John Fowke and the Invention of News
Revolutionary merchants with political machines
The Mercurius Aulicus newspaper was published in Oxford and within London during the English Civil War. Like everything else organizational to the royalist war effort, it peaked in 1643 and disintegrated during 1645, lasting down the ages as an alternative view to the military victors of the conflict — and inspiring the creation of news as an industry. Put another way, the business of “news” began as political propaganda. One might argue that today, journalism remains distinct from propaganda only by dint of its own pretensions. If so, that is because it was more or less the case from the very beginning.
Which brings me to the 2 April 1643 edition of Mercurius Aulicus, in which my favorite foe of King Charles is portrayed as a key leader of the war party in the City. The writer accuses John Fowke of orchestrating an anti-monarchist petition to the Court of Aldermen on which he sits, and I see no reason to doubt this analysis. Fowke was one of the most active petition organizers in London before the end of 1641, when he was elected to the Aldermanic Court. During this era, printers began to press petitions with the ward left blank so that organizers could pay for one order to use all across the city. As a key figure in the new machine taking over City politics that year, Fowke was part of the radical clique that swept aside resistance to the new merchant elite through these emerging techniques of mass political mobilization.
As militant enemies of Charles I, Fowke and his revolutionary friends did not appreciate the language of Parliament’s military orders. Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, commander of the main field army, labored under a political fiction that Parliament was merely overthrowing the sinister, self-interested advisors who had led Charles astray, and not attacking the person or sovereignty of the king himself. In authorizing Essex to fight the king’s army, the men of Westminster had directed their general “to rescue His Majesty’s Person … out of the hands of those desperate persons who were then about [Him].” This clause was notably absent from Thomas Fairfax’s commission as he took charge of the New Model Army in 1645, a verbal alteration that Fowke had lobbied to make.
In this petition, Fowke was giving vent to frustrations with the poor performance of Parliamentary armies, which seemed not to fight as though they were actually trying to win. Thus, in point two of the April 1643 petition, we find the complaint: “howsoever it was a rule in law, that the King could doe no wrong, yet they did sensibly perceive that all the wrongs which they had suffered proceeded not fro(m) evill Counsellers, but from the King himselfe.” That was certainly true of Fowke, who had suffered personally at the king’s hands since 1629. However, this language was quite radical for the time and could only have been printed in the midst of a rebellion.
Mercurius Aulicus adds that “Peters” was preaching the contents of this petition in his church the next day. That would be Hugh Peter, one of the fire-breathing Puritan ministers Fowke supported, some of whom became important chaplains to the parliamentary armies. Peter was a fringe voice in London when he called for the end of monarchy in 1645. After the abortive Second Civil War, however, his incendiary sermons raised public sentiment for the execution of Charles I. His tale has no happy ending. Unlike Fowke, who refused to sit in judgment of the king and thus escaped any punishment at all after the 1660 Restoration of Charles II, Hugh Peter was drawn and quartered as a regicide.
Fowke never owned a standing newspaper, though he did publish broadsheets, which had a similar ad hoc information-sharing function. To my knowledge, the only time he felt it necessary to publish news about himself was in 1660, when he reminded all of London that he had refused to sit in judgment of Charles. I suppose there is probably a lesson in there about publishers taking the profits and writers taking the risks.