The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 4. Trade Discipline

The order in the injunction of 1559 that the names of the licensers should be printed at the end of every book was practically a dead letter; but the “seen and allowed according to the order appointed,” which appears on some title-pages soon after that date, shows that some degree of supervision was being exercised, and the form of the book entries in the Stationers’ registers clearly indicates the gradually extending operation of the censorship. Previous to 1561, books are entered merely as licensed by the company, without any reference to censorship, but, from the March of that year, books are occasionally noted as authorised by the bishop of London, and, in a few cases, by the archbishop of Canterbury. Twenty years later, when John Aylmer had become bishop of London, and was taking a lively interest in the subjection of the press to authority, his name very frequently appears as licenser of all kinds of books, and even trifles like ballads receive his imprimatur. The elevation of the rigorous disciplinarian Whitgift to the see of Canterbury in 1583, and the promulgation of the Star chamber decree of 1586, mark further steps in the progress of control. By 1588, it had become the practice to enter the name of the licenser and that of one or both of the wardens of the company, and, in the same year, Whitgift, whose interest in the censorship was receiving a stimulus from the activity of his Marprelate opponents, appointed twelve persons to license books to be printed. The most active among these twelve were Abraham Hartwell, the younger, secretary to Whitgift, and Dr. Stallard. Another of them was Robert Crowley, author and formerly printer, from whose press came three editions of Piers Plowman in 1550. After sojourning abroad during queen Mary’s reign, he renewed his connection with printing, being admitted a freeman of the Stationers’ company in 1578. Among prominent censors in succeeding years were Richard Bancroft, chaplain to Whitgift and after-wards his successor, to whose activity was largely due the unearthing of the Marprelate press; William Barlow, also chaplain to Whitgift and, later, bishop of Lincoln; Richard Mocket, the reputed author of the tract God and the King (1615), which was ordered to be bought by every householder in England and Scotland; and Daniel Featley, controversialist and Westminster assembly divine.

Besides these censors by ecclesiastical warrant, various secular authorities sometimes authorised the printing of books, such as Sir Francis Walsingham, the lord treasurer’s secretary, or even lord Burghley himself. Occasionally, the countenance of the privy council was obtained, and, at other times, a book is passed by the lord mayor or the city recorder. In certain cases, professional aid was invoked, as in 1589, when a medical book was entered under the hands of both the wardens “and three Chirurgyans appointed to peruse this boke.” In the beginning of the seventeenth century, the drama received special attention, and plays were licensed by the master of the revels; an office filled by Sir George Buck from about 1608 to 1622, his immediate successors being Sir John Ashley, and Sir Henry Herbert, a brother of the poet. But all these, with the exception of the plays, were rather in the nature of occasional instances, and the vast majority of books were licensed either by the archbishop or bishop, or by his chaplain or secretary. Such was the narrow and hazardous channel through which the impetuous stream of English literature in Elizabethan days had to force its way before being allowed to reach the world of letters.

By their charter, the Stationers were empowered to search the premises of any printer or stationer to see that nothing was printed contrary to regulations, and, accordingly, searchers were appointed to make weekly visits to printing-houses, their instructions being to ascertain how many presses every printer possessed; what every printer printed, the number of each impression and for whom they were printed; how many workmen and apprentices every printer employed, and whether he had on his premises any unauthorised person. These inquisitorial visits resulted in frequent seizures of illegally printed books, and, in the records of the company, there are many instances of such books being brought into the hall and there either burned or damasked.

But the attentions of the company were not confined to illegal productions; the brethren themselves were well looked after, and the accounts of fines received for breaking of orders and other offences show that a rigorous supervision was maintained. In 1559, John King is fined two shillings and sixpence for printing The Nutbrowne Mayde without licence, and William Jones is mulcted in twenty pence “for that he solde a Communion boke of Kynge Edwardes for one of the newe.” In 1595, Abel Jeffes, having printed “lewde ballades and thinges verye offensive,” it was ordered by the court of the company that his press, type, and other printing stuff, which had been seized and brought into the hall, should be defaced and made unserviceable for printing. Penalties were also imposed for printing other men’s copies, that is, infringing copyright, and for “disorderly” printing, which evidently included carelessly, as well as wrongfully, printed books. These are mostly individual cases, but, occasionally, a wholesale raid is made, as in 1562–3, when William Powell was fined for printing the prognostication of Nostradamus, and nineteen other booksellers were fined for selling the book. In 1594, several stationers were heavily penalised for selling “psalmes disorderly printed”; and, in 1603, thirteen booksellers got into trouble for being concerned in an unauthorised edition of Basilicon doron, which had been first printed at Edinburgh in 1599, in a private edition of only seven copies. This second edition was printed by Edward Allde, and a bookseller, Edward White, who had sold 500 copies which, therefore, could not be forfeited, was condemned to imprisonment but respited to the further order of the company. Cases are not wanting in which contumacious offenders were actually committed to prison. Even in those early days, the soul of the bookseller was vexed by the intrusion of other trades upon his domain, and Thomas Purfoot was fined for selling Primers to the haberdashers. Fines for keeping open shop on Sundays and festival days are not infrequent in the sixteenth century, and the keeping of an apprentice without presenting him was a common offence.