John Bale (1495-1563) is a little bit of an enigma for historians. In his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry John N. King labels him as an ‘evangelical polemicist and historian’ but Bale is so much more than this. John Bale is a scholar, a bishop, a playwright, a matryrologist, a historian, a polemicist, a bibliophile, a collector of ancient manuscripts, and more. Bale’s profile as formed by historians is shaped in large part through his own autobiographical accounts which makes our understanding of Bale immediately complicated by biased and fictional representations. Thus the life and career of Bale is on the one hand detailed and rich and on the other difficult to categorise and distinguish truth from fiction.
Bale was born to a humble life in the small village of Cove, near Dunwich in Suffolk to Henry and Margaret. He was one of several children and as such was delivered to the Carmelite Friars early in life as was often done at the time. As a Carmelite, Bale received scholarly training at Jesus College, Cambridge and travelled to Louvain and Toulouse to carry out research into the history of his order. By 1530 he had graduated with a DTh (Diploma in Theology) and become prior in Maldon, Essex. Three years later he was promoted to the convent at Ipswich, then a year later to Doncaster.
It was around this time that Bale converted to a reformist position against the Church of Rome, broke his oath to the Carmelites and married a woman (possibly a widower with a child in tow) named Dorothy. Later in life Bale attributed his conversion to Thomas, first Baron Wentworth of Nettlestead but the exact details and chronology is unknown. We do know that Bale was arrested on suspicion of heresy several times, first in 1534 and then again in 1537. On the second occasion it would seem that Bale was helped out by friends such as the antiquarian John Leland and the principal secretary Thomas Cromwell, whom Bale had begun to work for as chief playwright of evangelical plays. In 1536 he finally left the Carmelites for good, taking the post of a stipendiary priest at Thorndon in Suffolk.
In 1539 Bale was forced into exile due to the major shift in religious policy by Henry VIII but upon the succession of Edward VI, Bale was given the post of Bishop of Ossary in Ireland. This post proved difficult for Bale and upon the succession of Mary he was forced to flee for his life and travel abroad for a second period of exile. Upon the succession of Elizabeth I, Bale (now quite elderly) was appointed a canon at Canterbury Cathedral where he died in late 1563.
Bales major contribution to the reformation can be found in his polemical plays (especially his adaptation of King Johan), in his evangelical appraisal and appropriation for an English audience the continental apocalyptic tradition which argued that human history had been predicted in scripture and that the rise and fall of the Roman Catholic Church had been prophesised (The Image of Bothe Churches), and in his detailed catalogues of English writers and texts. The latter work, of which there are two editions, is named the Catalogus and contains the results of extensive research into England’s historical source material. The Catalogus was also as much theological polemic as it was catalogue: containing a complex history of the papacy and its fall to the antichrist (later republished as the Acta Romanorum pontificum).
In addition Bale wrote several martyrological accounts (John Oldcastle and Anne Askew) which would later inform and influence his friend and colleague John Foxe, the author of the Acts and Monuments. Indeed recent scholarship has unearthed a strong connection between the two men that suggests that Bale acted as mentor and encourager to Foxe’s project. Bale also helped Matthew Parker, Queen Elizabeth’s first archbishop of Canterbury to find lost ancient manuscripts for his own evangelical “propaganda” campaign. Finally, Bale wrote a polemical and autobiographical account of his time in Ireland (The Vocacyon of John Bale) which gives us a fascinating glimpse into Irish history and more particularly, English views of the Irish at this time.
Historical research is increasingly finding John Bale to be an important and essential influence on English scholarship during the sixteenth-century whether through his own activities or through his publications and writings. Bale helped to shape the English reformation on various levels but, also, helped to create the myth of protestant suffering and victory. As in his own autobiographical accounts Bale’s works carry a certain mythological and fictive element to them. Indeed, Lesley P. Fairfield, one of Bale’s many modern biographers called Bale ‘mythmaker for the English Reformation’. Such a title for a biography at once gets to the crux of Bale and offers us a warning not to examine him and his work without a significant amount of caution.