31 July 1703: Daniel Defoe pilloried for seditious libel

The crowd threw flowers

In 1702, Daniel Defoe – a born and bred dissenter – wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters advocating death for papists and nonconformists. Unfortunately for Defoe, a lot of people took it seriously.

When the pamphlet’s real nature was realised, the authorities were not pleased. Defoe was arrested and thrown in to Newgate Prison. At his trial, he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to spend three days in the pillory at the end of July, and to pay a hefty fine.

While waiting for his sentence to be carried out, he wrote A Hymn to the Pillory. The poem was read as Defoe stood in the pillory. The onlookers, who often pelted offenders with rotten food or worse, threw only flowers.

After the pillory, Defoe was returned to prison. As he languished, his businesses failed, and he was unable to pay the fine that would release him.

Step forward minister of the Crown and top spook Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford. He paid Defoe’s debts and had him freed. In return, Defoe would write The Review, one of England’s first periodicals, extolling the virtues of Her Majesty’s government. Defoe was especially enthusiastic on the matter of the union of England and Scotland.

It wasn’t long before Harley dispatched Defoe north to act as a spy. As a well-known dissenting Presbyterian, Defoe was welcomed into the Church of Scotland and became an adviser to the General Assembly. All the time, he was reporting back to Harley, and swaying opinion in favour of the Union.

For years, Defoe would write propaganda for the government, and it was not until relatively late on in life, in 1719, when he was approaching 60, that he published his most famous work, Robinson Crusoe.

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  • davidstuart

    You learn something every day – very interesting!

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