I've been in the archives going through Cheshire court files for 1685-87 over the last few days, and realised that I'd just missed an anniversary that's worth commenting on. On 15 July 1685, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth was executed (a thoroughly botched job, apparently; beheading often was) on Tower Hill for leading an unsuccessful rebellion against the not-terribly popular Catholic James II.
Now, living in an age where politicians merely start wars and leave soldiers - and civilians - to pay the price, that really is taking ultimate responsibility for your political actions.
Anyway, the reason that the court files jogged my memory is because of prosecutions for seditious words. The formal record of a criminal trial in the English early modern legal system, the indictment, is usually an arid, formulaic document (written in Latin until 1733). However, indictments for seditious words included details of what the accused had allegedly said. Some say most about the fears of those in government, like the prosecution of a man in 1665 for saying that 'hee had rather fight against the king then drincke a cup of beare'. (I haven't found any in these particular files, although I've seen them elsewhere, of prosecutions for saying that one 'did not give a turd for the king'.)
But the indictments also show that for some in the stronger Protestant areas of Cheshire, the failure of Monmouth's rebellion was a terrible disappointment, one that could barely be faced; there was clearly much grasping at straws. Take this declaration, on 28 July, days after the news of the execution would have reached even the remotest villages: 'The Duke of Monmouth is alive he's alive, he's alive, and the king is dead King James the second, King Charles [II] his brother is dead, and Monmouth has an army within thirty two or thirty foure miles of Oxford God blesse him God blesse and prosper him and his army, I wish myselfe with him'. Eighteen months later, this woman was unbearably bitter: 'There is no king in England nor hath beene since midsumer last was twelve month'. And despite the public execution, the rumours that would not go away. February 1687: 'I have beene with the duke of Monmouth about a fortnight ago at sea where he hath a considerable fleet with him and will be here 'ere long with a more considerable army then he had before'. Anyone interested in the subject of political rumour can do no better than Adam Fox's marvellous book on Oral and literate culture in early modern England, by the way.
Seditious words, unlike treason, was not a capital felony, but that didn't mean that offenders got off lightly. The usual punishment was a spell in the pillory, sometimes a whipping, and a heavy fine. Those who could not pay were likely to find themselves spending months in prison, reduced to writing - or finding friends who would write on their behalf - begging petitions to the judges for mercy.
Not that the Glorious Revolution immediately brought freedom of speech. In the Old Bailey Proceedings (1674-1799), fifty people were tried for seditious words in London after 1688. But nearly all of these were before the mid-1720s (with one or two following the 1745 Rebellion). I haven't done the counting yet, but I suspect that will be outnumbered in the 20 years or so of seventeenth-century Cheshire indictments that I've recorded - in a much smaller population than that of eighteenth-century London. It's a fascinating subject that has yet to be extensively studied.
Anybody wanting references for the primary sources quoted or, indeed, the few secondary works that I've come across is welcome to get in touch with me.