In today’s ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week 2017, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Senior Research Fellow in the Commons 1640-60 Section, discusses the problem of ‘fake news’ during the Civil Wars…
The concern of Parliament with the destabilising potential of false news was of long standing, but the advent of civil war in the 1640s provided special reasons to be vigilant against the dissemination of erroneous, but still dangerous, information.
On 7 June 1642, as armed conflict between king and Parliament began to look like a distinct possibility, the House of Commons ordered that ‘no Member of the House shall send any of the pamphlets and false papers into the country’ and instructed the standing Committee for Printing ‘to inquire after the printing of pamphlets of false news’ [Journal of the House of Commons ii. 611a]. However, this was only a taster of the propaganda war to come. In time royalists and parliamentarians developed their own partisan newspapers and as other commentators ventured into print with their own accounts of battles, armed skirmishes, war crimes, burdensome taxation, high-handed officialdom, and proceedings at Westminster, not to speak of vicious character assassination.
In June 1646 Parliament emerged victorious from the first civil war following the surrender of the royalist capital at Oxford. Yet a lasting peace settlement was elusive, and the Lords, the Commons and Parliament’s joint executive committee, the Committee at Derby House, remained nervous of unrest. In the spring of 1648 the outbreak of royalist insurrection in various parts of England heightened tension and led to the deployment of the army and local militias. On 20 May James Thurbarne, town clerk of Sandwich, who was later to be four times an MP for the coastal borough, informed the Committee at Derby House that a man had landed at the port ‘who affirmeth himself to be the Prince of Wales’, but whom Thurbarne, who had apparently seen him in custody, judged ‘an imposter’. As he explained to the Committee, ‘his hair is rather flaxen than brown, and his complexion fair though something tanned, whereas the prince himself is of a black complexion and very black hair’. The Committee accepted Thurbarne’s analysis and expressed itself ‘fully satisfied’ that the man was ‘only an imposter’, but was alive to the real possibility that Kentish people less familiar with the appearance of the 18-year-old prince would be deceived and act upon the false perception. The royalists, they concluded, had ‘given out’ that the prince had landed ‘purposely to increase their numbers and encourage their design’; the Committee feared that Parliament’s local forces would be overwhelmed [TNA, SP21/24, ff. 63-65v].
The Committee immediately alerted Vice-Admiral Rainborowe, who was to be ‘watchful upon the seas to prevent any danger that may come to this kingdom from foreign parts’, and General Sir Thomas Fairfax, who was to despatch sufficient cavalry to ‘give a timely prevention to this growing evil’ of uprisings, unfolding under the ‘several pretences of horse races, wrestling and Maypoles’. But it seemed the damage had been done. Within three days the Committee had received the (accurate) intelligence that Sandwich had been ‘garrisoned for the king’. However, they were still keen to retrieve the ‘imposter’ and ordered Rainborowe to lay hold on him, by sending in ‘a party of musketeers’ if the mayor did not co-operate [TNA, SP21/24, f. 69]. Furthermore, at some point they despatched former courtier and political agent Sir Thomas Dishington with a set of questions designed to expose the prisoner’s ignorance of the prince’s entourage. That appears to have worked as far as the authorities were concerned, inasmuch as the man answered only one query, and that one unconvincingly, but it probably came too late to affect the course of the rebellion [BL, Harleian MS 286, f. 326]. That was put down in June by Fairfax and other, local commanders.
It was not to be the last time that ‘the Prince of Wales’ was sighted between then and the Restoration. Perhaps the most celebrated occasions occurred when the future Charles II was on the run after his defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651. Then the commonwealth government took care to publicise his physical characteristics as a tall, dark man, but Charles kept one step ahead by adopting disguise – and multiplying confusion.