Coventry’s Secret Printing Press

Old Printing Press

Although the days of Good Queen Bess are portrayed as a golden age, particularly for the arts, exploration and commerce, it was not an age of free speech. It was an age of plots, fears of invasion and, with the queen at its head, a newly-formed church struggling to hold the middle way between recusants and radical reformers. The government was very aware that Luther’s reforms had unleashed The Wars of Religion in continental Europe and interreligious civil disorder, such as that of St Bartholomew’s Day, when the protestant Huguenots in Paris and elsewhere in France were massacred. Criticising the Church of England equated with criticising the queen and that was treason.

The ruling class, both secular and ecclesiastical, employed informers, spies, and pursuivants, who could enter and search property. The Reformation had been spread by the new invention of printing and the state felt it needed to control the press: printing of any sort outside London or the old universities was prohibited; printing dissenting opinions was banned; paper imports (there were no paper mills in England) were tightly controlled. Enforcing these laws was the Stationers’ Company in London, which had the power to search property, destroy anything illegal and imprison law breaking printers.

We can therefore understand the reluctance shown by John Hales of Keresley, the nephew of Hales of Hales Street, when in late 1588 in a church in Coventry he was approached by a man called Stephen Gifford, a servant of an uncle of his by marriage, Sir Richard Knightley MP of Fawsley in Northamptonshire. Sir Richard had sent Hales a letter, the burden of which was: As you are not using Hales Place, the house your father built at Whitefriars, could I borrow a room there? No-one need know.

The further explanation was that Sir Richard had been housing an illegal printing press at Fawsley, where Robert Waldegrave had been printing illegal tracts but now the pursuivants were onto them. The author of some of the tracts, a Welshman called John Penry, had had his house nearby raided, so the press had been taken apart and hidden in Sir Richard’s farm at Norton-by-Daventry. Penry and Waldegrave were keen to continue printing the so-called Marprelate anti-clerical tracts. These were notorious, so much so that the queen had issued A Proclamation against certain Schismatical Books and Libels to make it quite clear that writing, printing and distributing these tracts was treasonous. Informers, however, would be pardoned.

Hales’s allegiance to his family overcame, at least temporarily, his fear of the law and so Gifford brought the press in a cart from Norton to Coventry across Dunsmore Heath. The cart was weighed down not only by the heavy timbers of the press but also by the type, which was mostly made of lead. He realised as they crossed the heath that if the cart got stuck he could not count on nearby villagers to help. They would certainly suspect that something illegal was going on. Luckily all went well and the press arrived in Coventry towards the end of January 1589.

Maintaining secrecy while producing and disseminating dissident literature was a major problem because so many people were involved: apart from the author and the owner of the premises, where the press was housed, the printer needed two assistants, and supplies of paper and ink; once printed, the sheets needed to be stitched together by a bookbinder; and the pamphlets had to be distributed secretly to a willing bookseller in London. The opportunities for being discovered or betrayed were many.

Through the winter Waldegrave worked on. He was a dedicated puritan, who used false names and cover stories and who had already been imprisoned and had his press and types destroyed by the Stationers’ Company. By February he had produced the first batch of pamphlets and two new ones in March. Since the house was supposed to be empty, despite the cold he was not allowed a fire and the lack of warm food became a cause for complaint. However, a Master Pigot of Coventry hosted some dinners for the conspirators and Hales would not have seen him starve. Yet security was still a worry. He may have been aware that Stephen Gifford, when taking pamphlets from Fawsley to London, had got drunk and boasted of what his master was up to. That had led to searches and the press being moved to Coventry. The bookbinder, Henry Sharpe, tended to follow Hales and Penry round Coventry to discover where the press was hidden and repeatedly questioned Waldegrave about what he was going to do next. No doubt fed up and frightened, he told Sharpe he would go to Devon. In fact, he went to La Rochelle, the French protestant harbour city.

Increasingly nervous about the continued appearance of the critical pamphlets, Lord Burghley wrote to Archbishop Whitgift demanding the speedy apprehension of the conspirators. Whitgift authorised his main puritan hunter, Richard Bancroft, to search anywhere, anyone and question them, as well as demanding the cooperation of all in authority or else . . . It was known that many middle grade officials were sympathetic to the puritans.

Without Waldegrave the press could no longer operate in Coventry and it was moved to nearby Wolston Hall, where its owners the Wigstons, and Mrs Wigston in particular, were prepared to house the press. A room was provided and the servants forbidden to enter. The bookseller Humfrey Newman hired a new printer, Hodgkins, and two assistants disguised as embroiderers. Two more pamphlets were produced, whose manuscripts were provided in sections by a classic ‘dead letter drop’ method, which implicated Job Throckmorton of Haseley as one of the authors in addition to Penry. Whichever one it was, enjoyed taunting the pursuivants and wrote in one pamphlet that he was ‘in Northamptonshire and Warwickshire.’ Hodgkins decided it was all getting too risky and in August headed back home to Lancashire, taking his assistants and the type with him.

On the way back home, Hodgkins was unlucky in having some type fall off the cart. He claimed that it was lead shot and, as he had been involved in shot production in the past, this had some credibility. The team were allowed on their way but suspicion followed and they were tracked down, arrested and taken to London for questioning by the Privy Council, who handed them over ‘to put them all to the torture.’

Unaware of the events in the North, printing continued in Wolston Hall, although badly and with difficulty until Waldegrave returned on his way to sanctuary in Scotland, where he became printer to James VI, later James I of England. As a result of the information provided by Hodgkins and his assistants, raids began in and around Coventry that brought the conspiracy to an end.

Job Throkmorton was indicted but released for lack of evidence and, probably because he was an important figure locally.

John Hales was fined £1500, of which he paid £500 and eventually his grandson paid the rest. However, in a story that will resonate with some, when the grandson was questioned about it, he couldn’t find the receipt. After what I imagine must have been frantic searching, he found it in papers put for burning. The Hales family lived in Whitefriars for many years thereafter.

Henry Sharpe, the bookbinder, was arrested in September and confessed everything. No more was heard of him and he was probably released. Humfrey Newman hid in a pub and, like Waldegrave, escaped to Scotland.

Mrs Wigston of Wolston admitted to forcing her spouse to harbour the press and was fined £1000. Her husband was fined a much lesser sum of 500 marks for obeying her, an excuse the judge thought barely credible.

Hodgkins, the printer, and his assistants were imprisoned but released in due course. Much detail about the activities of the conspirators comes from the written records of their trial.

John Penry, the probable author of some of the tracts, escaped to Scotland and continued writing and publishing. In 1593 he returned to England but again fell foul of Archbishop Whitgift, who on the flimsiest of evidence had him indicted, tried and convicted for sedition all on the same day and hanged four days later without being able to say goodbye to his family. He is considered a puritan martyr.

For a few months in 1589, Coventry was the centre of a free press and the focus of the state’s attempt to suppress free speech. The puritan movement eventually led to civil war and Coventry’s successful support for Parliament was the reason for Charles II’s vengeful destruction of the city’s walls in 1662. The Press Licencing Act that allowed the state to interfere in what was printed came to an end in 1695.

James Rose, CovSoc member

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