The Martin Marprelate Controversy Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Martin Marprelate Controversy

The late 1580s witnessed the publication of numerous pamphlets both in condemnation and in defense of the Church of England. As tensions rose, so did the charges of blasphemy and treason, resulting in censure of many strident reformers. The appearance of a number of Puritan tracts, critical of the Anglican Church and Archbishop John Whitgift, written between 1588 and 1589 under the pseudonym Martin Marprelate, generated a scandal throughout the country. This controversy led to the arrest and torture of several writers and the growth of a large “anti-Martinist” faction.

The true identity of Martin Marprelate remains unknown. The tracts are known to have been a collective effort by over twenty publishers and radicals, but authorship is still an issue of some contention. For many years, John Penry of Wales was thought to be the author, but he has since been identified as the supervisor of the publications. He likely had a significant influence in the tracts' Presbyterian assertions, however, and receives credit for coordination of the operation. Most modern scholars agree that the Marprelate tracts are probably the work of Job Throckmorton, a member of Parliament and an eminent Puritan activist and writer. The printing was performed by Robert Waldegrave and John Hodgkins in various locations throughout the country, as authorities pursued the alleged criminals. In August of 1589 the producers were finally apprehended near Manchester, where all were arrested on charges of treason and tortured until all accomplices were betrayed. Throckmorton was arraigned for treason, but was released on a technicality, and those who had allowed the works to be printed in their residences were heavily fined. Penry, initially escaping authorities, continued publication until 1592, when he was finally captured and hanged as an enemy of the State.

The first Marprelate work, known as the Epistle, appeared in October of 1588 at Molesey in response to A Defence of the Government established in the Church of England, by John Bridges, the dean of Salisbury. Although at first glance its satire is personally targeting Bridges, it is actually aimed at the entire Episcopal office and includes individual assaults on and gossip about specific bishops. The rapidly ensuing Epitome (published November 1588) continued in this vein, further insulting Bridges as well as the bishop of London, but establishing a less frivolous tone. The Marprelate pamphlets incited a reply from Thomas Cooper, the bishop of Winchester. In An Admonition to the People of England Cooper dryly disputes points made in the Epistle. However, its tedium only sparked Marprelate's subsequent retort in Certaine Minerall and Metaphisicall Schoolpointes (February 1589). In a parody of Cooper, Marprelate organized his argument into thirty-seven points, wittily treating issues from theology to taboo scandals. This was only a provisional work, however, intended to provide an immediate reply to Cooper before a more refined statement could be written and issued. In March of 1589 Marprelate published Hay any worke for Cooper, defending both his Presbyterian contentions as well as the use of satire as an appropriate form of literature for his arguments. As the Church became increasingly incensed, it secretly commissioned contemporaries John Lyly, Thomas Nashe, and Robert Greene, among others, to respond to these tracts. They produced Pappe with an Hatchet, An Almond for a Parral, and various anti-Martinist plays and shows. Undeterred, on 22 July 1589 Marprelate issued Theses Martinianae, a compilation of over one hundred beliefs and criticisms—ostensibly a stray work of Martin's published by his younger son, Martin Junior. Nine days later The just censure and reproofe of Martin junior was printed, in which Martin's elder son, Martin Senior, scolds his younger brother for publishing their father's miscellaneous work. This was the last publication of Marprelate before the company's apprehension, at which time the incomplete More worke for Cooper was destroyed. However, before their subsequent arrests, Throckmorton and Penry issued their last pamphlet, the The protestatyon of Martin Marprelat (September 1589), in which they evaluate the endeavors of Martin Marprelate, summarize the manuscript of More worke for Cooper, and decreed that “Martinism” would not terminate with the end of their tracts.

In its era, the Martin Marprelate scandal was one of the most significant rebellions against the Church of England. It suggested that restrictions on free speech could simply not restrain the voice of dissent, and made a mockery of not only the Church, but more personally its bishops. Bureaucrats in particular worried that Marprelate's “dangerous example” might, as Lord Burghley wrote, “encourage private men … to subvert all other kinds of government under Her Majesty's charge, both in the church and common weale.” The Marprelate tracts' stylistic attributes and satiric approach also embraced a sense of wit and disregard for conventions that astonished contemporaries. Even in the Church-sponsored venture to combat Marprelate's work, Lyly, Nashe, and Greene were hired specifically to mimic Martinist satire so that they might appeal to Marprelate's audience. Scholars have further noted that the authors' imitation of Marprelate did not end upon completion of their contracted work, but permanently influenced the artistic development of each writer. Today Marprelate's work is considered to be among the best English satire produced in the sixteenth century. While most of the analyses written in the last century focus on ascertaining verifiable authorship of the tracts, the recognition of Martin Marprelate as one of the most influential rebels of the Elizabethan era is undisputed.