Study Guide

John Bale

John Bale Biography

Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Bale included autobiographical notes in his literary catalogs. Beginning with those entries, then studying correspondence between Bale and his contemporaries and reviewing official records of the era, Jesse W. Harris has provided considerable background data in his book John Bale: A Study in the Minor Literature of the Reformation (1940), to which the following summary is indebted.

Bale was born to Henry and Margaret Bale at Cove, County Suffolk, near Dunwich, England. At age twelve, he began study with the Carmelite friars at Norwich, whose monastery had a good library. Bale learned Latin, the rites and customs of the Order, and the principles of careful study and research.

In 1514, Bale entered Jesus College in Cambridge University. College policy apparently required that he reside at Jesus College rather than with fellow Carmelites in lodgings that the order maintained at the university. When Bale arrived at Cambridge, interest in the New Learning was high and Continental Reformation influences were strong; Erasmus, the Dutch theologian and New Testament scholar, was in residence there. A number of Bale’s fellow students, including Hugh Latimer, Thomas Cranmer, Stephen Gardiner, and Matthew Parker, were to become important figures in the religious and political struggles that erupted when Henry VIII assumed control of the English Church and that did not significantly subside until after the accession of Elizabeth I.

Bale took his bachelor of divinity in 1529 and his doctor of divinity not long afterward. He served briefly as prior of the Carmelite monastery in Maldon in 1530, then moved to the priory at Doncaster. In 1533, he became prior at Ipswich, not far from his hometown of Cove; by then, he had a reputation for unorthodox teaching. One William Broman, when questioned about his religious views in 1535, testified that Bale had taught him in Doncaster in 1531 that Christ was not physically present in the Eucharist.

At Ipswich, Bale grew close to Thomas Wentworth, an active Protestant who led the unorthodox friar to act more decisively on his reform convictions. Bale converted to Protestantism, left the priesthood, and married a young woman named Dorothy. On the strength of some fourteen Protestant plays already written for patron John de Vere, Wentworth recommended Bale to Thomas Cromwell, a major power in the Protestant movement. Cromwell encouraged Bale to continue writing plays and other materials to further the Protestant cause. On at least two occasions, Bale’s outspoken views brought sanctions from authorities. He even spent time in Greenwich jail, but Cromwell was able...

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John Bale Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Bale, the outspoken antipapist bishop of Ossory, was educated by the Carmelites and took his divinity degree at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1529. He was a passionate advocate of the Protestant Reformation and wrote many polemical essays in its defense. Being a Protestant cleric, he was able to marry, after which he obtained a post in Suffolk.

Thomas Cromwell, knowing of Bale’s popular anti-Catholic morality plays, became his protector. When Cromwell was beheaded in 1540 after the failure of the match he had arranged between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, the playwright and his family fled to Germany, but they were able to return upon the accession of Edward VI in 1547. Shortly after becoming bishop of Ossory, Bale antagonized Irish Catholics by refusing to be consecrated by Roman rites. When Mary came to the throne in 1553, he was again forced into exile, to return to England only after Elizabeth’s accession in 1558.

Of the forty plays that Bale seems to have written, very few have survived. His best-known play concerns King John; although it is an attack on Catholicism, it contains the basis for later historical dramas. In this work, Bale uses the form of the traditional morality play, but he allows the allegorical figures to speak with the historical ones. John, who acts as the champion of the poor widow England against the pope, is poisoned for his trouble by Dissimulation disguised as a monk. Verity tells the world of this treachery. Imperial Majesty (meant to represent Henry VIII) thereupon takes over the realm and hangs Sedition.

Despite his anti-Catholic bias, Bale lamented the destruction of the monasteries and their libraries; consequently, he prepared a catalog-history of fourteen centuries of English writers, Illustrium Maioris Britanniae Scriptorum. Queen Elizabeth I gave him a living at Canterbury for his declining years, no doubt in recognition of his effective writing and preaching. He died in Canterbury in November, 1563.