Cruel Literary Criticism in 17th-C England

England’s Star Chamber punished Dr. Alexander Leighton in 1630. Leighton had attacked the episcopal system of the Church of England in Syon’s Plea against Prelacy (1628). The Star Chamber was a secretive court controlled by King Charles I. A Scottish minister, Leighton was committed to Fleet Prison for life and required to pay a fine of £10,000 to the king. He was also degraded from the ministry and brought to the pillory at Westminster.

The court ordered him “whipped, and after the whipping to have one of his ears cut, one side of his nose slit, and be branded in the face with the letters S.S., signifying Sower of Sedition.” After a few days he was to be taken to the pillory at Cheapside on a market-day, “and be there likewise whipped, and have the other ear cut off, and the other side of his nose slit, and then to be shut up in prison for the remainder of his life, unless his Majesty be graciously pleased to enlarge [free] him.”

Such sentences were intended to deter authors from criticizing the government. America’s founders included freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights to prevent such abuses. As Ditchfield says, “Maiming an author, cutting off his hands, or ears, or nose, seems to have been a favorite method of criticism in the sixteenth century.”