Vicar of Bray

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'The Vicar of Bray' is an anonymous 18th century satirical song. Figuratively, it has been used as a term of abuse in debating circles, such as Parliament, where it is used to characterize any opponent who is seen as changing opinions to match the perceived stance of the audience.

The song depicts the weathercock behaviour of an English clergyman during the religious turmoil of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, in the form of the views of the Vicar of Bray himself, who retails the events of his career. Whatever the principles currently in power, he will subscribe to them and thus "still be the Vicar of Bray, sir". It is nowadays sung to the tune of "English Country Garden", slightly varied in detail and rhythm from the popular and frequently heard arrangement by Percy Granger. (Tradition ascribes the words of the song to a soldier in Colonel Fuller's troop of dragoons in the reign of George I.)

Isaac D'Israeli (1766-1848), writing in his Curiosities of Literature (published between 1791 and 1834) records: "The vicar of Bray, in Berkshire, was a Papist under the reign of Henry the Eighth, and a Protestant under Edward the Sixth; he was a Papist again under Mary, and once more became a Protestant in the reign of Elizabeth. When this scandal to the gown was reproach-ed for his versatility of religious creeds, and taxed for being a turncoat and an unconstant changeling, as Fuller expresses it, he replied, "Not so neither; for if I changed my religion, I am sure I kept true to my principle; which is, to 'live and die the vicar of Bray!"
An earlier song on this theme is 'The Religious Turncoat; or the trimming parson', published in 1693.
The idea is older. Thomas Fuller (1593-1667), annotating the proverb "the Vicar of Bray, will be Vicar of Bray still", cited an unnamed priest ... of the Berkshire village of Bray who had switched from Catholic to Protestant and back several times from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Elizabeth I, declaring "I alwaies kept my Principle, which is this, to live and die the Vicar of Bray" (ODNB). Simon Aleyn, who was vicar in Bray from c. 1540 to 1588, is commonly accepted as the original of the song; but other candidates have been proposed. One Francis Carswell, who is buried in the church, was vicar for forty-two years, approximately during the period of the song, dying in 1709; Simon Simonds is also given on the authority of the vicar of the parish in 1745. Simonds died a canon of Windsor in 1551, but had been vicar of Bray.
Matthew Prior (1664-1721) wrote Four Dialogues of the Dead in imitation of Lucian, the third of which was a dialogue between the Vicar of Bray and Sir Thomas Moor (sic).

The text of the song itself is

! Explanatory Notes
In good King Charles's golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
A Zealous High-Church man I was, i.e. supporting the episcopal, or quasi Catholic branch of the C of E
And so I gain'd Preferment. i.e. promotion, or appointment to the vicarage of Bray
Unto my Flock I daily Preach'd,
Kings are by God appointed, the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings
And Damn'd are those who dare resist, e.g. Oliver Cromwell and the Republic, who executed Charles I
Or touch the Lord's Anointed.
: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 possest the crown,
And popery grew in fashion, i.e. Catholicism
The Penal Laws I hooted down, laws to force all to swear allegiance to the established church
And read the Declaration: The Declaration of Indulgence (1687) whereby James II sought to allow religious tolerance
The Church of Rome I found would fit
Full well my Constitution,
And I had been a Jesuit the most rigid order of Catholic priests
But for the Revolution. the Glorious Revolution of 1689
:And this is Law, &c.
When William our Deliverer came, or was our King declared
To heal the Nation's Grievance,
With this new wind about I steered or I turn'd the Cat in Pan again, (reverse the order of things so dexterously as to make them appear the very opposite of what they really are (OED))
And swore to him Allegiance:
Old Principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive Obedience is a Joke, the (Tory) Christian Doctrine of not resisting the Supreme Power.
A Jest is non-resistance. A tactic of non-conformists
:And this is Law, &c.
When Royal Anne became our Queen,
The Church of England's Glory,
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory:
Occasional Conformists base occasional attenders at C of E services were proscribed in the Occasional Conformity Act (1711)
I Damn'd, and Moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was,
From such Prevarication.
:And this is Law, &c.
When George in Pudding time came o'er, a time of good luck, of rich food and plenty
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. a reference to the royal title Fid. Def.
And almost every day abjur'd refers to the Oath of Abjuration (1689) which denied Catholics the right to succeed
The Pope, and the Pretender.
:And this is Law, &c.
The Illustrious House of Hanover
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.
:And this is Law, &c.