The Marprelate Controversy, Part I

In late October of 1588, a stack of pamphlets by an individual named Martin Marprelate hit the London streets. The literati, which included merchants, skilled tradesmen and women, and the whole court of Queen Elizabeth I, were appalled, amused, vindicated, or outraged, depending on their position on the spectrum of Protestant religious politics. And not just the literate: these pamphlets were widely read in taverns, homes, and the back rooms of workshops. Elizabethans had a great appetite for religious works in general, and Martin’s were especially entertaining.

The first book was simply titled The Epistle. It launched a furious pamphlet war that lasted for a full year. But Martin — that wily renegade — remained anonymous during his lifetime. We’ll discuss the centuries-long debate about Martin’s identity next time.

I first read about the Marprelate Controversy a few years ago when I was researching Puritan conflicts for Death by Disputation. It piqued my interest because it reminded me of a blog war — the sort of furious exchange that flares up so easily on the Internet. And it involved that Master of Chaos, Thomas Nashe. And Francis Bacon wrote an advice paper about the controversy, one of his earliest preserved works. So I decided to make it the setting for the fourth Bacon mystery, Publish & Perish.

Strike and counter-strike

Martin’s Epistle was in most ways justone more blast in a long-running Battle of the Tracts. For p1-bridges-defenceexample, John Field and Thomas Wilcox published a Presbyterian manifesto in June 1572 titled An Admonition to the Parliament. Later that year, Job Throckmorton published a Second Admonition to the Parliament.

Both books attacked the Book of Common Prayer, vestments, prelates, and unlearned non-preaching clergy — the eternal targets of the religious left. These ardent Protestants wanted a complete Reformation: a church scrubbed clean of all traces of Catholicism. (I blogged about Protestants behaving badly back in 2015.)

John Whitgift, then Dean of Lincoln, responded with An Answere to a Certen Libel Intituled, An Admonition to the Parliament. Then John Cartwright, another Presbyterian, responded in 1573 with A Replye to an Answere Made of M. Doctor Whitgifte...

You get the drift. You’re half asleep already, I can see you nodding out there. So was everyone outside a very small circle of theological pedants and Presbyterian activists. Then Martin came along with his sprightly wit and his clever mockery and all  England sat up and started paying attention.

The immediate cause of the Marprelate controversy was the publication in 1587 of a large tome of 1,401 pages by John Bridges, dean of Salisbury, entitled, A Defense of the Government Established in the Church of Englande for Ecclesiasticall Matters. You can imagine how many people read that one.

I won’t type in the whole blurb on the front page shown here. It basically lists the previous works that it’s responding to, including everything by John Calvin, Thomas Beza, and all the other wild-eyed radicals who would replace the established church of England with a tetrarchy of doctors, pastors, governors, and deacons, who received their office through elections. We’re nodding and saying, “Uh-huh,” waiting for the radical part to happen, but for the Elizabethans, this was tantamount to turning the natural order of the universe on its head.

These 1400 pages were too much for Martin Marprelate. He set up a secret press in East Molesley (near Hampton Court) and got busy.

A Tiny Taste of Martin’s Madness

p1-martin-epistleIt’s very hard to find anything in the Epistle that doesn’t require a raft of footnotes. I’m just going to give you this for flavor and explain the barest minimum. You’re not going to race off to print up a counter-blast, so you can just enjoy it impressionistically.

This extract comes to us from the Oxford Shakespeare site, referenced below. It’s from somewhere near the start of the 47-page book.

“They are petty popes and petty Antichrists whosoever usurp the authority of pastors over them who, by the ordinance of God, are to be under no pastors. For none but antichristian popes and popelings ever claimed this authority unto themselves, especially when it was gainsaid and accounted antichristian generally by the most churches in the world for the most part. Therefore, our lord bishops (What sayest thou, man?) our lord bishops, I say – as John of Canterbury, Thomas of Winchester (I will spare John of London for this time, for it may be he is at bowls, and it is pity to trouble my good brother lest he should swear too bad), my reverend prelate of Lichfield M. Marprelate, you put more than the question in the conclusion of your syllogism. with the rest of that swinish rabble – are petty Antichrists, petty popes, proud prelates, intolerable withstanders of reformation, enemies of the Gospel, and most covetous wretched priests. This is a pretty matter, that standers-by must be so busy in other men’s games! Why, sauceboxes, must you be prattling? You are as mannerly as bishops (in meddling with that you have nothing to do) as they do in taking upon them civil offices!

(“At bowls” means bowling, not drinking ale from a bowl.)

You don’t need to know anything about Protestant politics to recognize the challenge in this passage. Nobody likes to be called a popeling! Try it on your friends if you don’t believe me. Swinish rabble is a solid insult even today. Saucebox is kind of cute to my ear. You could call me a pert little saucebox without earning my wrath. It may have been so in Martin’s time too.

This is Martin’s genius. He taunts and he teases, but most of all he pleases. Imagine how much fun this would be to read out loud to your fellow apprentices, stealing a break in the back of the shop or hanging out together after a hard day’s work at the local alehouse. Hilarity, with that oh-so-desirable edge of real danger, because the Epistle was banned.


I can type about as fast as I can read black letter, so I typed the front page shown here in modern English for your amusement.

“Oh [?] read over D. John Bridges / for it is a worthy work:

Or an epitome of the first book of that right worshipfull volume / written against the Puritans / in the defence of the noble clergy / by as worshipful a priest / John Bridges / Presbyter / Priest or elder / Doctor of Divinity / and Dean of Sarum. Wherein the arguments of the puritans are wisely presented / that when they come to answer Mr. Doctor / They must needs say something that hath been spoken.

Compiled for the behoof and overthrow of the Parsons, / Vicars, / and Curates / that have learned their Catechisms / and are past grace: By the reverend and worthy Martin Marprelate gentleman / and dedicated to the Convocation House.

The Epitome is not yet published / but it shall be when the Bishops are at convenient leisure to view the same. In the meantime / let them be content with this learned Epistle.

Printed overseas / in Europe / within two furlongs of a Bouncing Priest / at the cost and charges of M. Marprelate / gentleman.”

What’s the hubbub, bub?

Why did this cause such an uproar? Edward Arber sums it up thus: “[T]he Martinist attack was the Newwhip-for-ape School of young Radicals attacking the Old School of aged Conservatives.” The Bishops — the Old School — were too rigid to seek compromise, inflaming the controversy by their overly harsh attempts to suppress it.

It’s October, 1588. Elizabeth has been on the throne for 30 mostly peaceful years. The established church has been carving its middle path between Catholicism and Calvinism all this time, parish by parish, Sunday after Sunday. The English have just chased the mighty Spanish Armada into the North Sea, crippled and defeated. Hard-core Protestants believe the time is right for another major push against popery and its seductive trappings — incense, elaborate costumes and rituals, and worst of all, a hierarchy of semi-noble bishops. Out with them!

I don’t want to repeat my earlier blog, so I’ll just say the Puritans wanted purity. Everyone should read the Bible for themselves. Priests should be pastors of flocks, preachers of the Word, not ignorant repeaters of Latin mumbo-jumbo. Churches should be governed by parishes through elected councils of elders.

OK, you say. What’s wrong with that? Well, one thing leads to another, you know. If you let people choose their own priests and then their own church governors, next thing they’ll be clamoring to choose their own Sheriffs or even their own Members of Parliament. (Back then MPs were selected by the local gentry & nobility.) Once that starts happening, they’re going to want more. They’ll want to depose their God-given monarch and rule themselves. Revolution! Chaos! Disaster!

How not to put out a fire

thomas nashe

Thomas Nashe, from a pamphlet mocking him

By March of 1589, Martin had published 4 works: the Epistle, the Epitome, the Mineralls*, and Hay Any Work for Cooper? (Hay = Have you. Cooper = Thomas Cooper, Bishop of Winchester, who foolishly tried to silence Martin by admonishing him with still more snooze-worthy theology. Also, coopers make barrels.)

* A single-sheet broadside known as the Mineralls, it set forth 37 ‘minerall and metaphisicall Schoolpoints to be defended by the reverend Bishops’, thus offering a satirical ‘Quintessence’ of all ‘Catercorner divinitie.’

** Catercorner divinitie refers to the Canterbury caps, distinctive caps worn by the Church of England clergy. Curiously, ‘catercorner’ does not acquire the meaning ‘diagonal’ until the nineteenth century, according to the OED, who apparently neglected to read Martin Marprelate. Ah, now I see the verb ‘cater’ means ‘to set on a diagonal,’ going back to the Elizabethan period. Funny how that evolved, huh?canterbury_cap

Several minor players had been apprehended in East Molesley and in Northamptonshire, but they didn’t know who Martin was nor where the press was hidden. In spite of their best efforts for five long months, the authorities have not been able to acquire one solid lead.



Robert Greene in his shroud, from a pamphlet mocking him. Still scribbling after death, you’ll notice.

June rolls around and things are quiet. Not a peep from Martin since Hay Any Work. If you were the Archbishop of Canterbury, you might pat yourself on the back, happy that all your diligent bush-beating had driven the scoundrels off to Scotland or the Low Countries. Alas, Archbishop Whitgift could not leave well enough alone. It wasn’t enough just to silence Martin. He had to be sure that Martin’s wit wasn’t still raising laughter around the hearth. He wanted to win the hearts and minds of the populace.

He placed the anti-Martin campaign in the able hands of Richard Bancroft, Canon of Westminster. Bancroft had the bright idea of engaging the most popular pamphleteers of the day to write counter-strikes against Martin Marprelate. In short order, pamphlets with sober titles like Mar-Martine, Bait for Momus, and A Whip for an Ape were rolling off the legitimate presses, with anonymous authors. Soon more appeared, like A Countercuffe Given to Martin Junior, written in the inimitable style of Thomas Nashe. I doubt his identity was ever much of a secret. The other works have been attributed to John Lyly, the most respected poet of the 1580s, and Robert Greene, far and away the most popular writer of the 1580s and 90s.


Richard Bancroft. Cheery fellow, ain’t he?

Before you could say “Martin is an Asse,” skits and puppet shows were being performed all over London – on the stage, in the yards of inns, even on street corners. Actors and poets mocked Martin with full Elizabethan glee, whipping clowns in Ape costumes all around the town. Everyone went mad for the antics of the anti-Martinists. Things got so wild that by November the authorities had to close the theaters.

Hiring satirists to write scurrilous counter-blasts is guaranteed not to cool things down. It’s like hiring Chris Rock to refute the Obama birth certificate people. And sure enough, taunting Martin drew him back out again, to publish two more works: Theses Martinianae by so-called Martin Junior, and The Just Censure and Reproofe of Martin Junior by another pseudonym, Martin Senior.

The point of creating Martins Jr & Sr was to show that Martin was Legion. Slay one and a thousand others would leap up in his place to press the same demands.

A press to impress

Maybe Bancroft’s strategy wasn’t so bad after all. Martin’s pressmen had to move from Surrey to Northamptonshire to Warwickshire to Lancashire, fleeing from the Church’s pursuivants. he printers finally made a mistake inAugust, dropping some pieces of type outside their hiding place in Manchester where they were hastily printing More Work for An Cooper. Someone spotted the distinctive bits of metal in the road and called the authorities, who swooped in and arrested three men.

They were interrogated in November and more conspirators were uncovered, who were interrogated in printersturn. By February of 1590, the Privy Council had interrogated everyone involved except Martin. The poor ones were imprisoned, some of them for more than a year. Prisons were harsh places, although these men could count on local sympathizers to bring them food. The gentlemen and gentle women received stiff fines. Martin disappeared into legend.

It wasn’t easy to produce an inflammatory pamphlet in 1589, but it could be done, with organization, connections, and money. You needed a skilled printer with at least one assistant, a press, a set of type, and paper. You’d also need a skilled binder and someone to distribute the works. You couldn’t just stack them in the corner of a legitimate bookseller’s shop.

Printing was smelly too. It involved antimony, copper, and arsenic. Type was washed with a potash solution. And you needed space to hang the pages to dry.

A skilled printer with his assistant could disassemble a press, load it onto a cart, cover it with straw, and cluck his horse into motion to drive up to some cooperative gentleman’s – or gentlewoman’s – manor house, tucked into its private estate away from prying eyes. You’d have to the bribe the servants, but odds are they would share their master’s religious views and willingly supply meals and clean linens for the unnamed guests in the barn. God’s work, from their point of view.

Still, there would be deliveries, tinkers, neighbors, and relatives who did not share your views. Rumors spread. Martin’s pressmen picked up and moved after every other publication. They lived on the run for nearly a year, separated from their homes and families, limited to each other’s company. And they never knew who Martin Marprelate really was.

A wild year. You can watch a demonstration of a Gutenberg press in this fascinating video.


Francis Bacon released his answer to all this in November, for private circulation at Court only. He’d been working it all summer. His Advertisement touching the Controversies of the Church of England was typical of Bacon’s advice letters in every way: rational, reasonable, considerate of all sides, and largely ignored in terms of public policy. It’s still perfectly readable, in case you’re interested.

Read it at

Part 2 of the Martin Marprelate controversy.


Arber, Edward. 1895. Martin Marprelate: The Epistle. Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co.

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


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