Richard III, the Advocate of a Free Press?

Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner. Richard III didn’t invent this either.

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


10 thoughts on “Richard III, the Advocate of a Free Press?”

  1. The intertwining of generations of royals and loyals never ceases to amaze me. William Catesby, principal counsellor to Richard III, (himself a close relative of the Percys) and fighting on the king’s side at Bosworth, should find one of his descendants, Robert Catesby, involved in the Gunpowder Plot with Thomas Percy (a descendant in the Percy line) against the monarch of the day just over a hundred years later. What can we say …?
    Not yet into Richard III, but good, informative post. Thanks!

    1. Things had been changing for a while — Sir Thomas Percy (son of the fifth Earl of Northumberland) and the first husband of Robert Catesby’s grandmother (John Hussey) were both executed for their roles in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537. The Tudors’ centralizing of power, as well as the dramatic religious changes, didn’t sit well with a lot of the longer-entrenched families.

  2. Fascinating post. I wonder how someone got the idea that anyone in that era would have lifted censorship, since censorship lasted for centuries both before and after Richard. FWIW, according to a legal history lecture I heard long ago, Richard’s Parliament did change bail to something similar to the modern system, where you have the right to bail after you are arrested. The lecturer (whose name didn’t show up on my notes) said that previously, you had the right to bail after indictment, not immediately after arrest.

    1. That would make sense. The actual legislation reads: “Because various people are arrested and imprisoned daily on suspicion of felony, sometimes out of malice and sometimes on vague suspicion, and thus kept in prison without bail or mainprise to their great vexation and trouble; be it therefore ordained and decreed, by authority of this present parliament, that every justice of the peace in every county, city or town shall have authority and power to grant bail or mainprise at his or their discretion to such prisoners and people thus arrested, in the same form as if the same prisoners or people were indicted for the same on record before the same justices in their session.” According to R. B. Pugh in Imprisonment in Medieval England, justices of the peace had in practice been granting bail before Richard’s Parliament formalized their role.

  3. Lots of good information in this post — thanks! I doubt that completely lifting censorship would ever have entered Richard’s head, or that of anyone around him — it just wasn’t the way the world worked. It took real courage to be a satirist in those days, didn’t it? (I’m thinking of the anonymous balladeer two generations later who a song “in great derision of” Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. Lucky for him, he was never found).

    On the other side of the silly scale, I was amused at the Guardian article which said that the skeleton’s scoliotic spine showed that “it was not, after all, simply Tudor propaganda, which had portrayed the king as a twisted psychopath.” Twisted, I’ll grant them, but I hadn’t realized that psychopathy could be diagnosed from bone structure :).

    1. Sorry, I meant to add that the article wasn’t seriously advocating for that view, but that the sentence was very awkwardly worded and made it sound like one look at the spine was all it took to confirm every rumour.

  4. Probably a little late, but just a clarification: Collingbourne was not executed for the rhyme, but for treasonous correspondence with Henry Tudor. The story that it was only the rhyme that got him condemned to death comes from after Henry Tudor’s accession to the throne as Henry VII. I don’t blame the new regime for shifting the story around a little bit to make Henry’s predecessor look arbitrary in his cruelty–it was part of the narrative that Richard III was a tyrant. However, we now have the resources to present a more accurate view of what occurred.

    1. Yes, I said in the blog post that his chief offense was writing to Henry Tudor and urging him to invade. His rhymes, however, are also mentioned in the indictment.

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