Saturday 10 October 2020

English Military News Pamphlets

Every once in a while you come across a book which just gives you ideas. I have been reading one such which pumps into my mental economy (something that is usually in recession, of course) a supply of suggestions that would give the Federal Reserves Quantitative Easing program a run for its money.

Before getting carried away with purple prose, the book is:

Randall, D., English Military News Pamphlets 1513-1637 (Tempe, Arizona: ACMRS, 2011).

Inevitably, this is an expensive academic book, brought by Mr Cheapskate here at a much-reduced price and based on the author’s 2005 PhD thesis. The fairly extensive introduction attempts to place the reproduced pamphlets in their context. Essentially, the earliest one in the book is the first one which is still extant, and is about the Battle of Flodden (1513, as any wargamer will know, of course) which mostly consists of a list of the nobility and gentry slain and another list of Englishmen knighted on the field.

The last entry is from 1637 and the Pequod ‘war’ which seems to have been more a massacre carried out by colonists Mohegans and Narragansetts. As Randall says in his introduction, this starts off as a military news pamphlet but then segues into a real estate brochure extolling the virtues of New England especially now the pesky natives have been exterminated.

After 1637, of course, the government imposed censorship on the press, because much of it was critical of the crown’s policies, both domestic and foreign. The book trade was already constrained by the monopoly of the Company of Stationers safeguarding privilege and profit, and the chaplains of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London watching for heresy, nonconformity and sedition. As any student of the 1630s will know, notoriously Burton, Bastwick and Prynne had their books burned, they were stood in the pillory, had their ears severed and Prynne branded with S.L. (for seditious libeller) in 1637, and they were all jailed.

The book trade was also subject to the observation of the Privy Council, Star Chamber and Court of High Commission. Many of the pamphlets start with a notice that they have been approved for publication: ‘Seen and allowed’ for example. After the start of newspapers in the early 1620s military news pamphlets became less frequent, but they still continued until state control was tightened in 1637 (Cressy, D., England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution 1640-1642 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p 282-3). The problem was, of course, that any pamphlet or newsbook reporting on the state of the Protestant cause in Europe in the late 1630s was quite likely to be at least implicitly critical of the government’s foreign and religious policies.

Despite all this six or seven hundred items a year were published in the 1630s, and the collection has one of them by Hugh Peters on the Spanish invasion of Zealand in 1631. I had not heard of this, as I dare say most people will not have done. A check on my sources on the later Dutch Revolt (or Hispano – Dutch War by that time, I suppose) sees a sentence in Geyl and nothing much in Israel, both focussing more on Frederick Henry’s problems with the States rather than the military non-activity.

More about Hugh Peter’s Digitus Dei on another occasion, perhaps, as it has given me an idea for a wargame or two. There are reports in the book of the 1544 invasion of Scotland, the 1565 siege of Malta, news from Vienna in 1566, assorted news items from the French Wars of Religion, and the Spoyle of Antwerp from 1576. From the Seventeenth Century we have a letter from Ireland (1602) reporting on Kinsale, a report from a mercenary involved in the Swedish – Polish war from 1610, and the siege diary of Bergen-op-Zoom from 1622, alongside Peter’s tract and the one from New England.

All in all, it is a nice haul. Reading the tracts can be a bit difficult as the author and editor has preserved the original spellings, with footnotes indicating obscure words or old meanings. Once you get the hang of the writing and spelling, however, things are reasonably straightforward. It is a bit like my experience of seeing Shakespeare plays in live theatre; it takes me about half an hour to tune my ears into the rhythm and quirks of the language. I am told that the experience is similar for people using the Book of Common Prayer or the King James Version of the Bible.

Aside from the Hugh Peter text (which was very interesting, but I need to do more mulling over of it) the works are very interesting. They give a fresh, usually eye-witness account of the events of the time, even if they are rather underplayed in today’s historiography. I suppose then, as now, journalism is the first stab at history. You cannot know the importance of the events you have just witnessed until after you have reported them, if at all. For example, Peter compares the Spanish failure in 1631 with the failure of the Armada in 1588. Most people have heard of the former, but not many of the latter. History is a bit like that – what seems important at the time is a lot less important when a longer view is taken.

Randall notes that the rhetoric of the pamphlets changes depending on the subject. The reports from the European theatres are in general anti-Catholic, and anti-Spanish. Gascoigne’s pamphlet from the Spoil of Antwerp was part of the black legend associated with the Spanish in the later Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, for example. On the other hand, Malta and Vienna were defended by Roman Catholics which is brushed over and any Christian fighting the Turk is obviously a good guy. On the other hand, Anthony Nixon’s report from the Swedo-Polish wars does not really focus on the differing religions of the sides (Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox), but on the treatment and dangers faced by the common soldiers. As such it is perhaps more interesting than many; Randall notes that we have few reports of how the common soldier felt, lived and starved.

An interesting collection. Now, I need to consider how to invade Zealand.


  1. The book stops at a seemingly odd date. Does the author say why?

    1. Well, it is the last one in the book, and pamphlets were replaced by newsletters when censorship broke down in late 1640 with the Stationers monopoly breaking and the High Commission being unable to operate the censorship that had been imposed from the mid-1630s.

      So it does make sense. So far as anything does in the 1630s....