“The Vicar of Bray”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1813 (broadside Bodleian, Douce Ballads 4(49))
Keywords: clergy political royalty
Found in: Britain(England) US(SE)


"In good King Charles's golden days... A zealous high churchman was I, and so I got preferment." In the reigns that follow, the Vicar changes his opinions to suit the monarch, "That whatsoever king shall reign, I'll be the Vicar of Bray."


For the references cited in these notes, see the bibliography at the end.

Although this song is mostly a commentary on political trimming, it also reveals the strange and complex religious situation in late seventeenth century England. The ferment had been rising since the death of Elizabeth, really: James VI and I (reigned over England 1603-1625, having previously been king of Scotland) was inclined toward absolute monarchy, and his son Charles I (reigned 1625-1649) was even more so. This also naturally inclined them toward a heirarchical,ritualistic church. Neither was popular, so they could do little to prevent the rise of the hard-line puritan denominations.

And then, of course, came the rebellion against Charles I, with Scotland turning to the Covenanting version of Presbyterian and England increasingly Puritan. When Oliver Cromwell died and the Commonwealth crumbled, Britain restored the monarchy, but it didn't at once solve the issue of the national faith. And, of course, for many years, the monarch had one much to set this: Henry VIII had instituted the Anglican church, Edward VI (or, rather, his ministers) had tried to codify it, then Mary I had inclined back toward Catholicism, leaving it for Elizabeth I to try to find a middle road.

It doesn't seem to have been a particularly big deal to Charles II on his restoration. Clark, p. 18, writes, "The king himself was the son and heir of one who was regarded as a martyr for the church of England, but he never showed muchfeeling for that church. He was without serious personal religion, and his theological opinions, so far as he had any, were those of the deism which was by this time common among unprejudiced men of position. He was therefore inclined to be tolerant of differences of belief, and he was disposed to be particularly indulgent to the Roman catholics, that bodyamong his subjects who were the most generally feared and ill-treated." Hence, perhaps, the description of the era as a "golden time."

But there seemed to be something about Catholicism that struck a note in the heart of all the Stuarts. Prall, p.44, records that "Charles II had developed a feeling of sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church and for French ways during his years of exile. How deeply his religious views went is certainly problematic, but there was an era about the court at Versailles [where Charles II spent much time after his father's execution and his own exile], Catholic and monarchical, that deeply impressed the young man in exile."

Certainly he liked control -- in the latter years of his reign, funded by a subsidy from France as well as revenues voted him for life by his subjects, he dispensed with parliament (Trevelyan, p. 22). Hence, presumably, the line in the song, "Kings are by God appointed" (something his father and grandfather believed even more profoundly; James I had actually written a book _Trew Law of Free Monarchies_, which in fact set forth his belief in the Divine Right of Kings; Davies, p. 30. Charles I didn't write any books, but he did say that he "owe[d] the account of [his] actions to God alone, and that a king "cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction"; Davies, p. 32. Compare also the quotes from his trial in Wedgwood-Coffin, pp. 121-134. Somehow, that didn't stop parliament from executing him). Charles II is said to have joined the Catholic church on his deathbed (Kenyon, p. 224; Prall, p. 89).

And Charles had no heir; he had sundry illegitimate children, the most important of whom became Duke of Monmouth, but even when England had had illegitimate Kings (William the Conqueror, Henry VII), great effort was made to pretend they were legitimate. Nor was Monmouth to prove a particularly good leader; shortly after his father's death in 1685, he tried to raise a rebellion (Chandler, p. 3, and most of the rest of his book; Trevelyan, pp. 26-27; Clark, pp. 113-115, etc.), and was quickly quashed at the battle of Sedgrmoor; he was executed, and his followers suffered very badly (Kenyon, pp. 228-229), as songs of the time tell:

Oh Lord, where is my husband now --

Where once he stood beside me?

His body lies at Sedgemoor

In grave of oak and ivy;

Come tell me you who beat the drum,

Why am I so mistreated? (Chandler, p. 92)

But that left only one other possible successor to Charles II: His brother James (II and VII). James, contrary to the song, did not "usurp" the throne -- but he was Catholic. Proudly and openly Catholic. Maybe it was the family attitude; maybe it was the exile. But he openly professed the Roman faith (Prall, p. 46). At this time, Catholics were barred from almost every office in England by the Test Act and the penal laws. And here was one on the throne! (It is perhaps possible that a parliament might have barred James from the throne, but as noted, Charles II managed to avoid summoning parliament in the latter years of his reign).

What's more, James gained firm control in the aftermath of Monmouth's rebellion, and although he failed to induce parliament to repeal the penal laws against Catholics (Trevelyan, pp. 33-34; Kenyon, p. 229, says that he never even raised the issue), he *did* induce them to vote him subsidies for life (parliament would learn from this, and never again give a monarch life subsidies; Trevelyan, p. 26). Free of financial needs, James prorogued the parliament after it met for just a week and a half (this even though it was the most pro-Monarch parliament in decades; Prall, p. 92, says that its composition would have "made any Tudor or earlier Stuart king weep with envy").

Free of outside restrictions, James began to show clear favor to Catholics -- and to turn the machinery of government over to them ("Every effort was made to recruit Catholics and suitable Dissenters as magistrates and sheriffs"--Kenyon, p. 238). And he was intent on creating a standing army -- something that was anathema to both the radical Whigs (because they didn't trust him) and the otherwise reliable Tories (because they remembered Cromwell and the Commonwealth and what it had done to the Church of England; Trevelyan, pp. 29-30). Trevelyan, p. 34, writes, "James, in short, in his desire to restore Romanism in England, found it necessary to become an absolute monarch like the other Princes of Europe."

The reference to the Vicar "read[ing] the Declaration" in the reign of James is perhaps somewhat confusing, because the natural thought would be that he is referring to the Declaration of Right, issued by William and Mary when they came to the throne. But James had made his own Declaration -- the Declaration of Indulgence (1687). This was, in effect, a unilateral repeal of the Test Act and anti-Catholic legislation (Prall, p. 126). This, on its face, was a liberal move -- James not only lifted the restrictions on Catholics but on Protestant Dissenters (Kendall, p. 236). But it was clear that he meant to use it to appoint more Catholics to high positions. And -- the key point, this -- he had done it without consent of parliament. The Test Act might be needless; it was certainly (by modern standards) odius, but it was the law. What James had done was patently unconstitutional.

Fortunately for the peace of the country, James's two daughters, Mary (born 1662) and Anne (born 1665), were safely Protestant, and Mary, his heir, was safely married to the equally Protestant William of Orange. Unfortunately, his wife Anne Hyde had died in 1671. And his second wife, Mary of Modena (1658-1718), was Catholic (Clark, p. 77). Parliament had opposed this marriage in 1674, but Charles II had allowed it to go forward (Kenyon, p. 209). It had looked for a time as if it wouldn't matter; Mary became pregnant five times, and none of the children lived (Kenyon, p. 239, attributes this to a venereal disease -- James's, not Mary's). And she had been barren for several years by the time James came to the throne. But then, in late 1687, it was announced that she was pregnant (Prall, p. 173). And the child proved to be a boy -- the future Old Pretender, "James III," of Jacobite fame. He proved to be not a very forceful character, but everyone knew he would be raised Catholic, and he was now heir to the throne (Trevelyan, p. 49). The fragile religious balance in England was suddenly no balance at all.

And across the channel was William of Orange, stadtholder of the Netherlands, the husband of James's daughter Mary. Being both James's nephew (being the son of James's older sister Mary) and his son-in-law, he had long expected to succeed James (Prall, pp. 173-175). And, indeed, he desperately *needed* to succeed James, because his tiny country was trying to hold off the France of Louis XIV, and he could hardly hope to hold out much longer on his own. (This was a big reason Louis XIV had paid off first Charles II and then James II: To keep England from joining the Dutch war on the side of a fellow Protestant nation.)

On June 30, 1688, a group of English barons, frightened of James and his policies, issued an appeal to William of Orange to do something about the King (Trevelyan, p. 50; Clark, p. 127; Kenyon, p. 243, described William as actively inducing them to make their appeal; this may be his interpretation of a comment by William that he would not intervene in English affairs unless invited. For this situation, see Clark, p. 127f., Prall, p. 174fff).

Whatever William's original intentions, once the invitation came, he pounced. His timing was excellent; the French navy was unavailable and could not stop him (Clark, p. 129), and the French army headed off on a wild goose chase into Germany (Clark, p. 130; Trevelyan, p. 56). William managed to get to sea by November. And he succeeded in a great gamble: He chose to sail past the English fleet (which, to be sure, was in a state of near-mutiny after James had installed Catholic chaplains; Clark, p. 132). Helpful weather allowed him to sail past them and land in the southwest of England; the conditions worked so well that people called it a "Protestant Wind" (Kenyon, p. 249); note the reference in the song to the "new wind."

James of course was still "in possession" in England, but it was not to last. The people were whistling "Lillibullero" (Trevelyan, p. 58), which was to "whistle James from his throne," and the lords started bailing out not long after (Trevelyan, p. 61). Hence the Vicar set aside the "doctrine of non-resistance" and "passive obedience," which basically meant, when ordered by a monarch to do something immoral, to refuse to do it but remain loyal (Clark, p. 33; the doctrine is stated most explicitly in 1 Peter 2:13-17, but is in accordance with passages such as Matthew 5:39). With the whole country turning against him, James's government fell apart.

The outcome was settled when James went into a panic. Everyone expected a parliament to be called -- but James, rather than letting it meet and hoping to dominate it, burned the writs of summons and fled to France (Prall, pp. 237-238). Perhaps, with his absolutist trend of mind, he thought that the government would be paralyzed -- it was, after all, the King's government, and without him parliament could not meet. In theory (cf. Trevelyan, p. 67). In practice -- well, England wasn't Iraq; they managed to use a legal fiction to cover up what had happened. By fleeing, James II was held, after some discussion, to have abdicated (Kenyon, pp. 254-257; Prall, p. 261; Trevelyan, p. 77). Parliament was regarded as having been properly summoned. And that parliament declared the infant James (who of course had gone off with his father; Kenyon, p. 255) illegitimate, or at least inelligible for the crown (Kenyon, pp. 259-260) because of his presumed Catholicism (Trevelyan, pp. 77-78).

Another compromise made the William of Orange and James's daughter Mary joint monarchs -- William III and Mary II -- with William being given control but it being understood that whichever lived longer would be sole monarch after the death of the other, and their children if any would succeed them, with Mary's sister Anne being next in line. (Since William was a dozen years older than Mary, and sickly, it was expected that she would outlast him, so it wasn't expected that the joing monarch would matter. As it turned out, Mary died in 1694, and William in 1702, and they had no children -- a problem suffered by several other Stuarts as well).

A series of additional compromises -- the "Glorious Revolution" -- assured greater religious freedom and a more constitutional government, with an independent judiciary and stronger parliamentary controls (Trevelyan, p. 88, etc.), enshrined in the "Declaration of Right" (Trevelyan, p. 79). Not everyone was reconciled to the Revolution -- most of Ireland would follow James II to the banks of the Boyne, and Scotland would later break out in the Jacobite rebellions -- but the matter was pretty well settled in England, and what England said, went. Hence the Vicar's prompt conversion.

(Incidentally, it was probably a very good thing that James was displaced. Had William and Anne not been monarchs at the start of the eighteenth century, the France of Louis XIV would very likely had won the War of the Spanish Succession, resulting in France dominating all of Europe -- possibly for centuries to come.)

William himself, and his closest Dutch advisors, were "Calvinists in belief, congregationalists in religious obserrvance -- the English dissenters were in a very real sense their coreligionists" (Kenyon, p. 236). But the Netherlands by this time was fundamentally tolerant; William did not impose any real religious restrictions. The Vicar needed only return to the Protestant fold.

But then Mary died, followed by William, and Anne took the throne. William and Mary had in effect governed from the center of the newly-forming Whig/Tory spectrum -- the deposition of James II was entirely a Whig idea, but James's behavior had forced most Tories to join the anti-James crowd (Trevelyan, pp. 76-77); only the Jacobite extremists still held out for the full Tory position.

Anne wanted no part of this; she had the Stuart conservatism in a fairly pure form, and insisted on a Tory government. Most agree that she was a firm believer in High Church Anglicanism, and even Kenyon, who thinks she wasn't, admits that everyone *thought* she was (Kenyon, p. 299). And, politically, even Kenyon admits that her "reign opened with a bang, with the dismissal of every Whig in sight and their replacement with firm Tories" (Kenyon, p. 300). And even Kenyon (p. 299) admits she had no use at all for the habit of "occasional conformity" -- the fairly common practice of a Dissenter going to an Anglican church a few times a year to meet the requirements of the Test Act, allowing them to serve in government. Anne in 1711 pushed through a bill stopping this practice (Clark, p. 222), which the vicar naturally approved of, as long as it was on the statute books.

It didn't last long. Anne herself died in 1714. Which revived the succession problem. When the Glorious Revolution took place, the succession had been defined only as far as Anne, to succeed William and Mary; Anne had just given birth at that time to the future Duke of Gloucester, and it seemed likely that the succession could pass through him.

But the Stuarts truly were jinxed. It is possible that this is due to the genes of King Charles VI of France. The mad king was the father of Queen Katherine of Valois, wife of Henry V. Her son by Henry V, who became King Henry VI, was feeble-minded and had at most one son. By her second husband/paramour Owen Tudor, Katherine was the grandmother of King Henry VII -- and while Henry VII was healthy, his heir Henry VIII's wives repeatedly miscarried, and of his three children to reach the age of one year, none would have offspring of their own. Charles I was the great(x6)-grandson of Charles VI -- via Katherine of Valois, Owen Tudor, Henry VII, Margaret Tudor, James V of Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots, and James VI and I -- and had nine legitimate children, six of whom died without legitimate issue. Of the remaining three, James II, like Henry VIII before, caused his wives to miscarry repeatedly, and Mary the mother of William of Orange had only one child. William and Mary, both grandchildren of Charles I were childless. James the Old Pretender had two sons, but neither produced a legitimate heir. And Anne -- well, Anne went through many pregnancies, almost all of which produced babies who died young. The child of 1689 lived to become the Duke of Gloucester -- but then died in 1700.

That produced a crisis, which William of Orange sort of resolved by passing the Act of Settlement in 1701 (Prall, pp. 287-288). This made it official: A Catholic could not ascend to the throne of England (later broadened to all of Britain by the passage of the Act of Union in 1707), nor could the monarch marry a Catholic. This was the "Protestant Succession."

Anne had repeatedly talked, at the end of her life, of passing the throne to the Old Pretender, who was after all her closest living relative (her half-brother). Thackeray wrote, "Had the Queen lasted a month longer; had the English Tories been as bold and resolute as they were clever and crafty; had the Prince whom the nation loved and pitied been equal to his fortune, George Louis had never talked German in St. James's Chapel Royal" (quoted in Sinclair-Stevenson, p. 11). But Anne died too soon, and the law was not altered. The hunt was on for a Protestant heir.

In fact, the Protestant heir was already known -- except that he was far down the line of succession. Several people could have supplanted him -- but they would have had to give up their Catholic faith.

It really helps to see a genealogy here; I used the one in Oman, p. 458. Under strict blood succession, setting aside the heirs of Anne (after setting aside the Old Pretender) would have been the descendants of Henrieta, the daughter of Charles I who had married Philip, Duke of Orleans. These were, apart from the Old Pretender, the only legitimate descendents of Charles I. But they were all Catholic. That left the offspring of Elizabeth, the daughter of James I. (She and Charles I were the only children of James I to live to have children.)

Elizabeth -- the "Winter Queen" -- had had a truly sad history: Born in 1596 (Oman, p. 1), her early portraits show a very pretty red-haired girl, who apparently was also quite clever (Oman, p. 36). Not too surprisingly, half a dozen princes were mentioned as possible marriage prospects (for the list, see p. 469 in Oman's index). Somehow, though, James decided to favor the suit of Frederick V, who, when he came of age in 1614, would be the Elector Palatine of the Holy Roman Empire (Oman, pp. 52-53). James's wife Anne of Denmark wasn't so happy (Oman, p. 62), but the young pair (Frederick was the older by just a few days; Oman, p. 54) were formally betrothed at the end of 1612. (Some think that Shakespeare's "The Tempest," or at least the Masque in IV.I.106 and following, was modified to suit her wedding; we know, according to _The Riverside Shakespeare_, p. 1606, that it was performed as part of the elaborate marriage festivities.)

The rest of her life was not so happy. Frederick soon decided to accept the vacant throne of Bohemia (Oman, p. 170), against the advice of most of those around him (Wedgwood-Thirty, pp. 97-99; the Bohemians, after all, had just ousted the previous King even as he was being elected Holy Roman Emperor; Wedgwood-Thirty, pp. 90-97).

That decision put him squarely at the center of the Thirty Years' War; Bohemia, which was trying assure its Protestantism, was the front line. Elizabeth came to be called "The Winter Queen," because it was foretold that her husband, "The Winter King," would vanish with the snows (Oman, p. 202). He did. In 1620, his forces lost the Battle of the White Mountain (Oman, pp. 223-224, etc.; Wedgwood-Thirty, pp. 122-125, describes the Bohemian forces, who were few, ill-paid because of the poverty of the crown, and ill-led, being destroyed in almost no time despite what should have been a strong position).

Frederick, and the Bohemian Protestants, were driven out as the Habsburg Emperor re-imposed Catholicism. (Elizabeth is surely the only Stuart to get in trouble for not being Catholic enough!) Elizabeth spent the rest of her life in exile of one sort or another: She and her husband, living in (by royal standards) poverty, tried to improve their position until Frederick died in 1632. Her son finally regained his status as Elector in 1648, but by then the Stuart dynasty in England was on the ropes. She finally returned to England in 1661 after the Stuart restoration -- and promptly died (Oman, p. 455). It was quite a drama -- but it shouldn't have mattered much in England, except for the failure of the Stuart line.

Even if you ignore the sad history of her life, Elizabeth had a typical Tudor/Stuart story: She had thirteen children (ncluding the famous Prince Rupert). But nine died without any children at all, and Rupert had no legitimate children. That left three: Charles Louis, the Elector Palatinate, whose offspring were Catholic; Edward, whose offspring were Catholic, and Sophia, who married the Elector of Hanover.

If it's any consolation to the memory of Elizabeth, it appears that *every* remaining crowned head of Europe is her descendant; the monarchs of Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden are all descended from Sophia of Hanover (as were the pre-World War II monarchs of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Romania among others), and the royal house of Belgium, along with the extinct dynasties of Bulgaria and Italy and others, descend from Liselotte daughter of the Elector Palatinate (Oman, p. 457).

By 1710, it was of course clear that none of the people ahead of her would turn Protestant, so Sophia became Anne's heir apparent. So she did not quite live to succeed, dying in 1714 at the age of 84 (perhaps, some have argued romantically, as a result of news from England which seemed to imply that Anne would disinherit her; Sinclair-Stevenson, pp. 13-15).

And so, in default of anyone else, George Lewis, Elector of Hannover, became King George I of England. He was not in any way exceptional -- Sinclair-Stevenson, p. 24, quotes an unnamed source as saying, "To imagine George I possessed any exalted views regarding either the supremacy of the Protestant religion or the economic and progressive development is to credit a mollusc with the aspirations of an eagle." As it turned out, none of his descendants to the present day has been exceptional, either (except George III, who was exceptional for stupidity); the only one whom I can imagone making even a decent ruler in his own right is George V. But England had had its handsome Plantaganets and its triumphant Lancastrians and its romantic Stuarts, maybe it had had enough of exceptional monarchs. George was much laughed at -- for his lack of English, his two ugly mistresses, his clan of German friends (Sinclair-Stevenson, p. 26). But even though he faced two Jacobite rebellions (1715 and 1719), there was never any serious danger of his overthrow. Even the Vicar had little to say about George's theology -- except that he would follow it.

The reference to George arriving in Pudding Time has perhaps as many as three meanings. It refers to a the beginning of a meal, as George was the beginning of a new dynasty. It also implies a good meal, in which case the Vicar might be using it to try to compliment the new king. And -- well, George I, by the time he succeeded to the English throne, was rather pudgy, and his expansive cheekbones made him appear pudgier. He had the look of a man fond of his pudding.

There does not seem to have been an actual Vicar of Bray, but this sort of shifting-of-allegiance is by no means unknown in British history. The ultimate example of this is probably the brothers Thomas Stanley (c. 1435-1504), later Earl of Derby, and his brother Sir William Stanley (c. 1440-1495). Thomas Stanley succeeded his father as Lord Stanley in 1459 (a title bringing with it control of the Isle of Man); this was in the reign of Henry VI, though the Wars of the Roses were already underway. Longford, p. 48, says that Henry VI admitted him to the Order of the Garter (though Kendall, p. 381, attributes this to Richard), then Edward IV made him Steward of the Household. Stanley retained power under Richard III, even though he had married Margaret Beaufort (the mother of the future Henry VII) around 1482. He brought an army to Bosworth (where Richard III died), carefully did not fight in the battle, but when Richard died, reportedly put the crown on Henry VII's head.

In fact it appears the situation was even more complicated than Longford admits. Kendall, p. 404, notes that the Stanleys "thrived by daring to make politics their trade, by sloughing off the encumbrances of loyalty an honor, by developing an ambiguity of attitude which enabled them to join the winning side."

Kendall implies that, early on, the brothers Stanley deliberately played both sides (see pp. 404-406): In 1459, William joined the Yorkists (and was attainted by a Lancastrian parliament), while Thomas, claiming to be Lancastrian, kept his troops idle at Blore Heath. Thomas did fight for the Lancastrians at Northampton, but when Edward IV became King, Thomas was made Chief Justice of Cheshire and Flint.

When in the late 1460s the Earl of Warwick made the first of two attempts to bring back Henry VI, Thomas made sympathetic noises but did nothing and was taken back into favor. In the second attempt, he joined Warwick -- but did nothing at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury. Since William had joined the Yorkists, Thomas was allowed to rejoin the government. It was after this that he became Steward. During the reign of Richard III, even though his wife lost her estates after Buckingham's rebellion, Thomas Stanley became treasurer.

Then came the invasion of Henry VII, which eventually overthrew Richard. Stanley was, by now, the third-greatest landholder in England, after the Howard Duke of Norfolk and the Percy Earl of Northumberland. When Henry VII landed, Stanley asked to be allowed to leave Richard. Richard consented, though he made Stanley turn over his son Lord Strange as a hostage. (But, we note for the Richard III haters out there, once it was clear that Stanley would not support Richard at Bosworth, Richard let Strange live.)

Even after the death of Richard, the Stanleys kept their feet in both camps. Thomas became Earl of Derby (a title that is still in his family) -- though Kendall, p. 457, says that Margaret Beaufort eventually refused to share his bed any longer. But William, the man who had ordered the counter-charge that killed Richard III and won England for Henry, did not even receive a peerage. He allegedly conspired with the pretender Perkin Warbeck, and the Stanley luck finally ran out; Henry VII had him executed.

It should be noted that Kendall's was the most vigorous defence of Richard III in the twentieth century; to preserve Richard, he must inherently blacken the Stanleys. But others tell the same story. Gillingham seems to try to be balanced, in that it does not condemn Richard out of hand (but he betrays his bias in failing to note that Henry VII faced as many rebellions in his first two years as Richard did in his, and had a little support from peers; the only difference is that Richard was killed at Bosworth, whereas Henry won his battle at Stoke -- fortunately, since there would have been at least one more round of civil wars had he lost). But Gillingham's account of the Bosworth campaign (pp. 233-242) cannot conceal the extensive treachery of the Stanleys, though it tries to hide it under the cloak of necessity.

Seward-Roses, pp. 303-304, in the space of two pages manages to refer to "Lord Stanley's well-deserved reputation for trimming," and his "treacherous behavior in 1470-1471," also mentioning that "Thomas Stanley had survived the Wars of the Roses... by his shrewdness in identifying and backing the more powerful side" and noting that Henry and the Stanleys "were men of utmost cynicism," as well as that "the Stanleys were never men of their word."

No matter what source you consult, both brothers had careers with even more changes of coat than the Vicar of Bray (who just went along with whoever was in charge). Can you imagine what George W. Bush would have made of these people?

For additional details on Richard III's story, see the notes to "The Children in the Wood (The Babes in the Woods) [Laws Q34]" and "The Rose of England" [Child 166]. - RBW

The form of broadside Bodleian Firth c.8(33), "Beef and Butt Beer, Against Mum and Pumpernickle" or "A Bumper to Old England, Huzza," B. C. (London), 1743, shows it either to be a forrunner or derivative of "The Vicar of Bray." Here is the first verse:

In good King G---'s golden days,

Whoe'er advis'd the King, Sir,

To give H---r the Bays,

Deserv'd a hempen String, Sir.

For this is true, I will maintain,

Give H----r away, Sir,

Or whatsoever K---g shall reign,

Will ne'er have a happy Day, Sir. - BS

The king in the item above must be one or another King George (no other English king has had the initial "G," unless you count Richard of Gloucester). And since the king mentioned clearly is no longer on the throne, and the song was published in the 1740s, it must be George I.

This strongly implies that "H---r" is Hanover, the German principality that England had inherited with George I.

My guess is that the reference is to the Battle of Dettingen (1743) during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Britain had joined the war on the Austrian side, partly because France was on the other side, partly because Hanover was part of the Holy Roman Empire (of which the Habsburg Emperor of Austria was usually Emperor, though an exception had had to be made at this time; Maria Theresa of Austria was a woman and therefore ineligible), and partly because Britain wanted to maintain the balance of power.

The War of the Austian Succession was very expensive for Britain, and unpopular, causing several governments to fall rather spectacularly. Dettingen was of particular note because it was very bloody, and a strategic defeat for the British, who had to retreat -- and because George II personally led troops (the last time a British monarch was directly involved in battle).

George I was, of course, the last King mentioned in the "standard" Vicar of Bray. It thus seems likely that the Bodleian broadside is a follow-on to the Vicar -- which in turn implies that the Vicar was in existence by the reign of George II if not earlier.

Just how traditional "The Vicar of Bray" is is an open question. That it's well-known, however, cannot be denied.

Improbable as it sounds, a bark named _The Vicar of Bray_ was built in 1841. After a complicated career, it ended up in a decrepit state in Port Stanley in the Falklands. It still exists as part of a pier there, and is believed to be the only surviving ship to have made the voyage to San Francisco during the 1849 gold rush. (See Paine, pp. 546-547).

The song also gave its name to a biological theory. Ridley, p. 31 etc., describes how biologists for long thought that sex existed in order to promote the diffusion of good genes, helping along evolution. This came to be called the "Vicar of Bray" theory. Alternatives go by such names as the "Tangled Bank" and the "Red Queen" (after the Red Queen's Race in _Through the Looking Glass_).

Unlike its namesake, though, the "Vicar" theory proved inadequately adaptable. The basic premise is sound: Sex allows the diffusion of genes (i.e. it allows genes A and B, which arose independenty, to end up in the same organism), and sharing of genes is indeed helpful when a species must seek to optimize behavior; it is the best way to create superior mixes of genes. But this does not explain why so many creatures reproduce only by means of sex. Mammals use sex exclusively, and most other vertebrates and many invertebrates also reproduce exclusively sexually.

The problem with the Vicar of Bray is that sex is not needed for genetic diffusion. It's perfectly possible to swap genes without sex; bacteria often do it, and viruses manage it by invading a cell at the same time. And in the ordinary course of things asexual reproduction (cloning or fissioning) is a faster way to reproduce. Indeed, we see a mix of such strategies in many creatures (strawberries, for instance, send out runners to populate their local area, while spreading seeds to the wind. And there are a number of species which reproduce primarily asexually while going through an occasional sexual phase, e.g. at the end of a growing season).

Plus, while sex serves to distribute good genes, it also serves to break up good gene combinations. As Ridley puts it on page 47, "Sex disobeys that great injunction, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

It has been noted, however, that asexual reproduction seems to be a very rare thing; if one looks at a "Tree of Life" (one of those drawings that show species splitting off from each other), and marks the multicellular creatures which reproduce asexually, they are few and scattered (see the description in Dawkins, p. 425). The one major exception is the bdelloid rotifers, which -- unlike all other rotifers -- reproduce exclusively asexually, and have managed to persist for an estimated 85 million years and spawn some 360 species (Judson, pp. 219-220; Dawkins, p. 425). Judson, p. 213, calls it a "notorous scandal" (in the circles of evolutionary biology). According to Ridley, p. 85, it was John Maynard Smith who first used the term. Scandal they may be, but they are still very much the exception. Almost every other species reproduces sexually. It must have some strong advantage -- but no one knows what.

(This gives rise to an irony: The Vicar of Bray in the song kept himself in business by selfishly concerning himself solely with his own survival. The Vicar of Bray hypothesis regarding evolution failed because it does not take into account the selfish desires of each creature that its genes, and only its genes, survive.)

Because of these problems, there is still debate about why sex persists. It will be interesting to see the name applied to the consensus theory if and when a consensus forms. - RBW


Chandler: David Chandler: _Sedgemoor 1685: From Monmouth's Invasion to the Blody Assizes_ (Spellmount, 1985, 1999)

Clark: G.N. Clark, M.A., _TheLater Stuarts, 1660-1714_ (Oxford, 1934, 1944)

Davies: Godfrey Davies, _The Early Stuarts: 1603-1660_ (Oxford, 1937)

Dawkins: Richard Dawkins, _The Ancestor's Tale_ (2004; I use the 2005 Mariner Books edition)

Gillingham: John Gillingham, _The Wars of the Roses_ (Louisiana State University, 1984)

Judson: Olivia Judson, _Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation_ (Henry Holt, 2002; I use the 2003 Owl Books edition)

Kendall: Paul Murray Kendall, _Richard the Third_ (Norton, 1955, 1956)

Kenyon: J. P. Kenyon, _Stuart England_ (The Pelican History of England 6) (Pelican, 1978)

Longford: Lord Longford, _A History of the House of Lords_ (Sutton, 1988, 1999)

Oman: Carola Oman, _The Winter Queen: Elizabeth of Bohemia_ (1938; I used the 2000 Phoenix edition)

Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, _Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia_ (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)

Prall: Stuart Prall, _The Bloodless Revolution: England, 1688_ (Doubleday Anchor, 1972)

Ridley: Matt Ridley, _The Red Queen_ (Penguin, 1993)

Seward-Roses: Desmond Seward, _The Wars of the Roses_ (Penguin, 1995)

Sinclair-Stevenson: Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, _Blood Royal: The Illustrious House of Hanover_ (Doubleday, 1980)

Trevelyan: G. M. Trevelyan, _The English Revolution 1688-1689_ (Oxford, 1938)

Wedgwood-Coffin: C. V. Wedgwood, _A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I_ (1964; I used the 1966 Time-Life edition with introduction by A. L. Rowse)

Wedgwood-Thirty: C. V. Wedgwood, _The Thirty Years War_ (1938; I used the 1961 Doubleday-Anchor printing)

Historical references

Cross references



  1. Chappell/Wooldridge II, pp. 122-123, "The Country Garden, or, The Vicar of Bray" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Silber-FSWB, p. 314, "The Vicar of Bray" (1 text)
  3. cf. Fuld-WFM, p. 187, "Country Gardens"
  4. BBI, ZN1416, "In Charles the second's Golden Reign"
  6. Roud #4998
  7. BI, ChWII122