Cyndia Susan Clegg. Press Censorship in Jacobean England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. xii+286pp. ISBN 0 521 78243 0.
Michael Ullyot
University of Toronto

Ullyot, Michael. "Review of Cyndia Susan Clegg. Press Censorship in Jacobean England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 8.1-5 <URL:

  1. Cyndia Susan Clegg's earlier study of Elizabethan censorship, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (1997), now has a companion volume offering an equally intricate and reflective survey of English censorship practices after 1603. It hardly seems worth noting that aside from identifying its period, the title of this new book, Press Censorship in Jacobean England, contains neither adjectives nor a subtitle to offer a general assessment of the practice. This is entirely appropriate for a study which eschews simplification. Jacobean press censorship was both contingent and disjointed, controlled not by central decrees from a totalizing state hegemony, but by the vagaries of economic, religious, and political circumstance.

  2. Shakespeare, at least, understood that Elizabethan censorship was hardly an exact science. Where his Julius Caesar subtly avoids naming names, Annabel Patterson finds evidence of self-censorship; her Reading Between the Lines (1993) reveals traces of an earlier draft amid the logical gaps of Brutus's soliloquy on regicide. Speaking of Caesar's direct accusations in his essay On Tribute, Francis Bacon advocates this approach: "Who knoweth not that is anything skilful in the weight and force of words, but that the compellation by name giveth, as it were, a point to a man's speech, to make it enter and penetrate?" The authors of plays, newsbooks, tracts, and marriage manuals censored by Elizabethan and Jacobean authorities knew this compellation well.

  3. Because the history of censorship is a series of individual acts of suppression, this book approaches its subject through accounts of "multiple local acts of censorship." In an era when power relied on controlling the dissemination of ideas, individual proclamations and prohibitions were embroiled in familiar controversies: ecclesiastical factions, civil vs. common law jurisdictions, and royal prerogative vs. parliamentary privilege. They were driven by the individual priorities and anxieties not only of the monarch, but of the men who controlled (or sought to control) a host of institutions with the means to license or censor printed materials: the Privy Council, Parliament, the ecclesiastical courts (Chancery and, most importantly, the court of High Commission) and the secular courts (King's Bench, the Star Chamber, and the Admiralty). The confluence of agendas, tastes, and ideologies motivating each act prevents Clegg, quite judiciously, from offering a totalizing formula of Jacobean censorship practice.

  4. Some instances of censorship will be quite familiar to EMLS readers. Before the death of Elizabeth, there was the "diplomatic shuffle" over Spenser's unflattering representation of Mary, Queen of Scots in Book V of The Faerie Queene. Later, King James's disapproval of Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World is widely regarded as a reaction to the author's politics. The latter offers a fine example of Clegg's resistance to such conventional views; she convincingly argues that James was personally discomfited by Raleigh's account of providential justice, which claimed that the falls of princes stemmed from the sins of their fathers. Another misconception Clegg identifies is the notion that historiography as a genre was inherently laden with potential offence. Indeed, books like John Hayward's Life and Raigne of King Henrie IIII, printed in June 1599, had provoked a ban on the printing of English histories. But Hayward's dedication to the Earl of Essex, and his account of Richard II's deposition, were particularly ill-advised in Elizabeth's crisis-laden waning years. Holinshed's Chronicles, Camden's Annales, Martyn's History and lives of twentie kings of England: Clegg demonstrates in each instance of censored (or censured) histories that the response stemmed from a combination of bad timing and the censor's personal or institutional agenda.

  5. Each local act of censorship was instigated by a larger agenda; Clegg's vital point is that these individual agendas were neither unified in purpose nor consistent over time. Understanding the church's response to Richard Mountagu's A new gagg for an old goose (1624), for example, necessitates an exposition of ecclesiastical factions centred around Archbishop Abbot and Richard Neile, the Bishop of Durham. If the focus of Press Censorship in Jacobean England is more historical than literary, it also strives to correct tendencies in both fields' treatments of press censorship: namely, historians who wrongly historicize censorship in false conflicts, and literary critics who inadequately historicize censorship itself. One senses at its conclusion that both camps will benefit.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).