Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Royal Proclamations.

The satires and the comedies of the age have been consulted by the historian of our manners, and the features of the times have been traced from those amusing records of folly. Daines Barrinton enlarged this field of domestic history in his very entertaining “Observations on the Statutes.” Another source, which to me seems not to have been explored, is the proclamations which have frequently issued from our sovereigns, and were produced by the exigencies of the times.

These proclamations or royal edicts in our country were never armed with the force of laws — only as they enforce the execution of laws already established; and the proclamation of a British monarch may become even an illegal act, if it be in opposition to the law of the land. Once, indeed, it was enacted under the arbitrary government of Henry the Eighth, by the sanction of a pusillanimous parliament, that the force of acts of parliament should be given to the king’s proclamations; and at a much later period the chancellor, Lord Ellesmere, was willing to have advanced the king’s proclamations into laws, on the sophistical maxim that “all precedents had a time when they began;” but this chancellor argued ill, as he was told with spirit by Lord Coke, in the presence of James the First,1 who probably did not think so ill of the chancellor’s logic. Blackstone, to whom on this occasion I could not fail to turn, observes, on the statute under Henry the Eighth, that it would have introduced the most despotic tyranny, and must have proved fatal to the liberties of this kingdom, had it not been luckily repealed in the minority of his successor, whom he elsewhere calls an amiable prince — all our young princes, we discover, were amiable! Blackstone has not recorded the subsequent attempt of the lord chancellor under James the First, which tended to raise proclamations to the nature of an ukase of the autocrat of both the Russias. It seems that our national freedom, notwithstanding our ancient constitution, has had several narrow escapes.

Royal proclamations, however, in their own nature are innocent enough; for since the manner, time, and circumstances of putting laws in execution must frequently be left to the discretion of the executive magistrate, a proclamation that is not adverse to existing laws need not create any alarm; the only danger they incur is that they seem never to have been attended to, and rather testified the wishes of the government than the compliance of the subjects. They were not laws, and were therefore considered as sermons or pamphlets, or anything forgotten in a week’s time!

These proclamations are frequently alluded to by the letter-writers of the times among the news of the day, but usually their royal virtue hardly kept them alive beyond the week. Some on important subjects are indeed noticed in our history. Many indications of the situation of affairs, the feelings of the people, and the domestic history of our nation, may be drawn from these singular records. I have never found them to exist in any collected form, and they have been probably only accidentally preserved.2

The proclamations of every sovereign would characterize his reign, and open to us some of the interior operations of the cabinet. The despotic will, yet vacillating conduct of Henry the Eighth, towards the close of his reign, may be traced in a proclamation to abolish the translations of the scriptures, and even the reading of Bibles by the people; commanding all printers of English books and pamphlets to affix their names to them, and forbidding the sale of any English books printed abroad.3 When the people were not suffered to publish their opinions at home, all the opposition flew to foreign presses, and their writings were then smuggled into the country in which they ought to have been printed. Hence, many volumes printed in a foreign type at this period are found in our collections. The king shrunk in dismay from that spirit of reformation which had only been a party business with him, and making himself a pope, decided that nothing should be learnt but what he himself deigned to teach!

The antipathies and jealousies which our populace too long indulged, by their incivilities to all foreigners, are characterised by a proclamation issued by Mary, commanding her subjects to behave themselves peaceably towards the strangers coming with King Philip; that noblemen and gentlemen should warn their servants to refrain from “strife and contention, either by outward deeds, taunting words, unseemly countenance, by mimicking them, &c.” The punishment not only “her grace’s displeasure, but to be committed to prison without bail or mainprise.”

The proclamations of Edward the Sixth curiously exhibit the unsettled state of the reformation, where the rites and ceremonies of Catholicism were still practised by the new religionists, while an opposite party, resolutely bent on an eternal separation from Rome, were avowing doctrines which afterwards consolidated themselves into puritanism, and while others were hatching up that demoralising fanaticism which subsequently shocked the nation with those monstrous sects, the indelible, disgrace of our country! In one proclamation the king denounces to the people “those who despise the sacrament by calling it idol, or such other vile name.” Another is against such “as innovate any ceremony,” and who are described as “certain private preachers and other laiemen, who rashly attempt of their own and singular wit and mind, not only to persuade the people from the old and accustomed rites and ceremonies, but also themselves bring in new and strange orders according to their phantasies. The which, as it is an evident token of pride and arrogancy, so it tendeth both to confusion and disorder.” Another proclamation, to press “a godly conformity throughout his realm,” where we learn the following curious fact, of “divers unlearned and indiscreet priests of a devilish mind and intent, teaching that a man may forsake his wife and marry another, his first wife yet living; likewise that the wife may do the same to the husband. Others, that a man may have two wives or more at once, for that these things are not prohibited by God’s law, but by the Bishop of Rome’s law; so that by such evil and fantastical opinions some have not been afraid indeed to marry and keep two wives.” Here, as in the bud, we may unfold those subsequent scenes of our story which spread out in the following century; the branching out of the non-conformists into their various sects; and the indecent haste of our reformed priesthood, who, in their zeal to cast off the yoke of Rome, desperately submitted to the liberty of having “two wives or more!” There is a proclamation to abstain from flesh on Fridays and Saturdays; exhorted on the principle, not only that “men should abstain on those days, and forbear their pleasures and the meats wherein they have more delight, to the intent to subdue their bodies to the soul and spirit, but also for worldly policy. To use fish, for the benefit of the commonwealth, and profit of many who be fishers and men using that trade, unto the which this realm, in every part environed with the seas, and so plentiful of fresh waters, be increased the nourishment of the land by saving flesh.” It did not seem to occur to the king in council that the butchers might have had cause to petition against this monopoly of two days in the week granted to the fishmongers; and much less, that it was better to let the people eat flesh or fish as suited their conveniency. In respect to the religious rite itself, it was evidently not considered as an essential point of faith, since the king enforces it on the principle, “for the profit and commodity of his realm.” Burnet has made a just observation on religious fasts4

A proclamation against excess of apparel, in the reign of Elizabeth, and renewed many years after, shows the luxury of dress, which was indeed excessive.5 There is a curious one against the iconoclasts, or image-breakers and picture-destroyers, for which the antiquary will hold her in high reverence. Her majesty informs us, that “several persons, ignorant, malicious, or covetous, of late years, have spoiled and broken ancient monuments, erected only to show a memory to posterity, and not to nourish any kind of superstition.” The queen laments that what is broken and spoiled would be now hard to recover, but advises her good people to repair them; and commands them in future to desist from committing such injuries. A more extraordinary circumstance than the proclamation itself was the manifestation of her majesty’s zeal, in subscribing her name with her own hand to every proclamation dispersed throughout England. These image-breakers first appeared in Elizabeth’s reign; it was afterwards that they flourished in all the perfection of their handicraft, and have contrived that these monuments of art shall carry down to posterity the memory of their shame and of their age. These image-breakers, so famous in our history, had already appeared under Henry the Eighth, and continued their practical zeal, in spite of proclamations and remonstrances, till they had accomplished their work. In 1641 an order was published by the Commons, that they should “take away all scandalous pictures out of churches:” but more was intended than was expressed; and we are told that the people did not at first carry their barbarous practice against all Art to the lengths which they afterwards did, till they were instructed by private information! Dowsing’s Journal has been published, and shows what the order meant! He was their giant destroyer! Such are the Machiavelian secrets of revolutionary governments; they give a public order in moderate words, but the secret one, for the deeds, is that of extermination! It was this sort of men who discharged their prisoners by giving a secret sign to lead them to their execution!

The proclamations of James the First, by their number, are said to have sunk their value with the people.6 He was fond of giving them gentle advice; and it is said by Wilson that there was an intention to have this king’s printed proclamations bound up in a volume, that better notice might be taken of the matters contained in them. There is more than one to warn the people against “speaking too freely of matters above their reach,” prohibiting all “undutiful speeches.” I suspect that many of these proclamations are the composition of the king’s own hand; he was often his own secretary. There is an admirable one against private duels and challenges. The curious one respecting Cowell’s “Interpreter” is a sort of royal review of some of the arcana of state: I refer to the quotation.7

I will preserve a passage of a proclamation “against excess of lavish and licentious speech.” James was a king of words!

“Although the commixture of nations, confluence of ambassadors, and the relation which the affairs of our kingdoms have had towards the business and interests of foreign states have caused, during our regiment (government) a greater openness and liberty of discourse, even concerning matters of state (which are no themes or subjects fit for vulgar persons or common meetings), than hath been in former times used or permitted; and although in our own nature and judgment we do well allow of convenient freedom of speech, esteeming any over-curious or restrained hands carried in that kind rather as a weakness, or else over-much severity of government than otherwise; yet for as much as it is come to our ears, by common report, that there is at this time a more licentious passage of lavish discourse and bold censure in matters of state than is fit to be suffered: We give this warning, &c., to take heed how they intermeddle by pen or speech with causes of state and secrets of empire, either at home or abroad, but contain themselves within that modest and reverent regard of matters above their reach and calling; nor to give any manner of applause to such discourse, without acquainting one of our privy council within the space of twenty-four hours.”

It seems that “the bold speakers,” as certain persons were then denominated, practised an old artifice of lauding his majesty, while they severely arraigned the counsels of the cabinet; on this James observes, “Neither let any man mistake us so much as to think that by giving fair and specious attributes to our person, they cover the scandals which they otherwise lay upon our government, but conceive that we make no other construction of them but as fine and artificial glosses, the better to give passage to the rest of their imputations and scandals.”

This was a proclamation in the eighteenth year of his reign; he repeated it in the nineteenth, and he might have proceeded to “the crack of doom” with the same effect!

Rushworth, in his second volume of Historical Collections, has preserved a considerable number of the proclamations of Charles the First, of which many are remarkable; but latterly they mark the feverish state of his reign. One regulates access for cure of the king’s evil — by which his majesty, it appears, “hath had good success therein;” but though ready and willing as any king or queen of this realm ever was to relieve the distresses of his good subjects, “his majesty commands to change the seasons for his ‘sacred touch’ from Easter and Whitsuntide to Easter and Michaelmas, as times more convenient for the temperature of the season,” &c. Another against “departure out of the realm without license.” One to erect an office “for the suppression of cursing and swearing,” to receive the forfeitures; against “libellous and seditious pamphlets and discourses from Scotland,” framed by factious spirits, and republished in London — this was in 1640; and Charles, at the crisis of that great insurrection in which he was to be at once the actor and the spectator, fondly imagined that the possessors of these “scandalous” pamphlets would bring them, as he proclaimed “to one of his majesty’s justices of peace, to be by him sent to one of his principal secretaries of state!”

On the Restoration, Charles the Second had to court his people by his domestic regulations. He early issued a remarkable proclamation, which one would think reflected on his favourite companions, and which strongly marks the moral disorders of those depraved and wretched times. It is against “vicious, debauched, and profane persons!” who are thus described:—

“A sort of men of whom we have heard much, and are sufficiently ashamed; who spend their time in taverns, tippling-houses and debauches; giving no other evidence of their affection to us but in drinking our health, and inveighing against all others who are not of their own dissolute temper; and who, in truth, have more discredited our cause, by the license of their manners and lives, than they could ever advance it by their affection or courage. We hope all persons of honour, or in place and authority, will so far assist us in discountenancing such men, that their discretion and shame will persuade them to reform what their conscience would not; and that the displeasure of good men towards them may supply what the laws have not, and, it may be, cannot well provide against; there being by the license and corruption of the times, and the depraved nature of man, many enormities, scandals, and impieties in practice and manners, which laws cannot well describe, and consequently not enough provide against, which may, by the example and severity of virtuous men, be easily discountenanced, and by degrees suppressed.”

Surely the gravity and moral severity of Clarendon dictated this proclamation! which must have afforded some mirth to the gay, debauched circle, the loose cronies of royalty!

It is curious that, in 1660, Charles the Second issued a long proclamation for the strict observance of Lent, and alleges for it the same reason as we found in Edward the Sixth’s proclamation, “for the good it produces in the employment of fishermen” No ordinaries, taverns, &c., to make any supper on Friday nights, either in Lent or out of Lent.

Charles the Second issued proclamations “to repress the excess of gilding of coaches and chariots,” to restrain the waste of gold, which, as they supposed, by the excessive use of gilding, had grown scarce. Against “the exportation and the buying and selling of gold and silver at higher rates than in our mint,” alluding to a statute made in the ninth year of Edward the Third, called the Statute of Money. Against building in and about London and Westminster, in 1661: “The inconveniences daily growing by increase of new buildings are, that the people increasing in such great numbers, are not well to be governed by the wonted officers: the prices of victuals are enhanced; the health of the subject inhabiting the cities much endangered, and many good towns and boroughs unpeopled, and in their trades much decayed — frequent fires occasioned by timber-buildings.” It orders to build with brick and stone, “which would beautify, and make an uniformity in the buildings; and which are not only more durable and safe against fire, but by experience are found to be of little more if not less charge than the building with timber.” We must infer that, by the general use of timber, it had considerably risen in price, while brick and stone not then being generally used, became as cheap as wood!8

The most remarkable proclamations of Charles the Second are those which concern the regulations of coffee-houses, and one for putting them down;9 to restrain the spreading of false news, and licentious talking of state and government, the speakers and the hearers were made alike punishable. This was highly resented as an illegal act by the friends of civil freedom; who, however, succeeded in obtaining the freedom of the coffee-houses, under the promise of not sanctioning treasonable speeches. It was urged by the court lawyers, as the high Tory, Roger North, tells us, that the retailing coffee might be an innocent trade, when not used in the nature of a common assembly to discourse of matters of state news and great persons, as a means “to discontent the people.” On the other side, Kennet asserted that the discontents existed before they met at the coffee-houses, and that the proclamation was only intended to suppress an evil which was not to be prevented. At this day we know which of those two historians exercised the truest judgment. It was not the coffee-houses which produced political feeling, but the reverse. Whenever government ascribes effects to a cause quite inadequate to produce them, they are only seeking means to hide the evil which they are too weak to suppress.

1 The whole story is in 12 Co. 746. I owe this curious fact to the author of Eunomus, ii. 116.

2 A quarto volume was published by Barker, the king’s printer, and is entitled “A Booke of Proclamations Published since the beginning of his Majestie’s most happy Reign over England, until this present month of Feb. 1609.” It contains 110 in all. The Society of Antiquaries of London possesses at the present time the largest and most perfect collection of royal proclamations in existence, brought together since the above was written. They are on separate broadsheets, as issued.

3 In 1529 the king had issued a proclamation for resisting and withstanding of most dampnable heresyes sowen within the realme by the discyples of Luther and other “heretykes, perverters of Christes relygyon.” In June, 1530, this was followed by the proclamation “for dampning (or condemning) of erronious bokes and heresies, and prohibitinge the havinge of holy scripture translated into the vulgar tonges of englishe, frenche, or dutche,” he notes many bookes “printed beyonde the see” which he will not allow, “that is to say, the boke called the wicked Mammona, the boke named the Obedience of a Christen Man, the Supplication of Beggars, and the boke called the Revelation of Antichrist, the Summary of Scripture, and divers other bokes made in the Englishe tongue,” in fact all books in the vernacular not issued by native printers. “And that having respect to the malignity of this present tyme, with the inclination of people to erronious opinions, the translation of the newe testament and the old into the vulgar tonge of englysshe, shulde rather be the occasion of contynuance or increase of errours amonge the said people, than any benefit or commodite toward the weale of their soules,” and he determines therefore that the scriptures shall only be expounded to the people as heretofore, and that these books “be clerely extermynate and exiled out of this realme of Englande for ever.”

4 History of the Reformation, vol. ii. p. 96, folio.

5 In June, 1574, the queen issued from her “Manour of Greenwich” this proclamation against “excesse of apparel, and the superfluitie of unnecessarye foreign wares thereto belonginge,” which is declared to have “growen by sufferance to such an extremetie, that the manifest decay, not only of a great part of the wealth of the whole realme generally, is like to follow by bringing into the realme such superfluities of silkes, clothes of gold, sylver, and other most vaine devices, of so greate coste for the quantitie thereof; as of necessitie the moneyes and treasure of the realme is, and must be, yeerely conveyed out of the same.” This is followed by three folio leaves minutely describing what may be worn on the dresses of every grade of persons; descending to such minutiæ as to note what classes are not to be allowed to put lace, or fringes, or borders of velvet upon their gowns and petticoats, under pain of fine or punishment, because improper for their station, and above their means. The order appears to have been evaded, for it was followed by another in February, 1580, which recapitulates these prohibitions, and renders them more stringent.

6 The list of a very few of those issued at the early part of his reign may illustrate this. In 1604 was published a “Proclamation for the true winding or folding of wools,” as well as one “For the due regulation of prices of victuals within the verge of Kent.” In 1605, “Against certain calumnious surmises concerning the church government of Scotland.” In 1608, “A proclamation against making starch.” In 1612, “That none buy or sell any bullion of gold and silver at higher prices than is appointed to be paid for the same.” Another against dying silk with slip or any corrupt stuff. In 1613, for “Prohibiting the untimely bringing in of wines,” as well as for “Prohibiting the publishing of any reports or writings of duels,” and also “The importation of felt hats or caps.” In 1615, “Prohibiting the making of glass with timber or wood,” because “of late yeeres the waste of wood and timber hath been exceeding great and intolerable, by the glassehouses and glasseworkes of late in divers parts erected,” and which his majesty fears may have the effect of depriving England of timber to construct her navy!

7 I have noticed it in Calamities of Authors.

8 Lilly, the astrologer, in his memoirs, notes that Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (the famous collector of the Arundelian marbles now at Oxford), “brought over the new way of building with brick in the city, greatly to the safety of the city, and preservation of the wood of this nation.”

9 This proclamation “for the suppression of coffee-houses” bears date December 20, 1675, and is stated to have been issued because “the multitude of coffee-houses, lately set up and kept within this kingdom, and the great resort of idle and dissipated persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects,” particularly in spreading of rumours, and inducing tradesmen to neglect their calling, tending to the danger of the commonweal, by the idle waste of time and money. It therefore orders all coffee-house keepers “that they, or any of them, do not presume from and after the tenth day of January next ensuing, to keep any publick coffee-house, or utter, or sell by retail, in his, her, or their house, or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same), any coffee, chocolate, sherbett, or tea; as they will answer it at their utmost peril.”

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