Alexander Barclay (c. 1476-1552), British poet, was born about 1476. His nationality is matter of dispute, but William Bulleyn, who was a native of Ely, and probably knew him when he was in the monastery there, asserts that he was born "beyonde the cold river of Twede"; moreover, the spelling of his name and the occasional Scottish words in his vocabulary point to a northern origin. His early life was spent at Croydon, but it is not certain whether he was educated at Oxford or Cambridge. It may be presumed that he took his degree, as he uses the title of "Syr" in his translation of Sallust, and in his will he is called doctor of divinity. From the numerous incidental references in his works, and from his knowledge of European literature, it may be inferred that he spent some time abroad. Thomas Cornish, suffragan bishop in the diocese of Bath and Wells, and provost of Oriel College, Oxford, from 1493 to 1507, appointed him chaplain of the college of St Mary Ottery, Devonshire. Here he translated Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools, and even introduced his neighbours into the satire: -
"For if one can flatter, and beare a Hauke on his fist,
He shall be parson of Honington or Cist."
The death of his patron in 1513 apparently put an end to his connexion with the west, and he became a monk in the Benedictine monastery of Ely. In this retreat he probably wrote his eclogues, but in 1520 "Maistre Barkleye, the Blacke Monke and Poete" was desired to devise "histoires and convenient raisons to florisshe the buildings and banquet house withal" at the meeting between Henry VIII. and Francis I. at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. He at length became a Franciscan monk of Canterbury. It is presumed that he conformed with the change of religion, for he retained under Edward VI. the livings of Great Baddow, Essex, and of Wokey, Somerset, which he had received in 1546, and was presented in 1552 by the dean and chapter of Canterbury to the rectory of All Hallows, Lombard Street, London. He died shortly after this last preferment at Croydon, Surrey, where he was buried on the 10th of June 1552. All the evidence in Barclay's own work goes to prove that he was sincere in his reproof of contemporary follies and vice, and the gross accusations which John Bale brings against his moral character may be put down to his hatred of Barclay's cloth.
The Ship of Fools was as popular in its English dress as it had been in Germany. It was the starting-point of a new satirical literature. In itself a product of the medieval conception of the fool who figured so largely in the Shrovetide and other pageants, it differs entirely from the general allegorical satires of the preceding centuries. The figures are no longer abstractions; they are concrete examples of the folly of the bibliophile who collects books but learns nothing from them, of the evil judge who takes bribes to favour the guilty, of the old fool whom time merely strengthens in his folly, of those who are eager to follow the fashions, of the priests who spend their time in church telling "gestes" of Robin Hood and so forth. The spirit of the book reflects the general transition between allegory and narrative, morality and drama. The Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant was essentially German in conception and treatment, but his hundred and thirteen types of fools possessed, nevertheless, universal interest. It was in reality sins and vices, however, rather than follies that came under his censure, and this didactic temper was reflected in Barclay. The book appeared in 1494 with woodcuts said to have been devised and perhaps partly executed by Brant himself.
In these illustrations, which gave an impulse to the production of "enblems" and were copied in the English version, there appears a humour quite absent from the text. In the Latin elegiacs of the Stultifera Navis (1497) of Jacob Locher the book was read throughout Europe. Barclay's The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde was first printed by Richard Pynson in 1509. He says he translated "oute of Laten, Frenche, and Doche," but he seems to have been most familiar with the Latin version. He used a good deal of freedom in his translation, "sometyme addynge, sometyme detractinge and takinge away suche thinges as semeth me necessary and superflue." The fools are given a local colour, and Barclay appears as the unsparing satirist of the social evils of his time. At the end of nearly every section he adds an envoi of his own to drive home the moral more surely. The poem is written in the ordinary Chaucerian stanza, and in language which is more modern than the common literary English of his day.
Certayne Ecloges of Alexander Barclay, Priest, written in his youth, were probably printed as early as 1513, although the earliest extant edition is that in John Cawood's reprint (1570) of the Ship of Fools. They form, with the exception of Henryson's Robin and Makyn, the earliest examples of the English pastoral. The first three eclogues, in the form of dialogues between Coridon and Cornix, were borrowed from the Miseriae Curialium of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II.), and contain an eulogy of John Alcock, bishop of Ely, the founder of Jesus College, Cambridge. The fourth is based on Mantuan's eclogue, De consuetudine divitum erga poetas, with large additions. It contains the "Descrypcion of the towre of Virtue and Honour," an elegy on Sir Edward Howard, lord high admiral of England, who perished in the attack on the French fleet in the harbour of Brest in 1513. The fifth, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, also without date, is entitled the "Fyfte Eglog of Alexandre Barclay of the Cytezen and the uplondyshman" and is also based on Mantuan. Two shepherds, Amintas and Faustus, discuss the familiar theme of the respective merits of town and country life, and relate a quaint fable of the origin of the different classes of society.
Barclay's pastorals contain many pictures of rustic life as he knew it. He describes for instance the Sunday games in the village, football, and the struggle for food at great feasts; but his eclogues were, like his Italian models, also satires on social evils. The shepherds are rustics of the Colin Clout type, and discuss the follies and corruptions around them. Barclay had, however, no sympathy with the anti-clerical diatribes of John Skelton, whom he more than once attacks. Bale mentions an Anti-Skeltonum which is lost. His other works are: - The Castell of Laboure (Wynkyn de Worde, 1506), from the French of Pierre Gringoire; the Introductory to write and to pronounce Frenche (Robert Copland, 1521); The Myrrour of Good Maners (Richard Pynson, not dated), a translation of the De quatuor virtutibus of Dominicus Mancinus; Cronycle compyled in Latyn by the renowned Sallust (Richard Pynson, no date), a translation of the Bellum Jugurthinum, The Lyfe of the glorious Martyr Saynt George (R. Pynson, c. 1530). The Lyfe of Saynte Thomas, and Haython's Cronycle, both printed by Pynson, are also attributed to Barclay, but on very doubtful grounds.
See T. H. Jamieson's edition of the Ship of Fools (Edinburgh, 1874), which contains an account of the author and a bibliography of his works; and J. W. Fairholt's edition of The Cytezen and Uplondyshman (Percy Soc. 1847), which includes large extracts from the other eclogues; also Zarncke's edition of Brant (Leipzig, 1854); and Dr Fedor Fraustadt, über das Verhältnis von Barclays Ship of Fools zu den lateinischen, französischen und deutschen Quellen (1894). A prose version of Locher's Stultifera Navis, by Henry Watson, was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1518.
 Script. Ill. Maj. Brit. (1557, Cent. ix. No. 66).