The various factions who made use of his writings could obviously overlook some of his opinions, recognising instead the value of a good propagandist. One anonymous pamphlet said of him "that mercenary soul that for a handful of earth shall be hired to assassinate the greatest fame and reputation".
Marchamont was raised by his mother, the innkeeper of The George inn, Burford, Oxfordshire, after his father's death. His stepfather was the vicar of Burford and teacher at the local school. After obtaining a BA from All Souls College, Oxford in 1637, Marchamont worked first as a teacher and then studied law and medicine.
He came to prominence in 1643 when he began working on Mercurius Britanicus, a weekly news-book espousing the parliamentary politics of the era, mainly written as a response to the royalist Mercurius Aulicus of John Birkenhead. The Britanicus, which Needham controlled after 1644, was more overtly polemical and savage than the satirical Aulicus. The publication in the Britanicus of Charles I's personal letters which were captured after the battle of Naseby was a significant propaganda coup for the parliamentary forces. But this and Needham's attacks on the personality of the king drew censure from the House of Lords and when Needham again attacked the king in print, during delicate negotiations in May 1646, he was sent to the Fleet prison for two weeks.
Upon his release he was banned from publishing but probably authored some of the many anonymous pamphlets around at the time. In 1647 Charles I, surprisingly, seems to have forgiven him and he began publishing Mercurius Pragmaticus, a royalist supporting news-book. At the fall of the royalists and the execution of Charles I, Needham was arrested and imprisoned in Newgate prison. His time in prison allowed him to square the politics of the new Commonwealth with classical ideas of republic and he began to write pamphlets in support of the new regime. They began with his apologies for past actions and exhortations for co-operation of all parties with the new government, quoting authorities from both sides.
For the next ten years Needham published Mercurius Politicus, the official news-book of the new republican state, albeit under the editorial aegis of John Thurloe, spymaster of Cromwell. With the royalist faction suppressed or in exile abroad, Needham foreswore his previous scurrilous reporting and aimed to educate his readers in political principles of humanism and republicanism. As the early radicalism of the Commonwealth began to wane, the revolutionary ideas expressed in Politicus also softened, with a greater emphasis on the merit of a stable state. This did not mean that he did not on occasion criticise some of the conservative and authoritarian aspects of Cromwell's Protectorate and, like others, called for a return to more republican ideals. The newspaper was widely read in England and Europe amongst exiles and Europeans alike. Another significant innovation was the inclusion of regular advertising.
Needham predicted and wrote pamphlets agitating against the restoration of the monarchy and when the restoration occurred he went into hiding, possibly in Holland. Despite ferocious pamphlets written about him, he was allowed to return to London under the new regime's relatively open climate for writers, which also saw his friend John Milton released from prison. Needham helped his case by re-printing some poems, written in Mercurius Pragmaticus, while supporting Charles I during the late 1640s. He retired from political pamphleteering and worked as a doctor, although he could not entirely avoid publishing, producing two pamphlets on education and medicine.
One final foray into the field of political writings came in the mid-1670s when he wrote several pamphlets attacking the Earl of Shaftesbury. The motive for these seems to have been simply money; but he used the occasion to renew his attacks on presbyterianism, and his final pamphlet before his death in 1678, a call for war against the French, was probably sincere.
Nedham's political reversals were depicted as dishonest; but he seems to have regarded religious toleration, usually advocated by the king's party, as the best way to cure the political problems of the times. Presbyterianism, and the Scots in general, he attacked at almost every opportunity. He also used the self-interest theories of Henri, duc de Rohan and Machiavelli to compare the motivations for each side's actions and predicting the ensuing political climate. He pioneered this kind of analysis of an on-going event and used it to determine his own stance. His writing continued to be influential among the Whigs.
In the 18th century, Needham's theories of republicanism were severely criticized by American Founding Father John Adams in the third volume of his A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787-88).
- Drabble, Margaret, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, (1997), London: Oxford University Press.
- Joad Raymond, ‘Nedham , Marchamont (bap. 1620, d. 1678)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 13 June 2006 subscription required
- Hill, Christopher, The Experience of Defeat (1984), London: Faber and Faber, p20