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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

IV. Barclay and Skelton

§ 1. Alexander Barclay

ALEXANDER BARCLAY was born about 1475. A Scotsman by descent, he probably came to England very early. He seems to have studied in Oxford, and, perhaps, also in Cambridge. In his Ship of Fools he states, with regret, that he has not always been an industrious student; but the title “syr,” in his translation of Bellum Jugurthinum, implies that he took his degree, and in his will he styles himself doctor of divinity. He is said to have travelled in France and Italy; but whether he visited any foreign universities is rather doubtful. At all events, he strongly disapproves of this fashion of the time in The Ship of Fools. A fairly good scholar, he knew French and Latin well and seems to have been familiar, to a certain extent, even with German; but he probably did not know Greek.

Barclay started his literary career with a translation of Pierre Gringore’s Le chasteau de labour, published by Antoine Verard (c. 1503) and reprinted by Pynson (c. 1505) and Wynkyn de Worde (1506 and c. 1510). Subsequently, in 1521, he wrote an Introductory to write and to pronounce Frenche, to which Palsgrave refers in his Esclaircissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530) in a by no means complimentary way. He even suggests that it was not an original work but was founded on an older treatise which Barclay may have found in the library of his monastery.

Barclay’s connection with humanism is proved by his Eclogues (c. 1514) and a translation of Bellum Jugurthinum, published by Pynson (c. 1520) and re-edited five years after Barclay’s death. Like the French primer, it was made at the suggestion of Thomas, duke of Norfolk, Barclay’s patron. In earlier days he owed much to bishop Cornish, provost of Oriel College, Oxford, who made him chaplain of the college of Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire. This living he probably held for some years, and, during this time, he completed his best known work, the translation of Brant’s famous satirical allegory. The Ship of Fools, published first by Pynson in 1509, was dedicated, out of gratitude, to the said bishop. When he translated The Myrrour of Good Maners, about 1523, from the Latin of Dominicus Mancinus, Barclay was a monk at Ely. There he had probably written also his Eclogues, the Introductory, the Sallust and the lost Life of St. George. The preface of The Myrrour not only shows that Barclay felt somewhat depressed at that time, but it also contains the interesting statement, that, “the righte worshipfull Syr Giles Alington, Knight,” for whom the translation was made, had desired at first a modernised version of Gower’s Confessio Amantis, a task Barclay declined as unsuitable to his age and profession. He must have been fairly well known at this time; for, according to a letter of Sir Nicholas Vaux to Wolsey, dated 10 April, 1520, he is to be asked, “to devise histoires and convenient raisons to florisshe the buildings and banquet house withal” at the meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In this letter, Barclay is spoken of as “the black monk”; but, later, he left the Benedictines for the stricter order of the Franciscans in Canterbury. There he may have written the Life of St. Thomas of Canterbury, attributed to him by Bale. Besides the works mentioned already, Barclay seems to have written other lives of saints, some sermons and a few other books to which reference will be made.

What became of him after the dissolution of the monasteries, in 1539, is not known. An ardent champion of the catholic faith, who had written a book de fide orthodoxa, as well as another on the oppression of the church by the French king, he probably found it hard to adapt himself to the altered circumstances of the times. But the years of adversity and hardship were followed at last by a short time of prosperity. In 1546, he was instituted to the vicarage of Great Baddow, in Essex, and, in the same year, also to that of St. Matthew at Wokey, in Somerset. Both preferments, apparently, he held till his death. On 30 April, 1552, he became rector of All Hallows, Lombard Street, in the city of London. Soon afterwards, he died at Croydon, where he had passed part of his youth, and there he was buried. His will was proved on the 10th of June in the same year.