Were flowers thrown at Defoe in the pillory?

John Waller in the pillory. The Newgate Calendar. Via wikimedia commons.
John Waller in the pillory. The Newgate Calendar. Via wikimedia commons.

The pillory was a purposefully ignominious punishment meted out to those, according the Old Bailey Online, convicted of ‘notorious crimes such as attempted sodomy, seditious words, extortion, fraud, and perjury’. It was also sometimes very dangerous: crowds might throw more than just garbage at the criminal.

In July 1703, Daniel Defoe was convicted of sedition and on July 29th began the first of three appearances in the pillory: the first day in Cornhill, near the Royal Exchange; the second day at Cheapside; the third day at Fleet Street near Temple Bar. However, Defoe’s appearances were far from humiliating – at least on the first day. According to contemporary, and hostile, reports, on the 29th Defoe was surrounded by supportive crowds, including City big-wigs as well as ‘the rabble.’ Moreover, Defoe’s works were being ‘Hauk’d and Publickly Sold’ (including the very work he was convicted for, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, as well as his Hymn to the Pillory) while he ‘Glory’d’ in the experience.[1] But there is also a tradition that flowers were strewn around Defoe as he stood in the pillory. The image of Defoe standing nobly in the stocks whilst the populace of the City lay down flowers in admiration was memorialised most memorably in the 1862 painting by Eyre Crowe (see here for more details); it was also engraved in the same year by James Charles Armytage (see here at the National Portrait Gallery). The painting’s caption is worth quoting:

July 31, 1703, Daniel Foe, alias De Foe, this day stood in the pillory at Temple Bar in pursuance of his sentence, given against him at the last sessions at the Old Bailey for writing and publishing a seditious libel, entitled The Shortest way with the Dissenters. During his exhibition he was protected by the same friends from the missiles of his enemies: and the mob, instead of pelting him, resorted to the unmannerly act of drinking his health, etc..

This depiction also appears a few years later in William Lee’s 1869 biography of Defoe, The Life and Recently Discovered Writings of Daniel Defoe.[2] We also know that Lee had been writing on and researching Defoe since at least 1860, so would have likely seen the Crowe painting.[3] We can go back further: Walter Wilson, in his 1830 biography, Memoirs of the Life and Times of Daniel De Foe, had this to say:

Tradition reports, that the machine, which was graced with one of the keenest wits of the day; was adorned with garlands, it being in the midst of summer. The same authority states, that refreshments were provided for him after his exhibition.[4]

But Wilson doesn’t cite his ‘authority.’[5] Recent biographers have been more reticent: while John Richetti recounts the story of his works being sold, he considers the flower-throwing as ‘a less likely tradition’ and Maximillian E. Novak chooses not to mention it at all.[6]

It may be a ‘tradition’ but the shakiness of its foundations can be glimpsed in a few ways. Eyre’s painting sets Defoe’s pillorying at Fleet Street, Temple Bar (which can be seen in the background). There might have been a nice piece of bookish irony to place Defoe’s triumph at the heart of the eighteenth-century publishing industry. However, his appearance at Fleet street was on the third day, July 31st: the surviving contemporary reports place the scene of a supportive crowd only at his first appearance on July 29th at Cornhill. Moreover, Wilson’s evocation of a summer’s day complete with drinking and flowers is given the lie via another contemporaneous account. The diarist John Evelyn noted that on July 31st and August 1st there was ‘Thunder & lightning & raine’.[7] [my emphasis]. The scene of a summer’s day, with a pillory strewn with flowers and surrounded by merriment seems the stuff of myth.

[1] Contemporary accounts quoted in Paul Backscheider Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p.118; Maximillian E. Novak, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.191.

[2] Lee (3 vols), 1:73. Eyre’s painting is reproduced between pages 74 and 75.

[3] Furbank, P. N., and W. R. Owens, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p.64.

[4] Wilson (3 vols), 2:69.

[5] Paula Backscheider, in the one of the most detailed accounts of Defoe’s imprisonment, questioning and pillorying, replicates this scene without giving a source: ‘By all accounts, … the only things thrown at him were flowers,’ p.118; P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens also repeat the claim of flower-pelting by ‘contemporary accounts’ , but without citing their authority. A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007), p.24.

[6] John Richetti, The Life of Daniel Defoe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p.24

[7] Evelyn cited in F. Bastion, Defoe’s Early Life (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981), p.300.


4 thoughts on “Were flowers thrown at Defoe in the pillory?

  1. Thank you – very interesting and informative. One detail about the pillory itself: in the 19th century representations it looks static and fixed, whereas in the engraving on the Old Bailey On line (date?) it is clearly made so as to turn and give the crowd on all sides a good view – as stated in the text. Presumably the condemned person was meant to walk a circle, thus participating actively in the ‘performance’.


  2. I read the “no source cited” comment in one of the notes above with the usual resigned sigh. The publisher of my biography demanded drastic cuts to the notes, and all of a sudden all kinds of things dropped into “common knowledge” or “ubiquitously cited by others.” Also sad were many cuts of “brought to my attention by [generous, living scholar].” I wish all the notes had been published, partly because over the last twenty years, I have answered queries by having to dig through my Defoe archive, but I am glad to supply citations and additional information. Rather than an objection to the comment, I hope this will encourage scholars to ask us– my guess is that Furbank and Owens and many others shared my experience and would be glad to supply our sources. Paula Backscheider


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