John Bale (21 November 1495 – November 1563) was an English churchman, historian and controversialist, and Bishop of Ossory.
He wrote the oldest known historical verse drama in English (on the subject of King John), and developed and published a very extensive list of the works of British authors down to his own time, just as the monastic libraries were being dispersed.
His unhappy disposition and habit of quarreling earned him the nickname “bilious Bale”.
He was born at Cove, near Dunwich in Suffolk. At the age of twelve he joined the Carmelite friars at Norwich, removing later to the house of “Holme”, (possibly the Carmelite priory at Hulne near Alnwick). Later he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, and took his degree of B.D. in 1529.
He became the last Prior of the Ipswich Carmelite house, elected in 1533. He abandoned his monastic vocation, and got married, saying, “that I might never more serve so execrable a beast, I took to wife the faithful Dorothy.”
He obtained the living of Thorndon, Suffolk, but in 1534 was summoned before the Archbishop of York for a sermon against the invocation of saints preached at Doncaster, and afterwards before John Stokesley, Bishop of London, but he escaped through the powerful protection of Thomas Cromwell, whose notice he is said to have attracted by his miracle plays.
In these plays Bale denounced the monastic system and its supporters in unrestrained language and coarse imagery. The prayer of Infidelitas which opens the second act of his Three Laws is an example of his profane parody. These somewhat brutal productions were intended to impress popular feeling, and Cromwell found in him an invaluable instrument. When Cromwell fell from favour in 1540, Bale fled with his wife and children to Antwerp.
He returned on the accession of King Edward VI, and received the living of Bishopstoke, Hampshire, being promoted in 1552 to the Irish see of Ossory. He refused to be consecrated by the Roman Catholic rites of the Irish church, and won his point, though the Dean of Dublin made a protest against the revised office during the ceremony. He also quarreled bitterly with the aged and respected judge Thomas St.
Lawrence, who travelled to Kilkenny to urge the people to reject his innovations.
When the accession of Queen Mary inaugurated a violent reaction in matters of religion, he was forced to get out of the country again. He tried to escape to Scotland, but on the voyage was captured by a Dutch man-of-war, which was driven by bad weather into St Ives, Cornwall.
Bale was arrested on suspicion of treason, but soon released. At Dover he had another narrow escape, but he eventually made his way to the Netherlands and thence to Frankfurt and Basel. During his exile he devoted himself to writing.
After his return, on the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, he received (1560) a prebendal stall at Canterbury, where he died and was buried in the cathedral.
John Bale attacked his enemies with vehemence and scurrility, much of which was directed strongly and forcibly against the Roman Catholic Church and its writers: but this cavill does not significantly diminish the value of his contributions to literature.
(The Roman Catholic sympathiser and antiquary Anthony Wood, a man of “uncouth manners” and a condemned libeller, described him as “foul-mouthed Bale” a century afterwards.) Of his mysteries and miracle plays only five have been preserved, but the titles of the others, quoted by himself in his Catalogus, show that they were animated by the same political and religious aims.
The Three Laws of Nature, Moses and Christ, corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharisees and Papystes most wicked (produced in 1538 and again in 1562) was a morality play. The direction for the dressing of the parts is instructive: “Let Idolatry be decked like an old witch, Sodomy like a monk of all sects, Ambition like a bishop, Covetousness like a Pharisee or spiritual lawyer, False Doctrine like a popish doctor, and Hypocrisy like a gray friar.”
A Tragedye; or enterlude manifesting the chief promyses of God unto Man, The Temptacyon of our Lorde, and A brefe Comedy or Enterlude of Johan Baptystes preachynge in the Wyldernesse, etc. were all written in 1538.
Bale is a figure of some literary-dramatic importance as the author of Kynge Johan (c.1538), which marks the transition between the old morality play and the English historical drama.
It does not appear to have directly influenced the creators of the chronicle histories (such as The Troublesome Reign of King John (1591)), but it is remarkable that such a developed attempt at historical drama should have been made fourteen years before the production of Gorboduc. Kynge Johan is itself a polemic against the Roman Catholic Church. King John is represented as the champion of English church rites against the Roman see:—
“This noble Kynge Johan, as a faythfull Moses
Withstode proude Pharao for his poore Israel.”
But the English people remained in the bondage of Rome,—
“Tyll that duke Josue, whych was our late Kynge Henrye,
Clerely brought us out in to the lande of mylke and honye.”
Elsewhere John is called a Lollard and accused of “heretycall langage,” and he is finally poisoned by a monk of Swinestead. Allegorical characters are mixed with the real persons.
Ynglonde vidua (Widow England) represents the nation, and the jocular element is provided by Sedwyson (sedition), occupying the role of Vice in a pure morality play. One actor was obviously intended to play many parts, for stage directions such as “Go out Ynglond, and dress for Clargy” are by no means uncommon.
The original manuscript of Kynge Johan was discovered between 1831 and 1838 among the Corporation (i.e. local government) Papers at Ipswich, where it was probably performed, for there are references to charitable foundations by King John in the town (which received its Town Charter from John in 1200 AD) and neighbourhood.
It is described at the end of the manuscript as two plays, but there is no obvious division, only the end of the first act being noted. The first part is corrected by Bale: the second half is in his handwriting, but his name nowhere occurs. In the list of his works, however, he mentions a play De Joanne Anglorum Rege (Of King John of the English), written in idiomate materno (in the mother tongue).
The text was edited by John Payne Collier for the Camden Society in 1838.
Some view Bale’s most important work as being Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorum, hoc est, Angliae, Cambriae, ac Scotiae Summarium… (“A Summary of the Famous Writers of Great Britain, that is, of England, Wales and Scotland”) published at Ipswich and Wesel for John Overton in 1548 and 1549.
This contained authors through five centuries: however, another edition, almost entirely rewritten and containing fourteen centuries, was printed at Basel with the title Scriptorum illustrium majoris Britanniae…Catalogus “(Catalogue of the Famous Writers of Great Britain),” in 1557–1559.
This chronological catalogue of British authors and their works was partly founded on the De uiris illustribus of John Leland. Bale was an indefatigable collector and worker, and personally examined many of the valuable libraries of the Augustinian and Carmelite houses before their dissolution.
His work contains much information that would otherwise have been hopelessly lost. His autograph note-book is preserved in the Selden Collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It contains the materials collected for his two published catalogues arranged alphabetically, without enlargement on them nor the personal remarks which colour the completed work. He includes the sources for his information.
He noted: “I have bene also at Norwyche, our second citye of name, and there all the library monuments are turned to the use of their grossers, candelmakers, sopesellers, and other worldly occupyers… As much have I saved there and in certen other places in Northfolke and Southfolke concerning the authors names and titles of their workes, as I could, and as much wold I have done throughout the whole realm, yf I had been able to have borne the charges, as I am not.”
John Bale’s written works are listed in Athenae Cantabrigienses.While in Germany he published an attack on the monastic system entitled The Actes of Englysh Votaries, three Lives as The Examinations of Lord Cobham, William Thorpe and Anne Askewe, &c, and the Pageant of Popes.
While Rector of Bishopstoke he produced The Image of both Churches, and after his stormy association with Ossory he printed an account of his ‘Vocacyon’ to that see. The Resurreccion of the Masse, purporting to be written by one Hugh Hilarie, is generally attributed to Bale.
John Pitts or Pitseus (1560–1616), an English Roman Catholic exile, founded on Bale’s work his Relationum historicarum de rebus anglicis tomus primus (Paris, 1619), better known by its running title of De Illustribus Angliae scriptoribus. This is really the fourth book of a more extensive work. He omits the Wycliffite and Protestant divines mentioned by Bale, and the most valuable section is the lives of the Roman Catholic exiles resident in Douai and other French towns.
He asserts (Nota de Joanne Bale) that Bale’s Catalogus was a misrepresentation of John Leland’s work, though in all likelihood he only knew Leland’s work through his reading of Bale.
The Image of Both Churches was published by John Bale in 1547, and is a thorough commentary on the book of Revelation, the last book in the Christian Bible.
Bale proceeded by taking short passages and following with a detailed paraphrase to explain the meaning and significance of such things as the opening of the seven seals, the first beast, the second beast with two horns, the blowing of the trumpets, and the going forth of the horsemen. Of central concern was the correct identification of Antichrist.
Bale’s understanding of Revelation differs markedly from the current popular view. For example, he knows nothing of a future Antichrist, a charming wonder working man who will rise up at the very end of the age.
This concept was taught by the Roman Catholic Church, but was refuted by Reformers such as William Tyndale, and also Martin Luther as he matured in his understanding. However, it is again accepted in the popular teachings of dispensationalism. Bale says, however, Antichrist is with us now, in the image of a Church. The opening of the seals describes what happens when God’s word is brought forth into the light. He believed that he was living in the time of the opening of the sixth seal, the Reformation, a time of great upheaval when the Scriptures were being freed from the grip of the Church of Rome.
He understood the time of the seventh seal to be when God’s word would go forth more freely and peacefully: the final season of God’s word while the present world stands.
Bale wrote during a time when many men had great passion for the Christian scriptures. His central thesis is that the book of Revelation is a prophecy of how God’s word and those who love it (the “saints”) would fare at the hands of men and a false Church during the last age, meaning the time between the ascension of Jesus and the end of the world. Bale identified two types of churches.
First there was, and would be until the end of the age, a false church, or Church of Antichrist, which persecutes those who do not bow to its dictates. He did not entirely limit his criticism to militant Roman Catholics but commented, if circumspectly, upon others that followed the same example, both in England – which might be a reference to the early Church of England – and in “other regions”, perhaps a reference to tyrannical theocratic reigns of such Protestant leaders as Huldrych Zwingli on the continent. He also speaks critically of the Church of Mohammed (“Mahomet”): its tyranny over the people (the “Turks”) and persecution of the saints.
Bale’s view is that persecutions reflect the image of Antichrist’s Church. By contrast, the true Church loves and teaches God’s word truly
The Image of Both Churches is clearly influenced by the tenor and terror of the time. Writers then often used extremes of expression – either very flattering or very insulting – and Bale was no exception.
But the times then were nothing like we know now. As documented by historian John Foxe, the times were fierce: men and women were publicly burned alive, dying in agony in flames, or were imprisoned, or had their goods confiscated and livelihoods taken away, for the crime of “heresy” – that is, disagreement with the reigning Church as to the meaning or import of God’s word. Some fierceness of expression is perhaps understandable;
Although it has fallen into obscurity, many in the mid 16th century subscribed to Bale’s views. Edmund Becke, who in 1549 re-published the Matthew Bible, revising many of the original 1537 notes and commentaires, included Bale’s commentaries on the book of Revelation and referred readers to The Image of Both Churches.
However, it is doubtful that William Tyndale, the original translator of the book of Revelation in Matthew’s Bible, would have endorsed Bale’s notes, at least not fully.
Tyndale sometimes commented that “the Turks” were (then) more Christian that the Roman Catholics, and his own commentaries on the book of Revelation were sparse.
He is the central figure in the 1988 novel Books of Bale by the novelist and playwright John Arden.