Commentary on:
Star Chamber Decree (1637)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)
Identifier: uk_1637


Commentary on Star Chamber Decree 1637
Ronan Deazley

School of Law, University of Birmingham, UK


Please cite as:
Deazley, R. (2008) ‘Commentary on Star Chamber Decree 1637', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,


1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. Press Regulation in Jacobean England

4. Provisions of the Star Chamber Decree 1637

5. The Long Parliament and the Abolition of the Star Chamber

6. References


1. Full title
A Decree of Starre-Chamber Concerning Printing (1637)


2. Abstract
A decree of the Star Chamber designed to regulate the printing of all literary works, whether ecclesiastical or secular in nature. The decree further entrenched the significance and validity of ‘stationers' copyright' in requiring that no work be printed without first being entered on the Company of Stationers' Register Book. The decree also provided that any materials printed thereafter were to carry both the name of the printer and the author of the work.


The commentary describes how, by comparison with earlier decrees (see: uk_1566; uk_1586), the 1637 Decree provided a more elaborate system for licensing both ecclesiastical and secular works as well as a more comprehensive set of regulations to govern the operation of the printing trade. As a regulatory measure, it is widely regarded as representing the high point of the Company of Stationers' control and authority over the book trade.


3. Press Regulation in Jacobean England
Throughout the Stuart regime, the press controls which Elizabeth (1533-1603) had introduced, in the guise of her 1559 Injunctions and the two Star Chamber Decrees of 1566 and 1586, became further institutionalised,[1] albeit with one significant conceptual difference. Whereas the Elizabethan licensing system was essentially ecclesiastical in nature, for James (1566-1625) pre-print authorisation extended to the political, moral and cultural as well.[2] Elizabeth's High Commission was provided with a more extensive and explicit role as regards the regulation of the press in a letters patent issued by James on 29 August 1611. The Commission was now charged with the responsibility of inquiring into, not just controversial religious texts, but "all blasphemous and impious acts and speeches, scandalous books, libels and writings against the doctrine of religion, the Book of Common Prayer, or ecclesiastical state or government now established in the Church of England".[3] Moreover, it was also granted search and seizure powers similar to those bestowed upon the Company of Stationers under the 1586 decree. Indeed, in time, the Commission began to provide a forum, in addition to the stationers' Court of Assistants, for hearing allegations of infringement against the stationers' printing monopolies as well as other matters concerning the regulation of the trade in general.[4] That the nature of Jacobean press control was intended to extend beyond the ecclesiastical is also clearly evidenced in the licensing provisions of the Star Chamber Decree of 1637 which sought to ensure that no book would be printed "contrary to Christian Faith, and the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England, nor against the State of Government, nor contrary to good life, or good manners".[5]


4. Provisions of the Star Chamber Decree 1637
The Star Chamber Decree of 1637 is almost universally acknowledged as representing the high point of the Company of Stationers' control and authority over the book trade throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. "There is no doubt", writes Blagden, "that the decree like the 1586 decree was promoted by the Company for the benefit of Stationers and obtained the sanction of the government because it promised more effective safeguards than those already in existence, against the printing and distribution of schismatical publications".[6] Indeed, as Loewenstein points out, "with two exceptions ... everything in the new decree served the monopolies of the London stationers".[7] Much of the 1586 decree was replicated in the decree of 1637; however, there was much more besides. Whereas the 1586 decree had introduced a limit on the number of apprentices which each member of the Company could employ,[8] the 1637 decree set out regulatory measures not just about apprentices, but also concerning how many Master Printers and Master Founders could operate within the trade at any one time, the number of presses which printers could keep, and the employment of journeymen-printers and other freemen of the Company.[9] Similarly, whereas the earlier decree had directed its focus towards printing and publishing within the national borders, much of the later decree concerned itself with printing and importing from abroad. For example, no books were to be imported unless a catalogue of the same was first presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of London, packs of imported books were only to be opened in the presence of either of the two prelates accompanied by the Master and Wardens of the Company, no works in English were to be imported from abroad whatsoever, and all imports were to be put ashore only in the Port of the City of London.[10] In addition, whereas the 1566 decree had introduced a measure to prevent the importation of heretical and seditious texts, the 1637 decree ensured that no book was to be imported "which the said Company of Stationers, or any other person or persons have, or shall by any Letters Patents, Order, or Entrance in their Register Book, or otherwise, have the right, privilege, authority, or allowance, solely to print".[11]


The previous licensing provisions were also subject to detailed revision within the 1637 decree. In the first place, a much more elaborate system of licensing was introduced in that different categories of work were to be authorised by different licensors. Books of common law were to be licensed by the Lord Chief Justices and the Lord Chief Baron, whereas all books of history were subject to the scrutiny of the principal Secretary's of State, works touching heraldry were the concern of the Office of Earl Marshal, while all other books, including those of divinity, physic, philosophy and poetry, remained the preserve of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London.[12] Licensors were to be provided with two copies of the work requiring authorisation, one of which was to be held back to ensure that the licensed work was printed without any alteration or amendment,[13] and no new editions of existing publications were to be reprinted without licence as well.[14] These changes represented an attempt to introduce a greater degree of control over the content of published material, as well as address a number of the abuses which had crept into the licensing system of old.[15] At the same time, they functioned to reinforce the authority of the Company within the trade itself. For instance, whereas prior to the decree the registration of printed works with the Stationers' Company was simply encouraged, now acquiring the stationers' licence, in addition to the licensor's authorisation, became compulsory.[16] Similarly, the decree provided that no-one was to "print, or cause to be printed, or shall forge, put, or counterfeit in, or vpon any booke or books, the name, title, marke or vinnet of the Company or Society of Stationers, or of any particular person or persons, which hath or shall have lawfull priuiledge, authoritie, or allowance to print the same, without the consent of the said Company, or party or parties that are or shall be so priuiledged".[17]


Only one or two further innovations of the decree warrant mention. In the first place, there was also a marked change in the way in which those transgressing against the ordinances of the decree were to be dealt with. In addition to the forfeiture of offending texts, and the possible loss of one's press and livelihood, the new decree also provided that anyone printing any "seditious, scismatticall, or offensive bookes or pamphlets" was "to suffer such correction, and severe punishment, or otherwise, as by [the Star Chamber], or by [the High Commission], respectively, as the several causes shall require, shall be thought fit to be inflicted upon him, or them, for such their offence and contempt".[18] Similarly, any person, who was not an authorised printer, setting up an unauthorised press was "to be set in the pillorie, and whipt through the Citie of London, and suffer such other punishment, as this Court shall order or thinke fit to inflict vpon them".[19] Second, the decree set out that one copy of every new book printed should be sent to the University of Oxford for the use of its library, the forerunner to the library deposit provisions which have remained a feature of the copyright regime ever since.[20] And finally, with a measure that has been the subject of much discussion amongst historians of the book, the decree required that every person who should thereafter print any "bookes, ballads, charts, portraiture, or any other thing or things" was to "thereon print and set his and their owne name or names, [and] also the name or names of the author or authors, maker or makers of the same".[21] With this ordinance enters the "rhetoric of authorial responsibility" within the history of British publishing.[22]


5. The Long Parliament and the abolition of the Star Chamber
The 1637 decree had a short life-span, as in July 1641 the Long Parliament abolished both the Star Chamber and the High Commission.[23] And yet, it still remains one of the key moments from the seventeenth century within the broader history of the development of British copyright law. In the first place it illustrates the extent to which the Stationers' Company had, since its formal inception in 1557,[24] succeeded in ensuring that, in the eyes of the government, it represented the natural institutional means for the regulation of the book trade. In theory, the 1637 decree may have introduced more stringent measures for censuring the press than had ever previously existed, but in practice this amounted to state censorship "transformed into monopolistic competition".[25] Moreover, although short-lived, as Loewenstein observes, the decree nevertheless "served as a kind of Stuart regulatory standard".[26] When Charles II (1630-1685) was returned to the throne, the Star Chamber decree provided the blue-print for the Licensing Act 1662,[27] which act would (intermittently) remain in force until its expiration in May 1695. It was the demise of the Licensing Act in 1695 that would in turn lead to the passing of the Statute of Anne 1710,[28] and with it, to the introduction of a statutory copyright regime that would displace the ‘stationers' copyright' which had been generated within and regulated by the trade itself.[29] Indeed, one wonders whether, but for the 1637 decree, the course of copyright history might not have taken another turn. Patterson for example suggests that "[w]ithout the decree of 1637, Parliament in 1662 would have had to return to the decree of 1586, a seventy-six-year-old precedent for censorship". "[I]t seems likely" he continues "that except for the later decree, there might have been no Licensing Act at all".[30] Patterson's observation, of course, provides one of those counterfactual musings that is likely to provoke as much disagreement as it does interest, and yet, without a licensing act to shore up the economic interests of the stationers, perhaps a form of statutory copyright protection might have emerged in Britain much earlier than it otherwise did.


6. References

Governmental papers and legislation

An Act for the Regulating of the Privy Council, and for taking away the Court commonly called the Star-Chamber, 1640, 16 Car.I, c.10

Licensing Act, 1662, 13 & 14 Car.II, c.33

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: n.p., 1875-94)

Blagden, C., The Stationers' Company: A History, 1403-1959 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960)

Clegg, C.S., Press Censorship in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Greene, J., The Trouble with Ownership: Literary Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)

Kenyon, J.P., The Stuart Constitution, 1603-1688 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966)

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

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)

Steele, R., A Bibliography of Royal Proclamations of the Tudor and Stuart Sovereigns, Vol.1. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910)

[1] See: uk_1566; uk_1586.

[2] Cyndia Susan Clegg, Press Censorship in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 57.

[3] The High Commission, 29 August 1611, reprinted in J.P. Kenyon, The Stuart Constitution, 1603-1688 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 181-85.

[4] See for example Clegg, 50, 54-57.

[5] Star Chamber Decree, 1637, Ordinance IV, in E. Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1557-1640, 5 vols. (London: n.p., 1875-94), 4: 528-36 (530).

[6] C. Blagden, The Stationers' Company: A History, 1403-1959, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960), 118.

[7] Joseph Loewenstein, The Author's Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 157.

[8] Star Chamber Decree, 1586, Ordinance 8.

[9] See Ordinances 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 27, 28, 29 and 30.

[10] See Ordinances 5, 6, 11, 32. See also Ordinance 12 which provided that no foreigners were allowed to import books in any language unless they were freemen of the Stationers' Company.

[11] Ordinance 7. This new emphasis on the import trade in the 1637 decree was foreshadowed by a proclamation of 1623 which the Stationers had lobbied for in response to the dramatic increase in continental imports in the early 1620s; see Loewenstein, 158. In 1619, with the outbreak of the war between Frederick (the King of Bohemia) and Ferdinand II (the Emperor of Habsburg), there was an extraordinary increase in public interest in international affairs, which in turn led to a proliferation of political tracts, newsbooks and news pamphlets concerning the war, and James' foreign policy, printed both in England and overseas. Clegg estimates that "[f]or the five years prior to 1621, continental imprints average thirty-one per year. In 1621 this nearly doubles to fifty-nine, and then averages forty-six for the next three years, and drops off significantly after 1625. 1620 saw the number of books printed in the Netherlands double what had been printed in 1618, and in 1622 and 1623 the number tripled"; Clegg, 181-82. The 1623 Proclamation against the disorderly printing, uttering, and dispersing of books, pamphlets, &c., recited the 1586 Star Chamber Decree and then set out that no book was to be "imported, sewn, or sold, printed contrary to this regulation, even if it is otherwise lawful"; R. Steele, A Bibliography of Royal Proclamations of the Tudor and Stuart Sovereigns, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 1: 161.

[12] Ordinance 3.

[13] Ordinance 4.

[14] Ordinance 18.

[15] For example, publishers would often insert additional objectionable material in a reprint edition of a previously licensed work; in general see F.S. Siebert, Freedom of the Press in England 1476-1776 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 141-46.

[16] Ordinance 2.

[17] Ordinance 9. In addition the decree provided that no one other than those who had been apprenticed within the trade for seven years was allowed to "receive, take or buy, to barter, [or] sell" any books; ordinance 10.

[18] Ordinance 1.

[19] Ordinance 24. Not only were presses to be registered with the Company of Stationers (Ordinance 13), but anyone undertaking the manufacture of a press, or part thereof, also had to give due notice of the same to the Master and Wardens of the Company (Ordinance 14).

[20] Ordinance 33.

[21] Ordinance 8.

[22] J. Greene, The Trouble with Ownership: Literary Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 62. This requirement that the author's name be reproduced upon the printed text did have an early Tudor ‘pre-echo' in the guise of a Henrician proclamation of 1546 which commanded that no printer "do print any manner of English book, ballad or play, but he put his name to the same, with the name of the author and the day of print"; A Proclamation prohibiting heretical books; requiring printer to identify himself, author of book, and date of publication, 8 July 1546. However, it was really from the mid-seventeenth century onwards that the figure of the author, as well as the printer and publisher of a work, began to consistently attract the attention of those responsible for the censorial regulation of the press. For instance: in January 1642 Parliament required that all printing carry the name of the author to both identify the origin of the text as well as indicate the author's consent to publish the work; the Ordinance for the Regulation of Printing ,1643, set out that "all Authors, Printers, and other persons whatsoever" involved in the distribution of "scandalous, unlicensed, and unwarrantable papers" were to be apprehended "so that they might receive such further punishment, as their offences shall demerit"; in the Ordinance against unlicensed or scandalous Pamphlets, and for the better Regulating of Printing, 1647, no work was to be published without the name of the author, printer and licensor attached thereto; the Act against Unlicensed and Scandalous Books and Pamphlets and for better regulating of Printing, 1649, provided that the author of any "Scandalous or Libellous Books, Pamphlets, Papers, or Pictures" would either forfeit ten pounds or suffer imprisonment; and so on. For an account of "authorial liability" in the mid to late seventeenth century see Greene, 63-103.

[23] An Act for the Regulating of the Privy Council, and for taking away the Court commonly called the Star-Chamber, 1640, 16 Car.I, c.10.

[24] See: uk_1557.

[25] Loewenstein, 159.

[26] Ibid., 160.

[27] Licensing Act, 1662, 13 & 14 Car.II, c.33.

[28] Statute of Anne, 1710, 8 Anne c.19; see: uk_1710.

[29] See: uk_1557.

[30] L.R. Patterson, Copyright in Historical Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1968), 125.

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