Oxford £25 (374pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 03
Dangerous Talk, By David Cressy
Friday 15 January 2010
Aimed at someone else, a finely honed insult is one of life's undoubted pleasures. Even its victim can, in time, value such pungency. As such, any ruler's job description should require a bemused smile. Yet such oratory, through several centuries in England, brought grumblers the loss of ears – or, worse, of neck. As is made clear by David Cressy's study of "scandalous, seditious, and treasonable speech", many a monarch unleashed a bloodbath upon those who had taken it upon themselves to "have their say".
Contrary to appearances, Henry VIII's was a thin hide. Far worse than the silent footage of a CCTV camera was to find that an ale-house table was in effect wired for sound. This surveillance increased after the Reformation, when the 1534 Treason Act led Thomas Cromwell to emphasise that "cankered malice" should be "tried and... perused with great dexterity".
Consider Elizabeth Wood of Aylsham in Norfolk. Some time after the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, she was outside a tailor's shop and lamented that "these Walsingham men were discovered, for we shall never have good world till we fall together by the ears", and "we had never good world since this king reigned." As a call to arms, this is hardly flashing steel, but it so troubled a listener that he asked a neighbour what to do. After he took it to the constables, they brought in the magistrates who despatched her to prison, whence she went before the Privy Council, Cromwell, the King's Bench - and to the scaffold.
Between 1534 and 1540 there were a hundred such executions after 150 trials springing from 500 cases. Professor Cressy's wide-ranging, archive-driven forages reveal a monarchy as ill at ease with itself as those before it.
Even in civic disputes, subjects had brought cases against one another for such oral denigration as "witwally". In years to come, an unknown Elizabethan councillor would memorably declare of such phrases that, when encased in a pamphlet, they are widely regarded as "the flying sparks of truth, forcibly kept down and choked by those which are possessed of the state".
Rough verse made it as easy to pass such apparent truth from mouth to mouth - which risked having a tongue bloodily shortened. So found one Hugh Broughton. Meeting another Englishman between Frankfurt and Strasbourg, he duly regaled him with the tale that, years before, Elizabeth had been got with child, after which she repaired to Hampstead. A midwife was engaged to ensure she survived the parturition, when the hapless infant was hurled onto the coals.
Here is history as limitless vignette. In 1618, a splendidly named tailor, Passwater Sexbie, hurled a hat through the king's coach window in Holborn; for which, along with a three-month jail sentence, he was twice whipped.
As late as 1800, the double whammy of apparent lunacy and certain Welsh speaking did not save John Griffith from two months' jail after wishing that Napoleon were in charge here because, as for George III, "I could make a better out of a block of oilwood, it being first painted and gilt, and then sent to parliament for their acceptance".
If a parade of guttural aspersion can weary at times, Cressy always keeps matters moving, In particular, he remedies the Dictionary of National Biography's overlooking of Somerset resident Hugh Pyne, whose apparent treason in Charles I's reign led to his representing Weymouth in Parliament. Such paradox continues to abound. Wearing a "Bliar" T-shirt can bring a police record in an England still sought by many as refuge from that swathe of the globe where a similar garment could become a noose.
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Indian footballer Peter Biaksangzuala dies after injuring spine doing somersault celebration
- 2 Jack the Ripper: Scientist who claims to have identified notorious killer has 'made serious DNA error'
- 3 Banksy arrest hoax: Internet duped by fake report claiming that the street artist's identity has been revealed
- 4 Drink alcohol and eat meat to improve male fertility - but cut down on coffee, studies suggest
- 5 Brian Harvey turns up at Downing Street and 'demands to speak to Prime Minister'
Breaking Bad season 6 is still not happening
Doctor Who, Flatline - review: Clara isn’t half bad as the Time Lord
Downton Abbey review series 5, episode 5: Period drama falls disappointingly flat
Star Wars Episode 7 has almost finished filming
X Factor 2014 results: Chloe Jasmine and Stephanie Nala sent home
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver allegedly kicks gay couple off for kissing
Amal Alamuddin calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain: 'Injustice has persisted for too long'
Lord Freud: Tory welfare minister apologises after saying disabled people are 'not worth’ the minimum wage