End of Press Censorship in England

The lapse of the Licensing Acts in 1695 ended government restrictions on and licensing of printed materials and printers. This lapse permitted printed material—imported books, pamphlets from outside the city of London, foreign and unlicensed newspapers—to inundate the English market.

Summary of Event

Printing in seventeenth century England was restricted by a series of Licensing Acts Licensing Acts (1662-1695) . In Restoration England, the initial law renewing press censorship was the Licensing Act of 1662, which was renewed several times during the next three decades in Licensing Acts of 1664, 1665, 1685, 1692, and 1693. The 1662 act comprehensively controlled the production of printed material, either as works in production or as volumes imported from overseas. It controlled domestic print production in four ways. First, print production was geographically restricted to the cities of London and York and to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. [kw]End of Press Censorship in England (May 3, 1695)
[kw]Censorship in England, End of Press (May 3, 1695)
[kw]Press Censorship in England, End of (May 3, 1695)
Laws, acts, and legal history;May 3, 1695: End of Press Censorship in England[3040]
Social issues and reform;May 3, 1695: End of Press Censorship in England[3040]
England;May 3, 1695: End of Press Censorship in England[3040]
Censorship, England
Locke, John
Clarke, Edward

Second, the Stationers’ Company Stationers’ Company , the printer’s guild of the day, was permitted to designate only twenty master printers, other than those in the king’s or university’s service, to print works. Third, the Stationers’ Company, acting for the government, set the number of printers, apprentices, journeymen, and physical presses. Fourth, all manuscripts intended for publication had to receive prepublication approval from a licensing office. Works from overseas were controlled by import destination; they could only be brought into London.

The Licensing Acts, then, permitted an extraordinary range of government control over printed materials. The 1685 act was initially due to expire at the end of the 1692-1693 Parliamentary session, but it was extended twice. Each extension was for one year and then to the end of the next Parliament, so it was finally scheduled to lapse at the end of the 1694-1695 Parliament. Each extension, in the 1692-1693 session and then in the 1693-1694 session, revealed more constituent concerns about the Licensing Act, so its lapse in 1695 should be seen as a result of deliberate inaction by the House of Commons.

Each extension of the Licensing Acts brought forth explicit political debate on the topic. For example, in 1693, many pamphlets were written about censorship. In 1694, John Locke Locke, John wrote a memorandum on the Licensing Acts, in which he systematically commented upon each point of the law. Although he was familiar with John Milton’s Milton, John
Areopagitica (Milton) (1644), instead of arguing for an abstract freedom of the press in his memorandum, Locke highlighted the restraints on publishing that had resulted from the Licensing Acts. He also pointed out that the press did not need to be controlled, so long as printed materials bore the name of the responsible printer or publisher. That way, if anything in the works violated the common laws of England, such as those against libel, Locke believed the printer, publisher, or author could be held liable.

These ideas were not unique to Locke; they had been expressed in several pamphlets distributed around the time of the first proposed extension to the 1685 act, in the 1692-1693 Parliamentary session. Locke’s memorandum, though, was directed personally to Edward Clarke, Clarke, Edward the member of Parliament for Taunton. Clarke and Locke were friends; in fact, Clarke was a member of Locke’s College, a private political discussion group he sponsored.

On November 30, 1694, the House of Commons appointed a committee to examine laws that had expired or were about to expire. On January 9, 1695, the committee reported that it had resolved to renew the Licensing Act yet again. However, the House of Commons deferred acting on this report until February 11, 1695. The Commons then rejected the option of renewing the act. Instead, it appointed another committee, this one to prepare a revised bill that would allow for better control over print.

The Stationers’ Company noticed the delays in the House of Commons. Intent on maintaining the status quo—that is, perpetual copyright on a work once it was entered into the Company Register and profitable monopolies on reprints of old authors—the company lobbied the Commons as well but to less effect than Locke’s efforts. The new bill proposed by the ad-hoc committee of February 11 permitted printers outside of London, York, and the universities, as well as exempting works on medicine, science, the arts, and heraldry from licensure. It also lifted restrictions on importing books. Literature;England

However, the revised bill failed, because it did not limit copyright—even the works of Aesop (c. 620-c. 560 b.c.e.), for example, were considered to be under copyright by the Licensing Acts, and the proposed revision did nothing to alter the situation. It also failed, because although more people would be able to print works under the revised bill, anyone who did so would have to follow a detailed set of rules. These rules would require that printers refrain from printing anything that contradicted the laws or religion of the land and that they deliver a copy of every book published to the king’s and universities’ libraries before any copies could be sold.

Edward Clarke introduced this revised bill in the House of Commons on March 2, 1695, and he believed it permitted nearly anything to be printed. However, the bill was strongly opposed by three significant court groups, the nobles and peers, the bishops, and the Stationers’ Company. Their concerns were grounded in the limited requirements for licensing manuscripts and in the possibility that presses could be opened up around the country. Locke objected to it as well, because it did not contain a copyright clause. Locke was also concerned about the vagueness of the requirement that the work not contradict the laws or religion of the land.

Finally, by early April, it became clear that the revised bill would not pass out of the committee evaluating it. Therefore, the other house of Parliament, the House of Lords, acted. The House of Lords inserted a clause renewing the Licensing Act for another year and a session, just like the prior two extensions, into a bill to revive several pieces of legislation. When this renewing bill was put before the Commons, they passed it but struck out the clause relating to the Licensing Act. In a joint conference to reconcile the differences on the bill, Clarke explained why the Commons would not accept the Licensing Act clause.

The House of Commons presented four reasons to the House of Lords for its refusal to extend the Licensing Act. First, the act had not fulfilled its purpose. Second, the common law of the land already protected against excessive liberty of the press. Third, the fees for licensing were unspecific. Fourth, the “offensive” books banned by the act were an undefined category. The House of Lords was unable to overcome these objections and therefore accepted the removal of the Licensing Act clause from the bill it had sent to the Commons.

Thus, when Parliament ended its session on May 3, 1695, the Licensing Act expired. In the next session of Parliament, variations of the Licensing Act were considered. Once again, though, no bill overcame the objections raised against it, and prepublication censorship ended in England.


Immediately after the Licensing Act lapsed, printers began to publish a range of works, such as newsletters, pamphlets, and even novels. Chaos ensued as they attempted to secure particular, profitable works by certain authors, and this confusion led ultimately to the Copyright Act of 1709. The lapse of the act also permitted the freer distribution of works such as controversial theological texts: Whether imported from the Continent or printed outside of London or York, works containing diverse religious ideas began to circulate more widely.

Finally, the lapse of the law controlling printing eventually expanded the English print culture. Printers moved outside London to escape its saturated markets and began to publish in the provinces. They published news and opinions from the court, from London, and from within their home province. Within ten years, London alone had twenty periodicals that were published at least weekly; one was even published daily. In addition to the London periodicals, the major provincial centers had their own weeklies.

The government would later respond to the explosion of print culture with the Stamp Acts in the eighteenth century. These represented an attempt to make publication prohibitively expensive and thereby to silence voices unpopular to the government. However, the British government never regained the control it once had under the Licensing Acts. The lapse of those acts therefore constituted a watershed moment for media, politics, and the people.

Further Reading

  • Astbury, Raymond. “The Renewal of the Licensing Act in 1693 and Its Lapse in 1695.” The Library, 5th ser. 33 (4): 296-322. Examines the specific political machinations behind the Licensing Act’s last renewal and then its lapse.
  • Black, Jeremy. The English Press in the Eighteenth Century. London: Croom Helm, 1987. The introduction examines the seventeenth century roots of the eighteenth century press.
  • Cranfield, G. A. The Press and Society: From Caxton to Northcliffe. New York: Longman, 1978. Reviews the first centuries of printing in England.
  • O’Gorman, Frank. The Long Eighteenth Century: British Political and Social History, 1688-1832. New York: Arnold, 1997. Places the Licensing Act and subsequent attempts at press censorship in the context of the long eighteenth century.
  • Sommerville, C. John. The News Revolution in England: Cultural Dynamics of Daily Information. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Examines the development of the reading audiences of newspapers.
  • Sutherland, James. The Restoration Newspaper and Its Development. London: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Investigates newspapers published between 1660-1720.

England’s Licensing Acts

The Glorious Revolution

Declaration of Rights

Toleration Act

Locke Publishes Two Treatises of Government

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