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Treasures of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library: Early printed books

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PRYNNE, William. Histrio-mastix. The player's scourge, or, actors tragedie, wherein it is largely evidenced ... that popular stage-playes (the very pompes of the divell ...) are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions... to the manners, mindes and soules of men ...
London : printed by E.A. and W.I. for Michael Sparke ... to be sold at the Blue Bible in Green Arbour, in little Old Bayly, 1633.
Histrio-mastix. Click to enlarge.

William Prynne (1600-1699) was educated at Bath Grammar School and Oriel College, Oxford, and was admitted as a barrister to Lincoln's Inn in 1621, but it is impossible to briefly sum up his career as Prynne seems to have gone through his entire life alienating people in authority.

This book for example was brought to the attention of the King and Queen by Archbishop Laud. In his violent denunciation of the theatre, Prynne was accused of an attack on the King, Charles I, and the Queen, Henrietta Maria, who was fond of drama and often acted in plays at the Court. As a result, Prynne was brought before the Star Chamber on the 17 February 1634. He was sentenced to imprisonment for life, heavily fined the sum of 5000 pounds, expelled from Lincoln's Inn, the loss of his University degree, and to be pilloried where he was to lose both his ears. The whole of the sentence except for the permanence of the imprisonment and the size of the fine, was carried out. This work has the distinction of being the first book to be burnt in England by the common hangman.

In 1637, for an attack on the "Declaration of Sports", Prynne was imprisoned again, first at Caernarvon, and then in Mont Orguel in Jersey, fined another 5000 pounds, deprived of the remains of his ears, and branded on the cheeks with the letters "S.L.", for "Seditious Libeller", which Prynne with a strange sense of humour called Stigmata Laudis after Archbishop Laud. He was to be released by the Long Parliament in 1640 and his sentences declared illegal.

Prynne continued his paper warfare, attacking Laud, then the independents, surprisingly defending the role of the House of Lords, and when he became a member of Parliament opposing the execution of Charles. In consequence of this he was imprisoned again without trial. He continued his attacks on the Government and Cromwell until his release in 1653 when he switched his attention to attacking the Papists and Quakers. In 1660 he supported the return of Charles II who made him keeper of the records in the Tower of London. Despite a long series of further vitriolic pamphlets he managed to stay out of jail until his death in 1669.

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