One of the First Attempts to Write a “Protestant” History of the English Church

Bale, John (1495-1563)

The first two partes of the Actes, or vnchast examples of the Englysh votaryes, gathered out of their owne legendes and chronycles by Iohan Bale, and dedycated to our most redoubted soueraigne kynge Edward the syxte.

London: [S. Mierdman] for A Vele and [S. Mierdman], for Iohan Bale, 1550 and 1551


Octavo: 15.4 x 9.5 cm. [4], 79 lvs; cxx, [4] lvs. Collation: I. *4, A-K8 (with blank K8 present); II. A-P8, Q4

THIRD PRINTING (the first printing appeared at Antwerp in 1546.)

Fine, tall copies with a few trivial blemishes, complete with the final blank in Part I. Bound in 18thc. quarter blond calf and marbled boards. The text is set in Black Letter with a number of figured woodcut initials in the text. A small woodcut of Bale presenting his book to Edward VI appears on the title page of volume one and again on leaf A8 in the second volume. This is the earliest obtainable edition. The last copy of the 1546 edition (badly defective) to appear at auction was in 1996. The last available copy of the 1548 edition that I can trace was offered by Francis Edwards in 1947.

This book consists of two volumes, the first (STC 1273) printed by S. Mierdman for A. Vele, the second (STC 1273.5) by Mierdman for John Bale. As bound, the first four leaves of STC 1273.5, consisting of a general title page ("The first two partes of the Actes..") and the dedicatory epistle, precede the whole of STC 1273, which comprises the first book. The bulk of STC 1273.5 (beginning "The Second Part…" and concluding with the errata) is bound last, as intended by the printer.

Bale’s popular and influential history of the English Church’s ages-long struggle against the Romish Church of the Antichrist. The work’s popularity was in large part due to the ex-Carmelite’s sensational exposè of clerical sexual misconduct, which Bale illustrated with graphic examples.

Bale wrote his “Actes of the Englysh Votaries” during his first exile in Germany. “The passage of the Act of Six Articles in 1539 marked a major shift in religious policy by reimposing strict orthodoxy and banning protestant tracts, and presaged the downfall of Cromwell, who was executed in the following year. After this reversal of Henry VIII's commitment to ecclesiastical reform Bale fled to the continent, where he continued to produce outspoken controversial writings.”(DNB)

“‘The Actes of the Englysh Votaries’ represented Bale’s first elaborate revision of English history. Though he allowed at the beginning that he intended to uncover only one face of Antichrist in England, the evil consequences of clerical celibacy, the book’s implications were in fact a good deal wider than that. What Bale did in the ‘Actes’ was to shape the myth of the ‘beleaguered isle,’ that epic view of the nation’s past in which England had striven heroically (if in vain) down through the centuries to keep out Romish spiritual corruption and political subversion. He evidently foresaw some unseemly levity on his readers’ part when on the title page he urged them to ‘read, but laugh not,’ but the scurrilous clerical horror-stories notwithstanding, Bale was in no light humor. He had originally planned a four-parte treatise, dividing the clergy’s ‘actes’ into four periods - ‘rising, building, holdynge, and falling’- but he only got as far as the first two. This was nevertheless quite enough to make his point.

Bale did leave his own summary of the projected outline of the whole work. The final two parts were to cover the years 1200 to 1400 (from King John to King Henry IV) and from 1400 to 1550. His own summarization reads:

‘In the first part, after long engendering, breeding and bringing, my votaries have risen fast, by the crafty inventions of idolaters. In the second part they have builded fast by the witty practices of monks and canons. In the third part shall they hold fast by the busy caulking of the four orders of friars. And in the fourth part shall they fall fast by the mighty assaults of preachers and writers.’

“England had accepted Christianity, Bale said, when Joseph of Arimathea (from Jerusalem, not Rome) visited the island in 63 A.D. ‘The Brytains toke the christen faithe at ye very spring or first going forth of the Gospel, whan the church was most perfit, and had moste strengthe of the holy ghost.’ Purity of worship had lasted unblemished up to the time of the emperor Diocletian, when Britain was divided into dioceses (the first sign of institutional rigidity.) But despite the insidious infiltration of monks into England during the next three hundred years, bringing with them Pelagian notions of work-righteousness, the English Church’s original vigor had enabled it to withstand most corruptive influences until the fateful mission of Saint Augustine in 597. This minion of Antichrist had introduced ‘cendelstyckes, vestymentes, surplices, alter clothes, syngyng bookes, rellyckes’ and ever since 600 (a significant number) especially, the monks had labored ‘to prepare Antechrist a seate here in England, against the full tyme of his perfight age, of 666.’ The latter date marked (Bale said) the arrival of Theodore of Tarsus, sent to finish what Augustine had begun. So the seventh century crisis in the Roman Church had its noxious impact on England too. Bale emphasized that both Augustine and Theodore had supported the Saxon conquerors against the native Britons, copying the subversive tactics of their papal superiors. As the year 1000 approached, matters got even worse. Dunstan’s enforcement of clerical celibacy was a sure sign that Satan was about to emerge from the pit, and the Danish invasions (abetted by treasonous monks) supplied the final portent. This was where Bale ended the first part of his treatise, the ‘rising’ of the clergy –using the millennium of Revelation 20 as the key feature of his periodization.

“The second part (the clergy ‘building’) covered the eleventh and twelfth centuries, emphasizing the same themes of idolatry and worldly ambition in the Church. Things predictably got worse after the loosing of Satan. Finding the Saxon rulers recalcitrant puppets, the clergy engineered the Norman Conquest. Then Anselm proceeded to undermine the new dynasty in turn, as well as to legislate clerical celibacy once and for all. And the pernicious activity of Thomas Becket of course gave Bale ample scope for invective. Bale closed part two with stories of how the Church had wickedly manipulated Richard the Lion-hearted. The third and fourth parts would have traced England’s recovery, through Wyclif and Henry VIII, but what Bale did publish was enough to make clear the picture of England holding out against Rome longer than the rest of Christendom, albeit, until the fourteenth-century, unsuccessfully.” (Leslie Fairfield, “Mythmaker for the English Reformation”)

ESTC 100594. Comprises STC 1273 and 1273.5; Davies, “A Bibliography of John Bale”, Number 23 (b) and (c).