The Vicar of Bray

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In good King Charles’s golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
A Furious High-Church man I was,
And so I gain’d Preferment.
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.

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Chorus: And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When Royal James possessed the crown,
And popery grew in fashion;
The Penal Laws I hooted down,
And read the Declaration:
The Church of Rome I found would fit
Full well my Constitution,
And I had been a Jesuit,
But for the Revolution.

When William our Deliverer came,
To heal the Nation’s Grievance,
I turn’d the Cat in Pan again,
And swore to him Allegiance:
Old Principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive Obedience is a Joke,
A Jest is non-resistance.

When Royal Anne became our Queen,
Then Church of England’s Glory,
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory:
Occasional Conformists base
I Damn’d, and Moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was,
From such Prevarication.

When George in Pudding time came o’er,
And Moderate Men looked big, Sir,
My Principles I chang’d once more,
And so became a Whig, Sir.
And thus Preferment I procur’d,
From our Faith’s great Defender,
And almost every day abjur’d
The Pope, and the Pretender.

The Illustrious House of Hannover,
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.

The story

As a crash-course in religious politics and official doctrine in late Stuart and early Hanoverian England, this anonymous satirical song from the 18th century takes some beating. There must have been numerous history teachers down the years who would have sang the song to their pupils by way of making sense of the massive religious and political turbulence in England from Charles II’s restoration in 1660 to George I’s accession in 1714.

While little remembered nowadays, The Vicar of Bray, both as a song and as a political and religious stereotype (and insult), occupied a small but important niche in English culture for 200 years or more. The spinoffs it inspired include a comic opera and the 1937 movie of the same name starring Stanley Holloway.

The song comes in several slightly differing variants, but the point is always that the vicar will happily change his convictions to adapt to the conditions of the day, in keeping with the only truly important principle – that he remain the vicar of Bray.

Several figures have been suggested as the “original” vicar of Bray, including Simon Aleyn, who was the actual vicar of Cookham and Bray in Berkshire. Aleyn pre-dates the events in the song, though he managed to hold on to his job through the equally turbulent reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth and so would have gone from Catholic to Protestant twice.

George Orwell wrote a little essay (A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray), published in Tribune in 1946) noting that some years previously he’d been to Bray in Berkshire where a friend pointed out “a magnificent yew tree which, according to a notice at its foot, had been planted by no less a person than the Vicar of Bray himself.”

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Orwell noted that however bad the vicar had been in his lifetime, his legacies were this wonderful tree and a song which had given pleasure to millions. He concludes that one should note down every antisocial act one commits in one’s diary “and then, at an appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground… If even one of them in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.”