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Laud and Prynne

Source: William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832. January 10.

1645. At the age of seventy-one, William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, was beheaded on Tower-hill, four years before Charles I. met the same fate at Whitehall. The circumstances which led to the archbishop’s death are related by the writers of our national history, upon the authority of impartial annalists, and collectors of facts relating to the troublesome times in which he lived and died. Hume sums up his character impartially, and adds, “It is to be regretted that a man of such spirit, who conducted his enterprises with so much warmth and industry, had not entertained more enlarged views, and embraced principles more favorable to the general happiness of society.” He acquired, says Hume, so great an ascendant over Charles as to lead him, by the facility of his temper, into a conduct which proved fatal to that prince and to his kingdom.


There was a memorable prosecution in the star chamber, in which Laud bore a part, against a book called “Histriomastix, the Player’s Scourge, or Actor’s Tragedie,” written by William Prynne, professedly against the stage plays, interludes, music, dancing, hunting, Christmas-keeping, May-poles, festivals, and bonfires, but in which he blamed the hierarchy, and reviled the ceremonies and superstitious innovations introduced by Laud into the public worship. The church music he affirmed not to be the noise of men, but a bleating of brute beasts; “choristers bellow the tenor, as it were oxen; bark a counterpart, as it were a kennel of dogs; roar out a treble, as it were a sort of bulls; and grunt out a base, as it were a number of hogs:“ and yet this book appeared in the age of licensing, with the licenser’s imprimatur. How this happened is not very clear. It appears, from the proceedings in the star chamber, that the book was seven years in writing, and almost four in passing through the press. It is a closely printed quarto volume, of nearly 1100 pages; though, originally, it consisted of only a quire of paper, which Prynne took to Dr. Goode, a licenser, who deposed on the trial that lie refused to sanction it. It seems that, about a year afterwards, when it had probably increased in size, Prynne applied to another licenser, Dr. Harris, who also refused the allowance sought, and deposed that “this man did deliver this book when it was young and tender, and would have had it then printed; but it was since grown seven times bigger, and seven times worse.” Disappointed by two licensees, but not despairing, Prynne resorted to a third licenser, one Buckner, chaplain to archbishop Abbot, Laud’s predecessor in the see of Canterbury. Buckner was either tampered with, or so confused by the multifariousness of the contents, and the tedious progress in the printing of the enormous volume, that his vigilance slackened, and he deposed that he only licensed part of it. Be that as it may, the work came out with the license of the archbishop’s chaplain prefixed, and involved the author, and all that were concerned in it, in a fearful prosecution in the court of the star chamber. Prynne was a barrister: he was condemned to be disbarred, to be pilloried in Westminster and Cheapside, to have an ear cut off at each place, to pay a fine of £5000 to the king, and to be imprisoned for life.

The sentence was carried into effect, but in vain. Prynne again libelled the prelacy; was again tried, and again sentenced; and the judge, perceiving that fragments of his ears still remained, ordered them to be unmercifully cut off, and further condemned him to be burnt in the cheek, enormously fined, and imprisoned in a distant solitude. At the place of punishment, in palace-yard, Westminster, Prynne steadily ascended the scaffold, and calmly invited the executioner to do his office, saying, “Come friend; come, burn me! cut me! I fear not! I have learned to fear the fire of hell, and not what man can do unto me. Come; scar me! scar me! “ The executioner had been urged not to spare his victim, and he proceeded to extraordinary severity, by cruelly heating his branding iron twice, and cutting the remainder of one of Prynne’s ears so close as to take away a piece of the cheek ; while his victim stirred not under the torture, but, ‘when it was finished, smiled, and exclaimed, “The more I am beaten down, the more I am lifted up.” At the conclusion of this punishment, Prynne was taken to the tower, by water, and, on his passage in the boat, composed the following Latin verses on the two letters S. L., which had been branded on his cheek, to signify Schismatical Libeller, but which he chose to translate “Stigmata Laudes,” the stigmas of his enemy, archbishop Laud —

Stigmata maxillis referens insignia Laudis
Exultans remeo, victima grata Deo.”

A signal triumph awaited Prynne, and a reverse as signal befel Laud. In less than three weeks after the long parliament had commenced its sitting, Prynne entered London from his imprisonment at Mount Orgueil, amidst the acclamations of the people; his sentence was reversed, and in another month Laud was committed to the Tower, by the parliament, where he kept a diary, in which a remarkable searching of his person by Prynne, as a parliamentary commissioner, is recorded by the archbishop in these words:—

Mr. Prynne came into the Tower as soon as the gates were open — commanded the warder to open my door — he came into my chamber, and found me in bed — Mr. Prynne, seeing me safe in bed, falls first to my pockets, to rifle them — it was expressed in the warrant that he should search my pockets — I arose, got my gown upon my shoulders, and he held me in the search till past nine in the morning. He took from me twenty-one bundles of papers which I had prepared for my defence, &c., a little book or diary, containing all the occurrences of my life, and my book of private devotions; both written with my own hand. Nor could I get him to leave this last; he must needs see what passed between God and me. The last place he rifled was a trunk which stood by my bed-side; in that he found nothing hut about forty pounds in money, for my necessary expenses, which he meddled not with, and a bundle of some gloves. This bundle he was so careful to open, as that he caused each glove to be looked into: upon this, I tendered him one pair of the gloves, which he refusing, I told him he might take them, and fear no bribe; for he had already done me all the mischief he could, and I asked no favor of him; so he thanked me, took the gloves, and bound up my papers and went his way.”

Laud was brought to the block, and Prynne in his writings, and in parliament, consistently resisted oppression from whatever it proceeded. A little time before the execution of Charles I. he defended in the house of commons the king's concessions to parliament as sufficient grounds for peace. His speech was a complete narrative of all the transactions between the king, the houses, and the army, from the beginning of the parliament; its delivery kept the house so long together that the debates lasted from Monday morning till Tuesday morning. He was representative for Bath, and had the honor to be one of the excluded members. On the 21st of February, 1660, he was allowed to resume his seat. While making his way through the hall, wearing an old basket-hilt sword, he was received with shouts. The house passed an ordinance on the 1st March for calling a new Parliament, and the next day, when it was discussed in whose name the new writs should run Prynne openly answered “in king Charles‘s.” This from any other man had been hazardous even at that time; but he was neither a temporizer of his opinions, nor a disguiser of his wishes.

In writing upon a subject Prynne never quitted it till he had cited every author he could produce to favor his views, and his great learning and laborious researches were amazing. His “Histriomastix” refers to more than a thousand different authors, and he quotes a hundred writers to fortify his treatise on the “Unloveliness of Love Locks.” In the first-mentioned work he marshalled them, as he says, into “squadrons of authorities.” Having gone through “three squadrons,” he commences a fresh chapter thus: “The fourth squadron of authorities is the venerable troop of 70 several renowned ancient fathers;” and he throws in more than he promises, quoting the volume and page of each. Lord Cottington, one of his judges in the Star Chamber, astounded by the army of authorities in that mighty volume, affirmed that Prynne did not write the book alone -- “he either assisted the devil, or was assisted by the devil.” Mr. Secretary Cooke judiciously said “By the vast book of Mr. Prynne's, it appeareth that he hath read more than he hath studied, and studied more than he hath considered.” Milton speaks of Prynne as having had “his wits lying ever beside him in the martin, to be ever beside his wits in the text.”

Readers of Prynne's works will incline to the judgment of Milton, whose Satan “Floating many a rood” was not more awful than the embattled host of authors to which Prynne chokes the margins of his multitudinous tracts.

Prynne's works amount to nearly two hundred in number, and form forty enormous, closely printed, volumes in quarto and folio. It is probable that there is not so complete a set in existence as that which he gave to Lincoln's Inn library.

Sir William Blackstone diligently collected Prynne's pieces, but was unable to complete the series. While Prynne stood in the pillory, enduring the loss of his ears at Westminster and Cheapside, “his volumes were burnt under his nose, which almost suffocated him.” Yet who can doubt that the fumigation from such a burning was a reviving savor to Prynne's spirits under the suffering, and a stimulant to further and similar purposes and endurance?


Prynne was a man of great knowledge and, little wisdom: he had vast erudition without the tact of good sense. He stood insulated from all parties, ridiculed by his friends and execrated by his enemies. He was facetiously called “William the Conqueror,” and this he merited, by his inflexibie and invincible nature. His activity in public life, and the independence of his character, were unvarying. He had endured prosecutions under every power at the head of affairs, and suffered ten imprisonments. In admiration of his earnest honesty, his copious learning, and the public persecutions so unmercifully inflicted upon him, Charles II. dignified him with the title of “the Cato of the Age.” At the restoration it became difficult to dispose of “busie Mr. Prin,” as Whitelocke called him. The court wished to devise something for him “purposely to employ his head from scribbling against the state and the bishops;“ and, to weary out his restless vigor, they put him to clear the Augean stable of our national antiquities.

The veteran desired to be one of the barons of the Exchequer, for which he was more than qualified; but he was made keeper of the Records in the Tower, where “he rioted in leafy folios and proved himself to be one of the greatest paper-worms which ever crept into old books and musty records.”

In this fortress of the Tower Prynne achieved an herculean labor, well known to the historical antiquary by the name of “Prynne’s Records,” in three folio volumes. The second volume of this surprising monument of his great learning and indefatigable research was printed in 1665: the first appeared, afterwards, in 1666, and the third in 1670. Most of the copies of the first two volumes of this great and invaluable work were burnt by the fire of London in 1666: it is said that of the first volume only twenty-three copies were saved. A set of the 3 volumes complete is exceedingly rare, and worth ninety or a hundred guineas.

A catalogue of Prynne’s works, and particulars concerning himself, are in Wood’s “Athenæ Oxoniensis.” An account of him is in the late Mr. Hargrave’s preface to his edition of Hale on Parliaments. Prynne’s ardor in writing was intense. Wood says “his custom was to put on a long quilted cap, which came an inch over his eyes, serving as an umbrella to defend them from too much light; and seldom eating a dinner, he would every three hours or more be munching a roll of bread, and refresh his exhausted spirits with ale.” He was born in 1606 and died in 1669; and, supposing that he commenced authorship in arriving at man’s estate, he is computed to have written a sheet a day (Hume. Calamities of Authors. Granger. Seward. Pepys.)

See also The Martyrdom of Archbishop Laud - John Mason Neale.

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