John Rastell: Renaissance Man and Bookseller

Margaret Willes

St. Paul's Churchyard was hotbed of activity, and one 16th century gentleman achieved much.
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John Rastell: Renaissance Man and Bookseller

Around the year 1500 Wynkyn de Worde moved his printing press from the precinct of Westminster Abbey to premises in Fleet Street. De Worde was the Dutch assistant of William Caxton, who had introduced printing to England, and he had inherited his business. This move was a significant one, for de Worde was able to link up with the craftsmen, known as stationers, who worked just to the north of St Paul’s Cathedral. As a result St Paul’s Churchyard and the streets around became the centre of the English book world, and remained so for centuries.

John Rocque’s Map of London, 1746

The first recorded publisher’s device issued from the Churchyard belonged to a truly remarkable man. John Rastell worked from various premises, moving at Michaelmas 1519 to a shop by the gate into Cheapside. He chose as his shop sign a mermaid, pairing it with a merman in one of his printing devices.

Rastell was one of the first generation of native English printers. Probably born in Coventry in 1475, he moved down to London to study at the Middle Temple in 1502. Soon afterwards he married Elizabeth, the sister of Thomas More.  Printing was just one of his activities: he was also an educationalist, translator, merchant adventurer, lawyer, and member of Parliament. In 1520  he designed some of the backdrops for the great pageant of the Field of the Cloth of Gold when Henry VIII entertained the French King, François I. For Henry’s meeting with the Emperor Charles V two years later, he wrote and choreographed a pageant in London. In 1524 he leased land at Finsbury Fields where he built a house and the earliest known permanent stage where he held public performances.

Rastell’s printing career began with Thomas More’s translation from the Italian of the life of Gianfrancesco Pico and he went on to produce a wide range of books. One was a moral play that he wrote himself, The Nature of the Four Elements, published in 1519 or 20. This included a three-part song with a printed musical score, the first to be produced in Europe, with type specially cut for him and brought to London. This was not the only pioneering element of the play: he was the first to define America as the New World, perhaps inspired by his brother in law’s Utopia, published three years earlier.

This was an exciting time for humanists like Rastell and More to explore new ideas. It was, however, also a dangerous time of religious ferment. Rastell became sympathetic to the ideas of the reformist group known as the Lollards, and advocated the idea of producing the scriptures in English. Thomas More, on the other hand, was a firm Romanist, even resorting to torture of those suspected of reformist beliefs and owning heretical texts. Family gatherings must have become increasingly tense.

By grim coincidence both men ended up in the Tower of London. Thomas More was executed on Tower Hill in 1535 as a result of his refusal to achknowledge Henry VIII’s Royal Supremacy and the break with Rome. Imprisoned for his denial of clerical rights to tithe, John Rastell died in the Tower the following year.

Margaret Willes is the author of In the Shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral: The Churchyard that Shaped London, published by Yale University Press.