Marchamont Nedham, 1620-78
Pamphleteer and editor who produced successful newsbooks for both the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. He developed techniques still used in journalism.
Marchamont Nedham (also spelt Needham) was born at Burford in Oxfordshire in August 1620. His father, also called Marchamont Nedham, died in 1621. His mother, Margery, re-married to Christopher Glynn, vicar of Burford and master of its free school, where Nedham was educated. From 1634, he attended All Souls' College, Oxford, and took his bachelor's degree in 1637. He obtained a post as an undermaster at Merchant Taylors' School in London until 1641 when he became an under-clerk at Gray's Inn. Nedham also studied medicine, but soon found that his natural vocation was journalism.
In August 1643, Nedham joined Thomas Audley as principal author and editor of the Parliamentarian newsbook Mercurius Britanicus [sic], commissioned in response to the popular Royalist newsbook Mercurius Aulicus. Britanicus emerged as the most scurrilous of the rival newsbooks that proliferated during the mid-1640s. Nedham and Audley published the King's private papers, captured after the battle of Naseby in 1645, with satirical annotations. A subsequent issue featured an outspoken attack on the King and mocking references to his speech impediment. Nedham and Audley were reprimanded by the House of Lords but continued their uncompromising tone.
In May 1646, Nedham wrote an editorial that described Charles as a tyrant and suggested that he was trying to overthrow Parliament by setting the Scots and English against one another. After complaints were made to Parliament, Britanicus was shut down and Nedham was imprisoned. He was released after two weeks upon payment of £200 surety for his future good behaviour and a promise that he would not write again without the permission of Parliament. Although he may have continued to write pamphlets anonymously, Nedham supported himself by practising as a physician.
In 1647, Nedham obtained an introduction into the King's presence at Hampton Court, where he begged forgiveness for his writings against the Royalist cause. He then began publishing a weekly Royalist newsbook, Mercurius Pragmaticus, which ran from September 1647 to May 1649. Familiarly known as "Prag", the newsbook became very popular with Royalists for its witty and vitriolic attacks on Parliament, the Army Grandees and the Scots.
Nedham's apparently unprincipled change of allegiance may have been motivated by his hostility to the growing influence of Presbyterianism on the Parliamentarian cause. Parliament made stringent efforts to shut down Pragmaticus and other unlicensed newsbooks and Nedham was forced into hiding. He was finally tracked down and arrested in June 1649.
During his imprisonment, Nedham began to reconcile himself to the newly-established English Commonwealth. He wrote a pamphlet apologising for his past transgressions and appealing for leniency for himself and other offenders. William Lenthall, Speaker of the Commons, and the magistrate John Bradshaw apparently interceded on his behalf and Nedham was released in November 1649 after taking the Oath of Engagement. In May 1650, he published The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated in which he equated the Commonwealth constitution with the principles of classical republicanism and urged all factions to unite in support of the new régime.
From September 1650, Nedham was employed as editor of the state newsbook Mercurius Politicus, which he continued to edit throughout the Commonwealth and Protectorate years. Nedham co-operated with John Thurloe, Secretary of State and spymaster, in reporting news from abroad and in promoting Commonwealth foreign policy. Another colleague was John Milton, who was appointed licenser to Politicus in 1651 and became a close friend of Nedham's. Under Nedham's editorship, Politicus introduced a number of innovations, including the leading article, which was sometimes a commentary on current affairs and sometimes a treatise on political theory. Some of these articles were collected together in 1656 and published as The Excellencie of a Free State, which became an influential republican text. Nedham also introduced paid advertising into journalism, which helped to make Politicus highly profitable. From October 1655, he also edited The Publick Intelligencer, a partner journal to Politicus. These were the only newsbooks officially allowed under Cromwell's Protectorate.
Although disillusioned by the Protectorate's conservative tendencies, Nedham remained loyal to Cromwell and championed his policy of religious toleration in particular. From 1658, Nedham began warning against the restoration of the monarchy. In March 1660, he published Newes from Brussels, a satirical pamphlet that purported to be a letter written by an exiled cavalier anticipating the vengeance that Charles Stuart would wreak upon his return to England. After the Declaration of Breda was issued in April 1660, however, the Council of State dismissed Nedham from office and he went into hiding in the Netherlands. Despite ferocious attacks by Royalist pamphleteers who hated him for abandoning the King's cause in 1649, Nedham was not exempted from the Bill of Indemnity and Oblivion. He returned to London in September 1660 and obtained a pardon under the Great Seal.
Thereafter, Nedham resumed his medical career. In 1665, he published Medela Medicinæ in which he attacked the outmoded methods of the College of Physicians. He returned to political pamphleteering in 1676 when the government commissioned him to write three anonymous attacks on the Whig opposition leader Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury. Nedham died suddenly in 1678 and was buried at St Clement Danes church in London.
Nedham was twice married. Nothing is known about his first wife except that her name was Lucy. Their son, Marchamont, was baptised at St Margaret's, Westminster, in May 1652. In April 1663, he married his second wife, a widow named Elizabeth Thompson, who outlived him.
C.H. Firth, Marchamont Needham or Nedham, DNB 1894
Joad Raymond, Marchamont Nedham, Oxford DNB, 2004
Joad Raymond, The Invention of the Newspaper: English newsbooks 1641-1649 (Oxford 2005)
The Excellencie of a Free State 1767 edition of Nedham's republican tract, from the library of U.S. Founding Father John Adams.