As my Facebook friends know, in the wake of the positive identification of the remains at Leicester as being Richard III’s (a wonderful find, by the way), I’ve indulged in a Girl-Scout-cookie eating game each time someone falsely claims that Richard III invented bail. That’s been a lot of cookies, folks!
A few days ago, however, I was floored to see an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by historian Andrew Roberts, who claims, “here is a monarch who abolished press censorship, invented the right to bail for people awaiting trial . . .”
Abolished press censorship?
Richard III owned a variety of books and seems to have actually read them, instead of having them just for show. When his only Parliament passed “anti-alien” legislation placing restrictions on the commercial activities of aliens within England, those aliens involved in importing, selling, producing, or printing books were specifically exempted. We do not know whether this exemption was added at the initiative of the king himself or whether others advocated for it. What we do know is that it seems to have thoroughly confused Roberts, who wrote in another piece, this time for The Daily Mail, “[h]e also lifted restrictions on books and printing presses — effectively abolishing press censorship some 500 years before Lord Leveson tried to reintroduce it.” In fact, there had been no restrictions on books and printing presses to lift; the exemption from the anti-alien legislation simply maintained the status quo and allowed the affected readers—mainly scholars, clergy, and other learned men who needed material that had not been translated into English—to continue to obtain books from abroad and from aliens working inside England. The legislation had nothing to do with censorship, or the lack thereof.
Far from abolishing censorship, Richard III, as his crown was threatened from forces within and without England, showed himself on several occasions to be concerned with keeping his subjects from speaking their minds too freely. Forced in March 1485 to deny poisoning his queen in order to marry his niece, he proclaimed, “And what person that from henceforth tell or report any of this aforesaid untrue surmised talking, that the said person therefore be had to prison unto the actor be brought forth of whom the said person heard the said untrue surmised tale &c.”
A month later, Richard in a proclamation to the city of York noted that there were “divers seditious and evil disposed persons” who were “sow[ing] seed of noise and disclaindre [slander] against our person, and against many of the lords and estates of our land to abuse the multitude of our subjects and avert their minds from us if they could by any means attain to that their mischievous intent and purpose; some by setting up of bills, some by messages and sending forth of false and abominable language and lies; some by bold and presumptuous open speech and communication one with other.” He ordered that if someone “find any person speaking of us, or any other lord or estate of this our land otherwise than is according to honor, truth, and the peace and rightfulness of this our realm, or telling of tales and tidings whereby the people might be stirred to commotions and unlawful assemblies, or any strife and debate arise between lord and lord, or us and any of the lords and estates of this our land, they take and arrest the same person unto the time he have he brought forth him or them of whom he understood that that is spoken and so proceeding from one to other unto the time the furnisher, actor and maker of the said seditious speech and language be taken and punished according to his deserts, and that whoever first find any seditious bill set up in any place he take it down and without reading or showing the same to any other person bearing it forthwith unto us or some of the lords or other of our council.”
The most famous seditious writing of Richard III’s reign, of course, was William Collingbourne’s famous ditty:
The cat, the rat, and Lovell our dog
Rule all England under a hog.
The “cat, rat, and dog”’ were William Catesby, Richard Ratcliffe, and Francis, Viscount Lovell; the “hog” referred to Richard’s emblem of the white boar. Collingbourne was arrested in the autumn of 1484. While his most serious offense was writing to Henry Tudor and urging him to invade, he was also accused of “devising certain bills and writing in rhyme, to the end that the same being published might stir the people to a commotion against the king.” Around December, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered—not a great day for freedom of speech.
None of this, of course, should be taken to mean that other medieval English kings were less harsh than Richard in this respect. Henry VI and Edward IV similarly prosecuted defendants for speaking against the government. But Roberts’ notion that Richard was an early advocate for free speech is, to put it impolitely, sheer tripe.
J. G. Bellamy, The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages
P. W. Hammond and Anne F. Sutton, Richard III: The Road to Bosworth Field
Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books