What Is The Origin Of (295)?…

The Vicar of Bray

The village of Bray nestles on the banks of the river Thames, about a mile and a half to the south of Maidenhead and, amongst its attractions, it boasts two Michelin starred restaurants. Perhaps because of its eminently rhymable monosyllabic name, Edward Lear namechecked it in his More Nonsense Rhymes, Pictures, Botany etc, published in 1872, in this limerick; “there was an old person of Bray/ who sang through the whole of the day/ to his ducks and his pigs/ whom he fed upon figs/ that valuable person of Bray”. Not one of his finest, but there you go.

A much more famous resident of the village of Bray than Lear’s old man is its vicar, whose notoriety made his position a satirical description of someone who trims his sails to suit the prevailing conditions. Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the first edition of which was published in 1785, provides more colour to the definition; “Bray; a vicar of Bray; one who frequently changes his principles, always siding with the strongest party. An allusion to a vicar of Bray, in Berkshire, commemorated in a well-known ballad for the pliability of his conscience”.

But was there such a character and, if so, who was he?

The starting point in our investigation involves a survey of religious turmoil in England. One period in which the official religion of the country vacillated wildly ran between 1533 and 1559, when to remain in post a clergyman would have had to move from Catholicism to Protestantism, following the Reformation and the schism with Rome, back to Catholicism during the reign of Mary and then once more embracing Protestantism upon the accession of good Queen Bess. Another fraught period ran from 1633 to 1715 which saw the emergence of Puritanism, the restoration of Protestantism, the dalliance with Catholicism under James, before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Protestant ascendancy.

Thomas Fuller, in his History of the Worthies of England, published in 1662, tells the tale of what he calls the vivacious vicar of Bray, who “living under King Henry the 8, King Edward the 6, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, was first a Papist, then a Protestant, then a Papist, then a Protestant again. He had seen some Martyrs burnt (two miles off) at Windsor, and found this fire too hot for his tender temper. This vicar being taxed by one for being a Turn-coat, and unconstant Changeling, not I, said he, for I alwaies kept my Principle, which is this, to live and die the Vicar of Bray”. Sadly, Fuller doesn’t name this tactical genius but clearly places him in the midst of the Tudor’s religious shenanigans.

William Brome claimed in a letter he wrote on June 14, 1735 to a Mr Rawlins that he had solved the identity of the vicar. “I am informed it is Simon Aleyn or Allen, who was vicar of Bray about 1540, and died 1588, so was Vicar of Bray near 50 years”. Sadly, Brome was misinformed. Simon Aleyn was only vicar between 1557 and 1565, but still he would have to have turned from Papistry, under Mary, to Protestantism, under Elizabeth. His predecessor, Simon Symonds, was the incumbent between 1522 to 1551, a period straddling the Reformation. Perhaps, changing sides went with the position at Bray, irrespective of who held the post.

Francis Grose throws some further confusion onto the subject by his reference to the popular ballad. It is clearly set in the 17th century, starting off with the reign of Charles I. The chorus proclaims the vicar’s philosophy, if not his theosophy; “and this be law, that I’ll maintain until my dying day, sir/ that whatsoever king may reign, Still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir”. Francis Carswell was vicar, from 1665 to 1709, which would have seen him navigate, presumably successfully, the dalliance with Catholicism under James.

Whilst the ballad has immortalised the Vicar, we cannot dismiss Fuller’s identification of the characteristics of the postholder a century earlier. It may just be the way that rural clerics survived in those troubled times and there is no specific need to pinpoint one such postholder.

The Vicar of Bray has also lent his name to a hypothesis, also known as the Fisher-Muller Model, which attempts to explain why sexual reproduction may have advantages over asexual reproduction. But, that’s another story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.