Bale, John (1495–1563), protestant writer and Church of Ireland bishop of Ossory, was born 21 November 1495 in the village of Cove, near Dunwich, Suffolk, England. He entered the Carmelite house at Norwich and began studying at Cambridge (probably Jesus College) in 1514, and was awarded a BD (1529). After travelling in Europe he was eventually made prior of the Carmelite house at Ipswich. In the mid 1530s Bale converted to protestantism, married (all that is known of his wife is her name, Dorothy), and became a secular priest. He also embarked on a lengthy and prolific career as a protestant dramatist, propagandist, bibliographer, historian, and biblical commentator, and came to the notice of Henry VIII's chief minister and supporter of the reformation, Thomas Cromwell. The fall of Cromwell (1540) and Henry's increasingly conservative religious policy forced Bale to flee abroad, and it was not till the succession of the protestant Edward VI (1547) that he returned to England. Disappointed in his hopes of high ecclesiastical preferment in England, he had to settle for the see of Ossory, to which he was nominated by the king on 22 October 1552. Bale's appointment – together with the near-simultaneous nomination of another radical English protestant, Hugh Goodacre (qv), to Armagh – marked an important shift in English religious policy in Ireland away from cautious reformation relying on local clergy, towards a much more theologically committed émigré episcopate. And indeed Bale's uncompromising religious principles came as something of a shock for the Church of Ireland, struggling as it was to come to terms with royal supremacy, let alone protestantism.
His consecration in Dublin (2 February 1553) set the tone: Archbishop Browne wanted to use the old ordinal; Bale successfully insisted on the new English (and protestant) one. In Ossory Bale was equally forthright. He preached on protestant doctrine regularly to the congregation in Kilkenny cathedral, insisted on the use of the strongly protestant 1552 Book of Common Prayer, attacked the ‘idolatries’ and ‘hypocrisies’ of the catholic priests, and urged them to take wives. His ministry was, however, cut short (July 1553) by the death of Edward VI, leaving him the sole exponent of protestantism in a city preparing eagerly for the return of catholicism. After threats and the murder of some of his servants, Bale fled to Dublin and thence made his way (after a picaresque journey involving piracy, kidnapping, and the threat of sale into slavery) to exile again on the Continent. With the restoration of protestantism under Elizabeth, Bale came back to England, where he was made a prebendary of Canterbury cathedral. Though considered for an Irish bishopric in 1561, he was unwilling to leave England, and died there 17 November 1563.
Bale's major achievements were as a writer. His commentary on Revelation founded the early modern English tradition of applying apocalyptic to church history, which reached its apogee in the work of John Foxe; while his researches into English bibliography demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the sources. Bale's vigorous and entertaining account of his time in Kilkenny, The vocacyon of Johan Bale (1553), provides us with a rare insight into the clash between Edwardian protestantism and traditional Anglo-Irish religion. His aggressive approach and the response that he engendered have led most historians to view his ministry as symptomatic both of the innate tensions between protestantism and the traditionally minded religion of the Anglo-Irish towns, and of the inherent difficulty that theologically aware preachers faced in trying to win converts in such a hostile environment. However, it has been argued that the positive response to his preaching among a small minority in Kilkenny suggests that vigorous preaching might in different circumstances have found an audience. According to Bale's own account, however, his success was limited: the people refused to use the new prayer-book; he found few supporters amongst his clergy; and he left Ireland convinced that his preaching had won few converts.