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Abstract

This article engages with recent work on the consequences of the lapse of licensing (1695) that has emphasized that many people embraced the new opportunities offered by the end of pre-publication censorship. It is argued here, instead, that many people opposed the press and lobbied enthusiastically for books and authors to be prosecuted. Far from the lapse of licensing being an important precursor to the emergence of a self-confident and modern nation it initiated a period of political and religious turbulence. Nevertheless, the intention here is not to revise a simplistic view of censorship as a series of discrete moments devoid of ideological importance. Rather, this article contends that the consequences of the lapse of licensing can only be understood by considering the interaction between acts of censorship and theories of the freedom of the press. To this end the article considers the disputes between freethinkers and clerics to establish the answers to a series of vital questions: why and when should authors, books and publishers be prosecuted? Who had responsibility to initiate prosecutions – government, church or public? How much publicity should be given to censorship trials so that they acted as forms of deterrence? This article, then, by considering both the promotion of a free press and the subsequent clerical responses, sheds new light on the vitality of the confrontation between freethinker and cleric in the early eighteenth century.