David Colclough. Freedom of Speech in Early Stuart England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 293pp. ISBN 0 521 84748 6.

Cyndia Susan Clegg
Pepperdine University

Clegg, Cyndia Susan. "Review of David Colclough, Freedom of Speech in Early Stuart England.." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):8.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-3/revcolc.htm>.

  1. Writing a book about the freedom of speech in early Stuart England at this scholarly moment is a courageous task. Not only has the post-modernist critique of essentialism revealed the degree to which such Enlightenment ideals as freedom of speech have been constructed by dominant cultures to perpetuate their hegemony, but revisionist histories of early Stuart England have altogether repudiated the "Whig" narrative of English history in the seventeenth century in which the forces of republican freedom challenge and overthrow monarchy's repressive tyranny. Throughout Freedom of Speech in Early Stuart England David Colclough's careful historical account contextualizes debates about free speech and the liberty of the subject in educational and political discussions of the time, and in doing so, directly addresses both the post-modernist and revisionist perspectives. His argument, that notions of free speech grow out of a classical rhetorical tradition in which free speech participates in political counsel, attends scrupulously to the ways in which free speech as a rhetorical figure appears in seventh-century documents: manuscript commonplace books, literary manuscripts, early printed books, and accounts of parliamentary debates.

  2. That Colclough's initial chapter attends first to the origins of free speech in ancient Greece and Rome may tempt readers to think they are about to face an old-fashioned (western) civics lesson. Instead we encounter an account of how the Greek rhetorical principle of parrhesia ("frank speech": Latin licentia) developed in specifically political contexts so that by the time the Roman orators codified it, the political practice of counsel defined the figure: "it is Frankness of Speech when, talking before those to whom we owe reverence or fear, we yet exercise our right to speak out, because we seem justified in reprehending them, or persons dear to them, for some fault" (Rhetorica ad Herennium, qtd. by Colclough, 28).

  3. Parrhesia/licentia became known to the Renaissance in the grammar schools where, as Colclough notes, "the teaching of classical rhetoric placed a significant emphasis on the Ciceronian ideal of the vita activa and on rhetoric as a socially cohesive force" (30). Among the Renaissance humanists interested in fashioning courtiers, parrhesia/licentia became a "guiding principle" for the conduct of political life among both continental and English writers:
    Liberty of speech is considered to be essential in virtually all early modern treatments of counsel: if the prince does not actively encourage frankness then his or her counsel will be worthless, and he or she will become the object of flattery framed as counsel, rather than of constructive device. (63)
    Colclough uses the writings of both Sir Thomas More and Sir Francis Bacon to illustrate how counseling the monarch in late sixteenth and early seventeenth England adapted the figure of parrhesia to include complex framing apologies for the act.

  4. Frank speech, Colclough demonstrates in the second chapter, belonged to biblical as well as classical rhetorical traditions, especially in the New Testament where the word parrhesia is, for example, employed by John to describe Jesus's speech and actions. As a consequence, according to Colclough, not only did parrhesia appear "as a Christian virtue …something to be exercised among friends or brethren and in one's relationship with God through prayer" but it also "defined the proper relationship of the individual Christian to those in power" (81). In the early Christian Church, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, employed biblical parrhesia, when he counseled Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian, establishing a precedent that informed the godly counsel of English monarchs, a tradition which, in England, extended from the sermons of Hugh Latimer to the pamphlets of Thomas Scott, and included such writers as John Foxe, John Stubbs, Philip Sidney, and John Donne. Colclough focuses on the writings of Thomas Scott during the crisis of the 1620s over James I's reluctance to enter war in Europe on his son-in-law's behalf. From Colclough's perspective, "Scott was committed to a classical humanist position that elevated the value of active citizenship" and "praised parliament as the best origin of counsel and policy," but he drew on the religious tradition of free speech in order to claim a right of counsel (119).

  5. Scott's celebration of parliament's place in assuring open communication between the king and his subjects affords a useful entrée into a discussion of parliamentary free speech, a problematic subject when it comes to early Stuart Parliaments. As Colclough observes, revisionist historians' skepticism about the "presence of revolutionary ideologies in early Stuart Parliaments," while healthy, has "deprived the ideas of freedom that were being propounded in those decades of the attention they demand" (122). This chapter remedies the problem, and does so effectively, by employing notions of the rhetoric of counsel to frame the evidence drawn from parliamentary debates and to demonstrate not only that the right to freedom of speech was a secure aspect of parliamentary liberty in the early seventeenth century, but that considerable anxiety existed about the boundaries between liberty and license. Even so, Colclough concludes that "one of the most striking aspects of the many debates about freedom of speech in this period is the way in which the liberties of Parliament are increasingly identified with the liberties of the subject" (195).

  6. Colclough's final chapter explores the degree to which English subjects exercised the liberty of free speech in the quasi-public world of manuscript publication. The representative manuscript miscellanies that Colclough describes in considerable detail responded in multiple and complex ways to political events and became a means of "both unofficial protest and political deliberation" (249). They "facilitated political analysis, commentary and reflections on the art, duty, and dangers of counsel by juxtaposing texts gathered in a range of ways from a wide variety of sources" (238), and demonstrated how deeply the seeds of republican thought were planted in the English imagination.

  7. Freedom of Speech in Early Stuart England makes a major contribution to our understanding of early modern political discourse. Colclough's impeccable scholarship and mastery of archival sources amasses a vast array of persuasive evidence that effectively describes a culture seriously engaged in civil life and concerned about subjects' rights. Free speech in this culture was less an end in itself (as it becomes in a Whig narrative of the progression towards freedom) than a means to the end of good government. In discerning how one particular culture understood free speech, Freedom of Speech in Early Stuart England makes a major contribution to a "discontinuous history of rights" that, indeed as Colclough would have it, allows us to "continue to test the decisions that we make about freedom of speech" (254). This will prove an invaluable resource for literary scholars seeking to understand the cultural contexts of early modern literature.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).