill passed its first reading by 158 votes to 125, but King Charles refused to give his assent to the bill, so that it was unable to pass into law. In March 1642, however, Parliament issued the Militia Bill as an ordinance (legislation that has not received the royal assent) and took the unprecedented step of proclaiming that Parliament could act independently of the King in the interests of the nation’s defence. Ordinances passed by the Commons and Lords were to be regarded as valid in law without the royal assent. The King issued the Commissions of Array to counter the Militia Ordinance. The question of whether to obey the Militia Ordinance or the Commission of Array became an early test of allegiance in the English Civil War. Adapted from

The Nineteen Propositions sent by the two Houses of Parliament to the King at York, June 1642
The Nineteen Propositions was a set of proposals sent from the Lords and Commons to King Charles in June 1642 after the King had left London and set up his court at York. The Propositions were confrontational and uncompromising in tone. (1) Parliament was to be responsible for the defence of the country; (2) The King must accept Parliament’s authority to raise armies; (3) Parliament was to supervise all foreign policy; (4) The King was publicly to pardon the Five Members; (5) Strict new laws against Roman Catholics were to be enforced; (6) Parliament was to supervise the education of royal children and to arrange their marriages; (7) All the King’s ministers were to be made answerable to Parliament; no new peers could be appointed to the House of Lords without the approval of the Commons. Not unexpectedly, they were firmly rejected. The King’s Answer was published on 18 June. It declared that Parliament’s proposals threatened the ancient constitution of the kingdom. If the King agreed to them, he would effectively be deposing himself and his posterity. After the rejection of the Nineteen Propositions, both sides began openly preparing for an armed confrontation. From

The Solemn League and Covenant, 1643
An agreement between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters that Diane Purkiss describes as a “treaty in which Parliament all but hired an army of Scots in exchange for paying them £30,000 a month (which it really didn’t have) and for establishing the Presbyterian Church in England and Ireland” (The English Civil War 214).

An Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing, June 14, 1643
Parliament’s attempt to control the press, it stipulated that publications had to be licensed before they could be printed. The immediate cause of Milton’s 1644 Areopagitica.

John Milton, 1608-74

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England, 1644
Milton’s famous tract decrying censorship responded to the 1643 ordinance (see above), which he saw as a disturbing return of the 1637 licensing bill enacted by the Star Chamber. Milton’s prose isn’t easy to read (Stanley Fish once characterized it as jumping up and down in the same place), but the piece is  helpfully annotated on this site. Still required reading in schools of journalism, like the program at the University of Missouri, the first j-school in the United States. Unabashed plug for my home state. 😉

Henry Ireton, Cromwell's son-in-law, 1611-1651

The Heads of the Proposals Offered by the Army, Summer 1647
The best deal Charles would ever be offered (by the Parliament, Army, or Scots) after he surrendered himself to the Scots in April of 1647 . Co-drafted by Henry Ireton (Cromwell’s son-in-law), the  proposals offered to restore Charles to the monarchy and retain bishops (whose powers would be limited) in church government. Among other conditions,  Charles would have to make religious toleration (freedom of conscience ) the law of the land and call Parliament every two years. (Go here for more information.) Charles rejected the terms, hoping that by sitting tight and avoiding committing himself to any sort of concession the Army and Parliament might, like the Kilkenny cats, do each other in.

An agreement of the people for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right and freedom, October 28, 1647
Drafted by Army radicals (mainly the Agitators and those associated with the Levellers), “An agreement” rejected the  Cromwell circle-approved “Heads of the Proposals” (see above)–any proposal that restored the monarchy was a betrayal of the common man. This manifesto argued for a truly revolutionary reform of state government–what amounted to a new constitution.  The reformed constitution would give all freeborn men (though not women) a real say in how they were governed, notably the right to elect their own representatives in Parliament, whose “power … is inferior only to theirs who choose them.” Men were not to be compelled to observe the state-approved form of worship: “matters of religion … are not at all entrusted by us to any human power, because therein we cannot remit or exceed a tittle of what our consciences dictate to be the mind of God.” All were equal under the law, no matter a man’s “tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place.” Those serving in the civil war were to be granted amnesty, no matter their allegiance. The ideas in this first draft of the manifesto (there were to be several) were the subject of the extraordinary Putney Debates of late October to early November 11 (see below). Ultimately rejected by Parliament in January 1649.

The Putney Debates, October 28 to November 11, 1647
From October 28 to November 11, Cromwell and senior officers in the New Model Army invited Army radicals to make their case for “An agreement.” The gesture was a really sop thrown the “elitist republicans” threw to the “popular republicans” to appease a faction who could derail the form of government Cromwell planned. But the debates–transcribed from October 28 until November 2, thank goodness–were the occasion of the most stirring and articulate advocacy of  democracy you’re likely to meet. Agitator Thomas Rainsborough (the most senior officer who spoke for the rank-and-file) said, “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.” Henry Ireton, speaking for the “Grandees” (among whom the grandest were father-in-law Cromwell and Lord General Thomas Fairfax), argued that extending the right to vote to men without property would unleash anarchy. Reading the transcript is a thrilling experience. The full text here amounts to 54 pages. If you’re interested in, say, Ireton’s arguments about property, then I recommend searching for that term and printing only a range of pages. Note that anything Rainborough says is worth reading.

An Act against Unlicensed and Scandalous Books and Pamphlets, and for better regulating of Printing, September 1649
“Mischiefs arising from weekly Pamphlets” or newsbooks–that’s the chief bugbear here. See Mercurius Politicus’s post on Milton and Licensing for a debate on the scope of Act and Milton’s involvement in its composition (you read that right!).

An Act for reviving of a former Act, Entituled, ‘An Act against Unlicensed and Scandalous Books and Pamphlets, and for Regulating of Printing’, with some Additions and explanations, January 1653

Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, 1609-74

The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, pub. 1702–04
Multi-volume history written by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon (pictured at right), begun during the 1650s, but first published  in the early eighteenth century. An MP and early critic of Charles, Hyde became the king’s adviser when he believed Pym and The Grand Remonstrance had gone too far. During the wars, he was a kind of duenna for Prince Charles (later Charles II) in exile, his chief concern making sure that the boy didn’t turn Catholic and ruin his chances for claiming the throne. Charles II made him the Lord Chancellor and an Earl, but the two fell out and he lived the rest of his life in exile. The link takes you to the first book in the History. An inexpensive condensed version is published by Penguin.


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