The Martin Marprelate Controversy Criticism - Essay

Edward Arber (essay date 1879)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Arber, Edward. “The Origin of This Controversy.” In An Introductory Sketch to the Martin Marprelate Controversy, 1588-1590, edited by Edward Arber, pp. 55-75. London: English Scholar's Library of Old and Modern Works, 1879.

[In the following essay, Arber reprints a representative portion of the writings of John Penry, as well as some of the Marprelate texts, making a stylistic argument for Penry's direction of the controversial works.]


So far as it can be traced to any precise words or acts, the Martin Marprelate Controversy arose out of the following printed words which were published on or about the 1st March, 1587. Speaking on behalf of the Welsh nation, John Penry urges—

For what will our children that rise after vs and their children say, when they shal be brought vp in grosse superstition, but that it was not Queene Elizabethes will, that we their Parentes should haue that true religion she professed, made knowen vnto vs. Will not the enemies of Gods truth with vncleane mouthes auouch that shee had little regarde vnto true or false religion anie further than it belonged vnto hir profite? I would some of them did not slaunderously cast abroade amongst our people, that she careth not whether the gospel be preached or not preached. If she did wee also shoulde bee most sure to enioy it after twenty eight yeares and vpward of most prosperous raigne. These thinges derogating from her Maiesties honor in a most villa[i]nous sort, must be withstoode thorough hir selfe and this whole assembly, by making prouision for vs betimes of the food of our soules. Because I see this most notably detracteth from hir, I cannot in duety but repell and gainsay this slander, and with as loud a voice as ynck and paper can sound, affirme and publish that she would haue the truth made knowen vnto al her people, and wish al of them to be prophets. Which thing I trust in God shall bee manifested vnto the woorld euen at this Parliament, wherein Wales shal be al[l]otted vnto Iesus Christ for his inheritance. And good reason why it should be so, because thereupon standeth the mainteinance of hir credit. Of al the men in the world therfore she may be least beholding to them that will not deal earnestly in our behalfe [i.e. the bishops &c.]. And we the inhabitantes of Wales may thinke that very straunge that one suite, tending generally to the benefit of vs al, will not bee graunted vnto vs in twenty eight yeares, and that vnder hir Maiestie, whose good will towards vs is no lesse we are assured then to the rest of hir subiects. If wee doubted heereof, behold at this time, opportunity is offered to take away all suspicion.

These words are a fair specimen of Penry's cunning pen. For he is herein asserting that which he is ostensibly repudiating. The words seem innocent enough to us; yet had they never been written, it is probable that Martin Marprelate would never have come into existence.

This page occupies the fortieth page of Penry's first known work, the title and colophon of which are as follows.

A Treatise containing the AEquity of An Humble Supplication which is to be exhibited vnto hir gracious Maiesty and this high Court of Parliament in the behalfe of the Countrey of Wales, that some order may be taken for the preaching of the Gospell among those people.

Wherein also is set downe as much of the estate of our people as without offence could be made known, to the end that our case (if it please God) may be pitied by them who are not of this assembly, and so they also may bee driuen to labour on our behalfe.


Printed by Ioseph Barnes, and are to be sold in Pauls Church-yard [in London] at the signe of the Tygers head.


The tract consists of but 64 pages, and its Colophon runs thus:—


Some rumor of the speedy dissolution of the Parliament enforced me from the 32 Pag[e] or there abouts (so much being already vnder the presse) to cut off more of the booke by two parts than is now in the whole. The neerer I came to the ende, the more hast I made. I regarded not herein

                                                                                          Amphora cœpit
                    Institui, currente rota cur vrceus exit?

The ouersight I hope hath not been very great: if any, I hartilie craue pardon. How tedious and vngainful it was for me to dismember the whole and sow together the torne parts, let other men iudge.

Nothing can better place us at the Stand-point of the Martinists, than the following lengthy quotations from this suppressed and now extraordinarily scarce book. It is impossible not to admire the skill, fervour and studied moderation with which Penry makes out his case, thereby securing for posterity by his many graphic touches, such a clear insight into the strange social condition of Wales at this time. The average condition of the country districts of England was probably somewhat better; but there were doubtless remoter places in this country of which the following was as true as of any part of the Principality.

Our case now is to bee especiallie pittied in respect of the inner man. For howe many souls doe daily starue and perish among us for want of knowledge? And how many are like still to tread the same path? It grieueth me at the h[e]art to consider how hel[l] is enlarged to receaue us.

And here the Lord knoweth and our soueraigne with this most honourable assembly shal know that I doe not complaine without cause. For our estate is such, that we haue not one in some score of our parishes, that hath a sauing knowledge. Thousands there be of our people that know Iesus Christ to be neither God nor man, king, priest nor prophet: ô desolate and forlorne condition! yea almost that neuer heard of him. If anie by the great goodnesse of God be called, this came to passe not by the diligence of their pastours which are either dumme or greedy dogs that delight in sleeping, as saith the Prophet [this famous phrase at this time is found in Isaiah lvi. 10] (a few honest men excepted) but either extraordinarily through reading, or by meanes of their resort and abode in some corner of the Church of England where the gospel is preached. And long may it be preached there, to the glory of God, the felicity of our soueraign, and the euerlasting good of that whole nobility and people, whose kindnes towards strangers [i.e. the Welsh!], the Lord wil not forget.

And our God remember Queen Elizabeth herein, and wipe not out hir kindnes shewed toward thy people, shew mercy vnto hir in that daie, good Lorde, and forget hir not in this life also, seing by means of fostering thy Gospell in hir land, some of vs a people not regarded, haue known the remission of our sinnes, euen of our great sinnes. Let this neuer be forgotten good Lord.

I am caried I knowe not whither from my purposed intent. These latter sort are some few gentlemen, or such like. The rest of our people are either such as neuer think of anie religion true or false, plainly meere Atheists or stark blinded with superstition. The lat[t]er are of 2 sorts.

The first crue is of obstinate idolaters that would fain be again in execrable Rome, and so hold for good diuinity whatsoeuer hath bin hatched in that sacrilegious nest. But these may doe what they wil with vs: for neither ciuil magistrat nor Bishop wil controul them. They may be, euen of the Parliament house, least that congregation should be without some Achan, that might giue the Lord iust occasion, to execrate his whole hoast.

Hence flow our swarmes of southsaiers, and enchanters, such as will not stick openly, to professe that they walke, on Tuesdaies, and Thursdaies at nights, with the fairies, of whom they brag themselues to haue their knowledge. These sonnes of Belial, who shuld die the death, Leuit. 20. 6. haue stroken such an astonishing reuerence of the fairies into the h[e]arts of our silly people, that they dare not name them, without honor. We cal them bendith û mamme [in modern Welsh,1bendith y mamau, “the mother's blessing”], that is, such as haue deserued their mothers blessing. Now our people, wil neuer vtter, bendith û mamme, but they will saie, bendith û mamme û dhûn, [in modern Welsh, bendith y mamau i ddyn, “the mother's blessing to man”], that is, “their mothers blessing” (which they account the greatest felicity that any creature can be capeable of) “light vpon them,” as though they were not to be named without reuerence. Hence proceed open defending of Purgatory and the Real presence, praying vnto images &c. with other infinit[e] monsters [monstrosities].

The other sort is of good simple soules, that would full gladly learne the way vnto saluation, and spend their h[e]art[s] blood, for the safety of their godly Prince, in whom they do claim more interest then the rest of hir subiects whosoeuer. And this is almost the only happines they haue. These poore soules, because the Idol pastor [reading minister] can teach them nothing, entering more deeply with themselues into the consideration of things, find by the small light of religion we enjoy through the meanes of hir Maiesty, and by the instinct of nature, that there is a Diuine Essence who must be carefully and religiously serued and praied vnto for al blessinges that would be obtained. Which things they see vnperfourmed publikely, therefore priuat[e]ly they assay what they can doe.

But wofull estate, they being not taught out of the worde of God, what he is, that must be serued, and how he requireth this to be doone, inuent vnto themselues, both their God, and the maner of his seruice. Concerning saluation they either think, that the Lorde is bound to saue all men, because they are his creatures, or that al shal be saued at the lat[t]er day, at the intreaty of the virgin Mary, who shal desire her sonne, after iudgement giuen, to saue as many of the damned as may bee couered vnder her mantill [mantle]: this being graunted al the damned souls shalbe there shrouded and so saued from hel[l] fiar. This is the cause why our people make but a mocke of sinne.

They thinke the soule only shal goe to heauen and not the body also, whence it commeth that they say, “they care not what becommeth of their bodies, so their soules may be saued.”

They ascribe sauadge cruelty vnto God the father, because he punished mans sinne so seuerely, euen in his son Christ; the Lord Iesus they commend. Nû waeth genûf dhim am y tad y gwr craûlon hinnû onûd cydymmaith da ûwr mab [in modern Welsh, Ni waeth genyf ddim am y tad, y gwr creulawn hwnw, ond cydymaith da yw'r mab]: “I care not” saith one “for the father, that cruel man, but the sonne is a good fellowe.” Durst wee once conceiue these base cogitations of our Prince, I know it would not be tolerated. And I hope this religious and wise assembly will procure that the Lord may haue some more reuerence at our hands. Because the poore creatures can hear nothing at the mouth of their minister, how their sinnes may be hidden and their iniquities couered, it is a common saying euen among those who care not for Romish Antichrist, that it was a good worlde then when a man might haue a pardon for his sins in such and such a place for one 4d.

They see no felicity where mere ignorance of saluation is. A false perswasion thereof they thinke better than none at all. Man must haue religion, [either] true or false.

Our people learn one of another most blasphemous praiers. This they doe so much the rather, because in them the commend them selues, families, &c. vnto the tuition of some saint whom they think most fauourable vnto them and best able to grant their petitions. My h[e]art bleedeth to think how these villa[i]nies with other vngodly songs are learned of good painfull soules with greedines. I know masters of families that teach these vnto their housholds. If they meete with any who can write and read, they wil demand of him whether he can teach them euer a good praier against such a disease in man or beast. Vngodly welsh bookes [i.e. either manuscripts, or the productions of him whom Martin Marprelate at p. 22 of his Epitome styles as the “knave Thackwell the printer / which printed popishe and trayterous welshe bokes in wales / ”] are fraught with these Idolatries.

If conscience would not keep me from vttering an vntruth before my soueraigne monarch, yet fear of punishment should containe me. But this I protest before Iesus Christ who shall iudge all euen according vnto their woordes, and in the presence of al the world, that the onely staffe and stay of al priuat religion among our people (the 2 sorts of men before named, I exempt) are latine praiers, praying vnto Saints, superstitious obseruations, with vngodlie Welsh songs and books. If these things were not, meare Atheisme would ouer-grow vs.

Surely the reading ministery hath not so much as wrought in the harts of anie almost, the perswasion of one true God. It were folly to goe about to heale the disease and let the cause remaine. Concerning that which is reade, there is no man but thinketh very reuerently thereof. And we praise the Lorde that we haue so much publikely by meanes of her highnes, whereas in the daies of blindnes we had nothing but professed idolatry.

Take but a view of our liues, and you shal see also what effect reading hath brought to passe. There be many sinnes essential almost vnto our nation. Profaning the name of God in common talk is prodigious. 40. affirmations or negations will bring thirty oathes out of a great many. Some shieres of South Wales haue gotten them an ignominious name by this sin. I dare write that which I durst not vtter in words. They are called gwûr cig Dûw [in modern Welsh, gwyr cig Duw, “men of God's flesh,” a strange designation! They had probably a habit of swearing “by God's flesh”]

Looke [at] the punishment of swearing Deut. 28. 58, Leuit. 24. 15, 16. This is the flieng book Zach. 5. 3. Look [at] the Law of concealing an oath, Leu. 5. 1. and you shall finde that the Parliament shoulde haue great regard to damme the springes of this sinne by the word preached.

What a hand we haue had in adultery and fornication, the great number of illegitimate and base born among vs doe testify. I would our Princes and Leuit[e]s [i.e. Bishops and Clergy] had not beene chiefe in this trespasse. The punishment hereof in the Bishops court is derided of our people. For what is it to them to pay a litle money, or to run through the Church in a white sheete? They haue made rimes and songs of this vulgar penance. Neither [the] iustice of peace nor minister wil see the execution of the lawes prouided in this case. Though they did, seeing the Lords ordinance [i.e. preaching] is not obserued, it would not preuaile.

The seat of iudgement in our common courts is turned into wormwoode. A man cannot haue his right in a yeare or two, though his euidence be vnaunswerable. They haue gotten many shifts, and when al failes, one wil stand viz. excommunication. The plaintife without al right maie be excommunicated in the Bishops court, and so not absolued in a whole yeare. Al which time hee is no person fit to prosecute his right in the common law.

It is irksome to think how hardly a poor man can keep any thing from theeues of great countenaunce. Though he seeth his own sheep or other cattel feed within two miles of him in some mens pastures, he dareth not aske [for] them. Quaffing and surfeting is too too common. Al are become Ismaels. Euery mans hand against them, and theirs against all other. Church men and all will haue their right by the sword, for by the word [i.e. of GOD] they neuer seek it.

These thinges I doe not set downe to disgrace my deare countrimen. I beare them another h[e]art. My purpose is to shew that all the good politique lawes in the woorld cannot wash awaie these our stains. The nitre that washeth purely, the word of the Lord must doe it. A conscience must be wrought in our people, else they wil neuer leaue their idolatry, swearing, adulterie, and theeuery. They that know the country know how litle hold the straightest and seuerest laws in the world wil take on a great many. If it be the wil of the Parliament therfore [that] we shal be bettered, let the word be preached among vs. We haue preaching, How often? Quarterly. It is not so. For to that one parish where there is one ordinary quarter sermon, we haue twenty that haue none. The number of fit preaching ministers in Wales can easily proue the truth hereof. Wee paie tithes alwaies, and therefore we should haue preaching alway. …

pp. 44-51

Preaching is graunted conuenient, but so as reading wil serue the turne. I maruel the face of mortall man wil be so brasen as to affirm this, the immortal word of god loudly gainsaying it, 1 Cor. 1. 21., Rom. 1. 16. Iam. 1. 21. I wil not light a candle before the sun [i.e. in arguing on this point].

Though preaching be granted necessary, and the word reade no meanes to saluation: yet there bee three difficulties that inferre an impossibility to haue the same in Wales.

[1] The woorde in welsh neither [a.] must nor [b.] can bee gotten.

[a.] Must not, because al should be brought to speak English. Of the condition the trueth were made knowen vnto them, I would it were brought to passe. And shal we be in ignorance vntil wee all learne English? This is not hir Maiesties will wee are assured. Raise vp preaching euen in welsh, and the vniformity of the language [i.e. the spread of English] wil bee sooner attained.

[b.] But why can we not haue preaching in our owne toung? Because the minister is not able to vtter his mind in welsh. He maie. For wee haue as many words as in any vulgar toung whatsoeuer, and we might borrow from the latine &c. The straunge words would become familiar thorough custom. They that defend the contrary are slow bellies and not wel minded to doe their countrie any good. A good excuse for the soul quelling non-resident.

Admit we cannot haue welsh preachers, yet let vs not bee without English where it is vnderstood. There is neuer a market towne in Wales where English is not as rife as welsh. From Cheapstow to...

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Raymond A. Anselment (essay date winter 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Anselment, Raymond A. “Rhetoric and the Dramatic Satire of Martin Marprelate.” Studies in English Literature 10, no. 1 (winter 1970): 103-20.

[In the following essay, Anselment examines Marprelate's treatment of rhetoric in the tracts.]

In defining the illusive qualities which constitute the uniqueness of Martin Marprelate's satire, critics have stressed its affinity with theatrical tradition. Contemporary Elizabethans, irately opposed to Martin's blasphemous disregard for conventional methods of religious disputation, condemned him as a “stage plaier” whose behavior seemed a deliberate imitation of the popular jester Richard Tarlton.1 Modern...

(The entire section is 6020 words.)

Leland H. Carlson (lecture date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Carlson, Leland H. “Martin Marprelate: His Identity and His Satire.” In English Satire: Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, January 15, 1972, pp. 3-42. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1972.

[In the following lecture, Carlson provides an overview of the Marprelate tracts, reviewing the conclusions of previous scholars and assessing the plausibility of sixteen candidates as the author of the works.]

The mystery of Martin Marprelate's identity has persisted for almost four hundred years. It goes back to October, 1588, just three months after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Although Martin's satire is well known, his identity remains...

(The entire section is 13773 words.)

Ritchie D. Kendall (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kendall, Ritchie D. “Martin Marprelate: Syllogistic Laughter.” In The Drama of Dissent: The Radical Poetics of Nonconformity, 1380-1590, pp. 173-212. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Kendall compares Marprelate's nonconformist approach to religious literature to that of Thomas Cartwright and others. He also explores the author's use of a persona, notes his fervent religious conviction, and discusses his identity.]

Robert Codrington, the seventeenth-century biographer of the earl of Essex, records a now-famous encounter between that aspiring young courtier and his volatile sovereign.1 Elizabeth, so...

(The entire section is 18463 words.)

Joseph Black (essay date fall 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Black, Joseph. “The Rhetoric of Reaction: The Martin Marprelate Tracts (1588-89), Anti-Martinism, and the Uses of Print in Early Modern England.” Sixteenth Century Journal 28, no. 3 (fall 1997): 707-25.

[In the following essay, Black explores the negative reaction resulting from the breach of religious and political norms by the Marprelate tracts.]

On November 15, 1588, the antiquary Francis Thynne wrote Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's chief minister, to lobby for a position in the College of Arms. His letter is ostentatiously allusive, a rhetorical display designed to prove himself fit for office. Unfortunately for Thynne, the theme he is best able to embroider is...

(The entire section is 9801 words.)

Benjamin Griffin (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Griffin, Benjamin. “Marring and Mending: Treacherous Likeness in Two Renaissance Controversies.” The Huntington Library Quarterly 60, no. 4 (1999): 363-80.

[In the following essay, Griffin examines the Marprelate controversy from the anti-Martinist side and explores the similar “Oldcastle controversy.” Then he analyzes the development of Marprelate's persona as a method of partially averting social condemnation.]

Give losers leave to speak” is a proverb going back to the sixteenth century. In this essay I want to discuss two literary controversies of that century, paying attention to the way the losers speak. In controversies, attention generally...

(The entire section is 8338 words.)