Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper

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Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper, part of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened September 25, 2008 and closed on January 31, 2009. The exhibition was curated by Chris R Kyle and Jason Peacey with Elizabeth Walsh. The exhibition catalog can be purchased from the Folger Shop.

The first newspaper arrived in England from an Amsterdam publisher on December 2, 1620. Containing the latest foreign news, this publication immediately sparked a huge demand for up-to-the-minute reports on domestic and world events. From stories of war to lurid accounts of celebrity scandals among the royal families of Europe, journalism exploded into the world of Renaissance England. Gossip in the taverns and conversations among the political classes gave way to the phenomenon of a wide cross-section of the populace reading the events of the days and weeks in cheaply-printed serial publications.

The early English newspaper has left an indelible mark upon modern news culture. Even in its earliest manifestation, we see the emergence of the dramatic headline and the editorial, the development of tabloids and advertising, and the advent of attempts at state censorship and control over the presses. The content of the newspapers on exhibit reflects not only politics but the wider cultural, social and economic life of the times they covered.

This exhibition traces the development of journalism and the newspaper in England, from the manuscript antecedents of the coranto form to the introduction of newspapers in America in the late seventeenth century, and the birth of the first daily newspaper in England in 1702.

Contents of the exhibition

News Before Newspapers

In sixteenth and seventeenth century England, when the printing of domestic news was banned by the government and the newspaper had not yet been invented, letters were the most common form for the transmission of news. People also copied news reports into their personal diaries. One of the most popular ways to obtain information was to purchase separates. These were manuscript copies of speeches and reports of events of high political drama. Avidly collected and read, they were often circulated among family and friends.

Sir Richard Newdigate received his newsletters from London, and each arrived folded into small packets with wax seals affixed. In 1635, Charles I authorized the government postal service to carry private letters at a fixed rate dependent upon the distance traveled. However, many letters went missing en route and important news was often conveyed orally rather than by letter.

News circulating in this manner could easily be misconstrued. In a private journal titled "Strange Reports," the author collected snippets of news--including many items that are hard to believe were true stories. For example, he reports that Mrs. Honiswood of Kent gave birth to over 260 children. Perhaps more feasible, though still astonishing, is his report of a husband, wife, and two children whose combined ages equaled thirty-one years.

Another famous example of news being copied into personal journals is the final speech of Sir Walter Raleigh—poet, explorer, scientist, and one-time favorite of Queen Elizabeth—who was convicted in 1603 on flimsy evidence of treason and imprisoned in the Tower. As was customary, those on the scaffold were permitted a final speech. Reports of Raleigh’s final, eloquent words quickly circulated in manuscript and were copied into personal journals.

Listen to co-curator Chris Kyle discuss Sir Walter Raleigh's execution.

Items included

Experiments in Printed News

Major events and natural disasters provided an opportunity to publish lengthy news pamphlets. Dramatic political events from the courts of Europe, reports of strange weather, attacks on the Pope, and news of far-away and exotic lands were all available for purchase by the reading public. The government also used the news for printed propaganda campaigns, taking full advantage of its ability to reach the populace from the pulpit and the town square.

This title page from 1620 conveys a vision seen over the prophet Mohammed’s tomb in “Arabia” and a depiction of the skies raining blood in Rome. The pamphlet is a good example of how news was transmitted in England before the newspaper. Originally written as a letter, it was translated from Italian into English before being printed.

News which circulated in continental Europe was often translated into English and republished in an effort to satisfy the increasing appetite for exotic news. One report from China marvels at shaven-headed Buddhist priests, the fine quality of Chinese horses, and the small stature of the people. It also laments the lack of grapes to make wine.

Other reports show that for many Elizabethans, news did not have to be current. Roger Ascham was the tutor to Princess Elizabeth and author of The Scholemaster, a popular book on education. In 1550, Ascham traveled to Germany as the secretary to the English ambassador to the Court of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. In order to satisfy the demand in England for news from Germany, Ascham began to compile a daily report on affairs of the court. Although written as a series of manuscript newsletters, Ascham’s reports were of sufficient interest to be published after his death and twenty years after the events described.

Protestant England delighted in reading scandals about the Pope and the Catholic Church. The author of the newsbook, Newes from Rome has reproduced a woodcut which was circulated in Rome attacking corrupt Catholics and the papacy. An empty speech bubble allowed buyers to fill in their own unflattering caption.

Items included

  • Ludovico Cortano. Good newes to Christendome. London: Printed [by G. Purslowe] for Nathaniel Butter, 1620. Call number: STC 5796 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • The strange and marveilous newes lately come from the great kingdome of Chyna, which adjoyneth to the East Indya. London, 1577. Call number: STC 5141; displayed title page.
  • Newes from Rome, Spaine, Palermo, Geneuæ and France. London: Printed [by J. Wolfe?] for Thomas Nelson, 1590. Call number: STC 21293 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Roger Ascham. A report and discourse written by Roger Ascham, of the affaires and state of Germany and the Emperour Charles his court, duryng certaine yeares while the sayd Roger was there. London: Printed by John Daye, 1570. Call number: STC 830 copy 1 and LUNA Digital Image.

The Newspaper Arrives

The outbreak of the pan-European Thirty Years’ War in 1618 created an insatiable demand in England for news from the Continent. Two enterprising English publishers, Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne, soon dominated the news market. By 1642, with the breakdown of state control over the printing presses due to the English Civil Wars (1642–1651), newspapers like A Perfect Diurnall began to print domestic as well as foreign news. This signified the advent of the weekly newspaper.

The advent of the coranto fundamentally changed the way many newsletter writers operated. While pages of news were once laboriously copied by hand, printed news made the spread and the consumption of news much more common.

The most important news of the week served as the title for these early corantos. But in 1632, the government of Charles I banned the publication of corantos. However, fearful of losing a propaganda opportunity, in 1638 the Crown licensed the publishers Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne to produce newsbooks of foreign affairs, subject to government scrutiny before publication. In an epistle to coranto readers, Butter and Bourne informed their reading public that they could look forward to a resumption of frequent news reports.

Although Nathaniel Butter was imprisoned in August 1627 as a result of the government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards news publication, he continued to publish corantos. Though still not completely standardized, the title pages were updated to reflect the exact dates of the news included in the issue, and included the phrase, “the continuation of our weekly news.”

Making further strides, and unlike previous news printers who primarily translated foreign news, Samuel Pecke—considered the first English journalist—cultivated his own sources of information and published domestic news gleaned from the proceedings in Parliament. A Perfect Diurnall, published weekly from 1642 through 1655, quickly spawned imitators.

Listen to co-curator Jason Peacey discuss the first journalist.

Items included

  • A perfect diurnall of the passages in Parliament. [London: William Cook, 1642]. Call number: P1486.6 nos. 10, 11 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • May 26, 1623. Numb. 33. A relation of Count Mansfeilds last proceedings, since his entertainement into the service of the French King. London: Printed [by John Dawson] for Nathaniel Butter, Nicholas Bourne, and William Sheffard, 1623. Call number: STC 25198.8 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • A true report of all the speciall passages of note lately happened in the Ile of Ree, betwixt the Lord Duke of Buckingham his Grace, Generall for the King of England, and Monsieur Thorax, Governour of the Fort in the said Ile, as also betwixt the Duke and the French King, likewise the present state of the Rochellers, and of the Kings Armie lying before it. London: Printed [by W. Stansby] for Nathaniel Butter, 1627. Call number: STC 25201a.2 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Gazette de France. Paris: Bureau d’Adresse, 1631- . Call number: [248336]; displayed no. 47, no. 94, and no. 181.
  • Number 1. An abstract of some specially forreigne occurrences, brought down to the weekly newes, of the 20 of December. London: Printed [by T. Harper?] for Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne, By permission, 1638. Call number: STC 82 and LUNA Digital Image.

Journalists at War

The British Civil Wars (1642–1651) provided an important impetus for innovation and improvement in the newspaper industry. Newspapers became much better established, and a new generation of professional writers, publishers and printers emerged from within social groups that had not previously been involved in literary endeavors. Such men and women were willing and able to report on the progress of the war, and the issues involved with a combination of information and wit, although neither their loyalty nor their reliability could be taken for granted.

Running from January 1643 until September 1645, Mercurius Aulicus was the first truly substantial newspaper printed during the Civil Wars, operating with court backing out of the royalist headquarters at Oxford and reprinted illicitly in London. Aulicus offered military reports, political intelligence, and biting attacks upon parliamentarians. Despite this, it was often read by supporters of both sides.

Mercurius Britanicus was launched a few months later, in the summer of 1643, with the explicit aim of responding to Mercurius Aulicus, and the two newsbooks traded blows and accusations of inaccuracy every week. An extremely influential newspaper that was widely assumed to have had political backing, it launched the journalistic career of Marchamont Nedham, under whose guidance it became witty, acerbic, and scurrilous. His willingness to experiment with editorializing about both king and Parliament ensured a less than smooth relationship with the authorities, who shut the paper down and imprisoned its editor.

Once released from prison, Marchamont Nedham resurfaced in September 1647 as editor of the royalist newspaper Mercurius Pragmaticus, thus developing a reputation as an unprincipled turncoat. Despite his new political leanings, he retained his biting wit, observing the characters and foibles of parliamentarian grandees in the verses with which he opened each week’s issue.

Listen to Jason Peacey discuss the monarchy's opinion of the newspaper.

Items included

  • Sir John Birkenhead and Peter Heylyn. Mercvrivs aulicus, a diurnall, communicating the intelligence and affaires of the Court, to the rest of the Kingdome. Oxford [London]: Printed by Henry Hall for William Webb, 1642 [i.e. 1643]-1645. Call number: 235- 953q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Mercurius britanicus; communicating the affaires af Great Britaine: for the better information of the people. No. 129. London, 4-11 May 1646. [London: Printed by G. Bishop and R. White], 1643-46. Call number: 262441; displayed no. 129.
  • Mercurius pragmaticvs. Communicating intelligence from all parts, touching all affaires, designes, humours, and conditions, throughout the kingdome. Especially from Westminster, and the head-quarters. London, 1647-1649. Call number: M1768.49 and LUNA Digital Image.

Serving the Republican Regime

The end of the English Civil Wars (1642–1651) brought radicalism and political volatility, which presented new challenges for the fledgling newspaper industry. Journalists needed to navigate uncharted political territory, and their papers very quickly adopted novel ideas and innovative methods for conveying the news. The greatest challenge, involved a republican regime which, like those of earlier and later generations, sought to tame the industry, and exploit its potential for political purposes.

The trial of Charles I in January 1649 was one of the defining events of the seventeenth century. This image depicts the masses of people who crowded into Westminster Hall. Amongst those present during the trial were a number of journalists, who reported on the proceedings in their newspapers.

The king’s trial highlighted the difficulty which weekly newspapers had in keeping up with rapidly changing events. A number of journalists responded by producing special issues after each day’s court proceedings had ended. Such reports also offered evocative verbatim accounts of the heated courtroom exchanges between the king and his prosecutors.

The 1640s also witnessed the emergence of increasingly radical political ideas which were well represented in newspapers like Gilbert Mabbott’s The Moderate. Mabbott had strong ties to the parliamentarian army, and perhaps even to groups on the radical republican fringe, such as the Levellers.

Government interest in the newspaper industry was evident from the work of men like Walter Frost, who had been involved in intelligence gathering and pamphlet-writing for Parliament during the Civil Wars. Frost was employed as secretary to the Council of State, and his newspaper was produced by Parliament’s official printers. These favors helped to ensure his reputation as an official “newshound.”

Listen to Jason Peacey discuss King Charles I's trial role in presenting daily news.

Items included

  • John Nalson. A true copy of the journal of the High Court of Justice, for the tryal of K. Charles I. London: Printed by H.C. for Thomas Dring, 1684. Call number: 144- 155f and LUNA Digital Image.
  • A continuation of the narrative being the third and fourth days proceedings of the High Court of Justice; sitting in Westminster Hall Jan. 23. concerning the tryal of the King: with the several speeches of the King, Lord President, & solicitor General. Published by authority to prevent false and impertinent relations. To these proceedings of the tryall of the King, I say, Imprimatur, Gilbert Mabbot. London: Printed for John Playford, Jan. 25. 1648. [i.e. 1649], 1649. Call number: W9a and LUNA Digital Image.
  • The moderate: impartially communicating martial affaires to the kingdome of England. London: Printed for Robert White, 1648-[1649]. Call number: M2324.5 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • A Brief relation of some affairs and transactions, civil and military, both forraign and domestique. Edited by Walter Frost. No. 35. London, Tuesday April 16 to Tuesday April 23 1650. [London, England]: Printed by M[atthew]. Simmons, 1649-1650. Call number: B4624.5 and LUNA Digital Image.

Censorship and the Free Press

Opinions have always differed about the degree to which the media should be controlled by political and religious authorities, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed persistent tension between the forces of order and liberation. Brutal punishment of wayward authors produced stirring calls for press freedom. Few contemporaries adopted entirely straightforward views on this issue, however, and many changed their views depending on their proximity to power. As a result, successive regimes continued to restrict the dissemination of news and opinion.

As religious divisions deepened in the 1630s, Elizabethan legislation was deemed insufficiently rigorous to deal with Puritan tracts debating the affairs of church and state. A Star Chamber decree targeted “seditious, schismatical or offensive” pamphlets, and “secret printing in corners.”

The reforms implemented by critics of Charles I’s government during 1640 and 1641 included the abolition of the Star Chamber and the removal of individual press licensers. By 1643, however, Parliament was determined to try and re-impose order in the face of an explosion in pamphleteering and journalism. One order sanctioned searches for illicit presses and the seizure of any pamphlets which were deemed scandalous either to the king or to the proceedings of Parliament. In June 1643 a roster of clerics and lawyers was established to license new publications. This enabled the punishment of wayward journalists, not least those who attacked prominent members of Parliament and peers, as well as the king.

These restrictions on the printing of news didn't sit well with many authors and journalists, and in a bold speech against Parliament’s attempts to re-impose censorship in 1643, poet John Milton famously argued that the authorities might as well “kill a man as kill a good book.” Milton, who himself had faced punishment for his notorious pamphlets defending the practice of divorce, bemoaned attacks upon “the people’s birthright.”

Aside from brief lapses in legislation, press licensing remained in force until 1695. Freethinker and polemicist Charles Blount’s religious and political tracts were publicly burned on more than one occasion. Blount sought to keep Milton’s ideas alive during the Restoration.

Listen to Jason Peacey discuss Milton's speech against government censorship.

Items included

  • John Milton. Areopagitica; a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicenc'd printing. London, 1644. Call number: M2092 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Richard Overton. A remonstrance of many thousand citizens, and other free-born people of England, to their owne House of Commons. London, 1646. Call number: R993 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Charles Blount. Reasons humbly offered for the liberty of unlicens'd printing. London, 1693. Call number: B3313 Bd.w. M3014 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • A decree of Starre-Chamber, concerning printing, made the eleventh day of July last past. London, 1637. Call number: STC 7757 Copy 2 and LUNA Digital Image.

Satire and Scorn

It did not take long for the news industry to come under attack, and criticism became even more scathing after the explosion of partisan newspapers in the 1640s. Many saw newspapers as vehicles for biased propaganda and outright lies. Ben Jonson in the The Staple of News had ridiculed the foolishness of people wasting their money on salacious and inaccurate news.

In 1641 England was on the brink of civil war and the bookstores were overflowing with “opinions found in every house.” Henry Peacham’s poem laments this sad state of affairs: “The fruit of those idle books and libels be, In every street, in every stall you find.” In the illustration by Wenceslaus Hollar, the figure of opinion is no longer able to distinguish truth from opinion. A jester waters the tree to bring forth more false news as a man looks on in wonder at the proliferation of pamphlets.

In 1642, as civil war erupted in England, the public demand for news was insatiable and newsbooks and pamphlets proliferated. With them came satires on news and newspapers. “The general news is, nobody knows what to make of the World,” the author of Pigges Coranto laments.

In A Rope for Pol, Roger L’Estrange compares infamous newsman Marchamont Nedham to the devil and calls for him to be “marked” so all could see his faults. Nedham had been one of the chief propagandists for the Republican regime in the 1650s. A friend of John Milton, Nedham edited one of the most influential and widely read newspapers, Mercurius Politicus.

John Davies' A Scourge for Paper-Persecuters complains about the abundance of writers now publishing their works and “murdering paper.” Newsletter writers were particularly scorned: “behold the walls buttered with the weekly news composed in Pauls,” is a direct reference to Nathaniel Butter, the publisher of earlier corontos.

Perhaps the most famous of these satires on news is Ben Jonson’s play, The Staple of News, written a few years after the introduction of corantos to England. It pokes fun at the news industry and particularly those who wasted their money buying news sheets. In the play, the publisher Nathaniel Butter is lampooned as Cymbal, manager of the News Staple, itself a parody of early corantos. Four Gossips sit on stage making a number of jokes at Butter’s expense, and the industry as a whole is pilloried as a purveyor of untruths and tittle-tattle.

By 1660, newspapers were under sustained criticism and all pretense of objectivity was lost in a wave of bitter invective.

Listen to Elizabeth Walsh discuss Peacham's broadside.

Items included

  • Henry Peacham. The world is ruled & governed by opinion. London, 1641. Call number: P949.5 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Pigges corantoe, or, Nevves from the north. London, 1642. Call number: 236- 540q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Davies. A scourge for paper-persecutors. London, 1625. Call number: STC 6340 Copy 1 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • A rope for Pol. Or, A hue and cry after Marchemont Nedham. The late scurrulous news-writer. Being a collection of his horrid blasphemies and revilings against the King’s Majesty, his person, his cause, and his friends; published in his weekly Politicus. London, 1660. Call number: 184- 052q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Ben Jonson. The workes of Benjamin Jonson. The second volume. London, 1640 (i.e. 1641). Call number: STC 14754 Copy 4; displayed pp.6-7.

Formatting the News

Newspapers from the seventeenth century may look very different from those of today, but there are more similarities than might be imagined. Journalists of today owe much to the innovations in formatting made by their predecessors. A number of modern press features can be traced back to early experiments in journalism: standard features of our own newspapers, such as layout, content, arrangement, and regularity were introduced over three hundred years ago.

News reports were regularly recycled during the Civil Wars and nowhere more dramatically than in Mercurius Rusticus seen here. Compiled from stories in royalist newspapers, Rusticus was written by the royal chaplain, Dr. Bruno Ryves. Ryves specialized in recounting the brutality of parliamentarian soldiers towards royalists.

Titles like Post, Mercury and Courier quickly became standard, many of them printed in gothic typefaces, like today’s Washington Post.. One of the earliest titles to bear the name “Post,” was the London Post, produced by a leading publisher of civil war journalism, George Bishop. It was written by Parliament’s recently-appointed licenser of newspapers, John Rushworth, with the assistance of his deputy, Gilbert Mabbott. This journal was innovative not merely because of its title, but also because it provided headlines on its front page.

Despite his reputation as a side-changing hack, Marchamont Nedham was one of the most important republican writers of the seventeenth century. His most important innovation was the newspaper editorial. He pioneered journalistic comment before 1650, but perfected the art in Mercurius Politicus.

Newspaper formats changed dramatically after 1660, shifting away from the smaller quarto size towards the larger folio size with columns that we recognize today.

Items included

  • Bruno Ryves. Mercurius rusticus: or, The countries complaint of the barbarous out-rages committed by the sectaries of this late flourishing kingdome. Oxford, 1646. Call number: R2448 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • The London Post : faithfully communicating his intelligence of the proceedings of Parliament, and many other memorable passages certified by letters and advertisements, from ..., no.7(October 1, 1644). London, 1644. Call number: 248- 435q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • LOAN from The Newberry Library. Mercurius Politicus, 19. (October 10-17, 1650). London, Printed by Matthew Simmons, 1650. Newberry call number: Case J 5454 .569.
  • LOAN from The Newberry Library. Mercurius Politicus, 442 (November 11-18, 1658). London: Printed by Thomas Newcomb, 1650. Newberry call number: Case J 5454 .569.

Selling Space

Tabloid Tales

A World of Wonder

Towards a Modern Newspaper

Elections and Party Politics

Supplemental materials

Listen to a segment from On the Media about this exhibition or read the transcript.

Breaking News children's exhibition

Audio Tour