Wilson, Tarlton, and the Scourge of Simony in Elizabethan Drama

Paul Whitfield White

I argue 1) that Wilson’s London plays, like The Return from Parnassus, Part 2, focuses on simony as a problem of lay rather than ecclesiastical patronage of church benefices; 2) that the significant parallels between Three Ladies and the court jest ‘How a parsonage fell into Tarlton’s hands’ suggests that Queen Elizabeth is implicated in simoniacal abuses, that Tarlton himself performed the role of Simplicity in Three Ladies, and the lead role in another Queen’s Men play on 'Don John’s Cellar' satirizing simony; 3) that the satire in these entertainments represents the universal outcry in Elizabethan England against governing-class lay patrons who buy and sell multiple clerical livings, nominate extremist or unqualified candidates, or siphon off tithes for personal profit; 4) that this financial racket, parallel in the sacred sphere to usury in the secular world, is illustrated via the court ‘gallant’ Simony (‘dainty diamond knaue’) who, in Three Ladies, takes a financial cut from the corrupt Peter Pleaseman’s benefice but denies one to Sincerity, the godly minister.

Simony, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices, privileges, and properties, and the engagement in other inappropriate church-related economic abuse, was a widely recognized and well-documented problem afflicting the Elizabethan church, implicating lay patrons of ecclesiastical office as well as the clergy in the corruption and mismanagement of England’s parochial system.1 Simony also appears to have been a recurring satirical target in entertainments associated with the Queen’s Men. In addition to both of Wilson’s London plays which feature the vice Simony, or ‘Simon’ (as he calls himself in Three Lords and Three Ladies), George Peele’s The Old Wives Tale introduces a simoniac named ‘Simon’, the clownish churchwarden who demands exorbitant fees for burying the dead on consecrated ground, and an unidentified play written or acted by Richard Tarlton reportedly debunked the bishop of London for simony.2

Particularly informative as a lead-in to my analysis of simony in Wilson’s drama is Tarlton’s well-known court jest, ‘How a parsonage fell into Tarlton’s hands’. The jest is worth quoting in full:

Her Maiestie dining in the Strand at the Lord Treasurers, the Lords were very desirous that she would vouchsafe to stay all night: but nothing could preuaile with her. Tarlton was in his Clownes apparell, being all dinner while in the presence with her, to make her merry, and hearing the sorrow that the Noblemen made that they could not worke her stay: he asked the Nobles what they would giue him to worke her stay: The Lords promised him any thing, to performe it: quoth hee, ‘Procure me the Parsonage of Shard. They caused the Patent to be drawne presently, he got on a Parsons gowne, and a corner cap, and standing vpon the staires where the Quéene should descend, he repeated these words: A Parson, or no Parson? A Parson, or no Parson’: but after she knew his meaning, she not only stayd all night, but the next day willed he should haue possession of the benefice. A madder Parson was neuer, for hee threat[e]ned to turne the Bell-mettel into lyning for his purse: which hee did, the Parsonage and all, into ready money.3

Dining with her counselors at the residence of Lord Burghley (lord treasurer since 1571), Queen Elizabeth and accompanying lords reward Tarlton’s anticlerical buffoonery with a benefice for the parsonage of ‘Shard’ (ie ‘turd patch’).4 Tarlton then sells the church bells, and the parochial benefice itself for cash.

Here, the play burlesques at least two acts of simony familiar to Elizabethans and they bear comparison to similar ones in The Three Ladies of London. The first is the selling of the church bells of the fictional parsonage of Shard, reminiscent of Sincerity’s receiving the parsonage of St. Nihil (ie nothing) from Lady Lucre, about which gift Simplicity remarks to his benefice-seeking relative: ‘Cooosen ile tel thee what thou shalt do, sell the bels, and make monie’.5 I will return to that Tarlton/Simplicity connection later. The second simoniacal act is the queen’s bestowing a clerical benefice on a wholly unqualified candidate for parochial office in reward for a trivial piece of comic entertainment. Although we may question whether Wilson intended a direct parallel between Queen Elizabeth and Lady Lucre, Lady Lucre is at the centre of power and wealth in Three Ladies and she misuses her decision-making authority as patron of ecclesiastical office. Her new chaplain in waiting, presented by Simony himself, is the Catholic-tainted priest Sir Peter Pleaseman. The anecdote about the parsonage of Shard, of course, is apocryphal, but Tarlton, groom of her majesty’s chamber, was the queen’s favorite court jester during the 1580s and some grain of truth may adhere to the incident, as appears to be the case with several other of his jests. What is certain is that the real Queen Elizabeth was sharply upbraided for malfeasance among her own courtiers in the bestowing of benefices: Edward Dering complained to her in 1570, ‘some keep them for their children ... , some to servingmen’. The queen’s dispensing of clerical livings is ‘defiled with impropriations’, he concluded, and while ‘all these whoredoms are committed ... you sit still and are careless’.6 The crown, through the lords chancellor and lords keeper, controlled church benefices in large numbers, bestowing as many as a hundred per year on average during her reign.7

What is important in this discussion of Three Ladies, however, is that the focus of Tarlton’s jest is on lay patronage of church office and the acts of simony it engenders. Like Tarlton, Wilson channels the frustration and outrage of authorities with the church and state, many aligned with the patronage network of the puritan earl of Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham at court, over the greed, corruption, and mismanagement arising from religiously indifferent or popishly inclined members of the nobility and gentry who controlled the appointments of forty percent the nation’s parochial clergy.

How was simony understood in Elizabethan England and what was the role of lay patronage of ecclesiastical office in simoniacal practices? In answering these questions, we must recognize first that when Henry VIII dissolved the religious orders in the 1530s, he sold or gifted to the nobility and gentry not only the seized monastic lands but also the ‘right of advowson’, that is to say the legal right to appoint an individual to a clerical benefice.8 Thus, the bishops’ return to the privy council in 1603 showed that of 9250 parishes in England, 3850 of them were ‘impropriated’ by lay members of the ruling class.9 In other words, forty percent of England’s parishes depended on lay patrons to dispense and, in many if not most cases control, parochial benefices. Why is this fact significant? The advowson was recognized in common law as property — a commodity — that could be bought, sold, gifted, or bequeathed. Once it entered a family estate, its ownership was protected by common law and extremely difficult to remove, despite church administrators’ countless efforts to do so right down to the nineteenth century.10 Also significant is that parishes typically had glebe land that was farmed and buildings both agricultural and residential that were leased; all forms of income in addition to the tithes that came in from parishioners, much of which was ‘in kind’, or in the form of grain, not cash. Consequently, the wealthier parishes might hold a benefice worth £40 or £50, although the average was far less than that.11 One can see the potential abuses here, especially by patrons, like Simony himself in Three Ladies, who control multiple benefices. Religiously indifferent lay patrons were repeatedly accused of nominating a benefice holder who was a relative, a servant, or a clerical commoner of little education, whom they paid a small fee and then arranged for the lion’s share of the parochial income to be transferred to the patron’s estate; this practice indeed was the subject of Edward Dering’s complaint, cited earlier.12 There were other problems: ideologically-driven patrons, either Catholic or puritan, could ensure that incumbents of their religious persuasion occupied clerical office. To be sure, a bishop, as ordinary, was required to ‘present’ a prospective benefice holder for ordination, but during Elizabeth’s reign when a great shortage of qualified clergy and even less funding in ecclesiastical hands combined with poor clerical oversight, lay patrons often appointed the clerics of their choice, and bishops themselves were not above bribery and collusion with lay patrons and beneficed clergy alike.13 Among the most objectionable offenses generating an outcry in pamphlets, sermons, and parliamentary bills and statutes were the buying and selling of multiple benefices by lay patrons, patrons taking payment from candidates to secure office, patrons nominating (and in most cases securing) unqualified candidates for clerical office, papist and puritan patrons exploiting their advowson rights to advance their partisan religious interests, patron/bishop collusion on presenting poor candidates or even delaying the decision of candidates so tithes income could be siphoned off during the vacancy, patrons and their associates illegally appropriating parish resources — tithes, farmed glebe land, parish leases — for private profit.14

All protestant authorities across the religious spectrum in Elizabethan England decried the evils of a system in which advowsons were commodified and determined the appointing of clerical benefices, but they differed on how to fix the system. The Anglican hierarchy and even some modern puritan leaders such as Sir Walter Mildmay defended lay patronage but proposed reforming its abuses. On the other hand, most puritan clerics and pamphleteers from Thomas Cartwright to Philip Stubbes wanted the entire system dismantled and replaced with a policy where church congregations, elders, and regional consistories of ministers substantially made appointments. This idea cohered with — indeed was — ‘Presbyterianism’ which the queen, through Whitgift, categorically rejected. None of Wilson’s extant drama shows evidence that he advocated the more radical puritan stance on clerical appointments, no more than his patron, the earl of Leicester, who chafed at the rebukes of such puritan suitors as Thomas Wood for not speeding up the pace of religious reform.15

In The Three Ladies of London, the focal points of abuse are the scenes featuring Simony and action centering on Sincerity, a puritan university scholar, and his popish counterpart, Peter Pleaseman. In the sequel The Three Lords and Ladies of London (1588-9), Simony and Sincerity return (the former as ‘a gallant’; the latter ‘a sage’), but they play minimal roles in that play which, while critiquing economic abuses, is celebratory rather than satirical in its representation of London’s religious and political scene. Perhaps in reference to the Simony Act passed in early 1588 in which some legal reforms were implemented, Simony in Three Lords remarks ‘here I am so cried out against by preachers (and yet some ministers, that be none, could be content to vse me) that I was glad to be gone’. Later he flees England for good, whereas, tellingly, Usury stays, though branded to limit loan interest to ten percent .

Both of Wilson’s London plays follow typical moral interlude dramaturgy (for example, Bale’s Kyng Johan) in introducing a group of four ‘vice’ personifications (Fraud, Dissimulation, and Usury in addition to Simony) who collectively signify wickedness in the world of commerce and devise plots of temptation and seduction,16 but in Three Ladies Simony and Usury appear first on stage as a pair to foreground London’s — and the nation’s — chief economic evils, one corrupting the secular realm, the other the sacred. As James Pilkington, an earl of Leicester client, remarked about St Paul’s Cathedral: ‘the south alley for usury and popery, the north for simony’. In the north nave all aspirants for clerical office indicated their availability by the Si quis door.17 Moreover, Elizabeth’s parliaments of the 1570s and 1580s repeatedly debated simony and usury, thus explaining Fraud’s remark to Dissimulation, ‘Symonie & Usery hath an ill matter in law at this time’ (510).18

Wilson depicts the quartet of vices as foreigners. Simony, not insignificantly, hails from Rome where he resided with friars and monks before English merchants, who benefited financially from his friendship, brought him to England. Wealthy drapers and haberdashers were among Elizabethan lay patrons, but Wilson also draws on the rhetoric of anti-simony polemicists who compare benefices to merchandise sold in the London marketplace.19 And like the other vices, Simony finds patronage with Lady Lucre who appoints him her administrator of ecclesiastical affairs. In the play’s final report, Simony has been seen cavorting with the clergy at St Paul’s (1857).

The Knave of Diamonds, A Sixteenth Century Playing Card.
Fig. 1 The Knave of Diamonds, A Sixteenth Century Playing Card.

Fig. 1 The Knave of Diamonds, A Sixteenth Century Playing Card.

In its entirety, this depiction might suggest that Simony is a Roman Catholic chaplain to Lucre or perhaps a bishop, as he probably would have been dressed in the earlier Reformation interludes of John Bale and the next generation of interlude playwrights such as George Wapull and Lewis and William Wager (see also New Custom). An earlier version of Simony’s fellow vice, ‘dane Davy Dissimulation’, for example, appears in Bale’s King Johan in several clerical roles. Costume changes and disguised identities, including those for vice/clergymen, are not uncommon in the moral interludes, but Simony is unlikely to have been depicted as a bishop or any other clerical type in Three Ladies or Three Lords. I find it instructive that when Sir Peter Pleaseman enters with Simony, he alone has a stage direction referring to his appearance: ‘Enter Symony and Peter Pleaseman like a parson’ (908); no corresponding direction is given for Simony in that or any other scene. The best indication for his identity and dress comes from the list of ‘actors names’ appearing in The Three Lords and Three Ladies, where Simony, Fraud, Dissumulation and Usury are labelled ‘Foure Gallantes’ (24). Gallants, who appear frequently in sixteenth-century drama, were usually well-off and well-dressed sons of prominent families. And these characteristics line up with Simplicity’s description of the vices early in Three Ladies as the four ‘knaves’ (or jacks) in a card deck. Notably, Simony — not Usury — is the play’s knave of diamonds: ‘the dyamon daintie knaue’ (230). Wilson’s play compares to a contemporaneous 1582 moral interlude entitled ‘A Game of the Cards’ which the Children of the Chapel Royal staged at considerable cost before the queen at Windsor Castle and featuring the knaves of clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds who prey on a soldier, scholar (aspiring divine?), merchant, and husbandman.20

Is it possible, therefore, that the vices were costumed like jacks featured on playing cards? Dissimulation, at least initially, appears on stage in a farmer’s coat and cap (scene 2, sd), and Fraud is armed ‘like a ruffian’, but perhaps they change to dress more suitable for Lucre’s household. Given Simony’s gallant status in Three Lords and Simplicity’s description of him as ‘dyamon daintie knaue’, he and Usury may have been costumed as courtiers when they first appeared before the audience in The Three Ladies.

We first hear about Simony’s abuses from Simplicity who sizes him up in an address to the audience early in Three Ladies. Simony ‘loues to have twenty liuinges at once’ (156), adding that if he lets an ‘honest’ man to seek a benefice, he’ll ‘let it so dear that he shalbe vndone’ (157-8). Simony ‘seekes to get Parsons liuinges into his hand’ (ie to buy them) and then ‘puts in some odd dunce that to hys payment will stand’, so ‘if the parsonage be worth forty or fifty pound a yeare / He will geue one twentie nobles to mumble seruice once a month’ (159-62). The attack here is on clerical appointments of uneducated and spiritually indifferent pastors for the financial benefit of the lay or clerical patron. Simony does not use the term ‘parsonage’ loosely; like rectories, parsonages collected greater and lesser tithes, whereas vicarages collected only lesser tithes. Simony knows that an uneducated curate could be paid £7 per annum or lower, whereas the 1559 Injunctions of Queen Elizabeth stipulated that a university graduate would earn a minimum of £30 per year.21 Simony’s control of numerous benefices at once was common, since noblemen who acquired large monastic estates obtained advowsons for their various rectories as well. The Elizabethan earl of Huntington, for example, hired four chaplains, possessed at least eight benefices in Leicestershire, ten others livings in Devon and Somerset, a purchased one in Dorset, among others nationwide; the Cecils and Harringtons in Rutland had between them fourteen livings. These men of course were fervent protestants and used their advowson rights to advance puritan reform, just as the Catholic Treshams and Griffins put religious conservative clergy in their Northamptonshire parishes.22

Wilson reserves his most biting satire of simoniacal abuse for a subplot in which Simony himself does not appear, because the sequence’s central focus, the puritan-inclined university scholar, Sincerity, refuses Simony’s assistance in acquiring a benefice (543-781). Impervious to trickery and incorruptible, Sincerity arrives in London in search of preferment. The unfolding scene with his gullible cousin Simplicity illustrates the plight of any earnest, devout, and university-educated divine seeking religious office without money or political connections but unwilling to enter the simony market. Through Simplicity, Sincerity wins Lady Conscience’s signed endorsement for the ministry, but Conscience, in this corrupt system, is sharply devalued, and because of this loss of value she says there’s little she can do for Sincerity when he turns to Lady Lucre for preferment. Lucre is also negotiating with Conscience to purchase her home on the cheap, now that she has engineered Conscience’s financial ruin, so after reading her letter supporting Sincerity she offers to help, but only if Sincerity goes through her ecclesiastical deputy Simony.23 When Sincerity refuses, Lady Lucre offers the poor, young scholar the parsonage of St Nihil. Urged to do so by Dissimulation, her new steward, Lucre wants at least to give the appearance that she is a good lay patron out of self-interest, but of course St Nihil is no parsonage at all. Another would-be patron, Lord Nemo (nobody), offers a benefice to Sincerity, but he leaves to sup with Hospitality without following through on his promise. The unmistakable impression given by this sequence is that the bestowal of benefices is a financial racket, entangled in a commercial marketplace characterized by greed, acquisitiveness, duplicity, and religious indifference. The system corrupts even Simplicity. He expects payment in exchange for introducing Sincerity to Lucre and Dissimulation and he misunderstands that St Nihil is not a real parish and that Lord Nemo’s promises of a second benefice are empty; thus, he rejoices in his cousin’s supposed success and proposes that Sincerity now sell the church bells for cash.

Wilson’s example of a parish priest knee-deep in simony is Sincerity’s polar-opposite Sir Peter Pleaseman, who enters with Simony several scenes later (909-51). Sir Peter informs Simony about two of his parishioners, one who praises Simony as upholding the clergy, another who inveighs again the corruption and dishonor simony promotes. Sir Peter says ‘I loue to please men, so long as I haue life’ (918), indicating how the rewards of sycophancy become more important than the cure of souls, a familiar complaint in religious pamphlets. Sir Peter says he is ‘of all religions’ (936), that he studied at two or three schools of divinity, though not at the university (schools of divinity suggests possibly Catholic seminaries abroad).24 Simony reminds him he is ‘a Protestant now’ (937), no longer a Catholic. Sir Peter seeks to be Lucre’s chaplain, despite his lose morals, idle disposition, and predilection for flattery. Simony agrees to secure the chaplaincy provided Sir Peter turns over to him half of the proceeds of the new benefice:

SIMONY You say well, but if I helpe you to suche great prefarment,
            Would you be willing, that for my paine I shall haue yearely halfe the gaine.
            For it is reason you know, that if I help you to a liuing,
            That you should vnto me be somewhat beholding.
PETER I sir and reason good, Ile be as your maistership please. (942-7)

It is a textbook case of simony: a patron or middlemen securing a financial cut of a newly appointed benefice, and a repeated complaint in pamphlets, speeches, and ecclesiastical prohibitions.25 On the printed page, Simony’s specific vocational identity is left ambiguous. In performance, Wilson may have costumed him as a prelate or even another chaplain (ladies and lords had multiple chaplains, after all), but that is not my sense here. I’m inclined to see Simony as a court gallant on the take, the ‘daintie diamond knave’ described by Simplicity on Simony’s first entrance.

In support of this hypothesis I would turn to the Cambridge play The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, the subtitle of which is The Scourge of Simony, dated about 1600, one of the few extended treatments of simony in early modern drama. All three of the Parnassus plays are ‘journey’ narratives centering on a group of Cambridge students; the third play, like Three Ladies, begins in the countryside with the quest for employment in London. The simony subplot features the puritanical Academico, the play’s ‘Sincerity’ character, who seeks a church benefice from a provincial magnate, Sir Roderick. The play’s gallant in question is Sir Roderick’s son, Amoretto, a member of the Middle Temple with a taste for Ovid and a friend of Academico’s from their Cambridge days together, but Academico is too poor to pay the necessary bribes to Sir Roderick or his son to obtain church office. Instead, Amoretto pockets £100 from the father of a rival candidate for church office, Immerito, a virtual dunce who has no education and no other redeeming qualifications for the ministry. Besides Amoretto, another ‘middle-man’, so to speak, is Sir Roderick’s lawyer, the Recorder of Cambridge, who sits in on Immerito’s interview with the magnate. Sir Roderick agrees to present Immerito to his benefice provided he, the lay patron, takes a share of the tithes. Parnassus’s Amoretto is not Simony, but both are gallants who take bribes from prospective benefice seekers and they, along with the lawyer, illustrate the extent of lay involvement in the practice of simony. Both plays send the same polemical message: the existing system of dispensing church benefices is an unseemly business inseparably linked to a cash-nexus economy where clerical livings are bought and sold like any other marketable commodity.

This point returns us to Three Ladies’s parallels with Tarlton’s court jest discussed at the outset of this essay: to ‘the parsonage of Shard’ awarded by the queen and ‘the parsonage of St Nihil’ bestowed by Lucre, the queen’s lord treasurer and privy counsellors directly implicated in the abuse corresponding to Lady Lucre’s court jacks, Tarlton’s selling the church bells for profit, and the clown Simplicity’s proposing the same simoniacal practice in Three Ladies. The correspondences here might be explained by a common source of anti-simony rhetoric, and indeed bells were a common satirical target in anti-Catholic polemic, their jingling during the Mass liturgy, their ringing to commemorate the dead in purgatory on All Saints Day, etc, deemed ‘superstition’. Although largely conjectural, the connections between Tarleton’s court jest and Three Ladies are not merely coincidental. Imagine for a moment that when Wilson joined the Queen’s Men in 1583 he brought with him the script of Three Ladies and deferred to Tarlton, as the company’s most celebrated clown, in taking the role of Simplicity in play performances, as critics have speculated.26 Conceivably that Tarlton-Simplicity’s satire of simony in the staging of Three Ladies was followed by a new Queen’s Men play featuring Tarlton discovering or capturing Simony (‘the bishop’s lacky’) in the cellar of the bishop of London’s residence,27 or, alternatively, led to the authoring of the court jest printed within Tarlton’s Jests in the 1590s. If the story of the jest were in currency while Tarlton was still performing the role, the lines about selling the bells would have been a good in-joke to the audience.


My paper for the PAR Conference focuses less on performance aspects of The Three Ladies of London than on Wilson’s treatment of simony, a huge economic problem in early Protestant/Elizabethan England in which commentators and legislators inveighed against the buying and selling of clerical office, especially by lay patrons whose ownership of pre-Reformation monastic property also gave them the legal right (called an advowson) to appoint persons to ecclesiastical benefices affiliated with churches on those lands; indeed an estimated third of all church benefices were under lay control during Elizabeth’s reign. It was not until the Martin Marprelate controversy came along in the late 1580s that an extended and ferocious attack was mounted on English bishops as practicing simoniacs, as opposed to governing class laymen.

My historical argument here, however, does have implications for performance, namely in how Wilson portrays, specifically costumes, Simony in Three Ladies. I maintained in my paper that as ‘the dainty diamond knave’ (ie jack of diamonds in a card deck) Simony appears as a ‘gallant’, the term used to describe him in the list of names given at the start of Wilson’s sequel, The Three Lords and Ladies of London. This term, however, challenges the view that Simony is cast as a bishop, maintained in Erin Kelly’s paper on this website and featured in the representation of Simony in the McMaster production of The Three Ladies of London. And for the record, I myself previously stated that Simony is a churchman in a book chapter I wrote for the Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature.

So have I modified or switched back to my old view as a result of watching the McMaster performance of Three Ladies and listening to discussions at the conference? I am not recanting here and returning to the fold, but I have modified my position and now believe that it is entirely justifiable in a performance as research production of the Three Ladies to depict Simony as a bishop. Let me explain.

First, we all know that insufficient evidence exists to conclude with certainty one way or the other on this question. However, to my knowledge, with the exception of John Bale’s Three Laws and King Johan (both late 1530s) no prelate appears on the English commercial stage from the English Reformation through the mid-Elizabethan period (it does change significantly with Marlowe and Shakespeare). Moreover, I don’t believe Wilson, as a documented client of the earl of Leicester, would have mocked bishops around the time the play was written and first performed. In 1581, moderate puritans, including Leicester who was their chief patron a court, were desperately trying to keep the Calvinist archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, in office, just when the queen threatened to dismiss him for puritan sympathies. But besides it being risky for Wilson to satirize a bishop for simony at this time, the script of Three Ladies itself in no place identifies Simony as a cleric, and indeed Simplicity’s criticism that Simony possesses 20-plus benefices doesn’t make sense if it applies to a bishop: were not bishops supposed to appoint benefices? On the other hand, serious commentators and legislators were outraged that lay officials controlled so many clerical appointments (see the essay).

But who is to say that characters’ identities, professional or otherwise, in plays didn’t change during their production history in early modern England? We know that at least some changes were made to Wilson’s script after 1581. Sir Peter Pleaseman, for example, is identified as a ‘parson’ in Q1 (1584), and then a ‘priest’ in Q2 (1592). What’s more, characters with the same names are completely different or revised significantly when Wilson writes his sequel. Sincerity changes from a puritan candidate for the ministry to a ‘sage’, Usury, presumed to be Italian (or at least educated in Venice) in Three Ladies, becomes a patriotic English moneylender of Jewish descent in the sequel; and Simony is merely perfunctionary in Three Lords; very little identifies him as simonical. Consequently, I think it is entirely plausible that, when the fashion of the early 1590s became satirizing bishops on and off stage (we saw one in the Waterloo production of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI; see also 2 Henry VI and Marlowe’s Edward II) the possible revival of Three Ladies in the 1590s recast Simony as a bishop. What struck me about Peter Cockett’s McMaster production was just how comfortably Simony fits into the bishop’s role. He could be a bishop caught up in the simony racket when he offers Sir Peter Pleaseman an appointment as Lucre’s chaplain, and certainly some bishops were simoniacal, not to mention acquisitive and corrupt. And, theatrically, Simony’s rich and colorful vestment (even minus the mitre [horn-shaped head piece] and crozier [ornamented shepherd’s hook]) makes for great spectacle, and it differentiates him from the allegorical vices, Fraud, Usury, and Dissimulation.

The whole question of Simony’s identity and costume points to the more important issue of what’s deemed ‘authentic’ or ‘unauthentic’ in a revival of Elizabethan conditions of performance, otherwise known as ‘original practices’ or ‘first practices’. A literalist or purist might insist that in staging an Elizabeth version of Three Ladies, there is a right and a wrong way of dealing with costumes, characters, props, set stage pieces, etc. Simony is or is not a bishop. This is analogous, in some respects, to the old debate over identifying ‘the original’ script of a Shakespearean play. As we all know today, there is no single, pristine original script of a Shakespearean play. We need to imagine multiple ways in which an Elizabethan play might have been staged. Gerontus, Shylock, and Barabas, for example, might have all been staged with strapped-on noses at one time, and perhaps without them at another time of production. That was one of the messages I took away from Peter Cockett’s workshop on the Turkish court scene of Three Ladies and from the extensive discussions of PAR during the conference.


[1] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: ‘The buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, for example pardons or benefices’. The Encyclopedia of Christianity, edited by Erwin Fahlbusch: ‘The term 'simony' took its origin from Simon Magus in Acts 8:18-23. It involves making, or trying to make, spiritual office or gifts a commercial matter’. In Reformation England, most of the criticism relates to parochial benefices. Elizabethan I’s Injunction 19 of 1559 reads: ‘Also, to avoid the detestable sin of simony, because buying and selling of benefices is execrable before God, therefore all such persons, as buy any benefices, or come to them by fraud or deceit, shall be deprived of such benefices, and be made unable at any time after to receive any other spiritual promotion; and such as do sell them, or by any colour do bestow them for their own gain and profit, shall lose their right and title of patronage and presentment for that time’. Qtd from Henry Gee and W.H. Hardy (eds), Documents Illustrative of English Church History (New York, 1896), 417-42.

[2] For The Old Wives Tale, see Frank Ardolino, ‘Peele’s Attack on Simony in The Old Wives Tale’, American Notes and Queries: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 17 (2004), 11-13. Principle evidence for Tarlton’s simony play derives from An Epistle to the Terrible Priests (London, 1588; STC 17454), the earliest extant Marprelate tract: ‘I thinke Simonie be the bishops lacky. Tarleton tooke him not long since in Don John of Londons cellor’ (p 19). The context clarifies that ‘Don John of London’ is John Aylmer, bishop of London. Muriel Bradbrook proposed that this refers to a lost scene from Three Ladies of London, but nothing in the play, save Simony’s name, indicates a loss. For more on the Marprelate controversy and Three Ladies of London, see Erin Kelly’s posted paper, ‘Anti-Catholicism and Protestant Polemic in Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London’.

[3] Tarletons jests drawne into these three parts 1 His court-witty iests. 2 His sound city iests. 3 His country-pretty iests, 2nd ed. (London: I.H. for Andrew Crook, 1638. STC 23683.7).

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), n.4 defines shard as ‘A patch of cow dung’, famously used by Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra: ‘They are his shards, and he their bettle’ (3.2.20).

[5] Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London, H.S.D. Mithal (ed.), An Edition of Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London and Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (New York, 1988), 17 (line 720); all line references hereafter refer to this text.

[6] Dering, A Sermon Preached before the Queenes Maiestie (London, 1569), E1v-E2r. See also Guy Fitch Lytle, ‘Religion and the Lay Patron in Reformation England’, Lytle and Stephen Orgel (eds), Patronage in the Renaissance (Princeton, 1981), 80; and Richard L. Greaves, Society and Religion in Elizabethan England (Minneapolis 1981), 47-8.

[7] D.M. Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth: England Under the Later Tudors (New York 1992).

[8] For overviews of lay patronage and simony see Lytle, ‘Religion and the Lay Patron’; and Greaves, Society and Religion, 45-70. The seminal study of ecclesiastical finance in early modern England remains Christopher Hill, Economic Problems of the Church: From Archbishop Whitgift (1583) to the Long Parliament (1640) (Oxford, 1956).

[9] Palliser, Age of Elizabeth, 384.

[10] Lytle, ‘Religion and Lay Patrons’, 69.

[11] The best account of parish glebe lands and revenue is Robert C. Palmer, Selling the Church: The English Parish in Law, Commerce, and Religion, 1350-1550, Studies in Legal History (Chapel Hill, 2002). What differs, as Guy Lytle observes (‘Religion and Lay Patrons’), is that lay participation was proportionately higher afterwards and with the Protestant priesthood of all believers, the laity was held to a higher ethical standard. For parochial income, see Greaves, Society and Religion, 48-9; and Roger J.P. Kain and Hugh C. Prince, The Tithe Surveys of England and Wales (Cambridge, 1985).

[12] That patrons bestowed livings on their faulkeners, huntsmen, and horsekeepers, see John Stockwood, A Very Fruiteful Sermon Preached at Paules Crosse (1579), C3r-v. That this was not mere hyperbole, a bill was entered in parliament complaining of children being awarded benefices. For more on this scandal, see Greaves, Society and Religion 47-8; and Gerald Lewis Bray, Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformatio Legum (Boydell 2000), cxxviii and 291.

[13] Speaking of Toby Matthew’s appointment to the bishopric of Durham in 1595, Patrick Collinson writes: ‘When he got the bishopric at the third attempt he sent “a slender token” in the shape of £100 in gold to Burghley, and to his secretary Michael Hicks and Robert Cecil perhaps larger rewards: one of the most patently documented cases of simony in the Elizabethan Church’. See Richard Bancroft and Elizabethan Anti-Puritanism (Oxford, 2013), 196-7. Both Cecils were notorious for taking cash for favors as overseers of political and ecclesiastical patronage networks. For accusations against Bishops Bridges and Aylmer, see Kelly, ‘Anti-Catholicism’. More documentation of abuses can be found in note 26 below.

[14] Lytle, ‘Religion and Lay Patrons’; Greaves, Society and Religion, 47f.

[15] See ibid, 104, where Leicester angrily responded in a letter to Wood that ‘No man I know in this realm of one calling or other that hath showed a better mind to the furthering of true religion than I’.

[16] In John Skelton’s lost court interlude ‘Necromancer’, aka ‘The Trial of Simonie’, Simony is gendered female. She is put on trial alongside Avarice in the court of the devil. ‘Necromancer’ was thought to be the fabrication of Thomas Warton, but Rodney M. Baine argued in 1970, on new evidence, for the work’s authenticity; see ‘Warton, Collins, and Skelton’s Necromancer’, Philological Quarterly 49 (1970), 245-8.

[17] Pilkington, Works, ed. J. Scholefield (Cambridge, 1842) 540-1; cited in Lytle, ‘Religion and Lay Patrons’, 75.

[18] For the parliamentary debates on simony extending across Elizabeth’s reign, see Greaves 53-5; Lytle, 81-4.

[19] ‘No better merchandise now-a-days than to procure advowsons of patrons for benefices, for prebends ... whether it be by suit, request, by letters, by money. ... These advowsons are abroad here in this city ... in the shops, in the streets, a common merchandise’. John Longlande, A Sermonde made before the Kynge (London 1538), F3. For merchants as lay patrons, see Greaves, Society and Religion, 56. An ironic pun may quibble here on ‘merchant’ and ‘mercy’ (the two words have a related etymology), as one suspects in The Merchant of Venice.

[20] Martin Wiggins, British Drama: A Catalogue 1566-89 (Oxford, 2012), 307-8; Heinemann, ‘Political Drama’, 173, suggests that Wilson scripted this play for Tarlton’s performance, but this seems unlikely if children performed the play.

[21] In some parts of the country curates were earning as little as £6 per annum. See Greaves, Society and Religion, 49. See also 1559 Injunctions.

[22] Palliser, Age of Elizabeth, 385; Greaves, Society and Religion, 57.

[23] Lady Conscience’s letter of recommendation for Sincerity was typical of those written on behalf of clients seeking clerical office. Lord Burghley, for example, wrote one on behalf of an Oxford-educated protégé seeking a benefice from a provincial magnate. See Greaves, Society and Religion, 55.

[24] For the currency of this meaning in the 1580s, see Kelly who identifies Rome, Douai, and Rheims as the possibilities here.

[25] See article 34 of Archbishop Grindal’s 1576 visitation for Canterbury diocese: ‘Whether any minister or priest presented to any benefice in this diocese have covenanted, promised, or practiced to or with the patron thereof, or any other person or persons that had the advowson or gift of the same benefice, or with any person or persons on his or their behalf, to give to him or his friend any sum or bond any lease, either of the whole benefice, limiting the rent far under the just value, or of the mansion-house, glebe-lands, or any portion of the tithes and fruits of the same benefice, receiving little or nothing therefore; or suffering the patron, or any other person that presented him, to have his own tithes within the benefice free unto himself; or else have granted some yearly pension, or other yearly commodity to him, his child, servant or friend, for preferring him to the same benefice; or otherwise have suffered him to make a gain by any colour, deceit, simoniancal pact in bestowing the said benefice?’. Articles 33, 35, and 36 also address acts of simony. See The Remains of Edmund Grindal, ed. William Nicholson, Parker Society (Cambridge, 1843), 167. See also Greaves, Society and Religion, 51-2.

[26] Muriel Bradbrook, The Rise of the Common Player (London, 1962), 181, argues for Tarlton taking the role of Simplicity in Three Ladies on the basis of Simplicity’s phrase ‘Faith, I’ll go seek peradventures and be a serving creation’ using of one of Tarlton’s catchphrases, but this line probably comes from 1581 (date of the play) when Tarlton would still have been with Sussex’s Men; possibly the text might have been changed by the time it first went to print in 1584. See also Margot Heinemann, ‘Political Drama’, A.R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway (eds), The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama (Cambridge 1990), 174; and Ruth Luney, Marlowe and the Popular Tradition: Innovation in the English Drama before 1595 (Manchester, 2011), 193 and 205; and Kelly, ‘Anti-Catholicism’.

[27] See n 2 above for Martin Marprelate’s comment on Tarlton and simony.