England’s Licensing Acts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Licensing Act of 1662 restored the licensing system that had been disrupted by the English Civil Wars and the Protectorate, allowing for censorship administered largely through the Stationers’ Company, until Parliamentary opponents of restraints upon publication forced the licensing system to lapse in 1695.

Summary of Event

Systematic licensing of printed matter in England can be traced to the reign of Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547). Privileges were issued to printers as early as 1518, and a 1538 royal decree stipulated that all printed works must obtain approval from the Privy Council. Printing;England However, the practical matters of censorship were left largely to the private sector. In 1557, Mary I (r. 1553-1558) granted a monopoly on publishing to the Stationers’ Company Stationers’ Company , a London-based guild of booksellers. The Stationers’ followed the rulings of the Court of Star Chamber, which began issuing decrees concerning printing in 1566. By 1637, Star Chamber decrees had been organized into a system of licensing in which relevant authorities approved printed matter and the Stationers’ Company registered all material. [kw]England’s Licensing Acts (1662-May 3, 1695) [kw]Acts, England’s Licensing (1662-May 3, 1695) [kw]Licensing Acts, England’s (1662-May 3, 1695) Laws, acts, and legal history;1662-May 3, 1695: England’s Licensing Acts[2100] Government and politics;1662-May 3, 1695: England’s Licensing Acts[2100] Social issues and reform;1662-May 3, 1695: England’s Licensing Acts[2100] England;1662-May 3, 1695: England’s Licensing Acts[2100] Licensing Acts (1662-1695)

By 1662, however, the Restoration Parliament felt compelled to repair a licensing system that had been disrupted by the political instability created by the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) and Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate government (1652-1659). In 1641, the Court of Star Chamber had been abolished by Puritan factions in Parliament, annulling the Stationers’ Company’s monopoly and thereby creating an explosion of printing. After political pleading by the Stationers’ Company, a licensing act was passed in 1643, setting off furious debates about censorship, as in John Milton’s Milton, John defense of authorial freedom in the pamphlet Areopagitica Areopagitica (Milton) (1644). A printing act of 1649 had recuperated some of the Stationers’ Company’s powers, but printing acts passed by Cromwell’s parliamentary allies in the 1650’s took away many of the company’s arbitration powers.

After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II Charles II (king of England);Parliament and , the new Parliament sought to restore the licensing system as it had been decreed in 1637. In 1662, Parliament passed the Licensing Act, the censorious intent of which is evident from its full title: “An act for preventing the frequent Abuses in printing seditious treasonable and unlicensed Bookes and Pamphlets and for regulating of Printing and Printing Presses.” The 1662 legislation brought back into force the various printing restrictions that had been collected in the 1637 Star Chamber Decree Star Chamber Decree (1637) and those in the 1649 Printing Act Printing Act (1649) .

The Licensing Act restored the system whereby all publications had to be registered by the Stationers’ Company and also brought back the 1637 limits upon the number of printers that could operate in England. Twenty master printers (plus the Cambridge and Oxford presses) and four letter founders were permitted. The Licensing Act also required that printed works obtain permission from authorities in categorized areas. For example, works on religion would require licensing from a recognized ecclesiastical leader such as the archbishop of Canterbury, while legal works would require licensing from the Office of the Chief Justice.

The year 1662 also saw the rise to power of Sir Roger L’Estrange, Estrange, Sir Roger L’ a Royalist aristocrat and pamphleteer who had gained the favor of Charles II in 1659 by publishing his arguments for the return of the monarchy. L’Estrange published Considerations and Proposals in Order to the Regulation of the Press Considerations and Proposals in Order to the Regulation of the Press (L’Estrange) (1662), which advocated that the royal prerogative be aggressively used in censoring the press. In 1663, L’Estrange replaced John Birkenhead as surveyor of the press, a position that empowered him to seize unlicensed printed matter. L’Estrange was also granted a monopoly on the printing of newspapers Newspapers;England , and his two publications, the Intelligencer and the News, were the only journalistic works in England until 1665, when plague sowed enough confusion to allow for the publication of the Oxford Gazette.

L’Estrange proved to be a zealous enforcer of the licensing laws, being responsible for much censorship of material before publication. L’Estrange was also responsible for numerous search-and-seizure operations all across Britain. The most notorious case prosecuted by L’Estrange involved his search of the printing press of John Twyn, Twyn, John located in the Cloth Fair neighborhood of London. L’Estrange seized a copy of a pamphlet entitled “A Treatise of the Execution of Justice” that came from Twyn’s press. In 1664, Twyn was prosecuted by L’Estrange for sedition and executed.

For the next two decades, the licensing system remained virtually unchallenged, with few significant revisions in renewals of licensing legislation. The 1662 Licensing Act was renewed by Parliament in 1664 and again in 1665, in a form that would expire in 1679. In 1684, Charles II granted a new charter to the Stationers’ Company, seeking to ensure that this critical enforcement element of the licensing system remain stable. In 1685, a new Licensing Act was passed, set to expire in 1692.

With the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the consequent rise in the political power of Parliament, however, the licensing system, which was closely linked to royal authority and administration, began to be openly challenged. During the early 1690’, the licensing system became an issue of intense debate within Parliament. Amid much debate, the Licensing Act was renewed twice, though a group of eleven members of the House of Lords issued a letter of protest, arguing that learning should not be restricted by licensers interested only in business.

Opposition to licensing was also becoming fierce in the House of Commons. The philosopher John Locke, Locke, John opposed to renewal of the Licensing Act, was actively conferring with “the College,” an informal group of members of Parliament that included Edward Clarke Clarke, Edward and John Freke Freke, John . Locke’s opposition to the licensing system, revealed in his 1693 memorandum to Clarke, was based both on his general objection to censorship (echoing Milton’s 1644 Areopagitica) and on his opinion that the Stationers’ Company’s monopoly made the progress of learning subject to licensers whose only concern was business.

In an attempt to salvage licensing, a bill was put forward that aimed to take away the monopoly power of the Stationers’ Company, while retaining its censorship powers. However, on May 3, 1695, the Licensing Act finally lapsed, after the House of Commons declined to renew it.


While in effect, the Licensing Acts of the seventeenth century maintained a system in which the Stationers’ Company dominated publishing through its legal monopolies, while also administering broad powers of censorship. The Licensing Act of 1662 and related legislative bills helped stabilize the licensing system that had been disrupted by the Puritan Revolution and the government of Oliver Cromwell.

The furious debate over licensing that ultimately resulted in the end of the licensing system led to further debate about how to control the press. In the years following 1695, the Stationers’ Company sought to revive licensing by pooling resources with Puritans demanding strict censorship. The abuses of the licensing system, as seen in the tenure of Sir Roger L’Estrange, ensured that the Stationers’ Company would have to change strategies, leading to its eventual abandonment of calls to revive the licensing system.

In 1707, there was a failed attempt to introduce legislation that still included licensing provisions. In 1710, however, the Statute of Anne, Anne, Statute of (1710) which would introduce the modern system of copyright, passed through Parliament. The Statute of Anne would ensure that two of Locke’s suggestions would be borne out—that no one should hold a patent on works by ancient authors and that the term of privilege to publish current authors should be of a limited duration rather than perpetual.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dutton, Richard. Licensing, Censorship, and Authorship in Early Modern England. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2001. Focuses on the relation of the licensing system to theatrical works. Offers analysis of the practical dynamics of the regulation of printed matter in the period preceding the 1662 legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halasz, Alexandra. The Marketplace of Print: Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Offers in-depth analysis of the relation of print to early modern capitalist culture. Traces the histories of a number of pamphlets in order to recover the socioeconomic contexts in which they circulated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Myers, Robin, and Michael Harris, eds. The Stationers’ Company and the Book Trade, 1550-1990. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 1997. Collection of articles focused on practical aspects of the business of publishing in Great Britain. Includes articles on licensing and on censorship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Explores notions of authorship and propriety through analysis of the development of modern copyright. Offers thorough analysis of the licensing system which the Statute of Anne displaced.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; John Locke; John Milton. Licensing Acts (1662-1695)

Categories: History