Taking place on Thursday 15th February at 6pm in GLT2, this year’s Renaissance Lecture will be given by Professor Greg Walker of the University of Edinburgh, and is entitled, ‘“The red blood runneth down about my head”: Reformation, Moderation, and Innovation in John Heywood’s ‘The Pardoner and the Friar’.
John Heywood lived through the reigns of four Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. He was a professional singer and a player of keyboard instruments and taught Queen Mary how to play when she was a young woman. He was a joker and a wit, remembered long after his death as “merry John Heywood” for his humour and amiability. He wrote idiosyncratic plays for performance at the royal court and other venues, wrote poems, collected a huge corpus of popular proverbs and epigrams, which he published in six volumes, and produced a monumentally long allegorical epic called “The Spider and the Fly.” He was also the poet John Donne’s grandfather. Significantly, he was also a committed Catholic, a nephew of Sir Thomas More, who lived close to the centre of power through the early English Reformation under Henry and Edward. And he never concealed his opposition to religious change, or his horror at the persecution of people like Thomas More who died resisting it. He hid his views in plain sight in plays and songs that celebrated religious toleration, moderation, and traditional religious values, loosely disguised as discussions of seemingly inoffensive topics such as singing styles, the problems of being in love, or the vagaries of the English weather. And everyone seems to have liked him, even people on the other side of the religious debate such as Archbishop Cranmer, the architect of the English Reformation, for whose household he put on a play in the 1540s.
This lecture will look at the ways in which Heywood engaged with the political issues of his day, speaking truth to power, so far as that was possible, through the drama he wrote in the later 1520s and early 1530s. It will look closely at perhaps the strangest of his plays, ‘The Pardoner and the Friar’, an angry, experimental interlude dealing with religious dissent and violence which may have been inspired by a particular act of sacrilege committed in a London church.
Professor Greg Walker is Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh