Room for Company: The Ballads of State and Times

By Paxton Hehmeyer (2007)

Samuel Pepys knew what it was like to be satirized in print. Two pamphlets attacked him in 1679, at the height of fears about a plot to assassinate the king and install on the throne his Catholic brother, James, who was then the duke of York and Pepys's patron. Pepys was not just attacked in the pamphlets, he was also briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London and forced to defend himself before a parliamentary committee against charges of "Piracy, Popery and Treachery." The case against Pepys was eventually dropped, yet the episode reminds us that he was not simply a spectator to the political events around him; he was entangled in their controversy. Like the satires that disparaged Pepys, the ballads he set aside in "State & Times" are passionate and emotional. They record current events, but they resist the disinterested voice that we expect today in historical or journalistic accounts. They ridicule, lament, adore, and beg, but they rarely report. The ballads want to entangle us in their controversy and, in doing so, they challenge us to imagine the political public that grew around this medium rooted in performance and the pathos of its speakers, not the logic of its conclusions or the accuracy of its facts.

The category of "State & Times" comprises three sections: "The Times: viz! Fashions & Humours of the Age; Abuses in Trading; etc." in Volume 1, "State" in Volume 2, and "State & Times" in Volume 5. The content is not uniform across the volumes, but what links each section is the way the ballads deliver their message. Most of the ballads in "The Times," Volume 1, express a version of the conventional lament for the world's fall from a Golden Age, often warning or condemning specific trades and professions. The ballads in "State" and "State and Times," Volumes 2 and 5, deal mostly with politics. These ballads are arranged roughly chronologically according to the events they describe: wars, rebellions, treaties, coronations, royal births, and royal deaths. With one exception discussed below, the earliest event a ballad relates in Volumes 2 and 5 is the regicide in 1649 and the latest the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702. Despite their apparent topicality, these ballads were not necessarily meant to be read for the most recent stories or facts; indeed, many of the ballads were printed long after the events they describe. To enjoy the ballads, however, readers already had to have some familiarity with the "news, " which they most likely culled from oral accounts and other printed sources. What the ballads offer is a way to understand such news. Sometimes this understanding comes in the form of a fairly orthodox moral, but most often it is the attitude the reader adopts in performing or reading the ballad. A cursory look through the titles in "State & Times" shows the importance of the ballads' emotional content: "Englands joy increased" (2.229, EBBA 20842), "THE Happy Return" (2.234r, EBBA 20847), "ENGLANDS Extasie" (2.254, EBBA 20867). But perhaps "Pitties Lamentation" (1.162-163, EBBA 20071), a title where an emotion emotes, best exemplifies this tendency. Usually the readers know what to feel before they know what to think. Sometimes, the attitude and moral are the same, such as the many ballads that are "an encouragement to loyalty." In short, across all three volumes of "State & Times," the ballads sell a feeling. We will see, however, that these feelings can be highly partisan.

In 1685 after the death of Charles II, his charming Protestant bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth, landed in the west of England with a small group of soldiers to challenge the Catholic James II, erstwhile Duke of York, now the king. Monmouth's rebellion was crushed and he was gruesomely beheaded, but the Protestant darling remained a popular figure in the public's imagination; indeed, more ballads were printed about Monmouth's rebellion than about the coronation of James II. However, the variety of ballads on Monmouth demonstrates that the market was capable of a broad range of political stances and opinions. The white-letter "Monmouth Routed and Taken PRISONER" (5.32, EBBA 22248) debases and ridicules Monmouth as a coward, while the black-letter "Monmouth Routed" (2.239, EBBA 20853) exalts Monmouth whose "stout Valour far exceeded / those which strove to run him down." These ballads certainly take sides by interpreting and reinterpreting the events around Monmouth's rebellion. However, they are not opinion pieces: their politics express a general alignment but rarely a particular policy. James II and Monmouth, even when they are the main speakers in the ballads, are not so much historical figures as characters in a narrative.

When James II finally fled the throne in 1688, spooked by the looming specter of the Protestant William of Orange, Monmouth was resurrected in the ballad market, one ballad even suspiciously promising Monmouth's return in 1689 (2.240, EBBA 20854). In these pro-Monmouth ballads, we experience his transformation into a type: the Protestant savior. He prefigures and justifies William's claims, not officially but in their imaginative juxtaposition. For example, "Protestant Observator" (5.105, EBBA 22366) does not name James II in its parade of kings and queens from Elizabeth to William; instead it describes a Papist who destroys the glorious Monmouth before the ballad quickly moves on to the ascension of William. The ballad fits Monmouth into a Protestant view of history that leads inexorably to the present, one from which James is excluded, except as a deviant. Analogies, such as the one between William and Monmouth, are not limited to ballads about people. The Gunpowder plot was a Catholic conspiracy to blow up James I and parliament in 1605. An account of the Gunpowder plot in "State" (2.370, EBBA 20990) is inserted after ballads about an attempt on King William's life in 1696, and its imprint suggests that it was published in the 1680s at the earliest. The ballad begins by disclosing its age but also by suggesting its current relevance: "The Lines are New although the Subject's Old, / Likewise it is as true as e'er was told." Like the accounts of Monmouth's rebellion, the Gunpowder plot ballad reveals the way in which events and people could be appropriated for their associations. A literary politics emerges from these ballads, one that argues through analogy and metaphor and persuades though sympathy or antipathy, and ultimately one that is grounded in the intimate space of public performance.

Though chased from the throne, James too had his ballads. In "The Mournful Monarch" (5.76, EBBA 22296) James apologizes for his past errors, and even shifts blame to his wife. As such, the ballad criticizes his reign, but also seeks to calm any lingering hostility towards him. In short, the ballad attempts to reconcile its audience to the late king. The title of the ballad emphasizes its generic quality over its particular content. "The Mournful Monarch" is larger and printed above the sub-heading, "OR; / The Lamentation of the late King James." Immediately we find satisfaction in applying a suitable label to James. In the ballad James himself asserts his exemplary status. He addresses his speech to "YOu Christian Princes of the World," and ends by asking that the ballad be carved above his tomb as a permanent reminder of his fate and a lesson to the world. Like the other speakers we have encountered, James is not an individual voice, but one filtered through literary tradition and convention. Yet by distancing ourselves from him as the historical James II, we bring him closer as a sympathetic type, the mournful monarch. Indeed, as a type, James's persona is easier to adopt and, as a song in the first person, we identify with him by inhabiting his voice or by finding him before us as the seller singing on the street. We do not weigh the current consequences of James's reign or its future impact; we find peace in the ritual of performance.

At least since Benedict Anderson's seminal work on the nation state, scholars have contemplated the role of the newspaper in the formation of a national identity. Anderson envisions the newspaper as central to the creation of the "imagined communities" of the nation state; similarly, ballads helped consolidate the identities of smaller "speech communities." Anderson describes the newspaper as a daily ritual "performed in silent privacy," "creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations." As songs, ballads embodied a similar community. But that community was concrete. Any abstract bond to the state or a nation would transform through a ballad's performance into a local affirmation of community figured in the real social connections between the performers and into which national personalities (e.g. king, queen, or soldier) were introduced as characters in that performance, thereby integrating them into the everyday experience of the audience. We see this drive for unity most clearly in the medley ballads such as “Roome for Companie” (1.168-169, EBBA 20074) with its delight at a bewildering array of professions marched to the discipline of poetic feet. But we have also seen this drive for unity in the various political ballads we have examined. Performers unify around the intimate and immediate experience of the ballad. Kings and queens become characters demanding our sympathy or deserving our ridicule, and a nascent national identity is translated into a local phenomenon.

"State & Times" finishes with a ballad on the punishment of William Fuller (5.151, EBBA 22418), a rumormonger whose impostures and allegations resembled those thrown about during the Popish Plot scare, which had found Pepys defending his life and serving time in the Tower of London. It is tempting to see Pepys's hand in this choice of endings, since it concludes a category about impersonal and public affairs with a ballad that must have provided Pepys with personal and private satisfaction. Perhaps recalling the trials and pains that the earlier scandal had put him through, Pepys ends here with a ballad recounting the punishment for spreading such scandal. But this attempt to tame the reckless tongue of print only serves to reinforce the peculiarly intimate quality of the ballads of "State & Times." As I have argued, the politics of these ballads are enacted in the immediate interpersonal context of a performance; similarly, if we accept Pepys's presence in this conclusion, we find that he has transformed the grand narrative of politics into his own personal experiences.

Works Consulted

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1991.

Blagden, Cyprian. “Notes on the Ballad Market in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century,” Studies in Bibliography 6 (1954): 161-180.

Day, W.G. The Pepys Ballads. 5 vols. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1987.

McShane Jones, Angela. "'Rime and reason.' The Political World of the English Broadside Ballad, 1640-1689." Diss. University of Warwick, 2004. Warwick: 2004.

Smith, Bruce R. "Ballads Within, Around, Among, Of, Upon, Against, Within." The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Tomalin, Claire. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.

Woolf, Daniel. “News, History and the Construction of the Present in Early Modern England.” Politics of Information in Early Modern Europe. eds. Brendan Dooley and Sabrina Baron. London: Routledge, 2001.