The Theatre of a Propaganda War: The Playhouse in the Marprelate Controversy

This obscure theological debate, this grubby little propaganda war, may have had far greater consequences for the Elizabethan theatre than we know.


In early November 1589 all the London playhouses were ordered closed by the Lord Mayor of London. While at The Theatre, the Lord Admiral’s Men, led by Edward Alleyn, dutifully complied, at the Cross Keys, Lord Strange’s Men refused to obey the order and continued playing. (see The Elizabethan Playing Companies) Two of their number were called before the Lord Mayor and, when they proved ‘contemptuous’ of the Mayor’s order, were promptly imprisoned.

We know nothing more of the players’ fate, if or when they were released, or their names. We do not know when the playhouses were re-opened, but we do know why they were closed. It was not because of plague or public riots, but because the plays they were staging were considered too obscene for the general public. And who had commissioned and sanctioned these gross indecencies? Why, none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury himself who was using the theatre in his very own propaganda war.

The controversy began back in October 1588 when a scathingly satirical pamphlet appeared in the London stationers. Entitled simply The Epistle by an author calling himself Martin Marprelate, it was ostensibly a reply to a weighty tome by a Church of England bishop called A Defence of the government established in the Church of England for ecclesiastical matters. But while the original book may have reached only a limited readership, Martin Marprelate’s reply, with its populist comedy very much in the lampooning style of stage clowns such as Richard Tarleton, reached a wide and avid audience.

Yet, while couched in simple and comic language, The Epistle and the series of Marprelate pamphlets that followed (of which seven survive) were in fact broadsides in an ongoing confrontation between the hierarchy of the Church of England and the more democratic and presbyterian Puritan movement. The popularity of these pamphlets, which had started as learned and measured then progressed to witty and satirical, terrified the Church hierarchy who feared they undermined their authority over the common people.

Woodcut of clergyman
Archbishop Whitgift

This all-out war dated back to 1583 when John Whitgift was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Deeming his predecessors soft on Puritanism, Whitgift set out on a campaign to root out all Puritan influences on the English people and their established Church. In 1586 he decreed that no book or pamphlet could be published without being authorised by himself or the Bishop of London. He took full control of the Stationers’ Company and all printing presses and brought in severe penalties for the publication of slander and sedition.

In taking this step Whitgift was reacting to a trend that came into its own in the Elizabethan era: using the newfangled printing press to circulate ideas in the form of pamphlets, quarto sized booklets of perhaps 24 pages, which could be written and distributed quickly and were cheap enough to be bought by the general public. Such pamphlets were wielded in literary warfare be it over public matters such as these, or in the cause of private squabbles such as those between Thomas Nashe and the Harvey brothers

But Martin Marprelate was defying this censorship. His pamphlets were not authorised and were printed on a clandestine press that was constantly on the move to evade the authorities.

However, for all his spiritual authority and worldly prestige, in effect Whitgift had very little power to enforce his own decrees. While the Queen agreed with his censorship, she preferred the public ignominy to fall on his shoulders and so refrained from deploying civil authorities in his support, thus leaving the Archbishop with limited resources.

Etching of clergyman
Richard Bancroft

So while the Archbishop’s secretary, Richard Bancroft, combed the country for the errant printing press, all the Archbishop could do was authorise his bishops to write learned and ponderous replies to Martin Marprelate’s witty repartee. When these tracts unsurprisingly failed to move the public, Bancroft suggested another course of action.

He commissioned professional writers such as the university wits John Lyly, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe, to write ripostes in the same satirical vein as Martin’s. (See Shakespeare’s Contemporaries: The University Wits) Unhampered by scruples, conviction or knowledge of the real issues, these writers poured out anti-Marprelate pamphlets that were little more than streams of invective and grossness unworthy of their talents.

In order to reach the illiterate, Bancroft also commissioned anti-Marprelate plays for the public stage. These outdid the pamphlets for coarseness and indecency. ‘Martin’ appeared on the stage as a contemptible ape whipped, taunted and humiliated, or as a would-be rapist of ‘Divinity’ who was ‘brought forth… with a scratched face, holding of her heart as if she were sick, because Martin would have forced her, but missing of his purpose he left the print of his nails upon her cheeks and poisoned her with a vomit which he ministered unto her, to make her cast up her dignities and promotions.’

It was these plays that were deemed so bad that the Privy Council ordered them closed down. (Understandably, none of them were worth printing and so have been lost.)

As for Martin Marprelate, his campaign only lasted two years as the printing press was discovered and his printers and supporters were arrested. Martin Marprelate’s true identity remains a mystery. Unable to get their hands on the real Martin, the authorities made do with John Penry, his publisher, who was hung on 29 May, 1593. (See A Fateful Day in Deptford )

Etching of Elizabethan Gentleman
Francis Bacon

Such a public controversy inevitably caught the attention of non-partisan members of the intelligentsia, such as the Harvey brothers, and Francis Bacon who, in his own privately circulated tract An Advertisement touching the Controversies of the Church of England, described the pamphlet war as being ‘between the revilers of the bishops on one side, and the revilers of the Puritans on the other, and in which the appeal was made by both parties to the basest passions and prejudices of the vulgar.’

However repelled Bacon might have been by this crude and bitter campaign, at the same time it must have demonstrated to him the power of the theatre to influence the public psyche. It must also have suggested to him that if the theatre could be used for ill-purposes, so could it be used for good. Could the Marprelate controversy have been the trigger that turned him to the theatre to propagate his ideas and philosophies? Could it have been in its wake that Bacon recruited a playwright to bring his ideas to the public stage? Could it have been Martin Marprelate who brought Francis Bacon into the Shakespearean Authorship Debate? (see The Authorship Contenders)

We can only speculate, but this obscure theological debate, this grubby little propaganda war, may have had far greater consequences for the Elizabethan theatre than the jailing of a couple of players and may well have been the unrecognised instigator of the greatest collection of literature in the English language.


© Pauline Montagna 2021



An historical introduction to the Marprelate tracts: a chapter in the evolution of religious and civil liberty in England by William Pierce, Archibald Constable (1908)

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes edited by A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller.  (1907–21). (Volume III Renascence and Reformation, Chapter XVII The Marprelate Controversy) Putnam, 1907–21, Bartleby.Com, 2000

Collotype Facsimile & Type Transcript of an Elizabethan Manuscript, edited by Frank J. Burgoyne, Longmans, Green, And Co. (1904) (Advertisement Touching the Controversies of the Church, by Francis Bacon.)


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