William Prynne (1600 - 1669)

William Prynne was a truly amazing character. Quotes from his diatribes against dancing are fairly well known in dance circles, but most people do not know the history behind them, so read on:


Picture of William Prynne

Born, Somerset, son of a gentleman farmer. Attended Bath Grammar School.
Enters Oriel College, Oxford.
Graduates with B.A. degree, January 22.
Enters Lincoln's Inn. Attends sermons by Donne and takes part in a pressure group trying to stop the Saturday night revels in Lincoln's Inn. The revels end. Visits theatre 4 times and is disgusted. Starts writing for the illicit pamphlet publishers on moral, religious and political topics.
Prosecuted for his pamphlet The Perpetuitie of a Regenerate Man's Estate but gets off on a technicality.
Qualifies as a barrister.
One of his publishers imprisoned.
More or less permanently embroiled in legal controversy over his pamphlets, which are biliously brutal, vitriolic and scurrilous even by the unfussy standards of the time!
Qualifies as full barrister. Continues legal practice, often defending unlicensed Puritan propagandists like himself in the prosecutions they are generally prey to.
While defending 3 Puritan propagandists charged with holding "false opinions", in the Court of High Commission (the court responsible for religious orthodoxy, which had failed to convict him in 1627), Prynne is somewhat surprised, as his clients are led away to the pillory, to find himself charged with the exact offence he was trying to get them acquitted of.

Publishes Histriomastix, a 1006-page diatribe against the theatre , masques, dancing and entertainment generally. Unwisely implies that women who participate in masques are abandoned slatterns, unwisely because the Queen herself is fond of a masque. The Histriomastix is the source of his most famous quotes about dancing.

The Histriomastix is banned, Archbishop Laud of Canterbury, like the Queen a prominent Arminian (a religious movement loathed by Prynne and the Puritans as being too much like Catholicism), starts pestering the King and the Attorney-General to prosecute Prynne, and employs his chaplain to comb Prynne's writings for "scandalous points".

Prynne is questioned by the Star Chamber and by the Attorney-General, committed to the Tower and tried for seditious libel, with 6 Puritan printers as co-defendants. Prynne refuses to plead. He is convicted and sentenced to the pillory, to have his ears cut off, to lose his degree and his barrister's qualifications, a £5000 fine and life imprisonment. His books and possessions are sold. Actually they only cut off the tips of both ears. In prison Prynne continues writing, with the result that:

He is charged with seditious libel again, with two co-defendants, Bastwick and Burton. All 3 are found guilty. Prynne is sentenced to the pillory, to lose the remnants of his ears, another £5000 fine, life imprisonment in Carnarvon, and to have the letters S L (for Seditious Libeller) branded on his cheeks. According to Prynne, the hangman "burnt one cheek with a letter the wrong waye, he burnt that againe." After this, Prynne wore his hair long!

Prynne, Bastwick and Burton become famous as a result of the case, and "a certain Papist, Mrs Hauton of Lancashire, merrily cut off the ears of her three cats and seared one of them in the 'cheekes', calling them Bastwick, Burton and Prynne."

Prynne arrives at Carnarvon in August: a 'nasty dogg-hole" . As Carnarvon is insecure he is moved to Jersey, where he becomes friends with his captor, the lieutenant governor Carteret and his family.

Charles I decides to call a Parliament for a change. Parliament immediately sets up a committee to review the case of Bastwick, Burton and Prynne. They are released pending the review and come in triumph to London.
Parliament declares Prynne's previous sentences to be illegal and his fines are cancelled. Parliament is merrily eroding the results of Royal policy in the run-up to the Civil War, and Laud, Prynne 's arch-enemy, is in the Tower. Prynne is living in London and Somerset, catching up with his reading and writing against Laud and bishops in general, a popular pastime among Puritans of the time.
Civil War breaks out. Prynne is writing Parliamentary propaganda.
Parliament appoints Prynne to search Laud's quarters in the Tower and confiscate all his papers. Prynne gleefully wades into Laud's cell with three musket-waving heavies and does the job with exemplary thoroughness. Then he starts going through the papers in search of incriminating material. In August Parliament orders the publication of Prynne's findings incriminating Laud.

Prynne is appointed chairman of the committee taking accounts for the kingdom, a very senior post, financing the parliamentary forces and the war effort generally. He accuses Fiennes, the Parliamentarian general who lost Bristol to the Royalist Prince Rupert, of treason.

To be continued! 

Preliminary research by:

Simon Heywood

This page last modified Tue Apr 2 1996 11:38:50

Rhod Davies

Rhod's Dance Home Page || Biographies index