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The Marprelate Controversy was a war of pamphlets waged in England and Wales in 1588 and 1589, between a puritan writer who employed the pseudonym Martin Marprelate, and defenders of the Established Church.
Martin's tracts are characterized by violent and personal invective against the Anglican dignitaries, by the assumption that the writer had numerous and powerful adherents and was able to enforce his demands for reform, and by a plain and homely style combined with pungent wit. While he maintained the puritan doctrines as a whole, the special point of his attack was the Episcopacy. The pamphlets were printed at a secret press established by John Penry, a Welsh puritan, with the help of the printer Robert Waldegrave, about midsummer 1588, for the issue of puritan literature forbidden by the authorities.
The first tract by "Martin Marprelate," known as the Epistle, appeared at Molesey in November 1588. It is in answer to A Defence of the Government established in the Church of Englande, by Dr John Bridges, dean of Salisbury, itself a reply to earlier puritan works, and besides attacking the episcopal office in general assails certain prelates with much personal abuse. The Epistle attracted considerable notice; and a reply was written by Thomas Cooper, bishop of Winchester, under the title An Admonition to the People of England, but this was too long and too dull to appeal to the same class of readers as the Marprelate pamphlets, and produced little effect.
Penry's press, now removed to Fawsley, near Northampton, produced a second tract by Martin, the Epitome, which contains more serious argument than the Epistle but is otherwise similar, and shortly afterwards, at Coventry, Martin's reply to the Admonition, entitled Hay any Worke for Cooper (March 1589).
It now appeared to some of the ecclesiastical authorities that the only way to silence Martin was to have him attacked in his own railing style, and accordingly certain writers of ready wit, among them John Lyly, Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene, were secretly commissioned to answer the pamphlets. Among the productions of this group were Pappe with an Hatchet (Sept. 1589), probably by Lyly, and An Almond for a Parral (1590), which, with certain tracts under the pseudonym of Pasquil, has been attributed to Nashe. Some anti-Martinist plays or shows (now lost) performed in 1589 were perhaps also their work.
Meanwhile, in July 1589, Penry's press, now at Wolston, near Coventry, produced two tracts purporting to be by sons of Martin, but probably by Martin himself, namely, Theses Martinianae by Martin Junior, and The Just Censure of Martin Junior by Martin Senior. Shortly after this, More Work for Cooper, a sequel to Hay any Worke, was begun at Manchester, but while it was in progress the press was seized. Penry however was not found, and in September issued from Wolston or Haseley The Protestation of Martin Mar prelate, the last work of the series, though several of the anti-Martinist pamphlets appeared after this date. He then fled to Scotland, but was later apprehended in London, charged with inciting rebellion, and hanged (May 1593). The authorship of the tracts has been attributed to several persons: to Penry himself, who however emphatically denied it and whose acknowIedged works have little resemblance in style to those of Martin, to Job Throckmorton, and to Henry Barrow.
For a list and full titles of the tracts, related documents, and discussion of the authorship, see Edward Arber's Introductory Sketch to the Martin Marprelate Controversy (1880) (which, however, gives no connected account of the matter). A good summary, with quotations from the pamphlets, will be found in H. M. Dexter's Congregationalism (New York, 1880), pp. 129-202. See also articles on John Penry and Job Throckmorton in Dictionary of National Biography; and for the history of the press, Bibliographica, ii. 172180. William Maskell's Martin Marprelate Controversy (1845) is of little service. The more important tracts have been reprinted by John Petheram in his series of Puritan Discipline Tracts (1842-1860), in Arber's English Scholars' Library (1879-1880), in R. W. Bond's edition of Lyly and in the editions of Nashe.