September rare book: Guest Blog: On “A collection of entrees, of declarations, barres, replications, reioinders, issues, verdits, iudgements, executions, proces, continuances, essoines, and diuers other matters . . .”

In August our rare book of the month was William Rastell’s A collection of entrees, of declarations, barres, replications, reioinders, issues, verdits, iudgements, executions, proces, continuances, essoines, and diuers other matters. Here Kate Mitas, an antiquarian bookseller based in San Francisco, California, guest blogs about the work for our September rare book.

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Title page A collection
Title page to A Collection of Entrees; close-up of the printer’s name

William Rastell’s A collection of entrees, of declarations, barres, replications, reioinders, issues, verdits, iudgements, executions, proces, continuances, essoines, and diuers other matters . . . , printed in 1596 by the newly-widowed Jane Yetsweirt. It is a monumental book in its own right — a groundbreaking work on pleading when it was first published in 1564, this edition is now the standard one used by such scholars of legal history as Sir John Baker — but it is the book’s little-known printer I would like to focus on here. Jane Yetsweirt only operated her printing business from 1595 – 1597 and printed just 13 titles in that time. Still, she has the distinction of being the only woman to hold the letters patent to print common-law books in the Elizabethan era. The patent was a valuable printing privilege that, had she received it 30 years earlier, would have made her fortune. Instead, her brief, fraught career was plagued by contention with the Stationers Company, and in 1597 she simply disappears from the printing records. Was she hounded out of the trade by the Stationers, as some have suggested? Did she die in 1597, as others (including the British Book Trade Index) imply? The answers to these questions are more complicated than they might seem at first glance, and are intricately interwoven with the history of printing patents in the 16th century, the rise of the Stationers Company, and the choices available to an Elizabethan woman printer.

The patent to print common law books was a relatively recent creation in Jane Yetsweirt’s time, particularly its development into a right of monopoly for its holder. Prior to 1553, several law printers competed in the field, including, from the late 15th century on, Richard Pynson; John and William Rastell; Robert Redman and his widow, Elizabeth Pickering, the first woman law printer to print under her maiden name; Thomas Berthelet, who became the king’s printer; William Powell; and Richard Tottell. By mid-century, only Thomas Berthelet, William Powell and Richard Tottell were still in the running. In 1553, however, several key things happened: Berthelet was dismissed as king’s printer, Powell ceased printing law, possibly due to a law suit he was involved in at the time, and Tottell, who now had a de facto monopoly, was granted a seven-year patent to print all common law books, except those which had a specific privilege and with the provision that the books had to be first licensed by a judge or the equivalent thereof. In 1555 a more extensive patent dropped the licensing requirement and granted Tottell sole printing rights over common-law books, making him a monopolist in name as well as in practice, and in 1559 the patent was renewed for life.

Not surprisingly, Tottell’s monopoly made him a rich man. What it didn’t make him, however, was a family man, and on November 18, 1577 — 15 years before Tottell’s death — the reversion expectant on his monopoly when he died was granted for 30 years by letters patent to Nicasius Yetsweirt, a clerk of the signet, secretary for the French tongue to Queen Elizabeth, and Jane’s soon-to-be father-in-law. Jane Elkin and Nicasius Yetsweirt’s son, Charles, would be married on May 13, 1578 at All Hallows, London Wall.

1577 was a significant year for other reasons. That year, a petition entitled “The Griefes of the Printers, glass sellers and Cutlers sustained by reason of privileges granted to private persons” complained that the system of monopolies was beggaring those poor printers who weren’t fortunate enough to have obtained privileges themselves. Moreover, “Richard Tothill” was specifically charged with “the printinge of all kindes of lawe bookes, which was common to all Printers / who [Tottell] selleth the same bookes at excessive prices, to the hinderance of a greate nomber of pore studentes . . .” From that year on, Tottell’s patent was challenged by a number of other printers, including the Queen’s printer, Christopher Barker.

In 1593, Richard Tottell died, having outlived Nicasius Yetsweirt and leaving the reversion of the patent in question. Charles claimed that it had passed to him as his father’s representative, and in this he was eventually successful: in March 1594 he received a new grant of letters patent, giving him the monopoly on common-law books along with two works on statues that had been in dispute, for a period of 30 years. A few days later he notified the Stationers Company, promised to send them a copy of the patent, and set about printing the nine works that would bear his imprint that year.

All was not well, however. The Stationers were unhappy that Charles had been granted the patent and, in 1595, tried unsuccessfully to purchase it from him. As a result, some stationers began printing books which infringed on the patent, forcing Yetsweirt to sue in Chancery to protect his rights. This infringing on patents was no small matter: the presence of pirated editions on the market drove down the value of the patent holder’s books and jeopardized the value of the patent itself. But it was also the only way printers without privileges could challenge the practice — and, let’s be honest, make some much-needed cash. Roger Ward, an early practitioner of this entrepreneurial method of protest, who admitted to printing more than 10,000 pirated ABCs, defended himself by arguing that “a verye small number in respecte of the reste of the Companye of Stacioners Prynters havinge gotten all the best bookes and Coppyes to be printed by themselfes by Priuyledge, wherby they make bookes more De[a]rer than otherwise the[y] would be, and havinge lefte verye littell or nothinge at all for the resydue of the Companye of the Prynters to lyve upon . . . “[1] Livelihoods were at stake on both sides of the issue.

Before entering the printing trade, Charles, like his father, had been the Queen’s secretary for the French tongue and had been in line to become one of the clerks of the signet (it is unclear from my research if he did, in fact, take the position after his father vacated it). In other words, both he and Jane had friends in high places. Consequently, on March 27, 1595, the earl of Essex wrote a pleading letter on Charles’s behalf to Lord Keeper Puckering, noting that “when many contend against one, and great ability of wealth against lesser means, your Lordship, may easily judge how, by cabals, and renewing of controversies from time to time, by prolonging of the suit, and in the meane while intruding on his priviledge, they may put the gentleman to extreme loss and trouble.”[2] The earl’s letter notwithstanding, and, in fact, at the height of the trouble, Charles Yetsweirt died, on April 25, 1595.

And so, enter Jane Yetsweirt. A new widow ten years her husband’s junior, Jane inherited not only Charles’s patent to print common-law books, but his ongoing dispute with the Stationers Company and its rogue printers. It was not an auspicious beginning.

“As the time hath not been long, neither the days many, since it pleased God to cast upon me the burthen of this tedious contention touching the validity of Mr. Yetsweirt’s patent of printing laws,” Jane herself wrote to Lord Keeper Puckering sometime in 1595, presumably not long after Charles’s death, “ . . . so have I not slacked to give it that diligence in following, and care to bring it to an unquestioned end, that might stand with the duty of other offices, which this time of my heavy desolation has cast upon me and becomed my sex and calling. . . .  If in this cause I should not stand in the right, I must say great wise men in the laws of this land have deceived me, and I should be heartily sorry.”[3]

The situation was not so easily resolved. On May 7, the earl of Essex again wrote to the Lord Keeper, this time on Jane’s behalf. The same day, Jane decided to try a higher power, Lord Treasurer Cecil:

“It may please your Lordship to remember what troubles I am left in by the death of     Mr. Yetsweirt with the Stationers about the patent of printing the laws which is mine only stay of maintenance. The thing hath been very chargeable onto us especially by hindrances received through their contentions. I am not apt of so little as eight of nine hundred pounds and a further loss of four or five hundred pounds will fall upon me if their disordered costs of contentions and intrusions hold on. Before the death of Mr. Yetsweirt this matter received hearing by the Lord Keeper [Puckering] and Master of the Rolls [Egerton]. Who did at that time order that the Stationers should forebear finishing the impression there now in hand with which order they have since infringed . . .  My good Lord accept my humble tears in good part and bestow some part of your favor upon me — not because I deserve them but because I need them. Let my contenders know that I have a protector . . . “

Jane was obviously in a very tenuous position financially with regard to the patent, and it is important to note that, despite all of this, she still managed to bring out two books that year, after which the suit appears to have been resolved. In 1596 she issued three new books, including our Rastell, and in 1597 another six or seven (the last bears no date, and could have been published in 1598).

Interestingly, though, Jane was not quite so hard up or so in need of male protection as one might gather from the tone of the above letter. Widows in Elizabethan England had the same legal status as men, and, as the owner of an estate (Sudbury) and widow of some means, she was certainly not facing destitution. Still, widows occupied territory that inherently challenged the social norms of what was expected of women at the time. Some used this position and its freedoms to their advantage; others followed expectations and remarried after a period of mourning.

So, to circle back around to the questions at the beginning: what happened to Jane? Well, it turns out that, despite prevailing against the Stationers, at least for a time, she fell squarely into the second camp of widows. On June 16, 1597, after a two year period of mourning, she married Sir Philip Botoler of Watton Woodhall, Hertfordshire, and retired to the country. The next year, Jane and Philip Botoler formally surrendered their letters patent to print common law books in Chancery, possibly by arrangement with Thomas Wight and Bonham Norton, who were granted the patent the next day, on March 10, 1598, for a period of 30 years.

As for the patent itself, and the contention within the Stationers? Thomas Wight and Bonham Norton didn’t hold it for long. Within a year, Norton surrendered his portion of the partnership in order to became a publisher in his own right. Six years after that, in 1605, Wight sold his privilege to the Stationers Company for a whopping £1,000, and the Stationers, satisfied at last, made it part of their English Stock. As such, its proceeds were divvied up among all of the Company’s shareholders, each according to his, and, by 1660, when women were admitted to the Company, her portion.

Kate Mitas

[1] James Raven, The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007). 70.

[2] Susan M. Allen, “Jane Yetsweirt (1541 – ?): Claiming Her Place”. Printing History, Volume IX, Number 2, 1987. (New York: American Printing History Association, 1987). 7.

[3]  Ibid., 8.