Nathaniel Butter (bap. 1583 – 1664) was a bookseller who in the 1620s became one of the earliest English news publishers, in the form of pamphlets and books. He was baptised on 18 February 1583, the son of Thomas Butter (c. 1558–1590), also a bookseller, and his wife Joan. From 1605 Butter was carrying out business from his father’s shop, the Pied Bull, near St Austin’s Gate into St Paul’s Churchyard, specialising in small, cheap, ephemeral publications including travelogues and plays.
Notable among Butter’s early publications is the first edition of Shakespeare’s King Lear (1607). Between 1621 and 1623 Butter’s newsbooks appeared most weeks in quartos of four to forty pages, usually selling for two pence. Among the news he reported were two recent murders in Yorkshire, and translations of Dutch and Italian corantosEarly form of newspaper published in England from the 1620s until the 1630s. imported into England reporting on the ongoing Thirty Years War.[a]The Thirty Years War was fought in Europe between 1618 and 1648, and is considered one of the most destructive wars ever on that continent.
|Nathaniel Butter’s Weekly News was the first English newspaper which appeared duly numbered like our newspapers of the present day.|
— James Grant
But publishing the news was a dangerous endeavour under the Stuart monarchy,[b]The Stuart dynasty reigned in England and Scotland from 1603 to 1714. and Butter was arrested several times between 1620 and 1623 for publishing material the authorities considered to be dangerous. He was imprisoned again in 1627 as England’s foreign relations with the rest of Europe deteriorated, and in 1632 the privy council moved to suppress corantos “on account of complaints from ambassadors of Catholic countries”.
Although Butter was granted a patent in 1638 to revive his corantos, the venture was by then financially doomed, and it had failed entirely by 1640. In 1643 Butter was once again imprisoned, this time for sedition, and subsequently fell on hard times financially. In 1651 the Stationers Company paid from their poor fund to have him released from the Compter prison. Butter died on 22 February 1664; his death was reported as “Nath. Butter, an old stationer, died very poore”.
As an “outstanding figure” in the early days of journalism, Butter was satirised by the playwright Ben Jonson in his comedy The Staple of News, first performed in 1626, which discusses the absurdity of news gathering:
See diverse men’s opinions! Unto some
The very printing of ’em makes them news,
That have not the heart to believe anything
But what they see in print.