Living History & Reenactment Music


Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

The Vicar of Bray

There was a well known English proverb, “The Vicar of Bray will be Vicar of Bray still”, and the song Vicar of Bray was a popular one, having its words changed to suit the occasion, including an American Revolutionary War era song. The vicars of Bray, in Berkshire, have been some of its most interesting characters, apparently all upholding the same principle as the most famous one, Simon Aleyn, of the mid-sixteenth century.
“He was a Papist under the reign of Henry VIII, and a Protestant under Edward VI; 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 reproached for his versatility of religious creeds, and taxed for being a turncoat and an inconstant changeling...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.’ ” (He succeeded and is buried there.) The well-known song, however, was written about 1720 in the reign of George I, perhaps by a soldier in Colonel Fuller’s troop of Dragoons, of Dr. Francis Carswell, Vicar of Bray during the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III, Ann, and George I. He was said to have been “an old rich stingy turncoat and a curmudgeon of unsettled head.” (Information from The Doomsday Book, ed. by Thomas Hinde, and Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, Vol. 2.)
The subject of the American version is unknown, but may have been the publisher of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, Benjamin Towne, whose newspaper, before, during and after the British occupation espoused the viewpoint of whoever was currently in power. Here is the tune, and the American version, from Carolyn Rabson’s Songbook of the American Revolution, p. 62:

1. When Royal George ruled 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 clear ones, And swore it was their politics to make us Presbyterians.

And this is law that I’ll maintain until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever king shall reign, I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.

2. When Stamp Act passed 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 Kings and Lords were knaves, sir.

3. Now all went smooth, as smooth could be, I strutted and looked big, sir; And when they laid a tax on tea, I was believed a Whig, sir; I laughed at all the vain pretence Of taxing at a distance, And swore before I'd pay a pence, I'd make a firm resistance.

4. A Congress now was quickly called That we might act together. I thought that Britain would, appalled, Be glad to make fair weather, And soon repeal the obnoxious bill, As she had done before, sir; That we might gather wealth at will And so be taxed no more, sir.

5. But Britain was not quickly scared; She told another story. When independence was declared I figured as a Tory, Declared it was rebellion base To take up arms...I cursed it, For, faith, it seemed a settled case That we should soon be worsted.

6. The French alliance now came forth; The Papists flocked in shoals, sir. Friseurs, marquis, valets of birth, And priests to save our souls, sir. Our "good ally" with towering wing Embraced the flattering hope, sir, That we should own him for our King And then invite the Pope, sir.

7. Then Howe with drum and great parade Marched 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 confusion to the friends Of our late Revolution.

8. But poor Burgoyne's announced my fate: The Whigs began to glory. I now bewailed my wretched state That e'er I was a Tory. By night the British left the shore Nor cared for friends a fig, sir;
I turned the cat in pan once more, and so became a Whig, sir.

9. I called the army butchering 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 Congress e’er my king shall be....Unless the times shall alter.