Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)
Commentary on the Stationers' Royal Charter 1557
School of Law, University of Birmingham, UK
Please cite as:
Deazley, R. (2008) ‘Commentary on the Stationers' Royal Charter 1557', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, www.copyrighthistory.org
1. Full title
3. The Company of Stationers
4. The Grant of the Royal Charter
5. Elizabeth and Freedom of the Press
1. Full title
The Royal Charter of the Company of Stationers (1557)
Royal Charter providing the Company of Stationers with corporate legal status within the City of London, and conferring on them exclusive control over printing within England. The grant of the Charter ensured that the Company's licensing procedures became the standard by which members of the book trade secured the right to print and publish literary works, giving rise to what is generally referred to as ‘stationers' copyright'.
The grant of the Charter by Mary is often understood as the point at which the monarchy established an effective regulatory institution to control and censure the press, in the guise of the Stationers' Company, in exchange for an absolute monopoly over the production of printed works. In fact, the commentary suggests that censorship of the press throughout the Tudor period remained an essentially ad hoc and reactive phenomenon, and that both Mary and Elizabeth relied, not primarily upon the Company of Stationers, but on the use of statutory instruments and royal proclamations to censure heretical and treasonous texts.
3. The Company of Stationers
Although the Stationers' Company was not granted its Royal Charter until 1557, the organisation dates back to the early fifteenth century. In 1403 the Mayor and Aldermen of London granted a petition to the writers of legal texts, the illuminators of manuscripts, bookbinders and booksellers to establish a craft guild within the city. With the grant of the Royal Charter by Queen Mary (1516-1558) in the mid-sixteenth century, however, the stationers were assured all the advantages within the economic and political life of the City of London that came with corporate legal status. As Clegg notes, they were granted "privileges and practices common among other guilds: rights of property ownership, self-regulation, keeping apprentices, and engaging in searches to protect the trade from ‘foreigners' (non-members) and poor workmanship". The charter also allowed them "to petition the City [of London] for the right to have a livery (granted in 1560), which assured the Company voting rights in London and parliamentary elections, participation in London governance, and status among London livery companies". Most importantly, the charter granted the stationers the exclusive right "of printing any book or any thing for sale or traffic" within England and her dominions. It was this particular aspect of the charter which lay at the heart of the company's primary function and interest: securing to its members the exclusive control over their published works. To achieve this, and following the grant of the charter, the stationers drafted ordinances which provided that members had to both obtain from the Wardens of the Company a licence to print any particular work, and enter that licence in the company's register. This process had the effect of securing to any member their exclusive right to print the registered work. Anyone who printed a work against the licence of the company could be brought before the stationers' Court of Assistants, a body that could, if warranted, impose financial penalties upon the individual engaging in the unauthorised reproduction. In this way, the charter facilitated the development of what is generally referred to as ‘stationers' copyright'. In addition to the printing privileges granted by the reigning monarch, this provided the two proprietary models for protecting published works which prefigured the introduction of statutory copyright into Britain with the passing of the Statute of Anne 1710.
4. The Grant of the Royal Charter
While the stationers' charter occupies a particularly important place in the history of the development of copyright within Britain, there is, however, considerable speculation as to why Mary decided to grant it at this time, given that the guild had petitioned the crown for a charter as early as 1542. Why did they fail with their petition to Henry VIII (1491-1547), but succeed with Mary? Not surprisingly, the granting of the charter has been understood in different ways. Ransom provides one point of view:
"The foundation of the Company in 1557 was not complicated or confused. Mary's purpose in chartering the ‘mystery of Stationers' was to provide means of regulating the press. In so many words the preamble to the charter says that the press has spread heresy and sedition and that the Company is charted with a view to providing a ‘suitable remedy in this behalf'. The proposed remedy was not mild."
In this manner, he provides just one example of those commentators who, in the words of Clegg, perceive the charter as "a draconian measure on the part of Tudor hegemony to control the printed word, as the means by which the government could achieve its end of controlling sedition and heresy". Certainly the language and substance of the preamble to the charter seems to bear out just such a reading. It recounts the purpose behind the grant as aiming to "provide a suitable remedy" for the "seditious and heretical books rhymes and treatises [that] are daily published and printed by divers scandalous malicious schismatical and heretical persons". It was these types of publications that Mary considered induced her subjects to "sedition and disobedience" against the Crown, but also contained "very great and detestable heresies against the faith and sound catholic doctrine of Holy Mother Church". In this way, the stationers, in exchange for an almost absolute monopoly over the production of printed works, agreed to act as the willing watchdogs of the press.
And yet, there are a number of reasons to be sceptical about such an overly simplistic analysis of the relationship between both the crown and government and the stationers at this time. Loades suggests that, while the Company had a role to play in the regulation of the press, "it is clear that [it] did not thereby become the subservient agent of government censorship". Despite having granted the charter the previous year, for example, Mary, in 1558, nevertheless considered it necessary to issue the third of her royal proclamations concerning the possession of heretical and seditious books both "daily brought into this realm out of foreign countries", and "also covertly printed within this realm and cast abroad in sundry parts"; clearly the grant of the charter provided no guarantee that such works would not be printed within the realm. On the other hand, when Elizabeth (1533-1603) acceded to the throne in 1559, bringing with her a renewed allegiance to the protestant faith, she affirmed the charter in almost exactly the same terms as it had been drafted in 1557, including the commitment to the "sound catholic doctrine of Holy Mother Church". As Clegg notes, "[t]hat Elizabeth could have so readily confirmed an organization supposedly formed to effect the censorship of Protestant heresy and sedition evokes some scepticism about the rhetoric of authority" that often characterises commentary upon the relationship of the stationers with the state at this time. It is true that in the same year in which Elizabeth renewed the stationers' charter, the new queen issued her Injunctions (intended to articulate and define the character and form of the Elizabethan Church), item 51 of which established that an ecclesiastical High Commission would have the responsibility for licensing printed works. However, despite the existence of this High Commission, relatively few printed works actually received any form of pre-print authorization. Greg, for example, records that "from 1557 to 1571, licence ... is sporadic and indeed exceptional. The earliest instance is in 1560-1, by the Bishop of London. The Archbishop of Canterbury first appears in 1564-5, licensing Stow's ‘Breaffe Cronenacle'. In the whole fourteen years only about fifty licences are recorded among all the 1600 entries: the Bishop and the Archbishop account for all but two". When one considers that not every book published in any given year was necessarily entered on the Company's Register then the extent to which the Elizabethan press appears to have been affected by a culture of pre-publication censorial control diminishes even further.
5. Elizabeth and Freedom of the Press
Despite the existence of the High Commission, the reality of censorial control of the press at this time did not primarily lie with the stationers. Certainly, they had a role to play in the politics and practice of sixteenth century censorship, but in fact it was not the stationers but rather "[t]wo long-standing institutions, parliament and the royal prerogative, [that] proved to be Elizabethan England's most useful means for effecting censorship". During Elizabeth's reign, parliament passed no less than eleven statutes concerning treason and sedition, statutes that included committing such offences in print. In 1581, for example, parliament mandated the death penalty for anyone guilty of devising, writing, printing, or setting forth any work "containing any false, seditious, and slanderous matter to the defamation of the Queenes Majesty, that now is, or to the incouraging, stirring or moving of any insurrection or rebellion". In addition to these treason statutes, Elizabeth also issued eleven separate royal proclamations concerning works she considered to be seditious, heretical or libellous in some regard; indeed, as Clegg demonstrates, the majority of texts actually censored in Elizabethan England were specifically addressed by way of these royal proclamations. The very multiplicity of both the treason statutes and these various royal proclamations serves to underline the point which Clegg makes as to the nature of censorship throughout the latter half of the sixteenth century. Namely, that despite the existence of a regulatory institution in the guise of the Stationers' Company, the censoring of printed texts was essentially an ad hoc and reactive phenomenon, and one that was by and large managed outside of the company itself. This approach leads us to an interpretation of the grant of the charter that contrasts sharply with that of Ransom's. In the words of Feather, "[f]ar from being a masterstroke of Elizabethan policy, the grant of the Charter was a perfectly regular transaction for the benefit of the gild of stationers which we may take to have been initiated by them". For Clegg, the principle relationship between the Crown and the stationers has to be understood as "a relationship of property, albeit one which derived from the feudal relationship of Crown and subject where the Crown bestowed economic benefit in return for a subject's loyalty". Similarly Loades, writing of the press under the early Tudors, observes that:
"[I]n spite of its political importance, printing was a trade like any other, and its main concern was not propaganda but profit. Alongside the concern which the government showed over its products, lay a relationship very similar to that which existed between the Crown and any other trade. It was through this relationship rather than the demands of censorship that the Stationers' Company was chartered in 1557."
Governmental papers and legislation
Act of Supremacy 1559, 1 Eliz., c.1,
Act against Seditious Words and Rumours uttered against the Queens most excellent Majesty, 1581 23 Eliz., c.2
Statute of Anne, 1710, 8 Anne c.19
Books and articles
Arber, E., A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1557-1640, 5 vols (London: 1875-94)
Blagden, C., "Book Trade Control in 1566", The Library, 5th Ser., 13 (1958) 287-92
Blagden, C., The Stationers' Company: A History, 1403-1959, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960)
Clegg, C.S., Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Clegg, C.S., Press Censorship in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Feather, J., A History of British Publishing (London & New York: Routledge, 1988)
Greg, W.W., & Boswell, E., Records of the Court of the Stationers' Company, 1576-1602 (London: 1930-1957).
Greg, W.W., "Entrance, Licence and Publication", The Library, 4th Ser., 25 (1944): 1-22
Hazlitt, W.C., The Livery Companies of the City of London: their origin, character, development and social and political importance (London: Sonnenschein & Co, 1892)
Jackson, W., Records of the Court of the Stationers' Company, 1602-1640 (London: Bibliographical Society, 1957)
Loades, D.M., "The Press Under the Early Tudors", Transactions of the Cambridge Biographical Society, 4 (1964): 29-50
Patterson, L.R., Copyright in Historical Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1968)
Pollard, A.W., "The Regulation of the Book Trade in the Sixteenth Century", The Library, 3rd Ser., 7 (1916): 18-43
Pollard, G., "The Company of Stationers before 1557", Library, 4th Ser., 18 (1937-38): 1-38
Ransom, H., The First Copyright Statute: An Essay on An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, 1710 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956)
Siebert, F.S., Freedom of the Press in England 1476-1776 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965)
 Indeed, prior to this Feather notes that the text writers and illuminators had established a guild as early as 1357 which, after a brief separation, was reformed, in conjunction with the booksellers and bookbinders to form the stationers guild in 1403; John Feather, A History of British Publishing (London & New York: Routledge, 1988), 29. See also G. Pollard, "The Company of Stationers before 1557", Library, 4th Ser., 18 (1937-38): 1-38, and E. Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1557-1640 5 vols. (London: 1875-94), 1: xxiii. In general see C. Blagden, The Stationers' Company: A History, 1403-1959 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960).
 In general see W.C. Hazlitt, The Livery Companies of the City of London: their origin, character, development and social and political importance (London: Sonnenschein & Co, 1892).
 Cyndia Susan Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 14; see also Feather, 29-32.
 Arber, 1: 138.
 Clegg, 14. For a comprehensive account of the history of the Stationers' Company see Blagden; see also G. Pollard, "The Company of Stationers before 1557", Library, 4th ser., 18 (1937-38): 1-38.
 The Charter set out as follows: "Besides we will grant, ordain, and appoint, for ourselves and the successors of us the foresaid Queen that no person within this our realm of England or the dominions of the same shall practice or exercise by himself or by his ministers, his servants or by any other person the art or mistery of printing any book or any thing or sale or traffic within this our realm of England or the dominions o the same, unless the same person at the time of his foresaid printing is or shall be one of the community of the foresaid mistery or art of Stationery of the foresaid City, or has therefore licence of us, or the heirs or successors of us the foresaid Queen by the letters patent of us or the heirs or successors of us the foresaid Queen"; Stationer's Charter 1557, reprinted in Arber, 1: xxviii. This exclusive right over printing was unusual at the time in that generally the custom of the City allowed men free of one company to engage in the trade of another.
 Siebert, among others, cites the example of Robert Caley who was fined four shillings by the Company on 17 December 1557 for "pryntinge of a boke contrary to our ordenaunces that ye not havynge lycense frome the master and wardyns for the same"; F.S. Siebert, Freedom of the Press in England 1476-1776 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 71, 72-74.
 For transcripts of the records of the Stationers' Company from this period see: Arber; W.W. Greg & E. Boswell, Records of the Court of the Stationers' Company, 1576-1602 (London: 1930-1957); William Jackson, Records of the Court of the Stationers' Company, 1602-1640 (London: Bibliographical Society, 1957).
 Unfortunately no copy of the 1562 ordinances, drafted following the grant of the Charter, has survived.
 About the Court of Assistants Patterson writes: "The Court of Assistants was the central feature of the company, and it was more than a court in name. It had jurisdiction over the stationers, rendering judgments by which ‘unruly apprentices were whipped, journeymen on strike were imprisoned, and masters offending against regulations were fined.' And, more important, members of the company were forbidden to carry trade disputes to any other court before having appealed to the Court of Assistants"; L.R. Patterson, Copyright in Historical Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1968), 31. In practice the Court of Assistants seems to have settled disputes between members of the company by way of arbitration, rather than relying upon the imposition of penal measures; see Patterson, 33-34. See also Siebert, 80-81.
 About this ‘stationers' copyright' Patterson writes: "The name ‘stationer's copyright' comes from its progenitor, the Stationers' Company, and it was a private affair of the company. The common-law courts had no part in its development, for it was strictly regulated by company ordinances. The Stationers' Company granted the copyright, and since it was developed by and limited to company members, it functioned in accordance with their self-interest. This early copyright was deemed to exist in perpetuity, and the owner could publish the protected work, or assign, sell or bequeath the copyright, but only in accordance with company regulations. The primary purpose of the stationer's copyright was to provide order within the company, which in effect meant within the book trade, since all members of the trade - bookbinders, printers, and booksellers (in modern terms, publishers) - belonged to the Stationers' Company. Authors, not being members of the company, were not eligible to hold copyright, so that the monopoly of the stationers meant that their copyright was, in practice and in theory, a right of the publisher only"; Patterson, 5.
 The monopoly on printing established by the charter was of course subject to the right of the Queen to grant specific printing privileges by way of letters patent in accordance with her prerogative powers; see uk_1518.
 Statute of Anne, 1710, 8 Anne, c.19; see uk_1710.
 Patterson, 29.
 Harry Ransom, The First Copyright Statute: An Essay on An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, 1710 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956), 29. He continues: "Could Elizabeth have found ready to hand a more convincing program for guiding the press? Could alert businessmen have been given a more effective means of preserving their already considerable economic gains or of getting ahead with their business? During the critical years when both literature and literary property expanded along with Elizabeth's realm, the Queen and her advisers continued to uphold the Company's extraordinary powers. For its part, the Company undertook its official duties with zeal"; Ransom, 29-30.
 Clegg, 19. For commentaries similar to that of Ransom see for example Patterson who writes that "[t]he charter itself is dominated by the idea of suppressing prohibited books, and Mary's motive in granting it, whatever the source of the initiative involved, was to obtain an effective agency for censorship". He continues that "Elizabeth confirmed the Charter in November 1559, without any change, and for substantially the same reasons it had been granted: so that the stationers might aid the government in controlling the press"; Patterson, 29, 35. About the charter Pollard writes: "When [Philip and Mary] said that they were actuated by a desire to suppress (what they considered) bad books, they told the truth, and there is no need to go behind their statement"; A.W. Pollard, "The Regulation of the Book Trade in the Sixteenth Century", The Library, 3rd Ser., 7 (1916): 18-43 (28).
 Stationer's Charter 1557, reprinted in Arber, 1: xxviii.
 D.M. Loades, "The Press Under the Early Tudors", Transactions of the Cambridge Biographical Society, 4 (1964): 29-50 (45). In support of this he cites the example of John King who was licensed by the Company to print A sacke full of newes only a short time before it was condemned by Mary's Privy Council for being a ‘lewd play'; ibid. See also the list of books licensed by the Stationers that were nevertheless ordered to be burned in June 1599 Archbishop Whitgift and Bishop Bancroft; Arber, 3: 677-78.
 Proclamation Placing Possessors of Heretical and Seditious Books under Martial Law, 6 June 1558.
 Clegg, 21.
 See: uk_1559.
 W.W. Greg, "Entrance, Licence and Publication", The Library, 4th Ser., 25 (1944): 1-22 (8). This estimate is shared by Clegg who writes that during the 1560s "only three percent of the entries in the Company's Registers record ecclesiastical authorization; during the 1570s this increased to seven percent, and in the 1580s to forty-two percent"; Clegg, 43. As to the type of works for which the Stationers sought authorization, she continues: "In the 1560s seventy-two percent of the books that received ecclesiastical authorization treated religious or political topics, while most of the remainder were in foreign languages or translations of contemporary Continental authors. In the 1570s sixty percent were religious or political, the remainder again being largely foreign language texts or translations ... [which] evidence suggests that the Stationers understood the requirement that book should be licensed ‘according to Her Majesty's Injunctions' to men that they needed to seek official approval only for religious, political or foreign texts"; Clegg, 43-44.
 Greg estimates that "for the period from 1576 to 1640, the proportion of London printed books regularly entered at Stationers' hall was somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent"; Greg, "Entrance, Licence and Publication", 7. By comparison Clegg suggests that in the 1560s and 1570s the number of books entered on the Stationers' Register accords very closely with the number of books in print in any given year, but that from the end of the 1570s the correlation between works in print and works entered in the Register begins to break down, with less than 60 percent of books registered in the 1580s, which number drops even further in the 1590s; see Clegg, 18, 61. In the period following Elizabeth's reign, Clegg further estimates that "of the number of books that issued from England's presses between 1603 and 1625, fewer than 1 percent were in any way involved with efforts to suppress them or punish their authors or printers"; Cyndia Susan Clegg, Press Censorship in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 19.
 For example, at times the company did play an active role in searching for and confiscating printed material declared illegal by the state; see for example C. Blagden, "Book Trade Control in 1566", The Library, 5th Ser., 13 (1958): 287-92 (289), and Siebert, 82-87. However it is equally true that these searches were often carried out by non-stationers, as well as by agents of the ecclesiastical High Commission established by Elizabeth; see Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England, 21.
 Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England, 19.
 Act against Seditious Words and Rumours uttered against the Queens most excellent Majesty, 1581, 23 Eliz., c.2. See also the Act of Supremacy, 1559, 1 Eliz., c.1, passed in the same year in which Elizabeth renewed the Stationers' charter, which provided sanctions for violating Elizabeth's Oath of Supremacy "by writing printing teaching preaching expres woordes dede or acte".
 These proclamations were sometimes directed at individual texts, or individual writers, and sometimes addressed seditious and heretical texts in general. See for example: A Proclamation made against seditious and trayterous Books, Billes, and Writings, 1 July 1570; A Proclamation against The Admonition to the Parliament, 11 June 1573; and A Proclamation against certain seditious and scismatical Bookes and Libelles [which concerned the works of Robert Browne and Richard Harrison], 30 June 1583. Clegg writes of these royal proclamations that there were in short "an administrative tool" which was "as effective as its own provisions made it"; Clegg, Press Censorship in Jacobean England 33.
 In general see Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England, 66-76.
 See Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England, 31.
 Feather, 33.
 Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England, 20. She argues that "[c]onsidering the Charter within its legal context, that is, as a grant of privilege extended through a patent under the Privy Seal, further explains the Company's status ... the Privy Seal was used as part of the regular administrative machinery of Tudor government, and patents issued thereby were in a sense ‘routine' business - confirmation of a previously arbitrated document. Further, since such grants and privileges were related to feudal property rights - the Crown was transferring property interests to a subject - the Stationers' Charter must be seen in terms of what precisely it transferred", that is, "the Crown's rights to govern [the printing] trade and some of the Crown's economic interests"; ibid., 20, 40.
 Loades, 48. Similarly Blagden notes that while the stationers obtained their Charter "at a time when it suited the Crown to make use of their organization for other purposes", they did so "on their own terms"; Blagden, 33.