1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Roger L'Estrange

Sir Roger L'Estrange
English pamphleteer and author

L'ESTRANGE, Sir ROGER (1616-1704), an indefatigable pamphleteer on the royalist and court side during the Restoration epoch, but principally remarkable as the first English man of letters of any distinction who made journalism a profession, was born at Hunstanton in Norfolk, December 17, 1616. In 1641, during the civil war, lie headed a conspiracy to seize the town of Lynn for the king, under circumstances which led to his being condemned to death as a spy. The sentence, however, was not executed, and after four years' imprisonment in Newgate he escaped to the Continent. He was excluded from the Act of Indemnity, but in 1653 was pardoned by Cromwell upon his personal solicitation, and lived quietly until the Restoration, when after some delay his services and sufferings were acknowledged by his appointment as licenser of the press. This office was administered by him in the spirit which might be expected from a zealous cavalier. He made himself notorious, not merely by the severity of his literary censorship, but by his vigilance in the suppression of clandestine printing. The inconsistency of this coarse with his actions and professions when himself opposed to the party in power naturally aggravated the unpopularity inevitably attaching to his office. Few men have been mere heartily abused than L'Estrange, and it is undoubtedly true that the rights of free speaking and printing, the indispensable conditions of civil and religious liberty, have seldom had a more determined or more dangerous opponent. At the same time there is no ground for questioning his integrity, and he was probably no more intolerant than any similar official of any Government in that day, inspired by an equal strength of conviction, would have been in his place. The representation of him in Grant's History of the Sewspaper Press as a mere political hireling is entirely contrary to truth. He was a militant loyalist, who used the pen as he had been wont to use the sword, and proved his zeal for his party by the production of a mass of pamphlet literature, above the ordinary standard of the time in ability, and quite on a par with it in virulence and coarseness. These productions still possess an historical value, but their titles are not worth enumerating here. His memory is more honourably preserved by his connexion as an author with the journalism which as a licenser he laboured to cripple and emasculate. In 1663 he commenced the publication of The Public Intelligencer and time sews, succeeded in February 1665 by The London Gazette, not to be confounded with the official journal still existing, which appeared for the first time at the close of that year, and was at first printed at Oxford. In 1679 he established The Observator, a journal specially designed to vindicate the court from the charge of a secret inclination to popery. This line of political controversy, and it may be hoped sonic natural humanity and good sense as well, obliged him to discredit the Popish Plot, and he manfully resisted the delusion by which many wiser and better men were carried away. The suspicion he thus incurred was increased by the conversion of his daughter to Romanism, but there seems no reason to question the sincerity of his own attachment to the Church of England. In 1687 he gave a further proof of independence by discontinuing The Observator from his unwillingness to advocate James IL's Edict of Toleration, although he had previously gone all lengths in support of the measures of the court. The Revolution cost him his office as licenser, and the remainder of his life was spent in obscurity. He died in 1704. L'Eitrange's place is rather in history than in literature. The importance of the part he played as licenser would be more exactly known if it could be more accurately ascertained how much literature he may have been the means of suppressing. The post he held so long was in itself an unmitigated mischief, but at the same time an evil which men of all parties, with the rare exception of men so far in advance of their time as Milton, then deemed necessary ; and no obloquy should attach to L'Estrange for having discharged its functions with zeal and efficiency. As a pamphleteer he is but slightly above mediocrity, and lie labours under a special imputation of having contributed to corrupt his native language. The same charge is brought against journalists in all ages, and there are obvious reasons why it should be true to a certain extent. The practice of daily writing for the press is undoubtedly one of the numerous forces which tend to wear down and degrade a language, but it also keeps the diction of the cultivated classes in contact with the speech of the people, and prevents the absolute divorce between them which seems to have existed in ancient times. It is to L'Estrange's credit that among the agitations of a busy political life he should have found time for much purely literary work as a translator of Josephus, Cicero, Seneca, Quevedo, and other standard authors. (R. G.)

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