No Offence, Your Majesty: Sedition Could Cost You Your Life in Tudor England, but by the 18th Century the Monarch Was Fair Game

By Cressy, David | History Today, January 2010 | Go to article overview

No Offence, Your Majesty: Sedition Could Cost You Your Life in Tudor England, but by the 18th Century the Monarch Was Fair Game


Cressy, David, History Today


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In 1444 a Berkshire gentleman named Thomas Kerver was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for calling the king a child, disparaging his majesty's manhood and saying that England would be better if Henry VI 'had never been born'. Almost a century later, in 1535, George Baburney, a tailor from Newport Pagnell, faced death for calling Henry VIII 'a heretic, a thief and a harlot', and saying that before midsummer he hoped to 'play football with his head'. Hundreds of people were investigated and more than 100 executed for treasonable words in Henry VIII's reign.

In later Tudor England, however, the punishments for scandalous, seditious and treasonable words were generally less lethal. Mary Cleere of Ingatestone, Essex, was sentenced to death in 1577 for saying 'that the queen's majesty was base-born and not born to the crown', but she may also have been punished for involvement in a Catholic conspiracy. Jeremy Vanhill, a labourer of Sandwich, Kent, was hanged in 1585 after exclaiming: 'Shite upon your queen, I would to God she were dead that I might shit on her face,' but he had also committed other felonies. Dozens more men and women suffered little worse than a spell in prison and a stand in the pillory, perhaps with the loss of their ears, for calling Elizabeth I a rogue or a whore, or wishing her dead so that England could be governed by a king.

Lawyers and politicians argued whether words alone could be treason and by the reign of Charles I it was largely settled that they could not. Commoners in every reign spoke 'lewd, ungracious, detestable and traitorous' words against the head of state, but such speech was progressively decriminalised. One of George III's subjects in 1795 called for the king to be stoned and his head set on Temple Bar. Another in 1800 offered to 'rip his bloody guts out, and lay them on the floor'. Juries often found such speakers 'not guilty' and those convicted served only token punishment. Victorian liberal opinion took pride in 'an almost superstitious reverence for freedom of speech' in England, where 'seditious words, unless accompanied by seditious deeds, are usually permitted to be uttered with impunity' (The Graphic, November 1879).

How did it happen that words speaking ill of the monarch, which in one age could lead to gruesome execution, in another could be dismissed with a shrug? The answer, as so often in British history, involves changes in political culture, constitutional politics, public opinion and law.

Edward III's statute of 1352, in force until the 19th century, made it treason to 'compass or imagine' the death of the monarch and some judges said that this could be accomplished by words alone. Henry VIII's Treason Act of 1534 made it a capital offence to call the king 'a heretic, a schismatic, a tyrant, an infidel or an usurper" but the law died with him. In Pyne's Case, a landmark ruling of 1627, the judges determined that 'no words of themselves make treason" though common speech could still be criminally seditious and punishable as a misdemeanour. …

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