Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Vicar of Bray


On August 4, 1543, three Protestant "heretics" according to Henry VIII's reckoning, were burned at the stake. They are known as the Windsor martyrs: Robert Testwood, chorister at Windsor College; Anthony Pearson, a Protestant preacher; and Henry Filmer, a church warden at St. John's in Windsor, who thought the parish priest was too Catholic. Two other men had been arrested, but were not executed.

The Royal Berkshire History website has this background on their trial and execution:

Testwood, Filmer, Pearson, Bennet and Marbeck were all committed to the Bishop of Winchester’s gaol in Southwark for trial under the terms of the Act of Six Articles. The 26th July 1543 was fixed for their trial at Windsor. Because twelve Papists could not be found in the town to fill the jury, Dr. London recommended that the Dean’s tenant farmers be summoned to attend. The accused were all found guilty, but only after William Simonds leaned on the jurers. The judges were John Capon, Bishop of Salisbury, Sir William Essex, Sir Thomas Brydges, Sir Humphrey Forster, William Franklin, Dean of Windsor and Thomas Vachell, but most of them were uncomfortable with the sentencing which was eventually left to Vachell, the most junior of the group. The prisoners were all condemned to be burnt at the stake. However, Bishop Gardiner obtained a pardon for Marbeck whose musical abilities he admired and Bennet’s execution was postponed due to ill-health. For old time’s sake, Simonds later obtained a pardon for him too.

It said that, all night long, the prisoners called on God for his aid and strength, and prayed for the forgiveness of their persecutors, until sleep finally overtook them. Their guards, and even the sheriff – Sir William Barentyne of Little Haseley (Oxfordshire) – were quite moved by their words. On 4th August, the small party was conducted from their prison, through the town, to a field below the castle walls, on the site of the Riverside Station. Having expressed, at the stake, their utmost confidence in their passage to heaven, the three meekly yielded to their fate amongst the flames.

Amongst those in watching crowds was the Vicar of Bray. So shocked was he by the spectacle before him that he swore to himself there and then that, no matter what the religious winds blowing through the nation, he would keep his head down so he might always remain ‘the Vicar of Bray still’. Thus the cleric entered history as the titular character of the famous English ballad. Some say he was William Simonds’ own brother, the Archdeacon of Suffolk.


Simon Aleyn, a canon at Windsor and vicar at several parishes, was also identified as the possible model for the Vicar of Bray, changing his religious practice with the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. The famous or infamous ditty "The Vicar of Bray" with its chorus

And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!


recounts religious changes during the Stuart era from Charles II to George I:

In good King Charles's golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
A Furious High-Church man I was,
And so I gain'd Preferment.
Unto my Flock I daily Preach'd,
Kings are by God appointed,
And Damn'd are those who dare resist,
Or touch the Lord's Anointed.

And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
When Royal James possest the crown,
And popery grew in fashion;
The Penal Law I shouted down,
And read the Declaration:
The Church of Rome I found would fit
Full well my Constitution,
And I had been a Jesuit,
But for the Revolution. (Refrain)

When William our Deliverer came,
To heal the Nation's Grievance,
I turn'd the Cat in Pan again,
And swore to him Allegiance:
Old Principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive Obedience is a Joke,
A Jest is non-resistance. (Refrain)

When Royal Ann became our Queen,
Then Church of England's Glory,
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory:
Occasional Conformists base
I Damn'd, and Moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was,
From such Prevarication. (Refrain)

When George in Pudding time came o'er,
And Moderate Men looked big, Sir,
My Principles I chang'd once more,
And so became a Whig, Sir.
And thus Preferment I procur'd,
From our Faith's great Defender,
And almost every day abjur'd
The Pope, and the Pretender. (Refrain)

The Illustrious House of Hannover,
And Protestant succession,
To these I lustily will swear,
Whilst they can keep possession:
For in my Faith, and Loyalty,
I never once will faulter,
But George, my lawful king shall be,
Except the Times shou'd alter. (Refrain)


More background here from the BBC History Magazine. Royal Doulton used to have a toby mug depicting a winking Vicar (illustrated above).

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