A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.


Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Section from "The long bird's eye view of London," 1647.

• Thomas Scott and the Influence of Pamphlet Literature on A Game of Chess

Full-text of A Game at Chess Folger shelf mark: V.a. 231

    Thomas Scott and the Influence of Pamphlet Literature on A Game at Chess

War fever caught hold over the general London populace following Prince Charles and Buckingham's return from Madrid following the failed Spanish Match. Supported by the Prince and the royal favorite, Parliamentarians urged James to forge a military alliance against Spain, and to reawaken the glory days of Queen Elizabeth, who had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. The Council of War recruited soldiers and officers by the thousands. Meanwhile, an unprecedented wave of popular writing boldly urged the king to take up arms against the Spanish and the superstitious religious beliefs they espoused. Pleas for war took the form of Parliamentary exhortations, prayers and sermons, public prophecies, anonymous poems and ballads, and a flood of news pamphlets, both accurate and fictional.

Among the more successful, as well as the more controversial, of these pamphlet writers was clergyman Thomas Scott. In 1624, he published several pamphlets that both generated and capitalized on anti-Spanish sentiment, including one that Thomas Middleton would draw from as source material while writing his play, A Game at Chess. Scott's pamphlet, The Second Part of Vox Populi, consisted of a fabricated news account of the Spanish Council in session. During the course of the session, Gondomar gloated over his various plots and strategies, all designed to weaken the English on religious, political and economic fronts. A woodcut on the frontispiece depicted the council visually, portraying the various councilmen, Gondomar, and Satan himself lurking in the shadows.

Just how well timed Scott's pamphlets were depends on whose interests we consider. Certainly, Scott knew how to maximize readership. When he published this tract he made sure it coincided with the Spanish ambassador's return to London. The ambassador was furious with the tabloid report passed off as news. But even more interesting is the king's response, as it is recorded in the diary of Parliamentarian Simonds D'Ewes:

"But the King himself, hoping to get the Prince Elector, his son-in-law, to be restored to the Palatinate by an amicable treaty, was much incensed at the sight of it, as being published at an unseasonable time, though otherwise it seemed to proceed from an honest English heart. There was, therefore, so much and so speedy search made for the author of it, as he scarcely escaped the hands of the pursuivants, who had they taken him, he had certainly tasted of a sharp censure: for the Spanish Ambassador himself did at this time suppose and fear the people's eyes to be opened so far with the perusal of this book and their hearts to be so extremely irritated with that discovery of his villainous practices, as he caused his house for a while to be secured in Holborn by a guard of men, it being the Bishop of Ely's house, at the lower end of Holborn."

As angry as the King may have been, though, not only did Scott manage to escape, but he even published sequels. And while he was forced to flee to Utrecht, where he was eventually assassinated, it was fifty years before his pamphlets ceased to pique the interests of a scandal-hungry reading public. In the cases of Middleton and Scott alike, we can catch a glimpse of just how delicate the balance James I was trying to strike: while clearly upset at both writers, to the extent that he saw fit to intervene, he threatened punishments much more severe than what he actually delivered.

Because Middleton drew heavily from Scott's pamphlet, it is interesting to draw comparisons between the two writers. Both Thomas Scott and Thomas Middleton shared common desires, wanting to play to a popular audience, to stir up public anti-Spanish sentiment, and to make use of an emerging literary marketplace in order to obtain a public voice. But whereas Middleton tapped into public fears on occasion, Scott seemed bent on making a career of it.

Adam Kitzes

Study Questions:

To what extent were the writings of Thomas Scott and Thomas Middleton based on sincere convictions about public policy?

To what extent were they driven by other motives, such as economic ones?

In addition, how would you characterize the ways that Middleton and Scott make use of fiction (or at least the manipulation of real events) as part of their writing strategies?

Does one writer strike you as more responsible or irresponsible than the other? Can you give reasons?

© 2004 Folger Institute