meaning and origin of ‘Vicar of Bray’

 

St Michael_s church, Bray, Berkshire

St Michael’s church, Bray, Berkshire
photograph: Royal County of Berkshire History

 

 

MEANING

 

The English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) thus defined and explained the phrase in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1st edition – London, 1785):

Bray; a vicar of Bray; one who frequently changes his principles, always siding with the strongest party. An allusion to a vicar of Bray, in Berkshire, commemorated in a well-known ballad for the pliability of his conscience.

(Bray is a village near Maidenhead in Berkshire, a county of southern England.)

 

ORIGIN

 

The phrase was first mentioned by the Church of England clergyman Thomas Fuller (1608-61) in The History of the Worthies of England (London, 1662):

The Vicar of Bray, will be Vicar of Bray still.
Bray, a Village well known in this County, so called from the BIBROCES a kind of ancient Britons Inhabiting thereabouts. The Vivacious Vicar hereof living under King Henry the 8. King Edward the 6. Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth*, was first a Papist, then a Protestant, then a Papist, then a Protestant again. He had seen some Martyrs burnt (two miles off) at Windsor, and found this fire too hot for his tender temper. This Vicar being taxed by one for being a Turn-coat, and an unconstant Changeling, Not so, said he, for I alwaies kept my Principle, which is this, to live and die the Vicar of Bray. Such many now adayes, who though they cannot turn the wind, will turn their Mils, and set them so, that wheresoever it bloweth, their Grist shall certainly be grinded.

* Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47); Edward VI (reigned 1547-53); Mary I (reigned 1553-8); Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603)

In a letter dated 14th June 1735, a certain William Brome wrote to a Mr Rawlins that he had identified the Vicar of Bray:

(1813 edition)
I have had a long chase after the Vicar of Bray, on whom the proverb. […] I am informed it is Simon Aleyn or Allen, who was Vicar of Bray about 1540, and died 1588, so was Vicar of Bray near 50 years.

So proverbial was the Vicar of Bray that the following was published in The Tatler: By the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq (Glasgow) of 5th September 1710:

The church thermometer, which I am now to treat of, is supposed to have been invented in the reign of Henry the eighth, about the time when that religious prince put some to death for owning the pope’s supremacy, and others for denying transubstantiation. I do not find, however, any great use made of this instrument till it fell into the hands of a learned and vigilant priest or minister, for he frequently wrote himself both one and the other, who was some time vicar of Bray. This gentleman lived in his vicarage to a good old age; and after having seen several successions of his neighbouring clergy either burnt or banished, departed this life with the satisfaction of having never deserted his flock, and died vicar of Bray. As this glass was first designed to calculate the different degrees of heat in religion, as it raged in popery, or as it cooled and grew temperate in the reformation, it was marked at several distances, after the manner our ordinary thermometer is to this day, viz. Extreme hot, Sultry hot, Very hot, Hot, Warm, Temperate, Cold, Just freezing, Frost, Hard frost, Great frost, Extreme cold.

But the currency of the phrase is mainly due to the 18th-century song mentioned by Francis Grose in his dictionary. The London Magazine: and Monthly Chronologer of January 1736 published one of its versions. Whereas, according to Thomas Fuller and William Brome, the vicar held the benefice from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Elizabeth I, in the song the vicar has become a legendary figure who successively changes his religion and politics from the reign of Charles II (1660-85) to that of George II (1727-60)—and who will forever continue to do so:

The Vicar of Bray. A Ballad. To the Tune of the Turncoat.

I.

Of Bray the vicar long I’ve been
And many a test and trial
I’ve stood, and various changes seen,
Yet never prov’d disloyal.
For with the crown I always clos’d,
Whatever person wore it,
And ev’ry oath the state impos’d,
I most devoutly swore it.
For this is what I will maintain
Unto my dying day still;
That whatsoever king shall reign,
I’ll be the vicar of Bray still.

II.

In Charles the second’s jovial days,
When loy’Ity had no harm in ’t;
An high flown royalist I was,
And so I got preferment.
To teach my flock I never miss’d,
Kings were by God appointed;
And they were damn’d that shou’d resist,
Or touch the Lord’s anointed.
But this is what I will maintain, &c.

III.

When royal James obtain’d the crown,
And popery came in fashion,
The penal laws I voted down,
And read the declaration.
The church of Rome, I found, wou’d fit
Full well my constitution,
And had become a jesuit,
But for the revolution.
For this is what I will, &c.

IV.

When William, he was king declar’d
To cure the nation’s grievance,
With this new wind about I veer’d,
And swore to him allegiance.
Old doctrines then I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive-obedience was a joke,
A jest was non-resistance.
But this is what I will, &c.

V.

When Anne became our gracious queen,
The church of England’s glory,
Another face of things was seen,
So I became a tory.
Occasional conformists base
I damn’d, and moderation,
And prov’d the church in danger was
From such prevarication.
And this is what I will, &c.

VI.

When George the first to rule came o’er
And moderate men look’d big, Sir,
I turn’d the cat i’ th’ pan once more,
And I became a whig, Sir;
Thus new preferments I procur’d
From that great faith’s defender,
And almost ev’ry day abjur’d
The Pope and the Pretender.
And this is what I will, &c.

VII.

From first, to second George secure
The crown is now descended;
For in that righteous tit’e, sure!
No flaw can be pretended.
So my old coat will serve me still
With little alteration;
And he’s a rogue that turn it will,
When there is no occasion.
And this is what I will, &c.

VIII.

And now the line of Hanover,
And protestant succession,
For these I’ll preach, and pray, and swear,
While they can keep possession;
Thus in my faith and loyalty
No man can say, I faulter,
And Frederick perchance may be
My king, if times don’t alter.
For this is what I will maintain
Unto my dying day still,
That whatsoever king shall reign,
I’ll be the vicar of Bray still.

On 3rd July 1997, The Stage (London) published an article using the phrase about the miniature painter Richard Gibson (1605/15?-1690):

He was a dwarf – in adult stature no more than 3ft 10ins. He was a pupil of Sir Peter Lely, and like the famous Lely became a court painter. He specialised in exquisite miniatures.
He was a veritable Vicar of Bray. Appointed court painter in the service of Charles I, he later undertook the same duties for his executioner, Cromwell. He even managed to set up his easel as usual in the court of Charles II.

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