From "True reform of parliament" by James Gillray

From “True reform of parliament” by James Gillray


“Sedition: conduct or language inciting to rebellion against the constituted authority in a state” – Oxford English Dictionary

Last week, I was in Vienna at the biannual European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) – known by the hashtag #ESSHC2014 on Twitter.

One of the most interesting papers I attended was one by Peter Rushton on The Rise and Fall of Seditious Words in England, 1550-1750. I have found his articles on the magistracy – written with Gwenda Morgan – incredibly interesting (and very useful within the context of my own PhD on the rural magistracy), and his paper was equally so.

The paper looked not just at what was sedition, but at how it was dealt with at a local level, looking particularly at magistrates in northern England as, according to Rushton, “magistrates WERE the local government” in Early Modern England.

Sedition arose from a belief that the reputation of rulers had to be preserved, and as part of the criminal law, the Star Chamber could punish all forms of attack on a king or his ministers, whether written, spoken, sung, or drawn (such as in a political cartoon).

Truth was no defence; if a statement was seen as dangerous to the social and political order, then it was deemed to be seditious, whether based on truth or not. It was even possible to prosecute for sedition if the victim of it were dead – such as if the defendant had insulted the king’s parentage (see Burn, Vol 3, 250, where he states ‘the offence is the same, whether the person libelled be alive or dead’).

By a local extension of the law, Rushton argued, it could also be sedition to insult a provincial Justice of the Peace, as subordinates of the monarch were protected. Richard Burn discussed this in his handbook for magistrates, The Justice of the Peace, differentiating between libel and genuine discussion:

“Although it is an aggravated misdemeanour to publish an invective against judges and juries with a view to bring into suspicion and contempt the administration of justice in the country, still it is lawful with candour and decency to discuss the merits of the verdict of the jury or the decisions of a judge.” (The Justice of the Peace, Vol 3, 250)

But could magistrates be the victims of sedition? Or were they instead slandered? And what was the different between slander and sedition?

Rushton noted that “all seditious speech was scandalous, but not all scandalous speech was seditious”. He detailed the language used in various cases, but said it was hard to work out from the words used or who the victim was, just what was sedition and what wasn’t.

The prosecution of sedition was, though, less about the exact words used, and more to do with how wide an audience heard the allegations, or whether disorder could result from that particular use of words. Despite there being evidence of allegations made against magistrates – such as a 1650s example given by Rushton, “The justices you run to are tyrants” – many acts of defiance of local orders issued by JPs were not defined as seditious.

In fact, defamatory words uttered against local magistrates and mayors were not treated as sedition, even if they reflected badly on them, so Rushton believes that there was a tolerance of some words and acts. There is little evidence of sedition proceedings brought by magistrates – because they were attempting to defend the dignity of the magistracy rather than the state, Rushton argued, they may have treated cases as insults instead of sedition.

They were vulnerable to personal attacks, but the personal should be stressed; magistrates tended to face down the insults rather than making it a bigger deal by prosecuting, thus preserving their dignity.

In addition, in terms of the audience hearing a seditious comment, witnesses were often the people who brought a sedition case. Yet few would hear the words uttered about a magistrate in his justicing room, so unless he was willing to bring the case, thus publicising the comments, he might have decided to keep quiet about it.

Burn failed to differentiate between libel and sedition in his guidance, his main advice being:

“Libels on persons employed in a public capacity receive an aggravation as they tend to scandalise the government by reflecting on those who are entrusted with the administration of public affairs; for they not only endanger the public peace…by stirring up the parties immediately concerned to acts of revenge, but also have a direct tendency to breed in the people a dislike of their governors, and incline them to faction and sedition.” (The Justice of the Peace, Vol 3, 249)

In this statement, it can be seen that there was a blurred line between libel and sedition, but that sedition could be seen as a more active, political form of libel that risked disrupting an orderly society.

Rushton argued that, in the later part of this period, the rise of print culture replaced anxiety about the spoken word. There was more of a fear of rumour being spread by news sheets, via coffee-houses, from London and out into the provinces. Official priorities therefore were redirected from the spoken word to the dangers of print and the written word, with printers and writers being prosecuted.

Rushton concluded by saying that the focus on the written word, and on printing, has meant that speech has been neglected. Likewise, the “local” needs examining – what was happening away from the London-based print prosecutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

The century between 1650 and 1750 was, Rushton said, a “golden” age of seditious speech – and as such, I believe it was also a fascinating age.