The Vicar of Bray (song)

The Vicar of Bray (song)

"The Vicar of Bray" is a satirical song (Roud # 4998) recounting the career of the Vicar of Bray and his contortions of principle in order to retain his ecclesiastic office despite the changes in the Established Church through the course of several English monarchs. The song is particularly interesting because of the number of (rather specific) allusions to English religious and political doctrines and events crammed into it, justifying the close reading and annotation given here. :In good King Charles's golden days,:When Loyalty no harm meant;:A Zealous High-Church man I was, 1 :And so I gain'd Preferment 2.: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 3.

::And this is law 4, 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 5 grew in fashion;:The Penal Law I shouted down,:And read the Declaration::The Church of Rome I found would fit:Full well my Constitution,:And I had been a Jesuit, 6 :But for the Revolution. 7

::And this is Law, &c.

:When William our Deliverer came,:To heal the Nation's Grievance,:I turn'd the Cat in Pan 8 again,:And swore to him Allegiance::Old Principles I did revoke,:Set conscience at a distance,:Passive Obedience is a Joke,:A Jest is "Jest is"">9 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: 10 :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 11 came o'er,:And Moderate Men looked big, Sir,:My Principles I chang'd once more,:And so became a Whig, Sir. 12 :And thus Preferment I procur'd,:From our Faith's great Defender 13:And almost every day abjur'd:The Pope, and the Pretender.

::And this is Law, &c.

:The Illustrious House of Hannover 14,: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.


High Church

The division of the English church into "high" and "low" was extremely meaningful at the time of the Restoration. The High Church resisted the Calvinistic leveling of church hierarchy that saw its apex in the Commonwealth. The High Church party supported the divine right of kings, episcopal church government, establishment of the Church of England by the civil government, was primarily Tory, and was more hierarchical than either the "low" (more Puritan/Presbyterian) or "broad" (latitudinarian or tolerant) churches. High Church in the ecclesiastical period of the 18th century should not be confused with the liturgical changes sought by the Anglo-Catholic/Oxford movement in the 19th century. Puritans, Presbyterians and Baptists favored plainer, less sacramental, more scriptural liturgy in every era. But restoration of Catholic style liturgy (often called 'High Church') in the Church of England is primarily a 19th century phenomenon. In this context, the High Church was devoted to the King's church: meaning that the King of England was not only the head of the church, but that the church's very holiness was imbued into the King's person. Therefore, the King of England was not, in some sense, an ordinary mortal.

The Vicar of Bray comically adapts his political and ecclesiastical beliefs to fit the ascendent government and church parties of his day.


Appointment to an ecclesiastical office, or the position itself; in this case the Vicarage of Bray. An individual candidate for ecclesiastical position was "preferred" over others for it. This required the action of church superiors, and often nobles (through their influence in the House of Lords).

Lord's Anointed

In this case, the King, anointed (by God) in the ceremony of coronation as temporal and spiritual leader of England; it draws from the Judeo-Christian Bible, I Samuel bibleverse-nb|1|Samuel|24|KJV. King Charles I, who had been beheaded during the English Civil War had attempted to introduce the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings to England. After the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II (son of Charles I) was restored to the throne. Charles II was more moderate than his father, but the leading political theorist of the absolutist side, Sir Robert Filmer (the target of John Locke's "Two Treatises of Government"), had argued that the king is appointed directly by God and is, "by nature", inherently superior to those he ruled. Therefore, the king is anointed by God from birth (and not by the Archbishop at coronation). Charles II took no consistent position on divine right, but those who restored him did, and the High Church was ascending.


The English Church was an "Established" Church, meaning that it was regulated by Parliamentary law; ecclesiastics could be and were removed from office for their religious and political opinions. This is the gist of the song's satire: the Vicar of Bray accommodated his beliefs to those of the current ruler, in order to retain his ecclesiastic office.During the period in question, one of the most difficult and fluid questions was the degree to which "Non-conformist" and "Non-juror" clerics could participate in the Established Church.

Non-conformists were those ministers who, though ordained and appointed by the church hierarchy, would not conform to the liturgical practices outlined by the church authorities. These individuals were usually Puritans of some variety, but they could include nearly any variation in religious practice.

Non-jurors (oath-refusers) were more vexing. When Parliament required that all clergy swear allegiance to the king as head of the church, many resisted. Some Puritans felt that no man could lead a church, that orders came from God directly to each believer. Others had sworn oaths before the Test Act and could not swear again without being forsworn. Others were of Roman Catholic leanings and did not recognize the king's reformed church's right to separation from the rest of the communion. In particular, one could not have taken the oaths under Charles II (the Test Act of 1673) and William and Mary, as they were contradictory. Not taking the new oaths was a matter of derision, as those parsons were regarded as possibly seditious, and taking the new oaths was a matter of derision, as those parsons were regarded as spineless. The Vicar of Bray is of the latter camp.


Derogatory word referring to Roman Catholicism, as personified in the Pope; King James II was the first Catholic monarch of England since Mary I of England. James's Catholicism caused a number of Protestants to invite James' daughter, Mary, and her husband, James' nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange to rule England. William invaded England with a large army, and James fled the country. Parliament decided that James had effectively abdicated and declared William and Mary to be joint King and Queen. The only time in history English that this occurred. This is known as the Glorious Revolution. Parliament made Protestantism the first requirement of a monarch.

Since James II went abroad, the English felt always in danger of a Catholic invasion or a Catholic rebellion, and suspicions of Jacobitism (allegiance to James) caused a number of riots through the 18th century. The mere allegation of Catholicism was often enough to end a person's public career.

James's son, living abroad, became known as The Old Pretender (see line 41), but his grandson, Charles (aka "Bonnie Prince Charlie"), The Young Pretender, proved the more troubling figure.


Of all the Roman Catholic orders, the Jesuits were viewed with greatest suspicion in the 17th and 18th centuries. In particular, Jesuits were implicated with attempts on the lives of Elizabeth and the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. The Jesuits had been banned in several nations for being too independent and militant, and the English viewed them as something akin to assassins and spies.

Glorious Revolution

The Glorious Revolution occurred soon after James II's ascension to the throne in 1685. James had only been king for a matter three years before he fled. The Vicar, therefore, did not have long with his new faith. However, the Vicar was not alone in converting to open Roman Catholicism. John Dryden became Roman Catholic at this time (and was taunted by a version of the "Vicar of Bray" tale pre-dating this song), but he remained Roman Catholic to his death and defended his conversion publicly.

Turn'd the cat in pan

Slang, to change sides quickly and effortlessly.

"Jest is"

Some versions of the song give this as "a pish on" ("a piss on").


Queen Anne's first government was Whig, but the Tories rose soon to negotiate the Treaty of Utrecht to end the Whig War of the Spanish Succession. During this period, several men of great force rose under the leadership of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, and Henry St. John, the Viscount Bolingbroke. This is notable, because the voices of this Tory administration (including Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift) were adept satirists, and the "Vicar of Bray" was composed, most likely, by a sympathetic wit.

The idea that the Church was in danger (lines 32-3) was a common rallying cry of the Tory churchmen from 1701 onward. The danger was from Puritans, for the most part. The Vicar's previous beliefs were of reforming, then alien sorts. (Alien meaning Catholic: a religion controlled not by Englishmen and ruled by an English monarch, but by the foreign Pope, who himself might be under the control of foreign monarchs.) But now the Vicar worries that the Church is under threat, and he is alarmed, specifically, at the 'lies' of those who are occasional conformists ("i.e." persons whose obedience is partial and likely nominal, "occasioned" not by true belief but to avoid the civil disabilities of the Penal Laws).

Pudding time

At the time of the song, "pudding" served as the first course of a dinner; the phase means "just in time" or "in the nick of time".

Additionally, the pudding time refers to the Vicar's own old age and recalls some of the libelous charges made about George I.


George I's first government was Whig. In particular, George I's rule was the zenith of Robert Walpole, often called the first British Prime Minister. Walpole dominated all aspects of British politics and polarized the populace. Whigs monopolized power during the Walpole administration.

The Whigs generally prevailed during the Hanoverian reigns, with some notable exceptions. During this period, the Whigs were known as standing for religious tolerance and state sponsorship of trade. The Tories were the party of the aristocracy and the squires (the country estate holders). Tories accused the Whigs of taking Holland, which had become very wealthy with mercantilism and tolerance, as their model. The emergent foreign trade interests were favored by George I, who himself came from modern day Germany and tried to distance himself as much as possible from religious matters. His background was in a state with little monarchical control of religion, and this meant that his court was disengaged. The Vicar therefore embraces the occasional conformity that he previously thought a danger.

Faith's great Defender

The Latin title "Fidei defensor" was first granted by the Pope, to King Henry VIII who subsequently split the English Church from Rome; thus the double irony of the song applying it to Protestant King George. The line is even more ironic, since George I did not take stands on religious matters, preferring to practice salutary neglect of church matters. In fact, George II (king at the time of this song's setting) reduced the involvement of the crown with the church in general and diminished the role of Lords in church affairs. Thus, he seemed to contemporaries to be a more "secular" king than they had had before, and certainly not a "defensior fidelis".


This spelling is standard in German, but archaic in English; the modern English spelling is "Hanover".

Origins and cultural influence

The generally known form of the song appears to have been based on an earlier version, "The Religious Turncoat; Or, the Trimming Parson".

The melody is taken from the song "Country Gardens" from "The Quaker's Opera", first printed in London in 1728, a three-act farce based on the story of Jack Sheppard which was performed at Bartholomew Fair.

A parody of this parody song, "The American Vicar of Bray", with the same chorus, was published in 30 June 1779 edition of Rivington's "Royal Gazette", mocking the shifting loyalties of some American colonists during the American Revolutionary War.

"The Vicar of Bray" is also referenced in the song "Parlour Songs" in the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Sweeney Todd", although the song has been removed from more recent performances of that musical.

Historical basis of the character

Several individuals have been proposed as the model for the Vicar of Bray.

* Thomas Fuller and the English dramatist Richard Brome argue that the model for the song was the 16th century cleric and vicar of Bray, Berkshire, Simon Aleyn (1540–1588), who lived in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth.
* The most frequently sung words refer to 17th century monarchs. Therefore, a later proposed model is Simon Simonds, who was an Independent in the Protectorate, a Church of England cleric under Charles II, a Roman Catholic under James II, and a moderate Anglican under William and Mary.
* Thomas Barlow (1607–1691), bishop of Lincoln, is another candidate.


* Source for the version of the song given here is "The British Musical Miscellany, Volume I", 1734, as found in R. S. Crane, "A Collection of English Poems 1660-1800", New York: Harper & Row, 1932.

* [ A more thorough annotation, which partially informed this one] .
* [ Another annotation]
* [ Yet another annotation]
* [ Historical background of the song]
* [ Midi file of the song]

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