Dangerous Talk, By David Cressy

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The Independent Culture

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.