The new volume Scribal News in Politics and Parliament 1660–1760, which has just been published as a special issue of the journal Parliamentary History, gathers twelve essays by scholars from Britain, Europe, and North America on the role of scribal news in reporting about parliament and politics in Britain between 1660 and 1760. The volume grew out of a one-day conference held between the History of Parliament and the German Historical Institute London (both institutions are neighbours on Bloomsbury Square) in December 2018 to explore a hitherto underinvestigated topic at the intersection of political and media history.
The articles build on a growing awareness among scholars of late Stuart and early Georgian Britain that handwritten forms of topical reporting remained a crucial feature of the news landscape of the time. Despite the permanent lapse of the licensing laws in England in 1695 and the ensuing eruption of print media, as well as the publication of the first long-lasting newspaper in Scotland in 1699, scribal news continued to be a vital means of communication about the goings-on in London and Edinburgh and between Britain and various European countries well into the eighteenth century.
As the volume’s chapters demonstrate, commercial newsletter services supplied customers who had no direct access to the theatres of political decision-making in the English capital with regular updates on events in Westminster and Whitehall. The recipients of these newsletters represented a wide range of British society, from aristocrats retiring to their estates during the parliamentary recess and the proverbial country squire keen on the latest gossip from the metropole to the habitués of London and provincial coffeehouses. Crucially, the readership of newsletters included women as well as men, as Rachael King’s article in particular demonstrates. Semi-private letter-writing also played its part in the dissemination of news in Britain. Alasdair Raffe reconstructs how Scottish clergymen relayed regular reports about the meetings of the Edinburgh parliament (until 1707) and of the synods and assemblies of the Church of Scotland to family and friends in other parts of the country.
At the same time, European states such as the Dutch Provinces and Italian and German principalities maintained diplomatic representatives in the British capital, who were tasked with providing regular updates on the political scene in London. Many of these often junior diplomats resembled more closely modern foreign correspondents than official representatives of a foreign power. They spent most of their time hunting after the latest news story to relay back to their masters, as the articles by Brendan Dooley and Davide Boerio, Michael Schaich, and Charles Littleton amply illustrate. The flow of information, however, did not move in one direction. The British government during the reign of Charles II, for example, enlisted the services of a variety of news providers on the Continent to get hold of intelligence from the Netherlands (Jason Peacey). Individual British aristocrats, on the other hand, procured news channels of their own. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Philip Yorke, 2nd earl of Hardwicke (1720–1790), subscribed to French nouvelles à la main to keep tabs on the literary and political scene there, only to be disappointed by the gossipy nature of the product he received (Markman Ellis).
The volume also shows what work remains to be done; how information provided in the various forms of scribal news compared with what was available in print is a question that future research has to explore more fully, for example. It is clear, however, that in some cases newsletters only duplicated content that could be found in newspapers and other printed media as well. During times of heightened political crisis, such as the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 (the topic of Leith Davis’s essay), newsletter writers even struggled to convey a coherent picture of what was happening in the various locations in the British Isles. Their reports must have left their readers bewildered and fearful of what was going to happen next. At the same time, there were parts of political life in Britain around 1700 that would have been unintelligible to most contemporary observers outside a small, well-connected elite, had it not been for the regular coverage in newssheets.
Probably the most important such arena was the English/British parliament, whose debates during this period took place—at least in theory—in secrecy. As numerous articles in the special issue, for example those by Ugo Bruschi, Robin Eagles, Littleton, and Schaich, make clear, parliamentary proceedings were a staple of scribal news for both domestic and foreign audiences. Commercial newsletters and diplomatic despatches were full of more or less detailed reports about parliamentary proceedings. At their best, newsmongers were able to conjure up the spirit of debates in the two houses, relay the results of votes accurately, and provide a running commentary on the strategies of the two main parties and individual MPs. Even if information was less detailed, and from a modern point of view it often was rather basic, scribal news was in many respects the only source of information about what was going on in the Palace of Westminster. During the seventeenth century there was also a strand within scribal poetry that reflected on parliamentary business, often with a critical stance (Edward Taylor).
It is not without reason, therefore, that historians increasingly argue for the centrality of parliament to scribal news. The special issue of Parliamentary History clearly illuminates this relationship from a variety of angles and locates it in the wider context of British politics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while at the same time proposing future avenues for the study of this long-neglected but highly fascinating topic. Almost half of the special issue’s articles are available in open access.
The featured image shows a section from an early-modern engraving entitled ‘Westminster Hall – The First Day of Term – A Satirical Poem’ (1797). Artwork in the public domain.