In 1649, the king was decapitated as a criminal. This dramatic action threw definitions of legality in complete disarray. But it was not the first time: from the beginning of the war between Parliament and the king, the two pillars of government were pitted against each other. This situation produced a debate over definitions of legality: what was lawful in a country where the king was fighting against Parliament?
Recently, much of the scholarship on the 1640s and the 1650s has focused on this war of words raging in this period, as both sides (and also other sides, such as the Scottish) attempted to claim the moral high ground, to persuade their audience that their rationale for this war was the correct one. The shift in print production from bigger volumes to smaller, cheaper items – usually pamphlets, newsbooks, and petitions – has been credited in influential revisionist accounts with allowing the emergence of a public sphere in the mid-seventeenth century, in dialogue with Jürgen Habermas's definition of it as a slightly later, and decisively bourgeois, phenomenon. Cheap print interacted with the shifting political climate of the Civil Wars and the Interregnum, commenting upon and influencing events, and thus becoming an essential part of the increasingly public dialogue about political issues. This opening up of political debates to a broader public was not an unprecedented phenomenon, but before the 1640s such appeals to a broader public had been limited to specific instances or ‘pamphlet moments’.
Even though in such accounts rogue pamphlets occasionally feature, they are not examined as a part of the political discourse. Thus, in The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, which treats various genres of cheap printed material with an emphasis on the 1640s, rogue (and crime) pamphlets are referred to, but not analysed. Despite the proliferating interest in pamphlets, petitions, and newsbooks for their potential to engage with a varied readership and propagate particular viewpoints in this period, rogue pamphlets are rarely included in such analyses. As we have seen, there has been significant interest in the polemical use of crime pamphlets in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as well as in the 1680s and 1690s, either by the state or particular interest groups.5 This chapter will complement this scholarship by analysing how rogue pamphlets fared in the different cultural contexts of the 1640s and 1650s.