Machiavelli's treatise The Prince, written in the early 16th century and first published in 1532, was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. According to Robert Bireley, quoted on Wikipedia,

there were in circulation approximately fifteen editions of the Prince and nineteen of the Discourses and French translations of each before they were placed on the Index of Paul IV in 1559, a measure which nearly stopped publication in Catholic areas except in France. Three principal writers took the field against Machiavelli between the publication of his works and their condemnation in 1559 and again by the Tridentine Index in 1564. These were the English cardinal Reginald Pole and the Portuguese bishop Jerónimo Osório, both of whom lived for many years in Italy, and the Italian humanist and later bishop, Ambrogio Caterino Politi.

By 1559, when the Index was created, the Church of England had already been separated from Rome for 25 years, so one would not necessarily expect a ban imposed by the Pope to be relevant in England. However, according to a footnote in Drama in English From the Middle Ages to the Early Twentieth Century (edited by Christopher J. Wheatley; Catholic University of America Press, 2016),

[The Prince] was officially banned in England in 1559, and the first printed translation in English was not published until 1640. Especially those who had not read him, [Machiavelli] came to be seen as the archetype of the "cunning or duplicitous statesman" (Oxford English Dictionary).

To illustrate the above, Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta has a prologue spoken by a character named "Machevil" or "Machiavel", who tells us, among other things,

I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

In Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3, Act 3, scene 2, Richard of Gloucester, who would later ascend the throne as Richard III, says,

I can (…)
set the murderous Machiavel to school.

Robert Anderson writes in Machiavelli: Bullet Guides (John Murray Press, 2012):

Although The Prince was banned under Elizabeth I and its first English language translation did not appear until 1640, versions in the original Italian as well as in French and Latin were widely read.

In An Analysis of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, Riley Quinn and Ben Worthy write,

The British academic John Roe has studied the relationship between Machiavellian ideas and popular drama. He believes the Papal ban on The Prince "only guaranteed its popularity since it appeared … in a Latin translation" shortly after. It was then reprinted three times before 1600.
(…) One printer "brought out an Italian edition of [The Prince] in London in 1584, the title page claiming Palermo as the place of publication … Such audacity attests to the demand for the book." (…) Roe argues that while critics despised The Prince, the general public was excited about it.

(The first English translation of The Prince was produced by Edward Dacres.)

None of these sources appear to say until what year The Prince was prohibited. In his introduction to Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (Macmillan, 1985), Leonard Smith writes,

Written in Italy in 1513, The Prince was on the proscribed list in England until well into the seventeenth century, (…)

however, without giving an actual date. This makes it still plausible that Edward Dacres's translation was published surreptitiously or using a trick such as the Italian edition published in London in 1584.

The introduction to Tim Parks's translation of The Prince (Penguin, 2009) tells us that

Sir Francis Bacon had certainly read The Prince before its first legal publication in English in 1640, defending the Florentine in the Advancement of Learning (1605) with the remark: 'We are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do and not what they ought to do.'

This seems to narrow down the end of the prohibition to a year between queen Elizabeth I's death in 1603 and the publication of Dacres's translation in 1640.

Is it possible to say when exactly the prohibition on The Prince in England ended?

  • A minor point - England reverted to the Church of Rome under Queen Mary I (1553-1558) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_I_of_England, so in 1559 had only just separated from Rome (again).
    – mikado
    Dec 11, 2021 at 21:13
  • Do you know if England had a specific list of banned books? Or might it just have had a law banning e.g. "immoral" books? In which case, this might have been interpreted in different ways at different times (and depending on who the offender was).
    – mikado
    Dec 11, 2021 at 21:16
  • @mikado I know that on a few occasions, specific books were banned. And even a ban on "immoral" books would require someone to make the judgement whether a specific book is immoral.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 11, 2021 at 21:18

1 Answer 1


TL;DR: The English press censorship regime in the Tudor and Stuart periods was not based on a list of banned works, and so the question has no definite answer.

In this answer I’m following Cyndia Susan Clegg (2001), Press Censorship in Jacobean England (Cambridge University Press).

The Elizabethan censorship regime was instituted by the Injunctions of 1559 as follows:

  1. Item, Because there is a great abuse in the Printers of Books, which for covetousness chiefly regard not what they Print, so they may have gain, whereby ariseth the great disorder by publication of unfruitful, vain, and infamous books and papers, the Queens Majesty straightly chargeth and commandeth, that no manner of person shall print any manner of book or paper of what sort, nature, or in what Language soever it be, except the same be first licensed by her Majesty, by express words in writing, or by six of her Privy Council; or be perused and licensed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishop of London, the Chancellors of both Universities, the Bishop being Ordinary, and the Archdeacon also of the place where any such shall be Printed or by two of them, whereof the Ordinary of the place to be always one.

The 1586 Star Chamber Decree consolidated this licensing power in boards appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, and the system was continued by James after his accession in 1603.

One way to look at this regime is that everything was banned except for a small number of licensed texts; but another way to look at it is that you could print whatever you liked if you could get it past one of the authorizers. The system must have worked largely via self-censorship on the part of publishers: before attempting to print a work, a publisher had to consider the chances of getting it licensed, and if this seemed too doubtful then it was better for them to apply their effort to works with a better chance. In particular, there was no index of prohibited books: the historical record of censorship in England consists of books that were entered on the Stationers’ Register but which were never authorized, together with a few cases of books that stirred up enough controversy to be the subject of legal proceedings or book-burnings.

Some indication of the haphazard operation of the system comes from Andrew Marvell, whose satire The Rehearsal Transprosed purports to quote George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, thus:

He [Abbot] concludes, how finally he refused his approbation to this Sermon,† and saith, “it was thereupon carried to the Bishop of London,‡ who gave a great and stately allowance of it, the good Man not being willing that any thing should stick with him that came from Court, as appears by a Book commonly called the seven Sacraments, which was allowed by his Lordship with all the errours, which have been since expunged.” And he adds a pretty story of one Doctor [Thomas] Woral, the Bishop of London’s chaplain, Scholar good enough, but a free-fellow-like man, and of no very tender Conscience, who before it was Licensed by the Bishop, Sibthorps Sermon† being brought to him, hand over head approved it, and subscribed his name. But afterwards hearing more of it, went to a Counsel at the Temple, who told him, that by that Book there was no Meum nor Tuum left in England, and if ever the Tide turn’d, he might come to be hang’d for it, and thereupon Woral scraped out his name again, and left it to his Lord to License.§

Andrew Marvell (1672). The Rehearsal Transpros’d, p. 129. Edited by D. I. B. Smith (1971). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

† A sermon justifying the divine right of kings, written in 1627 by Robert Sibthorpe. ‡ George Montaigne. § Montaigne was persuaded by William Laud, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, to license the sermon in 1628, but perhaps Woral’s caution was justified, because Laud was beheaded in 1645.

Under this system, there is no way to say for sure that The Prince was banned in England: all we can say is that there is no record of a publisher being brave enough to attempt it until 1639. Christopher Wheatley’s footnote, quoted in the question, that the work “was officially banned in England in 1559”, must result from some kind of confusion—perhaps due to the coincidence of dates between the Injunctions of 1559 and the Index of 1559—and Leonard Smith’s claim that “The Prince was on the proscribed list in England” needs a citation for this supposed “proscribed list”.

Appendix: the Stationers’ Register

The Stationers’ Register was digitized by Giles Bergel; I searched this and found the following mentions of Machiavelli:

  • Historie di Nicolo Machiauelli Cittadino et Secretario Fiorentino (18 September 1587)
  • L’asino D’oro Dy Nicolo Macchavelli (17 September 1588)
  • Historie, begynnynge at the first buildinge of Fflorence and contyneuing vnto the Death of Lorenzo de Medici where Guicciardine begynneth his historie, written in Italian by Nicholo Macciauelli (1 October 1594)
  • A Discourse vppon the meanes of well gouerninge and mayneteyninge in good peace A kingdome or other principalitie against Nicholas Machiavell the Florentine (9 November 1602).
  • The Florentine history by Machiauelli (5 November 1604)
  • Machiavellis discourses vpon the first decade of Titus Livius translated into English by Edward Dacres (15 March 1635)
  • Nicholas Machavillis Prince dedicated to Laurence and Peter of Medicis. The Life of Castruccio Castracanio of Lucca &c translated out of Italian into English by Edward Dacres (16 June 1639)

Note the appearance of The Prince in the Register in June 1639: this rebuts the idea, suggested in the question, that “Dacres’ translation was published surreptitiously”. The register entry is incomplete in that it does not have a record of the license, but Clegg notes that this was commonplace and suggests that the motivation was to “save the four pence fee paid to the Company clerk for recording the license.”

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