‘A Generation of the MARTIN kind’: The Tracts of Martin Marprelate (Part One)

As part of the IJBS Blog Series, Dr Ariel Hessayon (@ArielHessayon), Reader in early modern History at Goldsmiths, University of London, explores the origins and legacies of the comical, controversial and anti-clerical Martin Marprelate pamphlets across the 16th-17th centuries.

On 6 April 1593 the Cambridge-educated religious separatists Henry Barrow (c.1550–1593) and John Greenwood (c.1560–1593) were hanged for treason at Tyburn – a notorious site of execution outside the city of London. They had been found guilty of writing and publishing seditious literature with malicious intent. Just over a month later another Cambridge-educated religious dissident, the Welsh preacher and pamphleteer John Penry (1562/63–1593), was tried twice: firstly for inciting rebellion and insurrection, and then for attacking the Church of England through the publication of scandalous writings. Penry was found guilty and on 29 May 1593 likewise hanged, this time in Surrey. As for Penry’s co-conspirator, the Warwick MP Job Throckmorton (1545–1601), he too had been put on trial in 1590. In Throckmorton’s case this was a result of the government crackdown on Protestant dissenters suspected of being involved in the writing, publication and circulation of a series of texts issued under the pseudonym ‘Martin Marprelate’ and its subsequent variants.  Throckmorton, however, pleaded innocence: ‘I am not Martin, I knew not Martin’ he claimed.  And because of his relatively high social status and extensive connections, not to mention legal technicalities, Throckmorton escaped the fate that would befall Barrow, Greenwood and Penry. Instead he died in relative obscurity.

Stained glass windows at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge depicting Henry Barrow [left] and John Greenwood [right].

More than a century ago it was argued that Barrow was the main author of the Martin Marprelate tracts, although few scholars accept this now. Slightly more recently the case was made for John Penry as lead author. But this too failed to gain much support, with most specialists downgrading Penry’s role to that of minor literary collaborator or perhaps chief orchestrator of the conspiracy. Rather, both for some contemporaries and several modern experts, the evidence points to Job Throckmorton as the principal pen responsible for these writings. Another figure too must be mentioned. This was George Carleton (1529–1590), a Northamptonshire gentleman who had served as a Justice of the Peace and an MP. In 1589 Carleton married the rich widow Elizabeth Crane and it was at her house in East Molesey, Surrey near Hampton Court Palace that the first Marprelate tracts were printed. But whether Carleton merely facilitated the enterprise or whether his role extended to taking a hand in the authorship of the texts is unclear.

Turning to the choice of pseudonym, Martin was a fairly common proper name derived from the Middle English Martyn, with Martinmas or the feast of St Martin celebrated on 11 November. The prefix ‘mar’ (now obsolete), meant a hindrance or that which impaired something. A prelate was a high ranking cleric, for example an archbishop, bishop or superior of a religious house.  Hence Martin Marprelate could be understood as a sort of everyman who obstructed the exercise of authority by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Elizabethan England.

There are at least seven works associated with the name of that ‘worthy gentleman’ Martin Marprelate. Issued between October 1588 and September 1589 in print runs of between 700 and 1000 copies and priced between 6d. and 9d., these include The Epistle; The Epitome; the broadsheet Certain Mineral, and Metaphysical Schoolpoints; Hay any work for Cooper; Theses Martinianae (by ‘Martin Junior’), The Just Censure and Reproof (by ‘Martin Senior’), and The Protestation. More than one printer was involved. Initially there was Robert Waldegrave (c.1554–1603/04), a freeman of the London Stationers’ Company. He was notorious for printing material by the ‘hotter sort’ of Protestants (i.e. puritans) and had suffered imprisonment as well as the seizure and destruction of his equipment as a consequence. Using a new and distinctive continental black-letter type, Waldegrave printed the first four Marprelate pieces on a secret portable press at various locations: East Molesey, Surrey (Elizabeth Crane’s house); Fawsley House, Northamptonshire (home of a sympathiser named Sir Richard Knightley); and Whitefriars, Coventry (residence of Knightley’s nephew John Hales). Afterwards John Hodgkins and his assistants took over.  They printed the remaining works at Wolston Priory, Coventry (home of another sympathiser named Roger Wigston) and Newton near Manchester. While Waldegrave fled abroad to Scotland (where he temporarily joined Penry), Hodgkins and his assistants were not so fortunate – they were captured, sent to London and tortured.

Frontispiece, Oh read over D. John Bridges / for it is a worthy worke: or an epitome (London, 1588).
Frontispiece, Hay any worke for Cooper (London, 1589).
Frontispiece, The Protestation (London, 1589).

As for the wider context, the continental Reformation had begun more than seventy years previously in Wittenberg, Saxony. Among the mainstream European leaders were another Martin – Martin Luther (1483–1546), as well as Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) and Jean Calvin (1509–1564), a French theologian who had established a theocracy in Geneva. In England the Reformation started somewhat later.  Although scholars do not agree exactly when, the 1530s – the decade during which Henry VIII (d.1547) declared himself head of the Church of England and then dissolved the monasteries – is widely accepted. Under Henry’s eldest surviving legitimate son Edward VI (d.1553) the process of Reformation accelerated, only for the national church to revert to Catholicism during the reign of Henry’s eldest daughter Mary I (d.1558). During the persecutions of ‘Bloody Mary’, as her enemies dubbed her, several hundred Protestants fled into exile – including a few who sought shelter in Calvin’s Geneva.  Mary was succeeded by Elizabeth I (d.1603), Henry’s daughter by his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Unknown artist, Armada Portrait (1588), depicting Elizabeth I. Held at Woburn Abbey.

At the time the first Marprelate tract was published Elizabeth had been on the throne almost exactly thirty years. For complicated political reasons she was still unmarried, which meant that the Virgin Queen’s dynasty could not be secured. Elizabeth was eventually succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland – although only after she had executed James’s Catholic mother Mary, Queen of Scots in February 1587 on the charge of treason. Mary had been accused of scheming to assassinate Elizabeth in what was known as the Babington Plot, just one of a handful of attempts on Elizabeth’s life that decade. Yet a greater threat still was foreign invasion by forces loyal to Philip II of Spain, whose second marriage had been to Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary I. In July 1588 the Spanish Armada set sail for the English Channel, its prime objective to depose Elizabeth and replace her with an amenable Catholic monarch; its secondary aim to prevent English Protestants providing assistance to their co-religionists in the Netherlands who had rebelled against Spanish rule twenty years previously. Nonetheless, the Armada was defeated after which in August 1588 Elizabeth delivered a famous victory speech at West Tilbury, Essex. Against this backdrop the Marprelate tracts appeared. But more on this in Part Two.

Unknown artist, English ships and the Spanish Armada (1588). Held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.