Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fish, Simon

FISH, SIMON (d. 1531), theologian and pamphleteer, was a member of the university of Oxford, and entered Gray's Inn about 1525, which is the first date that can be approximately fixed in his life. In London he formed one of a circle of young men who gave expression to the popular dislike of Wolsey and denounced the riches of the church. One of their boldest undertakings was the production of an interlude, written by one Mater Roo (a member of Queens' College, Cambridge), the object of which was to hold up Wolsey to ridicule. Fish acted a part in this interlude, and, fearing the wrath of Wolsey, fled into the Low Countries, where he consorted with other English exiles, chief of whom were Tyndale and Roy. From them it would seem that he learned the principles of protestantism, and he turned his energies to the promotion of the Reformation in England. Wolsey's wrath against him soon passed away, and he returned to London, where he acted as an agent for the sale of Tyndale's New Testament. He lived in a house by the White Friars, and one Necton confessed that he bought from him copies of Tyndale's prohibited book, 'now five, now ten, to the number of twenty or thirty' (Necton's confession in Strype, Memorials, i. App. No. 22). Such conduct drew on him suspicion, and he again fled to the Low Countries, probably about the end of 1527. There he wrote his famous 'Supplication of the Beggars.'

So far it is possible to adapt Foxe's narrative (Acts and Monuments, ed. 1837, iv. 656, &c.) to other known facts about Fish's life. About the date of the 'Supplication' and its influence in England, Foxe gives two contradictory accounts without seeing that they are contradictory: (1) He tells us that Fish found means to send a copy of the 'Supplication' to Anne Boleyn early in 1528; Anne was advised by her brother to show it to Henry VIII, who was much amused by it and kept the copy. On hearing this Mrs. Fish made suit to the king for her husband's return, but apparently received no answer. However, on Wolsey's fall, in October 1529, Fish ventured to return, and had a private interview with Henry VIII, who 'embraced him with a loving countenance,' and gave him his signet ring as a protection against Sir Thomas More, in case the new chancellor should continue the grudge of his predecessor. (2) He tells us that the book was brought to the king by two London merchants, who read it aloud. When they had done the king said, 'If a man should pull down an old stone wall, and begin at the lower part, the upper part thereof might chance to fall upon his head,' meaning that Fish's exhortation to deal with the monks and friars was hazardous advice until the royal supremacy had been established. After saying this the king took the book and put it away, commanding the merchants to keep their interview a secret. Of these accounts the first is very improbable in itself, and makes Fish a much more important personage than he was. Moreover, Foxe evidently thought that Wolsey was Fish's personal enemy, and he did not know of Fish's return to London and of his second flight. The second account of Henry VIII's interview with the London merchants is quite credible in itself, and the king's remark is so characteristic both of the man and of the times as to make the story extremely probable. If this be accepted, Fish's 'Supplication' was written in 1528, was brought secretly to London at the end of that year, and was presented to Henry VIII early in 1529. Henry VIII, who was feeling his way towards an ecclesiastical revolution, appreciated the advantage of winning popular support. Fish's pamphlet was admirably fitted to impress men's minds, and just before the assembling of parliament in November London was flooded with copies of it, in a way which suggests the connivance of some one in authority. 'The Supplication of the Beggars' was exactly suited to express in a humorous form the prevalent discontent. It purported to be a petition from the class of beggars, complaining that they were robbed of their alms by the extortions of the begging friars; then the monks and the clergy generally were confounded with the friars, and were denounced as impoverishing the nation and living in idleness. Statistics were given in an exaggerated form; England was said to contain fifty thousand parish churches (the writer was counting every hamlet as a parish), and on that basis clerical revenues were computed, with the result that a third of the national revenue was shown to be in the hands of the church. The pamphlet was judged by Sir Thomas More to be of sufficient importance to need an answer, 'The Supplication of Poor Soules in Purgatory,' which is fairly open to the criticism that it makes the penitents in purgatory express themselves in very unchastened language about events on earth.

At the end of 1529 Fish returned to England; but, though Henry VIII was ready to use Fish's spirited attack upon the church, he was not prepared to avow the fact, or to stand between him and the enemies whom he had raised up. It is not surprising that he was suspected of heresy, that his book was condemned by Archbishop Warham (Wilkins, Concilia, iii. 737), and that he was in great difficulties. Whether the pressure of his difficulties overcame him, or he underwent a change of opinion we cannot tell; but Sir Thomas More wrote: 'This good zele had, ye wote well, Symon Fysh when he made the Supplication of Beggars; but God gave him such grace afterwards that he was sorry for that good zele, and repented himself, and came into the church again, and forswore and forsook all the whole hill of those heresies out of which the fountain of that same good zele sprang' (Works, ed. 1557, p. 881). Perhaps More overestimated the result of his answer to Fish. At all events, Fish's perplexities were ended by his death of the plague early in 1531. Very soon after his death his wife married James Bainham [q. v.], who was burned as a heretic in April 1532.

Fish's 'Supplication' was not only remarkable for its vigorous style and for its immediate influence, but was the model for a series of pamphlets couched in the same form. It was first printed in England in 1546, and was embodied in Foxe's 'Acts and Monuments' (iv. 660, &c., ed. 1837). It has also been edited, with three of its successors in the same style, in 'Four Supplications,' by Furnivall and Cooper, for the Early English Text Society, 1871. Besides this work Foxe also ascribes to Fish a 'Summe of Scripture done out of Dutch,' of which a unique copy exists in a volume of pamphlets in the British Museum (C. 37, a), where it was first identified by Mr. Arber in his introduction to a 'Proper Dialogue in Rede me and be not Wroth' (English Reprints, 1871). There are also assigned to Fish 'The Boke of Merchants, rightly necessary to all Folks, newly made by the Lord Pantopole' (London, 1547), and 'The Spiritual Nosegay' (1548).

[Foxe's Acts and Monuments, iv. 606, &c.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, i. 59; Tanner's Bibliotheca, p. 280; Furnivall's Introduction to the Supplication (Early English Text Soc.), 1871.]

M. C.