JOHN PENRY (1563-93) was long celebrated as a pioneer of Welsh nonconformity, though more recent scholarship has argued that this status is largely a retrospective creation and that Penry’s influence on the church in Wales was likely negligible (ODNB). Penry left his native Wales in 1580 to matriculate at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where Martinist target Andrew Perne was College master. After graduating B.A. in early 1584, Penry disappears from the College records for a year. He probably spent some of this period in Northampton, a major center of puritan activity:
over the next few years, Northampton was where Penry would join a Presbyterian classis, meet
his future wife Eleanor Godley, and become acquainted with many people subsequently involved
in the production of the Marprelate tracts. He returned to Cambridge in late 1585, then
transferred to Oxford in 1586 to complete the requirements for his M.A., which he was awarded
in July. Penry decided against ordination, suggesting that he already disagreed with established
ecclesiology, and returned to Wales, where his travels convinced him of the need to publicize the
cause of church reform. His earliest publications, the pamphlets A treatise containing the aequity
of an humble supplication
(Oxford, 1587) and An exhortation unto the governours and people of
Wales
(1588), deplored the “spirituall miserie” of his native country (Treatise, 14), a deprivation
he believed was largely the fault of the bishops, “the butchers and stranglers of the soules of my
deare countrimen” (Exhortation, 18).

Penry’s Treatise was presented to parliament in late February 1587 as part of the political
maneuvering to support the introduction of Anthony Cope’s “Bill and Book,” an audacious
attempt to have parliament abolish episcopacy and replace it with a Presbyterian system of
church government. The presentation sparked a debate on church reform that ended with the
imprisonment of Cope, Peter Wentworth, and three other members (Collinson, Movement, 303-
16; Hartley, ed., Proceedings, 2:203-05, 333-54, 390, 393-96). Archbishop Whitgift
subsequently issued a warrant for Penry’s arrest and ordered the Stationers’ Company to
confiscate all copies of his Treatise. Penry soon found himself before the Court of High
Commission and was sentenced to twelve days in prison (he would remain there a month);
Martin Marprelate dramatizes his examination in the Epistle (Black, ed., Marprelate Tracts, 28).
One consequence of this brush with episcopal authority is that the Treatise would be the only one
of Penry’s many publications to be printed openly in England: the rest were published either on
secret presses or in such centers of puritan printing as La Rochelle, Middelburg, Edinburgh, and
Amsterdam.

Penry spent the eighteen months from spring 1588 to autumn 1589 as a leading agent in
the clandestine operation that published the Marprelate tracts (see Marprelate Press: A
Chronological Narrative
for a more detailed chronology of his activities in this period). In October 1589, with the investigative net closing in, Penry fled to Scotland; the Privy Council
declared him an enemy to the state and issued a warrant for his arrest. Penry remained hiding in
Scotland until the summer of 1591, when he risked a trip to London to see if the CoppingerHacket
conspiracy was truly the beginning of the final reformation of England (ODNB, under
Edmund Coppinger and William Hacket). It proved instead a mad fiasco, and on the day Hacket
was executed Penry once more left hastily for Scotland. After a year in hiding, in September
1592 Penry once again tempted fate by returning to England. He had by this point converted
from Presbyterianism to Separatism, and in London he joined the Separatists Francis Johnson
and John Greenwood. Along with many other members of their congregation, Penry was
captured in March 1593. After a brief escape and recapture, Penry was for two months
repeatedly examined about his activities over the previous five years. He was finally indicted in
May 1593 on charges based on manuscript notes that had been discovered in a raid on his rooms
in Scotland. Four days later, however, a new indictment was drawn up that added evidence based
on passages in one of his printed books, A treatise wherein is manifestlie proved (Edinburgh,
1590), a book usually known, from its running head, as Reformation no enemie. Penry had
voiced the unwillingness of a personified “England” to enact reform (A2v-A3r); the passage was
read as an attack on the Queen, and Penry was charged with publishing seditious and scandalous
words, apparently under the Act of Uniformity (1 Eliz. c. 2), though possibly under “An act
against seditious words and rumors” (23 Eliz. c. 2), a bill aimed originally against Catholic
recusants and under which the Separatists Henry Barrow and John Greenwood had been hanged
in April (for these proceedings, see Pierce, John Penry, 393-481; Notebook of John Penry, xxxxi;
Carlson, Martin Marprelate, 367-68). Found guilty on the same day on which he was
indicted, Penry was hanged four days later, on May 29, 1593. No warning was sent to the court
or the prison that might have allowed friends and family to attend him, and he was forbidden
from making any speech from the gallows.

John Penry was not executed for being Martin Marprelate: the tracts were not mentioned
in his indictment, and no evidence respecting them was introduced at his trial. But many
contemporaries assumed that Penry’s involvement with the project had played an unofficial role
in the sentence against him, an assumption shared by most subsequent commentators. Lord
Burghley himself informed Penry that church officials accused him of being Martin: if that report
were true, wrote the imprisoned Penry in return, “I desire to be called to my tryall in this point”
(Notebook of John Penry, 70). The lengthy summary of evidence against Penry compiled in 1593
for attorney-general Sir Thomas Egerton (document 17) represents a sustained attempt to read
the “seditious” texts Penry produced in Scotland as proceeding naturally out of his association
with the Marprelate publications. While this evidence seems ultimately to have been considered
too circumstantial to use in court, other contemporaries freely linked Penry’s punishment to his
role in the production of the tracts. The hanging of Penry, sometimes remembered as the hanging
of Martin Marprelate, would be mentioned in official and other correspondence for decades to
come, often invoked as an effective response to the more radical forms of godly challenge.