Home / Reviews / Review of Elizabeth Appleton’s AN ANATOMY OF THE MARPRELATE CONTROVERSY


By Roger Stritmatter

Pasquill Cavaliero's "Countercuffe to Martin Junior," 1589, an anti-Martinist tract.

Pasquill Cavaliero’s anti-Martinist tract “Countercuffe to Martin Junior,” 1589.

An Anatomy of the Marprelate Controversy 1588-1596: Retracing Shakespeare’s Identity and that of Martin Marprelate by Elizabeth Appleton. The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

It would be easy to overlook the importance of Elizabeth Appleton’s new book on the Marprelate controversy. It is not a glossy blockbuster for general readers. It will never be turned into a movie. It traverses a difficult and sometimes perilous terrain of interpretation which can no doubt strain the patience of an unmotivated reader. The subject itself, to many readers, may appear obscure, trivial, or even “academic.”

And yet, An Anatomy of the Marprelate Controversy is a book of singular importance, perhaps the most important “Oxfordian” book to appear since Joe Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare, although for very different reasons. To begin with, it is the first book ever published by an academic press which overtly endorses an Oxfordian perspective attributing the works of “Shakespeare” to Edward de Vere. In itself this is a gratifying sign of the book’s significance and the author’s accomplishment. In honor of the publication, moreover, Appleton has been awarded an honorary doctorate in history by Mellen University – another first for the Oxfordian movement and feather in the author’s cap.

But the book’s true virtue is to have cast a burning spotlight on one of the most significantly neglected areas of Elizabethan literary history known to this writer: the hitherto obscure identity of the flamboyant Anglican satirist “Pasquill Cavaliero of England,” who published three short pamphlets in the religious controversy (c. 1589) know as the Marprelate controversy. It was this enigmatic writer – whom Ms. Appleton identifies as the 17th Earl of Oxford — who seized the gauntlet thrown down by the elusive Puritan satirist, “Martin Marprelate,” against the episcopacy of the Anglican reformed church in 1589, and answered Martin on behalf of the orthodox church.

In less than two years a series of six books appeared under the Marprelate imprimatur, all published from a renegade press the very existence of which violated the Draconian 1586 decree on the regulation of the printing industry in England

The general outline of the controversy has been well understood by literary historians for many decades, but the identities of the participants have remained shrouded in a historical fog until very recently. Incited by the 1587 publication of a lengthy anti-Puritan tome by Dean John Bridges of Salisbury, A Defence of the Government Established in the Church of Englande for Ecclesiasticall Matters, Puritan controversialists advocating Presbyterianism and other reforms which threatened the power of the crown to regulate the Church, began writing and publishing a series of inflammatory pamphlets. The collapse of the Spanish armada in 1588 further emboldened the domestic rebels, who took advantage of the hiatus in international tensions to renew their complaints of corruption among the prelates and advocacy of radical reform. A stream of pamphlets, many published from a secret, migratory press operated by the Welsh printer John Penry, poured forth from 1588-90.

The new breed of Puritan rhetoric cast aside the restrained erudition of an earlier generation of reform advocates like John Field and Thomas Wilcox, who in their 1572 Admonition to the Parliament had politely debated theology with Anglican divines. The most persistent and talented of these new controversialists published his work under the name “Martin Marprelate.” Martin inaugurated a vigorous, sustained, satirical attack – including “threats and taunts against supporters of the English church” [1]– on Church apologists like Bridges. He was soon joined by “Martin Junior” and other imitators. In less than two years a series of six books appeared under the Marprelate imprimatur, all published from a renegade press the very existence of which violated the Draconian 1586 decree on the regulation of the printing industry in England.

The stir was huge. A whole nation was being held hostage by the entertaining but seditious prose of a radical reformer who first wanted to sack some of the leading Anglican prelates for immorality and profiteering and then institute a Presbyterian form of church government in which the common people elected their own church authorities.

The pamphlet war which ensued was bitter, sometimes verging on the apocalyptic

The Anglican establishment was caught in a trap. For a Bishop to debate with a pseudonymous satirical rogue like Martin Marprelate [2] constituted an unacceptable loss of dignity. On the other hand, a failure to reply allowed Martin’s scurrilous rumor-mongering and heretical theology pass unchallenged. The solution was to hire Thomas Nashe and some of his friends to rebut Martin with his own undignified rhetoric. The pamphlet war which ensued was bitter, sometimes verging on the apocalyptic: Martin’s ecclesiastical enemies, who adopted colorful pseudonyms of their own — Cuthbert Curry-Knave, Marphorius, and Pasquill Caveliero of England — threatened him with imminent death and dismemberment when the pursuivants finally caught up with him. These rambunctious civil servants threw Martin’s satirical wit right back in his face. In his first pamphlet (figure 1) Pasquill promised that he had been “dubd for his service at home…for the clean breaking of his staffe upon Martin’s face” and predicted that Martin would find “no other refuge but to runne into a hole, and die as he lived, belching” (A2) [3]. The “war of words,” as Ms. Appleton terms it, had been joined.

Elizabeth Appleton is a sharp-eyed reader of R.B. Mckerrow’s 1904 magnum opus, The Collected Works of Thomas Nashe. It was here that she spotted McKerrow’s reprints of three little pamphlets, all published in 1589-90 under the enigmatic nom de plume, Pasquill Cavaliero of England. Although McKerrow included these pamphlets [4], purely on tradition, as pseudonymous works of Thomas Nashe, he also expressed a clear conviction that this traditional attribution was fatally flawed.

It is some measure of the strong conformist tendencies in Elizabethan literary studies that for a hundred years no enterprising graduate student could be induced to pick up the gauntlet McKerrow threw down by indicating that Nashe was not the true author of the Pasquill tracts.

Although several Anglican writers opposed Martin, Pasquill was the most formidable and rhetorically effective. His prose is colorful, rhythmic, learned, iconoclastic, and entertaining. He is obviously an insider to the London theatrical scene, making many references to the fate of Martin Marprelate at the hands of the comedians. He is a habitué of London Stone, Oxford’s London residence a few doors from the Eastcheap Boar’s Head Tavern of Henry IV fame, a world-traveler who takes regular jaunts overseas to France and Italy, and a court insider who has sat in the Star Chamber and boasts of his close relations with the Queen.

Martin’s ecclesiastical enemies… adopted colorful pseudonyms of their own… and predicted that Martin would find “no other refuge but to runne into a hole, and die as he lived, belching”

But who is he? The question should have been as important to English literary professionals as the identity of Martin. Why wasn’t it? Pasquill’s literary fingerprint – that of one of the anti-Puritan and theatre loving “wolfish Earls” who through their patronage and authorship created the Elizabethan theatre-made him a taboo subject for English literary studies, a discipline which has devoted many decades to preserving the literary secrets of the Elizabethan world from survey by independent scholars such as Ms. Appleton.

As an independent, adult scholar working outside an educational establishment which persists in promulgating the deception that there is no Shakespeare authorship question, Ms. Appleton of course had no such qualms. By the early 1970s she was hard at work analyzing the many reasons for attributing the Pasquill pamphlets to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The results of her research were self-published in a 1985 monograph, Edward de Vere and the War of Words (Elizabethan Press).

Appleton’s new book, an expansion of her 1985 monograph, is the most comprehensive study of the attribution of the Pasquill pamphlets ever done. It seems unlikely that her conclusions regarding the critical question of Pasquill’s identity will be challenged by any reputable literary historian. As father Francis Edwards writes in his introductory preface to the book, “the least sympathetic critic…can hardly deny that…Appleton has presented a strong case which cannot easily be answered and certainly not simply put out of court” [5]. This reviewer concurs with the distinguished historian from England. The evidence assembled here is simply too comprehensive-if sometimes confusingly knit together– to admit of successful challenge on the primary conclusion, identifying Edward de Vere with Pasquill [6].

Moreover, forthcoming evidence, especially of a stylometric nature, will go far to confirm Ms. Appleton’s inference that de Vere was the mind and pen behind “Pasquill” (a name which, incidentally, although of course Italian in origin, makes a stunning Anglo-French pun on the loss of public identity invoked in the adoption of the pseudonym: “ne pas quill”). The implications of this discovery can not be underestimated. If Appleton is correct, we now have conclusive evidence that Edward de Vere, a mere four years before the first appearance of the name “Shakespeare” in print, was writing for the Anglican authorities under a popular nom de plume, in pamphlets which incidentally make copious reference to the London theatres as a prominent locus of the religious dispute.

Beyond this impressive accomplishment of successfully identifying, after more than four hundred years, an enigmatic and important figure of literary controversy, Appleton’s book brings forward into the spotlight a significant corollary. Although the Marprelate battle itself was short-lived, it had an extended afterlife in the ensuing pamphlet duel between TomNashe and Gabriel Harvey (1592-97) which continued long after Martin Marprelate and his “sons” had fallen silent.

Both the Marprelate war itself and its aftermath in the Harvey/Nashe literary duel are important episodes in the early literary history of “Shakespeare”

Specialists of the period are aware, but the vast majority of Shakespearean teachers, and certainly the general public of consumers of English literature, may not be, that both the Marprelate war itself (1588-90), and its aftermath in the Harvey/Nashe literary duel, are important episodes in the early literary history of “Shakespeare”; many experts trace rhetorical elements of the Marprelate episode in plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and the Henry IV plays; Martin himself gave his name to the Puritan hedge priest Sir Oliver Mar-Text in As You Like It; we first read of Hamlet in Nashe’s 1589 preface to Green’s Menaphon; Nashe’s Pierce Penilesse (1592) — in which he invented the character which Appleton and others [7] have identified as a parody of Edward de Vere in his financial troubles — is probably the single most important surviving document on the theatrical history and culture of the early 1590s-giving, as it does, a sympathetic insider’s view of what Nashe calls the “pollicie of Playes,”[8] as well as the only extended Elizabethan account of the staging of a play by Shakespeare (I Henry VI):

“What if I prove plays to be no extreame; but a rare exercise of vertue? First, for the subiect of them (for the most part) is borrowed out of our English Chronicles…How it would have ioyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lyne two hundred years in his Tome, he should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times), who, in the Tragedian that represents this person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding”. [9]

Harvey, for his part, in his Pierce’s Supererogation (1593), responds to Nashe’s defense of playmaking with excessive complaints about being satirized in “pelting comedies” and warns citizens that they must “fea (i.e., payoff) Ephues [10], for feare less he be moved,or some one of his apes hired, to make a play of you.”

When, therefore, Roland Mckerrow – long before Elizabeth Appleton assembled the abundance of new evidence presented for the first time in this book identifying Oxford with a host of sobriquets (“Pierce Pennilesse,” the “Old Asse,” Master Apis Lapis” and “Euphues” being only four of the most frequent and persuasive examples) used by both Nashe and Harvey – argues that the Earl of Oxford was the stalking horse in the Harvey-Nashe quarrel [11], we must realize how fragile the orthodox consensus on the Shakespearean question really is, and how urgent the need for informed dialogue between scholars holding diverse views on the question. The predicate of such a dialogue, of course, is a end to the name-calling and argument by exclusionary definition – “scholars” are people who agree with “us,” and everyone else is not “a scholar” — which has characterized the work of certain loud and aggressive partisans of the orthodox school holding forth on the internet among other forums.

By no means does this imply that the reviewer endorses all the conclusions contained in Ms. Appleton’s book or is entirely happy with all her modes of reasoning or the style of presentation offered in this book. It does not undermine the truly original and important character of her work on Pasquill to wish that Ms. Appleton had treated the identity of Martin Marprelate, which she believes to have been a pen name of Gabriel Harvey, in some other context.

This unfortunate corollary argument is susceptible of so many lines of doubt and disproof that it seems a shame to have jeopardized her valid insight into Oxford’s central role as a figure in the Martinist controversy by including it in the same book. For starters, Appleton seems to have overlooked the significance of Leland Carlson’s impressive 1976 study of the Marprelate phenomenon, Martin Marprelate, Gentleman: Master Job Throckmorton Laid Open in All His Colors. Surprisingly, Francis’ Edward’s introductory survey of the literature on Martin Marprelate also slights this important work, referring only to the earlier tradition of Donald J. McGinn and other scholars, who hypothesized that Martin was John Penry, the Welsh printer of many of the pamphlets. Penry was actually executed in 1593 as the ostensible author, but seems more likely to have been a convenient scapegoat than a real author.

Although listed in her bibliography, Carlson’s impressive case identifying Martin as the Puritan divine Job Throckmorton, who was arrested and questioned for as a suspect in the case but never brought to trial for the offense, is not considered in any detail by Ms. Appleton. Amusingly, Appleton’s bibliography (459) lists an incomplete title for Carlson’s book, omitting Throckmorton’s name, just as she has omitted the substance of Carlson’s argument identifying Throckmorton as Marprelate.

That is a pity. Carlson marshals an impressive circumstantial evidence in support of this theory, including a – to this reviewer – convincing stylistic comparison between Throckmorton and “Martin.” A similar stylistic comparison of Harvey’s prose with Martin’s would demonstrate the superior robustness of Carlson’s theory identifying Throckmorton as Martin. More to the point, however, Appleton’s omission of the Carlson argument does a disservice to her readers. Whether Carlson is right or wrong to identify Throckmorton as Marprelate, by omitting his arguments, Appleton fails to inform the reader of the leading alternative to her own theory. Ultimately this damages her credibility by creating the impression that she is unwilling to be candid about the limits of her own conclusions.

On the other hand, it is impossible to doubt that Gabriel Harvey was, as Appleton argues, in some way mixed up with the Marprelate affair. Both Nashe and “Pappe with a Hachet” (Lyly) attempted to embarrass Harvey, accusing him of being in league, or worse, with Martin. These accusations were surely, as Carlson infers, motivated by the desire to damage Harvey by implicating him in a capital crime. But when Carlson characterizes Pappe’s accusations as “spiteful” and “irresponsible”(11) he is taking sides before weighing the full evidence implicating Harvey and his brothers in the dispute. There was no shortage of acrimony on both sides in this literary war.

To say that Harvey was involved, however, does not make him Martin. He seems rather to have been a somewhat awkward emissary and intermediary who had friends or associates on both sides of the quarrel. Compared to Leland Carlson’s painstaking and refreshingly focused assemblage of evidence to support his theory identifying Throckmorton as Martin, Appleton’s case for Harvey is weak and unconvincing. Nor is this, unfortunately, the only doubtful conjecture contained in the book. Regrettably the reviewer must after some consideration indicate his doubt over Ms. Appleton’s identification of the Earl of Oxford as the author of The Trimming of Thomas Nashe (1597), a book usually thought to be written by the Cambridge Barber and satirist Richard Lichfield and which seems to have only the slightest stylistic affinity with Oxford’s other prose compositions, including the Pasquill tracts.

Appleton’s book does, however underscore the urgent need for a systematic stylistic analysis of the writings of Nashe, Harvey, Oxford (prose), Pasquill and Martin. Oxford’s literary fingerprints are all over the Pasquill pamphlets. Elizabeth Appleton, as the first scholar to have recognized the significance of this reality, deserves the fondest thanks from all students of the Oxford heresy.



1 Leland Carlson, Martin Marprelate, Gentleman: Master Job Throckmorton Laid Open in All His Colors (San Marino, Huntington Library Press, 1981). 8.

2 Martin’s sobriquet incidentally furnishes the original for the Puritan hedge-priest Sir Oliver Martext in As you Like It who anticipates performing the marriage of to Audrey to William over the vociferous objections of the authorial satirist Touchstone, a passage thought by Alex McNeil (“Come Sweet Audrey, We Must be Married, Or We Must Live in Bawdry,” unpublished manuscript, presented at the 23rd annual SOS conference in Newton MA, November 11-14, 1999), among others, to be a satirical allegory of the alienation of the Shakespeare corpus, symbolized in the figure of Audrey, to the Stratford William.

3 The Works of Thomas Nashe, Edited From the Original Texts by Roland Mckerrow (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1910) I:59.

4 An accessible, searchable transcript of the three pamphlets is now available online at http://www.oxford-shakespeare.com/marprelate.html.

5 In Appleton, lvii

6 The one feeble attempt to propose an alternative theory of Pasquill’s identity of which I am aware is a G.R. Hibbard’s claim that Pasquill is “the face of Mr. Punch, but the voice is the voice of Bancroft,” Thomas Nashe: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1962), 39.

7 Anderson and Stritmatter, “The Potent Testimony of Gabriel Harvey: Master “Pierce Penniless” and His “Sweetest Venus in Print….” Shakespeare Matters 1:2, 26-29.

8 Mckerrow op. cit. I: 211.

9 Mckerrow Ibid. I : 212.

10 For the argument identifying Euphues as a sobriquet of Oxford -Harvey sometimes applies it also to John Lyly, author of the Ephues novels – see Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984, 673-75) or Roger Stritmatter, Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible (2001, 104). The Euphues quote may be found in Alexander Grosart’s Works of Gabriel Harvey (1884, II: 213).

11 The dispute “seems in its origin to be an offshoot of the well-known one between Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and [his rival] Sir Philip Sidney in 1579,” writes Mckerrow, op. cit. V:73.

12 Carlson o.p cit. 24.



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