If you think today’s tabloids sometimes overstep the mark when it comes to personal abuse and dubious news gathering practices then you should try reading a Restoration broadsheet. They pulled no punches when it came to attacking their rivals and their concern for the facts was highly cavalier.
The newspaper business was just beginning when Charles came to the throne in 1660 but by the time he died in 1685 it was already a national obsession. Between 1679 and 1682, for instance, no fewer than forty different titles were published, mainly by one-man bands. The English love of gossip and desire to know what was going on in the corridors of power was insatiable. No wonder John Evelyn, writing to Samuel Pepys on 28 April 1682 referred to ‘This diffusive age, greedy of intelligence and public affairs.’
No one better represented the new breed of newspaper man than Nat Thompson. He was a tough Irish born journalist, except, of course, the word journalist had not yet been invented. If you’d asked him he would have described himself as a printer. His thrice weekly paper was called The Loyal Protestant and True Domestick Intelligence, or News from both the City and the Country. It was not exactly a snappy title, and the use of the word Protestant was something of a smokescreen. Most of his contemporaries considered him to be a closet Catholic. ‘Popish Nat’ was one of his politer nicknames.
In November 1681 Thompson was involved in a very public row over whether or not the Earl of Huntingdon had abandoned the Protestant Whig party and gone over to the Catholic Tories. Thompson claimed that he had. A rival newspaper called the True Protestant Mercury, published by Thompson’s great enemy, Langley Curtis, claimed that the story was ‘insolent and injurious’. The row soon spilled over into that other great growth phenomenon of the period, the coffee house.
Coffee houses were places where newspapers were freely available, broadsheets were pinned to walls, leaflets were left lying around and even the playing cards were loaded with satirical insults directed at the celebrities of the day. The juices of the potent bean became synonymous with intellectual ferment and the brewing up of dissent.
Peter’s Coffee House on Covent Garden was patronised by the leading politicians of the day. The Earl of Pembroke, a violently partisan Whig and supporter of the Protestant Duke of Monmouth to succeed Charles as the next king, as opposed to the Duke of York who was Catholic, put up a poster again denying Nat Thompson’s story about the Earl of Huntingdon defection. A rival Tory supporter, quite possibly Thompson himself, pulled the poster down. Pembroke replaced it with another version and this time added the postscript, ‘The rascal that dares pluck this down I will send his soul to the Devil with a brace of bullets in his head.’ Pembroke was not a man to mess with. The memoirist John Aubrey described his grand house at Wilton as being a place where you could find, ’52 mastiffs, 30 greyhounds, some bears and a lion and 60 fellowes more bestial than they’.
Thompson, however, was not easily deterred. He continued to claim that Huntingdon had defected. Retribution quickly followed. At 11 o’clock on the morning of 17 November Thompson was walking along the Strand towards the Inns of Court, quite possibly after paying another visit to Peter’s Coffee House, when he became aware that he was being followed. He turned off the main highway towards the Inns of Court and was just in the vicinity of Pissing Alley when a man came from behind and struck him 3 blows to the head with a cudgel. One of his attackers cried out, ‘God damn you…I am resolved to be revenged on you, you dog…’ Thompson was lucky to escape with his life.
That evening there was a mass anti-Catholic protest through the streets in which some 20,000 people marched shouting ‘No Popish successor. No York. A Monmouth. A Monmouth. A Monmouth.’ An effigy of the Pope was ceremonially burnt. Another one of Nat Thompson met a similar fate.
None of this cured Thompson of his love for controversy. Within three months of these events he was in deep trouble again, this time for claiming that Thynn had attempted to murder Count Konigsmark just a few months before Konigsmark’s hit men gunned Thynn down in the street. That time Thompson ended up in gaol.