Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

Martin Marprelate The Epistle 1588

“And as the matter is made knowne vnto my Lorde the preacher is sure to go by the worst and the recusant to carrie all the honestie: Yea the preacher shalbe a busie enuious fellow one that doth not obserue the booke and conforme himself according vnto order and perhaps go home by beggars bush for any benefice he hath to liue vpon. For it may be the Bb. will be so good vnto him as to depriue him for not subscribing.  As for the recusant, he is known to be a man that must have liberty of his conscience. Is this good dealing brethren.”

Text & Usage

The Epistle was a pamphlet of 54 pages published in October 1588 in response to A Defense of the Government established in the Church of England for Ecclesiastical Matters (1587) by Dr John Bridges. It was the first of a series of anonymous tracts supporting the presbyterian cause against Archbishop Whitgift’s attempts to impose uniformity of worship and promote the power of bishops over clergy. The Epistle stated it was “Printed overseas, in Europe, within two furlongs of a Bounsing Priest, at the cost and charges of M. Marprelate, Gentlemen”.

The use of the phrase Beggars Bush as a literary phrase, not a geographical location  is consistent with the down to earth style of the Marprelate Tracts. They included colloquial language and proverbs, in a style taken in part from “libels” and verbal performance, with identifiable regional accents, emphasised with innovative typography. This is strong evidence that Martin Marprelate was recording usage in common speech.

The Marprelate Tracts

The Marprelate Tracts were a literary phenomenon, in publication, style and content. They are described by DNB as “witty, irreverent and swashbucklingly self-confident” in their attacks on the reforming bishops, written in rollicking earthy style, and addressed personally to the leading reformers. They were read at court and the universities, but also appealed to a wider audience. In the most recent edition the editor emphasizes their appeal to a popular audience, through reading aloud, for communal enjoyment in “a collective act of public ridicule”. They had print runs of 700-1000 copies of each pamphlet, and a distribution system which made them available around the country for between 2d. to 9d. each.

At a time when all publishing was strictly controlled and all books had to be approved by the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury or Bishop of London. They were produced on a series of secret presses not “overseas” but in Surrey, Northamptonshire, Coventry, and near Manchester.

The full power of Church and State was deployed against them. Queen Elizabeth imposed a ban on possessing them, and the printers were chased across the country by the persuivants of the Church. They provoked proclamations, lengthy & tedious responses from bishops (up to 1400 pages). When these failed the establishment turned to writers such as John Lyly, Thomas Nashe and (possibly) Robert Greene who produced pamphlets in response. These are significant for literary history from their modern colloquial style, and sparking the Nashe-Harvey controversy.

Who was Martin Marprelate?

The anonymity of the author was necessary and wise. When the printers were finally caught they were put to the rack. About twenty people were arrested, including a clergyman named Udall, who died in prison. One of his works was published on the presses used for Marprelate pamphlets but he was probably only peripherally involved with them.

A Welshman named John Penry was later prosecuted and executed in 1593. Although not tried for writing Martin Marprelate there is no doubt this lay behind the case. Penry, educated at Cambridge & Oxford, was certainly a religious controversialist, and probably had some part in the pamphlets. Some believe his lasting contribution to history may have been that his body was substituted for Christopher Marlowe’s, enabling the later to write the works of Shakespeare.

Another candidate is Job Throckmorton, from a gentry family in Warwickshire.  Corruptly elected an MP for Warwickshire in 1586. He spoke on only three subjects; strongly in favour of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots; in defence of free speech and puritanism; and against Spain and Catholic countries – in such virulent terms that he only escaped imprisonment in the Tower by a grovelling apology. There is no doubt that Throckmorton was involved at every stage in the production of the Marprelate pamphlets, and on stylistic grounds he is most likely the primary author of them all. Throckmorton denied this, in equivocal terms, saying “I am not Martin, I knew not Martin” – which was true as Martin did not exist. Although tried in 1590 he escaped punishment on legal technicalities and through his social position.



(a convenient website for texts, not just for those who believe that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote the Marprelate Tracts, as well as Nashe, Shakespeare and Greene)


Black, J. ed. The Martin Marprelate Tracts Cambridge, 2008

Further Reading

Bennett, H.S. English Books & Readers 1558 to 1603, Cambridge, 1965

DNB Martin Marprelate, John Penry, Job Throckmorton

Posted: March 13th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

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