On this day in history….31st July 1703

On this day in history : 31st July 1703 – As a punishment for offending Parliament and the Church, with his satirical writing, Daniel Defoe is put in the pillory – but is bombarded with flowers….

Daniel Defoe in the style of Sir Godfrey Kneller – Public domain

Defoe was a married man, a father to eight children, the owner of a brickworks, a government spin doctor, a writer – and a dissenter (English separatist; a Protestant Christian who had broken away from the Church of England)….

At the end of 1702 he wrote an anonymous pamphlet entitled ‘The Shortest Way with the Dissenters’ – in which he mocked the High Anglican powers and satirised contemporary politicians…. His ‘advice’ being that the best way to deal with dissenters was to ‘banish them abroad and send their preachers to the hangman’…. The pamphlet suggested that ‘the Church of England was like Christ crucified between two thieves, Papists on one side and Nonconformist Sectarians on the other’… It went on to say ‘let us crucify the thieves. To go on tolerating them is like allowing a plague to continue without medical treatment’….

Needless to say, although written as satire, neither the authorities nor dissenters found it amusing…. Defoe’s identity was soon discovered and a large reward offered for his arrest…. Defoe went into hiding – and to try and clear up the misunderstanding, published a further pamphlet – ‘A Brief Explanation of a Late Pamphlet’…. Parliament, still not recovering its sense of humour, responded by having the hangman publicly burn ‘The Shortest Way’….

Defoe was captured in Spitalfields in May 1703 after being betrayed by someone tempted by the reward money…. He was held at Newgate Jail – it has to be said in relative comfort, paid for out of his own pocket…. He managed to secure bail the following month – and awaited his trial, which was set for July….

Daniel Defoe – Image credit : immugmania via Flickr

He pleaded guilty to the charge of committing seditious libel – and begged for mercy as it had not been his intention to be taken seriously…. He was sentenced to stand in the pillory three times and remain in prison either for seven years or until he had paid a large fine….

The pillory was used mainly for petty crimes and minor offences – such as cheats, liars and rioters….it was intended as a way of humiliating and shaming…. Those held in the pillory could expect to be pelted with all manner of unsavoury items; rotten fruit and eggs, mud, dead rodents….and worse…. Sometimes things could turn violent – stones and larger missiles could be thrown….serious injury or even death could occur….

Defoe’s scheduled time in the pillory was set for the last three days in July, at one hour at a time…. Three of London’s busiest locations were chosen; outside the Royal Exchange at Cornhill (which was close to his home), near to the Conduit at Cheapside and near to Temple Bar, Fleet Street….

Admittedly it was raining most of the time (making it a little unpleasant for Defoe) – or perhaps people were simply disinterested – but for whatever reason the crowds kept away when Defoe was placed in the pillory…. All that was thrown at him were flowers….whilst his friends sold copies of ‘The Shortest Way’ and ‘A Hymn to the Pillory’ – which Defoe had written specially for the occasion – to those who did bother to turn out to witness the spectacle…. With his friends ‘drinking to his good health’, one can almost imagine a party atmosphere….

Daniel Defoe in the pillory, 1862 line engraving by James Charles Armytage after Eyre Crewe – Public domain

Defoe was returned to Newgate, as he was unable to pay his fine….since his brickworks had now gone bankrupt…. However, a few months later the government decided he might be useful…. In the November his fine was paid on his behalf – in return he was to publish a newspaper showing the establishment in a positive light…. He was also to act as a spy on behalf of the government…. In 1706 he was sent to Scotland to gather political intelligence…. He also established himself in writing government propaganda…. It wasn’t until much later in his life that he turned to writing fiction…. We know him best for Robinson Crusoe….

Public domain