Essay – In Defence of the Vicar of Bray

Something I’ve had in mind for a while – I hope you enjoy it

The late, great art critic Brian Sewell once claimed the worst thing he could call anyone was a ‘Vicar of Bray.’  As an insult, it’s not very effective these days for the simple reason most people have likely never heard of this now somewhat obscure figure. So who exactly was he?

The Vicar of Bray was a satirical song published in the first half of the 18th Century about an ecclesiastical gent determined to hang on to his cushy job at any cost. He does this by changing his religious and political beliefs to fit whatever happens to be fashionable at the time.

He begins the reign of ‘Good King Charles’ as a ‘zealous High-Church man’ and becomes, successively, a Catholic under James II, a Protestant supporter of the Glorious Revolution under William and Mary, a Tory under Queen Anne and finally, a Whig under George I. The chorus sums up his gleefully amoral position:

“And this is the law I shall maintain,

Until my dying day, sir

That whatsoever king may reign,

I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.”

Thus, whenever there’s a change of monarch, his principles do a volte-face and he gets to keep his grubby little mitts on his job. Whether there really was any such person is rather beside the point

In its day, the song was an amusing (if unsubtle) satire on those desperate to hang on to power by any means necessary. Given the rate at which Great Britain chopped and changed its religion and politics in those heady times, it would have been practically impossible for someone to stay consistently in the Royal favour unless they adopted some kind of amoral chicanery of the type lampooned in the song.

The vicar then, was a figure of ridicule, a vile and contemptible thing to be mocked, pilloried and ridiculed. A miserable crawling slug determined to hang on to his comfortable life at the expense of his soul, selling out to whichever tyrant had his hand on the proverbial purse-strings.

These days of course as an insult it’s a bit redundant since all satire has a shelf-life and outside historians, nobody really cares too much about factionalism in the days of the late Stuarts or early Hanoverians.

Despite this, I’d like to have a go at reclaiming our vicar from the ignominious dustbin of history. You see, I believe he still has something to teach us in the early 21st Century, other than selling our principles to the highest bidder.

Superficially, the vicar seems just as odious in the days of corporate faddishness and ridiculous business buzzwords as he ever did in the days of pantaloons and periwigs. The life of the office drone is often not a happy one, especially when you’ve only just got used to one set of ridiculous jargon for it to be ditched in favour of another a few months later. Chopping and changing is apparently what we’re good at and heaven forbid anyone should get their feet too well-settled underneath the table.

And yet it is precisely this resonance with the modern world which should partly redeem the vicar in our eyes – if not exactly making him a hero  at least making him a bit less of a fink.

When I was a teenager I wrote a story about two guys who toil for an unnamed workplace painting circles on the walls. They spend hours on end painting the circles all over the walls only for some blowhard to smugly inform them there’s been a change of management and its now triangles that are wanted. Their overlords have spoken, and the despondent pair get busy painting triangles in the miserable knowledge it will only be a matter of time before they too are thrown out in favour of hexagons or dodecahedrons or any other nonsense you can imagine.

The powers that be chopping and changing their minds every few minutes is enough to drive anybody mad. Let’s not forget the great Franz Kafka spent some of his working life toiling away for a state insurance company. He no doubt saw his fair share of idiotic managerial fads, no doubt prompting him to create some of his best-known works. The Castle springs to mind.

The same motif appears in Herge’s underrated late work Tintin and the Picaros in which the boy reporter and his friends visit the fictional San Theodorus, a banana republic prone to frequent revolutions in which General Alcazar is booted out of power by his rival General Tapioca – or vice-versa. When our heroes first arrive, we see a miserable slum filled with downtrodden peasants and a flag proclaiming Viva Tapioca flapping in the wind. At the end, the flag now reads Viva Alcazar. Everything else, slum and peasants remains unchanged. The message is pretty clear – it matters little to the ordinary people whoever El Presidente happens to be, their lives continue just as they were before.

With this in mind, our vicar starts to seem a bit less self-serving and simply a pragmatist. Like Edmund Blackadder, he is a modern man in an historical context. He is the token sane man surrounded by fools. He realises the country will change its allegiances no matter what he does, so why not simply stay ahead of the game and go along with them? The key thing here is perhaps context. It is not the fact one changes with the wind, but the circumstances in which one does it which proves the decisive factor.

Selling one’s soul for preferment at all costs is frankly, contemptible. Feeling ground down by the chaos around you and becoming indifferent to whichever idiot happens to be in charge, regarding them as interchangeable and realistically accepting the situation until you can leave it behind is not. If anything, it’s an understandable coping strategy, a way to stay sane in an insane world.

After all, I Claudius showed all too clearly what happened during the reign of Caligula to those who opposed the mad emperor’s whims – they were executed. Claudius keeps quiet until it’s his turn in the limelight and then he uses his influence to change things for the better. What seems like moral cowardice may simply be a bit of common sense or seeing the bigger picture. After all, does the world really need more martyrs? If anything I think it needs rather less. And as Bertrand Russell once remarked when asked if he would be willing to die for his principles: ‘Certainly not, for I might be wrong!’

In other words, I think there’s a bit of the vicar of Bray in most of us – perhaps more than we’d like to admit.  It’s not that we won’t rock the boat, it’s that we know we must pick our battles wisely. That perhaps is the lesson he has still to teach us.  And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to hang on to your little bit of paradise, providing it’s not at the cost of your soul.


The Vicar of Bray

In good King Charles’ golden days when loyalty no harm meant
A zealous High Churchman (1) was I and so I gained preferment (2)
To teach my flock, I never missed, kings are by God appointed (3) 
And damned be those who dare resist or touch the Lord’s annointed.
And this is the law, that I’ll maintain until my dying day, sir
That whatsoever king may reign, I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir
When royal James possessed the crown and popery (4) came in fashion
The penal laws I hooted down, and read the Declaration (5)
The Church of Rome, I found, did fit full well my constitution
And I had been a Jesuit (6) but for the Revolution(7) 
And this is the law etc
When William was our King declared, to ease the nation’s grievance,
With this new wind about I steered and swore to him allegiance.
Old principles I did revoke, set conscience at a distance
Passive obedience (8) was a joke, a jest was non-resistance (9)
And this is the law etc
When Royal Anne became our queen, the Church of England’s glory
Another face of things was seen and I became a Tory (10)
Occasional conformists (11) base, I blamed their moderation
And thought the Church in danger was from such prevarication
And this is the law etc
When George in pudding time (12) came o’er and moderate men looked big, sir
My principles I changed once more and I became a Whig (13) sir
And thus preferment I procured from our new faith’s defender
And almost every day abjured the Pope and the Pretender (14)
And this is the law etc
The illustrious house of Hanover and Protestant succession,
To these I do allegiance swear – while they can hold possession
For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter
And George my lawful king shall be – until the times do alter 
And this is the law etc
1. High Churchman – those within the Church of England who embraced the Roman Catholic elements of the faith such as elaborate ceremony and the sacraments. They held high office during the reigns of James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649) while their Puritan colleagues held low office.
2.  Preferment – career advancement
3. By God appointed – i.e. the Divine Right of Kings, a philosophy which held that kings’ authority stemmed from their having been chosen by God
4. Popery – pejorative term for Roman Catholicism a faith practised by James II and which flourished during his reign (1685-1688) much to the chagrin of his Protestant subjects which eventually saw his overthrow (see below)
5. Penal laws…Declaration – Following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, a series of laws were passed to enforce religious conformity including the Test Act of 1673. These stipulated that all holders of government office had to take the Sacrament of the Holy Communion according to the Anglican Church, the intention being to exclude Catholics and Non-Conformist Protestants from holding office. To combat this, James II issued his Declaration of Indulgence in 1687 to suspend these penal laws in a bid to tip the balance once more in favour of Roman Catholicism. 6. Jesuit – society founded by Ignatius Loyola within the Roman Catholic Church known for its devotion to the Pope
7. Revolution – the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) which saw the overthrow of James II and the accession of William III and Mary II as the head of a new Protestant regime
8. Passive obedience – a philosophy stating subjects should refuse to obey a monarch’s will if it was held to be against the will of God, but show their obedience by submitting to any punishment which resulted from this.
9. Non-resistance – sometimes given as ‘a pish (piss) on non-resistance’ – this is the philosophy that subjects should never disobey the will of their monarch, which is an essential component of the notion of the Divine Right of Kings
10. Tory – The dominant faction for most of the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) and forerunner of the modern-day Conservative party (although nowadays the terms are used interchangeably). During Anne’s time, the Tories were supporters of the Church of England and wished to increase its power in the face of opposition from Non-Conformists
11. Occasional Conformists – Non-Conformists attempted to circumvent the penal laws by taking Anglican Communion a minimal number of times required by law and then attending Non-Conformist services the rest of the time. The Minimal Conformist (1711) Act attempted to end this type of evasion
12. Pudding time – a time when puddings were to be had, or more literally, a time of prosperity or rejoicing
13. Whig – the rival faction to the Tories dominant for much of the Georgian era
14. Abjured the Pope and the Pretender – holders of Government office were required to swear the Oath of Abjuration repudiating the rights of the Stuart pretenders James II and his descendants James Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender) and Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender) to the throne. It was enforced during the reigns of William III (1688-1702), George I(1714-1727) and George III 1760-1830).

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