John Penry in Context


John Penry

– an exploration of the historiography of a Welsh hero


John Penry is the most famous historical character directly associated with Llangammarch. He is still remembered in the village – there is a rather ancient sign pointing the way to his birthplace. There is, also, a Women’s Institute banner celebrating him in the church and there was a statue erected to him in the churchyard which features on a postcard, although it has now been removed because of weather damage. He is also the only person of interest mentioned on the website of the Llangammarch Historical Society[1]

There are available a number of short biographies of John Penry on the web and numerous written biographies, most of them, over 50 years old. He also features in most histories of Wales. The most recent English account of John Penry, that I am aware of, is the John Lloyd Memorial Lecture given in 2005 by J Gwynfor Jones and published in Brechiniog volume 37, the Journal of the Brecknock Society. Jones has also now written a book about John Penry and English Puritanism in Welsh. What I seek to do in this short essay is not reproduce the material available here, but rather as a former lay reader in the parish of Llangammarch seek to understand the significance of John Penry in the history of Llangammarch, Wales and the British church. For things are not quite as straightforward as they might appear and he seems to me an interesting case study in how history is used and becomes embedded in a local community.

The life of John Penry

Birth and upbringing

All the biographies tell us that John Penry was born at Cefn Brith in the parish of Llangammarch, but modern historians have questioned this assertion for there is no certain evidence that this is the case. There is evidence that he was from Brecknockshire and earlier historians scouring the records found a Meredith Penry at Cefn Brith, so, perhaps, through the desire to root John Penry in a specific locale he has become irreversibly linked to this farm a few miles from Llangammarch. It is not an entirely unreasonable assumption but it is also not a verifiable fact.

Historical context

The context for John Penry’s birth is clearer. He was an Elizabethan, born a year before William Shakespeare in 1563, and therefore born into a time when the Anglican church was taking shape – before the publication of William Morgan’s Welsh Bible and well before the publication of the King James version of the Bible and the 1662 Prayer Book. He is the next generation to the turbulence created by Edward’s Protestant Reformation of the Anglican church and Mary’s attempt to return it to Roman Catholicism which in turn succeeded the time of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell that is described in Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall. The nonconformist religion of the Welsh chapels was completely unknown. Elizabeth, herself, had only been on the throne for five years and so although the church into which Penry was born would have been nominally Protestant, in such a remote area as Llangammarch it would almost certainly have felt very Catholic. Elizabeth and her advisers were trying to shape the British church in a particular direction but it’s future destiny was still malleable and it was this tussle over the destiny of the Anglican church that became the determining factor in John Penry’s life.

Penry and Puritanism

Whatever the uncertainty over John Penry’s birth we know that he matriculated from Peterhouse college in Cambridge University in 1580. It was unusual for Welshman to go to Cambridge, most went to Oxford and, indeed, Penry moved to Oxford and completed his MA there in 1586. But being at Cambridge University seems to have been very significant for Penry, for it was a centre of Puritanism. Puritanism has very decided associations in the 21st-century mind with bigotry and narrow-mindedness, but in John Penry’s time it was a cutting-edge movement committed to the establishment of a thoroughly modern Protestant Anglican church based on the theology of John Calvin and seeing a model in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland inspired by John Knox. By associating himself with Puritanism Penry identified himself with radical and progressive forces. It was a confident movement, sure of the truth of his arguments, based as they claimed on the Bible: God’s Word, and feeling a moral superiority in their desire to sweep away the corruption and decadence of the medieval church. This confidence was to be reflected in Penry’s writing. There was support for Puritanism in certain parts of the country, especially in the southeast of England, but at this time it was virtually unknown in Wales and, most importantly, it was viewed with suspicion by Elizabeth and her bishops – especially because Puritanism doubted the validity of the episcopate.

It is not clear whether Penry ever returned to Wales, although there are certainly stories about him preaching in Wales and even founding local chapels in North Brecknockshire. Modern historians dismiss these stories as unfounded and unlikely. What is clear is that John Penry had a particular concern for the teaching of Puritanism, or what he might have called true biblical religion, in Wales, but he seems to have decided that he could best contribute to this by publishing tracts and pamphlets in and around London rather than preaching in Wales himself. In this he would seem to have displayed political intelligence rather than a failure to practice what he preached. Elizabethan Britain was a very centralized country with all power being held in the hands of the Queen and the court – only by changing policy in the centre could change really be brought about in the periphery. A Puritan going to preach in Wales would almost certainly have been suppressed by the local bishops. One odd thing about Penry’s writing is that he does not seem to have been particularly well acquainted with the actual situation in Wales – he calls, for example, for the Bible to be made available in Welsh but he betrays no awareness of the work being undertaken by William Morgan on the definitive Welsh Bible that was published in 1588. Nonetheless in 1587 Penry published A Treatise containing the Aeqvity of an Humble Svpplication which called for preaching ministers in Wales. At the time many priests lacked the education to preach effectively in Welsh and it was through preaching from Scripture that the Puritans believed hearts could be changed and society transformed. For us preaching might seem a rather staid and ineffective way of bringing about societal change but if we think of preaching as the Elizabethan equivalent of the Internet perhaps we can get some idea of why Penry was so concerned for all his fellow Welshman to have access to it.

Penry as a threat to the Anglican establishment

Penry’s Puritans friends applauded his work but it was viewed with deep suspicion by the establishment for it was seen as a direct criticism of their position, and it turned Archbishop Whitgift of Canterbury into a lifelong enemy of Penry, this was to have dire consequences for the young firebrand. Penry was briefly imprisoned but this only seems to have increased his zeal and he became involved with a Puritan underground who, making use of the skills of a printer called Waldegrave, began to publish controversial tracts criticizing the Anglican establishment. This, of course, was not merely an internal ecclesiastical argument, for in Elizabethan times there was no distinction between politics and religion. It was a dangerous path for Penry to tread. Yet there seems to have been a youthful naivety in Penry – he was at this time, we should remember, in his 20s. He seemed to believe that if biblical truth was properly expounded then eventually that truth would win through and everyone would be converted to the Puritan worldview. In this the Puritans were, in a way, to be proved right for in the Civil War some 60 years later Puritanism did indeed triumph, changing the character of British society forever, even if it did not become the New Jerusalem for which they hoped.

Penry’s exciting, radical career continued. He married a young woman from Northampton and they had four daughters Deliverance, Comfort, Safety and Sure-Hope. He, also, published a number of other books and pamphlets but there is a long-standing debate about his involvement with the scurrilous, satirical Marprelate Tracts, a kind of Elizabethan Private Eye or Spitting Image, which incensed the establishment. Whatever Penry’s involvement with them Archbishop Whitgift certainly seemed to associate him with them and it just reinforced his desire to silence him. Eventually, however, the secret Puritan press was discovered and Penry fled to Scotland. The Marprelate tracts in particular caused a response from the establishment and writers, such as Thomas Nashe (who was at Cambridge with Penry) sought to respond to their satire by denouncing John Penry in similar scurrilous language. An example of this can be found in The Age of Thomas Nashe: Text, Bodies and Trespasses of Authorship in Early Modern England edited by Professor Steve Mentz, 

In An Almond for a Parrot, Nashe gives a fantastical biography of Martinist John Penry,, which includes a description of his monstrous birth:

Neither was this monster of Cracouia unmarked from his bastardism to mischief: but as he was begotten in adultery and conceived in the heat of lust, so was he brought into the world on a tempestuous day, and born in that hour when all planets were opposite. Predestination foresaw how crooked he should prowl in his ways, enjoined incest to spawn him splay-footed. Eternity, that knew how awkward he should look to all honesty, consulted with conception to make him squint-eyed…

 The whole Marprelate controversy is an important episode in the development of English writing and satire. The language used in the controversy was not approved of by many Puritans, but Penry although he always denied that he was Martin Marprelate seems to have been happy to have been involved with the circle to produce them. As we will see the attack on Penry and the issue of his respectability was to be important for his reputation centuries later.

Penry becomes an Independent

John Penry’s time in Scotland was, perhaps, one of the most important times in his life – although we know little about it. In Scotland Penry would have experienced the Puritan Presbyterianism that he was advocating and it seems he was disappointed with what he witnessed, for it was during this time that he was drawn to the small, marginal groupings of Independents. It is these Independents that are the origin of the Welsh chapels – especially the Congregationalists and Baptists. Presbyterians wanted to get rid of the hierarchical control of bishops and have the church run by a balance of power between ordained ministers (presbyters) and synods of church elders, yet still retain the close connection between the state and the church. Independents came to believe that church and state should be completely separated and that each local congregation should be responsible for itself, although they might work together through associations. The structures and church denominations which we know today were entirely foreign to Penry, but this was the direction in which he was moving. He was no democrat and did not have a modern understanding of freedom of conscience – he would’ve been quite happy to force the whole country follow his prescription for the relationship between church and state, but it was out of his beliefs and practices and those of his fellow travelers, that the commitment to freedom of conscience, and ultimately notions of human rights and individual freedoms developed. Many modern commentators remark on the bull-headedness of Penry and his zealous, perhaps nave, commitment to his cause, and most of us would probably have found him an uncomfortable character. We, perhaps, would have felt more sympathy with the Civil War Brecknockshire poet Henry Vaughan who despaired at the zealous Puritanism of people like Penry. Nonetheless it seems to me it was the very bull headedness of Penry and his ilk that challenged the despotism of the Elizabethan state and began to open up the possibility of a different understanding of the relationship between the state, religion and the individual conscience – a relationship which we now take for granted.

Penry might have been safe in Scotland but when Elizabeth’s ministers heard he was sheltering there they put pressure on King James to either arrest him or exile him, forcing Penry to leave Scotland. He might have gone to the Netherlands where many Puritans and Independents found refuge, but instead he decided to return to London. This is another interesting and, perhaps, perplexing part of Penry’s story. Why did he return to the lion’s den? London was clearly a dangerous place for him, but he still returned. I think there was something in Penry’s psychological makeup that made him enjoy the risk and challenge of living on the edge, his faith gave him an unshakable conviction in the rightness of his cause and rather than finding a safe haven in which he could write and expound ideas, he wanted to be in the centre of things so that like an Old Testament prophet he could preach truth to power.

Penry’s last days

And Penry certainly lived an exciting life in London. He joined a group called the Barrowists who sound like early Baptists and became a leader in their clandestine meetings. During one of these meetings in Islington Woods, which at that time would have been just to the north of London, he was arrested and after an escape, further arrest and confinement he was executed on 29 May 1593. The popular biographies tend to focus heavily on this short period in Penry’s life dwelling on his appeals to Queen Elizabeth, the relationship with his wife and four children and the sadness of not being able to see them before he was executed. In this way Penry is constructed as a martyr. There is, however, some disputes about why exactly he was killed, he certainly wasn’t executed as a martyr for Congregationalism, rather, it would appear, he was condemned for seditious comments found in his private notebooks about the established church. These are certainly very impassioned and reading them you can understand why the establishment was so keen to silence him. One of his favourite passages are the stories in Numbers about the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram against Moses. These three characters challenged Moses leadership but were destroyed by God when the earth opened up and swallowed them. Penry viewed the Anglican establishment with its bishops, priests and suspiciously Catholic rituals as being the modern day equivalent of Korah, Dathan and Abiram – and no doubt looked forward to the day when the ground would open up and swallow them! In fact their sin was more serious for they were in open rebellion against Jesus Christ rather than just Moses. This passage comes from his notebook in a section entitled ‘A reply to the prelates’ i.e. the bishops 

That you are guilty of a greater conspiracy against the majesty of Jesus Christ than Korah, Dathan and Abiram were against Moses and therefore that we dare not venture within your tents that is under your false ecclesiastical jurisdiction and authority, for fear of the Lord’s high displeasure against ourselves souls and bodies forevermore 

Another common trope in Penry’s writing is his use of the concept of the Antichrist. In a comment on Matthew 3:3 (describing John the Baptist as the voice of one calling in the desert)

Take heed of making straight steps for the ministry of Antichrist instead of the ordinances of Christ 

We would certainly not interpret this verse in this way but it is typical of Penry’s notebooks. He obviously read the Bible avidly but his interpretations are almost entirely couched within the context of his argument with the Anglican establishment. So it is not difficult to see why they wanted to be rid of Penry – utterly convinced of the rightness of his beliefs he did not cover his back but attacked without mercy. Nonetheless he was certainly not advocating rebellion against the state and the monarchy, he always professed unflinching commitment to Queen Elizabeth. The charges brought against him would not normally have led to the death penalty, but although he presented no physical threat to the state it was more convenient to dispatch him into glory than lock him away in an earthly prison. Penry was not so much a martyr for his faith as a victim who revealed the careless cruelty and despotism of the Elizabethan regime.

The legacy of John Penry

After Penry’s execution the Barrowists dispersed from London many going to the Netherlands but ultimately their legacy was most clearly to be found in the Pilgrim Fathers as a large number of them sought freedom in the New World. Penry, himself, was largely forgotten, but not entirely. After the victory of the parliamentarians in the Civil War he was named as an inspiration by Vavasor Powell who acted as a Puritan enforcer in Wales ejecting clergy from their livings if they were not sufficiently Reformed in their beliefs and practices, but his name gradually faded from memory as the Restoration – swept away as the Commonwealth and the episcopal establishment reasserted itself. All that was left was the dusty and obscure remnants of his writings. But the Puritan movement to which he was committed and, indeed, was his lifeblood, did not die, it evolved. Eventually it was fanned into a mighty fire by the Evangelical Revival which transformed Wales from a religiously conservative nation into the land of 10,000 chapels, this in turn led to the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Wales. It was to be this movement of independent Protestantism that led to the recovery of John Penry as a significant figure in Welsh and British history.

 A full study of works about John Penry would be a valuable project but I do not claim to provide that here, rather I will select a few of the more well-known texts to illustrate something of how John Penry’s legacy has been constructed

John Waddington

The first important biography of Penry: John Penry – Pilgrim martyr 1559-1593 was by John Waddington about whom the Cyclopedia Britannica gives this information

WADDINGTON, JOHN (1810-1880), congregational divine, born at Leeds on 10 Dec. 1810. As a child he was subject of serious impressions, and at the age of fifteen he began to preach in the cottages of the poor neighbours. He afterwards entered Airedale College, and was ordained pastor of the congregational church in Orchard Street, Stockport, on 23 May 1833. In 1846 he removed to Southward, to Union Street chapel, the oldest congregational church in the country. He found it in great financial difficulties, which at one time threatened to disperse the congregation, but which he eventually overcame. In 1864 a new building was opened, erected as a memorial to the 'pilgrim fathers,' several of whom had belonged to the congregation. The charge of so ancient a church stimulated Waddington's interest, which he began assiduously to study. In 1854 he published 'John Penry: the Pilgrim Martyr' (London, 8vo), and in 1861 a more general treatise on 'Congregational Martyrs' (London, 8vo), intended to form part of a series of 'Historical Papers,' which, however, were not continued. The work reached a second edition in the following year. This was followed in 1862 by an essay on 'Congregational Church History from the Reformation to 1662,' London, 8vo, a work which had great popularity, and obtained the bicentenary prize offered by the Congregational Union. In 1866 he published 'Surrey Congregational History,' London, 8vo, in which he dealt more particularly with the records of his own congregation. In 1869 he began the issue of his great work on 'Congregational History,' which occupied the latter part of his life. It was completed to 1850 in five volumes, was compiled with great labour and research, and is the most comprehensive treatise on any English body of nonconformists. Waddington died on 24 Sept. 1880. He received the honorary degree of D.D. from the university of Williamstown, U.S.A. 

During John Waddington’s life Congregationalism moved from being a marginal and despised sect viewed, along with all the nonconformist churches, by the Anglican establishment, as a threat to the state, to being a respectable part of civil society. Certainly many of the Anglican elite still viewed nonconformity with suspicion but the work of people like Waddington in writing the history of the Congregational churches was an important part in establishing the respectability and intellectual credibility of the church. The way in which Waddington constructed Penry is amply demonstrated by this quote from the Preface

Penry and his companions could only pass through the Thermopylae of religious freedom in single file, and with certain death. Myriads now advance as an army with banners. It cannot be, that any who value the blessings of Christian civilization will be contented long to remain in ignorance of the toils, and sacrifices, and sufferings, of its immortal pioneers. 

The reference to Thermopylae is particularly interesting. Thermopylae was a famous battle from classical history when the Spartans resisted the might of the Persian army. By using such classical references Waddington heightens the importance and significance of his subject and locates him within a long narrative beginning with the Greek experiments with democracy. It is also important for Waddington to establish the good character of Penry so that he is seen not as some dangerous revolutionary but as a good man unjustly executed by judicial murder. In this he seeks to counteract the calumnies of writers such as Thomas Nashe which had until this point defined his reputation.

William Pierce

Waddington’s pioneering biography was superseded in 1923 by William Pierce’s book John Penry – his life times and writings. William Pierce was a Welshman, a graduate of Brecon College but later became the pastor of Doddridge church in Northampton (which presumably was a Congregational church – Philip Doddridge was a famous Congregational academic), and thus had a close geographical connection to John Penry, although it appears he was originally from Carnarvon. Pierce had earlier written a critically well accepted work on the Marprelate’s tracts and this would have made him well acquainted with John Penry. Pierce’s work is much more decidedly Welsh, indeed it is dedicated to Lady Price “a descendent of John Penry who with her husband Sir William Price JP shares the distinction of having been born in Penry’s native parish”. It also contains a photograph of the Cefn Brith farmhouse. Pierce’s sympathies are quite clear from his Preface

“For generous hearts Penry will have many attractions; the chivalric spirit of a young Knight of the Cross, moral courage of high quality, steadfast, heedless of danger; the refinement of the scholar and a lover of all good learning; an eloquent and imaginative writer, a winning empathetic figure as seen in his struggle against the secularization of religion; a pure mind didn’t take the witness who laid down his life for his faith; for his country we might with good warrants say, his one dream being, The Gospel for Wales. He must be given a shining and conspicuous place in the constellation of Welsh patriots. Heaven be thanked that the day is long past in this free and liberal land, when such a man, getting profess whatever creed you choose, should, on any base pretence, suffer a violent death in the name of the law! 

Pierce seeks to set Penry in the wider context of his day and recognizes Waddington’s earlier work “the only modern attempt to write a life of Penry, based on an independent study of original documents”. He commends Waddington for bringing these original documents to light but sees his own task as the “patient disentanglement of the disorderly and often uncritical accumulation of facts, and the elimination of old errors regarding Penry”. Pierce, therefore, although still a Congregational minister begins to move John Penry out of the narrow world of denominational history into the broader field of national and British history. His work was also popularized, in 1956 Samuel Williams published a booklet, aimed at children, for the Pwellheli National Eisteddfod based on the work of Pierce and Waddington and published by the University of Wales press in both Welsh and English. I was lent a copy of this by a Llanwrtyd resident who claims descent from Penry himself.

Publishing Penry’s manuscripts

By the middle of the 20th century the words of John Penry began to become more widely available. In 1944 the Notebook of John Penry was published by the Royal Historical Society by Albert Peel, a fellow of the RHS and another Congregational minister who travelled to the Huntington Library in California to consult the original manuscript. Then in 1960 David Williams edited a collection of John Penry’s work entitled Three Treatises on Wales for the University of Wales Press. Penry, therefore, continued to be of interest to the two main constituencies – Congregational churches in Britain and those interested in Welsh history and nationalism. The latest dedicated biography of John Penry (that I am aware of) is by the well-known Welsh writer Pennar Davies, another Congregational minister, this was published by the Independent Press in 1961. He presents Penry in a more radical light as a satirist and inspired writer. 

Perhaps, after all, Penry, a born writer, if ever there was one,… is entitled more than anyone else to the credit of launching the vogue of Elizabethan satire with works in which abounding vitality and verve are directed with consecrated rashness to the advancement of a great cause

Davies was quite a rebel himself, involved in direct action to promote the Welsh language and a convinced pacifist so it is unsurprising that he embraced Penry has a fellow radical. He marks a shift away from focusing on Penry’s respectability towards a more controversial and dissident character.

After this, however, there is a significant decline in published accounts of John Penry and it must be significant that this coincides with the decline in the power and influence of the Welsh chapels which gathered pace in the 1960s.

Penry and the history of Wales

By now Penry had become a part of standard histories of Wales. Hugh Thomas, a history teacher in Welsh schools, in 1972 writing a history of Wales 1485-1660 well sums up the reputation of Penry in the latter half of the 20th century

The most significant of these [seeking to remove the abuses of the contemporary church] was John Penry. His initial concern was the spiritual welfare of the Welsh people whose salvation he wished the guarantee by giving them that necessary ‘saving knowledge’ of God. To achieve this, ignorance and superstition had to be eradicated, profanity and immorality removed, and it was to this end that he addressed himself in 1587 in 1588 Parliament and the government. When his appeals proved of no avail he launched an attack upon the episcopacy and the complexity of the church services and finally challenge the right of the civil authority to determine the religious beliefs of the individual. Disillusionment at the failure of this advocacy of reform have driven Penry to occupy a position outside the established church: in this he found little sympathy and no support in the Wales of his day

It is interesting that Thomas doesn’t mention Penry’s ‘martyrdom’, Gwyn A Williams (Professor of History at University College Cardiff and a presenter of a TV history of the Welsh) in his more nationalistic history “When was Wales?” published in 1985 paints a briefer more folkloric picture of Penry which emphasizes the martyrdom.                                                           

The first stirrings of a native Calvinism also produced a martyr in John Penry, a Brecon man, who argued for a preaching ministry in Welsh; and perhaps in tiny communities of nascent separatists in what had been the borderland of the sudden March, the old Lollard stronghold 

It is significant that neither of these histories mention that Penry lived and worked for his adult life in England rather than Wales. 

This scholarship has come to influence more popular accounts, as is evident in WSK Thomas’s 1994 book Footprints in the Sand – Brecknock Notabilities which provides portraits of 10 people connected with Brecknockshire. He emphasizes Penry’s Puritanism

Penry’s primary concern was not about the state of religion in Wales; what was nearest and dearest to his heart was the triumph of Puritanism everywhere. His patriotism was a second reconsideration. 

He is also modern in his emphasis on the radicalness of Penry rather than seeking to make him respectable

… His radicalism – towards the end of his career he was to join the religious Bolsheviks of his age, the Separatists – was deeply offensive to the higher authorities in church and state. He was a political incendiary 

Nonetheless, as one might expect from a Brecknockshire history, he doesn’t air the historians doubts about his actual connection with Cefn Brith and Llangammarch and keeps him rooted in the farmhouse on the slopes of the Epynt.

Penry in contemporary scholarship

This brings us to the 21st-century and the address by J Gwynfor Jones previously mentioned which, perhaps, encapsulates current perspectives on John Penry. Jones was a professor of Welsh History at Cardiff University and has recently published a book, in Welsh, on John Penry and the Puritan movement in England[2]. Jones is careful to distance himself from the traditional Congregationalist interpretation of Penry which sought to defend his good name and thus his respectability

The first person, since the Reformation, who made any determined attempts to evangelize Wales was the martyred John Penry… Thus lived and thus died the pioneer of Welsh nonconformity whose name, for ages, whose good name, for ages, has been blackened by the foul misrepresentations of bigoted or ignorant historians 

These are the words of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Rees, in his day a celebrated Congregationalist minister and historian whose History of Protestant Nonconformity in Wales was published in 1861. In these words he grossly exaggerates John Penry’s short career. Rees, of course, was a powerful nonconformist leader himself, and had his own reasons for defending Penry as a Welsh Puritan, but modern historians, such as Patrick Collinson, Donald McGinn and Sir Glanmor Williams, assessing his career more objectively, whilst acknowledging his Welsh connections and patriotism, regard him primarily as an early leader of some standing in the English Puritan movement. Given Thomas Rees’s background and enthusiasm for recording the history of his own denomination, together with the new national spirit that was emerging in Wales of his generation, his eulogy fits in ideally with the kind of praise accorded Penry as the ‘prototype of the strenuous Welsh nonconformist’ and the hero and martyr projected by his earliest biographers, John Waddington, Champlin Burrage, Sir Owen Edwards, Albert Peel, William Pierce and others 

Jones continues with his account drawing on the work of the historians mentioned above. It is not exactly a negative account, but Jones doesn’t come across as an admirer of Penry he is ‘a contentious person’ ‘a restless individual’ and he has an ‘almost obsessive concern for the reform of the Elizabethan Church’, his arguments are described as lacking ‘sufficient evidence to give it more power and edge’ and his rhetorical skills ‘monotonous and repetitious’ although ‘he certainly manipulated them effectively’[3]. Jones seems not quite sure what to make of Penry ‘At best he is an enigma; there was something perverse and wilfully arrogant and headstrong about them, and yet deep down there was a sincerity and honesty that cannot be gainsaid’. Significantly his role as a Welsh nationalist is contradicted

‘despite the attention 20th century historians have given to John Penry’s intense patriotism and concern for Wales it appears that his chief aim was promoting the Puritan message and his personal religious convictions. He was essentially part of the Puritan propaganda machine’

Finally a summary of his perspective on the significance of John Penry can be gleaned from his penultimate paragraph

A heroic and courageous Puritan apologist? Yes

An ardent Welsh patriot? Certainly

A religiously sincere and humble person? Yes

A pioneer? Yes, but not in the sense that he nurtured an influential following or established a sect

And what of him as a martyr? This is debatable but yes if that term is defined as the act of undergoing death or suffering for any great cause 

Penry is described as a rather difficult Puritan radical and I think, although the word is not mentioned, as being historically inappropriate, the F word is lying behind Jones’s account of Penry – I mean of course Fundamentalist.

The editorial comment in Volume 37 Brechiniog where the lecture is reproduced, however gives, to my ears, a somewhat different slant 

2005 was for most people notable for the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot but few are aware of the threat posed the established church at the time from extreme Puritans of whom John Penry of Cefn Brith was one of the most notorious. Penry would have approved of much in Welsh nonconformity which offered a serious challenge to the Anglican church in the 19th century 

Here, perhaps, we see John Penry subtly recast as a radical who resisted the establishment both as a Welshman and as a nonconformist. In this perspective there is something dangerous and, might one say, ‘cool’ about Penry. Jones’s lecture on Penry is, however, hidden away in the proceedings of a small local historical society and does not seem to be available on the Internet which is where most modern people are going to get their information about John Penry. So before moving on to my own assessment of his modern significance it is worth looking briefly at this material on the World Wide Web

The digital John Penry

John Penry in Powys

The Breconshire lecture indicates the continuing interest in Penry as a local character of significance. The Digital Powys History Project has a short but fairly comprehensive introduction to him which takes on board some of the perspectives of modern historians but also remains rooted in the nationalist perspective. His birthplace at Cefn Brith, for instance, is not questioned and he is described as Telyn Cymru (the Welsh Harp) despite the lack of historical evidence for him having preached in Wales. The seditious character of his work is also played down “The work was presented in Parliament, and although it did not challenge the authority of the bishops he was arrested on the orders of Archbishop Whitgift” whereas in the Brechiniog editorial he is put alongside the Gunpowder Plot in terms of his threat to the establishment, it thus still contains a strong echo of the Congregationalist desire to make Penry respectable.

Penry and the neo-Puritans

Penry also retains an Internet presence through conservative, reformed Protestants who still look back to the early Puritans for inspiration. An article called John Penry Pleaded for Welsh Soul winners is reproduced in a number of places, this focuses on the evangelical concerns of Penry such as his suggestion for lay preachers supported by voluntary contributions – a typical concern for modern conservative evangelicals. It also doesn’t refer to modern scholarship such as that by J Gwynfor Jones except in distancing him from the Marprelate tracts whose satirical tone would, perhaps, not fit easily with a neo-Puritan sensibility. 

John Penry is also still alive in the consciousness of Welsh Independent chapels who are the largest body of Congregationalists in Wales. In 2008 they sent a letter to Rowan Williams, the first Welsh Archbishop of Canterbury asking for an apology for the hanging of John Penry in 1593[4]

Penry in the encyclopaedias

Penry has numerous entries in online encyclopaedias. The Wikipedia one is a balanced and satisfactory one although it contains no references to modern scholarship relying on sources such as John Waddington and the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. These sources are now easy to access because many of them have been digitized and can be accessed throughout the world rather than requiring travel to dusty libraries. As you read these online entries it is intriguing to see how entries are copied and edited from one website to another – often without clear referencing, it is therefore easy for unfounded assertions to go viral.


One of these viral ideas about Penry which is spreading on the net is an association with Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. In 1996 David A More published an article entitled Drunken Sailor or Imprisoned Writer?: Christopher Marlowe and John Penry which begins:

In 1955, Calvin Hoffman advanced his famous Murder of the Man who was Shakespeare scenario in which the corpse of a murdered sailor was substituted for Christopher Marlowe at the inquiry into the poet's sudden end on May 30, 1593. Hoffman was apparently unaware that on the previous evening a man of Marlowe's own age and status was suddenly and secretly executed only four miles away from Deptford, where Kit's own life is alleged to have ended on the following day.  

The dead man's name was John Penry. He attended Cambridge with Marlowe in the early 1580's, and later Oxford where he proceeded M.A. After graduation, he preached and wrote about the need for a learned ministry in Wales, his native land. John Penry was a true evangelist and is still considered a martyr by Welsh people who remember 'the day before yesterday'.

This thorough, if speculative, work has been picked up and mangled by a website about historic and contemporary executions[5], providing the writer with the curious title John Penry – Shakespeare’s midwife! This is based on the speculation that Shakespeare was written not by the Bard of Stratford on Avon, but by some other better qualified ghost-writer e.g. Christopher Marlowe. The article also manages to throw in a number of other red herrings such as John Penry’s authorship of the Marprelate tracts and his sharing the same name as the murderer John Penry Jones whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because of his learning difficulties. So far as I know no one has tried to draw a connection between Rupert Penry Jones, the dashing star of Spooks and Silk and his Puritan namesake, but I am waiting!

Historical research

Fortunately the Internet is also is able to provide some more thorough work on John Penry and his contemporary context[6]. for instance gives useful access to a scholarly work on the Barrowists, the radical Puritan sect who John Penry joined in London. The curiosity that this reveals is that the Barrowists seemed to be early Baptists rather than Congregationalists – i.e. they rejected infant baptism and yet it is Congregationalists in the wake of John Waddington that have claimed John Penry as one of their own rather than the Baptists.

John Penry and Llangammarch

As I said at the beginning of this essay the name of John Penry is well known in the village, particularly because of the story of the statue which stood for a few years in the graveyard before being removed because of weather damage, in fact the pictures of the statue on the Internet clearly shows some signs of damage. It was made of Bath stone and, therefore, vulnerable to the wind and rain of mid-Wales[7], the statue features in the booklet Llangammarch Wells – past and present. A History and Guide published in 2000

John Penry - The Welsh Martyr 

John Penry was born and bred in a farmhouse called Cefn Brith which stands on the north side of the Epynt and is signposted on the Cefn Gorwydd road leading out of Llangammarch. Penry was born in 1563, receiving his education at Christ College, Brecon, and at Cambridge and Oxford. Penry was concerned about the lack of preaching ministers in Wales and the need for a Welsh Bible; he acquired a press, and printed tracts and books about the religious state of Wales. This aroused the wrath of Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and as a result Penry found himself in prison.

Penry escaped to Scotland and remained there for three years but eventually decided to return to London to continue the work to which he had dedicated his life, namely to ensure that the Gospel should be preached in Wales in the Welsh language. Back in London, Penry made the acquaintance of many Independents. These were people who tried to worship in their own way and not according to the Queen's command. One Sunday morning in March 1593 when Independents were assembling together in Islington Woods, officers appeared and arrested a large number of them , including Penry, who was imprisoned at Poultry Compter for two months. The end came unexpectedly: when Penry was at dinner, he was informed that he was to die at five o'clock that afternoon. His chains were removed and he was dragged on a hurdle through the streets to St Thomas a Watering. There he was hanged in the open air. Penry was not permitted to see his wife, Eleanor, or his daughters Deliverance, Comfort, Safety and Sure-Hope. No-one knows where he was buried. To his four daughters he gave four Bibles, his sole wealth in this world. 

His work for the people of Wales however, has not been forgotten to this day and a statue of John Penry by local sculpture Elizabeth Yeomans is shortly to be erected in the churchyard of St. Cadmarch’s church, Llangammarch Wells to mark the millennium

Nonetheless despite this publication there is a lack of detailed knowledge of John Penry in the village – especially of the modern scholarship which casts doubt on his Llangammarch origin. My experience is that in the popular imagination in Llangammarch he is associated with the promotion of the Welsh language[8], rather than the Puritanism on which modern scholarship focuses.

But the statue and the folk memory of John Penry also rests on deeper foundations. There are still memories in the surrounding villages of large events at Cefn Brith with hundreds arriving in coaches and performances by folk singers as late as the 1990s. People who attended Llangammarch school also remember John Penry as a romantic hero. But records of these events are not easily available and would require some investigation of archives and oral history work. 

I continued this tradition of celebrating John Penry in Llangammarch by conducting a service of Evensong on John Penry on 10 August 2014 at Llanfechan church near Llangammarch. This was based on the ballad to be found as an appendix, a hymn written specially for the occasion and also made use of his own words. Subsequently I asked my friend the local artist Anna Bessant (herself a daughter of a former vicar of Llangammarch) to provide an illustration of John Penry and she came up with the splendid portrait on the cover of this booklet.


So what is the significance of John Penry in the contemporary world? First of all a few comments in summary concerning his present reputation

John Penry in contemporary Wales

The declining influence of Congregationalism and Independent Churches

The significance of John Penry is bound up with Congregational and Independent churches. It was ministers of these churches which rescued John Penry from historical oblivion and it is they who did the foundational research on which all subsequent writing and reflection on Penry has depended. In this way he became a key historical pillar on which they built their church tradition as they sought to establish its respectability within British and Welsh society, even now The Union of Welsh Independents who bring together Welsh speaking Independent churches are based in Swansea at Ty John Penry (John Penry House) and, as we have seen, they continue to honour his memory. The work of these Congregational and Independent ministers on Penry has become as important as the man himself and all subsequent historians of Wales have to do business with it. The significance of John Penry is further influenced by the close connection between Welsh Independent churches and Welsh nationalism, which is typified by the writer and polymath Pennar Davies, described in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph as “deeply committed to the Welsh language and it, together with his religious convictions, was the bedrock of his nationalism.” He spent three years as an Independent minister before becoming principal of Memorial College, Brecon so it is small wonder that he took a special interest in John Penry. Another important figure in this regard is AH Dodd professor of history at Bangor University between 1930 and 1958, he lionized John Penry as ‘this magnificent character who was one of the earliest martyrs and in my opinion, the finest product of the Reformation in our islands. He had a considerable following in Wales’[9]. Dodd, significantly, was the brother of the influential New Testament scholar CH Dodd one of the most important of all Congregationalist academics

Nonetheless the influence of the Independent churches is declining. The Welsh chapel is no longer the centre of the community and in England Congregationalism itself has been largely taken up into the United Reformed Church which brought together Presbyterianism with Congregational churches. John Penry as a man who rejected Presbyterianism for Independency[10] is never going to be as important in the URC as he was to John Waddington and the early pioneers of Congregational history. So although, as we have seen, the Union of Welsh Independents still treasures the memory of John Penry[11] its concerns have much less influence on how John Penry is remembered in the wider society than previously.

Challenges to the Nonconformist John Penry

As we have seen J Gwynfor Jones directly takes on the Nonconformist histories of John Penry, presenting him as essentially a part of the English Puritan movement, albeit with a particular concern for his Welsh homeland rather than the “Morning star of Welsh Nonconformity”. This is a part of a trend that is evident in modern histories of Wales and seems to be part of the postwar decline of the chapels and the disentangling of Welsh culture from Nonconformity that is described by Densil Morgan in his book The Span of the Cross.

This is further illustrated by a review of A History of Wales by John Davies by the Socialist Party of Wales  

Writing about John Penry, a Welsh cleric who railed against English bishops in Wales and was sentenced to death on dubious grounds in 1593."Penry was ignored for centuries. He was elevated just over a hundred years ago to the position of Wales' leading martyr, a notable example of the ability of that age like all other ages to produce the heroes it needs." In this case he was referring to the attempts to elevate an ideology of the 'gwerin' based on religion and a rural economy.

This is very clearly part of an ideological debate about the basis for a Welsh nationalism and unsurprisingly the Socialist Party of Wales is interested in basing this on something other than religion.

And even within the Christian community the importance of John Penry has been downplayed in 1976 R. Geraint Gruffydd in The beginnings of Puritan Nonconformity in Wales[12] says 

But what of Wales? Who were the earliest Welsh Puritans ? When this question is asked, the first name that generally comes to mind is that of John Penry. Then we think of that brilliant and heroic generation of Welsh Puritan leaders which emerged during the Civil Wars and their aftermath: Walter Cradock, Vavasor Powell, Morgan Llwyd and perhaps William Erbury. It is, however, very doubtful if John Penry (almost certainly, by the way, a native of Glamorganshire rather than Brecknockshire) ever laboured in Wales, although he laboured unstintingly for Wales, and indeed gave his life for her in the end.… But before I do so, perhaps I should stress that even this generation has its prehistory, as it were. Although the English Puritans, not without justice, used to regard Wales as 'one of the dark corners of the land', there were individuals who could be described as Puritans scattered up and down the country from at least as early as the beginning of the fifteen eighties—several years before John Penry stepped onto the stage.

This is a reasonable point but where the claim that John Penry was a native of Glamorganshire originates from is obscure, I certainly haven’t seen it made elsewhere!

John Penry’s writings

John Penry’s writings and writings about him have never been more easily accessible through digitized versions available on the net:

Three treatises concerning Wales; with an introduction by David Williams by Penry, John,[13]

The Notebook of John Penry, 1593[14]

John Waddington: John Penry, the Pilgrim martyr, 1559-1593[15]

William Pierce: John Penry his life, times and writings[16]

The writings themselves in the most part are not immediately attractive to the modern reader. At their best they have vigour and energy but they have also been criticized for being dense and repetitive. More significantly they can be seen as being one of the roots of English satire and polemical writing especially if we attribute some of the Marprelate tracts to Penry. No matter what we think of the prose style the actual content of his work generally has little modern resonance, its anti-Catholic rhetoric and frequent references to the antichrist they can be disconcerting. They typically come across as sectarian and intolerant, but they do contain moving passages which give a window through to the man beyond the necessities of religious controversy. His letters to his wife and daughter are particularly interesting and reproduced in a recent blog[17] posting on John Penry, and there are other passages which still have contemporary resonance such as this quote from his letter to Lord Burghley, even if modern historians question his claims

I am a poor young man born and bred in the mountains of Wales: I am the first since the last springing up of the gospel in this latter age that publicly laboured to have the blessed seed thereof sown in these barren mountains… In the earnest desire I had to see the gospel planted in my native country, and the contrary corruptions removed, I forget my own danger… I leave the success of these my labours unto such of my countrymen, as the Lord is to raise up after me for the accomplishing of that work, which in the calling of my country and to the knowledge of Christ’s blessed gospel, I began. 

I made use of this quote the Evensong celebration and this caused me to believe there is something to be said for a sympathetic reappraisal of John Penry as a writer.

A John Penry for the 21st century

John Penry the prophet

In many ways John Penry was a failure. Contemporary historians have illustrated that his efforts had no discernible impact at the time and he left a very meager legacy which was almost entirely forgotten after the collapse of the Puritan Commonwealth and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. He is increasingly being seen as a part of the English Puritan movement which in Penry’s time had very little influence in Wales. J Gwynfor Jones’s recent book will no doubt encourage this tendency. Nonetheless it seems to me that this does not tell the full story for John Penry is not simply a failed Elizabethan preacher, through the efforts of Congregationalist writers he has become something more. He is a symbol of a Welsh Independent identity, for although in his lifetime he did not see his dream of a reformed Welsh church come to pass this did happen in the 19th century, I am reminded of the famous passage from Hebrews 11: 1-2

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. 

What Penry believed could and should happen, did happen. With hindsight we can see that he had a deeper insight into the consequences of what was happening in his time than his detractors, whether they be fellow writers such as Thomas Nashe, powerful priest-politicians such as John Whitgift or, indeed, Queen Elizabeth herself. He foresaw that a time would come when a reformed religion would transform Wales and he specifically saw that this would need to be an independent religion unshackled from the state. In the area of the Irfon valley where Llangammarch is situated the local historian and poet Ruth Bidgood demonstrates the significant impact of chapel religion on ordinary people

Rhys Gwesyn Jones said that in the early 19th century Abergwesyn was still a rough, wild little community. There were three taverns, at one of which met a drinking club, that had most of the young people in its clutches. Drunkenness led to fierce fighting, and occasionally to an ineffectual morning-after remorse. Moriah Chapel was an agent of reform, and the personal influence of the newly converted late of Llwynderw, Elizabeth Jones, was very strong. 

Of the revivals of Troedrhiwdalar Chapel[18], PA Griffiths mentions in particular those of 1812, 1821, 1828 and 1840.… The 1840 one was the greatest of all. On one communion Sunday in Troedrhiwdalar over 60 boys and girls of all ages were baptized. Crowds, unable to get into the packed chapel, gathered in the open air around it, about 3000 in all, with hundreds of horses.

There can be little doubt that if John Penry was looking down from heaven in 1840 he would not only have felt enormous joy, but he would also have felt completely vindicated in his beliefs and actions. John Penry, perhaps, illustrates that history is not simply the account of what happened long ago but the study of those movements and happenings which transformed the past and create the present. The more I have studied and reflected on the history of John Penry the more I have come to believe that Thomas Rees does speak a deeper truth when he claims him as the pioneer of Welsh nonconformity.

The Young Adventurer: from respectable martyr to subversive radical

Perhaps what has not been fully developed in the accounts of John Penry has been his restless and adventurous spirit. He led an extraordinarily exciting life. Leaving Wales at a young age to travel to Cambridge. Getting involved with the Puritan movement which was at the time at the cutting-edge of progressive thought[19]. Confronting the establishment through his writing and engaging in the dangerous but thrilling world of clandestine publishing. Being involved at the very beginning of the tradition of English satire. Escaping imprisonment by traveling to Scotland and associating himself with the radical left wing of the Puritan movement, which was beginning to think in entirely new ways about what it meant to be Christian and the true nature of the church. And finally returning to London simply, it seems, because it was the most exciting place for him to be – even if it was perilously dangerous. Penry was a man, as we might say, who lived life to the max, for not only did he live about as thrilling life as you could in Elizabethan England, he also found the time to produce four children in the space of four years! He could hardly be further from the stereotype of life denying, overcautious Puritan.

 As I have said the old Congregationalist perspective on John Penry is not as misguided as contemporary historians have argued, but I think there is a problem with how they presented Penry. In line with their own desire to become an accepted part of English and Welsh society they made Penry too respectable and downplayed his subversiveness. In this way, perhaps, they have made him less accessible to the contemporary imagination. But, as I have hinted above, people have in the past 50 years been subtly changing how Penry is perceived and he has become less the respectable martyr and more of the subversive radical. Pennar Davies’s little pamphlet in the Heritage Biography series published by the Independent Press seems to me to be the first example of this new perspective:

we know enough of him now to hail him as genius and liberator as well as a patriot and martyr and saint: as a lover of life and a contemner of death and as a joint heir, with all the redeemed, of Christ’s eternal merriment and compassion 

Not only does Davies provide us with a contemporary and inspiring picture of John Penry, but perhaps its imaginative power actually brings us closer to the man than the work of more sober historians – maybe in the same way that Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed historical novels have brought other aspects of Tudor England closer to us than the work of academic historians. Of course, there are dangers in this approach – as the egregious TV series on the Tudors illustrates! But it seems to me a risk worth taking. Davies’s use of the word saint to describe Penry is particularly fascinating – getting rid of the cult of saints was of course very much part of the Puritan agenda and yet it is clear that much of what the Congregationalist historians wrote about Penry was very close to a hagiography and the veneration of Penry in Wales over the years looks, to me, very much like the development of a cult of a saint! Perhaps in these ecumenical days we can embrace this transgression of traditions and rediscover what has been mislaid in the unfolding of our history.

The Internal World of John Penry

As I have reflected on John Penry I found myself becoming interested in his psychology. Why did he live such a dangerous and transgressive life? What drew him back to London? Why did he not seek to minister in Wales? How did his Puritan theology form and shape him? As I reflected on these questions I found myself developing my Ballad of John Penry (see appendix) which seeks to explore these questions as well as providing some sense of the excitement of his life. I have little doubt that he was drawn to the excitement of life as a radical Puritan, as much as by his theological convictions and that, in fact, the two worked together seamlessly. The ideas were radical and therefore his life needed to be radical, as I say in the ballad ‘he lived his body as his words demanded’. In this perhaps we can begin to appreciate the significance of John Penry for the 21st-century. He provides us with the example of a radical life which was nonviolent, but prepared to put his own life on the line for the sake of a renewed and reformed society. This can be inspiring, but might also cause us to think about the consequences of such a radical and committed life – he did, for instance, leave his daughters without father and his wife a widow

[2] Crefydd, Cenedlgarwch a’r Wladwriaeth A volume about John Penry and his contribution to the growth of Puritanism in England in the Sixteenth Century. Paperback/eBook: 24.99  Language: Welsh EAN: 9781783161317 Published: 15 Jul 2014 Pages: 353 Size: 138mm x 216mm. Oddly enough I came across news of this book the day before it was published! John Gwynfor Jones has published a number of books in English and Welsh on the history of John Penry's era such as Early Modern Wales, c.1525-1640 (British History in Perspective)

[3] Not all scholars agree with this assessment of John Penry's writing Joad Raymond in Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain calls Penry's writing vivid and direct


[7] This is a familiar problem in this part of the country. The church of Llanfihangel Abergwesyn in a remote valley some 10 miles to the west had to be demolished because of a similar problem with porous stone

[8] This, I suspect, is related to the plaque which marked the John Penry statue in Llangammarch churchyard which states "he campaigned for a Welsh Bible and preaching in Welsh. He was hanged as a Puritan"

[9] Interestingly he was the brother of CH. Dodd the important New Testament scholar who was perhaps one of Congregationalism's most important academics

[10] Congregationalism and Independency are more or less interchangeable terms for self-governing churches with their roots in the Protestant Reformation. In Wales Independent churches is the standard term whilst Congregationalism has been more often used in England. Once the URC was formed some Congregational churches retained their independence forming two small groupings: the Congregational Federation and the Congregational Union – the Union is more liberal in its theology. Baptist churches are also Independent or Congregational churches but are particularly distinguished by their practice of believers baptism. Congregationalism saw itself as the church of the middle classes in Victorian England and emphasized their intellectual credentials which, no doubt, was behind the historical research which led to the recovery of John Penry. Baptists were more working class/lower middle class and Evangelical, especially under the influence of the great Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon.

[11] The Union of Welsh Independents . There is also a John Penry Press in Swansea which seems to be associated with the Union and Welsh Nationalism. The Congregational Federation in Wales brings together English-speaking Congregational churches in Wales

[13] Available in Google books

[14] Also available in Google books

[18] It has been claimed that this chapel was founded by John Penry, this seems to be extremely unlikely if not impossible but he is certainly one of its spiritual fathers in the faith.

[19] I remember radio program some years ago when the famous 60s Trotskyist Tariq Ali said that if he was living in Elizabethan England he would've been a Puritan because it was the most progressive thought been available!