Martin Marprelate


The juggler with words: Thomas Nashe

thomas nasheThomas Nashe played a large role in the Elizabethan  literary world, for a small man. He was renowned in his day as a superlatively witty writer whose verbal barbs pricked inflated egos from the highest court to the darkest alley.

He wrote anything that would sell: bits of government propaganda, plays, accounts of dreams, religious invective, even a picaresque novel (more on this later.) A pamphlet sold for threepence; Nashe got 40 shillings and perhaps a cup of wine. The nascent concept of copyright at this time only applied to publishers, not writers.

(12 shillings in a pound; 40s = £3.3. A blacksmith or a cook might make £6/year, plus meat and drink, in 1588. A gentleman of an Inn of Court would want £60/year to pay his fees and keep up appearances. The schoolmaster at Nashe’s grammar school got £16/year in 1570.)

The printer might sell hundreds of copies of a popular pamphlet and Nashe was a very popular writer. C.S. Lewis called him ‘the perfect literary showman, the juggler with words.” Biographer Charles Nicholl wrote “He was prolific and controversial, the pamphleteer who precisely caught the time’s flavour. He reigned pre-eminent among ‘the riffe-raffe of the scribling rascality.'” If you want to know what sophisticated Elizabethans read (since they couldn’t watch The Daily Show), read some Nashe. If you want to learn about Elizabethans, read Charles Nicholl’s excellent books, referenced below.

The look of a rascal

We have a portrait of Thomas Nashe, or at least a caricature. The woodcut shown above was first printed in a pamphlet written by one of his bitter enemies, yet another victim of his ferocious wit, Richard Lichfield, a barber-surgeon from Trinity College, Cambridge. The pamphlet, published in 1597, was titled The Trimming of Thomas Nashe. Apparently Nashe had written something insulting about barbers and Lichfield felt the need to respond with heat.

The woodcut shows Nashe in chains — wishful thinking, most likely, although he did spend time in prison for debt now and then. It also shows him wearing a doublet and round hose (“Spanish kettledrums”), the garb of a gentleman, although they don’t fit him very well. Note the unbuttoned doublet and the lack of a hat — the sign of a disreputable man. He wore his hair a bit long, which was the fashion in the ’90s, but had no beard, a feature that was remarked upon by his contemporaries. Nashe was fair and probably nearly beardless by nature. He was also apparently on the short side and scrawny. You can’t really tell from this woodcut, but he was also gag-toothed — some of his teeth stood out at odd angles. That’s quite a handicap in a age that considered external appearance to mirror internal qualities.

The briefest of biographies

Nashe was born in Suffolk in November, 1567, making him 3 years younger than Marlowe and Shakespeare. Nashe’s father was a curate, one of the poorer forms of cleric, when Thomas was born. He later was granted the living at All Saints near Thetford, a better position. Nashe went to St. Johns’ College at Cambridge University as a sizar, a student who performs menial labor such as cleaning rooms and waiting at table in exchange for tutelage. He graduated BA in 1586, but stayed on for a few more years, leaving without taking an MA.

Dido seated on a throne

St. John’s was famous for its theatrical productions; perhaps that’s how Thomas met Christopher Marlowe. They did become friends at university. It’s believed they collaborated on Marlowe’s first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage (a fun read, go for it.)

Nashe came down to London around 1589 and joined the University Wits (a Victorian term), a group of poor, but educated, scribblers that included Robert Greene, John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and of course, Marlowe. Greene and Nashe were among the first men to make a living from writing in the history of English letters; that alone ought to make them notable.

Nashe lived all around London, especially in the suburbs north of the city walls, moving frequently for lack of funds.He knew everyone; literary London was a small world in those days. He played dice with courtiers’ pageboys and drank with the Clerk of the Kitchen, picking up gossip about his betters. He hung out in taverns near the theaters and picked up gossip about his peers. Shakespeare affectionately lampooned him with the character Master Moth in Love’s Labour Lost.

He skipped town in 1597 to avoid arrest for a play he co-wrote with Ben Jonson called The Isle of Dogs, deemed so dangerous by the government that no copies of it remain. His last work was published in 1599. By 1601, a eulogy appeared for him; he had died. How or when we’ll never know.

Nashe vs Martin

In 1589, Thomas Nashe was one of three satirical writers hired by Canon Richard Bancroft to write counter-strikes against the popular and highly illegal works of a radical Presbyterian who called himself Martin Marprelate. (Mar-prelate = mess up a priest. Get it? Elizabethan humor, not always funny.) If this sounds like a stupid move, I agree with you, but Martin was winning the public over to his anti-establishment cause. Canon Bancroft thought a popular appeal might help turn things around. Mostly it just raised the rhetorical temperature in London that summer, but it also succeeded in drawing Martin back out of seeming retirement, so that his pressmen, at least, could finally be caught.

I’ve blogged at length about the Marprelate Controversy (and part II) and am happy to say it’s finally out of my system. So I’ll just give you a couple of excerpts for the flavor of the exchange. Mostly they just slung insults at each other, though Martin was chiefly aiming at the Church.

Martin Junior (a pseudonym of the pseudonymous Martin), July, 1589, Theses Martinianae

“Fire and faggot, bands and blows, railing and reviling, are — and have been hitherto — their common weapons; as for slandering and lying, it is the greatest piece of their holy profession. And these, with their bare assertions, and their wretched cleaving to popish absurdities are, in a manner, the only proofs and tried maxims they offer unto the church in this age.”

Nashe, Aug. 1589, A Countercuffe given to Martin Junior. 

“Pasquill [Nashe] hath taken up your Glove, and desires you to charge your weapon at him like a Man. If you play with him, as your father and your selfe have doone with the Bishops heretofore, if you barke like a Curre and bite behind, he will have a trick with his heele to strick out your teeth.”

Martin, Oct. 1589, The Protestatyon

(This was published after Martin’s printers were captured. Martin, still unidentified, may have printed this himself, with the help of another conspirator.)

“Wherein, notwithstanding the surprising of the printer, he maketh it known unto the world tha the feareth neither proud priest, antichristian pope, tyrannous prelate, nor godless catercap, but defieth all the race of them by these presents, and offereth conditionally, as is farther expressed herein, by open disputation to appear in the defence of his cause against them and theirs.”

Nashe, spring, 1590, An Almond for a Parrot

(You slip the ship’s parrot an almond to get it to regurgitate the latest gossip.)

“Welcome, Master Martin, from the dead, and much good joy may you have of your stage-like resurrection. It was told me by the undaunted pursuivants of your sons… that your grout-headed holiness had turned up your heels like a tired jade in a meadow, and snorted out yourr scornful soul like a measled hog on a muckhill, which, had it not been false (as the devil would have it), that long-tongued doctress, Dame Lawson, must have been fain (in spite of inspiration) to have given over speaking in the congregation, and employ her parrot’s tongue instead of a wind-clapper to scare the crows from thy carrion.”

(No idea who Dame Lawson is. But this is utterly typical Nashe!)

A few words about the works

Nashe’s prose is so aggressively novel in words and imagery, it can be hard to read. Excerpts are nice; there are lots in Nicholl’s book.

The Wikipedia page lists all his works. You can find them for free at places like the Gutenberg Project in a variety of formats, including epub and mobi. I can recommend The Unfortunate Traveller, which I read on the elliptical machine (thus in small doses.) Not being an expert in literature, I don’t know why this isn’t considered the first novel, rather than Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Maybe Nashe’s work is too rambling? I enjoyed it anyway.

Here are some samples of Nashe’s style. Remember that Elizabethans, especially the educated ones, LOVED word play. Extravagant new words and bizarre metaphors tickled them in all the right places.

From Pierce (pronounced ‘purse’) Penniless, pub. 1592:

About the typical gentleman of the Inns of Court: “A young heir or cockney that is his mother’s darling, if he have played the waste-good at the Inns of Court or about London, and that neither his student’s pension nor his unthrift’s credit will serve to maintain his college of whores any longer, falls in a quarrelling humour with his fortune because she made him not King of the Indies, and swears and stares after ten in the hundred that ne’er such a peasant as his father or brother shall keep him under….”

“Envy is a crocodile that weeps when he kills and fights with none but he feeds on.”

And this, describing the eight kinds of drunkard: “Nor have we one or two kind of drunkards only, but eight kinds. The first is ape drunk, and he leaps and sings and hollers and danceth for the heavens. The second is lion drunk, and he flings the pots about the house, calls his hostess whore, breaks the glass windows with his dagger, and is apt to quarrel with any man that speaks to him. The third is swine drunk — heavy, lumpish, and sleepy, and cries for a little more drink and a few more clothes. The fourth is sheep drunk, wise in his own conceit when he cannot bring forth a right word. The fifth is maudlin drunk, when a fellow will weep for kindness in the midst of his ale and kiss you, saying ‘By God, Captain, I love thee; go thy ways, thou dost not think so often of me as I do of thee. I would, if it pleased God, I could not love thee so well as I do’ — and then he puts his finger in his eye and cries. The sixth is martin drunk, when a man is drunk and drinks himself sober ere he stir. The seventh is goat drunk, when in his drunkenness he hath no mind but on lechery. The eighth is fox drunk, when he is crafty drunk as many of the Dutchmen be, that will never bargain but when they are drunk.”

Nashe makes a few brief appearances as Marlowe’s sidekick in Death by Disputation. He plays a more prominent role in the fourth Bacon mystery, Publish and Perish. I love the little squirt, so I’ll bring him back at least one more time in book 6, to be set in 1593, when Tom persuades Francis Bacon to investigate Christopher Marlowe’s death.


(Note: I link to Nicholl’s books in Amazon, but A Cup of News was priced for libraries and it’s now out of print. $66 + shipping from the UK!! The Reckoning can be had, but really all his books are worth the trouble of ordering through Interlibrary Loan.)

The Elizabethan Compendium

Nicholl, Charles. A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1984.

Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. The University of Chicago Press. 1995.

Nicholl, Charles. The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street. Viking Adult. 2008.

The Marprelate Controversy, Part II

I know you’ve all spent the past week wondering who was involved in the Martin Marprelate controversy and whatever became of them all? You’ll be relieved to know that I intend to answer those questions here and now, in an essay that has mushroomed beyond all reason. Warning: this puppy is LONG. (Here’s part I, in case you missed it.)

Martin’s minions

At least 23 persons were involved in the production of Martin’s works, ranging in social statusPress1520 from a knight to a cobbler.

John Penry

The only person to hang in the aftermath of the Marprelate controversy was John Penry, whom Wikipedia calls a Welsh martyr. He was hanged for religious reasons, so I guess he qualifies. He discovered radical Protestantism at Cambridge, like so many others, and devoted his life to that cause. He wrote a few radical tracts prior to these events, including A Treatise Containing the Aequity of an Humble Supplication Which Is to Be Exhibited unto Hir Gracious Majesty 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. (Whew!)

That book was considered so dangerous that all 500 copies were confiscated, Penry was tried by the Court of High Commission, and committed to the Gatehouse Prison for a month. He was characterized as an Enemy of the State, which he resented enough to push harder. He is generally regarded as the “business manager” of Martin’s works, recruiting the printers, helping find hiding places for them and their presses, and running materials back and forth.

When the archbishop turned up the heat in autumn, 1588, Penry scarpered off to Scotland, but his whereabouts were known. Lord Burghley pressured King James to banish him, if he couldn’t bring himself to extradite the man to England. Penry had influential supporters in Scotland too, pushing back against Burghley’s demands. The Puritan cause was overtly and covertly supported by many men and women in high places in both countries.

Finally, in August, 1589, Penry was banished from Scotland. He left his wife in Edinburgh and fled all the way to the outskirts of that fair city, where apparently he lurked and continued to write. Such was law enforcement in those days! He could have lived quietly until the fuss died down and led a long, comfortable life, but ideologues seldom choose that path. Penry was drawn back to England in 1591 by the arrest of some especially incompentent Puritan conspirators. Then back to Scotland for the birth of a daughter, appropriately named Safety. Then back again to London to rouse some rabble in Islington with the London Separatists, where he was finally caught by the authorities. He was tried, sentenced, and executed with astounding dispatch, being hanged on 29 May, 1591, at St. Thomas a Watering in Southwark.

Printers & other helpers

edinburghRobert Waldegrave, assisted by Henry Kildale, printed Martin’s Epitome in East Molesley, the Epistle in Northamptonshire, and the Mineralls and Hay Any Work for a Cooper in Coventry. Then things got too hot for the hot-headed Waldegrave, who fled to La Rochelle in France, where he continued to print radical works by Penry and Throckmorton. He then moved to Edinburgh, where he kept right on going. The English complained, but the Scots replied that Waldegrave had promised to stop printing the offensive materials, assuring Lord Burghley that the printer “was very sorry for his faults.” Besides, Scotland really needed a skilled printer; an interesting side view of the whole matter. Waldegrave lived another 13 years in Scotland, printing some 120 books. A productive life.

John Hodgskins was the next of Martin’s printers. He printed Martin Junior and Martin Senior in Wolston, Warwickshire. He and his team were captured after moving to Manchester and setting up there to print More Work for An Cooper. They were caught in August, 1589. Hodgskins spent 10 months in the Tower and was then moved to Marshalsea. In spring 1591, he was tried at the court of the Queen’s Bench for printing a book which contained “a malicious intent against the queen” in violation of statute law. Hodgskins denied that the Martinist works contained any such malice towards Her Majesty. He was judged guilty of felony, but solemn persons argued in his favor and he received the queen’s mercy in 1593 and was released.

Hodgskins’ assistants were Valentine Symmes & Arthur Thomlyn. We’ll leave Thomlyn in obscurity, but Symmes deserves a story of his own. If I were a devout Presbyterian looking for a protagonist for an historical novel, I’d pick Symmes and do the inside story of Martin Marprelate.

Valentine Symmes

Symmes proofread Martins Jr. and Sr. He was an employee of Hodgskins and testified “fully and freely,” so he wasn’t arraigned. He might have been tortured to get that information. It was a common method of eliciting testimony from accomplices in those days. I’ve written about the uses of torture in this period before.type

By 1594, he was back in business as a printer, but in constant trouble with his guild, the Stationers Company, for the next nineteen years. Carlson describes minor infractions, such as “breaking order” and “printing a thing disorderly.” Symmes pirated a popular grammar, of all things, infringing on the profits of the original publishers (not the authors, they get squat). For that, he was ordered to bring his press to the Stationers Hall and his type was melted. Yow!

Then in 1599, in a delicious irony, he printed a book by Thomas Nashe, one of the most memorable anti-Martinist pamphleteers — Nashe’s Lenten Stuff. Nashe must have known of his publisher’s history. But this book, along with a few others, was deemed so offensive by the archbishop that he forbade all printing of satires, epigrams, and plays without authorization of the Church. Further, all works by Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey (Nashe’s favorite verbal opponent) were to be seized and none of their works printed hereafter. 

A traditional bookbinder.

If, like me, you’re now dying to read it, you can: Nashe’s Lenten Stuff. Warning: it’s pretty weird, but after several seconds of assiduous skimming, I haven’t noticed anything offensive.

How about that Valentine Symmes! He’s less of an ideologue, like Penry and Throckmorton, and more of a guy who just likes challenging the authorities. You’d think the authorities would find a way to imprison him, but no, he lives free in the city of London. He was fined on a semi-annual basis for some disorderly production or other, some of his books being burned by the High Commission. He was barred from printing altogether from 1608-1610.

None of that seems to have slowed him down. Between 1594-1612, he printed at least 164 books, about 9/year, including a folio edition of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. He printed works by many authors, including Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare, and yet he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia page! I really need to get this guy into my series somehow.

Minor players

Minor players were the bookbinder, Henry Sharpe and the many who helped distribute the finished books: Humphrey Newman,a cobbler in the employ of Job Throckmorton, John Penry, Mrs. Waldegrave, Henry Sharpe, John Bowman, and Augustin Maicocke. Richard Holmes & Mr. Grimston of Northampton transported paper, ink, type, and equipment.


Sir Richard Knightley of Fawsley Hall in Northamptonshire was the highest ranked of Martin’s supporters. His second wife was the daughter of Edward Seymour, the 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of his nephew, King Edward VI. Credentials! Sir Richard fathered twenty children, between his first and second wives. What became of that crowd is not recorded. He was a prominent member of the Puritan party in Parliament, so there would have been little surprise when he was revealed as providing room on his estate for Waldegrave and company to print Martin’s works. 

An engraving of the Star Chamber, 1873.

John Hales, Sir Richard’s nephew, was persuaded to find a safe house in Coventry for Waldegrave’s press.

Mr. and Mrs. Roger Wigston hid the second press team, led by Hodgskins, in their house in Wolston, Warwickshire.

These four were arrested after the press was discovered in Manchester and arraigned together before the Court of the Star Chamber. Sir Richard and his nephew claimed to have had no idea what sort of things were being printed in their houses, denying all knowledge of Martin Marprelate and rejecting all idea that they in any way intended any malice towards the queen. They got off with a few months in prison (Carlson doesn’t say which ones) and stiff fines: Sir Richard had to cough up L2,000, while his nephew paid 1,000 marks (L666 13s. 4d.)

Mrs. Wigston is my favorite of the Harborers. She “readily confessed that her zeal for the reformation in God’s church” motivated her involvement, but claimed that her husband didn’t know anything about it, being “neither over curious nor meddlesome.” The couple spent some beanstime in prison. He was fined L333 and she was fined L1,000, telling us that the court knew perfectly who wore the Puritan pants in that family.

Another woman committed to the cause was Mrs Elizabeth Crane, who hosted Waldegrave and company in her home in East Molesley, Surrey. This is near Hampton Court palace. She refused to take an oath or consult a lawyer or cooperate in any way with her trial. She spent time in prison and was fined L666 for contempt of court and another L500 for harboring Martin’s press.

Her servant, Nicholas Tomkins, spilled the beans about the press in her house. We don’t know what motivated him to betray his mistress. Fear of the authorities? Or something more personal? In an Agatha Christie story, he would turn out to be her unrecognized nephew, son of the brother she cruelly thwarted, driving him to an early death and thus impoverishing his widow and children.

Martin’s Mirrors

When Martin Marprelate looked in the mirror, who did he or she (or they) see? Over the nearly four hundred years since the last of Martin’s works, The Protestatyon, was published in October, 1589, some 22 candidates have been proposed. None of those candidates were women, which is ridiculous when you think about it.

Women wrote religious works; it’s one of the few genres they were allowed to create non-lady-hobys-diaryanonymously. Lady Anne Bacon was renowned in Calvinist circles on the Continent for her translations of religious works. Her sister, Lady Elizabeth Russell, wrote poetry, among other things. Devout ladies like Margaret Hoby kept diaries of their religious activities. These weren’t published in their day, but the historians dickering over Martin’s identity knew about them. Still, not one ever suggested Martin might have been a woman. That sort of blindness simply cries out for a novel, in my mental universe.

One of the first suspects to be interrogated was Giles Wigginton, a cantakerous former Cambridge scholar and lifelong thorn in Archbishop Whitgift’s side. Wiggy had been in and out of jail for seditious preaching for many years. He was arrested in December, 1588, and brought to Lambeth Palace by boat. During the journey, he lectured his captor, Anthony Munday, at length for serving on the wrong side. He continued that attitude throughout his interrogation. Carlson describes his behavior as “evasive, obdurate, saucy, insinuating, or silent.” He scolded the archbishop for trying a simple man for something great lords and ladies did with impunity (owning a copy of Martin’s works.) Wigginton was committed to the Gatehouse prison for some long period of time.

John Udall was also suspected in his time, thanks to his religious writings and prior acts of rebellion. He was arrested in January, 1589, and tried as the putative author of the Demonstration of Discipline, which was said to reveal a malicious intent against the queen. Unfortunately, none of the witnesses could be rounded up to testify. The jury decided he was guilty anyway (which he was), but he wasn’t sentenced for over a year, during which he lived in the Gatehouse Prison and wrote numerous letters to people like Sir Walter Raleigh, seeking aid in persuading Her Majesty to offer clemency. Some merchants among his supporters came up with a scheme in which Udall would go serve their purposes in Guinea or Syria, not returning until the queen allowed it. What an offer! He didn’t get the chance to try that route, because he died in prison in 1593.

Henry Barrow and John Greenwood.Stained glass windows in Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, England

John Penry was the odd’s-on favorite in his day. I discussed him above. Carlson rules him out on rhetorical grounds. Penry was evidently a plodding writer, incapable of Martin’s sparkling with.

Several known clergymen known to be Puritans were proposed by someone over the course of the controversy, including Walter Travers and Thomas Cartwright. Less serious suspects were prominent men like the Earl of Essex and Robert Cecil, son of the Lord Treasurer. The Lord Treasurer’s chief secretary, Michael Hickes, was also suspected by some historians. A strong case was made for Henry Barrow, another very hot Puritan with a quick quill. He would have to have been exceedingly clever to pull Martin off, since he was imprisoned in the Fleet during the whole period in question.

Carlson makes the best case for his candidate, Job Throckmorton. The Throckmortons, whose principal estate is Coughton Court in Warwickshire, were a family of religious extremists. The ones who lived in the grand house were Catholics. Job’s father Clement was a moderate Protestant. His uncle, Sir Nicholas, was one of Queen Elizabeth’s diplomats. OK, neither Clement nor Nick was particularly extreme.

Job, however, was one of the leading Puritans. One of the precipitating events of the Marprelate affair was his speech to Parliament in 1587 criticizing Her Majesty’s policies regarding the fully Protestant Low Countries. He also cast aspersions on King James of Scotland, which cause the English authorities to try to arrest him. He fled and started writing anonymous diatribes. Well, this is what you do, isn’t it? He fled to his sister’s house in Hillingdon, near Uxbridge, which now is in West London and has a tube stop. Handy when you can flee with your Oyster card!

This is what grabs me about this conflict: how easy it was to flee and hide a press and print whatever you like and distribute widely, even with the full power of the government on your trail. These people weren’t afraid of their government either, or not much, in spite of spending time in horrible prisons (less horrible with friends to provide comforts) and being interrogated. Lesser folk might be tortured to get them to betray their co-conspirators, but that wasn’t really very common and was mainly used for those suspected of collaborating with the Jesuits. These radical Protestants seemed to be confident that they wouldn’t suffer much harm, even if they were caught.

Throckmorton must somehow have met with Penry and Hodgskins, each of whom had his own cause for disgruntlement, and come up with the scheme. If Throckmorton is Martin — the author — the main plot must have been his idea. “I have this idea for a book,” he must have said, “if you can figure out how to produce it.”

Throckmorton wrote other books, published openly under his name, during the Marprelate period, including the riveting The State of the Church of England Laid Open in a Conference betweene Diotrephes a Bishop, Tertullus a Papist, Demetrius an Usurer, Pandocheus an Inne-Keeper, and Paule a Preacher of the Worde of God, aka the Dialogue. Most of the first printing was confiscated and burned by the bishops, but this book enjoyed two further editions, in 1588 and 1593. 

I can’t see when he left his sister’s house to return to his own home in Haseley, Warwickshire to write some of Martin’s works in comfort. Hodgskins eventually implicated him and he was indicted in the summer of 1590 for “disgracing Her Majestie’s government and making certaine scornful and satyricall libells under the name of Martin.” He met this charge with legal adroitness which I am not going to detail, because I’m running out of steam. He’s a very well connected and well educated gentleman, comfortable with speaking and writing to those at the very top, including Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton.

He wasn’t arrested during this time, but came and went freely t London. He appeared in Westminster to answer the bill of indictment in 1591, Easter term, after mollifying everyone with his cleverly written letters. The queen extended her clemency, and he got off. When questioned, he said, “I am not Martin. I know not Martin.” He lived to the ripe old age of 56, dying, we suppose, of natural causes.

And so endeth the lesson.


Carlson, Leland H. 1981. Martin Marprelate, Gentleman: Master Job Throkmorton Laid Open in His Colors. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library.


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