A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses

Publication Year: 
2004

At the gate of the Royal Exchange of Wednesday, 29 December 1675, passers-by would have noticed a flurry of activity. Messengers of the King's printers were fixing a Royal Proclamation to the pillars, its importance proclaimed by its ominous black letter typeface and royal coat of arms. Intrigued onlookers read, under the signature 'Charles R.', 'A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses'.1 'The Multitude of Coffee-houses of late years set up within this Kingdom', it declared, were the 'the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons' and as such have 'produced very evil and dangerous effects'. In such places, the proclamation rumbled, tradesmen wasted valuable time when they should be employed about their 'Lawful Calling and Affairs'. More seriously, at their coffee-house meetings, 'divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of his Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm'. As a result, the King declaimed, it was thought 'fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) Put Down and Suppressed'. All coffee-house keepers were commanded o desist from retailing their 'coffee, chocolate, sherbet and tea' from 10 January 1676, only twelve days away. To the coffee-house keepers this was an unmitigated disaster, the ruination of their business. To the people of London too this was a calamity: a challenge to their liberty of assembly and free speech.

The proclamation was published in full in The London Gazette the next day, crammed into the last column of the back page, above an advertisement for two nags missing out of a stable in Birmingham.2 On that morning Robert Hooke wandered down to Garraway's Coffee-House in Exchange Alley from his home in Gresham College, as he did every day. Ensconced in the Green Room at Garraway's, Hooke discussed the news of the proclamation with his fellow scientist Abraham Hill, Treasurer of the Royal Society. Having dined at home (where he cut the top off his thumb while working on his experimental flying engines), he returned to Garraway's in the evening, where he met Mr Newbold of the Old bailey, before going on to Jonathan's Coffee-House next door. There, drinking hot ale with Mr Wild, he stayed until midnight, discussing 'my contrivance of flying' and getting into an argument with “A company of 3 strangers' about the proclamation against coffee-houses.3 Hooke made nothing of the irony of discussing the proclamation shutting the coffee-houses in a coffee-house.

Ever since the Restoration of the King in 1660 the coffee-houses had been accused of encouraging political dissent and rebellious attitudes. For most of Charles II's reign royal circles had entertained ideas of suppressing them. Clarendon had proposed a clampdown in 1666 but the action came to nothing. The only regulation of the coffee-houses was that of the Excise legislation. The Excise Act of 1660, modelled on the system established by Parliament during the Interregnum, had first extended the Excise to coffee.4 The Excise was a tax on articles of English manufacture or consumption, such as beer, cider and other liquors. Unlike duty, it was not levied by the customs on importation but at the point of manufacture, where production was measured by the Excise officers, known as the gaugers. The Excise on coffee as set at 4 pence per gallon in 1660, while tea and chocolate was levied at 8 pence per gallon; increased to 6 pence and 16 pence respectively in 1670.5 While such a system worked reasonably well with brewers, in the case of coffee the nature of the drink's preparation made the Excise easy to evade. To remedy this the Additional Excise Act, passed in 1663, required the coffee-house keepers to pay a bond of security for the Excise due upon their trade to the Office of Excise, who issued them with a certificate. With this certificate the coffee-house keeper applied for a licence from the magistrates, without which no 'persons shall be permitted to sell or retail any Coffee, Chocolate, Sherbet or Tea'.6The Excise certificate cost only 12 pence, but the fine for each month of trading without licence was £ 5.

This rudimentary form of regulation did not address the role of the coffee-house in the circulation of illicit news, rumour and sedition, which by the early 1670s was felt to be acute. An anonymous court satirist wrote in 1674 that coffee was

Bak'd in a pan, Brew'd in a pot,
The third device of him who first begot
The Printing Libels, and the Powder-plot.7


In January 1672, the Under-Secretary of State, Sir Joseph Williamson, noted that 'the great inconveniences arising from the great number of of persons that resort to coffee-houses' had led the King to ask the judiciary for their written opinion 'how far he may lawfully proceed against them'.8 The judges identified no easy solution and instead a royal proclamation was issued on 12 June 1672, designed, as its title indicated, to 'Restrain the Spreading of False news, and Licentious Talking of Matters of State and, Government'. It warned that 'Spreaders of false news, or promoters of any Malicious Slanders and Calumnies in their ordinary and common Discourses', should 'presume not henceforth by Writing or Speaking, to utter or Publish any False news or Reports, or to intermeddle with the Affairs of State and Government'. These 'bold and Licentious Discourses' had grown to the extent that

men have assumed to themselves a liberty, not only in Coffee-houses, but in other Places and Meetings, both publick and private, to censure and defame the proceedings of State, by speaking evil of things they understand not, and endeavouring to create and nourish an universal Jealousie and Dissatisfaction in the minds of all his Majesties good subjects.9


Identifying coffee-houses as the pre-eminent location of 'speaking evil' of the government, the proclamation urged those that heard such discourses to report them to Privy Councillors or Justices of the Peace within twenty-four hours. It did little good, for on 2 May 1674 a further proclamation was published, also titled “A Proclamation to Restrain the Spreading of False news, and Licentious Talking of matters of State and Government'. It promised to punish all 'Spreaders of false news, or promoters of any Malicious Calumnies against the State' by considering them to be 'Seditiously inclined'.10 Everywhere the coffee-houses seemed immune to these measures. The King's equerry wrote in October 1673 that London was beseiged by '1000 coffee-houss reports and libells sans number', each encouraging 'our Great Ministers' to be jealous of one another.11 An anonymous tract written in 1673 inveighed against the coffee-houses, which 'allowed people to meet in them' and 'sit half a day, and discourse with all Companies that come in, of State-matters, talking of news, and broaching of lyes, arraigning the judgements and discretions of their Governors, censuring all their Councels, and insinuating into the people a prejudice against them'. The coffee-house debates, the writer warned, 'if suffered too long', would prove 'pernicious and destructive'.12 In government circles coffee-houses had become a sort of shorthand for the malicious talk and rumour of 'the town'.

Paradoxically, the coffee-house also held an important part in the government's news-gathering machinery. The office of the Secretary of State had well-established networks of correspondents who functioned as domestic spies, reporting on the state of popular opinion. One of Secretary Williamson's correspondents was the victualler Richard Bower of Yarmouth in Norfolk. This town was not only an important trading port and fishing town, but was renowned for its concentration of Nonconformist Protestants. Soon after the restoration, Bower had been employed as an intelligencer for the Secretary of State, sending frequent letters to Williamson describing the political condition in the town. At some time around 1667 Bower had established his wife in a coffee-house, 'for the better gaining of intelligence'.13 By listening over the tables he gained confidential knowledge of town politics, reported on shipping movements to Holland, and collected what gossip he could from strangers and travellers in the town.

Through the coffee-houses the government gained a unique insight into the political feelings of dissenters. Government spies were endlessly attentive to what they heard there. After an indecisive naval battle in June 1673, for example, the Letter Office clerk Henry Ball reported that 'rougish seamen' on the ships had been writing letters which had appeared 'in some coffee-houses, and does much prejudice in disheartening the people'. The letter Office also made notes on rumours circulating in coffee-houses, even those known to be false. Ball complained to Williamson in September 1673 that popular feeling was running so much against the King's pro-French policy that 'I dare note write halfe what is spoken in publique in every coffee-house'. Another correspondent, Sir Thomas Player (Chamberlain of the Paper Office), wrote to Williamson in November 1673 that 'the common people talke anything, for every carman and porter is now a statesman; and indeed the coffee-houses are good for nothing else'. Coffee-houses were commonly held responsible for the unprecedented heat of public debate. 'It was no thus when wee drank nothing but sack and claret, or English beere and ale. These sober clubbs produce nothing but scandalous and censorious discourses, and at these nobody is spared.'14

The King was propelled to issue the proclamation in 1675 in response to the increasingly fractious nature of political debate, but also because he felt reasonably confident that it might succeed, one of several measures of that year aimed at controlling he state in a more autocratic fashion. Through the 1670s the King's opponents, though not a political party in any modern sense, acquired some of the trappings of a self-conscious identity. The followers of the great opposition noblemen, Buckingham and Shaftesbury, were increasingly identified as the Country Party, patriotic defenders of the country. Their enemies nicknamed them the Whigs, a term they in turn enthusiastically adopted.15 The difference between the factions was represented in their different ways of life. Th court party, centred on the pleasure-loving circles of the King, was naturally associated with Whitehall and St. James's, where they made habitual use of the royal palaces, state offices and gardens of Westminster. The opposition party had no particular home of its own, but in the wider city a number of places became associated with their assemblies. The geography of opposition was distributed across the urban landscape in booksellers' shops, taverns, the Exchange and private homes, but the place that became synonymous with their assemblies was the coffee-house.

In Parliament, 1675 turned out to be an awkward year. Opposition analysts detected in government policy a concerted effort to peel back the liberties of Parliament and the people. Piecing together the machinations of the ministry, the poet turned polemicist Andrew Marvell remarked with characteristic with that 'he is an ill Woodman that knows not the size of the Beast by the proportion of his Excrement'.16 In particular, Marvell identified a series of measures undertaken by the ministry of the Lord Treasurer, Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby. The first of these was the new Test Act, which required all holders of political office swear not to take arms against the King, nor to 'endeavour the alteration of the government, either in Church or State'.17 Introduced into the House of Lords the act, if it had passed, would have established a doctrine of passive obedience which, Marvell argued, amounted to absolute monarchy. But in the face of a recalcitrant Parliament, in October and November 1675, unwilling to vote supply for the King, Charles unexpectedly prorogued Parliament until 15 February 1677, so that it would not sit again for fifteen months. (Unbeknownst even to Danby, Charles had secretly secured a subsidy for his own expenses from the French and had no need of Parliament.) The Test Act and the long prorogation set the scene for the proclamation against coffee-houses: all were evidence of the King's subversion of parliamentary government.

The newsletter writers of Sir Joseph Williamson's Paper office observed on 30 December 1675 that 'great complaints […] were made day by day to his Majesty of the license that was taken in coffee-houses to utter most indecent, scandalous, and seditious discourses'. These protests, the clerk notes, 'at last produced this proclamation for the suppressing of them'.18 Without Parliament sitting, of course, the only method the King had at his disposal was a proclamation. In constitutional terms, proclamations were issued on the authority of the executive as an expression of the King's prerogative. As an exercise of executive, rather than legislative, power, however, a proclamation was only capable of reinforcing existing legislation: there was no institution which could punish its breach. As a result, proclamations tended to be exhortations or warnings to obey pre-existing laws, such as those that encouraged law officers to fulfil their duty by, for example, prosecuting Sabbath breakers. Certain aspects of commercial legislation were regulated through proclamations: the price of some commodities, such as coal and wine, rates of conveyance and the post office. Both the circulation of news and the productions of the press were controlled and regulated through proclamations, through the Stationers Company and the Office of the Licensor-but these offices were backed up by legislation. However, in the case of coffee-houses, it was unclear whether legislation backed up by the proclamation and, as such, the proclamation seemed to rest solely on the King's authority. The suppression of the coffee-houses went to the heart of the constitutional debate of the seventeenth century, probing the powers the king had to act in government outside his Parliament.

1 A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses' (London: John Bill and Christopher Barker, 1675), dated 29 December 1675.

2 The London Gazette, No 1055, Monday, 27 December 1675.

3 Robert Hooke, The Diary of Robert Hooke, 1672-1800, Henry W. Robinson and Walter Adams (eds), (London: Taylor & Francis, 1935), P. 205.

4 12 Car. II (1660), A Grant of Certain Impositions upon Beer, Ale and other Liquors, For th Encrease of His Majesties Revenue during his Life.

5 22 & 23 Car. II (1670), An Act for an Additional Excise upon Beer, Ale and other Liquors.

6 15 Car. II (1663), An Additional Act for the better Ordering and Collecting the Duty of Excuse, and Preventing the Abuses Therein.

7 A Satyr Against Coffee ([London], n.p., [1674?]).

8 Williamson Newsletter, 19 January 1672, HMC, The manuscripts of S. H. Le Fleming, Esq., of Rydall Hall (London: HMSO, 1890), p. 88.

9 'A Proclamation to Restrain the Spreading of False News, and Licentious Talking of Matters of State and Government' (London: John Bill and Christopher Barker, 1672).

10 'A Proclamation to Restrain the Spreading of False News, and Licentious Talking of Matters of State and Government' (London: John Bill and Christopher Barker, 1674).

11 Letters to Sir Joseph Williamson, ed. W.D. Christie, 2 vols (Camden Society, new ser. VIII and IX, 1874), II, p. 24.

12 A Lover of his Country, The Grand Concern of England Explained (London: n.p., 1673), P. 24.

13 CSPD 1676-1677, 13 October 1676, PP. 366-7.

14 Letters to Sir Joseph Williamson, I, pp. 38, 73, 138, 112, 194; II P. 68.

15 See J.R. Jones, 'Parties and Parliament' in J.R. Jones (ed.), The Restored Monarchy, 1660-1668 (London: Macmillan, 1979), pp. 48-70.

16 Andrew Marvell, An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England (Amsterdam [London]: n.p., 1677), p. 54.

17 David Wootton (ed.), John Locke: Political Writing (London: Penguin, 1993), P.45.

18 Newsletter to Sir Daniel Fleming, No. 1693, 4 January, HMC Fleming, p. 123.

pp. 86-91 The Coffee-House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis (2004)

Image retrieved from The American Phytopathological Society on October 21, 2014.

royal proclamation, Charles II
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Bravo!