Prynne, William famous in the history of English Puritanism, was born of a good family at Swanswick, in Somersetshire, 1600, and became a barrister-at-law and member of Lincoln's Inn at the time when Dr. Preston, a celebrated Puritan divine, was lecturer there. It was the period when the illegal operations of the Star-chamber and the courts of high commission had reduced England to a despotism equal to that of France, while the manners of the age were a scandal to religion and good morals. Marshal, Manton, Calamy, Burton, and other preachers in London kept alive the spirit of earnest piety and love of freedom which soon after produced the Commonwealth, when the mere sight of Burton, as Neale remarks, was a sermon against oppression. Prynne was a person of sour temper and austere practices, remarkable for his indefatigable devotion to his books. His name scarcely appears in the Law Reports of his time, and he never practiced at the bar to any considerable extent. He applied himself principally to the study of controversial divinity, and became a devoted follower of Dr. John Preston (q.v.). In accordance with the doctrines of the Puritans respecting Church government, he published, soon after he came to Lincoln's Inn, several tracts against Arminianism and against prelatical jurisdiction, by which, as well as by promoting and encouraging motions in the superior courts for prohibitions to the High Commission Court, he greatly exasperated archbishop Laud and the clergy against him. He was himself as ungentle as Laud. Prynne was as unspiritual in his religion, and as uinsympathizing with the amenities of human nature. He tried all things by the dry logic which was to him allsufficient. Sometimes he would find a terrible sin in the wearing of long curls — love-locks, as they were called — by men, sometimes in wrong opinions on the subject of predestination. In 1632 he suddenly made his appearance with a virulent treatise entitled Histriomastix, or a Scourge of the Stage-players, a tedious work of more than a thousand pages, full of learning and curious quotations, and written against plays, masks, dancing, and especially against women actors. There was much room for the scourge of the satirist in the degraded state of the morals of the stage. Vile indecency tainted the highest dramatic efforts of the time, and even the noblest characters could not be introduced upon the stage unless they were smothered in a foul morass of seething corruption. But Prynne's work was too severe and too general in its sweeping denunciations to convince any one not convinced already. Bringing every charge under the sun against the players indiscriminately, he held them responsible for every sin which the pages of history revealed to have been committed by their predecessors in Greece or Rome; but all this could not have brought the sad consequences that followed. Some passages in this work nere supposed to be levelled against the queen, who had acted in a pastoral performed at Somerset House; and the language of the book was certainly, like most others of that age, anything but refined and complimentary. The real cause of offence, in the eyes of archbishop Laud, who originated the prosecution against Prynne, was, of course, far other than this libellous matter — namely, the opposition of Prynne and his entire party to the Arminian system and the jurisdiction of the bishops. The information included both the aspersions of the autior against the queen and the lords of the council for their share in the diversions of the age, and his commendation of "factious persons." The cause was tried before the Star-chamber, and the condemnation of Prynne was a matter of course. After a full hearing, he was sentenced to have his book burned by the common han-man, to be degraded from the bar and turned out of the society of Lincoln's Inn, to be degraded at Oxtford, to stand twice in the pillory at Westminster and Cheapside, and to lose one of his ears at each place, to pay a fine of £5000, and then to be imprisoned for life. This must have been a moderate sentence in the eyes of some of the lords of the council, for the earl of Dorset addressed the prisoner in these words: "'Mr. Prynne, I declare you to be a schism-maker in the Church, a sedition-sower in the commonwealth, a wolf in sheep's clothing; in a word, omnium malorum nequissimus. I shall fine him £10,000, which is more than he is worth, yet less than he deserves. I will not set him at liberty, no more than a plagued man, or a mad dog, who, though he can't bite, will foam. He is so far from being a social soul that he is not a rational soul. He is fit to live in dens with such beasts of prey as wolves and tigers like himself; therefore, I condemn him to perpetual imprisonment; and for corporal punishment I should have him branded in the forehead, slit in the nose, and have his ears chopped off." Prynne's sentence, outrageous as it was, was not received with that general indignation which it would have called forth two or three years later. The Inns of Court, who had been roused by his wholesale condemnation of the drama to spend thousands of pounds on a gorgeous mask, which they presented to the king, and some who afterwards took the foremost part in resistance to the court, joined now in approval of its measures. The prison with which Laud rewarded Prynne's enormous folio, however, in no wise tamed this most obstinate and narrow-minded of men. Three years afterwards, while in the Tower under the above sentence, he issued from its walls a new tract, attacking the bishops as devouring wolves and lords of Lucifer. It was entitled News from Ipswich, and sorely reflected upon Laud and the hierarchy generally. For this publication he was again prosecuted in the Star-chamber, and sentenced to pay a fine of 5000, to be set in the pillory, to be branded on both cheeks with the letters S and L (Seditious Libeller), to lose the remainder of his ears, and to be closely imprisoned for life in Caernarvon Castle. The usual consequence of undue severity appeared in the popular sympathy and party spirit which these outrageous sentences excited. The Puritan friends of Prynne flocked to Caernarvon Castle in such numbers that it was thought necessary to change the scene of his confinement; and after he had been at Caernarvon about ten weeks, he was illegally removed, by a warrant from the lords of the council, to the castle of the Mont Orgueil, in the island of Jersey. Here he remained until the beginning of the Long Parliament, in 1641, when, upon his petition to the House of Commons, he was released by a warrant from the Speaker, and resolutions were passed declaring, very truly, both the sentences against him in the Star-chamber to be contrary to law. Clarendon and Anthony Wood describe the extraordinary demonstrations of popular feeling in his favor on his landing at Southampton and on his journey to London (History of the Rebellion, i, 199; Athenoe Oxonienses, iii, 848). Soon afterwards he was returned as a member of Parliament for Newport, in Cornwall, and about the same time was made a bencher at Lincoln's Inn. Besides, Parliament voted him, and the famous preacher Burton, and the physician Bastwick, two Puritans who were included with Prynne, money in compensation; but this they never got, in consequence of the disturbed state of the times. One of the principal fruits of this high-handed proceeding of the law was the rousing of the nation to indignant protests against those in authority, and preparing the way for the changes of government that ensued; yet to the credit of Prynne be it said that, notwithstanding all the injustice with which he was treated, and the cruelty that was inflicted upon him. he took no part in the violent proceedings of the later years of the Long Parliament. Quite to the contrary, immediately before the king's trial Prynne was ordered into the custody of the sergeant-at-arms for "denying the supremacy of Parliament" in a pamphlet entitled The Memento (Rushworth, Collections, ii, 1389). On Dec. 6 he was arrested by the army, and, together with many of his party, ejected from the House of Commons. From this time he became a bitter enemy of Cromwell and the army party, and, in consequence of his writings against them, was again imprisoned for several years at Dunster Castle, in Somersetshire, and Pendennis Castle, in Cornwall. He was expressly disabled by Parliament "to officiate or be in any office concerning the administration of justice within the commonwealth." In the early part of the year 1660, having returned to his seat in the House of Commons as an excluded member, he is said, in a letter to General Monk (Winwood, Memorials, vol. iii), to have "exceedingly asserted the king's right," but with so much of his characteristic bitterness anid imprudence that Monk sent for him and admonished him to be quiet. Upon the dissolution of the Parliament, in March, 1660, he was elected to serve in the new Parliament for the city of Bath. Soon after the Restoration he was appointed keeper of the records in the Tower, an office for which his habits of study peculiarly fitted him, anld which furnished him with the opportunity of compiling his laborious and useful collections respecting constitutional and parliamentary history. He died in that office in 1669. Wood calculates that he wrote a sheet of MS. for every day of his lifetime after reaching man's estate. "His custom was, when he studied, to put on a long quilted cap, which came an inch over his eyes, serving as an umbrella, to defend them from too much light; and, seldom eating a dinner, would every three hours or more be munching a roll of bread, and would now and then refresh his exhausted spirits with ale. To this (says the editor of Neale) Butler seems to allude in his address to his muse:
'Thou that with ale or viler liquors Didst inspire Withers, Prynne, or Vicars, And teach them, thourgh it were in spite Of nature and their stars, to write."'
His works amount to forty volumes, folio and quarto. The most valuable, and a very useful performance, is his Collection of Records, in four large volumes. Prynne proposed to illustrate and prove in these the supremacy of the kings of England in all ecclesiastical affairs within the realm by records taken from the earliest periods of English history to the reign of Elizabeth. He only completed the design to the reign of Henry III. See English Cyclop. s.v.; Appleton, Biog. Dict. s.v.; Greene, Short Hist. of the Engl. People, p. 515 sq.; Gardiner, Hist. of the Puritan Revol. ch. v; Stoughton, Eccles. Hist. of Engl. i, 24, 43, 89, 121, 153, 455; Perry, Hist. Engl. Ch. vols. i and ii; Collier, Ecclesiastes Hist.; Clarendon, Hist. of the Rebellion, bk.3; D'Israeli, Miscell. p. 111 sq.; Knight, Popular Hist. of England, vol.
3, ch. 19; Hume, Hist. of England, ch. lii et al.; and the copious article in Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Authors, s.v. (J. H.W.)