Simon Fish was born in about 1500. It is believed that he studied at University of Oxford before entering Grays's Inn in 1525. He associated in London with other young men who supported the Reformation. He upset Cardinal Thomas Wolsey by taking part in a Christmas play in 1526 that satirizing the Church authorities. (1)
Fish went into exile and appears to have been in contact with William Tyndale who had been working on an English translation of the New Testament. This was a very dangerous activity for ever since 1408 to translate anything from the Bible into English was a capital offence. (2) Tyndale declared that he hoped to make every ploughboy as knowledgeable in Scripture as the most learned priest. When it was completed Simon Fish helped to smuggle the Tyndale Bible into England. (3)
Jasper Ridley has argued that the Tyndale Bible created a revolution in religious belief: "The people who read Tyndale's Bible could discover that although Christ had appointed St Peter to be head of his Church, there was nothing in the Bible which said that the Bishops of Rome were St Peter's successors and that Peter's authority over the Church had passed to the Popes... The Bible stated that God had ordered the people not to worship graven images, the images and pictures of the saints, and the station of the cross, should not be placed in churches and along the highways... Since the days of Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century the Catholic Church had enforced the rule that priests should not marry but should remain apart from the people as a special celibate caste... The Protestants, finding a text in the Bible that a bishop should be the husband of one wife, believed that all priests should be allowed to marry." (4)
In 1528 Simon Fish published A Supplication for the Beggars. It was only 5,000 words long and took up only fourteen small pages and was written by a "layman for layman". It could be read in an hour and was easy to conceal as it was not published legally. It was also cheap enough to distribute free of charge. "The language was straightforward too, addressing laymen's issues in laymen's words." (5)
Fish argued that the clergy should spend their money in the relief of the poor and not amass it for monks to pray for souls. (6) Fish claimed that monks were "ravenous wolves" who had "debauched 100,000 women". He added that the monks were "the great scab" that would not allow the Bible to be published in "your mother tongue". (7)
J. S. W. Helt has pointed out: "This short and violently anti-clerical tract challenged the existence of purgatory and presented cruel and wildly exaggerated accounts of clerical abuses done in the name of the souls, and in doing so introduced new strategies for controversial debate into the early stages of the English Reformation." It has been claimed by John Foxe that Anne Boleyn presented a copy of the book to Henry VIII who "kept the book in his bosom for three or four days" and who then embraced Fish "with a loving countenance" when he "appeared at court, took him hunting for several hours, and gave him a signet ring to protect him from his enemies". (8)
George M. Trevelyan has suggested that this work had an impact on the thinking of the King: "The conclusion reached by the pamphleteer (Simon Fish) is that the clergy, especially the monks and friars, should be deprived of their wealth for the benefit of the King and Kingdom, and made to work like other men; let them also be allowed to marry and so be induced to leave other people's wives alone. Such crude appeals to lay cupidity, and such veritable coarse anger at real abuses uncorrected down the centuries, had been generally prevalent in London under Wolsey's regime, and at his fall such talk became equally fashionable at Court." (9)
In March 1528, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall decided to commission Thomas More to mount a counter-attack. Tunstall explained to More that religious reformers were "translating into our mother tongue some of the vilest of their booklets and printing them in great numbers" and were "striving with all their might to stain and infect this country". Tunstall licensed More to possess and read heretical books, blessed him and sent him forth into battle "to aid the Church of God by your championship." (10)
More published his reply to Simon Fish in October 1529. His Supplication of Souls was more than ten times the length of A Supplication for the Beggars. Most people agree that " its point-by-point rebuttal, of a kind appropriate to learned debate, although movingly written, failed to attain the rhetorical power of Fish's more populist tract". More reminded his readers that the prayers of the monks helped to shorten the period which souls had to spend in purgatory. (11) Fish now came under attack from Archbishop William Warham who charged him with heresy. (12)
Simon Fish died of the plague in 1531 before he could be punished by the Church authorities. After his death his widow married James Bainham, an outspoken proponent of reform who was himself burnt as a heretic in April 1532.
In the times of your noble predecessors past, craftily crept into this your realm an other sort, (not of impotent but) of strong, puisant and counterfeit, holy and idle beggars and vagabonds ...the Bishops, Abbots, Priors, Deacons, Archdeacons, Suffragans, Priests, Monks, Canons, Friars, Pardoners, and Sommoners. And who is able to number this idle, ruinous sort, which (setting all labour aside) have begged so importunately that they have gotten into their hands more than the third part of all your realm? The goodliest lordships, manors, lands, and territories, are theirs. Besides this they have the tenth part of all corn, meadow, pasture, grass, wool, colts, calves, lambs, pigs, geese, and chickens ... Yea, and they look so narrowly upon their profits, that the poor wives must be countable to them of every tenth egg, or else she getteth not her rights at Easter, shall be taken as a heretic .... How much money get the Sommoners by extortion in a year, by citing the people to the Commissaries Court, and afterwards releasing their appearance for money? ... Who is she that will set her hands to work to get 3d. a day, and may have at least 20d. a day to sleep an hour with a friar, a monk or a priest?
A few years before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII read without apparent disapproval, and Londoners read with loudly expressed delight, the pamphlet of Simon Fish entitled Supplication of the Beggars. Its form was an address to the King...
The conclusion reached by the pamphleteer is that the clergy, especially the monks and friars, should be deprived of their wealth for the benefit of the King and Kingdom, and made to work like other men; let them also be allowed to marry and so be induced to leave other people's wives alone.
Such crude appeals to lay cupidity, and such veritable coarse anger at real abuses uncorrected down the centuries, had been generally prevalent in London under Wolsey's regime, and at his fall such talk became equally fashionable at Court. In those days, whenever the capital and the Court were agreed on a policy, the battle was already half won. And judging by the readiness with which the Reformation Parliament followed Henry's lead, similar feelings must have been widely spread in the country at large, though least in the northern counties, where feudal and religious loyalty to the Church and the monasteries still prevailed.
In the face of this storm of opinion, now directed to practical issues by the King, what would be the attitude of the clergy, thus threatened and arraigned? Their submission or their resistance would be an event of the utmost importance to the whole future development of English society. If the clerical body - bishops, priests, monks, and friars - had stood together for the high privileges and liberties of the Medieval Church, and had arrayed themselves under the papal banner, they would scarcely have been overcome; certainly not without a struggle that would have rent England to pieces. But in fact the clergy were not only scared by the union against them of the King and so many of his subjects; they were themselves genuinely divided in opinion. A large number of clergymen were in close and daily contact with laymen and understood their way of thinking.
(1) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 376
(2) Melvyn Bragg, The Daily Telegraph (6th June, 2013)
(3) J. S. W. Helt, Simon Fish : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(4) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 4
(5) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 376
(6) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 187
(7) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 59
(8) J. S. W. Helt, Simon Fish : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(9) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) pages 117-118
(10) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 376
(11) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 53
(12) J. S. W. Helt, Simon Fish : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)