In the 17th century, news was often reported from person to person via ballads (a type of song). Ballads were sung in the streets in towns, at fairs or market places. Gradually people began to buy ballads printed on paper sheets. These were called broadsides and were often sold on the streets.

What sort of things were in the news?

Many ballads began with the word 'new' or 'news', as did broadsides. They told of events such as wars, trials, rebellions, religious conflict, crime and natural disasters.

The dividing line between news and fiction wasn't as clear then as it is now, so we have look at news with some care. Early newspapers didn't necessarily have much accurate news or balanced comment. Nevertheless, they provide a fascinating snapshot of the burning issues of the time.

Freedom to print

In the 17th century news, could not always be freely printed and circulated. This was because most rulers and their governments strictly controlled what could be printed. In the 17th century, there were many laws passed to restrict false, scandalous, seditious, libellous and unlicensed pamphlets. This could include limiting the number of master printers, requiring all types of printed works to be licensed and severe punishments for unlicensed work.

However, there were also periods of relative freedom, when newspaper production and circulation increased. In the 1640s, censorship temporarily collapsed which allowed some quite controversial material to be published. During the Civil War there were newspapers on both sides. Parliamentarians had the 'Weekly Intelligencer', while Royalists published a series of mercuries such as the 'Mercurius Aulicus', which championed the King. Neither side was able to stamp out the news of the other side completely.


Why do you think governments would have wanted to stop people recording the news freely and limit the number of printers?