The book that almost killed a man

Perhaps the best-known among the many renowned musicians to have worked in St George’s Chapel is John Marbeck, who was associated with the Chapel for more than half of the sixteenth century. The exact date of his appointment is not clear but he seems to have been at St George’s by 1531, when he is mentioned in an inventory of the property of the Minor Canons [SGC XI.B.40], and to have continued working here until his death in c.1585. Payments are made to him during this time for playing the organ, singing, copying out music, revising and correcting music books and being Master of the Choristers.

In addition to his musical accomplishments, Marbeck had a great interest in theology. He was particularly driven to study the Bible in English and, being unable to afford a published edition, he copied one out by hand. Three of his published works of theology are held in the Chapter Library at St George’s: The lyves of holy Sainctes (London, 1574); A booke of notes and common places… (London, 1581); and the most painstaking of his works, A concordance…a worke wherein by the ordre of the letters of the A.B.C. ye maie…finde any worde conteigned in the whole Bible… (London, 1550).

However, the extraordinary achievement that was the Biblical concordance, listing each of the words used in the Bible and the passages where they could be found, was very nearly his last work. Written in English, it is clear evidence of Marbeck’s interest in studying the Bible in his native language and his commitment to helping others to do the same. The mid-sixteenth century was a dangerous time to demonstrate any strong theological stance, owing to King Henry VIII’s inconsistent relationship with religious reform; in 1539, seven years after his break from the Roman Catholic Church, the king passed the Act of Six Articles: An Act abolishing diversity in Opinions. The effect of this Act was to reinforce existing heresy laws and to reassert traditional Catholic doctrine as the basis of the faith of the Church of England.

In 1543, on the evidence of Mayor of Windsor William Simonds (an advocate of Catholic reform), Marbeck was arrested under this Act. His house was searched and books and manuscripts, including the nearly completed text of the Biblical concordance, were taken. His trial focused around his work on that book. He was charged with writing and possessing heretical documents and with contempt for the mass and was confined in the notorious Marshalsea prison.

Marbeck was convicted of heresy and sentenced to death, but soon after received a royal reprieve and then a full pardon. Three other Windsor Protestants, arrested at the same time as Marbeck, had less fortune and were burnt at the stake in August 1543.

Marbeck returned to St George’s Chapel and took up his musical duties again. He also began work on the Biblical concordance once more, the almost complete first attempt having been destroyed after his trial. The work was eventually published in 1550 and it is that edition which is held in the Chapter Library [SGC RBK M.62]. It was the first concordance of the entire Bible ever to be produced in English, with Thomas Gybson’s 1535 concordance addressing only the New Testament. The work is dedicated to Henry VIII’s son, the Protestant-raised Edward VI, who had become king in 1547.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.