William Prynne (1600 – 24 October 1669) was an English lawyer, author, polemicist, and political figure. He was a prominent Puritan opponent of the church policy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Although his views on church polity were presbyterian, he became known in the 1640s as an Erastian, arguing for overall state control of religious matters. A prolific writer, he published over 200 books and pamphlets.
Born at Swainswick, near Bath, Somerset, he was educated at Bath Grammar School and Oriel College, Oxford. He graduated B.A. on 22 January 1621, was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn in the same year, and was called to the bar in 1628. According to Anthony à Wood, he was confirmed in his militant puritanism by the influence of John Preston, who was then lecturer at Lincoln's Inn. In 1627 he published his first book, a theological treatise, followed in the next three years by three others attacking Arminianism and its teachers. In the preface to one of them he appealed to parliament to suppress anything written against Calvinist doctrine and to force the clergy to subscribe to the conclusion of the Synod of Dort. Prynne was ever the stark disciplinarian. After arguing that the custom of drinking healths was sinful, he asserted that for men to wear their hair long was 'unseemly and unlawful unto Christians,' while it was 'mannish, unnatural, impudent, and unchristian' for women to cut it short.
Like many Puritans abhorring decadent celebrations he was strongly opposed to religious feast days, including Christmas, and revelry such as stage plays, and he included in his Histriomastix (1632) a denunciation of actresses which was widely felt to be an attack of Queen Henrietta Maria. This led to the most famous incidents in his life, but the timing was accidental. About 1624 Prynne had begun a book against stage-plays; on 31 May 1630 he obtained a license to print it, and about November 1632 it was published. Histriomastix is a volume of over a thousand pages, showing that plays were unlawful, incentives to immorality, and condemned by the scriptures, the fathers, modern Christian writers, and the wisest of the heathen philosophers. By happenstance, the queen and her ladies, in January 1633, took part in the performance of Walter Montagu's The Shepherd's Paradise: this was an innovation at court. A passage reflecting on the character of female actors in general was construed as an aspersion on the queen; passages which attacked the spectators of plays and magistrates who failed to suppress them, pointed by references to Nero and other tyrants, were taken as attacks on the king, Charles I.
William Noy as attorney-general instituted proceedings against Prynne in the Star-chamber. After a year's imprisonment in the Tower of London, he was sentenced (17 February 1634) to be imprisoned during life, to be fined £5,000, to be expelled from Lincoln's Inn, to be deprived of his degree by the university of Oxford, and to lose both his ears in the pillory. Prynne was pilloried on 7 May and 10 May. On 11 June he addressed to Archbishop Laud, whom he regarded as his chief persecutor, a letter charging him with illegality and injustice. Laud handed the letter to the attorney-general as material for a new prosecution, but when Prynne was required to own his handwriting, he contrived to get hold of the letter and tore it to pieces. In the Tower Prynne wrote and published anonymous tracts against episcopacy and against the Book of Sports. In one he introduced Noy's recent death as a warning. Elsewhere he attacked prelates in general (1635). An anonymous attack on Matthew Wren, bishop of Norwich brought him again before the Star-chamber. On 14 June 1637 Prynne was sentenced once more to a fine of £5,000, to imprisonment for life, and to lose the rest of his ears. At the proposal of Chief-justice John Finch he was also to be branded on the cheeks with the letters S. L., signifying 'seditious libeller'. Prynne was pilloried on 30 June in company with Henry Burton and John Bastwick, and Prynne was handled barbarously by the executioner. He made, as he returned to his prison, a couple of Latin verses explaining the 'S. L.' with which he was branded to mean 'stigmata laudis' ("sign of praise", or "sign of Laud").
His imprisonment was then much closer: no pens and ink, and allowed no books except the Bible, the prayer-book, and some orthodox theology. To isolate him from his friends he was removed first to Carnarvon Castle (July 1637), and then to Mont Orgueil Castle in Jersey. The governor, Sir Philip Carteret, treated Prynne well, which he repaid by defending Carteret's character in 1645 when he was accused as a malignant and a tyrant. He occupied his imprisonment by writing verse.
He was released by the Long Parliament in 1640. The House of Commons declared the two sentences against him illegal, restored him to his degree and to his membership of Lincoln's Inn, and voted him pecuniary reparation (as late as October 1648 he was still trying to collect it). He supported the Parliamentary cause in the English Civil War, particularly in the press, and in many pamphlets, while still pursuing the bishops.
In 1643 Prynne became involved in the controversy which followed the surrender of Bristol by Nathaniel Fiennes. Together with his ally Clement Walker, he presented articles of accusation against Fiennes to the House of Commons (15 November 1643), managed the case for the prosecution at the court-martial, which took place in the following December, and secured a condemnation of the offending officer. Prynne was also one of the counsel for the parliament at the trial of Lord Maguire in February 1645.
He was able to have the satisfaction of overseeing the trial of William Laud, which was to end in Laud's execution. He collected and arranged evidence to prove the charges against him, bore testimony himself in support of many of them, hunted up witnesses against the archbishop, and assisted the counsel for the prosecution in every way. At the time some thought he was clearly tampering with the witnesses. Prynne had the duty of searching Laud's room in the Tower for papers. He published a redacted edition of Laud's diary and a volume intended to serve as an introduction to his trial. After Laud's execution, Prynne was charged by the House of Commons (4 March 1645) to produce an account of the trial; other controversies prevented him from finishing the book.
In the rapidly shifting climate of opinion of the time, Prynne, having been at the forefront of radical opposition, soon found himself a conservative figure, defending Presbyterianism against the Independents favoured by Oliver Cromwell and the army. From 1644 he wrote pamphlets against Independents. He attacked John Goodwin and crossed his old companion in suffering, Henry Burton. He controverted and denounced John Lilburne, and called on Parliament to crush the sectaries. Prynne was equally hostile to the demands of the presbyterian clergy for the establishment of their system: Prynne maintained the supremacy of the state over the church. 'Mr. Prynne and the Erastian lawyers are now our remora,' complains Robert Baillie in September 1645. He denied in his pamphlets the right of the clergy to excommunicate or to suspend from the reception of the sacrament except on conditions defined by the laws of the state. He was answered by Samuel Rutherford. William M. Lamont writes:
|“||... Prynne had no distrust of power or abstract love of freedom. His pamphlet, The Sword of Christian Magistracy, is one of the most blood-curdling pleas for total repressive action from the civil authority in the English language.||”|
Prynne also came into collision with John Milton, whose doctrine on divorce he had denounced, and was replied to by the poet in a passage in his Colasterion. Milton also inserted in the original draft of his sonnet On the Forcers of Conscience a reference to 'marginal Prynne's ears'.
During 1647 the breach between the army and the Parliament turned Prynne's attention from theology to politics. He wrote a number of pamphlets against the army, and championed the cause of the eleven presbyterian leaders whom the army impeached. He also undertook official work. Since February 1644 he had been a member of the committee of accounts, and on 1 May 1647 he was appointed one of the commissioners for the Visitation of the University of Oxford. In April 1648 Prynne accompanied Philip Herbert, 5th Earl of Pembroke when he came as chancellor of Oxford to expel recalcitrant heads of houses.
In November 1648 Prynne was elected Member of Parliament for Newport in Cornwall for the Long Parliament. As soon as he took his seat, he showed his opposition to the army. He urged the Commons to declare them rebels, and argued that concessions made by Charles in the recent treaty were a satisfactory basis for a peace. Two days later Pride's Purge took place. Prynne was arrested by Colonel Thomas Pride and Sir Hardress Waller, and kept prisoner first at an eating-house (called Hell), and then at the Swan and King's Head inns in the Strand.
Pride's Purge to the Restoration
The purged Prynne protested in letters to Lord Fairfax, and by printed declarations on behalf of himself and the other arrested members. He published also a denunciation of the proposed trial of King Charles, being answered by a collection of extracts from his own earlier pamphlets. Released from custody some time in January 1649, Prynne retired to Swanswick, and began a paper war against the new government. He became a thorn in Cromwell's side. He wrote three pamphlets against the engagement to be faithful to the Commonwealth, and proved that neither in conscience, law, nor prudence was he bound to pay the taxes which it imposed. The government retaliated by imprisoning him for nearly three years without a trial. On 30 June 1650 he was arrested and confined, first in Dunster Castle and afterwards in Taunton Castle (12 June 1651) and Pendennis Castle (27 June 1651). He was finally offered his liberty on giving security to the amount of £1,000 that he would henceforward do nothing against the government; but, refusing to make any promise, he was released unconditionally on 18 February 1653.
On his release Prynne returned to pamphleteering. He exposed the machinations of the papists, showed the danger of Quakerism, vindicated the rights of patrons against the triers, and discussed the right limits of the Sabbath. The proposal to lift the thirteenth-century ban on the residence of Jews inspired him with a pamphlet against the scheme. Oliver Cromwell allowed the Jews to return to the British Isles on the condition that the Jews attend compulsory Christian sermons on a Sunday, to encourage their conversion to Christianity. Cromwell based this decision on St. Paul's epistle to the Romans 10:15. The offer of the crown to Cromwell by the ' petition and advice' suggested a parallel between Cromwell and Richard III. Similarly, when the Protector, as Cromwell then was styled, set up a House of Lords, Prynne expanded the tract in defence of their rights which he had published in 1648 into an historical treatise of five hundred pages. These writings, however, attracted little attention.
After the fall of Richard Cromwell he regained the popular ear. As soon as the Long Parliament was re-established, Prynne got together a few of the members excluded by Pride's purge and endeavoured to take his place in the house. On 7 May 1659 he was kept back by the guards, but on 9 May he managed to get in, and kept his seat there for a whole sitting. Arthur Haslerig and Sir Henry Vane threatened him, but Prynne told them he had as good right there as either, and had suffered more for the rights of parliament than any of them. They could only get rid of him by adjourning the house, and forcibly keeping him out when it reassembled. On 27 December when the parliament was again restored after its interruption by John Lambert, Prynne and his friends made a fresh attempt to enter, but were once more excluded. From May 1659 to February 1660 he went on publishing tracts on the case of the 'secluded members and attacks on the ref-formed Rump Parliament and the army. Marchamont Nedham, Henry Stubbe, John Rogers, and others printed serious answers to his arguments, while obscure libellers ridiculed him.
On 21 February 1660 George Monck ordered the guards of the house to readmit the secluded members. Prynne, girt with an old basket-hilted sword, marched into Westminster Hall at their head; though the effect was spoiled when Sir William Waller tripped on the sword. The house charged him to bring in a bill for the dissolution of the Long parliament. In the debate on the bill Prynne asserted the rights of Charles II of England and claimed that the writs should be issued in his name. He also helped to forward the Restoration by accelerating the passing of the Militia Bill, which placed the control of the forces in the hands of the king's friends. A letter which he addressed to Charles II shows that he was personally thanked by the king for his services.
Prynne supported the Restoration, and was rewarded with public office. In April 1660 he was elected MP for Bath in the Convention Parliament. He was bitter against the regicides and the supporters of the previous government, trying to restrict the scope of the Act of Indemnity. He successfully moved to have Charles Fleetwood excepted, and urged the exclusion of Richard Cromwell and Judge Francis Thorpe. He proposed punitive and financial measures of broad scope, was zealous for the disbanding of the army, and was one of the commissioners appointed to pay it off. In the debates on religion he was one of the leaders of the presbyterians, spoke against the Thirty-nine Articles, denied the claims of the bishops, urged the validity of presbyterian ordination, and supported the bill for turning the king's ecclesiastical declaration into law.
As a politician Prynne was during his latter years of minor importance. He was re-elected MP for Bath to the Cavalier Parliament of May 1661. He asserted his presbyterianism by refusing to kneel when the two houses received the sacrament together. A few weeks earlier he had published a pamphlet demanding the revision of the prayer-book, but the new parliament was opposed to any concessions to nonconformity. On 15 July a pamphlet by Prynne against the Corporation Bill was voted scandalous and seditious. In January 1667 Prynne was one of the managers of Lord Mordaunt's impeachment. He spoke several times on Clarendon's impeachment, and opposed the bill for his banishment. On constitutional subjects and points of procedure his opinion had weight, and in 1667 he was privately consulted by the king on the question whether a parliament which had been prorogued could be convened before the day fixed for its resumption.
He became the Keeper of Records in the Tower of London; as a writer his most lasting works belongs to that period, for the amount of historical material they contain. Histriomastix is the one of his works that receives attention from modern scholars, but for its relevance to English Renaissance theatre. Anthony à Wood found him affable, obliging towards researchers, and courteous in the fashion of the early part of the century. Prynne died unmarried on 24 October 1669.
- Kirby, Ethyn WIlliams. William Prynne: A Study in Puritanism. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1931.
- Lamont, William M. Puritanism and Historical Controversy. Montreal, McGill-Queen's Press, 1996.
- The Perpetuity of a Regenerate Man's Estate.
- A Brief Survey of Mr. Cozens his cozening Devotions.
- Health's Sickness. The Unloveliness of Lovelocks, 1628.
- "Prynne, William". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- A Divine Tragedy lately acted, or a Collection of sundry memorable Examples of God's Judgment upon Sabbath-breakers
- In an appendix to John Bastwick's Flagellum Pontificis, and, in A Breviate of the Bishops' intolerable Usurpations
- News from Ipswich (1636)
- True and Full Relation of the Trial of Nathaniel Fiennes, 1644.
- The Subjection of all Traitors, &c. 1658).
- A Breviate of the Life of William Laud
- Hidden Works of Darkness brought to Public Light.
- Canterburies Doom, or the first part of a complete History of the Commitment, Trial, &c., of William Laud (1646).
- Independency Examined, Unmasked, and Refuted, 1644.
- Brief Animadversions on Mr John Goodwin's Theomachia, 1644.
- Truth triumphing over Falsehood, 1645.
- Just Defence of John Bastwick, 1645; The Liar Confounded, 1645; Fresh Discovery of some prodigious new wandering blazing Stars, 1645.
- Four Serious Questions, 1644; A Vindication of Four Questions, 1645; Suspension Suspended, 1646; The Sword of Christian Magistracy Supported, 1647.
- The Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication, 1646.
- William M. Lamont, Godly Rule: Politics and Religion 1603–60 (1969), p. 170.
- Brief Justification of the Eleven Accused Members, 1647; Full Vindication and Answer of the Eleven Accused Members, 1647; Hypocrites Unmasking, 1647.
- History of Parliament Online – Prynne, William
- The Substance of a Speech made in the House of Commons by William Prynne, 4 December 1648.
- True and Perfect Narrative of the Officers and Army's Force upon the Commons House; Brief Memento to the Present Unparliamentary Junto; Mr. Prynne's Charge against the King.
- A Legal Vindication of the Liberties of England against all Illegal Taxes and Pretended Acts of Parliament, 1649.
- A Brief polemical Dissertation concerning the Lords Day Sabbath, 1655; The Quakers Unmasked, 1655; A New Discovery of some Romish Emissaries, 1656.
- A Short Demurrer to the Jews long-discontinued Remitter into England, 1656.
- King Richard the Third Revived, 1657.
- A Plea for the Lords, 1658.
- A True and Perfect Narrative of what was done by Mr. Prynne, &c. , 1659.
- Brief Narrative how divers Members of the House of Commons were again shut out, 1660.
- The Character or Earmark of Mr. W. Prynne, 1659; A Petition of the Peaceable and well-affected People of the three Nations, &c.
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