A Brief Biographical Sketch of William Stansby

Note: Citations from primary materials come from the Pollard and Redgrave A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475-1640, 2nd Edition, Edward Arber's A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, and W. W. Greg's Companion to Arber. These volumes contain transcriptions of autograph documents containing contemporary hands and employing a variety of shorthand techniques. In those cases where the limited set of HTML-supported characters prevents an accurate reproduction of the text, I have expanded the word or portion of word contaning the shorthand device for clarity. Square brackets enclose these passages.

William Stansby

Like so many of those who make up the historical fabric of early modern London, William Stansby began life elsewhere. He was most likely the third of fourteen children fathered by Richard Stansby, master cutler of St. Mary Major parish, Exeter. The parish registers record the baptism of William on 8 July 1572 (Bracken, Stansby 1-2).

Eighteen and one-half years later, the Stationer's Register lists the binding of Stansby to master John Windet, also originally from Exeter (note). Just six years after taking in Stansby, Windet gave him his freedom and the young apprentice became a journeyman (note).

Government and trade regulations, and difficulty an apprentice would have raising the necessary capital, made it unlikely that newly-minted journeymen would set up their own establishment or buy an existing one. William Stansby's experience seems typical, for he remained with Windet, working at the shop at the sign of the Cross Keys until the master's death fourteen years later. Perhaps to mark his freedom, Stansby registered one title with the Stationer's Company three months after receiving his freedom, a work entitled The Policy of the Turkish Empire. This anonymous quarto (STC 24335) bore the imprint "J. Windet for W. S[tansby]," indicating that Stansby began his printing career by working with his master in a rudimentary partnership.

The STC attributes no further works to Stansby until 1609, although its printer and publisher index entry for him notes "Stansby may have printed some of the items indexed under Windet" (STC 3:160). By 1610, a marked increase in books attributed to Stansby correlates with a significant drop in those by Windet, evidence that the two men had begun the process of turning control of the shop over to the younger Stansby. As a sign of his ascendancy, in June of 1610 Stansby bound an apprentice, a right reserved to masters (McKenzie, "Apprentices" 133).

In the last weeks of 1610 John Windet died, and Stansby became sole master of the printing shop at Cross Keys. Windet's will, probated on 8 January 1611, gives one-half of the shop's assets to Stansby "by wait of Copartnershipp" and one-half to Windet's two sisters. It furthermore stipulates that Stansby may buy the sister's share at a price agreed upon by Windet's executors (Bracken, "Career" 214).

Having become master of his own shop, Stansby proceeded to establish himself as a leading printer in early Stuart London. He produced his share of the smaller, popular works such as sermons, chapbooks, newsbooks, plays, and political/religious propoganda. Yet at the same time his shop churned out these volumes for the voracious London market, Stansby also began printing "prestige" folios of history and theology, titles such as Ralegh's History of the World, Camden's Annales Rerum Anglicarum, and Purchas His Pilgrimage, a survey of the world's religions. In printing and publishing these titles, Stansby seems consciously to have raised the quality of his workmanship to the level of the text. Henry Plomer noted the skill evinced by Stansby and his workers, stating the "presswork was uniformly good, and in this respect alone he may be ranked among the best printers of his time" (Plomer, Short History 137). The editors of the Oxford Ben Jonson offered that Stansby was "a man of high position in the London book trade." They cite one of Stansby's authors, Thomas Coryat, as including him "among the `louers of vertue, and literature' to whom he sent his `dutiful respect'" (HS 9:13).

Windet had actively participated in Stationer's Company and London business, entering the Company's Livery in 1586, serving as the Company's Under Warden in 1599 and acting as Printer to the City of London from 1603 until his death (McKerrow, Dictionary 294-95). He also appears frequently on the register of St. Bennet's, St. Paul's Wharf, either as parish constable or as a member of the parish wardmote. Stansby, on the other hand, focused his efforts on his printing shop. The only documentary evidence of his guild activities comes from the Stationer's Register, where on Lord Mayor's Day (29 October) in 1628, he and John Smethwick were "appointed to goe to my lord Mayors feast this Day" (SR 3:691).

The "multitudinous presse" of early modern London attracted the regulatory attention of state, city and guild officials. From the regular proclamations attempting to limit the proliferation of printing technology and protect the investments of the masters, we know that John Windet owned at least three presses in 1586 (Bracken, Stansby 3). A Star Chamber decree of 1615, "UPON Complaint made to this Court (by the Master printers) of the Multitude of presses that are erected among them," lists 19 master printers and the maximum number of presses allowed them. Such edicts mark attempts by state and commercial authorities to reign in an expanding industry and may represent periodic efforts to shrink the number of printing presses in use. William Stansby's establishment is accorded two presses, which may indicate he still possessed the three presses known to have belonged to Windet 27 years earlier (SR 3:699).

Guild rules tell us much about the business practices of printers and how the more ambitious among them tried to circumvent guidelines for their own profit. Stansby repeatedly appears in the Stationers Court Book, fined for such offenses as violating apprentice rules, pirating copy, and speaking harshly to brother Stationers....

Sometimes Stansby found himself in breach of rules established by authorities willing and able to punish transgressions with more than fines. When Ferdinand II was elected as ruler of Bohemia, protestant radicals in Britain launched a propoganda campaign aimed at discrediting the new emporer, issuing pamphlets such as A Plain Demonstration of the Unlawful Succession of Ferdinand the Second. This quarto bore the imprint "at the Hague," but was most likely printed by Stansby for bookseller Nathaniel Butter (note) in 1620. At some point the government of James decided to halt the printing and distribution of these titles, wielding its power to impound and imprison over the offenders. Butter seems to have been the first to suffer. Late in the spring of 1622 he addressed two petitions to Secretary of State, Sir George Calvert, asking for release from custody and citing the imminent "undoing" of himself, his three children, and his "poore wief greate with Childe" (note). As printer of the offending pamphlets, Stansby soon suffered a punishment similar to that of Butter. According to a petition sent by Stansby to Calvert, under a warrent from the state the wardens of the Stationers Company "nayled vp & sealed the dores of the Petic[i]oners warehouses & Printing house & haue broken downe his presses" (note).

Stansby later sent a second petition to Calvert in which the printer attempted to explain the reasons behind his decision to print the pamphlet in question. This petition, which the Calendar of State Papers Domestic assigns to 1623, affords a brief insight into the dire straits that someone who incurred the displeasure of the state might find himself. Stansby begins by displacing blame for the "smale treatise" off onto the "earnest p[er]swac[i]on & instigac[i]on" of Butter. He further asserts that "Butter not onlie assured the Petic[i]oner that there could be no danger...but also promised to saue him harmles from all trouble thereby to arise," and cites the numerous other pamphlets on the same subject that were "publiquely sold wthout contradic[ti]on." Having defended his innocence by impugning Butter, Stansby then appeals to Calvert by reminding him that "the Petic[i]oner (by yor Honors Com[m]aund) hath byn a long tyme debarred from the vse of his printing presses by wch meanes being vnable to releiue himselfe & his famelie he wilbe vtterlie vndone." Finally, Stansby reminds the secretary that he has committed no further offenses, askes for forgiveness and the restoration of his presses, and offers to submit himself "willinglie to suffer all manner of punishment wch shalbe inflicted vpon him...yf euer hereafter he shall offend againe in the like nature" (note). Year-by-year totals listed in the STC indicate that Stansby did eventually resume printing, but not before enduring a long slump which saw its low point in 1623-24, when he published a mere handful of titles (STC 3.160).

Stansby's business did rebound from the succession debacle and remained relatively vigorous during the 1620's. Perhaps because of his encounter with the civil authorities, he also seems to have participated in local church affairs, as witnessed by his two appearances in the parish registers of St. Peter, Paul's Wharf. On 13 February 1624 and 1 March 1625, a William Stansby is listed as a churchwarden (Registers, 41.211).

The STC index shows a gradual decline in works attributed to Stansby over the last 10 years of his life, with only one title listed for 1638. He apparently retained a residence in the same parish over this period, for a 1638 survey lists a Mr. Stansby residing on Thames St. at a rent of eight pounds. William Stansby died in September of that year. The probate records contain a listing for "Stansby, William, of p. St. Peter, Paul's Wharf, Lond. (cit. and stationer)," whose will was probated by his wife Elizabeth on 14 September 1638 (Year Books, 2.4).

Works Cited

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Last Modified: Friday, 24-Jun-2005 13:55:09 EDT