Oxford £25 (374pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 03

Dangerous Talk, By David Cressy

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power