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Halamus Publishing - Archived Articles - #17, August, 2003



The Articles from the Monthly Newsletters

Written by

M. Lesley Halamek

August, 2003:–

SONG: "The Vicar of Bray" – England

Q: Who was the Vicar of Bray?

Q: Which Vicar of Bray? Historians cannot seem to agree on his name or time of incumbency!

Q: Where is Bray? What is a Vicar?

The Traditional 17th Century Air "The Vicar of Bray"
is on Page 29 of:

"Folksongs for the Violin", Part 2: The Violin in Major Keys
(A Graded Selection of Melodies for Beginners of All Ages).

Details on the MUSIC PAGE

A: Vicar: The priest of a parish in the Church of England who receives a stipend or salary
but does not receive the tithes of a parish.

Vicar: (Eng. Eccl. Law) The incumbent of an appropriated benefice.

Note: The distinction between a parson [or rector] and vicar is this: The parson has, for the most part, the whole right to the ecclesiastical dues in his parish; but a vicar has generally an appropriator over him, entitled to the best part of the profits, to whom he is in fact perpetual curate with a standing salary. —Burrill.

A: There have been incumbent Vicars of Bray for many centuries, and the majority, no doubt, have been good, conscientious clergymen. Only a few have been notorious....

"The Vicar of Bray" has been the subject of a screenplay, a comic opera, an epic poem in doggerel verse and a song, the tune of which has been used for various parodies.

A: BRAY, a village in the Wokingham parliamentary division of Berkshire, England, situated on the west bank of the Thames, south of Maidenhead Bridge. Pop. (1901) 2978. There are numerous riverside residences in the locality. The church of St Michael has parts of its structure dating from the 13th century, and is much restored. It contains a number of brasses of the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

A well-known ballad, "The Vicar of Bray," tells how a vicar held his position by easy conversions of faith according to necessity, from the days of Charles II until the accession of George I and the foundation of "the illustrious house of Hanover" (1714).

One Francis Carswell, who is buried in the church, was vicar for forty-two years, approximately during this period, dying in 1709; but the legend is earlier, and the name of the vicar who gave rise to it is not definitely known.

That of Simon Aleyn, who held the office from c. 1540 to 1588, is generally accepted, as, in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, he is said to have been successively Papist, Protestant, Papist and Protestant.

The name of Simon Simonds is also given on the authority of the vicar of the parish in 1745; Simonds died a canon of Windsor in 1551, but had been vicar of Bray. Tradition ascribes the song to a soldier in Colonel Fuller's troop of dragoons in the reign of George I."  (scroll down to BRAY, a village ...)

"Bray St. Michael's Church
The present parish church at Bray was built to replace a previous Saxon building around 1294. The old church is said to have stood some way outside the main village at Water Oakley. The (new) church was, of course, originally constructed in the Early English style, but it was given many perpendicular additions and alterations in the early 14th century – including the fine tower. It is a surprisingly large building for a small village, but this reflects the size of the parish which covers many manors and associated hamlets scattered throughout Windsor Forest. The lords of these manors made great patrons and this can be seen in the many monuments and memorial chapels throughout the church.

...But underneath the central portion of the nave is said to be buried Bray's most famous resident, Simon Alleyn, the so-called 'Singing-Vicar'. This famous Vicar of Bray had a well-known ballad written about him in which he promised to stick to his principles: no matter what religious denomination he had to adopt, he would always remain, "the Vicar of Bray, Sir".

The poem itself suggests a man living through the troubled years of the late 17th century, but the story is known to be much older and probably refers to the even more turbulent times of the Reformation. Hence Alleyn, who was vicar from 1523 to 1565, is thought to be the man in question." From David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History

"...The famous Singing Vicar of Bray had a well-known ballad written about him in which he promised to remain the Vicar of Bray, Sir no matter what religious denomination he had to adopt. The ballad indicates he was Francis Carswell (Vicar 1650-1709), but the story was recorded of the rector through the turbulent Tudor years as early as 1662. This, much more likely candidate, was named Simon Alleyn (Vicar 1523-65) and his memorial slab lies in the middle of the nave." ...

"Vicar of Bray (The)."

(1.) "Mr. Brome says the noted vicar was Simon Alleyn, vicar of Bray, in Berkshire, for fifty years (about 1540, died 1588). In the reign of Henry VIII. he was catholic till the Reformation; in the reign of Edward VI. he was calvinist; in the reign of Mary he was papist; in the reign of Elizabeth he was protestant. No matter who was king, he resolved to die the vicar of Bray." – D'Israeli: Curiosities of Literature.

(2.) Another statement gives the name of Pendleton as the true vicar. He was afterwards rector of St. Stephen's, Walbrook (Edward VI. to Elizabeth).

(3.) Haydn says the vicar referred to in the song was Simon Symonds, who lived in the Commonwealth, and continued vicar till the reign of William and Mary. He was independent in the protectorate, episcopalian under Charles II, papist under James II, moderate protestant under William and Mary.
N.B. – The song called The Vicar of Bray was written in the reign of George I, by colonel Fuller or an officer in Fuller's regiment, and does not refer to Alleyn, Pendleton, or Symonds, but to some real or imaginary person who was vicar of Bray from Charles II to George I."   (Brome to Rawlins, June 14, 1735. (See Letters from the Bodleian, II. i. 100).

"The Vicars of Bray, in Berkshire, have been some of its most interesting characters, apparently all upholding the same principle as the most famous one, Simon Aleyn, of the mid-sixteenth century. "He was a Papist under the reign of Henry VIII, and a Protestant under Edward VI; he was a Papist again under Mary, and once more became a Protestant in the reign of Elizabeth. When this scandal to the gown was reproached for his versatility of religious creeds, and taxed for being a turncoat and an inconstant changeling...he replied,

'Not so neither, for if I changed my religion, I am sure I kept true to my principle; which is, to live and die the Vicar of Bray.' (He succeeded and is buried there.)

"The well-known song, however, was written about 1720 in the reign of George I, perhaps by a soldier in Colonel Fuller's troop of Dragoons, of Dr. Francis Carswell, Vicar of Bray during the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III, Ann, and George I. He was said to have been "an old rich stingy turncoat and a curmudgeon of unsettled head." (Information from The Doomsday Book, ed. by Thomas Hinde, and Chappell's Popular Music of the Olden Time, Vol. 2.)."    ( (Site no longer exists).

"The Vicar of Bray, in Berkshire, was a papist under Henry VIII, a Protestant under Edward VI, a papist again under Queen Mary, and a Protestant in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He was reproached, as bringing scandal upon his office. 'I cannot help that,' said the vicar; 'if I changed my religion, I am sure I keep true to my principle, which is, to live and die vicar of Bray.'" (Scroll to #7.)

The anecdote of the Vicar of Bray depicts him, one Simon Alwyn, as a turncoat. He apparently changed his religion three times to maintain a healthy lifestyle. (Page no longer exists).

Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

The Vicar of Bray

An Original English Comic Opera in Two Acts.
written by Sydney Grundy.
music by Edward Solomon.

This opera was first produced at the Globe Theatre July 22, 1882. It opened again January 28, 1892, at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 143 performances.

Plot Summary

This opera is based on The History of Sandford and Merton, a series of 18th century moral tales, and "The Vicar of Bray," a song about a clever cleric who manages to survive the religious policies of five British monarchs. Winifred, daughter of the Vicar of Bray, is in love with her father's curate, the poor (but pompous) Harry Sandford. The Vicar wants her to marry wealthy Tommy Merton, son of the local widowed landowner. In order to facilitate this marriage, the Vicar switches from Low Church to High Church, a move which so offends Harry that he agrees to take a curacy among the Cassowaries. This opera requires five choruses: a group of children attached to the schools of Bray; their lady school teachers; divinity students who are in love with the teachers; Tommy Merton's gentrified friends; and the local corps de ballet, led by the enchanting Nelly Bly.

The Vicar of Bray

British, 1937
Director: Henry Edwards
Screenwriter: H Fowler
Cinematographer: William Luff
Cast: Stanley Holloway, Felix Aylmer, Hugh Miller (Charles I), K Hamilton Price,
Margaret Vines, Garry Marsh, Esmond Knight, Martin Walker

Historical comedy in which a clergyman (Holloway) manages – by changing his theology with the changing wind – to hang on to his living through the reigns of Charles I, Cromwell and Charles II.

The story actually comes from a popular early 18th-century song based on a 16th-century vicar of Bray in Berkshire who managed to survive the religious changes of the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth.

However, this story may have been based on another Vicar of Bray at the time of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and Richard Cromwell (The Commonwealth), and presumably Charles II. This Vicar of Bray was a character in

"Ballad: The Tale Of The Cobbler And The Vicar Of Bray",

an epic in doggerel verse, which may or may not have been written by Samuel Butler, English wit and poet (1612 - 1680).

The Tale Of The Cobbler And The Vicar Of Bray

( considerably abridged)

1. In Bedfordshire there dwelt a knight,
Sir Samuel by name,
Who by his feats in civil broils
Obtain'd a mighty fame.


3. This worthy knight was one that swore
He would not cut his beard
Till this ungodly nation was
From kings and bishops clear'd:


6. Many and mighty things he did
Both sober and in liquor,-
Witness the mortal fray between
The Cobbler and the Vicar;

7. Which by his wisdom and his power
He wisely did prevent,
And both the combatants at once
In wooden durance pent.


9. A strolling cobbler, who was wont
To trudge from town to town,
Happen'd upon his walk to meet
A vicar in his gown.


14. The cobbler too, who quickly saw
The landlady's design,
Did all that in his power was
To manage the divine.

15. With smutty jests and merry songs
They charm'd the vicar so,
That he determined for that night
No further he would go.

16. And being fixt, the cobbler thought
'Twas proper to go try
If he could get a job or two
His charges to supply.


18. I can repair your leaky boots,
And underlay your soles;
Backsliders, I can underprop
And patch up all your holes.

19. The vicar, who unluckily
The cobbler's outcry heard,
From off the bench on which he sat
With mighty fury rear'd.


21. What has this wretch to do with souls,
Or with backsliders either,
Whose business only is his awls,
His lasts, his thread, and leather?


23. The cobbler, who had no design
The vicar to displease,
Unluckily repeats again,-
I'm come your soals to ease:

24. The inward and the outward too
I can repair and mend;
And all that my assistance want,
I'll use them like a friend.


30. And thus the cobbler stitched and sung,
Not thinking any harm;
Till out the angry vicar came
With ale and passion warm.


32. How dar'st thou, most audacious wretch!
Those vile expressions use,
Which make the souls of men as cheap
As soals of boots and shoes?

33. Such reprobates as you betray
Our character and gown,
And would, if you had once the power,
The Church itself pull down.

34. The cobbler, not aware that he
Had done or said amiss,
Reply'd, I do not understand
What you can mean by this.


37. Come, vicar, tho' you talk so big,
Our trades are near akin;
I patch and cobble outward soals
As you do those within.

38. And I'll appeal to any man
That understands the nation,
If I han't done more good than you
In my respective station.


41. Your principles you've quite disown'd,
And old ones changed for new,
That no man can distinguish right
Which are the false or true.

42. I dare be bold, you're one of those
Have took the Covenant;
With Cavaliers are Cavalier,
And with the saints a saint.

44. I that have care of many souls,
And power to damn or save,
Dar'st thou thyself compare with me,
Thou vile, ungodly knave!


46. Thou art an enemy to the State,
Some priest in masquerade,
That, to promote the Pope's designs,
Has learnt the cobbling trade:

47. Or else some spy to Cavaliers,
And art by them sent out
To carry false intelligence,
And scatter lies about.


50. This cobbler happening to o'ertake
The vicar in his walk,
In friendly sort they forward march,
And to each other talk.


52. A world of healths and jests went round,
Sometimes a merry tale;
Till they resolved to stay all night,
So well they liked my ale.

54. The case I take it to be this,-
The vicar being fixt,
The cobbler chanced to cry his trade,
And in his cry he mixt

55. Some harmless words, which I suppose
The vicar falsely thought
Might be design'd to banter him,
And scandalize his coat.


58. These vicars are a wilful tribe,
A restless, stubborn crew;
And if they are not humbled quite,
The State they will undo.

59. The cobbler is a cunning knave,
That goes about by stealth,
And would, instead of mending shoes,
Repair the Commonwealth.

60. However, bid 'em both come in,
This fray must have an end;
Such little feuds as these do oft
To greater mischiefs tend.


63. To this the vicar first replies,
I fear no magistrate;
For let 'em make what laws they will,
I'll still obey the State.

64. Whatever I can say or do,
I'm sure not much avails;
I shall still be Vicar of Bray
Whichever side prevails.


66. I've took so many oaths before,
That now without remorse
I take all oaths the State can make,
As meerly things of course.

67. Go therefore, dame, the justice tell
His summons I'll obey;
And further you may let him know
I Vicar am of Bray.


69. This is a hopeful priest indeed,
And well deserves a rope;
Rather than lose his vicarage
He'd swear to Turk or Pope.

70. For gain he would his God deny,
His country and his King;
Swear and forswear, recant and lye,
Do any wicked thing.

71. At this the vicar set his teeth,
And to the cobbler flew;
And with his sacerdotal fist
Gave him a box or two.

72. The cobbler soon return'd the blows,
And with both head and heel
So manfully behaved himself,
He made the vicar reel.


78. Go, seize them, Ralph, and bring them in,
That I may know the cause,
That first induced them to this rage,
And thus to break the laws.

79. Ralph, who was both his squire and clerk,
And constable withal,
I' th' name o' th' Commonwealth aloud
Did for assistance bawl.


108. This is the Vicar, Sir, of Bray,
A man of no repute,
The scorn and scandal of his tribe,
A loose, ill-manner'd brute.


110. Besides, I'm by the Commonwealth
Entrusted to chastise
All knaves that straggle up and down
To raise such mutinies.


112. And so, to wind the tale up short,
They were call'd in together;
And by the gentlemen were ask'd
What wind 'twas blew them thither.

113. Good ale and handsome landladies
You might have nearer home;
And therefore 'tis for something more
That you so far are come.

114. To which the vicar answer'd first,-
My living is so small,
That I am forced to stroll about
To try and get a call.

115. And, quoth the cobbler, I am forced
To leave my wife and dwelling,
T' escape the danger of being press'd
To go a colonelling.


118. My business is to mend bad soals
And stitch up broken quarters:
A cobbler's name would look but odd
Among a list of martyrs.


139. By this time all the neighbours round
Were flock'd about the door,
And some were on the vicar's side,
But on the cobbler's more.

140. Among the rest a grazier, who
Had lately been at town
To sell his oxen and his sheep,
Brim-full of news came down.

141. Quoth he, The priests have preach'd and pray'd,
And made so damn'd a pother,
That all the people are run mad
To murther one another.

142. By their contrivances and arts
They've play'd their game so long,
That no man knows which side is right,
Or which is in the wrong.


146. What's worse, old Noll is marching off,
And Dick, his heir-apparent,
Succeeds him in the government,
A very lame vicegerent.


155. Come, vicar, lay your feuds aside,
And calmly take your cup;
And let us try in friendly wise
To make the matter up.

156. That's certainly the wiser course,
And better too by far;
All men of prudence strive to quench
The sparks of civil war.


159. A one-eyed cobbler then was one
Of that rebellious crew,
That did in Charles the martyr's blood
Their wicked hands imbrue.

160. I mention this not to deface
This cobbler's reputation,
Whom I have always honest found,
And useful in his station.

161. But this I urge to let you see
The danger of a fight
Between a cobbler and a priest,
Though he were ne'er so right.


164. Sir, quoth the grazier, I believe
Our outward soals indeed
May quickly want the cobbler's help
To be from leakings freed.

165. But for our inward souls, I think
They're of a worth too great
To be committed to the care
Of any holy cheat,

166. Who only serves his God for gain,
Religion is his trade;
And 'tis by such as these our Church
So scandalous is made.

167. Why should I trust my soul with one
That preaches, swears, and prays,
And the next moment contradicts
Himself in all he says?

168. His solemn oaths he looks upon
As only words of course!
Which like their wives our fathers took
For better or for worse.


179. I think that you can do no less
Than send them to the stocks;
And I'll assist the constable
In fixing in their hocks.

The Vicar of Bray

In good King Charles's golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
A Furious High-Church man I was,
And so I gain'd Preferment.
Unto my Flock I daily Preach'd,
Kings are by God appointed,
And Damn'd are those who dare resist,
Or touch the Lord's Anointed.

And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When Royal James possest the crown,
And popery grew in fashion;
The Penal Law I houted down,
And read the Declaration:
The Church of Rome I found would fit
Full well my Constitution,
And I had been a Jesuit,
But for the Revolution.

And this is Law, &c.

When William our Deliverer came,
To heal the Nation's Grievance,
I turn'd the Cat in Pan again,
And swore to him Allegiance:
Old Principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive Obedience is a Joke,
A Jest is non-resistance.

And this is Law, &c.

  When Royal Ann became our Queen,
Then Church of England's Glory,
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory:
Occasional Conformists base
I Damn'd, and Moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was,
From such Prevarication.

And this is Law, &c.

When George in Pudding time came o'er,
And Moderate Men looked big, Sir,
My Principles I chang'd once more,
And so became a Whig, Sir.
And thus Preferment I procur'd,
From our Faith's great Defender,
And almost every day abjur'd
The Pope, and the Pretender.

And this is Law, &c.

The Illustrious House of Hannover,
And Protestant succession,
To these I lustily will swear,
Whilst they can keep possession:
For in my Faith, and Loyalty,
I never once will faulter,
But George, my lawful king shall be,
Except the Times shou'd alter.

And this is Law, &c.

The British Musical Miscellany, Volume I, 1734.
Text as found in R. S. Crane, A Collection of English Poems 1660-1800.
New York: Harper & Row, 1932.

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