By Arthur der Weduwen |
In 1794, the Scottish antiquarian and political writer George Chalmers made a startling find. He had found proof that the first newspaper had been printed in London in 1588, decades before the emergence of newspapers elsewhere in Europe.
It had been a chance discovery. Chalmers was composing a history of the life of the Scottish classical scholar Thomas Ruddiman, who acquired in 1729 the publication rights of the Caledonian Mercury, a tri-weekly Edinburgh newspaper. While researching Ruddiman’s career as a newspaperman, Chalmers realised that newspapers, ubiquitous in his day, had ‘not yet been investigated with precision’. So Chalmers set himself this task, hoping to offer his readers a useful introduction to the ‘origin of news-papers, those pleasant vehicles of instruction, those entertaining companions of our mornings’.
Chalmers visited the British Museum, and here he ‘had the satisfaction to find what I sought for’. He revealed that he had located amongst the papers of the English historian Thomas Birch, three issues of The English Mercurie, dating from 1588, numbered 50, 51 and 54. Chalmers announced that ‘It may gratify our national pride to be told, that mankind are indebted to the wisdom of Elizabeth, and the prudence of Burleigh, for the first news-paper.’
The issues of The English Mercurie were, like many early newspapers, short quarto pamphlets, resembling closely the format of topical news pamphlets. Each issue was four pages long, and contained a selection of datelined news reports, gathered from Europe’s foremost commercial and political centres. The third surviving issue of The English Mercurie includes reports ranging from La Rochelle to The Hague, and Brussels to London.
Most of the content of The English Mercurie concerned the anticipated arrival of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel, and its subsequent dispersal and destruction. This was no coincidence. The newspaper carried the subtitle ‘Published by Authoritie, For the prevention of false reportes.’ Chalmers suggested that the threat of the Armada prompted the English court to publish a regular printed newspaper to control the uncertain narrative of events. The fact that the first two issues are stated to have been printed by Christopher Barker, ‘Her Highnesse’s Printer’, only gave credence to Chalmers’s interpretation.
But history plays mean tricks, even on the most diligent of scholars. Unbeknownst to Chalmers, he had stumbled headfirst into a gentlemen’s literary game, a pleasant pastime between friends who challenged one another to produce a fictional newspaper. The authors of The English Mercurie were Philip Yorke, the second Earl of Hardwicke, and Dr Thomas Birch, who composed the issues in 1744. They had the three issues printed by James Bettenham in London and set in an antiquated typeface reminiscent of the late sixteenth century.
Birch kept the printed issues of The English Mercurie amongst the papers which he bequeathed to the British Museum in 1766, where they remained without any explanation of the literary game. One can thus forgive Chalmers for his enthusiasm. The hoax remained uncovered until 1839, when Thomas Watts discovered Birch’s original manuscript of The English Mercurie, and could prove incontestably that the paper was printed 150 years after the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England.
Poor George Chalmers. Most historians, luckily, do not have to question whether their sources are hoaxes or fabrications. Just hope that you do not come across the Earl of Hardwicke and Thomas Birch on your next research trip.
George Chalmers, The Life of Thomas Ruddiman (London/Edinburgh: John Stockdale and William Laing, 1794), pp. 102-109.
Thomas Watts, A Letter to Antonio Panizzi Esq., on the reputed earliest printed newspaper, “The English Mercurie, 1588” (London: William Pickering, 1839).
Joad Raymond, ‘Introduction: Newspapers, forgeries, and histories’, Prose Studies 21, No. 2 (1998), pp. 1-11.
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Arthur der Weduwen is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews and the author of Dutch and Flemish Newspapers of the Seventeenth Century (Brill, 2017). His PhD is a study of government attempts to cultivate public opinion in the seventeenth-century Low Countries. He is a long-term associate of the Universal Short Title Catalogue, having first worked for the St Andrews-based project as an intern during his undergraduate years in Exeter. His most recent book, Trading Books in the Age of Rembrandt (co-authored with Andrew Pettegree), will appear in March 2019.
Images used with the permission of The British Library.