The Worshipful Company of Stationers: the original gatekeepers of publishing

The Hall of the Stationers' Company

As an author, I’m naturally drawn to any information about the publishing industry. Today, publishing seems to have been in a state of flux. The number of publishing houses has continued to decrease, leaving (now) four major publishers. This has caused people to worry about decreased competition and higher barriers for authors to getting a publishing contract. One fear is that our available reading will be down to only select voices and fewer publishers will be willing to take a risk on creativity. On the other hand, indie publishing has never been so strong and may offer a needed counterbalance to the major publishers, offering a more varied feast for readers.

I’m currently working on my fourth novel, which features a character who prints seditious pamphlets. It was with a great deal of interest that I plunged into the history of publishing in England. The 17th century is an evolutionary time for print and publishing. Civil wars, regime changes and social upheaval all combined to weaponize the printed word. There were high pressures to control who could print, what they could print, and persecute those who broke publishing laws.

To delve into publishing during the tumultuous 17th century, our story begins with the Worshipful Company of Stationers, the original gatekeepers.

In the year 1557, the Stationers’ Guild, made up of printers, book sellers, book binders and letter founders, were granted a royal charter to incorporate and form a company, the Worshipful Company of Stationers. Prior to this, they had been an association of trades, bound together by community and religion, and this association went back to the 15th century. The advantage to obtaining a charter was simply more collective power – their ability to control the qualification of their members and maintain the quality of the craft allowed the enrichment of their members. Maintaining the quality of the craft included upholding censorship laws and policing heretical tracts for the government of the day.

The Stationers’ Company were (and still are) one of the livery companies of skilled trades in London, with their headquarters established first at Peter’s College before being relocated to Abergavenny House at Ludgate Hill in 1606. By mid-17th century, the Hall was sadly out of repair, and the Company used the profits from sales of The Book of Martyrs in 1655 to pay for extensive repairs. Unfortunately, the refreshed guildhall was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, and a new hall was built on its original site in 1673. It is said that the Company of Stationers experienced one of the biggest losses during the Great Fire, with estimates ranging from £40,000 in losses (property and books) to upwards of £200,000 (Handbook to London 1870, John Murray).

At the time that the Stationers’ Company incorporated, the printers formed the majority of the Company with book sellers being a decided minority. As the century progressed, there was a shift towards the booksellers in numbers and influence. Every book that a Master printer was allowed to print had to be entered in the Company’s register, and every registration was subject to a fee. This registration established who had the right to copy the material (copyright). Unlike today, where the copyright is held by the creator of the material, back then, then it was held by the individual recorded in the register, which was usually the publisher.


There were three ways to have become a freeman of the company (a member with all the rights and freedoms of the guild). The first way came through patrimony, where a parent was a liveryman; the second was through completing a lengthy apprenticeship and achieving journeyman status; and the last was by paying a membership fee. The first two methods were specific for the skilled trades (like printing and letter founding), while the last one would have applicable for the booksellers.

Within the Stationers’ Company, there were two types of memberships: freemen and liverymen, the latter being elected from the ranks of the freemen. Liverymen were known as such for the special livery gowns they were allowed to wear during their initiation and on special occasions.

The Company itself was governed by a master (chairman), two keepers and a court of assistants, all elected from the ranks of the liverymen. Two additional positions were renter wardens, whose task it was to collect quarterages from the membership and host a feast (on their dime) for the livery on Lord Mayor’s Day, for it was the liveried companies who were able to elect the Lord Mayor. No doubt, it was an expensive honour, and one that held severe consequences should they fail in their duty, even as far as imprisonment (Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers 1544-1640). That was one dinner no one wanted to miss.

Under the Stationers’ Company bylaws, widows had the right to carry on their late husband’s business, even after they remarried. Other guilds were not so forward thinking and restricted a woman’s enterprise only while she remained a widow. In the event that there were no heirs to the Master’s business, vacancies were filled by the Company who nominated a candidate to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London who would approve the nomination.

Star Chamber decrees – regulations

The state closely monitored the business of printing, including what was allowed to be printed to ensure no heretical texts were being produced, and who was granted permission to print. On July 11, 1637, a landmark decree by the Star Chamber restricted the number of Master printers in London to just twenty, not including the King’s printers or the university presses (The Company of Printers, by Cyprian Blagden).

In 1641, King Charles I was pressured into abolishing the Star Chamber, and one of the by-products of that was the abolishment of the 1637 decree. According to Blagden, from 1641 to 1649, during the English Civil War (1642-1649), the number of printing houses increased to thirty-six and by the Restoration in 1660, this number had increased to fifty-nine.

This was an exciting yet tumultuous period for printing. Newspapers were springing up to report the news of the civil war and radicals like the Levellers were using the press as a weapon and spreading their vision of the new order to a populace hungry for change. Following the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the ruling elites of the fledgling Commonwealth viewed this unrestrained publication with irritation as they now found themselves stung by the very weapons once directed at the late king. Attempts were made to crack down on illegal presses that cranked out radical pamphlets, with Parliament turning to the Stationers’ Company to root out the offenders. They were hardly successful at stemming the flow, and pamphlets continued to flood the marketplace.

After the Restoration of King Charles II, a new decree was passed in 1662, once again restricting the number of printers to twenty. In addition, this decree withdrew the right of the Stationers’ Company from nominating candidates for printing vacancies; this now fell solely on the shoulders of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, thereby strengthening their power for regulating print.

After nearly a decade of unrestricted operations, the new restrictions of 1662 did not sit well with all the printers, probably more with those who were not granted permission to continue operations. Some booksellers had gotten into the business of printing and certainly benefited from the sale of illegal books and copyright infringement. Unregulated printing houses were employing foreign workers and taking on more apprentices than they were allowed, thereby profiting from apprenticeship fees and free labour instead of employing journeymen who were Free of the Stationers’ Company and paying them their wages (Blagden).

During this time, the printers petitioned to break from the Stationers’ Company to establish their own company, claiming the Company (which by this point was mostly drawn up of booksellers) no longer served their interests. They promised to more strictly monitor illegal publications, arguing that they were better positioned to do so. Despite the grumbling and assurances, the petition went no further and the movement eventually fizzled out by the early 18th century. Today, the Stationers’ Company continues strong and has been expanded to include the Newspaper Makers. They now serve their members with networking and education opportunities, while maintaining and celebrating their traditions.

Today, publishing is not the regulated industry that it has been in the past, although unfortunately book banning persists. While controversial printing in the Western world doesn’t come with the risk of imprisonment as it did in the 17th century, extremists have been known to take matters in their own hands against creators, such as the recent attack on Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses.

Traditional publishers had once been considered the gatekeepers to publication, determining the words that are consumed by the public, not unlike the role that the Worshipful Company of Stationers once held. But with the rise in Indie or self-publishing, this has changed. There has been an explosion of Indie publications, from small presses and independent or hybrid authors, not unlike what was happening during the years of the civil war and Interregnum.

I expect that the publishing industry will continue to evolve, no matter how many traditional publishing companies there are. It remains true today as it did in years gone by, that people who have something to say will go to great lengths to capture their words in print.

Recommended Reading:


  • Image of Stationers’ Hall found in London, by Charles Knight 1791-1873

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  1. Interesting comparison between today and yesterday, Cryssa. And you’re right. Writers will go to great lengths to avoid the censor. The Far East seems to provide the indy printing today, while it was the Dutch in the 17th century. I’m really looking forward to your next book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! You’re right about the Dutch printing presses. Many radical texts flowed into England from the Netherlands

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And out — the guys you are writing about set the French Revolution in motion. We have them to thank for so much. Here’s to the Levellers! A good Thanksgiving toast.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was interested to read this in the context of William Prynne and his printing of ‘Histriomastix’ for which he was imprisoned in the Tower in 1634, continuing his sentence here at Mont Orgueil in Jersey before returning to England to continue his high profile life. Nicely researched and written.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Prynne also served as the Stationers’ Company solicitor at one time. I’m not sure of the dates but it was likely during the early part of the civil war.

      Liked by 1 person

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