Bale, rehearsing Three Laws, 1552

Bishopstoke is a small town on the River Itchen, roughly six miles south of Winchester and the same distance north of Southampton. The manor of Bishopstoke was held by the bishop of Winchester from before Domesday. John Bale, ardent Protestant theologian and playwright, was appointed rector of Bishopstoke in 1551 when he became chaplain to John Ponet, bishop of Winchester. Bale was born in Suffolk, sent to Carmelite friars by his impoverished parents, and educated at Cambridge. By 1530 he had risen to the position of prior of Carmelite houses – first at Maldon, then at Ipswich. At about the same time, however, he turned toward Protestantism and began to write polemical plays. By 1540 Bale had written and performed most of his plays, including his best known, King John, and had become closely associated with the reforming efforts of Thomas Cromwell. When Cromwell fell in 1540, Bale had to flee the country, and Henry VIII outlawed the printing and even the possession of Bale’s works. He returned to England after the accession of Edward VI, taking up the living at Bishopstoke. Bale’s stay in Hampshire lasted less than two years before he was appointed bishop of Ossory and left for Ireland.

During his short time in Hampshire Bale wrote An Expostulation or Complaint against the Blasphemies of a Frantic Papist of Hampshire (1552), a polemical pamphlet attacking a priest who persisted in the old Catholic ways (Happé 1-10, 17). In the excerpt here transcribed from that work he describes how the papist priest insulted a servant of Bale’s for learning a part in one of Bale’s plays, Three Laws. The play may have been one of Bale’s earliest, since it alone among his surviving plays follows a traditional morality structure. The three laws are those of Nature, Moses and Christ, which the Church of Rome has corrupted. The play’s Protestant perspective emerges strongly from a note about how the vice characters should be costumed: “Lete Idolatry be decked lyke an olde wytche, Sodomy lyke a monke of all sectes, Ambycyon lyke a byshop, Covetousnesse lyke a Pharyse or spyrituall lawer, False Doctryne lyke a popysh doctour, and Hypocresy lyke a graye fryre” (Plays 2: 121).

The printed text of the play also contains a plan for doubling (actors playing multiple parts), so that the play could be performed by a troupe of five, like the one with which Bale performed before Cromwell in 1538. Bale himself took the role of Prolocutor, which was doubled with the largest part, that of the principal Vice, Infidelity (Happé 10). The pamphlet does not make clear whether the Hampshire performance actually took place, but Bale seems at least to have planned one (either at Bishopstoke, or more likely for Bishop Ponet at Winchester), bringing to the county his use of drama to advocate for the Protestant cause.

Bale, John. An Expostulation or complaynte agaynste the blasphemyes of a franticke papyst of Hamshyre. London: J. Day, 1552.
Bale, John. Three Laws in The Complete Plays of John Bale, ed. Peter Happé. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985. 2: 65–124.
Happé, Peter. John Bale. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.