William Prynne, 1600-69

Outspoken Puritan lawyer and pamphleteer who was persecuted for his beliefs during the 1630s but gained revenge by leading the prosecution of Archbishop Laud.

Portrait of William PrynneWilliam Prynne was born at Upper Swainswick near Bath in Somerset, the son of a farmer. He was educated at Bath Grammar School and Oriel College, Oxford. In 1621, he entered Lincoln's Inn to study law and was called to the bar in 1628.

Prynne adopted a militant form of Puritanism and began publishing pamphlets critical of the Arminian doctrines of the Anglican Church. He also condemned the fashions of the age and achieved notoriety in 1632 with the publication of Histriomastix, an attack on stage plays, which he denounced as immoral and contrary to Scripture. It was unfortunate for Prynne that in January 1633, Queen Henrietta Maria took part in a performance of Walter Montagu's Shepherd's Paradise at a court entertainment. Prynne's denunciation of women actors as "notorious whores" was regarded as a personal attack on the Queen. He was brought before Star Chamber and found guilty of sedition, for which he was sentenced to have his ears cropped, fined £5,000 and imprisoned for life.

Although he was a prisoner in the Tower of London, Prynne continued to write attacks on Archbishop Laud and the Anglican church, which were smuggled out and published. In 1637, he was again brought before Star Chamber with two other writers of seditious pamphlets: the clergyman Henry Burton and the physician John Bastwick. He was sentenced to stand in the pillory, to have what was left of his ears hacked off, his nose slit and the letters SL, for "seditious libeller" branded into his cheeks. Prynne, Burton and Bastwick bore the ordeal with defiant courage and were supported by the crowds who witnessed the punishments. Prynne was imprisoned at Mount Orgueil Castle in Jersey until November 1640, when to great popular rejoicing, he was released by order of the Long Parliament, and returned to London with Burton and Bastwick.

On the outbreak of civil war in 1642, Prynne wrote justifications of the parliamentarian cause, using historical precedents to demonstrate the legality of opposing a tyrannical monarch. He also turned wholly against Episcopacy and claimed that the bishops had co-operated with the King's evil counsellors in attempting to re-introduce Catholicism into England. In 1644, Prynne led the prosecution of Archbishop Laud with vindictive relish, collecting and arranging evidence to prove the charges against him and humiliating the Archbishop by conducting a search of his room in the Tower, and even his pockets, for papers to be used against him. After Laud's execution, Prynne was commissioned by Parliament to write the official record of the trial, Canterburie's Doom, in which he claimed that Laud had subverted the righteous rule of King Charles.

Throughout the 1640s, Prynne wrote a steady stream of pamphlets attacking the excesses of the Independent sects, but he was equally critical of the Presbyterians, rejecting the establishment of a Presbyterian system in England and insisting upon the the supremacy of the State over the Church.

In November 1648, Prynne was elected to Parliament as MP for Newport in Cornwall. He supported Denzil Holles in his opposition to the New Model Army, argued that the Treaty of Newport was a satisfactory basis for a peace settlement with the King, and led the parliamentary opposition to the Army Remonstrance. Within weeks of his election, Prynne was among the MPs expelled from Parliament by Pride's Purge, during which he had to be forcibly restrained from taking his place in the House of Commons. Prynne was overpowered by Colonel Pride himself and briefly imprisoned with other "secluded" MPs.

After the trial and execution of King Charles, Prynne retired to Somerset from where he issued a steady stream of pamphlets harshly critical of the new Commonwealth government, for which he was arrested in June 1650. Prynne was imprisoned for three years without trial. After his release in February 1653, he resumed his pamphleteering but made fewer direct criticisms of the government. Prynne attacked Catholics and Quakers and wrote against the proposal to re-admit the Jews into England, though his pamphlets attracted little attention. He returned to prominence after the fall of Richard Cromwell and the return of the Rump Parliament in 1659 when he campaigned for the re-admission of the secluded MPs who had been expelled at Pride's Purge.

When General Monck ordered the re-admission of the secluded Members in February 1660, Prynne, wearing an old basket-hilted sword, marched in at their head amid the cheers of the spectators in Westminster Hall. As they entered the House, however, Sir William Waller tripped over Prynne's sword and fell over, which caused laughter in the crowd. Prynne was elected to the Convention Parliament and the succeeding Cavalier Parliament as MP for Bath. He emerged as one of the most vindictive and unforgiving of those who demanded the punishment of regicides and others associated with the Interregnum government.

In recognition of his support for the Restoration, Charles II appointed Prynne keeper of records at the Tower of London. In this role, he was a pioneer in the transcription, organisation and preservation of historical records. Prynne died unmarried at his lodgings in Lincoln's Inn in October 1669.


C.H. Firth, William Prynne, DNB, 1896

William Lamont, William Prynne, Oxford DNB, 2004

David Underdown, Pride's Purge (Oxford 1971)


Histriomastix text of the Prologue

A Legall Vindication of the Liberties of England (1649) Lampeter Corpus, PDF format