Alexander Barclay Essay - Critical Essays

Barclay, Alexander


Alexander Barclay c. 1475-c. 1552

Scottish poet, translator, and nonfiction writer.

Barclay is credited with being the first poet to write English pastorals. He enjoyed a brief literary career spanning about fifteen years, during which he produced poems, translations, and a French textbook. While many of his writings are translations, Barclay's writing style allowed him to keep the spirit of the original work while successfully adapting each piece to incorporate his own ideas concerning English society. Barclay was among the first writers to enjoy a wider circulation of his works as a result of the invention of the printing press, which allowed large quantities of his works to be distributed relatively inexpensively. Consequently, Barclay had an important role in introducing Continental literature to the English public.

Biographical Information

Little is known with certainty regarding Barclay's life, and many scholars turn to his writings to obtain information on his life and experiences. Most critics believe he was born in Scotland around 1475. He is thought to have moved to England very early in his life and raised in Croydon or Lincoln. In The Ship of Fools (1509), Barclay claims that he was comprehensively educated in a variety of disciplines, but no records of his formal education have been found. Most scholars agree that Barclay most likely earned a degree at an English university and traveled abroad to study. Over a period of five weeks beginning in March 1508, Barclay was ordained as subdeacon, deacon, and priest. This sequence of events most likely took place in order for Barclay to secure a position at the collegiate church of Ottery Saint Mary in the Exeter diocese. The following year Barclay published The Ship of Fools, and it is believed that he left Ottery Saint Mary sometime before 1514. Around this time Barclay joined the Benedictine monks at the Ely Cathedral and enjoyed an association with several important religious figures, including Bishop James Stanley. Barclay completed the remainder of his literary works while a member of the Benedictine order, including The gardyner's passetaunce (c. 1512), The Towre of Vertue and Honoure (c. 1514), and The Mirror of Good Manners (c. 1518). Lacking evidence to the contrary, scholars believe that Barclay's literary career ended after his publication of The Introductory to Write and to Pronounce Frenche in 1520. Details of Barclay's life after this point are unknown. In June, 1552, a priest named Alexander Barclay died and was buried at Croydon, but scholars are not sure this was the poet.

Major Works

Barclay is most widely known for Ship of Fools, a rendering of Sebastian Brant's poem Das Narrenschiff. Barclay's version, which significantly lengthens the work and adapts the story to his own view of English society, established him as a satirist of the social evils of the time. The gardyner's passetaunce is an allegory of English-French hostility, in which a gardener prefers the English rose to the French lily. Along the same lines, The Towre of Vertue and Honoure is an allegory glorifying English military campaigns against the French. Barclay's eclogues, pastoral poems modeled after Italian humanists, are the first of their kind to have been written in English. Written sometime between 1509 and 1514, the five eclogues were not published together until 1570. The first three form a unit that depicts the miseries of court life. Barclay's Life of St. George (1515), a translation, was intended to have a patriotic appeal and a tone of pious respectability. The Mirror of Good Manners is a moral work analyzing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The Introductory to Write and to Pronounce Frenche is a type of textbook that provides a comprehensive guide to the language; it was published shortly after peace was concluded between England and France.

Critical Reception

Many critics have attempted to assemble what is known of Barclay's life and career in an effort to assess his particular achievement and influence. John Richie Schultz has sought to gauge Barclay's contemporary reputation and fame, despite the paucity of surviving information on the poet. Nicholas Orme has explored The Ship of Fools within the contexts of Barclay's own life and the larger social and political events of his time. R. J. Lyall has analyzed The Towre of Vertue and Honoure, arguing that it was influential in the development of the English elegy, written in a style that presents a freshness and originality not seen before. Sukanta Chaudhuri has examined Barclay's eclogues, judging them “the most important English ones before [Edmund] Spenser's.” Critics agree that Barclay was significant for introducing European works and literary forms to a wide audience in England. His translations typically reworked the foreign material to present patriotic messages that found favor with English readers.

Principal Works

This present boke named the shyp of folys of the worlde was tr. out of Laten, Frenche, and Doche in the college of saynt mary Otery by A. Barclay [translator; from Sebastian Brant's poem Das Narrenschiff] (poetry) 1509

The gardyners passetaunce touching the outrage of fraunce (poetry) 1512?

The Towre of Vertue and Honoure (poetry) 1514

Here begynnyth the lyfe of the gloryous martyr saynt George [translator; from a work by Giovanni Battista Spagnolo of Mantua] (poetry) 1515?

The fyfte eglog of Alexander Barclay of the cytezen and Uplondyshman (poetry) 1518?

Here begynneth a ryght frutefull treatyse, intituled the myrrour of good maners, conteynyng the.iiii. vertues [translator; from Domenico Mancini's treatise De quattuor virtutibus] (treatise) 1518?

The boke of Codrus and Mynalcas. The fourthe eglog of A. Barcley (poetry) 1521?

Here begynneth the introductory to wryte, and to pronounce Frenche (prose) 1521

Here begynneth the Egloges of Alexander Barclay prest wherof the fyrst thre conteyneth the myseryes of courters & courtes (prose) 1530?

The Ship of Fooles … with diuers other workes [edited by John Cawood] (poetry) 1874

The Ship of Fools. 2 vols. [edited by T. H. Jamieson] (poetry) 1874

The Mirrour of Good Manners by Alexander Barclay (poetry) 1885

The Eclogues of Alexander Barclay [edited by Beatrice White] (poetry) 1928

The Life of St. George [edited by William Nelson] (poetry) 1955

The Gardyners Passetaunce [edited by Franklin B. Williams, Jr., and Howard M. Nixon] (poetry) 1985


John Richie Schultz (essay date July 1919)

SOURCE: Schultz, John Richie. “The Life of Alexander Barclay.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 18, no. 3 (July 1919): 360-68.

[In the essay below, Schultz suggests that too many critics have focused on Ship of Fools in order to define Barclay's impact on English literature and proposes that literary critics examine the bulk of Barclay's writing as well as his biographical information in order to study his importance in literary history.]

To students of literature the name of Alexander Barclay is linked with his Ship of Fools—a translation, or rather a derivation, from the Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant. Brant's poem had such universal appeal that it was translated into several languages, and was popular throughout Europe in the sixteenth century. Barclay was fortunate in his original, and his rendition came at an opportune time. But the reputation of Barclay does not rest upon the Ship of Fools alone. He was industrious in literary work and the list of his writings includes many books. Among them are the Introductory to Write and Pronounce Frenche, a translation of Sallust, the Myrrour of Good Manners, and the five Eclogues. Besides the foregoing, he is the author of many works that have not survived. Such a writer must have had considerable fame in his own day. That he was known at court is shown by the fact that he was considered a suitable poet to devise “Histoires and Convenient Raisons” for the Field of the Cloth of Gold. John Bale, a contemporary, in spite of a bitter personal prejudice, speaks of him as “poeta ac rhetor insignis.” If he were so well known as all this would imply, it seems curious that the facts of his life should be so uncertain. The date and place of his birth are unknown, his nationality is a matter of dispute, and the surviving details of his career are few. His biographers have collected the scattered facts of his life, drawn conclusions from them, and deduced others on the theory that in his works Barclay reproduces his own experience. Such to a certain extent, is the character of the most elaborate discussion that has yet appeared—the sketch prefixed by Jamieson to his edition of the Ship of Fools.1 Koelbing in the latest criticism of Barclay, the section devoted to him in the Cambridge History of English Literature,2 follows rather closely the work of his predecessor. But further light is thrown upon Barclay's career by the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII3 which was published subsequent to Jamieson's work, and was apparently unknown to Koelbing. It is barely mentioned by Jusserand4 in his history of English Literature. Gardiner, in his introduction to the Letters and Papers, calls attention to the letters concerning Barclay as a source of biographical material, but apparently no attempt has been made to reconstruct the details of Barclay's life in the light of this new information.

An examination of the majority of the accounts of Barclay's life discloses the fact that stripped of all speculation and doubtful statements they draw their information very largely from John Bale's short sketch printed in his Scriptorum Illustrium Maioris Brytannie,5 published seven years after Barclay's death. When this account is carefully analysed at least one point that has puzzled Barclay's biographers, the question of whether he was a Franciscan or a Benedictine, can be cleared up; and by the aid of the Letters and Papers Barclay's later career may be traced.

The following is Bale's account of Barclay in full:

“Alexander Barkeley, quem alii Scotum, alii Anglum fuisse contendunt, poeta ac rhetor insignis, ab eruditis artibus magnam sibi, dum viveret, existimationem peperit. Plures sectas ille probavit, quandoque sacrificulum, quandoque Benedictum aut Franciscanum indunes, nulli certus; sed in illis omnibus veritatis osor, & sub coelibatus fuco foedus adulter perpetue mansit. Multa tamen in Anglicum sermonem eleganter ille transtulit ac scripsit, praesertim

De miseriis aulicorum, Illustres poetae novem Musis.
Contra Skeltonum,
Vitam Georgii, ex Mantuano,
Quinque Eglogas eiusdem,
Vitam D. Catharinae,
Vitam D. Margaretae,
De pronounciatione Gallica, Multii ac varii homines literati.
Salustium de Bello Iurguthino, Memini me superioribus annis
Navim Stultiferam,
Vitam D. Etheldredae,
Bucolicam Codri,
Eglogam quartam,
Castellum laboris,
Mancinum de virtutibus,
Aliique plura fecit. Obiit anno Domini 1552, in mense Iunio, Croydone prope
Londinum sepultus.”

The work quoted above is a valuable and interesting source of information. In recent years Bale's veracity has been questioned, but through the publication of his autograph notebook in 19026 we are able to see his modus operandi.7 What Bale did was to gather information from various sources and combine this material into one publication. In his lists of books he distinguishes those he had seen by reproducing the first line of each, as shown by the list presented, and in the case of works so noted there is no duplication. This is not true of the notebook, however, where there is repetition both in title and first line. In other words, he makes corrections by striking out the duplicates; otherwise they remain, as a reference to the lists will show.

From the notebook we learn that there are four sources for his account of Barclay. These are the lists received from “Nicolaus Brigan et alii,” “ex officina Roberti Toye,”8 “ex museo Joannis Alen,” and “ex hospitis domo Dubline.” In the first of these we have this statement prefixed to the list: “Alexander Barkeley, Scotus, Benedicti Monachus in Anglia primum, postea Franciscanus, scripsit,” etc. Heading another list is, “Alexander Barclay, Anglus, doctor et poeta, scripsit,” etc. Since these statements are given on the authority of different sources it is easy to see how contradictions may appear. Thus in the lists cited he is claimed by one to be a Scot and by another an Englishman. It is evident, then, that any inference drawn from one source in the notebook may be incorrect; and that Bale's final summary itself may not be entirely reliable.9

With these facts in mind, Bale's account...

(The entire section is 3138 words.)

R. J. Lyall (essay date February 1972)

SOURCE: Lyall, R. J. “Tradition and Innovation in Alexander Barclay's Towre of Vertue and Honoure.Review of English Studies 23, no. 89 (February 1972): 1-18.

[In this essay, Lyall asserts that little critical attention has been given to the poem The Towre of Vertue and Honoure and contends that the poem is a representation of Barclay's originality and was influential in the development of the English elegy.]

Set in the fourth of his Eclogues, The Towre of Vertue and Honoure (1513-14) is unique among the works of Alexander Barclay. It represents his only sustained attempt at formal, courtly allegory, if we agree with the consensus of...

(The entire section is 7651 words.)

Nicholas Orme (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Orme, Nicholas. “Alexander Barclay, Tudor Educationist.” In Education and Society In Medieval and Renaissance England, pp. 259-70. London: The Hambledon Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Orme provides a brief synopsis of Barclay's biographical information as well as an analysis of Barclay's translation of The Ship of Fools, focusing on how the work reflects his background and writing style.]

Few sixteenth-century Englishmen had such a varied career as Alexander Barclay. By origin a Scot, he spent most of his life in England but also travelled widely on the continent. By career, he was in turn a secular priest in a collegiate church, a monk, a...

(The entire section is 5486 words.)

Alistair Fox (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Fox, Alistair. “Beatus ille: The Eclogues of Alexander Barclay.” In Politics and Literature in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, pp. 37-55. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1989.

[In the essay below, Fox examines Barclay's motivations for writing the Eclogues as well as for translating Brandt's Ship of Fools.]

The patronage system affected different people in different ways, and these differences conditioned the kind of literature they contrived. Skelton wrote from within the court, having enjoyed the benefits that the system could impart. His problems were not ones of frustration at being excluded from court, but of insecurity and...

(The entire section is 7851 words.)

Sukanta Chaudhuri (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Chaudhuri, Sukanta. “English Pastoral before Spenser.” In Renaissance Pastoral and Its English Developments, pp. 113-31. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

[In this excerpt, Chaudhuri suggests that Barclay's Eclogues represent significant pastoral works before Spenser's because of their emphasis on the hardship of a shepherd's life.]


Roughly between 1500 and 1513,1 Alexander Barclay wrote five Eclogues which must be accounted the most important English ones before Spenser's. They are the reverse of Arcadian. Rather, they emphasize the poverty and...

(The entire section is 3477 words.)

David R. Carlson (essay date April 1995)

SOURCE: Carlson, David R. “Skelton and Barclay, Medieval and Modern.” Early Modern Literary Studies 1, no. 1 (April 1995): 2.1-17.

[In the essay below, Carlson explores the literary conflict between Barclay and John Skelton and how this antagonistic relationship signals a shift in English literary history.]

Early Tudor literature was done in distinct circles, the centres of which were not coincident, and which overlapped little: the humanist circle, around More and Erasmus; in the later decades of the reign of Henry VIII, the “new company” of courtier-poets, in Puttenham's phrase, around Wyatt; and earlier, the less well-defined group of vernacular makers,...

(The entire section is 4516 words.)

Further Reading


Lyall, R. J. “Alexander Barclay and the Edwardian Reformation 1548-52.” Review of English Studies 20, no. 80 (November 1969): 455-61.

Explores various sources to develop a concrete portrayal of Barclay's life and its importance in literary history.

White, Beatrice. “Introduction: The Life of Alexander Barclay.” In The Eclogues of Alexander Barclay, edited by Beatrice White, pp. i-liv. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Explores the controversy surrounding Barclay's life by examining how Barclay's work provides biographical details.



(The entire section is 208 words.)