The Vicar of Bray (song)
"The Vicar of Bray" is a satirical song recounting the career of The Vicar of Bray and his contortions of principle in order to retain his ecclesiastic office despite the changes in the Established Church through the course of several English monarchs. The song is particularly interesting because of the number of (rather specific) allusions to English religious and political doctrines and events crammed into it, justifying the close reading and annotation given here.
- 1 Text and melody
- 2 Notes
- 3 Origins and cultural influence
- 4 Historical basis of the character
- 5 Sources
- 6 References
Text and melody
In good King Charles's golden days,
The division of the English church into "high" and "low" was extremely significant at the time of the Restoration. The High Church resisted the Calvinistic levelling of church hierarchy that saw its apex in the Commonwealth. The High Church party supported the divine right of kings, episcopal church government, and establishment of the Church of England by the civil government. It was primarily Tory, and was more hierarchical than either the "low" (more Puritan/Presbyterian) or "broad" (latitudinarian or tolerant) churches. High Church in the late 17th century should not be confused with the liturgical changes sought by the Anglo-Catholic/Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Puritans, Presbyterians and Baptists favoured plainer, less sacramental, more scriptural liturgy in every era. However restoration of the Catholic style liturgy (often called 'High Church') in the Church of England is primarily a 19th-century phenomenon. In the 17th century, the High Church was devoted to the King's church: meaning that the King of England was not only the head of the church, but that the church's very holiness was imbued into the King's person. Therefore, the King of England was not, in some sense, an ordinary mortal.
The Vicar of Bray comically adapts his political and ecclesiastical beliefs to fit the successively ascendant government and church parties of his day.
Appointment to an ecclesiastical office, or the position itself; in this case the benefice of Bray. A candidate for an ecclesiastical position was "preferred" over others for it by those with the right of appointment: these could be church superiors, or often nobles or institutions such as Oxbridge colleges (through their right to present a new incumbent to a benefice).
In this case, the King, anointed (by God) in the ceremony of coronation as temporal and spiritual leader of England; it draws from the Judeo-Christian Bible, I Samuel 24. King Charles I, who had been beheaded during the English Civil War had attempted to introduce the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings to England. After the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II (son of Charles I) was restored to the throne. Charles II was more moderate than his father, but the leading political theorist of the absolutist side, Sir Robert Filmer (the target of John Locke's Two Treatises of Government), had argued that the king is appointed directly by God and is, by nature, inherently superior to those he ruled. Therefore, the king is anointed by God from birth (and not by the Archbishop at coronation). Charles II took no consistent position on divine right, but those who restored him did, and the High Church was ascending.
The English Church is an Established Church, meaning that it is regulated by Parliamentary law; at the time ecclesiastics could be and were removed from office for their religious and political opinions. This is the gist of the song's satire: the Vicar of Bray accommodated his beliefs to those of the current ruler, in order to retain his ecclesiastic office. During the period in question, one of the most difficult and fluid questions was the degree to which Non-conformist and Non-juror clerics could participate in the Established Church.
Non-conformists were those ministers who, though ordained and appointed by the church hierarchy, would not conform to the liturgical practices outlined by the church authorities. These individuals were usually Puritans of some variety, but they could include nearly any variation in religious practice.
Non-jurors (oath-refusers) were more vexing. When Parliament required that all clergy swear allegiance to the king as head of the church, many resisted. Some Puritans felt that no man could lead a church, that orders came from God directly to each believer. Others had sworn oaths before the Test Act and could not swear again without being forsworn. Others were of Roman Catholic leanings and did not recognise the king's reformed church's right to separation from the rest of the communion. In particular, it would be inconsistent to take the oath under Charles II (the Test Act of 1673) and also to take the oath under William and Mary, as these two oaths were contradictory. Not taking the new oaths was a matter of derision, as those parsons were regarded as possibly seditious, and taking the new oaths was a matter of derision, as those parsons were regarded as spineless. The Vicar of Bray is in the latter camp.
Derogatory word referring to Roman Catholicism, as personified in the Pope; King James II was the first Catholic monarch of England since Mary I of England. James's Catholic faith and attempts to revoke legal restrictions against his coreligionists caused an anti-Catholic Parliament to invite King James' daughter, Mary, and her husband, James' nephew and son-in-law William of Orange, to rule England. William invaded England with a large army. Parliament announced that the King had effectively abdicated and declared William and Mary to be joint King and Queen. This coup d'etat was a unique event in British history, and is known as the Glorious Revolution. Parliament passed legislation making Protestantism a condition for any monarch of Britain or Ireland.
Even after the defeat of his armies in Ireland, King James and the House of Stuart continued to have a very large following throughout the British Isles. This led the new order to never feel entirely secure from the possibility of civil war in favor of the deposed dynasty.
James's son, living abroad, became known as The Old Pretender (see line 41), but his grandson, Charles ("Bonnie Prince Charlie"), The Young Pretender, proved a far more effective military commander and contender for the throne.
A Roman Catholic religious order founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits were known for the excellence of their academic training, ability to argue effectively against Protestantism using the Bible, and personal vow of obedience to the Roman Pontiff. Therefore, from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England the priests of Society of Jesus were especially feared and hated by the Protestants of the British Isles. English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh Protestants viewed the Jesuits as terrorists, assassins, and spies due to the Jesuit practice of sending missionaries incognito into Britain to minister to Catholics, spread the faith and bring back information, plus (it was alleged) incite revolt.
The Glorious Revolution occurred soon after James II's ascension to the throne in 1685. James had only been king for a matter three years before he fled. The Vicar, therefore, did not have long with his new faith. However, the Vicar was not alone in converting to open Roman Catholicism. John Dryden became Roman Catholic at this time (and was taunted by a version of the "Vicar of Bray" tale pre-dating this song), but he remained Roman Catholic to his death and defended his conversion publicly.
Turn'd the cat in pan
To change sides quickly and effortlessly. ("to reverse the order of things so dexterously as to make them appear the very opposite of what they really are; to turn a thing right about. Obs.") (Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed., online (subscription required)), Oxford University Press. September 2013.)
Some versions of the song give this as "a pish on" ("a piss on").
Queen Anne's first government was Whig, but the Tories rose soon to negotiate the Treaty of Utrecht to end the Whig War of the Spanish Succession. During this period, several men of great force rose under the leadership of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, and Henry St. John, the Viscount Bolingbroke. This is notable, because the voices of this Tory administration (including Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift) were adept satirists, and the "Vicar of Bray" was composed, most likely, by a sympathetic wit.
The idea that the Church was in danger (lines 32–33) was a common rallying cry of the Tory churchmen from 1701 onward. The danger was from Puritans, for the most part. The Vicar's previous beliefs were of reforming, then alien sorts. (Alien meaning Catholic: a religion controlled not by Englishmen and ruled by an English monarch, but by the foreign Pope, who himself might be under the control of foreign monarchs.) But now the Vicar worries that the Church is under threat, and he is alarmed, specifically, at the 'lies' of those who are occasional conformists (i.e. persons whose obedience is partial and likely nominal, "occasioned" not by true belief but to avoid the civil disabilities of the Penal Laws).
OED says: "The time when pudding or puddings are to be had; (hence fig.) a time when a person is in luck; a favourable or useful time" (Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed., online (subscription required)), Oxford University Press. September 2013.)
George I's first government was Whig. In particular, George I's rule was the zenith of Robert Walpole, often called the first British Prime Minister. Walpole dominated all aspects of British politics and polarised the populace. Whigs monopolised power during the Walpole administration.
The Whigs generally prevailed during the Hanoverian reigns, with some notable exceptions. During this period, the Whigs were known as standing for religious tolerance and state sponsorship of trade. The Tories were the party of the aristocracy and the squires (the country estate holders). Tories accused the Whigs of taking Holland, which had become very wealthy with mercantilism and tolerance, as their model. The emergent foreign trade interests were favoured by George I, who himself came from modern day Germany and tried to distance himself as much as possible from religious matters. His background was in a state with little monarchical control of religion, and this meant that his court was disengaged. The Vicar therefore embraces the occasional conformity that he previously thought a danger.
Faith's great Defender
The Latin title Fidei defensor was first granted by the Pope to King Henry VIII, who subsequently split the English Church from Rome; hence the double irony of the song applying it to Protestant King George. The line is even more ironic, since George I did not take stands on religious matters, preferring to practice salutary neglect of church matters. In fact, George II (king at the time of this song's setting) reduced the involvement of the Crown with the Church in general and diminished the role of Lords in church affairs. Thus, he seemed to contemporaries to be a more secular king than they had had before, and certainly not a "defensor fidelis".
This spelling is standard in German, but archaic in English; the modern English spelling is "Hanover".
Origins and cultural influence
The generally known form of the song appears to have been based on an earlier version, "The Religious Turncoat; Or, the Trimming Parson".
The melody is taken from the 17th-century folk melody "Country Gardens" which in turn was used in The Quaker's Opera, first printed in London in 1728, a three-act farce based on the story of Jack Sheppard which was performed at Bartholomew Fair.
A parody of this parody song, "The American Vicar of Bray", with the same chorus, was published in the 30 June 1779 edition of Rivington's Royal Gazette, mocking the shifting loyalties of some American colonists during the American Revolutionary War.
Historical basis of the character
Several individuals have been proposed as the model for the Vicar of Bray.
- Thomas Fuller and the English dramatist Richard Brome argue that the model for the song was the 16th century cleric and vicar of Bray, Berkshire, Simon Aleyn (1540–1588), who lived in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth.
- The Vicar of Bray from 1667 to 1709 (under Charles II, James II, William and Mary and Queen Anne) was Thomas Fuller, who "was of like easy conscience" to his predecessor, successfully remaining Vicar of Bray until his dying day, through most of the events described in the song (with the exception of the ascension of George I).
- The most frequently sung words refer to 17th-century monarchs. Therefore, a later proposed model is Simon Symonds, who was an Independent in the Protectorate, a Church of England cleric under Charles II, a Roman Catholic under James II, and a moderate Anglican under William and Mary.
- Thomas Barlow (1607–1691), Bishop of Lincoln, is another candidate.
- Source for the version of the song given here is The British Musical Miscellany, Volume I, 1734, as found in R. S. Crane, A Collection of English Poems 1660–1800, New York: Harper & Row, 1932.
- A more thorough annotation, which partially informed this one.
- Another annotation
- Yet another annotation
- Historical background of the song
- Midi file of the song
- Roud # 4998.
- "The Vicar of Bray - What History Tells of a Legendary Figure". The Glasgow Herald. 12 March 1938.