The English Civil War was a fertile ground for experimenting with new forms of propaganda. Civil war presented a peculiar new challenge in that armies now had to win people to their side rather than simply summoning them. Propaganda used fear to ensure that the conflict seemed necessary.
The English Civil War was also the time when a popular press emerged to record and report on the dramatic events to an increasingly literate public, one that was hungry for news.
1. The power of print
The proliferation of the printing press during the political crisis of the 1640’s combined to make the English Civil War one of the first propaganda wars in history. Between 1640 and 1660 more than 30,000 publications were printed in London alone.
Many of these were written in plain English for the first time and were sold on the streets for as little as a penny making them available to the common people – it was political and religious propaganda on a grand scale.
The Parliamentarians had the immediate advantage in that they held London, the country’s major printing centre.
The Royalists were initially reluctant to appeal to the commons because they felt they would not gather much support that way. Eventually a Royalist satirical paper, Mercurius Aulicus, was established. It was published weekly in Oxford and enjoyed some success, though never on the scale of the London papers.
2. Attacks on religion
The first surge in propaganda were the multiple publications upon which the good people of England choked over their breakfast, as they reported in graphic detail the atrocities supposedly committed on Protestants by Irish Catholics during the rebellion of 1641.
The image below of the ‘puritans’ nightmare’ is a typical example of how religion would come to dominate political propaganda. It depicts a 3-headed beast whose body is half-Royalist, half-armed papist. In the background the cities of the kingdom are burning.
3. Personal attacks
Often slander was more effective than general ideological attacks.
Marchamont Nedham would switch sides between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians multiple times, but he did pave the way for personal attacks being used as propaganda. Following King Charles I’s defeat at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, Nedham published letters that he had retrieved from a captured Royalist baggage train, which included the private correspondence between Charles and his wife, Henrietta Maria.
The letters appeared to show the King was a weak man bewitched by his Catholic queen, and were a powerful propaganda tool.
4. Satirical attacks
Popular histories of the English Civil War of 1642-46 make frequent reference to a dog named ‘Boy’, which belonged to King Charles’s nephew Prince Rupert. The authors of these histories confidently state that Boy was believed by the Parliamentarians to be a ‘dog-witch’ in league with the devil.
However, research by Professor Mark Stoyle has revealed that the idea the Parliamentarians were petrified of Boy was an invention of the Royalists: an early example of wartime propaganda.
‘Boy’ was originally a Parliamentarian attempt to hint that Rupert possessed occult powers, but the plan backfired when Royalists took up their enemies’ claims, exaggerated them and,
‘used them to their own advantage in order to portray the Parliamentarians as gullible fools’,
as Professor Stoyle says.