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Age of Invention: Dangerous History
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As a historian, I’m often surprised by the ways people use my work. I rarely draw direct lessons from history for the present, and when I do, it’s rare for me to do so explicitly. There are often parallels, but I prefer not to spell them out — especially as readers tend to draw their own lessons anyway, often in fascinating ways that had never even occurred to me. History has a kind of natural and unpredictable appeal, even without an editorialising veneer. It even holds a kind of authority, especially when it shows a precedent for something that might otherwise seem controversial. If something was done before, we instinctively feel it may be done again. If something was always done a certain way — especially when property or rights are concerned — we feel an instinctive protectiveness against the changes that threaten them. If you find the word “innovation” in a text from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, the chances are that it will have nothing at all to do with technology, and everything to do with attacking some perceived break from social, legal, religious, or political custom.
Ironically, however, this instinctive protectiveness of custom can also be used to introduce innovations — much as happened in the early seventeenth century, when England’s parliament increasingly stood up to kings James I and Charles I. In the 1620s in particular, the House of Commons suddenly started doing remarkable things — like treating itself as a court of law, able to impeach and even punish officials — often on the basis of precedents that were either centuries old or misunderstood. Opponents of monarchical power, and supporters of parliamentary privileges, increasingly weaponised history — a gradual assertion and even invention of custom that would help put England on the path to its civil war.
It’s with this in mind that I’ve been researching a group sometimes referred to as the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries, which was active c.1585-1607, with a brief attempt to restart it in 1614. It’s sometimes framed as a purely scholarly or learned society — an early manifestation of intellectual culture, to be listed alongside groups like the Royal Society or the Birmingham Lunar Society. There is even a current Society of Antiquaries of London, founded in 1707, which certainly fits that learned society mould.
But I think the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries was rather different. There are quite a few hints that it was a much more political organisation — almost analogous to a modern-day think tank, though a whole lot shadier. The closest analogy I can think of is more akin to the kinds of private Whatsapp groups that politicians or their advisers apparently use to organise themselves and influence policy — albeit one with a more intellectual theme.
The Society of Antiquaries held weekly afternoon meetings during the legal term times, when its members could all be expected to be in London. They were all supposed to research and then deliver some remarks on the week’s topic — from the origins of the term “pounds sterling” or of heraldic mottos, to the origins of parish boundaries or parliaments. Many of the more interesting remarks would then be noted down in a book by the group’s Register. The group met at either the house or office of one William Dethick, the chief herald in the country, who had the wonderful title of Garter King of Arms.
On the face of it, it sounds both intellectual and innocuous. Perhaps even official. But it had some other, more striking features. One was that the society’s proceedings, and even its existence, were a secret. Among the surviving records are two short letters of summons from 1597-8, which both request that “you give not notice hereof to any, but such as have the like summons”. The latter one even stipulates that “you bring none other with you” (perhaps in the intervening year someone had accidentally jumped the gun, bringing a new member in before they had been properly approved and summoned by the group.)1
The other striking feature was that its members were very busy, influential people. Although a few were heralds, the vast majority were lawyers with important government or judicial roles. Many of them were clerks or advisers to government ministers, which gave them privileged access to state records, and quite a few were elected to parliament. A handful even achieved high office themselves. Yet they still found the time to regularly meet and present their antiquarian findings to this secretive group.
So what was really going on? We have a few clues from the things that the Society of Antiquaries’ MPs said or cared about in parliament. In fact, the thing that first caught my eye was that one of the few things they were united on was an opposition to monopoly patents in the Parliament of 1601 — something I’ve written a little about before. They opposed patents being granted excessively and were worried at the trend of patents not being permitted to be tried in the common-law courts. Strikingly, the anti-monopolist ringleaders — even those who are not confirmed as Antiquarians — had a curious habit of citing ancient precedents to back up their arguments.
The lawyer Lawrence Hyde, for example, justified his introduction of a bill against monopolies by citing a precedent from 231 years earlier — the 1376 case of John Peache, who had had a patent monopoly on importing sweet wines. Parliament had tried Peache, judged his patent void, cancelled it, and then committed him to prison until he had repaid all his profits from the patent and paid an additional fine. Hyde knew that were on thin ice when trying to limit the royal prerogative of granting patents — “far be it from this heart of mine to think, this tongue of mine to speak, or this hand to write anything either in prejudice or derogation or her Majesty’s prerogative royal” — but precedent gave him the cover to criticise patents and avoid the charge of being some kind of troublesome legal innovator. As Hyde put it, Peache’s case proved “that this course is no new invention, but long since digested in the age of our forefathers”.2
Hyde may or may not have been a member of the Antiquarians himself, but an Antiquarian MP, John Davies, would a few days later cite the same medieval precedent in a fit of zeal. After a parliamentary committee was read a long list of troublesome patents, Davies called upon his fellow MPs to rekindle the spirit of 1376 and “do generously and bravely like Parliament men and ourselves send for them, cancel their patents before their faces, arraign them as in times past at this bar, and send them to the Tower, there to remain till they have made made a good fine”.3
This may not sound like much, and at the time it doesn’t appear to have held much sway. The Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, merely answered for the government that things had rather changed in the intervening two centuries. But the citing of obscure medieval cases became increasingly common in the years that followed, by government officials defending the historical pedigrees of their perceived innovations — one of the Antiquarians, Robert Cotton, advised on the creation of the title of baronet in a bid to raise cash for the Crown — as well as by MPs who attacked government policies on the grounds that they were breaking with long-established custom. The charge of “innovation” was increasingly levied at the government for trying to raise new taxes, against the jurisdictions of the prerogative, non-common-law courts, against bureaucratic centralisation efforts, and of course against the granting of more patent monopolies. The House of Commons frequently ordered its more historically-inclined members to go and search the Tower of London’s records for precedents.
The Society of Antiquaries thus seems to have been an initial hotbed for an increasingly influential political ideology of “ancient constitutionalism”4 — a general attitude that the more ancient an institution or law or custom, the better. Any deviations from these ancient and continuous practices in the intervening centuries between the medieval era and the seventeenth century were often dismissed as almost certainly being the result of dangerous innovations that proceeded from a misunderstanding of the law and would thus need to be undone. The ancient constitution — and there were seemingly no institutions more continuous and ancient than Parliament and the Common Law — needed to be restored. (In practice, however, they often misread or misinterpreted sources to accidentally introduce legal innovations of their own.)
By 1614, the political threat posed by too much access to history was clear. When the Society tried to start meeting again that year after an undefined hiatus, the members learned that the king disapproved of them — someone must have spilled the secret of their existence — and so they disbanded.5 Nonetheless, one of its members, Robert Cotton, possessed a remarkable personal collection of old manuscripts and records. It continued to be an important resource for ancient constitutionalist politicians, to the extent that in 1629 Charles I had Cotton arrested and the library seized.
History was dangerous in the wrong hands.
Thomas Hearne, ed., A Collection of Curious Discourses Written by Eminent Antiquaries Upon Several Heads in Our English Antiquities. Together with Mr Thomas Hearne’s Preface and Appendix to the Former Edition, Vol I (1771), pp.xv-xvi
T. E. Hartley, ed., Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth 1, vol. III, 1593–1601 (Leicester University Press, 1995), p.374
Ian Williams, ‘The Tudor Genesis of Edward Coke’s Immemorial Common Law’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 43, no. 1 (2012), pp.103–23.
The last record of the Society meeting is from 1607, but it’s unclear if this was actually the last time they met as we don’t have a full record of all their proceedings.