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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

§ 2. Penry’s Aequity and Udall’s Diotrephes

Among Martin’s forerunners, two were concerned in the production of the famous tracts themselves. One of them, John Penry, who has been called the father of Welsh nonconformity, published, in March, 1587, a petition, which, at the same time, was presented to parliament, calling attention to the deplorable state of religion in his native country, Wales. Five hundred copies of this Treatise, containing the Aequity of an humble supplication, were seized at once by Whitgift; and its author was summoned before the court of high commission. After being characteristically heckled by the archbishop, Penry was retained for a month in prison and then released. In reading his offending petition, it is difficult to find any justification for such treatment. It has been described as a bitter attack upon the church; but it contains nothing to support this description. There are, indeed, certain passages that might be construed as anti-episcopal; but we have evidence for believing that it was for treason rather than for heresy that Penry was arraigned; and there is a paragraph in The Aequity which lends colour to this view. The puritans were loth, both from feelings of loyalty and from fear of coming under the law of treason, to associate Elizabeth with what they considered the evil practices of the bishops; yet it was difficult to avoid accusing her by implication, seeing that the bishops derived all the civil authority they possessed from her. Penry attempted to solve the problem by turning the tables upon his adversaries and accusing them of treason for laying the queen open to the possibility of such slanders. It was this that seems to have roused the archbishop’s anger; though, as it was not in itself sufficient cause for conviction, the argument passed muster and reappears in the writings of Udall and in the Marprelate tracts.

John Udall’s personal connection with Martin was much slighter than Penry’s; but a small tractate of his, published anonymously and printed without authority in April, 1588, holds a more important place in the history of the Marprelate controversy than anything Penry is known to have written. Even were it not so, The State of the Church of Englande or, as it is generally called, Diotrephes, would still be worthy of notice in a history of literature. King James is said to have considered Udall “the greatest scholar in Europe,” and Diotrephes shows him to have possessed humour as well as scholarship. The dialogue in which the tract is written is, at times, handled a little crudely; but the delineation of the timeserving publican, the cunning papist and the wordly bishop, tolerant to all save those who threaten his privileges, is a distinctly clever piece of work. There is no mistaking Udall’s intentions. He puts a stern denunciation of bishops and a defence of the new presbyterian discipline into the mouth of Paul, a solemn and somewhat sententious “preacher”; while the moral of the dialogue is that, while episcopacy is the root of all social and religious evils, popery is the root of episcopacy. A certain air of quietness and assurance about the whole contrasts favourably with the boisterous spirit of raillery in which Martin approaches the same topics. Diotrephes must take its place as the first and most thoughtful of the puritan pamphlets in the controversy.

If The Aequity was seized and its author cast into prison, mercy could certainly not be expected for Diotrephes, which was infinitely more outspoken and dangerous. For the time, Udall, who held the living of Kingston-on-Thames, preserved his anonymity; and the whole weight of Whitgift’s wrath fell upon the printer, Robert Waldegrave. This man, who was to play an extremely important part in the struggle that followed, had already suffered several terms of imprisonment for printing puritan discipline tracts. Early in 1588, he had again defied the authorities by publishing Penry’s second Welsh tract, An Exhortation. On 16 April, his house “outside Temple Bar” was entered by the officers of the Stationers’ company; and, by virtue of Whitgift’s Star chamber ordinance, a press, some type and many copies of Diotrephes were confiscated and destroyed. Waldegrave managed to escape and to carry with him some small roman and italic type; but his occupation was gone, and he had a wife and six children dependent upon him. His ruin, we shall see, was Martin’s opportunity.

One more name must be mentioned before we come to close quarters with Martin himself—that of John Field, a famous puritan preacher, and part author of the first Admonition to Parliament (1572), which, in the violence of its language and in the secrecy of its production, reminds us forcibly of the Marprelate tracts. He died in February, 1588, at least eight months before the publication of Martin’s first pamphlet; but the Marprelate controversy was his legacy to his old enemies the bishops. “We have used gentle words too long,” he had remarked to the archbishop’s chaplain who visited him in prison, “which have done us no good: the wound grows desperate and needs a corrosive.” It was Martin who applied this corrosive; but Field, before his death, had prepared the ingredients. He is known to have collected certain notes, consisting of stories to the discredit of the most prominent bishops of the day. These came into the hands of Martin and formed the basis of his earliest tract The Epistle. Had these notes been destroyed, as, it is said, Field, upon his death-bed, desired, there would have been no Marprelate controversy; certainly, without them, the first tract would have lost all its point and very much of its piquancy.