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Martin Marprelate was the name used by the anonymous author or authors of the Marprelate tracts. These circulated illegally in the years 1588 and 1589. Their principal focus was an attack on the episcopacy of the Anglican Church. In 1583, the appointment of John Whitgift as Archbishop of Canterbury had signalled the beginning of a drive against the Presbyterian movement in the church, and an era of censorship began. In 1586, by an edict of the Star Chamber, the archbishop was empowered to license and control all of the printing apparatus in the country.
The true identity of "Martin" has long been speculated upon. For many years, the main candidate was seen as John Penry, a Welsh preacher and author of several impassioned polemics against the state of the church. In fact the likely main author is now recognised to be a Warwickshire squire and MP, Job Throckmorton (who earned the appropriate nickname "jibing Job"). Other candidates for the authorship of the tracts include Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
As the tracts had to be printed in secrecy, some sort of organisation was clearly involved to handle their production and distribution. Penry was definitely involved in the printing, and the press was frequently relocated to different parts of the country in order to avoid the authorities. Penry himself denied any involvement in the actual authorship.
The government was concerned enough at the virulence of the attacks on the ecclesiastical hierarchy to respond in kind, hiring professional writers such as Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene and John Lyly to write counter-tracts. Like most polemics, the tracts are full of hatred of their opponents, describing the bishops as representing the Antichrist, and equally convinced of the righteousness of their own cause.
Some of the pamphlets were reprinted in the seventeenth century.
The Marprelate tracts are important documents in the history of English satire: critics from C. S. Lewis to John Carey have recognised their originality. In particular, the pamphlets show concern with the status of the text, wittily guying conventions such as the colophon and marginalia.
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