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Star Chamber Decree (1586)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)
Identifier: uk_1586


Commentary on Star Chamber Decree 1586
Ronan Deazley

School of Law, University of Birmingham, UK


Please cite as:
Deazley, R. (2008) ‘Commentary on Star Chamber Decree 1586', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,


1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. Religious Controversy in the Elizabethan Period

4. Prerogative Grants and the Monopolization of the Book Trade

5. Provisions of the Star Chamber Decree 1586

6. References


1. Full title
The newe Decrees of the Starre Chamber for Orders in Printinge (1586)


2. Abstract
A decree prohibiting the publication of any book contrary to statute, injunction, ordinance and letters patents, as well as any ordinance set down by the Company of Stationers. The formal protection of the Star Chamber was extended not only to books protected under royal printing privileges (see: uk_1566) but to books printed in contravention of the internal regulations of the Stationers' Company itself, further enhancing the significance of ‘stationers' copyright'.


The commentary describes the background to the decree, in particular the religious controversies of the 1570s and 1580s, as well as the dissatisfaction within the general printing trade during this period at the manner in which a number of the printing privileges granted by Elizabeth resulted in the monopolistic control of commercially lucrative works within the hands of a few stationers only. The commentary also details the efforts of the dominant members of the Stationers' Company to influence the substance of the decree and further augment their control over the internal operation of the book trade.


3. Religious Controversy in the Elizabethan Period
As was the case with the Star Chamber Decree of 1566,[1] two impulses underpinned the passing of the Star Chamber Decree of 1586. The first lay with Elizabeth (1533-1603) and the government's increasing concern over the proliferation of books which attacked or undermined the Queen and her religious settlement of 1559. The period following the 1566 Decree was a particularly turbulent time; religious controversy came in various guises. The late 1560s and early 1570s bore witness to the Vestiarian Controversy and the Puritan critique of the Elizabethan settlement most powerfully captured in two published Admonitions to Parliament in 1572.[2] A decade later the major controversy centred around the challenge to the Anglican Church presented by the writings of the Jesuit Edmund Campion (1540-1581), and the accompanying literature which this provoked.[3] In 1582, a year after Campion's execution,[4] the Rheims Testament, a Catholic translation of the Bible, was first published and, not surprisingly, was widely regarded as a serious assault upon the Protestant position.[5] Suffice to note that of the eleven royal proclamations which Elizabeth issued throughout her long reign concerning works that she considered to be seditious, heretical or libellous in some regard, the majority (seven) were issued between 1570 and 1583.[6] Indeed, as it seemed the usual mechanisms for controlling the content of the press were proving ineffective,[7] the jurist William Lambard (1536-1601) was commissioned in 1577 to draft a specific act that might more effectively achieve that very goal.[8] Lambard's suggestion, revised again in 1580, was to establish a licensing board of twelve individuals, comprising three ecclesiastics, the recorder of the city of London, four Readers of the Inns of Court, and four others.[9] This of course would have shifted the control over the licensing of the press away from Elizabeth's High Commission and in particular the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London who had incrementally assumed the central role in licensing texts.[10] The prelates were not, however, to be ousted so easily. Archbishop Whitgift (1530/31?-1604) responded by presenting a scheme to Elizabeth suggesting that licensing should be placed only in the hands of himself and the Bishop of London,[11] a suggestion which ultimately found favour with the Queen.


4. Prerogative Grants and the Monopolization of the Book Trade
The second impulse underscoring the 1586 Decree lay in the unrest within the trade that manifested itself in the 1570s and early 1580s. This unrest concerned the monopoly control over the printing of particular types of books in the hands of relatively few of the senior members of the Stationers' Company as a result of Elizabeth's prerogative grants.[12] In 1577 for example, a time when there were close to 200 printers within the city of London,[13] control of the most commercially lucrative texts, as well as particular classes of books, lay in the hands of no more than ten stationers, including John Jugge (d.1588) the Queen's Printer.[14] Not surprisingly the dominance of the trade by this small handful of favoured subjects sat uneasily with the rest of the print trade. In August 1577 they complained that the privileges granted "will be the overthrowe of the Printers and Stationers within this Cittie ... [b]esides their wyves Children Apprentices and families, and thereby th[e] excessive prices of bookes preiudiciall to the state of the whole Realme besides the false printinge of the same".[15] The unofficial leader of the unprivileged printers was John Wolfe (d.1601), who along with Roger Ward, William Holmes and John Charlewood (d.1593), led the attack on the privileged printers' publishing monopolies in the early 1580s, targeting works by Christopher Barker (1528/29-1599), who had replaced Jugge as Queen's Printer, as well as works owned by Francis Flower (the Latin grammar) and John Day (1521/22-1584) (the ABC and the Catechism).[16]


Again, in 1582, in an appeal to the Privy Council, the disgruntled printers set out that the result of the privileges was "to bring vs our wyves and children into moste extreme mysery".[17] In the same year, William Seres (the younger), who held the printing patent for all psalters, primers and prayer-books, both summarised and summarily dismissed the arguments of the journeymen printers. Noting that in reality the complainers were simply "desirous for their owne private comoditye", he continued that they, somewhat disingenuously, "pretend that in Iustice yt standeth with the best polliye of this realme that the printinge of all good and laufull bokes be at libertye for euery man to print without grauntinge or allowinge of any priviledge by the prynce to the contrary". To this, he restated the petitioners' legal argument: "[T]hat the privilege for sole printinge of all bokes is against the lawe and that her maiestie oughte not to graunte any suche".[18] This argument, attacking as it did the very foundations of Elizabeth's prerogative powers, was highly controversial. Indeed, Wolfe himself had been committed to prison in 1582 for setting himself "against the Quenes hole prerogative touching printing",[19] in asserting that "it was lawful for all men to print all lawfull bookes what commandement souever her Maiestie gaue to ye contrary".[20]


A Commission of the Privy Council was appointed to look into the matter, and reported in July 1583, wherein the authority and legality of the printing privileges was upheld, subject to certain compromises being made on the part of the privileged stationers. In short, the patentees agreed to take steps to "releeve the poorer sorte",[21] and in January 1584 a list of privileged works was drawn up "for the reliefe of ye poore of the saide Companie according to ye discretion of the Master, wardens, and assistants".[22] As for Wolfe, he "acknowledged his error" in return for which he was admitted to the Company of Stationers and granted a share in Day's privilege concerning the ABC and the Catechism.[23] The settlement cannot however have been entirely satisfactory to all of the printers. In November 1585, and again in February 1586, Francis Flower initiated actions in the Star Chamber, against Thomas Dunn and Robert Robinson, and Robert Bourne, respectively, for infringing against his privilege in the Grammar and the Accidence.[24] It is in the answer of Robert Bourne, of 3 February 1586, that we find the most robust condemnation of, and challenge to, Elizabeth's prerogative grants. In the first place, Bourne set out that as a result of the privileges "there is almost no liberty lefte for printinge but for ballettes and toyes and such like, which might with better reason be prohibited then the rest, and which will not suffice to mayntayne the printers not pryveledged and their families ... with bread and water".[25] He continued that the existence of such monopoly grants were also damaging to the state and the commonwealth in that they both encouraged price inflation as well as resulting in a poorer quality of printed materials.[26] Finally, having heard it "credibly reported, that by the opynyon of diuers lerned in the lawes of this Realme, [that] such grauntes by Letters patentes are voide" he called for a trial and judgement upon the same "according to the ordinary course and rules of the common Lawes".[27] The legal advice which Bourne had received may well have been right - as Patterson notes, at the start of the sixteenth century, "[t]he right of the king to grant printing patents seems to have been assumed without any question".[28] The authority of the Tudor monarchs to grant such privileges had not yet been tested before the courts. However, neither would Bourne's appeal lead to an examination of the legality of the grants which Elizabeth had made, as four months after Bourne entered his answer, on 23 June 1586, the second Star Chamber Decree concerning printing was issued. With it the authority of the Queen to issue such privilege grants was re-affirmed, and a renewed institutional confidence as to the role and operation of the Stationers' Company in regulating the book trade was established.


5. Provisions of the Star Chamber Decree 1586
There can be no doubt that the Company of Stationers sought to influence the nature and substance of the second Star Chamber Decree. In October 1584, the Wardens of the Company had been granted permission to spend money on procuring an Act "or any good aucthorytie" to shore up their commercial interests.[29] Moreover, on 4 May 1586, they set out their arguments in favour of maintaining the printing privileges, in a petition to the Privy Council.[30] Their petition reads almost as a rejoinder to Bourne's answer submitted to the Star Chamber just three months earlier. Should the privileges not be maintained, they argued, far from benefiting from a proliferation of cheaper books, the commonwealth would suffer through a lack of printed material in that "no bookes at all shoulde be printed ... for comonlie the first printer is at charge for the Authors paynes, and some other suche extraordinarie cost", whereas those coming later "commeth to the Copie gratis, and so maie he sell better cheaper then the first printer".[31] More important than this argument as to the economic ‘realities' of the book trade, however, they also asserted that the privileges were necessary in that "if every man maie print, that is so disposed, it may be a meanes, that heresies, treasons, and seditious Libelles shall be too often dispersed, whereas if onlie knowne men doo prynte this inconvenience is avoided".[32] Unlike the situation with Elizabeth's Injunctions of 1559, wherein the stationers were simply required to "be obedient" thereto,[33] with this petition the dominant forces within the trade began to strategically co-opt the interests and fears of the monarch in the pursuit of their own ends. Here, for the first time, the stationers hold themselves out as the guardians of the press, adopting a ‘rhetoric of transgression'[34] to secure their own commercial concerns as well as ensuring a more effective means of regulating their particular industry.


While there may have been two clear impulses which influenced the timing and substance of the 1586 Decree, most commentators are in agreement that primarily it represented a major step forward for the Stationers in terms of cementing their control over the internal operation of the book trade. As Blagden notes: "The new Decree of 1586 was much more explicit and was designed as a set of ordinances by which all members of the trade, whatever their places of business, were in future to be governed ... it was a considerable advance on the powers achieved by the Charter and by the Company's own ordinances of 1562".[35] Everyone who kept a press, or who intended to establish one thereafter, had to register it with the Master and Wardens of the Company,[36] and no presses were to be set up outside the City of London (other than in Oxford and Cambridge).[37] No press established within the six months prior to the Decree was allowed to be used "tyll the excessiue multitude of Prynters hauinge presses already sett vp, be abated, diminished, and by death gyvinge over, or otherwise brought to so small a number of maisters or owners of pryntinge houses ... as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London for the tyme being shall therevpon thinck requisite and convenient for the good service of the Realme".[38] In addition, as another measure for curbing the number of active printers, limits were introduced as to the number of apprentices which each member of the Company could employ.[39] The search and seizure powers of the Company Wardens were also extended to include, not just the confiscation of offending books, but also "all presses, letters, and other pryntinge instruments sett vp, vsed or employed" in the printing of the same. These were to be "defaced, melted, sawed in peeces, broken, or battered at the smythes forge" before being returned to the owners thereof.[40] Finally, the licensing provision from 1566 was altered in two significant respects. In the first place, all works were to be "first seen and pervsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and [the] Bishop of London",[41] in accordance with the suggestion which Archbishop Whitgift himself had put to Elizabeth.[42] Second, the licensing provision rehearsed the prohibition on printing books that might contravene any statute, injunction, prohibition or letters patent, as had been the case with the 1566 Decree; significantly, however, it also now extended to any printing "contrary to any allowed ordynaunce sett Downe for the good governaunce of the Company of Staconers within the Cyttie of London".[43] It was no longer just those who printed in contravention of Elizabeth's printing privileges that could be held accountable before the Star Chamber, but anyone who infringed against the ordinances of the Company, including those underpinning the concept of 'stationers' copyright'. In short, the manner in which the Company regulated the internal workings of the book trade now attracted the sanction of the state as well.


6. References


Flower v. Dunn and Robinson (Nov.1585) Arber, II, 794

Flower v. Bourne and Others (Feb.1586) Arber, II, 800


Books and Articles

Arber, E., A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1557-1640, 5 vols. (London: n.p., 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)

Cartwright, T., A Second Admonition to the Parliament (London: n.p., 1572)

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)

Field, J., and Wilcox, T., An Admonition to the Parliament (London: n.p., 1572)

W.W. Greg, "Entrance, Licence, and Publication", The Library, 4th ser., 25 (1944): 1-22

Hoppe, H.R., "John Wolfe, Printer and Publisher", The Library, 4th Ser., 14 (1933): 241-88

Judge, C.B., Elizabethan Book Pirates (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934)

Loewenstein, J., The Author's Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

Milward, P., Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age: A Survey of Printed Sources, (London: The Scholar Press, 1977)

Patterson, L.R., Copyright in Historical Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1968)

Siebert, F.S., Freedom of the Press in England, 1476-1776 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965)

[1] See: uk_1566.

[2] J. Field and T. Wilcox, An Admonition to the Parliament (London: n.p., 1572); T. Cartwright, A Second Admonition to the Parliament (London: n.p., 1572). See P. Milward, Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age: A Survey of Printed Sources (London: The Scholar Press, 1977), 25-38.

[3] Milward, 54-64; see also F.S. Siebert, Freedom of the Press in England, 1476-1776 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 95-100.

[4] Campion was arrested in the summer of 1581, tried and then executed in December of the same year.

[5] Milward, 47.

[6] Proclamations were issued in 1570, June 1573, September 1573, 1576, 1579, 1580 and 1583.

[7] This is evidenced by the fact that in the early 1580s fewer and fewer books were being entered on the Company Register. As Greg notes, in 1585-86, only 30 works were entered on the Register, by comparison with the yearly average of 147 entries between 1576 and 1640; W.W. Greg, "Entrance, Licence, and Publication", The Library, 4th ser., 25 (1944): 1-22 (2). Moreover, Clegg notes that, in 1585, only 13 percent of those works actually entered on the Register were identified as having been authorised by an official licensor; Cyndia Susan Clegg, Press Censorship in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 58.

[8] See Siebert, 60-61.

[9] See E. Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1557-1640, 5 vols. (London: 1875-94), 2: 751-53.

[10] Clegg, 28.

[11] Siebert, 61.

[12] Feather suggests that this was in fact the singular reason behind the framing of the Star Chamber Decree 1586; John Feather, A History of British Publishing (London & New York: Routledge, 1988), 37. However it seems clear that Elizabeth's concern with controversial religious texts also played a considerable role in determining the timing and the substance of the Decree.

[13] The griefes of the printers glasse sellers and Cutlers sustained by reason of privileges granted to privatt persons, August 1577, Arber, 1: 111. The petitioners, in this document, estimate that around 175 printers were affected by the printing privileges which Elizabeth had granted to a handful of favoured stationers.

[14] The petitioners list the privileges as follows: John Jugge held the monopoly on all official documentation, as well as bibles and testaments; Richard Tottell's privilege concerned law books; John Day held the privilege for printing the ABC and the Catechism; James Roberts and Richard Watkins were solely entitled to print all almanacks and prognostications; Thomas Marshe and Thomas Vautrollier had been granted privileges concerning various Latin school books; William Byrde's privilege covered all music books as well as the printing of ruled paper; William Seres held the privilege for all psalters, primers, and prayer books; and, Francis Flower had been granted a privilege over the Grammar; ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] For an account of Wolfe's role in the battle with the privileged printers, see Joseph Loewenstein, The Author's Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 30-38; see also Siebert, 74-75, 92-93, and C.B. Judge, Elizabethan Book Pirates (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934), 29-44. On Wolfe's career in general see Harry R. Hoppe, "John Wolfe, Printer and Publisher", The Library, 4th Ser., 14 (1933): 241-88.

[17] To the righte Honourable the Lordes of her Majesties moste honourable pryvie counsaile, Sept./Oct. 1582, Arber, 2: 770.

[18] To the right honourable the lord high Treasurer of England [William Seres to Lord Burghley], Oct. 1582, Arber, 2: 771. The most robust statement of this argument came in the Star Chamber case of Flower v. Bourne and Others (1586), Arber, 2: 800-805.

[19] Arber, 2: 774.

[20] Notes or Articles of the insolent and contemptuous behauiour of John Wolf Printer and his Confæderat[e]s, March 1583, Arber, 2: 781.

[21] The Final Report of the Augmented Commission from the Privy Council on the Controversy in the Stationers' Company, 18 July 1583, Arber, 2: 783-785, 784.

[22] A List of Books presented by the Patentees for the use of the poor of the Stationers Company, 8 Jan. 1584, Arber, 2: 786-89.

[23] The Final Report of the Augmented Commission from the Privy Council on the Controversy in the Stationers' Company, 18 July 1583, Arber, 2: 783-785, 784. Wolfe had originally been apprenticed to John Day in 1562 for ten years, but after serving only seven, had travelled abroad to study printing in both Germany and Italy; see Siebert, 92.

[24] Flower v. Dunn and Robinson (1585), Arber, 2: 794-800; Flower v. Bourne and Others (1586), Arber, 2: 800-805. In general see Judge, 79-89; of Flower and his patent Judge writes: "This privilege had been a source of discontent to the poorer printers ever since it was granted, for Flower had no connection at all with the printing trade; he was merely a gentleman who farmed out his patent for £100 a year, and who tool no interest in the well-being of the company"; ibid., 79-80.

[25] The joint and seuerall answers of Robert Bourne, Arber, 2: 802-804, 802.

[26] Ibid., 803.

[27] Ibid. Robert Robinson, in the other action initiated by Flower, sought to challenge the printing privileges, albeit in different terms, in observing that as to the "force and validitye of the said Letters patentes ... he this Defendatn humbly reserueth his the consideration thereof vnto this honourable courte, verily thinking how farre soeuer her maiesties prerogative may extend in this behalfe, yet yat her hinges mynde or pleasure is not yat the private commoditye and gayne of a fewe particular persons, should be hurtfull to the common wealthe, or cawse the Decaye and vndoing of a greate number of her poore and faithfull subiectes brought vp in this trade and facultie of pryntinge"; The Annswear of Robert Robinson, 10 Nov. 1585, Arber, 2: 796-97.

[28] L.R. Patterson, Copyright in Historical Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1968), 80.

[29] See C. Blagden, "Book Trade Control in 1566", The Library, 5th Ser., 13 (1958): 287-92 (292); see also Siebert, 61.

[30] The Arguments of the Patentees in favour of Privileges for Books, 4 May 1586, Arber, 2: 804-805.

[31] Ibid., 805. They continue: "Besides the Seconde printer maie better the first ympression either by notes, tables, difference in paper or volume (as it is easier to amende then first to invent) which will also hinder the sale of the firste printers bookes to his vtter vndoing"; ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Arber, 1: xxxix; see: uk_1559.

[34] Loewenstein, 43.

[35] C. Blagden, The Stationers' Company: A History, 1403-1959 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960), 71. Clegg writes of the 1586 Decree in the following terms: "A genuine triumph for the Stationers' Company and the privileged printers, the 1586 Decree was an extraordinarily conservative document in the sense that it affirmed old practices. It unequivocally upheld the rights and prerogatives of the Company and the privileged printers in the face of recent challenges and sought to ensure both adequate work and adequate employment within the Company. In so doing, it significantly strengthened the Stationers as an institution"; Clegg, 26-27.

[36] Ordinance 1.

[37] Ordinance 2.

[38] Ordinance 3.

[39] Ordinance 8; see also Ordinance 9 which limited the printers at Oxford and Cambridge to one apprentice each.

[40] Ordinance 7.

[41] Ordinance 4. Books of common law were to be licensed by the two Chief Justices and the Chief Baron, or any two of them; ibid.

[42] In practice the task of ecclesiastical licensing was delegated to subordinate clergy; see Siebert, 62, and Clegg, 27-32.

[43] Ordinance 4.

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