Martin Marprelate (sometimes printed as Martin Mar-prelate and Marre–Martin) was the name used by the anonymous author or authors of the seven Marprelate tracts that circulated illegally in England in the years 1588 and 1589. Their principal focus was an attack on the episcopacy of the Anglican Church.
In 1583, the appointment of John Whitgift as Archbishop of Canterbury had signalled the beginning of a drive against the Presbyterian movement in the church, and an era of censorship began. In 1586, by an edict of the Star Chamber, the archbishop was empowered to license and control all of the printing apparatus in the country.
The true identity of "Martin" has long been the subject of speculation. For many years, the main candidate was John Penry, a Welsh preacher and author of several impassioned polemics against the state of the church. In 1981 Leland Carlson suggested that a Warwickshire squire and Member of Parliament, Job Throckmorton was the primary author and that Penry assisted him.
The tracts had to be printed in secrecy, and some sort of organisation was involved to handle their production and distribution. Penry was definitely involved in the printing, and the press was frequently relocated to different parts of the country in order to avoid the authorities. Penry himself denied any involvement in the actual authorship.
The government was concerned enough at the virulence of the attacks on the ecclesiastical hierarchy to respond in kind, hiring professional writers such as Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene and John Lyly to write counter-tracts. Like most polemics, the tracts are full of hatred of their opponents, describing the bishops as representing the Antichrist, and equally convinced of the righteousness of their own cause. The most prolific and effective of the anti-Martinists went by the colorful sobriquet, "the renowned Cavaliero Pasquill," traditionally believed to have been Thomas Nashe.
Later influence and interpretation
Some of the Marprelate pamphlets were reprinted in the seventeenth century, and an extensive scholarship has commented on their historical and literary significance. The anti-Martinist literature, including the Pasquill pamphlets, by contrast, has suffered from relative neglect by scholars of early modern England.
The Marprelate tracts are important documents in the history of English satire: critics from C. S. Lewis to John Carey have recognised their originality. In particular, the pamphlets show concern with the status of the text, wittily pastiching conventions such as the colophon and marginalia.
- “The just censure and reproof of Martin Junior” (1589) in The Marprelate Tracts, John D. Lewis, ed., The Anglican Library.
- Van Eerde, Katherine S. “Robert Waldegrave: The Printer as Agent and Link Between Sixteenth-Century England and Scotland” in Renaissance Quarterly 34 (1981), 40–78
- Carlson, Leland H., Martin Marprelate, Gentleman: Master Job Throckmorton Laid Open In His Colours (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1981)
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