Sir Roger L'Estrange Aristocratic Publisher
By William H. Itoh
NCSA Member #36
From the perspective of Newgate Prison in the early months of 1645, the future of young Roger L'Estrange was in grave doubt. On a secret mission for Charles I to deliver the City of Lynn into Royalist hands, L'Estrange had been betrayed, captured and taken to London to be tried as a spy. Sentenced to death, he was taken to Newgate to await his fate. Although never formally commuted, this sentence was not carried out. L'Estrange passed many anxious months before he was able to make his escape in 1648, taking refuge in Holland.
Under the provisions of the Act of Indemnity, L'Estrange was able to return to England in 1653, where he lived quietly until the eve of the Restoration. In 1659 he began to demonstrate his ability as a pamphleteer by advocating a return of the monarch, criticizing both the army and the Presbyterians. He attacked Commonwealth writers such as Nedham and Milton with great severity.
With the Restoration, L'Estrange was not immediately rewarded for his efforts on behalf of the King. In 1662, however, he was granted a warrant to seize seditious books and pamphlets, and soon published his Considerations and Proposals in Order to the Regulation of the Press which urged the strict control of the printing trade. His views were well received at the Court. L'Estrange became a licenser of the press and in 1663 he succeeded Sir John Birkenhead as the Surveyor of the Press, with broad powers to suppress unlicensed works. He was also given the sole privilege of printing all newsbooks and advertisements. Thus, in a short period of time, L'Estrange had been elevated to a position from which he had effective control of the press in England.
Exercising his monopoly on newsbooks, L'Estrange introduced The Intelligencer (August, 1663) and The News which replaced The Kingdom's Intelligencer and Mercurius Publius, the earlier privileged newsbooks of the Restoration. Hostile to the free dissemination of the news, L'Estrange was rather unpopular as a publisher. Dissatisfaction with his newsbooks, along with intrigues to wrest away his monopoly, eventually led to the loss of his favored position. On the occasion of the Court's removal to Oxford during the plague of 1665, a single sheet "newspaper" titled The Oxford Gazette appeared, which marked the effective end of L'Estrange's monopoly on the news.
L'Estrange protested the loss of his privileged position and attempted to counter his new rival with a paper similar in format, titled The Public Intelligencer. He finally appealed in person to Charles II and was awarded $100 a year for his newsbooks and an additional $200 a year for performing his duties as Surveyor of the Press. This arrangement apparently satisfied L'Estrange and he ceased to publish The Intelligencer and The News in January, 1666. The Oxford Gazette followed the return of the Court and was renamed The London Gazette in February; it became a permanent feature of English journalism from this time forward.
Although his journalistic venture was rather short-lived, L'Estrange continued as licenser and Surveyor of the Press. Known for his vigorous prosecution of John Twyn, who was tried and executed for printing a seditious pamphlet, L'Estrange strictly enforced the provisions of the Licensing Act.
In the later years of the reign of Charles II, L'Estrange was once again actively involved in writing for the Court. The Whigs, comprised largely of the followers of Shaftesbury, were actively engaged in the publishing of tracts critical of Charles and his ministers; these pamphlets be Tory or Court party, and compared the divisiveness of the Whigs with the Parliamentarians on the eve of the Civil War. He also sought to counter the popular hysteria arising from the Popish Plot. He published A History of the Plot (1679) and A Further Discovery of The Plot (1680), questioning the truthfulness of Titus Oates' allegations.
L'Estrange's activities gained him many enemies. He was satirized as "Roger the Fiddler" and the "Dog Towzer" in various pamphlets, and, on one occasion, was burnt in effigy by the London mob. An accomplished musician and translator of Spanish romances, he was no doubt incensed by the appearance of a "newsbook" titled News from the Land of Chivalry, Containing a Pleasant and Delectable History, and the Wonderful and Strange Adventure of Don Rogero De Strangemento, Knight of the Squeaking Fiddlestick &c of Several Other Pagan Knights and Ladies. (1681)
The opposition to L'Estrange, encouraged by the accusation that he had tried to bribe young Simson Tonge to defame Oates, and by rumors of possible precedings against him in Commons, forced L'Estrange to flee England in the winter of 1680-81. It was not until the dissolution of Parliament that L'Estrange returned to face his opponents once again, his position also being improved by Tongue's confession to perjury.
In April, 1681, Roger L'Estrange began the publication of The Observator, a single sheet newspaper printed in double columns on both sides. It was written in the form of a dialogue between a Whig and a Tory (later Trimmer and Observator), with logic and reason weighted on the side of the latter. The Observator did not presents the news in the fashion of The London Gazette, but presented a commentary upon the events of the day. This format makes it somewhat more difficult for present-day readers to follow, but at the same time, it is more interesting than the rather staid Gazette.
Through the pages of The Observator, the "oracle of the Tory Party" according to critics of the Court and Church alike. In the six years of the paper's existence, he wrote with a consistent fierceness, meeting his enemies with personal attacks characterized by a sharp wit. One of L'Estrange's main targets was Titus Oates. Oates' allegations regarding the "Popish Plot" were studied in fine detail in The Observator, revealing many inconsistencies in his claims. L'Estrange's efforts against Oates were finally rewarded in 1685, when the imaginative doctor was convicted of perjury.
The Observator had formally entered the struggle against the enemies of the Court at a time when the fortunes of the Tory Party were at low ebb. By 1685 the situation had been reversed, L'Estrange's paper having played a notable role in the demise of the Whigs. It had bested the Whig pamphleteers, had exposed the "Popish Plot" as a sham, and continued to defend the interests of the Court with vigor. L'Estrange's own fortunes rose with the Tory Party. In 16850' 0' he was elected to Parliament and in the same year he was knighted by James II, who was well aware of the services rendered by the writer and publisher of The Observator.
Eventually, however, L'Estrange's support for James was undermined by the issue of religion. A High Church Anglican, L'Estrange disapproved of the Court's increasing favoritism toward Roman Catholics. Finally, over the issue of toleration, The Observator ceased publication in March of 1687.
L'Estrange did continue to act as a licenser, but his name disappears from the Stationer's Register with the coming of the Revolution. Mistrusted for his keen Tory views, he was thrice arrested for alleged plots against the government of William and Mary. L'Estrange lived the remainder of his years in relative obscurity until his death in 1704.
Macaulay was quite critical in his assessment of L'Estrange. He wrote: "his nature, at once ferocious and ignoble, showed itself in every line that he penned." Fox Bourne, the in tradition of Macaulay, takes a similar view. Writers in this century, critical of Macaulay, have been somewhat more sympathetic to the Tory journalist and pamphleteer. Although an avowed opponent of the freedom of the press, L'Estrange lived in an age where such freedoms would be denied by either side. Although his attacks on his opponents were severe and personal, L'Estrange's tactics varied little from those of his enemies. L'Estrange should also be given some credit for the consistency of his views. In an age filled with Nedhams, he constantly defended Court and Church, and only when the activities of James it seemed to threaten the latter, did L'Estrange lay down his pen.
L'Estrange's Observator popularized a unique style in journalism by presenting a commentary on the news in a dialogue form. The Weekly Review of Daniel Defoe was to successfully use the commentary format three years later. Thus, because of the style and the important political significance it held, Sir Roger L'Estrange's Observator deserves special mention in the history of seventeenth century English journalism.