John Bale 1495-1563
English antiquarian, playwright, essayist, propagandist, and editor
Bale was a significant promoter of the Protestant Reformation in England, propagating anti-Catholic views in a variety of literary forms, including dramatic and nondramatic genres. He is also credited with a number of important literary advancements. His most influential work, King Johan (c. 1538-40), introduced the use of historical figures into English drama with its depiction of the twelfth-century English monarch's disputes with the Catholic Church. His Vocacyon of Johan Bale to the Bishoprick of Ossorie in Irelande (1553) is recognized as one of the earliest autobiographical works written in English, and his pioneering bibliographies, Illustrium maioris Britanniae scriptorum summarium (1548) and Scriptorum illustrium maioris Brytannie Catalogus (1557-59), represent some of the earliest listings of English literary figures and their works.
Bale was born into a large family of modest circumstances on November 21, 1495, at Cove, near Dunwich. At age twelve he was sent to a house of Carmelite friars in Norwich, where he received much of his early education. The Carmelites paid for Bale to attend Cambridge University, and he undertook a course of study of religion at Jesus College. After a period of travel Bale returned to Cambridge, where he eventually earned his Doctor of Divinity degree. Throughout the early 1530s Bale served as prior of various Carmelite monasteries, including houses in Maldon, Ipswich, and Doncaster, but he soon came into conflict with Church authorities. In 1531 he was suspended from preaching for a year for refusing to take an oath. Within a few years he again angered his superiors with a sermon criticizing Catholic doctrine. He escaped sanctions, however, through the efforts of his friend, John Leland, the King's Antiquary, who intervened on his behalf with Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister and vicegerent for religious affairs. During his tenure at Ipswich Bale came into contact with Thomas, Lord Wentworth, a patron of religious reformers whom Bale later credited with bringing about his conversion to Protestantism. In 1536 Bale left the Carmelite order, married, and became a secular priest in Suffolk. That same year he was arrested and imprisoned on charges of heresy. Again Cromwell—a prominent supporter of Protestant propagandists, who appreciated Bale's satiric dramas attacking Catholicism—intervened, and after a contentious trial Bale was released. In the years following his trial for heresy Bale traveled with the drama troupe Lord Cromwell's Players, and he helped stage several of his own works. In 1540, when Cromwell fell from power and was executed, Bale fled with his family to the large English expatriate community on the European continent. The eight years of Bale's exile were his most productive period as a writer. He published between two and four works each year from 1543 to 1547. The accession of the pro-Protestant Edward VI to the English throne in 1548 prompted an outpouring of twelve works from Bale, including A Comedy Concernynge Thre Lawes and The Image of Both Churches. Bale subsequently returned to England and resumed his ecclesiastical duties. In 1552, despite Bale's reluctance, Edward appointed him to the Bishopric of Ossory. Bale chronicled his experiences in this turbulent and staunchly Catholic diocese in his Vocacyon. Upon the death of Edward and the rise of Catholic Mary I, Bale again fled to the Continent, where he became entangled in disputes among various Protestant factions. He spent the majority of this period, however, conducting his bibliographic work. He returned home for the final time in 1559, following the accession of Elizabeth I. He served as a canon of Canterbury Cathedral until his death in November 1563.
Bale wrote twenty-four plays, of which five are extant. King Johan, widely regarded as his finest drama, was written sometime in the 1530s and likely revised at least twice. Never printed in Bale's lifetime, the play survives in a single manuscript written partly by a scribe and partly by Bale himself. King Johan is significant as one of the first uses of drama for purposes of Protestant proselytizing. Even more important from a literary standpoint is its introduction of historical figures into a dramatic piece, an event that marks the genesis of the history play, a genre that would become one of the most prominent dramatic forms of the English Renaissance. Bale inserts the figure of King John—whose reign was marked by conflicts with the Pope and by internal dissension and rebellion—into what is essentially a traditional morality play featuring personified abstractions. Figures such as Civil Order, Usurped Power, and Private Wealth are allied into factions either supporting or opposing the king. Within this framework Bale, in accordance with his religious objectives, casts John as an early Protestant martyr whose defiance of the Pope is glorified and whose ultimate capitulation is presented as tragic. Bale thus uses the tumultuous circumstances of John's reign as an analogy to the religious and political strife of his own time, particularly Henry VIII's conflicts with Rome. Protestant propagandizing is an important aspect of many of Bale's other works as well. The Image of Both Churches, the first commentary in English on the Book of Revelations, interprets history in terms of the Apocalypse, aligning the “false,” Catholic, faith with the forces of the Antichrist, which eventually overwhelm the “true,” Protestant, church. According to Bale the world will soon end and Christ will return to save the faithful. This model of history permeates all of Bale's works. The Image of Both Churches also focuses on what would later become an important device in partisan religious works, the figure of the Whore of Babylon. Cast in the form of a Protestant hagiography, Bale's Vocacyon is unique in being autobiographical. Covering the events of Bale's turbulent tenure in the predominantly Catholic bishopric of Ossory, this work recounts such outrages as the poisoning of Bale's friend and superior, Hugh Goodacre; the brutal ambush and murder of Bale's servants; his deliverance from almost certain death with the help of a force of two hundred men; and his lengthy captivity aboard a Flemish pirate ship. Bale presents his narrative in the standard form of a saint's life, offering his experiences as an example to other Protestants suffering from adversity and persecution. The Catalogus, too, is consistent with Bale's mission as a Protestant polemicist, adhering to Bale's apocalyptic paradigm of history and emphasizing the works of Protestant writers who toiled in times of persecution while assailing those of Catholic apologists.
During his lifetime, evaluations of Bale were sharply divided along religious lines. He was vilified by Catholics for his attacks on the Church, while he found a receptive audience among the Protestant community, as evidenced by his prolific output. After his death, when political and religious discourse became less contentious, Bale was disparaged for the stridency of his rhetoric and dismissed with the moniker “Bilious Bale.” In the succeeding centuries his work was largely ignored.
Twentieth-century scholars have commonly viewed Bale as a significant innovator and contributor to the development of several literary genres. As Peter Happé has pointed out: “Although Bale's particular apocalyptic rendering of history was unacceptable to some, there is little doubt that the recurring image of ecclesiastical conflict on a cosmic scale became a central idea for many writers, including Spenser and Milton.” Although some critics, including Honor McCusker, have disputed the innovative nature of King Johan, others, such as May Mattsson have stressed Bale's influence on later writers. Mattsson has stated that Bale's play “deserves a place in English literary history primarily because it marks the emergence of a dramatic genre that fifty years later was to become important.”