John Bale (1495-1563), bishop of Ossory, English author, was born at Cove, near Dunwich in Suffolk, on the 21st of November 1495. At the age of twelve he entered the Carmelite monastery at Norwich, removing later to the house of "Holme," probably the abbey of the Whitefriars at Hulne near Alnwick. Later he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, and took his degree of B.D. in 1529. At Cambridge he came under the influence of Cranmer and of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Baron Wentworth, and became an ardent partisan of the Reformers. He laid aside his monastic habit, and, as he himself puts it with characteristically brutal violence, "that I might never more serve so execrable a beast, I took to wife the faithful Dorothy." He obtained the living of Thornden, Suffolk, but in 1534 was summoned before the archbishop of York for a sermon against the invocation of saints preached at Doncaster, and afterwards before Stokesley, bishop of London, but he escaped through the powerful protection of Thomas Cromwell, whose notice he is said to have attracted by his miracle plays. He was an unscrupulous controversialist, and in these plays he allows no considerations of decency to stand in the way of his denunciations of the monastic system and its supporters.
The prayer of Infidelitas which opens the second act of his Thre Laws (quoted by T. Warton, Hist. Eng. Poetry, sect. 41) is an example of the lengths to which he went in profane parody. These coarse and violent productions were well calculated to impress popular feeling, and no doubt Cromwell found in him an invaluable instrument. But on his patron's fall in 1540 Bale fled with his wife and children to Germany. He returned on the accession of Edward VI. He received the living of Bishopstoke, Hampshire, being promoted in 1552 to the Irish see of Ossory. He refused to be consecrated by the Roman rite, which still obtained in the Irish church, and won his point, though the dean of Dublin entered a protest against the revised office during the ceremony (see his Vocacyon of John Bale to the Bishopperycke of Ossorie, Harl. Misc. vol. vi.). He pushed his Protestant propaganda in Ireland with no regard to expediency, and when the accession of Mary inaugurated a reaction in matters of religion, it was with difficulty that he was got safely out of the country. He tried to escape to Scotland, but on the voyage was captured by a Dutch man-of-war, which was driven by stress of weather to St. Ives in Cornwall. Bale was arrested on suspicion of treason, but soon released.
At Dover he had another narrow escape, but he eventually made his way to Holland and thence to Frankfort and Basel. During his exile he devoted himself to writing. After his return, on the accession of Elizabeth, he received (1560) a prebendal stall at Canterbury. He died in November 1563 and was buried in the cathedral.
The scurrility and vehemence with which "foul-mouthed Bale," as Wood calls him, attacked his enemies does not destroy the value of his contributions to literature, though his strong bias against Roman Catholic writers does detract from the critical value of his works. Of his mysteries and miracle plays only five have been preserved, but the titles of the others, quoted by himself in his Catalogus, show that they were animated by the same political and religious aims. The Thre Laws of Nature, Moses and Christ, corrupted by the Sodomytes, Pharisees and Papystes most wicked (pr. 1538 and again in 1562) was a morality play. The direction for the dressing of the parts is instructive: "Let Idolatry be decked like an old witch, Sodomy like a monk of all sects, Ambition like a bishop, Covetousness like a Pharisee or spiritual lawyer, False Doctrine like a popish doctor, and Hypocrisy like a gray friar." A Tragedye; or enterlude manyfesting the chief promyses of God unto Man ... (1538, printed in Dodsley's Old Plays, vol. 1), The Temptacyon of our Lorde (ed. A. B. Grosart in Miscellanies of the Fuller Worthies Library, vol. i., 1870), and A brefe Comedy or Enterlude of Johan Baptystes preachynge in the Wyldernesse, etc. (Harl. Misc. vol. i.) were all written in 1538. His plays are doggerel, but he is a figure of some dramatic importance as the author of Kynge Johan (c. 1548), which marks the transition between the old morality play and the English historical drama.
It does not appear to have directly influenced the creators of the chronicle histories. To the authors of the Troublesome Raigne of King John (1591) it was apparently unknown, but it is noteworthy that an attempt, however feeble, at historical drama was made fourteen years before the production of Gorboduc. Kynge Johan (ed. J. P. Collier, Camden Soc. 1838) is itself a polemic against the Roman Catholic Church. King John is represented as the champion of English rites against the Roman see: -
"This noble Kynge Johan, as a faythfull Moses
Withstode proude Pharao for his poore Israel."
But the English people remained in the bondage of Rome, -
"Tyll that duke Josue, whych was our late Kynge Henrye,
Clerely brought us out in to the lande of mylke and honye."
Elsewhere John is called a Lollard and accused of "heretycall langage," and he is finally poisoned by a monk of Swinestead. Allegorical characters are mixed with the real persons. Ynglonde vidua, represents the nation, and the jocular element is provided by Sedwyson (sedition), who would have been the Vice in a pure morality play. One actor was obviously intended to play many parts, for stage directions such as "Go out Ynglond, and dress for Clargy" are by no means uncommon. The MS. of Kynge Johan was discovered between 1831 and 1838 among the corporation papers at Ipswich, where it was probably performed, for there are references to charitable foundations by King John in the town and neighbourhood. It is described at the end of the MS. as two plays, but there is no obvious division, the end of the first act alone being noted. The first part is corrected by Bale and the latter half is in his handwriting, but his name nowhere occurs. In the list of his works, however, he gives a play De Joanne Anglorum Rege, written in idiomate materno.
But Bale's most important work is Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorum, hoc est, Angliae, Cambriae, ac Scotiae Summarium ... (Ipswich and Wesel, for John Overton, 1548, 1549). This contained five centuries, but another edition, almost entirely rewritten and containing fourteen centuries, was printed at Basel with the title Scriptorum illustrium majoris Britanniae ... Catalogus (1557-1559). The chronological catalogue of British authors and their works was partly founded on the Collectanea and Commentarii of John Leland, but Bale was an indefatigable collector and worker, and himself examined many of the valuable libraries of the Augustinian and Carmelite houses before their dissolution. In his notebook he records as an instance of the wholesale destruction in progress: "I have bene also at Norwyche, our second citye of name, and there all the library monuments are turned to the use of their grossers, candelmakers, sopesellers, and other worldly occupiers ... As much have I saved there and in certen other places in Northfolke and Southfolke concerning the authors names and titles of their workes, as I could, and as much wold I have done through out the whole realm, yf I had been able to have borne the charges, as I am not." His work is therefore invaluable, in spite of the inaccuracies and the abuse lavished on Catholic writers, for it contains much information that would otherwise have been hopelessly lost.
A list of Bale's works is to be found in Athenae Cantabrigienses (vol. i. pp. 227 et seq.). Beside the reprints already mentioned, The Examinations of Lord Cobham, William Thorpe and Anne Askewe, etc. were edited by the Rev. H. Christmas for the Parker Society in 1849. Bale's autograph note-book is preserved in the Selden Collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It contains the materials he collected for his two published catalogues arranged alphabetically, with no attempt at ornament of any kind, and without the personalities which deface his completed work. He also gives in most cases the sources from which his information was derived. This book was prepared for publication with notes by Dr R. Lane Poole, with the help of Miss Mary Bateson, as Index Britanniae Scriptorum quos ... collegit Ioannes Baleus (Clarendon Press, 1902), forming part ix. of Anecdota Oxoniensia.
John Pits or Pitseus (1560-1616), an English Catholic exile, founded on Bale's work his Relationum historicarum de rebus anglicis tomus primus (Paris, 1619), better known by its running title of De illustribus Angliae scriptoribus. This is really the fourth book of a more extensive work. He omits the Wycliffite and Protestant divines mentioned by Bale, and the most valuable section is the lives of the Catholic exiles resident in Douai and other French towns. He does not scruple to assert (Nota de Joanne Bale) that Bale's Catalogus was a misrepresentation of Leland's matter, though there is every reason to believe that he was only acquainted with Leland's work at second-hand, through Bale.