Wat Tyler, Robert Southey’s three-act play inspired by the
British Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was first published 13 February
1817 by Sherwood, Neely and Jones. Composed in 1794, the play
came to public view in 1817 as a result of literary piracy, stolen
and published without Southey's permission.
Southey had written Wat Tyler when he was a 19-year-old
university student and political radical, in need of money to realize
his plans of matrimony. He entrusted the manuscript to his brother-in-law,
Robert Lovell, to sell in London. Lovell gave the manuscript to Samuel
Ridgeway, a radical publisher then serving a term in Newgate prison,
who offered to publish the book without attaching Southey’s name to
What happened after the sale of the manuscript is a matter of speculation.
Likely because of increasing governmental pressure against London
radicals, Ridgeway decided not to publish the manuscript. 1794 had
seen the leaders of the London Corresponding Society tried for treason
for debating Parliamentary reform. Although Thomas Hardy, John Horne
Tooke and John Thelwall were eventually acquitted and released, the
Society was outlawed, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man was
banned, and, by decade’s end, the government had suspended habeas
corpus and instituted sweeping restrictions on freedom of the
press and of assembly.
In the midst of anti-revolutionary sentiment and the twenty years
of war that were to follow, Wat Tyler was never published.
If we are to judge from his 14 February 1817 letter to John Murray,
Southey thought little of the manuscript in Ridgeway's hands (Curry
150), or of the fact that it had never been officially registered
in Stationers' Hall. Wat Tyler thus was officially without
By 1817, the political climate if anything had become more dangerous.
With Napoleon defeated and Great Britain controlling a sizable portion
of the world's land mass and GNP, British citizens again looked at
the questions of reform that over twenty years of world war had put
on hold. The result were a series of protests and a sense of internal
crisis over issues of taxation and workers’ rights. Part of the political
agitation came from a small, influential group of radicals, among
them William Hone and Richard Carlile. In response to their activities,
the Tory ministry undertook many of the same actions they had undertaken
in the mid-1790s, giving the months following the publication of Wat
Tyler a sense of political deja vu. In March 1817, habeas corpus
was again suspended, and the Home Office began the same active program
of domestic spying that had affected Samuel Coleridge, Percy Shelley,
and William Wordsworth during the years of war with France. Over these
same two decades, however, Southey's own situation and opinions had
changed markably. He was now a controversial Poet Laureate who, for
all his own ideological complexities, was perceived as being a Tory
spokesman who advocated the deportation of dissenters and who published
condemnations of radical ideas on Parliamentary reform. This apparent
apostasy made him a target for radical publishers, who managed to
procure the manuscript of Wat Tyler and bring it to press.
While estimates vary, most place the number of copies of Wat Tyler
sold at 60,000, ranging in price from one-half pence to five shillings.
By 1827, twelve publishers had printed seventeen editions. At the
time of Sherwood, Neeley, and Jones's 1817 publication, the play's
value as a literary commodity stemmed from its power to embarrass
Southey and to undermine his authority. Yet over the next ten years
radical publishers continued to publish the text as a way of exposing
what they saw as governmental hypocrisy.
that erupted upon publication of the work lasted several months. It
involved not only printers and booksellers but also the House of Commons,
the British courts, and some of Southey’s most notable literary colleagues.
Southey's anger over the publicationin spite of his attempts
to appear uninterestedis evident in his attempts to suppress
the play's publication and in his private correspondence,
which discusses the subject for some two months.
Radical Piracy and Wat Tyler
Scholars are uncertain about how Southey’s original manuscript of
Wat Tyler came to be published. In his correspondence, Southey
points to his own error in leaving the manuscript with the publisher
Ridgeway in the mid-1790s (Southey 348). Such an account agrees with
that of Sherwood, who claimed that he had received a copy of Wat
Tyler from H.D. Symonds, the bookseller who was imprisoned with
Ridgeway and with whom Sherwood had apprenticed.
Still, other accounts of the manuscript’s transmission exist. During
the 1817 Chancery hearing in which Southey requested the suppression
of the play, the dissenting minister William Winterbottom of Plymouth
swore that Southey had given the manuscript to him to publish after
rejection by Ridgeway. Southey denied in his correspondence ever having
given Winterbottom the play (Southey 351), and some accounts suggest
that Winterbottom may have stolen it while in prison with Ridgeway.
Under such a scenario, Winterbottom would have retained possession
of the manuscript for years, bringing it to light only at a time he
deemed politically advantageous.
- There also exists an account, related by Southey’s son Cuthbert, of
the manuscript being purloined by friends of Winterbottom’s. These men
supposedly borrowed the manuscript from Winterbottom to read when they
were all rooming at the same house in Worcester, and hand-copied it
with the purpose of smuggling it out of Winterbottom’s possession (Southey
351). Cuthbert Southey, however, questions the validity of this account.
English Copyright Law at the time
of Wat Tyler’s Publication
- In England before the second decade of the 19th century, there was
no legal guarantee that an author would be able to control or benefit
from his or her own work. During the 17th century, literary property
and liability was regulated through the mechanism of the Licensing Act
of 1662, which, as Mark Rose notes, "made it illegal to publish anything
without first securing a license...[and] confirmed the Stationers' Company's
near monopoly on the British book trade and its powers of search and
seizure for illegal presses and books" (Rose, Authors and Owners,
31). The usual way of obtaining what is now called copyright for a work,
then, was simply to enter the title of the work in the records at Stationers'
Hall, pay the requisite fee, and then print it. Whoever did these things
would then have permanent rights to the work in question. While printers
and booksellers often bought from writers the rights to a given work,
they also engaged in a kind of "legalized piracy," in which they registered
works and thus falsely claimed that they owned them.
- When the Licensing Act was allowed to expire on 3 May 1695, however,
agitation began to grow for a more author-centered idea of copyright.
Fresh from the pillory and prison for writing The Shortest Way with
the Dissenters, Daniel Defoe published An Essay on the Regulation
of the Press (1704), which argued against reinstituting the old
system of licensing. Allowing the licentiousness of the press to be
a problem requiring some form of regulation, Defoe argued for requiring
the author's name to be printed on the title page of all publications
along with those of the printer and bookseller. This seemingly obvious
step was intended to prevent booksellers and printers from pirating
each other's registered works. Authors, however, still possessed no
inherent right of ownership over their works.
- For the next several years Defoe, with Joseph Addison and others,
agitated for an act of copyright. The resulting lawthe Statute
of Annebecame law on 10 April 1710. The Act of 1710 restricted
the concept of rights to published works by establishing strictly limited
periods of copyright. Existing copyrights were automatically renewed
for 21 years from the date of the Act's enactment; new copyrights were
set at 14 years with optional renewal for a second 14-year period if
the original copyright holder were still alive. During the eighteenth
century similar acts were passed in Denmark (1741), the United States
(1790), and France (1793). While printers and booksellers liked the
Statute of Anne because it firmly established their rights in law and
gave them an instrument with which to pursue pirates, they were circumspect
about its benefits because of time limit it placed on these rights (Saunders,
Authorship and Copyright, 53ff).
- To circumvent this second difficulty, booksellers began arguing for
the concept of an author's perpetual copyright, which could then be
transferred to a bookseller through the sale of a work. A series of
Chancery verdicts in the 1730s, affirming the property rights of booksellers
even for works whose copyright had expired under the 1710 Statute of
Anne, suggested that booksellers would be successful in securing perpetual
copyright. As Mark Rose argues in Authors and Owners, "authors"
and their rights in many ways were the accidental but necessary creations
of this legal process, since booksellers felt themselves on surer footing
arguing for authorial rights than for their own. In 1774, however, the
landmark case Donaldson v. Becket reversed this process. The
House of Lords ruled that copyright was not perpetual and in fact was
subject to the 1710 Statute of Anne. The case also permanently changed
bookselling practices in Britain, producing an explosion of cheap reprints
of favorite authors in the form of ambitious anthologies and comprehensive
collections. Thus, we find, among other publications, John Bell's Shakspeare
(11 vols., 1774), Bell's British Theatre (20 vols., 1774-6),
Bell's Poets of Great Britain from Chaucer to Churchill (109
vols., 1777-82), and its rival Works of the English Poets (60
vols., 1779), with introductory essays by Samuel Johnson, published
by a group of thirty-six London booksellers.
- After Donaldson v. Beckett, authors and booksellers redirected
their energies to increasing the term of copyright, which under the
Statute of Anne stood at 28 years. The Copyright Act of 1814, for example,
succeeded in establishing the author's lifetime (or 28 years, whichever
was longer) as the period of time for which copyright protection was
available. While in some measure a victory for the authors and booksellers,
it was hardly perpetual copyright, and left authors like "Southey, Wordsworth,
Coleridge, and Scott still lamenting the loss of their 'perpetual' right"
(Saunders, Authorship and Copyright, 69). In 1837, Thomas Noon
Talfourd, a friend of Wordsworth's and an MP, led a further charge to
revise copyright, proposing the author's lifetime plus 60 years. It
met with heavy opposition, and Wordsworth, Southey, Hartley Coleridge,
and Thomas Carlyle submitted petitions in 1839. The resulting Copyright
Act of 1842 revised the term of copyright to 42 years or 7 years beyond
the author's lifetime, whichever was longer.
- Within this shifting legal environment, pirated texts like Wat
Tyler presented additional problems. Foremost was the question of
whether a radical play of "seditious" nature should be protected by
copyright. On one hand, the existing Tory government did not wish Southey
to profit from the political errors of his youth; at the same time,
it hardly wished radical publishers to mock the Laureate and profit
from his youthful indiscretions. This paradoxical situation was to be
addressed in the courts of Chancery by Lord Eldon to the confusion and
dismay of Robert Southey and the delight of his radical opposition.
Injunctions, Lord Eldon, and the Strange Case
of Southey v. Sherwood
Few things would more puzzle a literary foreigner, who should
now, for the first time, visit London, than the disproportionate prices
at which he would find different works of the same living author circulated.
If he wished to enrich his library with Mr. Southey's poems, he would
be told that some of them were out of print, and that in the purchase
of others he must pay for typographical luxury and valuable copyright.
One of them alone would be obtruded on him in unlimited abundance and
at a price scarcely more than nominal.... If he asked for an explanation
for all this, we doubt whether his original surprise would be diminished
by the answer. He would be told that Wat Tyler and Cain
and Lawrence's Lectures were allowed to be circulated without
restriction because it was supposed that their intentions might be injurious
to societythat Wat Tyler was supposed to be an attempt
to support the worst passions by the worst reasoning and to inflame
the idle and the abandoned into an attack on the property and the laws
of the kingdom. ("Art VI" 23)
- Published in the 1822 Quarterly Review, these arguments were
part of a much longer essay attacking the strange judicial history of
Chancery Court Injunctions. Its author (possibly Nassau Senior or Southey
himself) purports to trace the history of injunctions back to the 18th
century, when the Court of Chancery took over issues of literary propriety
from the common law courts. In cases of literary propriety, authors
were able to bring their complaints to Chancery and have an "injunction"
issued against piracy of their work. Designed to halt injurious acts
in progress or in immeditate contemplation, such injunctions required
piracy to cease until the court could decree on the given work's status
as "property." Ideally, injunctions functioned as stopgap measures until
the court could arrive at a permanent solution to the dispute. As the
Quarterly's writer comments, however, "they were almost inevitably
permanent since the average defendant could not afford to appeal them"
(Zall 437). Thus, the Court of Chancery and interim injunctions functioned
as an author's only real defense from literary piracy during the last
quarter of the 18th century.
- When the case of Southey v. Sherwood was brought before the
Lord Chief Justice Eldon in 1817, Southey, being more or less unaware
of the intricacies of the case history of injunctions, applied to the
Court of Chancery to prevent further piracy of Wat Tyler following
its initial publication earlier that year. Southey was dumbfounded,
then, when Lord Eldon refused his request:
Here Eldon bases his decision on the case involving Dr. Joseph Priestly
in 1791. Priestley had attempted to gain damages from manuscripts destroyed
by a mob in Birmingham. In this case, the defense argued that Priestley
"was in the habit of publishing works injurious to the government of the
state" ("Article VI" 125). In light of this testimony, Justice Eyre had
determined that any work found to be seditious or injurious to society
could not be considered "property." And because injunctions were matters
of establishing propriety, Eyre had ruled that one could not be granted
in this case.
I have examined the cases that I have been able to meet
with containing precedents for injunctions of this nature, and I find
that they all proceed from the ground of a title to property in thee
plaintiff. On this head a distinction has been taken, to which
a considerable weight of authorty attaches, supported, as it is, by
the opinion of Lord Chief Justice Eyre, who has expressly laid it
down that a person cannot recover in damages for a work which is,
in its nature, calculated to do injury to the public. Upon the
same principle this court refused an injunction in the case of Walcot
vs. Walker, inasmuch as he could not recover damages in the action.
After the fullest consideration, I remain of the same opinion as that
which I entertained in deciding the the case referred to. (qtd. in
"Article VI" 127)
- Eldon, who had come to be Lord Chief Justice of Chancery in 1801,
had earlier upheld this precedent in the case of Walcot v. Walker. John
Walcot was a satirist whose reputation as a radical made him unable
to protect his work from other publishers. In this case, Eldon summarily
refused to grant an injunction on the basis of Eyre's precedent regarding
- The controversy surrounding Wat Tyler's status as a radical,
and therefore pernicious, text might have warned Southey or his friends
of the danger of applying to the court of Chancery for an injunction.
Southey seems to have assumed that the only real question was whether
he had signed away his right to the play, and he was certain he had
not. However, for Lord Eldon, the real issue was the play's potential
to be injurious to British government.
- While the decision against Walcot had been clearly intended to punish
him for his views by depriving him of his property, Eldon's ruling on
Wat Tyler was directed at a man who supposedly shared his views.
The outcome of Southey v. Sherwood, moreover, produced multiple
ironies. Aside from undermining a writer of national prominence holding
government office, it allowed the radical press to continue to pirate
Southey's play. Byron's Cain and Shelley's Queen Mab
would receive similar treatment in subsequent years. What had seemed
a reasonable protection from radical publications had become a public
embarrassment. Assuming that the deprivation of literary property rights
would prevent publication, the court found much to its dismay that the
opposite held true.