Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

John Bale, bishop of Ossory and one of the most outspoken champions of the English Reformation, claimed to have written some forty plays in his lifetime. Of these, five are extant; of these five, the allegorical King Johan is the most important. Although far too long and tedious for dramatic effectiveness, being in structure two plays or one play in two parts, it is interesting as a scathing and uncompromising attack on the Church of Rome and as a version of history different from that usually accepted. Challenging those historians—Polydore Virgil in particular—who made King Johan a knave, Bale depicts the king as a virtuous protector of the realm, who is betrayed by the covetousness and viciousness of the Church. History may be altered and revised to suit Bale’s cause, but the fact that he uses it at all is of concern, for King Johan announces the beginning of the great tradition of the English history play. It shows the transition from the old to the new—an allegorical play using the techniques of the medieval morality (Sedition, for instance, is an example of the morality “vice”), but using them to dramatize historical events.

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King Johan well illustrates Bale’s position as a follower of the so-called New Learning as espoused by Cambridge reformers during the reign of Henry VIII. Two of these reformers particularly link Bale to that group. William Tyndale’s book on Christian obedience (1528) sets out the theme that Bale followed. To both Tyndale and Bale, King Johan was a king who was prevented from the exercise of his royal duty by the usurping power of an anti-Christian Papacy. Thomas Cranmer, another member of the Cambridge Protestant circle, gave this play its first performance, in his house on January 2, 1539.

Reformation in England consisted of dissolving many monasteries and religious houses of England and of removing the pope as the Church’s recognized head. In matters of doctrine, Henry VIII was conservative. He retained the mass and sacraments, and, although he permitted the Bible to be translated into English and allowed the vernacular liturgy, he tended to reject many of the Lutheran doctrines and those of the more radical reformers in Switzerland. Of all the Protestant sects, Bale attacks only the quasi-anarchical Anabaptists. He attacks monks strongly, as would be expected in Henry’s England, but goes on to rail against the Mass, sacraments, relics, bells, vestments, and other “papist” accouterments retained by Henry. All this fits in well with the more radical reformation that reached England after Henry’s death. Led by Cranmer and others, the Protestants of the old Cambridge school were riding high during the reign of Edward VI. The beliefs of Edward’s time were presaged by Bale’s play, but it is surprising to see such sentiments expressed so strongly when Henry VIII was alive and vigorous. This play, then, gives the reader a full picture of one part of religious belief during the reign of Henry VIII, a belief that was later to come powerfully into its own.

Bale also expresses in King Johan a significant idea that usually is called “Erastianism” after Thomas Erastus but is more correctly ascribed to Marsiglio of Padua. Marsiglio held that the church was not an equal of the state but instead was subject to civil authority as an arm of the state, like the army or any bureaucracy. Tied up in this concept is the idea of empire. England was an empire rather than a kingdom, and the concept that England was autonomous is at the heart of both Bale’s King Johan and Henry VIII’s Reformation. It was Henry who first declared that England owed no allegiance to any other organization, and the reign of his daughter Elizabeth can partly be understood as an attempt to make Henry’s dream of Imperial Majesty into a reality.

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