News article

The English Civil War and the roots of fake news

In recent years, the topic of fake news has been thrown around a lot in the media. It is easy to think our political system is facing a unique crisis with so many stories about untrustworthy media outlets, foreign agents spreading misinformation, and unreliable standards of journalism.

While we tend to think of fake news as a very modern phenomenon, it’s anything but. Fake news is almost as old as printing itself, and you can trace its roots back to the English Civil War of the 17th century.

The printing press helped to revolutionise the spread of ideas

The invention of the printing press can be considered one of the great turning points in European history. For the first time, people could produce books and pamphlets quickly and cheaply for a general audience, and this revolutionised the spread of ideas.

While books did exist, they had to be handwritten, which made them very expensive. The library of the average 16th century nobleman probably wouldn’t even be enough to fill a floor at your local Waterstones.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw an explosion of cheap print, and the English people had an insatiable appetite for it. Even though only around 30% of people could read, most people would usually know someone else who could and would ask them to read aloud.

For only a penny, about the cost of a loaf of bread, you could usually find a book about any topic of your choosing. Love poems and fiction were popular, but so too was non-fiction. People wanted to know about religion, about foreign wars on the continent, and about the strange new animals that English explorers were discovering in the American wilderness.

Newsbooks discussing politics began to be printed in increasing numbers, but they were mostly dry and factual and there was little to hold the attention of the casual reader. This changed, however, with the English Civil War.

Newspapers had to change their traditional writing style to keep their audience engaged

The English Civil War was caused by a culmination of many national issues coming to a head, with the two biggest points of contention being the organisation of the Church of England and the purpose of Parliament in English politics.

Puritan preachers accused Archbishop Laud and his Bishops of being closet Catholics working to undermine English Protestantism, while in Parliament debates raged about whether the King or Parliament should have the right to levy taxes and control the army.

We tend to think of the English Civil War as being very clear-cut: the Parliamentarians and the forces of progress versus the Royalists and the forces of reaction. Goodies versus baddies. However, the politics of the 17th century was just as nuanced then as it is today.

You might agree with the King on one issue but with Parliament on another. You might agree with Parliament about the importance of freedom of religion, but not with their desire to raise your taxes to fund the army. If both sides have valid points, which one should you support?

It was the difficulty of this decision that made many people want to stay neutral, get on with their lives, and wait to see who came out on top.

The neutrality of the English people presented a challenge to both sides and both rushed to find a way to bolster their popular support. The Royalists took the initiative and published their own newspaper, the Mercurius Aulicus, to help spread their political message. In response, the Parliamentarians set up their own weekly newspaper, the Mercurius Britannicus.

Both these newspapers initially followed the dry and factual style of pre-war newspapers, but the problem was that this style was unpopular with the English public. For a start, people didn’t trust newspapers for the simple reason that you could never know who wrote them (a concept that anyone who lived through the early days of the internet will be familiar with).

The dry, factual style also failed to hold many people’s attention, especially those who weren’t already politically engaged.

Both sides moved quickly to adapt, and the style of newspapers rapidly changed into one that might be recognisable to the modern reader as tabloid journalism. They told exciting stories about pitched battles, hero-worshipped prominent figures, and told scandalous and lurid stories about members of the opposition, which held enough truth to develop trust from the audience.

To keep their reader base engaged and supportive of the war effort, the two newspapers also slowly began to twist the truth to bolster support for their own sides, leading to a proliferation of fake news.

The Britannicus was notorious for doing this, and in the early months of the war was known to report small Parliamentarian defeats as victories, calling for days of public thanksgiving to celebrate. This led to the Aulicus smugly reporting that “never have men been so thankful to be beaten so often or so thoroughly”.

Both Royalists and Parliamentarians mixed fact with fiction to spin lurid but believable rumours about figures from the opposing side

Fake news during the Civil War took a variety of forms, and one of the most popular forms was character assassinations against members of the opposing side.

A popular target for the Britannicus’ mudslinging was the King’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. Henrietta Maria was an easy target for fake news, as she was not only French but also a practising Catholic. These two factors meant that the English public was already suspicious of her, and didn’t need much convincing when the Parliamentarians spread fake news about her.

For example, when she travelled abroad to raise money for the Royalist cause, the Britannicus reported that she was meeting with a cabal of Jesuit priests as part of a conspiracy to weaken England ready for a Catholic invasion.

The Royalists, for their part, lost no time in slandering prominent Parliamentarians. The Aulicus published several lurid stories about the brutality of Parliamentarian officers, mixing fact with fiction to make the fake news harder to discern from the truth.

One notable story that contained a grain of truth involved the rising star of the Parliamentarian army, a cavalry officer from Cambridge called Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell had ordered the arrest of a Royalist-sympathising priest in London but the Aulicus exaggerated the story to demonise him. They asserted that the priest’s son had pleaded with him to show mercy, and Cromwell had ordered the boy’s tongue to be burned through with a hot iron poker to silence him.

Humour was another important tool in creating fake news because an embarrassing story about a person in power could spread quickly through word of mouth as people gossip.

This was mostly done by digging up embarrassing stories which were true and then exaggerating them. For example, the Aulicus regularly mocked Parliamentarian leader Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, because he had been divorced by his wife as a young man. This, the Royalists asserted, was obvious proof that the Earl was bad in bed.

Conspiracies about foreign agents working to undermine the political system were common

Another narrative that you will be familiar with is the one that agents of a foreign power are manipulating the situation to divide the nation. In modern politics, this bogeyman is Russia but, in the 17th century, the Dutch played this part.

The Royalists often threw wild accusations at the Parliamentarians about their ties with the Dutch, usually without any supporting evidence. They claimed that the Parliamentarians were in Dutch pay and were setting the stage for a Dutch invasion. Playing on people’s paranoia, the Aulicus spread fake news that two fleets of Dutch ships were poised to invade England while the country tore itself apart.

Again, the Aulicus mixed fact with fiction to spin a convincing narrative and make their fake news seem more believable.

They asserted that Parliament had invited Dutch merchants to London to buy plundered English goods for cheap prices, in exchange for letting Parliament purchase Dutch weapons. It was not true that the Dutch had been invited to cheaply buy plundered goods, but it was well-known that the Parliamentarians were indeed buying weapons from Dutch merchants, which made the lie easier to swallow for the casual audience.

For the record, the Royalists were also buying Dutch weapons during the war, although this fact is curiously absent from Aulicus’ narrative.

The Britannicus, for their part, chose instead to target Catholics as being subversive foreign agents. Catholics were an easy target since the King and Queen had several ties to Catholicism as well as several prominent catholic friends among the nobility.

It told its readers that a conspiracy of Jesuits and Catholic nobles was working to divide the English nation to set the stage for a Spanish invasion. They also spread rumours that the pockets of Royalist officers killed in battle were found to be full of Catholic literature provided by their foreign paymasters. Despite all these allegations, however, neither side were able to provide any actual evidence of foreign conspiracy.

Fake news is nothing new

If you’ve been panicking about fake news in the media, or fear that foreign agents are threatening our democracy, it’s important to know that this sort of thing is nothing new. As you can see, newspaper writers have been up to the same old tricks for hundreds of years to sell copies or push a narrative.

Unlike our ancestors in the 17th century, who had to rely on just a handful of newspapers for information, in the modern day we have an unlimited amount of information at our fingertips. So, if you’re worried about falling victim to fake news, it might be wise to boot up the computer, do a bit of research, and find out the truth for yourself.

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