‘Free speech’ in Elizabethan and early Stuart England
in Freedom of speech, 1500–1850
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This chapter is about how what was unsayable in late sixteenth-century England became sayable by mid-seventeenth-century England. The dynamics of what we might call free speech were worked out in a series of tensions, and sometimes conflicts, between the duty of certain public men to defend the public interest – crudely that of the commonwealth and of true religion – and the constraints placed on who got to talk about such things and where and to whom they got to talk about them. The result was a very restricted circle of persons comprising in secular affairs Privy Counsellors, in practice certain courtiers and favourites, and in ecclesiastical matter the bishops and certain godly leaned clergy, and on some topics, but not on others, Parliament-men. Under the right circumstances, most often those created by actual or perceived crisis and threat, these very restricted ranks of the counsel-giving classes could be expanded. While one should not ignore, or even play down, the contingency of the political events that drove this narrative, one can also surely see a dialectical progression at work here, as acts of free speech, each designed to describe, unmask and denounce various conspiracy-based emergencies, practised by one group or another – by the state and its (either Catholic or Puritan) critics, by various Parliament-men and the defenders of the court, or the Crown, or indeed by the monarch himself, by the opponents or defenders of the Spanish Match – elicited other such acts from their opponents. The result was a series of claims to and outbreaks of ‘free speech’ of increasing frequency, if not intensity. But what this was not was the rise of free speech in anything like the modern sense, since the aim of each of these exercises in parrhesia was to achieve a situation in which certain groups got to speak and certain things got to get said while others most definitely did not.

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