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

XVII. The Marprelate Controversy

§ 1. The origin of the controversy

THE FASHION of printed discussion did not become general in England before the reign of Elizabeth. Previous to her day, the chapbook and the broadside, vehicles of popular literature, had contained little beyond attractive romances or exciting pieces of news in ballad-form. Not until a great party, eager to proclaim and to defend its principles, arose in the nation, were the possibilities of the printing press, as an engine in the warfare of opinion, fully realised. The puritan movement cannot, of course, be held responsible for every one of those countless pamphlets in which the age of Shakespeare was rich, but it is not too much to say that, excluding purely personal squabbles, there is hardly a single controversy of the time which is not directly or indirectly traceable to it. The revolution of the seventeenth century was both religious and social, and it is important to bear in mind that the pamphlet campaign preceding it shared its double character. The religious and doctrinal tracts of the puritan controversialists lie, for the most part, outside the literary field. One series, however, wholly theological in intention, has won a place in the annals of literature by originality of style and pungency of satire, and by the fact that the first English novelist and the greatest Elizabethan pamphleteer took up the fallen gauntlet. These, the so-called Marprelate tracts, which gave rise to the most famous controversy of the period, form the topic of the present chapter.

The origin of the Marprelate controversy, interesting as it may be to the church historian, is far removed from the atmosphere of general literature, and must, therefore, be indicated as briefly as possible. Under the weak archbishop Grindal, the puritan, or, as it was later called, the presbyterian, doctrine had been making great strides among the clergy of the church of England. John Whitgift, long known as an uncompromising opponent of puritanism, was raised to the throne of Canterbury in 1583, only just in time to prevent the English reformation from following in the course already marked out by the Scottish. As it was, matters had gone so far that Whitgift found it necessary to adopt the most stringent measures, if the destinies of the church were to be taken out of puritan hands. The most important of these, from our present point of view, was the decree which he procured, in 1586, from the Star chamber, forbidding the publication of any book or pamphlet unless previously authorised by himself or the bishop of London, giving him full control over the Stationers’ company, empowering him to determine the number of printing presses in use, and, finally, reviving a previous law imposing the severest penalties on the printing of seditious or slanderous books. In this way, he hoped to stem the ever-rising tide of puritan pamphlets, and so to prevent the spread of doctrines which he considered heretical. The Marprelate tracts were the direct outcome of the feeling of indignation at his relentless policy of repression, and they appeared in defiance of the newly created censorship. Episcopacy, as an institution, had always been obnoxious to the puritans; it became doubly so now, as the political instrument of their persecution. Elizabeth, while sanctioning, and heartily approving of, Whitgift’s ecclesiastical policy, was well content to allow all the unpopularity resulting from it to light upon his shoulders; and the civil authorities, reluctant to persecute the puritans, withheld their support from the bishops, and so forced them to fall back upon the resources of their own prerogatives, and to strain these to the uttermost. Excuses may, therefore, be found for both sides. Defenders of the establishment were placed in an extremely difficult and disagreeable position, while puritans cannot be blamed for converting an attack on episcopacy in general into a diatribe against individual members of the episcopate. After ten years of struggle, so strong a reaction set in that parliament, formerly puritan in its sympathies, passed the famous anti-puritan statute of 1593, punishing those who attacked the ecclesiastical settlement with banishment or even death. The effect was magical. The violence of the puritans abated as suddenly as it had sprung up in 1583.

Thus was the vessel of puritanism wrecked on its first trial voyage, in the teeth of the winds of tradition and authority. But literature was the gainer by this storm of a decade, for the receding waves left upon the shores of time a little body of tracts which are, admittedly, the chief prose satires of the Elizabethan period. It was when the battle between bishop and sectarian waxed hottest, that the quaint and audacious personality calling himself “Martin Marprelate, gentleman,” first made his appearance; and, though his activity only lasted two years, he succeeded, during that short time, in thoroughly frightening the whole episcopal bench, in doing much to undermine its authority and prestige with the common people, and in providing the general public with food for laughter that has not even yet entirely lost its savour.

Martin took the field at the end of 1588; light skirmishers, however, had been there before him. A year after Whitgift’s accession to power there appeared a small octavo volume entitled A Dialogue concerning the strife of our Church, from the press of the puritan printer Robert Waldegrave, and in black-letter extremely like that used by him later for the Marprelate tracts. This pamphlet is almost certainly by John Udall—so similar is it to other of his writings. The discussion is chiefly carried on between a puritan divine and a bishop’s chaplain, and turns upon topics such as non-residency, dumb ministers and the pomp of bishops; but it contains no hint at all of the presbyterian discipline. Two years later, in 1586, a clever satirical attack upon episcopacy attempted to penetrate the archbishop’s lines of defence by masquerading in the guise of anti-popery. The keen eye of Whitgift at once detected its real object, and arrested its progress so effectually that, had he not himself preserved a copy of it in his library at Lambeth, we might never have heard of it The satire in question is an anonymous pamphlet, also in black-letter, styled A Commission sente to the Pope, Cardynales, Bishops, Friers, Monkes, with all the rable of that Viperous Generation by the highe and mighty Prince, and King Sathanas, the Devill of Hell. It purports to be an infernal despatch, instructing the officials mentioned on the title-page, and especially “the great bishops our true messengers … whom we have constituted petty-popes under the great Archpope of Rome,” as to the measures to be adopted against the puritans. The constant allusions to “petty-popes,” “gatehouses,” “clinks” and “proctors” leave no doubt as to the sympathies and intentions of the author, who may, possibly, have been Martin himself, or his spiritual father John Field.