The Vicar of Bray

“Although the British military strategy of enlisting Tories to pad His Majesty’s forces ultimately failed, the idea was a good one at the time. Twenty to thirty per cent of American colonists upheld their allegiance to the crown in the 1770’s, and another twenty to forty percent remained neutral. Many Englishmen regarded the Patriot cause merely as the disgruntlement of an ungrateful few who were heartily resented by staunch supporters of King George, and so the difficulty of conscripting soldiers from a distance of two thousand miles appeared to have a practical solution. The numbers never materialized, however, in part because of shifting allegiances among the colonists themselves.

“Such political vacillation was the subject of much ridicule, as “The American Vicar of Bray” breezily demonstrates. Published in Rivington’s Royal Gazette on June 30, 1779, the song satirizes the fancy footwork of many colonists who danced to the music of the moment for the sake of “preferment,” that is, out of cowardice or blatant self-interest. Like the cat in the pan, the American Vicar jumps lightly from one side to the other, all the while vowing eternal fealty to the current ruler–”unless the times should alter.” He is true to the principle of expediency, and thus speaks unmistakably in the character of Simon Aleyn, Canon of Windsor and believed to be the original Vicar of Bray.

“Aleyn’s small parish of Bray was located in the Windsor and Maidenhead district of Berkshire County, England, and there he presided from 1540 to 1588. His tergiversation was legendary. He was alternately a Catholic under Henry VIII, a Protestant under Edward VI, a Catholic again under Mary, and a devout Protestant under Elizabeth. He reputedly defended himself by declaring, “If I changed my religion, I am sure I kept true to my principle; which is, to live and die the Vicar of Bray.” Such brazen self-assurance rings throughout the original tune, the lyrics of which were updated in the time of George I to fit the reigning monarchs. In the Royal Gazette version, the American Vicar at least has one moment of self-awareness in stanza six where, because much suspected for his shenanigans, he feels “an ass / In lion’s skin detected.” But the two versions are otherwise identical in tone, as are future incarnations. In a comic opera entitled The Vicar of Bray produced at the Globe Theatre in 1882, the Vicar contrives his daughter’s marriage by switching religious affiliations with the same joie de vivre. A cavalier code of honor is precisely what the words and music of this popular Loyalist song capture so merrily.

The Vicar of Bray

In good King Charles’ golden days, when loyalty no harm meant,
A zealous High Churchman was I, and so I got preferment;
To teach my flock I never miss’d, kings were by God appointed,
And damn’d are those that do resist, or touch the Lord’s anointed.

And this is law I will maintain
Untill my dying day, sir,
That what so ever King may reign,
Still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.

When royal James obtain’d his crown, and Pop’ry came 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 had become a Jesuit but for the Revolution. [CHORUS]

When William was our King declar’d to ease a nation’s grievance
With this new wind about I steer’d, and swore to him allegiance;
Old principles I did revoke, set conscience at a distance;
Passive obedience was a joke, a jest was nonresistance. [CHORUS]

When gracious Anne became our Queen, the Church of England’s glory
Another face of things was seen, and I became a Tory;
Occasional conformists base, I damn’d their moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was by such prevarication. [CHORUS]

Th’illustrious house of Hanover and Protestant succession,
To these I do allegiance swear, while they can keep possession;
For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter
And George my lawful King shall be until the times do alter. [CHORUS]

* * * * *

The American Vicar of Bray

When Royal George rul’d o’er this land,
And loyalty no harm meant,
For church and king I made a stand
And so I got preferment.
I still opposed all party tricks,
For reasons I thought were clear ones,
And swore it was their politics,
To make us Presbyterians.

And this is law I will maintain,
Until my dying day, sir,
Let whatsoever king will reign,
I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.

When Stamp Act pass’d the Parliament
To bring some grist to mill, sir,
To back it was my firm intent,
But soon there came repeal, sir.
I quickly joined the common cry,
That we should all be slaves, sir,
The House of Commons was a sty,
The King and Lords were knaves, sir. [CHORUS]

Now all went smooth as smooth could be,
I strutted and look’d big, sir;
And when they laid a tax on tea,
I was believed a Whig, sir.
I laugh’d at all the vain pretence
Of taxing at this distance,
And swore before I’d pay my pence,
I’d make a firm resistance. [CHORUS]

A Congress now was quickly call’d,
That we might act together;
I thought that Britain would apall’d
Be glad to make fair weather,
And soon repeal th’obnoxious bill,
As she had done before, sir,
That we may gather wealth at will,
And so be taxed no more, sir. [CHORUS]

But Britain was not quickly scar’d
She told another story;
When independence was declar’d,
I figur’d as a Tory;
Declar’d it was rebellion base,
To take up arms–I curs’d it–
For faith it seemed a settled case,
That we should soon be worsted. [CHORUS]

When penal laws were pass’d by vote
I thought the test a grievance,
Yet sooner than I’d lose a goat,
I swore the State allegiance.
The then disguise could hardly pass,
For I was much suspected;
I felt myself much like the ass
In lion’s skin detected. [CHORUS]

The French alliance now came forth,
The papists flocked in shoals, sir,
Friseur Marquises, Valets of birth,
And priests to save our souls, sir.
Our “good ally,” with tow’ring wing,
Embrac’d the flattering hope, sir,
That we should own him for our king,
And then invite the Pope, sir. [CHORUS]

When Howe, with drums and great parade,
March’d through this famous town, sir,
I cried, “May Fame his temples shade
With laurels for a crown, sir.”
With zeal I swore to make amends
To good old constitution,
And drank confusions to the friends
Of our late revolution. [CHORUS]

But poor Burgoyne’s denounced my fate,
The Whigs began to glory,
I now bewail’d my wretched state,
That I was e’er a Tory.
By night the British left the shore,
Nor car’d for friends a fig, sir,
I turn’d the cat in pan once more,
And so became a Whig, sir. [CHORUS]

I call’d the army butch’ring dogs,
A bloody tyrant King, sir,
The Commons, Lords, a set of rogues,
That all deserved to swing, sir.
Since fate has made us great and free,
And Providence can’t falter,
So long till death my king shall be,
Unless the times should alter.