Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > The Beginnings of English Journalism > Gainsford and the Corantos
   Samuel Pecke, patriarch of the Press  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XV. The Beginnings of English Journalism.

§ 1. Gainsford and the Corantos.

IN its origin, journalism was not the child of the printing press. The germ of it is to be found in the circular letters sent round after Agincourt and other medieval battles; and the profession of a writer of “letters of news” or “of intelligence” dates from the establishment of regular postal services.   1
  Long before this, however, statesmen had found it necessary to have a constant supply of news. In the days of queen Elizabeth, Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, founded a staff of clerks in order to provide himself with news. His establishment for this purpose vied with that of the government itself. His clerks, Anthony Bacon, Sir Henry Wotton, Cuffe, Reynolds and Temple, so plentifully supplied him with intelligence that they were one of the sources of his power. But these were not journalists writing for the public; they were simply retainers of a great noble, members of a class of whom the cultured and intelligent John Chamberlain, correspondent of James I’s ambassador, Dudley Carleton, is the chief. Chamberlain’s letters are numerous, and give graphic pictures of life in London at the court of James I. 1    2
  A long time elapsed before English journalism could call the printing press to its aid. The royal prerogative in the circulation of news, the vexatious licensing system, the regulations of the Star chamber, together with the religious strife of the times, all combined to prevent the publication of any sort of periodical until 1622, and all journals of domes tic news until 1641, when the great rebellion was about to begin.
[Printing] hath been a pestilent midwife to those accursed brats, Error in the Church and Sedition in the State. Nor indeed, if a man may dare to speak it, are the governors themselves wholly blameless for such inconveniences. For Printing being ever accounted among the Regalia of every government, as well as coining etc., it should be looked on with such a jealous and strict eye, there should be such a circumspect care of prevention, and such painful pursuance of misdemeanours as would be required against the most dangerous crimes. 2 
  Thus wrote a pamphleteer, in defence of Oliver Cromwell during the great press persecution of 1653, and the statement may be taken as fairly representing the mind of all parties throughout the seventeenth century.   4
  The first traces of journalism in the printing press were in the broadside ballads about battles and tragical events of the day. To these were soon added isolated pamphlets usually termed Relations of news; but pamphlets of this nature, describing domestic events, were rare before 1640. In the meantime, periodical pamphlets had sprung into existence on the continent; and these constituted the bulk of the sources from which the English Relations were taken. One of these “books of news,” a chronicle of the wars in Germany, published half yearly at Cologne,  3  was written in Latin and had a large circulation in England. This was the model upon which subsequent English periodicals based themselves. Nevertheless, it evidently dealt too much with affairs of state to allow it to be regularly translated.   5
  After the marriage in 1613 of princess Elizabeth with the elector palatine, and the subsequent German wars, an English periodical could not long be delayed. In May, 1622, Thomas Archer and Nicholas Bourne were authorised to issue periodically pamphlets dealing with foreign wars. These periodicals usually appeared at intervals of five days or a week, were not at first numbered and never at any time had a regular running title. This last device, properly characterised as a “catchword,” did not come into being until the year 1642, when it was occasioned by competition. Other stationers, of whom Nathaniel Butter was chief, joined Archer and Bourne as publishers, and, in 1625, Archer alone appears to have published a periodical in competition with Butter and Bourne. He made the first attempt at a “catchword” on the title of his periodical by styling himself (not the pamphlet) “Mercurius Britannicus” —evidently modelling himself in this on “Mercurius Gallobelgicus.” The headings of these pamphlets usually varied according to their themes; but they were generally spoken of as the Coranto or “current” of news—that is, a “relation” which ran on, instead of being confined to one pamphlet. Sometimes, another Italian word, Novella, was also applied to the Relations. For example, Joseph Mead wrote to a friend on 8 November, 1623, “I send you to–day besides the Corranto, a double novella to the ordinary intelligence”—the Relation, in that case, being the story of the fall of a building in which a number of Catholics were listening to a sermon. Nevertheless, all Corantos dealt exclusively with foreign news, down to the year 1641.   6
  These Corantos were the subject of much ridicule, particularly at the hands of Ben Jonson. Indeed, so strong a vein of personal animosity towards captain Francis Gainsford, who, probably, wrote the earlier Corantos, and towards Chamberlain, his probable protector, is to be noticed in Jonson’s masques and in his Staple of Newes, that it may be surmised that, at some time or other, Jonson’s conduct in the wars in the Low Countries had been unfavourably described by Gainsford. Be that as it may, the ill repute which Jonson contrived to fasten upon the profession of the author of a newsbook survived, and survived unjustly, for many years.   7
  On 17 October, 1632, the Star chamber finally prohibited the printing of all Gazettes and news from foreign parts, “as well Butter and Bournes as others,” and, thenceforward, until 20 December, 1638, no Corantos appeared. On the last date, Butter and Bourne, by royal letters patent, were granted the monopoly of printing foreign news: “they paying yearly towards the repair of St. Pauls the sum of £10.” No. 1 of the new “newsbook” was dated the same day, with the title An abstract of some speciall forreigne occurrences brought down to the weekly newes of the 20 of December. Anthony à Wood tells us that William Watts of Caius college, who was also an Oxford doctor of divinity, wrote more than 40 of these newsbooks, “containing the occurrences done in the wars between the King of Sweden and the Germans.” There was a total absence of considered editorial comment in these newsbooks, nothing but bare translations being permitted. The preface to the first number is a very good example of the terminology in use:
The Currantiers to the Readers. Gentle Reader. This intelligencer, the Curranto, having been long silenced and now permitted by authority to speake again, presents you here at first with such things as passed some months since; not because we conceive that they are absolutely Novels unto you; but first, because there is fraud in generalities, we thought fit to acquaint you with each particular: and, secondly, that by these antecedents you may better understand the consequents which we shall now publish weekly as heretofore.
  Difficulties with the licenser soon followed; the Corantos were again suppressed, reappeared and, finally, vanished altogether among the shoals of pamphlets pouring from the press in 1641 and 1642. With the passing of the Coranto, came the “newsbook” or Diurnall of domestic news.   9
  In abolishing the Star chamber (5 July, 1641), the last thing which the Long Parliament had in view was to grant liberty to the press. Preparations for a censorship were at once taken in hand, the delay until June, 1643 in carrying them into effect being occasioned solely by the struggle with the king. In November, 1641, parliament encroached upon the royal prerogative by permitting Diurnalls of its proceedings (to which other news was added) to be published under the imprimatur of its clerks. There was but one post a week from London at this time, on Tuesday, and the result of the permission was that, in a week or two, as many as fifteen Diurnalls, undistinguishable save by their contents and (occasionally) by the printers’ or booksellers’ names attached, appeared every Monday, to the ruin of the scriveners, who had been in the habit of sending out letters of news every week. Copyright (at the time not supposed to exist at common law) had been endangered by the abolition of the Star chamber’s licensers; and, if we bear in mind the scurrility which had previously characterised political and religious pamphleteers and broadside writers, it is not surprising to find that the crowd of counterfeit Diurnalls and even more numerous Relations were dishonest productions. Throughout the year 1642, both Houses were extremely busy in punishing writers and printers, particularly of Relations; a process only terminated in 1643 by the appointment of a licenser—Henry Walley, clerk to the company of stationers—recognition of the “catchword” or newspaper title, protection of copyright and the wholesale stamping out of the forging, counterfeiting and, occasionally, blasphemous writers of Relations. Henceforward, journalists were a recognised body, their periodicals became easily distinguishable and the Relations accompanying them can be marked off and identified.   10
  Of the vast, unique and practically complete Thomason collection  4  of tracts of the times, extending over the period from 1641 to 1660, at least one third consists of newsbooks, and, when to this are added the Relations and other tracts allied to the newsbooks, more than one half the total collection of over 22,000 pieces is to be ascribed directly or indirectly to journalists of the day and to their associates.   11
  To identify the writers and describe their work critically is, to a great extent, the task of the student of history rather than that of the student of literature; for it is in their political and religious significance that the greatest interest lies. Nevertheless, all the main features of the modern newspaper were attained for a time; the work of the descriptive reporter, the war correspondent and considered editorial comment continually cropped up in the most unexpected manner, and, occasionally, from the most unexpected persons. These newsbooks were usually sold at a penny (about four times the value of our modern penny) and, when there was any repression of their number or their news, they were largely supplemented by the uncensored letters of news posted with them. Quantities of these newsletters are to be found among the Clarke papers at Worcester college, Oxford. At their best, the newsbooks, as they were called, consisted of two sheets, i.e. 16 pages quarto, and, whatever their size, were invariably called “books.” A sheet was a pamphlet and nothing else. Throughout the Stationers’ registers, the term “table” is uniformly used for a “broadside”: “news–sheet” and “newspaper” were never used.   12

Note 1. As to “intelligencers,” cf. ante, Chap. VIII [ back ]
Note 2Sedition Scourg’d, or a View of that Rascally and Venemous Paper entituled; a charge of High Treason exhibited against Oliver Cromwell Esq., etc., printed 20 October, 1653, and probably written by John Hall. [ back ]
Note 3. The first number appeared in March, 1594, and was written by Michael Jansen, of Doccum in West Friesland, under the pseudonym “Mercurius Gallobelgicus”; other writers succeeded him. [ back ]
Note 4. A catalogue of this, in chronological order (each piece having been dated by Thomason on the day he purchased it) was printed in 1908. The dates are nearly always the days of publication and have been accepted in the text. [ back ]

   Samuel Pecke, patriarch of the Press  

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