The Vicar of Bray

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The Vicar of Bray is a satirical description of an individual fundamentally changing his principles to remain in ecclesiastical office as external requirements change around him. The religious upheavals in England from 1533 to 1559 (and then from 1633 to 1715) made it impossible for any devout clergyman to comply with all the successive requirements of established church. The original figure was the vicar Simon Aleyn, although clerics who faced vissitudes resulted in revised versions of the story.

A satirical 18th century song, "The Vicar of Bray", recounts the career of a vicar of Bray, Berkshire, towards the end of this period and his contortions of principle in order to retain his ecclesiastic office despite the changes through the course of several monarchs from Charles II to George I. A comic opera covers a later period in 18th century history, while a film set in Bray, County Wicklow, in Ireland, covers Charles I, the English Civil War, the Commonwealth of England, The Protectorate, and restoration of Charles II.

Historical basis[edit]

The figure described was Simon Aleyn between 1540–1588, as such, he preached the Bible and oversaw the baptism, confirmation, marriage and burial of his hundreds of parishioners in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth as the church minister of the 15 square miles (39 km2) almost wholly agriculturally cultivated parish, today much reduced, see Bray.

The main work of Thomas Fuller (d.1661), "Worthies of England", describes this man:[1]

The vivacious vicar [of Bray] living under King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, was first a Papist, then a Protestant, then a Papist, then a Protestant again. He had seen some martyrs burnt (two miles off) at Windsor and found this fire too hot for his tender temper.
This vicar, being taxed [attacked] by one for being a turncoat and an inconstant changeling, said, 'Not so, for I always kept my principle, which is this - to live and die the Vicar of Bray'.[2]

—Worthies of England, Published 1662

Clerics who took on a similar vissitude as the 16th century Vicar of Bray resulted in revised versions of the poems and songs. A variety of other clerics inspired the various re-writes depending on their location and date:

  • The commonest version summarises the Stuart period. The Bray incumbent, was among very few to minister a parish through its most fraught episodes for clerics across the land: the Civil War and Glorious Revolution:
    • Francis Carswell ended his life having been vicar of Bray for 42 years, dying in 1709 in Bray.
  • Other inspirations for local variants include:

Description of the song and lyrics[edit]

In the song, "The Vicar of Bray", the eponymous vicar was the clergyman of St Michael's Church, Bray. The most familiar version of the lyrics recount his adaptability (some would say amorality) over half a century, from the reigns of Charles II to George I. Over this period, he embraced whichever form of liturgy, Protestant or Catholic, was favoured by the monarch of the day in order to retain his position as vicar of Bray.

The following lyric is a version of the song recorded by Richard Dyer-Bennet in 1955:

In good King Charles' golden time, when loyalty no harm meant,
A zealous high churchman was I, and so I gained preferment.
To teach my flock, I never missed: Kings are by God appointed
And damned are those who dare resist or touch the Lord's anointed!

(Chorus)

And this be law, that I'll maintain until my dying day, sir
That whatsoever king may reign, Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.


When royal James possessed the crown, and popery came in fashion,
The penal laws I hooted down, and read the Declaration.
The Church of Rome, I found, did fit full well my constitution
And I had been a Jesuit, but for the Revolution.
When William was our King declared, to ease the nation's grievance,
With this new wind about I steered, and swore to him allegiance.
Old principles I did revoke; Set conscience at a distance,
Passive obedience was a joke, a jest was non-resistance.
When Royal Anne became our queen, the Church of England's glory,
Another face of things was seen, and I became a Tory.
Occasional conformists base; I blamed their moderation;
And thought the Church in danger was from such prevarication.
When George in pudding time came o'er, and moderate men looked big, sir
My principles I changed once more, and I became a Whig, sir.
And thus preferment I procured From our new Faith's Defender,
And almost every day abjured the Pope and the Pretender.
The illustrious House of Hanover and Protestant succession
To these I do allegiance swear - while they can hold possession.
For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter,
And George my lawful king shall be - until the times do alter.

Comic opera[edit]

The Vicar of Bray is an 1882 comic opera by Sydney Grundy and Edward Solomon. The opera is based on the character described in the 18th century song, as well as on The History of Sandford and Merton, a series of 18th century moral tales.

1937 film version[edit]

A film version of the tale was released in 1937 starring Stanley Holloway as the vicar.[3] In the film, the vicar (of Bray, County Wicklow in Ireland) is given a more positive character and events are placed at a slightly earlier period, during the English Civil War. He successfully protects his parishioners by adopting a diplomatic approach during the turbulent events and secures forgiveness for moderate rebels from the restored Charles II.

Cultural impact[edit]

The Tower of Bray is also referenced in the song Parlour Songs in the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd, although the song has been removed from more recent performances of that musical. George Orwell wrote an essay called A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray.

A scientific hypothesis is named after the Vicar of Bray that attempts to explain why sexual reproduction might be favoured over asexual reproduction.[4][5]

Vicar of Bray is the name of the last known surviving Whitehaven wooden-built ship. It was launched on 22 April 1841 by Robert Hardy.[6]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ 'Bray, St Michael.' A Topographical Dictionary of England. Ed. Samuel Lewis (publisher). London 1848. 350-353. British History Online. Retrieved 3 January 2015.
  2. ^ Bray Thames history website. Retrieved 2015-01-03
  3. ^ The Vicar of Bray at the Internet Movie Database
  4. ^ Wilson, David Sloan and Scott K. Gleeson. A Big Book on Sex (1982) Society for the Study of Evolution
  5. ^ Tannenbaum, Emmanuel and José F. Fontanari. "A quasispecies approach to the evolution of sexual replication in unicellular organisms", Theory in Biosciences, Springer: Berlin/Heidelberg, ISSN 1431-7613, Issue Volume 127, Number 1, March 2008
  6. ^ "Vicar of Bray", MyWhitehaven.net, 6 December 2007