Bosworth Field and the new Information Technology

The Battle of Bosworth Field was fought on 22 August 1485 and brought to an end the Plantagenet dynasty which had reigned over England from the days of Henry II. The debate about whether Richard III was as bad as Shakespeare painted him will continue. We have got to remember that Shakespeare was a child of his time. His queen was the grand-daughter of the victor of Bosworth – Henry VII – and it didn’t do to upset the ruler. The Tudors were very concerned with image – the subject of the late Kevin Sharpe’s excellent book Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth Century England[1]. The sources available to Shakespeare may have included Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland,[2] Thomas More’s History of Richard III [3]  and  Polydore Vergil’s Historia Anglica[4]. Shakespeare’s Richard III was written in 1591 when all of these sources and possibly some others would have been available.

What is important is that all these works were in print and although Vergil’s book was printed in Basle, it is not inconceivable that copies found their way to England. The book was in Latin and would therefore have avoided the restrictions on importation of books printed overseas in English – a protectionist move for the benefit of English printers and latterly to prevent the importation of works which were anti-Elizabeth and designed to appeal to recusant Catholics.

Both Richard III and his successor Henry VII were aware of and fostered the development of the of a new information technology – the printing press.

The printing press had been introduced to England by William Caxton who learned the trade in Bruges. He set up the first press in Westminster during the reign of Edward IV.

Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster (1851 Daniel Maclise (1811–1870)

The early history of print in England up until 1513 is characterised by two factors. The first is that within eight years of the introduction of the press there was legislation in place to enable the industry to develop. The second was an absence of native born English printers, with the exception of Caxton.[5]  This was not unusual in the early history of the spread of the new technology. As the printing press spread through Germany, German craftsmen took it to other countries and in doing so passed on the skills of the craft to the natives of the new country, who in turn took the new craft with them to other countries.[6] John Lettou, of Lithuanian origin, established himself in the City in 1480 and in 1482 was joined in partnership by William de Machlinia, a native of Mechlin in Flanders.[7]  Together, in 1481, they printed a well-known law book  Tenores Novelli.[8] This was the first law book printed in England.

English authorities were often concerned at the impact that aliens had upon trade and commerce in England and often steps were taken to limit the foreign dominance of aspects of trade important to England. Foreigners were divided into two categories – aliens and denizens – and in any new regulatory activities dealing with foreign trade, it was against the aliens that the steps were initially taken. Denizens, who were foreigners who had been admitted to residence and who had certain rights,[9] could find themselves restricted in their activities.

So it was that in 1483 Parliament petitioned Richard III to address grievances against Italians[10] who, it was claimed were price fixing, buying up imported goods and re-selling them, sending their profits and bringing in other foreigners to work with them. As a result, the King’s subjects were unemployed and had turned to idleness with a consequent increase in the numbers of thieves and beggars. It was claimed that the inhabitants of “Citees Burghes and Townes in late daies have fallen and dailly falle unto grete poverty and dekay.”[11]

However, this statute, designed to severely regulate the conditions under which aliens could trade in England, contained a proviso which reads as follows:

“Provided alwey that this Acte or any part thereof, or any other Acte made or to be made in this present Parliament, in no wise extende or be prejudiciall any lette hurte or impediment to any Artificer or merchant straungier of what Nacion or Contrey he be or shalbe of, for bryngyng into this Realme, or sellyng by retaill or otherwise, of any man’s bokes written or imprinted, or for inhabitynge within the said Realme for the same intent or to any writer lympner bynder or imprinter of suche bokes as he hath or shall have to sell by wey of merchaundise, or for their abode in the same Reame for the exercising of the said occupacions; this Acte or any parte therof notwithstanding”[12]

This is a most significant proviso. It has been suggested that its inclusion was at the behest of John Russell, a bibliophile and member of the King’s Council, possibly influenced by the marketing activities of Peter Actors who was an importer of books and who had been a supplier of books to the principal fairs with his partner Joannes de Aquisgrano.[13]

The importance of the proviso may be summarized as follows. First, it indicated quite clearly that a value was placed upon books and that there was recognition of the importance of the newly introduced craft of printing which was relatively poorly developed in England. Secondly, it ensured that the continued and future presence of foreign craftsmen who were skilled in the new technology would be encouraged to come to England and continue to develop the trade. Thirdly, although this was a most important encouragement for printing, the proviso also extends to writers, limners and binders – those involved in the scribal production of books. Thus the encouragement was for book production generally, and it is probable that the Stationers’ Company, which represented native craftsmen and shopkeepers, must have approved of this specific exclusion.[14]

The 1484 Statute demonstrates what was to become a trend – the use of statute to regulate the printing trade directed primarily towards industry regulation rather than content regulation.[15]

A recognition of the developing importance of print in government came in 1485 when, on 5 December, Peter Actors, an early beneficiary of the proviso, was appointed Stationer to King Henry VII. His patent was a valuable one and is the first example of a system of prerogative licensing privileges that were subsequently to be granted to printers. The grant provided Actors with

“license to import, so often as he likes, from parts beyond the sea, books printed and not printed anywhere in the kingdom and to dispose of the same by sale or otherwise, without paying customs etc thereon and without rendering any accompt thereof.”[16]

Henry VII utilized print for propaganda purposes and was the first English monarch to do so,[17] but he also recognized the importance of print for the purposes of promulgating the law. In preparation for a military campaign in France in 1492, every officer was issued with a printed copy of a booklet entitled The Ordenaunces of Warre.[18] It was one of the first publications to recognize the wide dissemination that the new technology allowed, and the advantages that it provided in the promulgation of law, and served as a model for subsequent government publications.[19] It also made very clear that ignorance of the law could not be claimed when material was available in print.[20] The way in which the purpose of putting the Ordinances in print was worded reflected a combination of the traditional means of announcing law, which was by verbal proclamation, along with greater dissemination facilitated the technology of print.

“and to thentent they have no cause to excuse theim of their offences by pretense of ignorance of the saide ordenances, his highnesse hath ovir and above the open proclamacion of the saide statutes communded and ordeyned by wey of emprynte diverse and many several bokes conteignyng the same statutes nto be made and delivered to the capitaignes of his ost charginge them as they wyl avoyde his grete displeasure to cause the same twyes or ones at the lest in every weke hooly to be redde in the presence of their retinue.”[21]

 Up until the 1520’s there was a relatively  unregulated market for printers and for printed books. The craft grew by leaps and bounds. The five printers in London had grown to thirty-three printers and booksellers by 1523 and the English market was becoming less dependent upon imported material.[22] John Rastell, a lawyer-printer began printing in 1513 and was joined thereafter by a growing number of English printers.

The importance of printing and its status continued to be recognized by the Crown and the office of King’s Printer which was not an honorary one, became a tool of Government. The King’s Printer was granted the exclusive right to print all official publications and by 1512 Wolsey had ensured that all “Government legislation whether it concerned trade, apparel or religion, was made widely available and in an accessible and authoritative form.”[23]

The impact of this was that the State ensured the integrity of content by identifying one particular printer to produce the content. This, therefore, restricted others in the industry from printing such material thus conflating an aspect of content with a manipulation of the industry.

The importance of an informed public improved the potential for compliance with and enforcement of the law. No one could claim ignorance of the law if the law was well publicized, available and in a form that had the imprimatur of the State. By granting a monopoly for publication of such material the State was ensuring that there was one authoritative version. This system displays a remarkable insight into the implications of the new technology. On the one hand the disseminative properties of printed material were recognized. Large numbers of identical publications could be readily spread throughout the Kingdom. On the other hand it was recognized that the new technology did not produce identical copies regardless whose press they came from. There was variation between printers not only in printing style and format but in the quality of product. By restricting publication to one printer the State could ensure that there was consistency and reliability of content.

For approximately thirty years the printing trade developed in England with little restriction, but it was with the advent of Luther’s teachings on the Continent, coupled with economic concerns that were developing about the condition of the English labour market that restrictions on the trade and business of printing and the control of the content of works being printed attracted the attention of the State and the intervention of the law.

Bosworth Field may have resulted in a changed dynasty but both monarchs contesting the Crown recognised the importance of the new information technology. It was to grow and become a potent force, especially in the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell – but that is another story and for another day


[1] Yale University Press, 2009.

[2] At London printed by Henry Denham in Aldersgate street at the signe of the Starre, 1587. The first volume was printed in 1577 and took the history until the Conquest. The printing of the first and second volumes took the history  through to 1586

[3] Printed posthumously in 1557 in The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght sometyme Lorde Chancellour of England wrytten by hime in the Englysh tonge  (At the costes and charges of Iohn Cawod, Iohn Waly, and Richarde Tottell, Anno. 1557) and edited inter alia by his nephew William Rastell – see pages 35 et seq of the 1557 edition although there is some suggestion that More’s patron John Morton Archbishop of Canterbury was the source for much of More’s information

[4] Although that work was printed in Basle in three editions – 1534, 1546 and 1555 and not in England

[5]  Bennett H.S. English Books and Readers 1475-1557 : Being a study in the history of the book trade from Caxton to the Incorporation of the Stationers Company (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1952) – [referred to hereafter as 1 Bennett]  p. 30.

[6] John Feather, A History of British Publishing (Croom Helm, London, 1988)  p. 14. Richard  Pynson and William Faques were Normans and John Notary was probably French.

[7] Colin Clair A History of Printing in Britain (Cassell, London, 1965) p. 32.

[8] Littleton’s Tenures. J.H Beale A Bibliography of Early English Law Books (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, 1926)  p. 182  The 1481 printing does not appear in the Short Title Catalogue  but records Machlinia’s printing of the Tenures in 1483 STC 15720.

[9] 1 Bennett p. 30.

[10] 1 Ric 3 c.9.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Clair above n. 7 p. 104; C. Paul Christianson “The Rise of London’s Book-Trade”  in L. Hellinga and J.B.Trapp (eds) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain – Volume III – 1400 – 1557 , (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999)  p. 137. Actors was appointed Stationer to the King in 1485. See below.

[14] Cyprian Blagden The Stationers’ Company – A History 1403 – 1956 (Allen & Unwin, London,  1960), p. 24.

[15] Certainly there were later statutes which prohibited the use of writing or printing as a means of expressing or as a constituent of heresy or treason, e.g. the Treasons Act 1534. The objective of such legislation was directed more toward content.

[16] Clair, above n. 7, p. 105; Christianson  above n.13  p. 137. Actors was appointed Stationer to the King in 1485. E. Gordon Duff A Century of the English Book Trade ( The Bibliographical Society, London, 1948) p.xii-xiii. Kevin Sharpe in Selling the Tudor Monarchy above n. 1 p.65-6 notes a suggestion that Henry VII was slow to grasp the full potential of printing observing that Faques was not appointed the first Royal Printer until 1506. While the approach based on the title is correct, there can be no doubt that Faques fulfilled the same role under different nomenclature. Perhaps Henry was more alive to print potential than may be immediately apparent. Faques was followed in that position by Richard Pynson in 1508, Thomas Berthelet (1530), Richard Grafton (1547), John Cawood (1553) and Cawood with Richard Jugge (1558). 1 Bennett p.38.

[17] Ibid. Sharpe

[18] Printed by Richard Pynson STC 9332.

[19] Pamela Neville Sington “Press, Politics and Religion” in L. Hellinga and J.B. Trapp (eds) Cambridge History of the Book in Britain – Volume III – 1400 – 1557 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999) Volume 3p. 578.

[20] The issue of ignorance of the law as a concept in the early modern period is rather complex and beyond the scope of this piece.

[21] STC 9332.

[22] Clair, above  n. 7, p. 105.

[23] Neville Sington above n. 19  p. 605-6.

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