The Marprelate Tracts

The Marprelate Tracts formed a series of seven printed pamphlets published in late 1588.  They lampooned individual bishops in the Anglican church and viciously attacked the church in general.  Unsurprisingly, their authorship was a well-guarded secret.

This article investigates the links between the authors of the tracts and the puritan community in Northamptonshire of which Robert Woodford (1606-54) was a member.

Fawsley Hall - An upstairs room accommodated the Marprelate printing press
Fawsley Hall - An upstairs room accommodated the Marprelate printing press

The Tracts

In 1588, a small group of puritan writers published a satirical pamphlet attacking the bishops and others who symbolised authoritarianism within the Church of England.   The author or authors of this tract chose to write under the pen name of Martin Marprelate.  Six further Marprelate Tracts were published over a period of less than two years.  They sparked fierce controversy and debate.

Those involved in their writing, printing and distribution risked their lives, as did the people who sheltered them.  The major contributor to the Marprelate tracts is believed to have been the Puritan writer John Penry (1553-93), but the identity of `Martin Marprelate' is still to be proven.

The first pamphlet claimed to be `compiled for the behoof and overthrow of the unpreaching parson, fyckers, and curates that have learnt their catechism and are past grace'.  The anonymity of the author, the forthright nature of its message, and its daring rude humour immediately caught the attention of the public.  The second tract was even more daring, declaring war on the `petty antichrists, proud prelates, intolerable withstanders of reformation, enemies of the gospel and covetous wretched priests'.  It promised that `Martin' would not only publish every single mistake committed by these priests, but would also install `a young Martin in every parish ... every one of them able to mar a prelate'.

Many read - or listened to the reading of - the tracts with disbelief.  The mysterious Martin Marprelate dared to ignore the traditional reverence for the episcopate, choosing to use a wild comedic form to mock the bishops.  They and the government mounted a far-reaching search for the secret Martinist press and for the author of the tracts.  By Christmas 1589 Martin Marprelate had been silenced but his identity had still not been uncovered.  

Two men, John Penry and Job Throgmorton, were suspected of being part of the Martinate group.   Penry escaped to Scotland but eventually returned to England and was executed. Throgmorton, for reasons that still remain a mystery was allowed to go free.   Others who were deemed part of the Martinate movement were either fined or imprisoned.  However, no clear evidence is available even today as to the true identity of Martin Marprelate.  

In the words of historian J.B.Black, `like the author of the letters of Junius his identity remains an unsolved problem of history'.  After the publication of the first tract, the Marprelate writers were forced to leave their base at Richmond in Surrey.   They travelled north and found refuge at the manor of Fawsley, on the western edge of Northamptonshire, the home of the puritan sympathiser Sir Richard Knightley.

Northampton Puritans and the Marprelate Tracts

The connection between the London‑based puritan printer Robert Waldegrave and the puritan community of Northamptonshire appears to have been in the person of John Penry, a Welshman who was living at Kingston in Surrey in April 1588 when Waldegrave's London press was raided.  Waldegrave had already printed a puritan work for Penry. He had been able to escape from the raid carrying a box of type and sought refuge in the home of the widow of Nicholas Crane, a puritan minister from Roehampton who had died in Newgate Prison.  During the summer of 1588 Waldegrave and Penry together printed tracts at Widow Crane's house at East Mosely, near Kingston.

Penry was a close friend of Edmund Snape, a curate at St. Peter's, Northampton and an active radical puritan, and in September 1588 married Eleanor Godley, a young woman who attended worship at All Saints, Northampton.  Penry first met Sir Richard Knightley at Northampton on July 25th of that year, and Waldegrave arrived at Fawsley in October 1588.

It is not relevant to this study to detail the method by which the press reached Fawsley, but it is important to establish the link between the Marprelate Tracts and diarist's church of All Saints.  On 29 January 1589, the house of Eleanor Godley's father in Northampton, whose family worshipped at All Saints, was raided and some copies of the second tract were found.  At about that same time the press was removed from Fawsley and relocated to Coventry. John Penry was condemned to death and executed. Knightley was fined two thousand pounds and imprisoned.

The Diary of Robert Woodford - Local Context

Robert Woodforde was born into a lively and supportive puritan community in the village of Old.   From numerous references in the diary it is known that both his parents had been active supporters of the puritan movement, not only as members of their church community, but in being involved in raising money for those Northamptonshire families planning to travel to New England, and in the many informal meetings in private homes which they attended.

Robert was congregationalist in his beliefs. He desired to reform the established church from within rather than attacking its rituals from outside.

Sir Richard Knightley

In seeking to define the structure of the puritan network of support and friendship, which undoubtedly existed in Northamptonshire at the time of the diarist's birth, it is important to consider the patronage of Sir Richard Knightley of Fawsley, a manor on the western edge of the county.  It was at Fawsley that the second of the notorious Marprelate Tracts was printed in 1588 after the press had been moved there secretly from London.

The involvement of Sir Richard Knightley in the Marprelate conspiracy is the most well‑known aspect of his support for the puritan community, but his patronage extended well beyond the boundaries of Fawsley. In this patronage there are several clear links with the Woodforde family's local community. Knightley owned one of the manors at Old, having married Joan Skennard, the daughter of Sir Henry Skennard, and heiress to the manor. Robert Woodforde was a son of Jane Dexter, the heiress of the second manor in Old. Furthermore, a number of very influential puritan preachers were protected and fostered by Knightley and by others of the puritan gentry. These included the Revd. Eusebius Paget, who for some time served as Rector of Old.

" There is a generall visitacon of Churches in this diocese by some of the worser sorte of divines & by piters to observe the standinge of the tables whether altarwise or not & to set them so. Oh Lord look upon us in mercy it is an evill time & the prudent hold their peace. Whoso de(par)te(th) from evill maketh himselfe a prey."

The Diary of Robert Woodforde, 31 August 1637.

The Revd Eusebius Paget

The Revd Eusebius Paget was the third son of Richard Paget of Cranford near Burton Latimer in Northamptonshire and Katherine, eldest daughter of Eusebius Isham of Pytchley.  He was born at Cranford during the reign of Mary and educated at Christchurch College, Oxford.  

He was often in conflict with the authorities and frequently suspended for his non‑conformist sermons.  He served as rector of Old from 1569 to 1576, and as rector of Lamport from 1572 to 1574.  He was suspended for a third time in 1598 by which time he was the minister at St. Botoph's, Aldgate where he remained until about 1604. 

It appears that Paget was first suspended whilst rector of Lamport in 1573 for refusing to use the Prayer Book and again in 1576, whilst Rector of Old, for his part in organising the Northamptonshire and Warwickshire puritan classis, and again in 1564 in Cornwall for preaching against the Prayer Book.

After his turbulent ecclesiastical career, Paget took up school teaching in Heston in Middlesex and subsequently in Deptford.  It has been suggested that a reference in one of the Marprelate Tracts (1589) indicates that Paget was suspected of being one of the Marprelate authors.

William Pierce in 'An Historical Introduction to the Marprelate Tracts', published in 1908,  discounts this theory and argues that the Marprelate authors could not have had any personal knowledge of Paget or else they would not have called him halt or club‑footed.  Pierce maintains that it was only Paget's arm that was disabled.   His conclusion on the matter of the possible association of Paget with the Marprelate Tracts is that:

" All that can be said in support of the suspicion is that Paget was a man of some original ability; also that he was exceptionally badly treated by the bishops; but there is nothing in his career to tempt us to consider further the possibility of his being the `great unknown'. "

However, P.L. Seaver's research into the puritan lectureships in the London area suggests that Paget was indeed lame.  Seaver has found that in the vestry minutes of St. Botolph's, Aldgate at the time when the incumbent was about to move to a Leicestershire rectory there is a record that:

" Mr Paget, an old lame man being a preacher did preach in the parish .. at the request of Mr Wllm Hubbuck. "

A further vestry minute in the following month notes that Eusebius Paget had been duly elected.  On several other occasions, Paget is described as the "old lame man".  In consequence, there appears to be no reason as yet to discount the possibility that Paget was indeed associated with the Marprelate writers.

There had been a strong tradition of puritan activity at All Saints, Northampton. In 1557, a shoemaker in the parish of Syresham in Northamptonshire was sentenced to death at All Saints for denying transubstantiation. John Foxe, in his Acts and Monuments gives the following account:‑

" His name was John Kurde, a shoemaker, late of the parish of Syresham, in Northamptonshire, who was imprisoned in Northampton Castle for denying the popish transubstantiation, for which cause William Binsley, Bachelor of Law, and Chancellor unto the Bishop of Peterborough, and now Archdeacon of Northampton, did pronounce sentence of death against the said Kurde, in the church of All Saints, in Northampton, in August, anno 1557.  And in September following, at the commandment of Sir Thomas Tresham, Sheriff then of the shire, he was led by his officer within the North Gate of Northampton and in the stone pits was burnt.   A popish priest standing by, whose name was John Rote, vicar of St. Giles in Northampton did declare unto him that if he would recant, he was authorised to give him his pardon. His answer was that he had his pardon by Jesus Christ."

The  Church of All Saints, Northampton (built 1680, replacing the earlier church)
The Church of All Saints, Northampton (built 1680, replacing the earlier church)


It is also generally accepted that the puritan exercises known as Prophesyings originated at All Saints.  The rules drawn up at Northampton in 1571 for these devotional meetings are the earliest known to exist.   The system was adopted in part by the dioceses of London and Norwich and later extended to parts of the dioceses of York, Chester, Durham and Ely.  Inevitably, the Prophesyings were suppressed, in a letter from the Queen to each of her bishops in May 1577.  In Northampton, the suppression coincided with one of several epidemics of the plague to spread to the town during the 16th and 17th centuries.

However, the puritan community in Northampton reacted to the suppression of the Prophesyings by the creation of `classes' or boards of puritan clergy, meeting locally to regulate church government in direct opposition to the bishops.  In Northamptonshire the classis seem to have been held most frequently at the Bull Inn on the south side of All Saints church. Incidentally, Thomas Ball was appointed vicar of All Saints, Northampton in 1629, the same year in which Laud's campaign of Armenian reform began in earnest.  Nathaniel Brent's visitation reached Northampton in 1635 and reported on the church of All Saints on 11 and 12 May.

In 1637 Francis Dee who had been appointed Bishop of Peterborough in 1634, the first year of Laud's primacy, appointed two local men who were in sympathy with the principles of Armenianism to make further reforms within the diocese.  The two clergy appointed to the task as Episcopal commissioners were Dr Samuel Clarke and Dr Robert Sibthorpe.  A detailed report on All Saints was drawn up and submitted on 26 October 1637. The commissioners' visits to local churches were recorded by Robert Woodforde on 31 August 1637:‑

" There is a generall visitacon of Churches in this diocese by some of the worser sorte of divines & by piters to observe the standinge of the tables whether altarwise or not & to set them so. Oh Lord look upon us in mercy it is an evill time & the prudent hold their peace. Whoso de(par)te(th) from evill maketh himselfe a prey."