John Bale Bale, John - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

King John (drama) c. 1538-40

A brefe comedy or enterlude concenynge the temptacyon of Our Lorde and Sauer Jesus Christ, by Sathan in the desert (drama) 1538

A tragedye or enterlude, manyfestying the chefe promyses of God unto man by all ages in the old lawe (drama) 1538

Yet a course at the romyshe foxe (criticism) 1543

A brefe chronycle concernynge the examinacyon and death of the martyr syr J. Oldecastell (essay) 1544

The actes of Englysh votaryes (essay) 1546

*The first examinacyon of Anne Askewe (commentary) 1546

A brefe comedy or interlude of Johan Baptystes preachynge (drama) c. 1547

*The latter examinacyon of Anne Askewe (commentary) 1547

A comedy concernynge thre lawes, of nature Moses & Christ, corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees and Papystes (drama) c. 1548

Illustrium maioris Britanniae scriptorum Summarium (bibliography) 1548

The image of both churches, after the moste wonderfull and heauenly Reuelacion of Sainct John the Euangelist, contayning a very frutefull exposicion or paraphrase upon the same. Wherein it is conferred with the other scripturs, and most auctorised historyes (essay) c. 1548

The apology of Johan Bale agaynste a ranke papyst (essay) c. 1550

The vocacyon of Johan Bale to the bishoprick of Ossorie in Irelande (autobiography) 1553

Scriptorum Illustrium maioris Britanniae … Catalogus. 2 vols. (bibliography) 1557-59

*This work consists of Askew's account of her interrogation for heresy with commentary by Bale.

J. Payne Collier (essay date 1838)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to Kynge Johan: A Play in Two Parts,edited by J. Payne Collier, The Camden Society, 1838, pp. vi-xiv.

[In this excerpt Collier examines Bale's seminal use of historical figures and events in his plays and the bridge his works created between medieval theater and modern drama.]

… The date when Kynge Johan was originally written cannot be clearly ascertained: perhaps before Bale was made an Irish prelate by Edward VI. in 1552; but this point may admit of dispute. From the conclusion, it would appear that Elizabeth was on the throne; but I apprehend that both the Epilogue (if we may so call it) and some other passages, were subsequent...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)

Barry B. Adams (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “King Johan and Sixteenth-Century Drama,” in John Bale's King Johan, edited by Barry B. Adams, The Huntington Library, 1969, pp. 55-65.

[In the following essay, Adams acknowledges King Johan's unique attributes while refuting the theory that the play greatly influenced later works.]

Most students of the Elizabethan drama agree that King Johan exerted no direct influence on either the Troublesome Raigne or Shakespeare's King John. W. W. Greg's opinion that all three plays “follow in common a Protestant tradition” in their treatment of King John has not won universal acceptance, but it has at least discouraged attempts...

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Leslie P. Fairfield (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The vocacyon of Johan Bale and Early English Autobiography,” in Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 3, 1971, pp. 327-40.

[In this essay, Fairfield examines The vocacyon of Johan Bale as a unique example of an early autobiographical work.]

Sixteenth-century Englishmen were not frequently given to self-scrutiny—at least not in writing. This was a disinclination which they shared with their medieval forbears, since autobiography was not a very common form of literary activity in the Middle Ages. Monastic self-analysis, sub specie aeternitatis and guided by the standard categories of virtues and vices—yes. Coherent study of the self,...

(The entire section is 6168 words.)

May Mattsson (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Five Plays about King John, University of Uppsala, 1977, pp. 4-7, 21-27, 60-71, 95-99, 122-130.

[In the following excerpts, Mattsson explores Bale's use of the medieval King John to further the cause of the burgeoning Protestant Reformation by dissecting King Johan into such subject areas as royal power, the church, the barons and private morality. Mattsson emphasizes Bale's manipulation of history and his use of the ancient king's story as an analogy to comment on Henry VIII's struggle with the Catholic Church.]


The three plays from the sixteenth century—Bale's King Johan, The Troublesome Reign of King...

(The entire section is 15028 words.)

Rainer Pineas (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Polemical Drama of John Bale” in Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition: Essays in Honor of S.F. Johnson, edited by W.R. Elton and William B. Long, University of Delaware Press, 1989, pp. 211-227.

[In the following essay, Pineas argues that Bale was “completely uninterested in the internal and overall consistency of his polemics or in historical or chronological accuracy,” but that he was unerringly consistent in his overriding objective to “demonstrate that the Church and Bishop of Rome were the root cause and current repository of all evil.”]

S. F. Johnson has pointed out that Bale's Kinge Johan is a protestantization of the miracle play,...

(The entire section is 7542 words.)

Peter Happé and John N. King (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Introduction to The Vocacyon of Johan Bale, edited by Peter Happé and John N. King, Renaissance English Text Society, 1990, pp. 9-13.

[In this excerpt, the authors provide an overview of The Vocacyon of Johan Bale, one of the first attempts at autobiographical narrative in English literary history, albeit covering only one year of Bale's life. The authors focus on the biblical allusions and polemical wrath of Bale's work.]

Bale's Vocacyon represents a precursor of the spiritual autobiographies that became fashionable within Puritan circles during the seventeenth century. It offers an unusually detailed account of a turbulent year as an example of God's...

(The entire section is 1699 words.)

Kurt Tetzeli Von Rosador (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

“The Sacrilizing Sign: Religion and Magic in Bale, Greene, and the Early Shakespeare,” in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 23, 1993, pp. 34-7.

[In this excerpt, Tetzeli Von Rosador asserts that Bale's strategy in A Comedy Concerning Three Lawsis self-defeating, observing that the attributes he assigns to the Catholicism he attacks—such as the use of ceremony, signs and representation—are essential elements of the Protestant play he has constructed.]

[John Bale's Thre Lawes, of Nature, Moses, and Christ, Corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharysees and Papystes.] is rigidly constructed. Each of its three middle acts presents one of the titular laws...

(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Claire McEachern (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “‘A whore at the first blush seemeth only a woman’: John Bale's Image of Both Churches and the Terms of Religious Difference in the Early English Reformation,” in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1995, pp. 245-69.

[In the following essay, McEachern focuses on Bale's use of the image of the Whore of Babylon in The Image of Both Churches as a symbol of the corruption and duplicity of the Catholic Church.]

“When shall Goddes sonne be unto you no syne of contradiction?”(1)

John Bale is a precocious figure in the chronology of Tudor literature. Antiquary and playwright, he ushered in forms diverse...

(The entire section is 10810 words.)

Jacqueline A. Vanhoutte (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

“Engendering England: The Restructuring of Allegiance in the Writings of Richard Morison and John Bale,” in Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. XX, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 50-77.

[In this excerpt, Vanhoutte explores Bale's attempts at building nationalism through engendering England as a maternal figure in King Johan. Vanhoutte claims that King Johan's “primary goal may be … to impress upon its audience that ‘the Reformation will be defeated if it is nothing more than a switch in royal policy’ … [but also has] concerns with the nature of monarchial and papal power, with the crimes of sedition and treason, and with the allegiances of English subjects and the abuses...

(The entire section is 10361 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Introduction to King Johan. Elizabethan History Plays, edited by William A. Armstrong, pp. vii-xv. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Includes a concise passage on Bale's King Johan. Mentions William Tyndale's influence on Bale and calls King Johan a “highly original play in the nascent history play tradition.”

Introduction to The Complete Plays of John Bale, edited by Peter Happé Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk, Great Britain: St. Edmundsbury Press, 1985, pp. 1-25.

Provides an overview of Bale's works, including sections on versification, music and staging.


(The entire section is 205 words.)