One of the Most Sought-after Illustrated Books of English Poetry

Heywood, John (1497?-1580?)

The Spider and the Flie. A parable of the Spider and the Flie, made by John Heywood

London: in Flete Streete By Thomas Povvell, 1556


Quarto: 19 x 14.5 cm. A-C4, A-Z4, Aa16, Bb6, Cc8, Dd12, Ee16, Ff14, Gg8, Hh-Ss4.


Bound in fine in 19th-century red morocco tooled in a cottage style, richly gilt, with red silk doublures. This is a fine, clean, and complete copy of a book rarely encountered in such condition. A small section of the upper part of the title page has been restored in pen. It is noticeable only upon close inspection.

“‘The Spider and the Flie’ is an allegorical mock-heroic bestiary in rhyme royal by John Heywood. It was printed in 1556 but, according to Heywood’s epilogue, was begun nineteen years earlier. The time span between composition and publication may account in part for the generally acknowledged obscurities and inconsistencies of Heywood’s political and religious allegory. Heywood’s poem is nearly as long as Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

“As in most of Heywood’s works, a modicum of plot is enlarged upon by liberal use of the medieval debate. The Fly, caught in the Spider’s web, is allowed to plead his case for clemency before the Spider, who promises to judge the plaintiff according to reason, law, custom, and conscience. This lengthy debate satirizing courts and legal procedures is made even more convoluted when the Fly appoints a butterfly and the Spider appoints an ant to act as advocates. When all legal arguments fail, the Spider and the Fly summon their allies and prepare to settle the dispute by war. The flies capture the ant and prepare to execute him, but the eloquent ant manages to win a reprieve. After the attack of the flies (against the cobweb castle) is repulsed, both sides agree to a truce, but not until an extremely long debate over how the territory (a window) is to be divided. In the midst of this controversy the Spider reopens the original litigation and decrees that the Fly must be condemned to death. Before execution can take place, however, a maid appears and threatens to kill the Spider, who then must plead for his own life. His appeal fails; the maid crushes the Spider, lectures the flies and spiders on the necessity of peace and order, and both factions depart in amity. At the conclusion of the poem the narrator urges his readers to emulate the harmony reached by the spiders and flies:

‘Let us here Play our parts in this part, all parts to appear / To this maid as spiders and flies to that maid. / Let our banners of obedience be display’d, / Of love the badge, of rejoicing the right root, / And of our own wealths the right and full boot.’

“There is little doubt that the maid of Heywood’s poem is Mary Tudor, who attempted to crush Protestantism and restore Roman Catholicism to England, and that Heywood, a devout Catholic, had to wait almost twenty years for religious developments in England to provide him with a suitable conclusion to his poem. The other principals in the poem are less easy to identify, possibly because Heywood sometimes refers to issues and personages in Henry VIII’s reign and on other occasions to events in Mary Tudor’s. In the first part of the poem the flies seem to represent the commons, the spiders the nobility and rich landowners, and the issue appears to be land enclosures (although not consistently); in the second part the flies appear to be Roman Catholics, the spiders Protestants, and the issue religious conformity. Early in the poem the Fly caught in the web could represent Sir Thomas More and the Spider Cardinal Wolsey; later the crushed Spider suggests Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, executed by the Catholics in 1556. Obscure as Heywood’s allegory is, it is nevertheless recognizable as being patently pro-Catholic, an allegation the author was at pains not to publicize until the restoration of Roman Catholicism under Mary Tudor.” (Ruoff, Crowell’s Handbook of Elizabethan & Stuart Literature)

STC 13308; Grolier, Langland to Wither, 137. Pforzheimer 469; McKerrow & Ferguson 50