During the 1640’s, control over printed forms of communication began to collapse in London. These printed sources included pamphlets, books, newspapers, and more. After careful typographical analysis as well as specific information gathered from these sources, scholars were able to prove the existence of illegal secret printing presses, specifically between the years of 1644 and 1646.
Twentieth-century bibliographer A.F. Johnson, for example, uncovered a series of English Puritan pamphlets that were published in 1640 and 1641, and had made their way through London’s underground book market. These specific pamphlets all used an identical typeface and a “distinctive set of printers’ ornaments” . Here Johnson is referring to specific cracks and imperfections that identify them “with the certainty of matching human fingerprints” . These pamphlets were also printed in quarto, meaning that they were produced from full blank sheets containing eight pages of text, four to a side, then folded twice to produce four leaves (so, eight book pages).
Because these pamphlets were so unique, Johnson figured out that they were all products of a single printing press. This secret press produced a total of eighteen separate titles but quickly and mysteriously disappeared at some point in 1641. Looking further into Johnson’s research, he was able to conclude that none of the distinctive printing materials used by this specific press would ever be seen or heard of again. Similar to the pamphlets Johnson analyzed, many of the sources that were secretly printed during this time were both unlicensed and produced anonymously, therefore it was extremely difficult to locate their origin.
Although these sources Johnson analyzed are unique, other sources during this time shared distinctive traits. For example, pamphlets printed in Amsterdam, Glasgow and Edinburgh were plain quartos that had a simple and open title page with plenty of white space, a title, a border, an ornament, and an imprint.  Looking at the Herle pamphlet, some of these traits are evident as well.
Richard Overton’s career as an illicit printer during the English Civil War offers exceptional insight into the trade and business that was illicit printing. Overton’s career also offers an insight into how the illegal pamphlets affected the leaders of the Rump Parliament and how the fifty-odd MP’s left in that parliament used the unique aspects of printing to track down Overton and halt the work of “…one of the most notorious and successful underground presses of the Civil War period.” 
One of the key characteristics of Overton’s press that very may well have been a contributor to his success as an underground printer was the type of print he used. What is remarkable about the type used by Overton is how unremarkable and similar it is to most type used during the period. The exceedingly common type used by Overton was ideal for an illicit printer to avoid recognition by the authorities and other printers. The trouble with type during this period was that after hard use it was bound to become broken and thus easily distinguishable.
After Overton published An Alarum to the House of Lords: Against their of the Common Liberties and Rights of this Nation, which attacked the political authority of the House of Lords while also bringing up the case of a man recently imprisoned in the Tower of London by the Upper House, he received condemnation from the House of Lords. The Upper House became so incensed by pamphlets like An Alarum that they hired Robert Eeles, another of London’s illicit printers, to track down the printer of the pamphlet. Because of the hard worn type used by Overton at the time he was identified within a week and arrested in his bed.
By 1603, pamphlets were already regarded as low-brow, and people “looked down on such writings as fit only to be found ‘solde in a booth, amongst pinns and alamacks,’…[and were] ‘maintained in ale a fortnight by printers who flourished on the pitiful efforts of such scribblers.’”  In the eyes of the pamphlet writers and readers, however, they had already evolved into something much more significant. Pamphlets catered to a diverse and rapidly expanding audience that included people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Printers would sell pamphlets to bookshops and bookstall vendors wholesale – bookstall vendors would then normally congregate in places like churchyards, in order to reach the widest possible audience . Some historians estimate that the price of a play (considered low-brow entertainment) and the price of a pamphlet were roughly the same, and therefore even lower-class Londoners could afford them . Writers were, therefore, “aware that there was a market for books that would not ask too much from their readers.”  This proliferation of information was new and exciting for the lower classes. Books had previously been written in Latin – pamphlets, instead, were often written in English, widening the pool of potential readers . While not everybody could read, “even some of the lower orders in London, although not the labourers, demonstrate[d] around 70 per cent literacy.”  And if Londoners could not read, they could easily walk to a tavern, pub, or other social reading places to hear them read aloud .
Jason Peacey’s book Print and Public Relations in the English Revolution discusses the simultaneous perception of printed materials as being more official and authoritative and the contrary belief that they were more likely to be by government impersonators.  The suspicion of printed documents stems from the sudden proliferation of the printing press in the time immediately preceding the English Civil War. That people approached both printed and written documents with equal suspicion shows the amount of conflicting reports and arguments on political ideas and events. Peacey quotes Rushworth saying “that it was impossible to produce ‘true history’ from Civil War texts because of how often they contained speeches ‘never spoken’ and declarations ‘never passed.’”  This lack of reliable sources with the influx of counterfeit documents claiming to represent certain sides led to the perception of newspapers as “lying gazettes” useless and mindlessly consumed by the public. 
Despite this perception the public was able to see past the inaccuracies; many private letters recognize the lack of reliable information.  Peacey is quick to point out that highlighting problems does not correlate to an informed public and people were still limited to the sources available to them.  Anna Bayman’s book Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London complicates the problem even more; she emphasizes the speed at which the pamphlets were produced, increasing the likelihood that errors or changes were made by the printer.  Even further complicating things was the fact that pamphlets were often written by many authors who had little freedom in what they actually wrote.  All of these factors contributed to a fast moving, ever changing and unreliable output of pamphlets and documents.
Before the Civil War censorship within Britain was rather strong. As Hill explains, before the war “there was a dual system of control. Books were supposed to be licensed by the ecclesiastical authorities; and the Stationer’s Company (which had a monopoly on printing)”. Censorship was tightened in 1586 with a Star Chamber Decree stating that printing could be done “onelye in the Cyttie of London, or the Subburbes thereof, and as excepte one press in the vniuersitye of Cambridge, and another press in the vnyuersytie of Oxforde, and noe moe”. With printing limited to London and the two universities, censoring documents became much easier.
Charles I inherited the censorship tools of his predecessors, using them to control the country, however, in 1641 following the beginning of the Long Parliament many of those institutions were broken as the country moved towards civil war.  The Star Chamber which had been, a useful tool for Charles I’s censorship was “cleerely and absolutely dissolved taken away” in 1640. The collapse of the Star Chamber also destroyed the Stationer’s monopoly on printing, bringing new freedoms to writers.  The ecclesiastical control under the High Commision was abolished as well in 1641, further weakening the institutions of censorship.  It was another two years until “An Ordinance for the Regulation of Printing” was enacted in 1643 to begin establishing proper censorship. This leaves nearly 3 full years of “anarchy” when it comes to censorship. Herle and many of his associates (as well as enemies) were free to write during this time period between censorship laws, leading to an explosion of writing.
1. David R Como, “Secret Printing, the Crisis of 1640, and the Origins of Civil War Radicalism,” Past & Present 196 (2007): 39.
2. Ibid., 40.
3. J. Hargrave, “Disruptive Technological History: Papermaking to Digital Printing.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 44, No. 3 (2013): 221-236, muse.jhu.edu/article/503736.
4. David R. Adams, “The Secret Printing and Publishing Career of Richard Overton the Leveller, 1644–46,” The Library 11, No. 1 (2010): 3-88, doi: 10.1093/library/11.1.3.
5. H.S. Bennet, English Books & Readers, 1603 to 1640: Being a Study in the History of the Book Trade in the Reigns of James I and Charles I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
6. Anna Bayman, Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), ProQuest ebrary, accessed 4 October 2016.
12. Jason Peacey, Print and Public Relations in the English Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 92.
13. Ibid., 95.
15. Ibid., 104.
16. Ibid., 104.
17. Batman, Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering, 36.
19. Christopher Hill, The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), 33.
20. “Star Chamber Decree, Westminster (1586),” in E. Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1557-1640, 5 vols (London: n.p., 1875-94), 2: 808., Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), accessed September 24, 2016.
21. Derek Jones, “1688-1880 (the United Kingdom, Including Scotland from 1707),” in Censorship : A World Encyclopedia, Vol. 1. ed. Derek Jones (Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001), 307.
22. ”Charles I, 1640: An Act for [the Regulating the Privie Councell and for taking away the Court commonly called the Star Chamber,” in Statutes of the Realm: Volume 5, 1628-80, ed. John Raithby (s.l: Great Britain Record Commission, 1819), 110-112, British History Online, accessed September 24, 2016.
23. Hill, The Collected Essays, 34.
25. “An Ordinance for the Regulation of Printing, London (1643),” in C.H. Firth and R.S Rait, Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1911), 1: 184, Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), accessed September 24, 2016.
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