A Supplication for the Beggars/Introduction

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SIR Thomas More, who at that time was but Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was made Lord Chancellor in the room of Cardinal Wolsey on Sunday, the 24th of October 1529.

The following undated work—the second of his controversial ones—was therefore written, printed and published prior to that day, and while as yet he held the lower dignity of the ducal Chancellorship.

¶ The supplycacyon of soulys Made by syr Thomas More knyght councellour to our souerayn lorde the Kynge and chauncellour of hys Duchy of Lancaster.

¶ Agaynst the supplycacyon of beggars.

At fol. xx. of this work occurs the following important passage, which, while crediting the Reformers with a greater science in attack, and a more far-reaching design in their writings than they actually possessed: fixes with precision the year of the first distribution in England of Simon Fish's Supplicacyon for the Beggers, and with that its sequence in our early Protestant printed literature—

For the techyng and prechyng of all whych thyngys / thys beggers proctour or rather the dyuels proctour with other beggers that la[c]k grace and nether beg nor lo[o]ke for none: bere all thys theyr malyce and wrathe to the churche of C[h]ryste. And seynge there ys no way for attaynyng theyr entent but one of the twayn / yat ys to wyt eyther playnly to wryte agaynst the fayth and the sacramentys (wheryn yf they gat them credence and obtaynyd / they then se[e] well the church must nedys fall therwyth) or els to labour agaynst the church alone / and get the clergye dystroyd / whereuppon they parceyue well that the fayth and sacramentes wo[u]ld not fayle to decay: they parceyuyng thys / haue therfore furste assayd the furst way all redy / sendyng forth Tyndals translacyon of the new testament in such wyse handled as yt shuld haue bene the fountayn and well spryng of all theyr hole heresyes. For he had corrupted and purposely changed in many placys the text / wyth such wordys as he myght make yt seme to the vnlerned people / that the scripture affirmed theyr heresyes it selfe. Then cam sone after out in prynt the dyaloge of freere Roy and frere Hyerome / betwene ye father and ye sonne [Preface dated Argentine (Strasburg), 31 August, 1527] agaynst ye sacrament of ye aulter: and the blasphemouse boke entytled the beryeng of the masse [i.e. Rede me and be not wroth / printed at Strasburg early in 1528]. Then cam forth after Tyndals wykkyd boke of Mammona [Dated Marburg, 8 May 1528] / and after that his more wykkyd boke of obydyence [Dated Marburg, 2 October 1528]. In whych bokys afore specyfyed they go forth playnly agaynst the fayth and holy sacramentis of Crystys church / and most especyally agaynst the blyssed sacrament of ye aulter / wyth as vylanous wordes as the wre[t]ches cou[l]d deuyse. But when they haue perceuyd by experyence yat good people abhorred theyr abomynable bokes: then they beyng therby lerned yat the furst way was not ye best for ye furtherance of theyr purpose / haue now determined them selfe to assay the secunde way /that ys to witte yat forberynge to wryte so openly and dyrectly agaynste all the fayth and the sacramentys as good crysten men coulde not abyde the redyng / they wolde / wyth lyttell towchyngof theyre other heresyes / make one boke specially agaynst ye church and loke how that wold proue.

The previous controversial work produced by Sir Thomas More had but recently appeared under the title of ¶ A dialoge of syr Thomas More knighte: one of the counsayll of oure souerayne lorde the kyng and chauncellor of hys duchy of Lancaster. Wherin be treatyd diuers matters / as of the veneration and worshyp of ymagys and relyques / prayng to sayntys / and goyng on pylgrymage. Wyth many othere thyngys touchyng the pestelent sect of Luther and Tyndale / by th[e] one begone in Saxony / and by th[e] other laboryd to be brought in to Englond.

[COLOPHON]. Emprynted at London at the sygne of the meremayd at Powlys gate next to chepe syde in the moneth of June the yere of our lord. M.C.C.XXIX. Cum priuilegio Regali.

Of this extraordinarily scarce first edition, there is a copy in the Corporation Library, London.

As Sir Thomas More felt it necessary to write this second work, of the Supplicacyon of Soulys, after he had composed his Dialogue the printing of which was finished in June 1529; and as his Supplicacyon certainly was written and published prior to his advancement on the 24th October following: it is conclusive that S. Fish's tract had not appeared before he was writing the Dialogue, and therefore that the date of its distribution must by this internal evidence, be fixed as in the spring or summer of 1529; however that date may conflict with early testimony, such as incorrect lists of prohibited books, assigning it to 1524, 1526, etc.

Yet John Fox in his Actes and Monumentes, [Third Edition] fol. 987, Ed. 1576, states that was

"Throwen and scattered at the procession in Westminster vpon Candlemas day [? 2nd February 1529] before kyng Henry the viij, for him to read and peruse."

We have been unable to verify this procession at Westminster on this particular date, and think that if it had been so, Sir Thomas More would have surely noticed to the Supplicacyon while writing the Dialogue, the printing of which was in progress during the next four months. He may, however, have thought it necessary to write a special book against S. Fish's tract, with its distinct line of attack as he has accurately stated it.

It will be seen from the Bibliography that this date of the Spring of 1529 quite harmonizes with those of the contemporary German and Latin translations; which, naturally, would be prompt. It is also not inconsistent with the following allusion at p. 30 to Cardinal Wolsey's still holding the Lord Chancellorship.

¶ And this is by the reason that the chief instrument of youre lawe ye[a] the chief of your counsell and he whiche hath your swerde in his hond to whome also all the other instrumentes are obedient is alweys a spirituell man.

So much, then, as to the certain approximate date of the publication. Fox is quite wrong in assuming as he does in the following paragraph that this work was the occasion of Bishop Tonstal's Prohibition of the 24th October 1526, i.e. more than two years previously.

After that the Clergye of England, and especially the Cardinall, vnderstoode these bookes of the Beggars supplication aforesayd, to be strawne abroade in the streetes of London, and also before the kyng. The sayd Cardinall caused not onely his seruauntes diligently to attend to gather them vp, that they should not come into the kynges handes, but also when he vnderstode, that the king had receaued one or two of them, he came vnto the kynges Maiesty saying: "If it shall please your grace, here are diuers seditious persons which haue scattered abroad books conteyning manifest errours and heresies" desiryng his grace to beware of them. Whereupon the kyng putting his hand in his bosome, tooke out one of the bookes and deliuered it vnto the Cardinall. Then the Cardinall, together with the Byshops, consulted &c.

Eccles. Hist. &c., p. 900. Ed. 1576.


WE now come to the only authoritative account of our Author, as it is recorded in the same Third Edition of the Actes and Monumentes &c., p. 896. Ed. 1576.

The story of M[aster]. Simon Fishe.

BEfore the tyme of M[aster]. Bilney, and the fall of the Cardinall, I should haue placed the story of Symon Fish with the booke called the Supplication of Beggars, declaryng how and by what meanes it came to the kynges hand, and what effect therof followed after, in the reformation of many thynges, especially of the Clergy. But the missyng of a few yeares in this matter, breaketh no great square in our story, though it be now entred here which should haue come in sixe yeares before.

Fox is writing of 1531, and therefore intends us to understand that the present narrative begins in 1525.

The maner and circumstaunce of the matter is this:

After that the light of the Gospel workyng mightely in Germanie, began to spread his beames here also in England, great styrre and alteration followed in the harts of many: so that colored hypocrisie and false doctrine, and painted holynes began to be espyed more and more by the readyng of Gods word. The authoritie of the Bishop of Rome, and the glory of his Cardinals was not so high, but such as had fresh wittes sparcled with Gods grace, began to espy Christ from Antichrist, that is, true sinceritie, from counterfait religion. In the number of whom, was the sayd M[aster]. Symon Fish, a Gentleman of Grayes Inne.

Ex certa relatione, vivoque testimonio propriæ ipsius coningis.It happened the first yeare that this Gentleman came to London to dwell, which was about the yeare of our Lord 1525 [i.e. between 25 Mar. 1525 and 24 Mar. 1526] that there was a certaine play or interlude made by one Master Roo of the same Inne Gentleman, in which play partly was matter agaynst the Cardinal Wolsey. And where none durst take vpon them to play that part, whiche touched the sayd Cardinall, this foresayd M. Fish tooke upon him to do it, whereupon great displeasure ensued agaynst him, vpon the Cardinals part: In so much as he beyng pursued by the sayd Cardinall, the same night that this Tragedie was playd, was compelled of force to voyde his owne house, and so fled ouer the Sea vnto Tyndall.

We will here interrupt the Martyrologist's account, with Edward Halle's description of this "goodly disguisyng." It occurs at fol. 155 of the history of the eighteenth year of the reign of Henry VIII. [22 April 1526 to 21 April 1527] in his Vnion of the two noble and illustrate families of Lancastre and York &c. 1548.

This Christmas [1526] was a goodly disguisyng plaied at at Greis inne, whiche was compiled for the moste part, by Master Jhon Roo, seriant at the law. [some] xx. yere past, and long before the Cardinall had any aucthoritie, the effecte of the plaie was, that lord Gouernaunce was ruled by Dissipacion and Negligence, by whose misgouernance and euil order, lady Publike Wele was put from gouernance: which caused Rumor Populi, Inward Grudge and Disdain of Wanton Souereignetie, to rise with a greate multitude, to expell Negligence and Dissipacion, and to restore Publike Welth again to her estate, which was so doen.

This plaie was so set furth with riche and costly apparel, with straunge diuises of Maskes and morrishes [morris dancers] that it was highly praised of all menne, sauing of the Cardinall, whiche imagined that the plaie had been diuised of hym, and in a great furie sent for the said master Roo, and toke from hym his Coyfe, and sent hym to the Flete, and after he sent for the yong gentlemen, that plaied in the plaie, and them highley rebuked and thretened, and sent one of them called Thomas Moyle of Kent to the Flete. But by the meanes of frendes Master Roo and he were deliuered at last.

This plaie sore displeased the Cardinall, and yet it was neuer meante to hym, as you haue harde, wherfore many wisemen grudged to see hym take it so hartely, and euer the Cardinall saied that the kyng was highly displeased with it, and spake nothyng of hymself.

There is no question as to the date of this "disguisyng." Archbishop Warham on the 6th February 1527, wrote to his chaplain, Henry Golde, from Knolle that he "Has received his letters, dated London, 6 Feb., stating that Mr. Roo is committed to the Tower for making a certain play. Is sorry such a matter should be taken in earnest." Letters &c. Henry VIII. Ed. by J. S. Brewer, p. 1277. Ed. 1872.

It would seem however that Fish either did not go or did not stay long abroad at this time. Strype (Eccles. Mem. I. Part ii, pp. 63–5. Ed. 1822) has printed, from the Registers of the Bishops of London, the Confession in 1528 of Robert Necton (a person of position, whose brother became Sheriff of Norwich in 1530), by which it appears that during the previous eighteen months, that is from about the beginning of 1527, our Author was "dwellyng by the Wight Friars in London;" and was actively engaged in the importation and circulation of Tyndale's New Testaments, a perfectly hazardous work at that time.

Possibly this Confession was the occasion of a first or a renewed flight by Fish to the Continent, and therefore the ultimate cause of the present little work in the following year.

We now resume Fox's account, which was evidently derived from Fish's wife, when she was in old age.

Vpon occasion wherof the next yeare folowyng this booke was made (being about the yeare 1527) and so not long after in the yeare (as I suppose) 1528 [which by the old reckoning ended on the 24 Mar. 1529]. was sent ouer to the Lady Anne Bulleyne, who then lay at a place not farre from the Court. Which booke her brother seyng in her hand, tooke it and read it, and gaue it [to] her agayne, willyng her earnestly to giue it to the kyng, which thyng she so dyd.

This was (as I gather) about the yeare of our Lord 1528 [–1529].

The kyng after he had receaued the booke, demaunded of her "who made it." Whereunto she aunswered and sayd, "a certaine subiect of his, one Fish, who was fled out of the Realme for feare of the Cardinall."

After the kyng had kept the booke in his bosome iij. or iiij. dayes, as is credibly reported, such knowledge was giuen by the kynges seruauntes to the wife of ye sayd Symon Fishe, yat she might boldly send for her husband, without all perill or daunger. Whereupon she thereby beyng incouraged, came first and made sute to the kyng for the safe returne of her husband. Who vnderstandyng whose wife she was, shewed a maruelous gentle and chearefull countenaunce towardes her, askyng "where her husband was." She aunswered, "if it like your grace, not farre of[f]." Then sayth he, "fetch him, and he shal come and go safe without perill, and no man shal do him harme," saying moreouer, "that hee had [had] much wrong that hee was from her so long:" who had bene absent now the space of two yeares and a halfe,

Which from Christmas 1526 would bring us to June 1529, which corroborates the internal evidence above quoted. Fox evidently now confuses together two different interviews with the King. The first at the Court in June 1529; the other on horseback with the King, followed afterwards by his Message to Sir T. More in the winter of 1529–30, within six months after which S. Fish dies. His wife never would have been admitted to the Court, if she had had a daughter ill of the plague at home.

In the whiche meane tyme, the Cardinall was deposed, as is aforeshewed, and M[aster]. More set in his place of the Chauncellourshyp.

Thus Fishes wife beyng emboldened by the kynges wordes, went immediatly to her husband beyng lately come ouer, and lying priuely within a myle of the Court, and brought him to the kyng: which appeareth to be about the yeare of our Lord. 1530.

When the kyng saw hym, and vnderstood he was the authour of the booke, he came and embraced him with louing countenance: who after long talke: for the space of iij. or iiij. houres, as they were ridyng together on huntyng, at length dimitted him, and bad him "take home his wife, for she had taken great paynes for him." Who answered the kyng agayne and sayd, he "durst not so do, for fear of Syr Thomas More then Chauncellor, and Stoksley then Bishop of London. This seemeth to be about the yeare of our Lord. 1530.

This bringing in of Stokesley as Bishop is only making confusion worse confounded. Stokesley was consecrated to the see of London on the 27th Nov. 1530. By that time, S. Fish had died of the plague which occurred in London and its suburbs in the summer of 1530; and which was so severe, that on 22nd June of that year, the King prorogued the Parliament to the following 1st October, Letters &c. Henry VIII. Ed. by J. S. Brewer, M.A., IV, Part 3, No. 6469. Ed. 1876.

The Martyrologist, throughout, seems to be right as to his facts, but wrong as to his dates.

The kyng takyng his signet of[f] his finger, willed hym to haue hym reommended to the Lord Chauncellour, chargyng him not to bee so hardy to worke him any harme.

Master Fishe receiuyng the kynges signet, went and declared hys message to the Lord Chauncellour, who tooke it as sufficient for his owne discharge, but asked him "if he had any thynge for the discharge of his wife:" for she a litle before had by chaunce displeased the Friers, for not sufferyng them to say their Gospels in Latine in her house, as they did in others, vnlesse they would say it in English. Whereupon the Lord Chauncellour, though he had discharged the man, yet leauyng not his grudge towardes the wife, the next morning sent his man for her to appeare before hym: who, had it not bene for her young daughter, which then lay sicke of the plague, had bene lyke to come to much trouble.

Of the which plague her husband, the said Master Fish deceasing with in half a yeare, she afterward maryed to one Master James Baynham, Syr Alexander Baynhams sonne, a worshypful Knight of Glo[uce]stershyre. The which foresayd Master James Baynham, not long after, [1 May 1532] was burned, as incontinently after in the processe of this story, shall appeare.

And thus much concernyng Symon Fishe the author of the booke of beggars, who also translated a booke called the Summe of the Scripture out of the Dutch [i.e. German].

Now commeth an other note of one Edmund Moddys the kynges footeman, touchyng the same matter.

This M[aster]. Moddys beyng with the kyng in talke of religion, and of the new bookes that were come from beyond the seas, sayde "if it might please hys grace, he should see such a booke, as was maruell to heare of." The kyng demaunded "what they were." He sayd, "two of your Merchauntes, George Elyot, and George Robinson." The kyng [ap]poynted a tyme to speake with them. When they came before his presence in a priuye [private] closet, he demaunded "what they had to saye, or to shew him" One of them said "yat there was a boke come to their hands, which they were there to shew his grace." When he saw it, hee demaunded " if any of them could read it." "Yea" sayd George Elyot, "if it please your grace to heare it," "I thought so" sayd the kyng, "for if neede were thou canst say it without booke."

The whole booke beyng read out, the kyng made a long pause, and then sayd, "if a man should pull downe an old stone wall and begyn at the lower part, the vpper part thereof might chaunce to fall vpon his head:" and then he tooke the booke and put it into his deske, and commaunded them vpon their allegiance, that they should not tell to any man, that he had sene the booke.


TO this account we may add two notices. Sir T. More replying in his Apology to the "Pacifier" [Christopher Saint Germain] in the spring of 1533, gives at fol. 124, the following account of our Author's death—

And these men in the iudgement of thys pytuouse pacyfyer be not dyscrete / but yet they haue he sayth a good zele though. And thys good zele hadde, ye wote well, Simon Fysshe when he made the supplycacyon of beggers. But god gaue hym such grace afterwarde, that he was sory for that good zele, and repented hym selfe and came into the chyrche agayne, and forsoke and forsware all the whole hyll of those heresyes, out of whiche the fountayne of that same good zele sprange. [Also at p. 881, Workes. Ed. 1557.]

This is contrary to the tenour of everything else that we know of the man: but Sir T. More, possessing such excellent means of obtaining information, may nevertheless be true.

Lastly. Anthony À. Wood in his Ath. Oxon, i. 59, Ed. 1813, while giving us the wrong year of his death, tells us of his place of burial.

At length being overtaken by the pestilence, died of it in fifteen hundred thirty and one, and was buried in the church of St. Dunstan (in the West).

Tyndale had often preached in this church.


WHat a picture of the cruel, unclean and hypocritical monkery that was eating at the heart's core of English society is given to us in this terse and brave little book? Abate from its calculations whatever in fairness Sir T. More would have wished us to deduct; we cannot but shudder as we try to realize the then social condition of our country; and all the more, when we remember that the fountain of all this unmercifulness, impurity and ignorance was found in the very persons who professed to be, and who should have been the Divine Teachers of our nation. It argues, too, much for the virility of the English race, that it could have sustained, in gradually increasing intensity, such a widespread mass of festering and corroding blotches of vice, and could by and bye throw it off altogether; so that in subsequent ages no other nation has surpassed us in manhood.

It is marvellous to us how the ecclesiastical fungus could have ever so blotted out of sight both the royal prerogative and the people's liberties. Was not Henry VIII the man for this hour? A bold lusty and masterful one, imperious and impatient of check, full of the animal enjoyment of life; yet a remarkable Theologian, a crafty Statesman, a true Englishman. Often referred to in the literature of this time as "our Lord and Master." Had England ever had such a Master! ever such a Lord of life and limb since? A character to the personal humouring and gratification of whom, such an one as Wolsey devoted his whole soul and directed all the powers of the State.

How necessary was so strong a ruler for our national disruption with Rome! It is not easy for us to realize what an amazingly difficult thing that wrench was. Moddys' story witnesses to us of the King's great perplexity. By what difficult disillusions, what slow and painful thoughtfulness did Henry's mind travel from the Assertio of 1522 and the consequent Defensor fidei, to the destruction of the monasteries in 1536. Truly, if in this "passion" he vacillated or made mistakes; we may consider the inherent difficulty of disbelief in what—despite its increasing corruptions—had been the unbroken faith of this country for a thousand years.

We call the disillusionists, the Reformers; but Fish describes them as

men of greate litterature and iudgement that for the love they haue vnto the trouth and vnto the comen welth haue not feared to put theim silf ynto the greatest infamie that may be, in abiection of all the world, ye[a] in perill of deth to declare theyre oppinion.… p. 10.

Undoubtedly Henry personally was the secular Apostle of the first phase of our Reformation. The section of doctrinal Protestants was politically insignificant: and it may be fairly doubted whether the King could have carried the nation with him, but that in the experience of every intelligent Englishman, the cup of the iniquity of the priesthood was full to overflowing. He was aided by the strong general reaction of our simple humanity against the horrid sensuality, the scientific villany offered to it by the supposed special agents of Almighty GOD in the name of, and cloaked under the authority believed to have been given to them from the ever blessed Trinity.

Morality is the lowest expression of religion, the forerunner of faith. No religion can be of GOD which does not instinctively preassume in its votaries the constant striving after the highest and purest moral excellence. It is an intolerable matter, beyond all possible sufferance, when religion is made to pander to sensuality and extortion. How bitter a thing this was to this barrister of Gray's Inn, may be seen in the strange terms of terror and ravin with which he characterizes these "strong, puissant, counterfeit holy, and idle beggars." To the untravelled Englishman of Henry VIII's reign, "cormorants" must have meant some like devouring griffins, and "locusts" as a ruthless irremediable and fearful plague without end. By such mental conceptions of utter desolation, impoverishment and misery does our Author express the bitterness of the then proved experience by Englishmen, of the combined hierarchy and monkery of Rome.

All which is for our consideration in estimating the necessity and policy of the subsequent suppression of the monasteries.

These representations are also some mitigation of what is sometimes thought to be the Protestant frenzy of our great Martyrologist, whose words of burning reprobation of the Papal system of his time seem often to us to be extravagant; because, by the good providence of GOD, we are hardly capable of realizing the widespread and scientific villany of the delusions and enormities against which he protested.