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A statute for swearers
Pepys, i, 214, B.L., two woodcuts, four columns. The date of this interesting ballad is 1624. By an Act of 3 James I profane or jesting use of the name of the Deity in stage-plays had been prohibited under penalty of a fine of £1 o. The Act of 21 James I, ch. 20, referred to in the ballad, enacted "by the authority of this present Parliament, That no person or persons shall from henceforth profanely Swear or Curse" under penalty of a fine of \zd. (For striking illustrations of the high value set on a shilling by Jacobeans see Nos. 13, 60, 66, 73.) Fines incurred under this Act were to be used for the relief of the poor. The Act provided, further, that if the fine were not paid, the offender was, if over twelve years of age, to be set in the stocks for three hours; if under twelve, to be whipped by the Constable, his Master, or his parents. It was to continue "until the end of the first session of the next Parliament, and no longer." In Ben Jonson's Masque of Owls (1624), the Sixth Owl is described as a bird
Who since the Act against Swearing
(The tale's worth your hearing)
In this short time's growth,
Hath at twelve-pence an oath,
For that, I take it, is the rate,
Sworn himself out of his estate.
In 1645 Oliver Cromwell wrote with pride of his regiment of Ironsides: "Not a man swears but he pays his twelve pence." The ballad refers also to the Act for the Repressing of Drunkenness of 21 James I, ch. 8, according to the provisions of which any person proved to have tippled "in any Inne Ale house or Victualling house" was to be fined five shillings.
The tune (used also in No. 70) comes from the refrain of a ballad (beginning "Brave Mars begins to rouse"), the words and music of which are preserved only in John Forbes's Cantus, Songs and Fancies (1661, Song XXXVII). In James Shirley's Love Tricks, 1625, 11, i, Bubulcus replies to the statement that ballads are "whipping-post, tinkerly stuff": "For all that, I have read good stuff sometimes, especially in your fighting ballads: When cannons are roaring and bullets are flying, &c." This quotation has not hitherto been explained.