William Prynne Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

A lawyer educated at Oxford University, Prynne began writing as a young man, criticizing the growth of Roman Catholicism as well as a supposed decline in morals that he identified with the increasing popularity of such entertainments as the theater. Prynne’s most famous work, Histriomastix (1632), an attack on the theater and female actors, landed him in the Court of Star Chamber in 1634 because it was regarded as critical of the queen. The archbishop of Canterbury, who was fond of the theater and fearful of violence incited by Puritan pamphlets, pushed for severe penalties. Prynne was heavily fined, had part of his ears cropped, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where, however, he continued to write. He was tried again in 1637, along with two other Puritan pamphleteers; heavily fined, he had the remainder of his ears cut off, the letters “S” and “L” (for seditious libeller) branded on his cheeks, and was exiled to the Channel Islands.

Many regarded Prynne as a martyr. Released in 1640, he made a triumphal procession to London. During the English civil war (1642- 1648), his criticism of the Parliamentarian army that opposed Charles I resulted in his being ejected from Parliament in 1648. Protests against taxes earned him three years’ imprisonment without trial. After his release in 1653, he was still critical of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan leader who had been named lord protector of England. Prynne’s last confrontation with authority came during the Restoration, when his attack on the Corporation Act (1662) earned him the censure of Parliament.