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The English Civil War and the rise of journalism


The English Civil War was one of the bloodiest conflicts in Britain’s long history, ending with the execution of King Charles I. Whats lesser known, however, is how the war influenced the evolution of todays newspapers - something historian Derek J. Taylor has investigated.

At the age of 23, Marchamont Nedham got his first big break. He was invited to become chief writer of a publication called Mercurius Britannicus. This was one of a new breed of printing press productions, the periodical newsbook. It was the forerunner of today’s newspaper, though it looked more like a small magazine. The key difference from the one-off books and pamphlets we saw during Tudor times, was that newsbooks came out in regular editions, usually once a week, which meant they could build up a readership.

What young Marchamont Nedham had done to win this position, or who he’d met that had swung it for him, we can only guess. Those who’ve examined in detail the writing style of the various editions of Mercurius Britannicus at this time, can’t detect any change with Nedham’s appointment, which has led to the theory that maybe he was already writing for the publication before, perhaps on a trial basis.

But if we’re looking for an explanation for why, around 1643, Marchamont Nedham switched careers to become a journalist, we need look no further than what was happening in the country. These were turbulent days in England, some of the most violent and uncertain in the country’s history. King Charles I, who’d come to the throne in 1625, was trying to put back the clock. He believed kings were answerable to God alone, so ignoring the past 350 years of Parliament’s rising power. And what’s more, he was suspected of nurturing an ambition to return England to Roman Catholicism.

The country’s religious divisions were pushed to extremes under Charles. On one side, the Presbyterians and Puritans who sought to exercise influence through Parliament. On the other, the High Church Anglicans who backed the king. Tension between them was such that it would take only the merest jolt to turn peaceful disagreement into violent rage. And jolt it Charles did.

On 4 January 1642, stung by his openly Catholic wife’s accusation that he was a coward, the king marched into the Palace of Westminster with 200 armed courtiers to arrest one peer and five MPs suspected of plotting against him. But it was a botched job. The six men escaped, and Parliament pronounced the king a ‘public enemy to the commonwealth’. It was the start of the most bloody and divisive civil war in England’s history. And as armies marched and battles were fought on home territory, there was an unprecedented demand among the populace for news of what was happening and opinions as to what to make of them.

Exciting times for a 23-year-old, trying to find his place in the world. The war was getting into full swing as Marchamont Nedham was appointed chief writer at Mercurius Britannicus. Britannicus was firmly on Parliament’s side in the conflict. It had been founded to counter the propaganda being pedalled by a Royalist newsbook called Mercurius Aulicus. King Charles, earlier in his reign, had refused to indulge in anything so demeaning as communicating with his subjects – such action hardly befitted a king with a divine right to rule. And he’d tried to impose the same restraint on his opponents by banning the printing of domestic news. But that prohibition had collapsed by 1641, when Charles lost control of Parliament. The many Presbyterian-owned printing presses immediately started churning out an estimated twenty different newsbooks, most with a pro-Parliament and anti-Royalist bias. Even Charles now realised he had no alternative. He’d have to do the same and swallow his I-only-talk-to-God principles.

And that was the start of Mercurius Aulicus.

Extracted from Fayke Newes: The Media vs the Mighty, From Henry VIII to Donald Trump by Derek J. Taylor

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