As we have previously discussed, during the English Civil War, the Stationers’ Office, was responsible for censorship and licensing of publications, and spent a good deal of energy chasing down illegal printers issuing pamphlets and newspapers spreading all manner of radical political and religious ideas.
As part of the Stationer’s campaign to shut down these domestic extremists, William Larner was arrested on March 22nd, 1646, by agents of the Stationer, and charged with publishing unlicensed pamphlets.
Larner, from Gloucerstershire, was a bookseller and printer, a member of the Merchant Taylor’s Company, who had been associated with puritan and later Leveller activist John Lilburne since the early 1640s at least, having published a second edition of Lilburne’s A Christian Man’s Triall in December 1641.
He had apparently operated from a succession of bookshops: at the sign of the Golden Anchor, near Paul’s Chain, in 1641 (a street that ran south of St Paul’s Churchyard, now part of Queen Victoria Street); at ‘The Bible’ in East Cheap, 1642 before moving to the Blackmoor in Bishopsgate Street, in the northern suburbs of the City of London..
Larner later served in the parliamentarian army against the king, was invalided out, to resume his trade ‘at the sign of the Blackamoor’. As well as printing unlicensed pamphlets there, he was known to have co-operated with other future Leveller writers Richard Overton, and his brother Robert, and to have been involved with the underground presses producing proto-Leveller tracts at Goodmans Fields, on the so-called the Martin Mar Priest Press, 1645-46, and in the radical heartland of Coleman Street. In 1645, the puritan William Prynne, Lilburne’s former mentor turned bitter enemy, denounced Larner as one of the distributors of Lilburne’s pamphlets (in Larner’s case in Kent). Larner association with Lilburne, the Levellers and army Agitators was to continue until 1649 at least…
When Larner was arrested at his shop, the Stationers’ men found 14 copies of Last Warning to all the Inhabitants of London, a plea for religious toleration. The Stationer, Joseph Hunscott, had been somewhat gutted to see this undergound squib appear, since he had thought his men had put a stop to the succession of illegal ‘libels’ when they seized a clandestine press in Goodmans Fields a few days earlier.
Larner was dragged (with the aid of a constable) before the Lord Mayor of London at the Guildhall, where he was treated as John Lilburne had been before him. He replied, very much in the spirit of ‘Freeborn John’: “I desire the liberty of a Free-man of England not to answer to interrogatories.” He refused to pay the fee to the Stationers, and was jailed. On April 3rd, he was brought before the House of Lords and questioned, accused of being the author, printer and publisher of the Last Warning. A Mr Smith gave evidence that Larner had given him money to buy a printing press for this purpose. Larner didn’t deny this.
Larner’s brother and Jane Hale, both employed by Larner, were also hauled in front of the Lords bar, but they refused to be sworn in or to answer any questions, so they too were committed, to the Fleet Prison.
On April 20th, Hunscott and some of his men went to search Larner and his rooms in prison, finding the manuscript of a pamphlet, A True Relation of all the illegal Proceedings against William Larner; but despite seizing this it was published 12 days later. The rage of the Stationer and the Lords must have been compounded by the appearance the same day of another tract supporting Larner, clearly printed on the same press that had produced the Last Warning. The underground printers were running rings around the authorities, though over the following year repression and increasing division among independent religious congregations and the radical direction the proto-Levellers were moving in made unlicensed printing much more difficult.
Larner was eventually released in October 1646, though his brother and maid (presumably Jane Hale) were still inside three months later (as were other ‘Levellers’). His shop in Bishopsgate was still running in 1650; after which he moved to a bookshop near Fleet Bridge (where Holborn Viaduct now spans the Fleet valley), around 1652, which was still active in 1659. After which he vanishes from history…
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.