Today in London’s legal history: William Hone acquitted for writing parodies of religious liturgies, 1817.

Journalist and writer William Hone briefly became a popular hero in December 1817, when he defended himself against government prosecution for blasphemy and sedition, specifically for parodying the forms of church liturgy to attack self-serving government corruption.

Brought up in a strictly religious family, Hone had come into contact with political radicals while working as a “factotum” and legal copyist in the early 1790s, and began to doubt the religious foundations of his upbringing. He became affiliated with a branch of the radical London Corresponding Society (LCS). After an attempt by his father to divert him from this scene (by sending him to work in Chatham for a couple of years), he tried his hand at the book publishing and selling trade.

Together with LCS activist John Bone, Hone set up a book and print shop (after the two had tried and failed to launch a a savings bank/annuity company). Although not a financial success, it did gain Hone a experience in antiquarian books and prints, which stood him in good stead for the future… through thee shop, he also met leading radicals Francis Place and Thomas Spence as well as other figures of literary and political London. However, in 1810, the project ended in the bankruptcy courts. After this Hone earned a living as an auctioneer of private libraries, and later as “Literary Editor” of the venerable Critical Review, a position he held for about 18 months. The status (and salary) afforded to Hone by this position enabled him to open a bookselling shop at 55 Fleet Street, where he moved with his family in December of 1814.

But Hone’s political activism, honed (sorry) in the 1790s, which had taken back seat to his need to earn a living, cropped up now and again: in the early 1810s he worked with James Bevans and Edward Wakefield to develop a new form of asylum for the humane treatment of the insane. The orject failed for lack of funds.

Hone then became involved with exposing the miscarriage of justice over the killing of Edward Vyse, who had been shot dead during the March 1815 street protests about the Corn Laws – shot from the windows of the home of the MP Frederick Robinson. A concerted effort was made in the subsequent trial to make sure no-one of ‘importance’ would be held responsible. Hone took it upon himself to publicise this miscarriage of justice.

He also wrote about the trial and execution of Elizabeth Fenning, a servant girl accused on scanty evidence of poisoning the family of her employer. Hone wrote a short narrative pamphlet about the case – La Pie Voleuse, or the Maid and the Magpie – which was very popular in itself and which inspired Hone to produce other pamphlets documenting the abuses of power within the legal and political systems.

In 1815 to 1817, Hone continued to write and publish journalistic exposes. For example, just days after the Spa Fields Riots of late 1816, Hone published his own account of the affair. His account included a broader social and economic analysis founded loosely on the principles of the radical Thomas Spence, whose followers had been prominent in the riots. But Hone also issued radical critiques of the government, developing a style rich in parody and satire.

At the beginning of 1817, political tensions and the threat of social unrest were running high. Post-Napoleonic War recession and unemployment, and the juggernaut of industrial development and the mechanisation of labour and growth of factories, had produced huge social anger and poverty, which had collided with renewed pressure for political reform. A scared government suspended habeas corpus and tried to jail leading reformers. Hone began publishing a radical weekly newspaper called the Reformists’ Register. The Register formed a part of a burgeoning radical press, an explosion of journals, pamphlets, newspapers recounted aloud by a huge and increasing public, sometimes read aloud by the literate to those who could not read… This popular press terrified the authorities, as the atmosphere was volatile and the appetite of millions for new ideas was a clear threat to the elites of the time.

Early in 1817 Hone wrote and published a series of pamphlets which parodied church liturgy, in which he savaged government corruption and political complacency.

The three pamphlets – Political Creed, Political Liturgy, and Catechism of a Ministerial Member – satirised government ministers as divine beings and MPs as “worshippers at the font of patronage”. The 5000 print run circulated throughout the country, in great demand, rapidly achieving cult status and sparking imitations and rip-offs. The enraged government and its toadies regarded Hone as the worst example of a free press who needed teaching a harsh lesson.

These pamphlets got Hone was arrested in May 1817, and charged with blasphemy and sedition, and briefly held in the King’s Bench prison. Although he managed to get himself released, the Reformist’s Register collapsed in the wake of this due to lack of funds and energy, as he prepared to face his trial.

During the process of selecting a jury, Hone was however able to expose the process by which judges and prosecution collaborated to select the jurors they wanted illegally, and to overturn this nobbling by legal action.

The case came to trial in December 1817, held in the Guildhall, which had a long history of state trials, including prosecutions of Leveller John Lilburne, treason trials of Lady Jane Grey and Thomas Cranmer… But it was also very much a public arena, a centre of political life in London, a forum for debate and pagreantry. The government wanted a show trial in front of the nation – Hone was “the fittest object for prosecution”, an example which would overawe other journalists and radicals – and the authorities believed a guilty verdict a foregone conclusion.

The Attorney General had singled out three of the offending parodies for separate trials, and these occurred on successive days, 18, 19, and 20 December. In each case, the Attorney General’s argued that using liturgical texts as the basis for comic parody was an act of blasphemy, publishing a libel “with intent to excite impiety and irreligion in the minds of his Majesty’s liege subjects”. The sacred quality of religious language was being degraded and mocked by being used for comic satire. In addition, the Book of Common Prayer, from which the church liturgy was filched, was published by authorisation of Act of Parliament, part of he official religion of the nation, and thus satirising it was a criminal and unpatriotic act.

In reply, Hone arrived at court with hundreds of books which contained similar satires on church litanies, written by all sorts of highly respected persons, among them Martin Luther, John Milton, protestant martyr Bishop Latimer, and most damningly George Canning), former Foreign Secretary, and at the time of the trial President of the Board of Control. Parody of religious texts was a recognised literary device, aimed at instruction and ages old. He had no interest in attacking religion, he said, he was a political satirist, and if they government had wanted to try him for that, they should have charge him with seditious libel.

Hone defended himself by reading these parodies in the courtroom. There were frequent eruptions of laughter from the packed galleries, and equally frequent but pompously ineffectual warnings from the presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough. After each day’s trial, the jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” which was met by enthusiastic cheers from the gallery.

Hone’s defence was based on common sense and the ridiculousness of the charge, and how he had been singled out by the government, rather than complex legal arguments, and showing that he had a highly skilled knowledge of literary tradition. Next to which the hysterical assertions of the prosecutors that to acquit him would be a victory for atheism, and that the satires were “so injurious… that any man, on the first reading, would start in horror…”, sounded weak and laughable. The judges tried to rule his defence inadmissible, but Hone showed they were wrong in law, and his exposing of the clear bias of the judge Ellenborough won the jury over.

The trials were widely publicised and as a result Hone became a popular hero—a kind of humble common man who had bravely stood up to the political authorities of the day. The forces of repression, as Hone put it later, had been “laughed out of court.”

Hone continued to publish satires and attacks on the government and establishment, often collaborating with the artist George Cruikshank. In early 1819, Hone and Cruikshank published a parodic Bank Note in response to an increase in executions for forgery. The Note received wide acclaim and may well be credited for accelerating a change in the nation’s fiscal policy. Later that year, in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre in August, Hone and Cruikshank published the famous Political House that Jack Built—a pamphlet that went through dozens of editions.

This highly influential pamphlet was followed with The Man in the Moon (early 1820) and a series of illustrated satirical pamphlets on the Queen Caroline affair. (See, for example, The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder and Non Mi Ricordo!) Finally, Hone capped this phase of his career with two more political parodies: A Slap at Slop and the Bridge Street Gang, and The Political Show-man, At Home!  Each of these works was extremely popular; indeed, Hone and Cruikshank were among the best-selling writers in England during this tumultuous period.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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