John Milton's Areopagitica
John Milton's Areopagitica of 1644, a reaction to the punishment of press-freedom campaigners such as John Lilburne, was a powerful call against censorship.
Cover of John Milton's Areopagitica, 1644
Copyright © The British Library Board
What was the state of press freedom before the 1600s?
When the printing press was first invented it became one of the greatest enemies of the state and the church. Both were determined to control it.
State control of printing had been introduced by Henry VIII. From November 1538, all new books had to be approved by the Privy Council. In May 1557, Queen Mary gave authority to the Company of Stationers to control the publication of books and to seek out and destroy seditious ones. This continued into Elizabeth's reign, switching Catholic for Protestant.
Further controls were issued by the Star Chamber in 1586 and 1637 over the number of printing presses. The Star Chamber judged cases that threatened national security, and often ignored aspects of Common Law.
Where did Lilburne come in?
The Star Chamber met its match with the brave defiance of John Lilburne. In April 1638 Lilburne was arrested for importing seditious books. Brought before the Star Chamber, he was asked to state, under oath, how he pleaded. Lilburne refused until told the charges, arguing that it was a free-born person's right not to accuse himself. He was fined £500 for contempt, and flogged for the two miles from the Fleet Prison to the pillory. Despite the savage beating, Lilburne told all who lined the route about his treatment. He was imprisoned but continued to have propaganda smuggled out and published.
Parliament abolished the Star Chamber in 1641 and had Lilburne released. Printers took advantage of this new freedom and the host of radical pamphlets that appeared caused Parliament to clamp down again in June 1643 with a Licensing Order that restored all previous controls.
Who was John Milton?
John Milton (1608-74) was born to a prosperous London family and enjoyed a good schooling. He became a civil servant, writer and poet. He was a radical republican, serving in Cromwell's government, and held religious views thought heretical by many. Milton's lasting fame has come from his epic poem Paradise Lost, and his polemical pamphlet Areopagitica.
Published in 1644, Areopagitica was a protest against John Lilburne's treatment, and was the first great impassioned plea for free speech, reminding Parliament that when God created Adam He gave him 'the freedom to choose'. Milton added:
'Ye cannot make us now lesse capable, lesse knowing, lesse eagarly pursuing of the truth, unlesse ye first make your selves, that made us so, lesse the lovers, lesse the founders of our true liberty'.
In 1645 Lilburne wrote his own anti-censorship pamphlet, England's Birthright Justified, while he was in prison for denouncing MPs for not taking their part in the Civil War. He attacked the state control on printing and argued for the freedom of the press. Lilburne was tried for treason in October 1649, having claimed in his book Legall Fundamentall Liberties that the new Parliamentarian government was not legal. The jury found him innocent.
What impact did Areopagitica have?
Though powerfully argued, no one took any notice. In fact controls were reinforced after the Restoration with a new Licensing Act in 1662. Total control over the approval of books was invested in Roger L'Estrange, the Witchfinder General of the Printing trade. He censored and edited many books. In 1663, printer John Twyn was hanged, drawn and quartered for publishing material suggesting that the monarch was accountable to his subjects.
L'Estrange's office ceased after the Glorious Revolution of 1689, and by 1695 the Licensing Act was allowed to lapse. With that there was a blossoming of newspapers and provincial presses.