Research by my Uncle, Kenneth FitzGerald Simonds (1920-2006) suggests that we are related to the infamous ‘Vicar of Bray’ Simon Symond/Symons. Vicar of St Michael’s Church in Bray, Berkshire from about 1522 who changed his religion repeatedly with that of the ruling Monarch – in order to save his skin and keep his job!
According to the ‘Pedigree of Simonds’, Symon Symons, son of Andrew and nephew of Robert, (my 12 x Great Grandfather), was born in about 1500 and a Canon of Windsor in 1540. The Eton Register of the period states that he was also, at one time, Vicar of Bray. There is no record of any progeny of Symon, though it is an interesting speculation as to how he would have arranged his marital affairs under different disciplines if he were, as I believe he was, the veritable subject of the Ballad.

The List of Vicars in St. Michael’s Church, Bray, shows ‘Symon Symonds’ as Vicar in 1522-23, and the next entry is ‘Symon Alleyn’, though clearly there is a good deal of uncertainty about both the succession and the dates. There is in the Church an abbreviated ‘walkabout’ guide which suggests that it was this Simon Alleyn who achieved notoriety, but the ‘Short History of St. Michael’s that is currently out of print, has quite a different version and claims that Symonds was Vicar until 1547, and that there was a William Stafferton between him and Alleyn.

At this point it should be noted that, whilst the Ballad is of 17th century origin and refers to 17th century happenings, there is little doubt that, written a hundred years after the event, it lampoons the 16th century incumbent whose fame had been handed down. There were, of course, happenings in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth comparable to those of the Stuarts and the Commonwealth.

The best and most nearly contemporaneous account can be found in Thomas Fuller’s 17th century ‘Church History’, and this is quoted in extenso in ‘Berkshire and the Vale of the White Horse’, by Roger Higham, Batsford, 1977:-
“When Henry VIII shook off the Papal supremacy, the Vicar of Bray preached in the mozt zealous manner against the innovations and encroachments made by the court of Rome, and when the Five Articles were published, he vindicated idolatry with all the strength of prostituted logic. In the reign of Edward VI when the Protestant religion was established by act of Parliament, the Vicar renounced all his former principles, and became a strenuous advocate for the Reformation. On the accession of Queen Mary, he again vindicated the doctrines of the Church of Rome, and became a zealous Papist, inveighing with great acrimony against all those worthy persons who abhorred the Romish religion. He enjoyed his benefice until the reformed religion was established in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when he once more changed with the times, and enjoyed his vicarage until his death which happened in the 41st year of her reign. This man’s name was Symon Symonds. So insensible was he of everything that bore the name of moral honesty that instead of being in the least affected by it, his constant answer was ‘I will live and die Vicar of Bray!”

If indeed Symon became Vicar in 1523 and died in office in the 41st year of Elizabeth’s reign, he would have served a term of seventy-six years, which looks a bit improbable, but there are several alternative, more credible, explanations. Some authorities believe that Symon Symonds and Symon Alleyn were one and the same person, and that there never was a William Stafferton. 1565 is thought to be the date of Alleyn’s death, and this would have encompassed the vagaries of all four monarchs, and an incumbency of forty-three years, which is more credible. Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 so, with Henry’s death in 1547, there is a minimum time-span of only eleven years, though he would surely have needed a significant overlap at both ends to have given him time to make his historic impact. Another alternative is that Symon started it all, and his particular ethos became a tradition in the parish to which his successors adhered enthusiastically, and this way of life became immemorially associated with the name of Symonds.

The exact truth will never be revealed, but the case is a strong one. It is, perhaps, notable that Symon is the only cleric in the pedigree, and, as a man ‘so insensible of everything that bore the name of moral honesty’ it may be just as well that he was not the founder of a dynasty.

St Michaels Church published its own history which of course includes reference to their infamous vicar. There is an extract from it ‘HERE’.  

Clearly this total lack of moral honesty ran in the family of the time. His brother was William Symons, who went to King’s College, Cambridge in 1505 and became the Mayor of Windsor in 1529 & 1542. In 1544 he falsely accused four local men of being Lutherans. All were convicted and three were burned at the stake. See this website entry ‘Windsor Martyrs’ for more information and his fate.

Adapted from research by Kenneth FitzGerald Simonds
May 1985

The famous song, both lyric and a chance to listen to it, are here:

The Vicar of Bray – Sir!

In good King Charles’s golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
A Furious High-Church man I was,
And so I gain’d Preferment.
Unto my Flock I daily Preach’d,
Kings are by God appointed,
And Damn’d are those who dare resist,
Or touch the Lord’s Anointed.

And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When Royal James possest the crown,
And popery grew in fashion;
The Penal Law I houted down,
And read the Declaration:
The Church of Rome I found would fit
Full well my Constitution,
And I had been a Jesuit,
But for the Revolution.
And this is Law, &c.

When William our Deliverer came,
To heal the Nation’s Grievance,
I turn’d the Cat in Pan again,
And swore to him Allegiance:
Old Principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive Obedience is a Joke,
A Jest is non-resistance.
And this is Law, &c.

When Royal Ann became our Queen,
Then Church of England’s Glory,
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory:
Occasional Conformists base
I Damn’d, and Moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was,
From such Prevarication.
And this is Law, &c.

When George in Pudding time came o’er,
And Moderate Men looked big, Sir,
My Principles I chang’d once more,
And so became a Whig, Sir.
And thus Preferment I procur’d,
From our Faith’s great Defender,
And almost every day abjur’d
The Pope, and the Pretender.
And this is Law, &c.

The Illustrious House of Hannover,
And Protestant succession,
To these I lustily will swear,
Whilst they can keep possession:
For in my Faith, and Loyalty,
I never once will faulter,
But George, my lawful king shall be,
Except the Times shou’d alter.
And this is Law, &c.

The British Musical Miscellany, Volume I,
1734. Text as found in R. S. Crane, A Collection
of English Poems 1660-1800. New York: Harper
& Row, 1932.

To play the melody, click HERE.