A libel to make the ‘brayne ake’

*Updated* 29 March 2016 with a new libel; see bottom of post.

Tucked away in MS943 (Papers of William Laud and others) at Lambeth Palace Library is a copy of a rather poorly-executed and grammatically-suspect libel which, apparently, was doing the rounds in London in 1632, shortly before William Laud’s elevation to the Archbishopric of Canterbury (which came the following year). Here it is:

Annagram        WILLIAM LAVDE        WELL AM A DIVIL

Its not the best, but it clearly hit something of a raw nerve. Next to Laud’s transcript of the libel is the following humorous riposte:

He yt of this would better english make

Shall finde a task will make his brayne to ake

The alleged provenance of the libel is described in a short note on the reverse of Laud’s own copy:

Aug. 29. 1632.

This Libell was found in a little Boxe in Blacke Fryers church & brought to me this date. It was found bye a little youth of 12 years olde or little more whoe brought it then presently to his Father in ye church beinge thear to have thear Lessones

The handwriting appears to be Laud’s own, when compared to his annual reports to the King on the state of his province.

William Laud has not been remembered fondly by posterity (Patrick Collinson famously described him as “the greatest calamity ever visited upon the Church of England”). Executed by the Long Parliament in 1645, he was Charles I’s right-hand man during the so-called “personal rule”. Together they oversaw a remodelling of the Church of England which led to accusations of crypto-Romanism among contemporaries. Despite the Church’s wholesale restoration after 1660 and successive attempts (particularly in the 19th century) to beautify churches largely along Laudian lines, he is still remembered as a high-handed, officious, and prickly cleric with a strong preference for royal absolutism and religious intolerance. (Nineteenth-century historians of the seventeenth century did not, for the most part, share the religious temperament of nineteenth-century bishops). Its therefore interesting to see that he had a bit of a sense of humour, though his off-handed put down of an intellectual inferior might confirm a few assumptions about his character.

NPG 171; William Laud after Sir Anthony Van Dyck

The imposing figure of William Laud. Behind those eyes do we detect a man deeply concerned with what people thought of him?

A man very much on the up by 1632, it is remarkable that Laud should have found time to respond, albeit privately, to this particular slander. Perhaps what interested Laud, then Bishop of London, was not so much the content of the libel but the hint that it may have been the property of a cleric or church official: why else would it have been stored in Blackfriars church in a ‘little boxe’? Nevertheless, the words struck him hard enough to cause him to go to the trouble to write a poem about it, which I’ve transcribed here:

When with conclusions trying I weary wext

(for in gods name it might be don I thought)

To pick some sense from this cathedrall text

Which well I wott had not its name for naught

But finding none I threw away my penn

thincking I had too hard a task betaken

or in the divils name I must beginn agenn

for God it seems the mistery had forsaken

Then in the divils name once more I tryde

to find the meaning of this subtile spell

and hee immediately (to whom twas tyde)

in these three words the same to me did tell

(WELL AM A DIVIL) which though the letter (I)

[W?]ith front being sett might mak’t more playne to bee

yet reason the true sence thereof can spye

though I be wanting as the divil’s fee

But what is wanting I to the divill leave

to whome I doth belong as I conceive

For having sought a stile of better grace

I saw twas vain the divill would have place

give god therefore his owne the like to Cesar doe

and doe not grudge the divill of his due


I must admit that I haven’t made sense of this yet (is he talking about ‘devil’ is spelled ‘divil’ to make the laboured anagram work?) Suggestions welcome.

There is a broader point worth making, though. Libels and slanders are often thought of as being a way for the semi-literate and politically-excluded of early-modern England to engage in political activity and discourse. Alastair Bellany and Andrew McRae’s Early Stuart Libels database has brought many hundreds of these elusive sources onto the historiographical radar. Bellany himself has talked about how libellous poetry served to ‘create, express and sustain a set of political perceptions that diverged markedly from the perceptions held by the king’. Adam Fox and David Cressy have shown just how sensitive early-Stuart governments were to their subversive potential, and have investigated the records of those prosecuted for spreading such material. Paul Hammer has argued that the government of Elizabeth I condemned the Earl of Essex for playing to the popular gallery while hypocritically spreading scurrilous rumours themselves: condemning the muck-rakers while happily swimming in the gutter themselves. Libels were clearly a major part of early-modern political activity.

Nonetheless, there is a danger that we risk drawing too stark a dichotomy between high and low political cultures: the former conducted in formal treatises (at least before the breakdown in state censorship after 1641) and the latter conducted by means of manuscript circulation among a wholly-separate section of society. Governing elites, while they may well find value in circulating select libels of their own making, or in seeking to influence the spread of false rumours, are not themselves automatically considered to be too heavily influenced by the content of popular discourse. Laud, as his own private counter-poem testifies, wanted to “pick some sence from this…text” and “find the meaning of this subtile spell”. On a personal level, he was troubled enough by what he had read not only to store it, but also to respond to it. It clearly prompted enough self-examination to cause him to reflect on the accusation that he was a ‘divil’.

Of course, we know by later events that it is unlikely to have affected him to the extent that he would change his beliefs and approaches. The person who thought him a ‘divil’ in 1632 is unlikely to have felt differently in 1645; if anything, Laud would surely by now be the divil-in-chief. However, clearly not immune to what people thought of him, William Laud emerges into history as a human being, and not the two-dimensional caricature of the puritan polemicists. By keeping his response private, Laud refrained from rolling around in the dirt with his slanderous adversary. He nonetheless was personally affected by what had been said. The practical outcomes we may never know, although there is surely scope for speculation. It could, perhaps, explain why he advised his bishops to enact his agenda for the Church by employing ‘fair persuasions’. Equally, it could be the reason why he pressed ahead with his plans in the face of opposition. As he awaited the axeman’s blow on Tower Hill in January 1645, did he also wonder then just why so many people had misunderstood him? In any event, Laud was no more typical of a fuzzily-defined political ‘elite’ than he was the embodiment of the rabidly anti-Puritan bogeyman of historical legend. He became the audience for a libel he was certainly not meant to see, and responded in a deeply human fashion.


The Manuscript:

Lambeth Palace Library, London, MS943, Papers of William Laud and others.

See also:

Alastair Bellany, ‘Rayling rymes and vaunting verse: Libellous politics in early Stuart England, 1603-1628’ in Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England, edited by Kevin Sharpe and Peter Lake (London, 1994)

David Cressy, Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England (Oxford, 2010)

Adam Fox, ‘Rumour, news and popular opinion in Elizabethan and early-Stuart England’, Historical Journal 40/3 (1997)

Paul Hammer, ‘The smiling crocodile: The Earl of Essex and late Elizabethan “popularity”‘ in The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England, edited by Peter Lake and Steven Pincus (Manchester, 2000)


*Update* 29 March 2016 –


Here’s a transcript of another libel directed against Laud, dated 14 May 1640, also in the Laud MSS at Lambeth. This is nine days after the dissolution of the Short Parliament (13 April – 5 May) and six months before his arrest and imprisonment by the Long Parliament (18 December).

The intentions and proceedings of the city of London with the Archbishop of Canterbury

Come now and helpe us that wee may distroy this subtile fox and hunt this ravening woolfe out of his den which daily plotteth mischeife and seekes to bring this whole land to distruction by his popish inventions Canterbury wee meane whoe savers of nothing but superstition and Idolatry and daly more and more infecteth the flocke of Christ soe odious is hee growne in the eyes of all men yt wee beleive hee stinketh in the nostrells of almighty god but all out hoopes are that all his greate-nesse and magnificence wh will shortlie bee laid in the dust which wee all have avowed to accomplish with all speed to the utmost hazard of our lives and fortunes and she farewell.

published by authority

this 14 day of May


Unfortunately, unlike the previous libel, there is no account of provenance here. The handwriting is not Laud’s own; the poor grammar and complete absence of punctuation suggests that this made its way to Laud directly from the London streets. That the libel found its way to the Archbishop in the first place implies to me (but there is no way of knowing) that there were other copies doing the rounds.

The content bears a striking similarity to this poem circulating at around the same time: http://www.earlystuartlibels.net/htdocs/misc_section/R8.html#10

Note that in both libels, Laud is likened to a fox. In the poem it is Strafford who is compared to a wolf. In both, Laud is an ‘innovator’ dedicated to the restoration of Roman Catholicism in England. Historians of libels, slanders and popular politics may be particularly interested to note the words ‘published by authority’ at the bottom. We are one year before the abolition of Star Chamber and the de facto breakdown in censorship, and this appears to be a very smart appropriation of official language.



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