June 3

On this day in 1693 William Anderton, an unfortunate printer, stood at the Bar of the Old Bailey before the august members of the Court, which included the Lord Chief Justice Treby, Mr. Justice Powell, Sir John Fleet, Lord Mayor, and Sir Salathiel Lovell, Recorder of London. Anderton was charged with high treason in the composing, printing, and publishing of two malicious libels.

He was accused by a fellow printer of operating a press in a hidden location, of owning a trunk filled with seditious papers, and of calling King William, the reigning monarch, “Hooknose.” The evidence presented to the Court was circumstantial. It became evident that Anderton was to be made a scapegoat. C.H. Timperley, writing in satiric vein almost a century and a half later, tells of the trial:

“In summing up the evidence, two or three old, musty, impertinent precedents were brought in, which had not seen the sun for many ages, the chief of which was that of Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, and he might as well have urged the case of the Man-in-the-Moon: for what was my Lord Cobham’s place to printing? That famous Wicklivite lived in the reign of Richard II, some scores of years before printing was thought on, which came not into England until the reign of Henry VII; . . .

“In short, every thing was aggravated to the utmost, every little punctilio was made use of, which was thought might be any thing serviceable to beget in the jury an hard opinion of the prisoner. . . . After two hours debate, the greater part of the jury became well inclined to have found not guilty; but there was one amongst them who loved mischief, and he was for hanging Anderton for being a Jacobite, not for being guilty. . . . He readily acknowledged that the evidence did not amount to the proof of the fact; but saith he, what of that? I believed he was guilty, and I shall hang a hundred of them for half so much evidence. Some of the jury-men, by way of complaint, said thus, ‘My lord, our foreman is of the opinion this fact is not proved!‘—Court: “Whether it be proved or no, you ought to determine; the bare finding the books in his custody would not be treason; but the case is, gentlemen, here is a man who has a printing-press, to which no man has admission but himself; and this man is found with an errata, and &c., so that he must needs print the treason.’

“To this a juryman answered, ‘Tis a very strong presumption, my lord! And then Baron Powell clenched the nail with this grave saying, ‘a violent presumption is as much as if a man had been there and done it himself! These answers being returned to questions, the jury were sent back again, where almost three hours more were spent in debating the matter, before they could come to a conclusion; they then complied and brought in the prisoner guilty. The matter now lay wholly before the City Recorder, Sir Salathiel Lovell, who after a flourish or two of empty rhetoric, proceeded to pronounce that dreadful sentence which the law allots to treason; to have the heart and bowels tom out, and burnt, and the body dismembered, and the quarters set up, or disposed as authority orders!”

Timperley concludes his account with the statement that the sentence was carried out thirteen days later, “except for the disembowelling.” It was later established that the government had at the time of the trial, already taken into custody the actual culprits who had committed the treason. Thus the unfortunate Anderton’s trial and execution remains but another landmark in the long history of the freedom of the printed word.

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