William Baldwin was a prominent sixteenth-century Protestant humanist, translator, editor, and author. Born around 1515, Baldwin was educated at Oxford, served as a soldier in Scotland and Ireland (Budra, A Mirror for Magistrates and the de casibus Tradition 8), and died in 1563. He published an extremely successful treatise, Moral Philosophy, in 1547, which was reprinted more than ten times in his lifetime. He also translated the Song of Songs (1549), and wrote a piece of satirical anti-Catholic prose fiction, which has been hailed as the first English novel; Beware the Cat was printed in 1570, but composed around 1553. Largely on the strength of Beware the Cat, Baldwin has been described as “the preeminent imaginative author of the English Reformation” (King 358).
Along with George Ferrers and other collaborators, Baldwin is best known as the editor/author of A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), which had appeared in eight editions by 1610. The publication of this work was delayed by “Mary’s chancellor, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, [who] suppressed the Mirror for Magistrates, evidently because its accounts were largely based on Edward Hall’s 1548 chronicle, which was specifically banned in a proclamation of 13 June 1555” (Kiefer 118). The Mirror has been described as one of “the greatest composite monument[s] of the Drab Age” of sixteenth century English literature (Lewis 240), and as a crucial example of “history writing that used concatenated biographies to demonstrate a teleology . . . at work in the course of human events,” a tradition that includes works like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Holinshed’s Chronicles (Budra xii). It is a didactic compendium of twenty historical ‘tragedies,’narrative rather than dramatic in form, assembled for the instruction of princes, statesmen, and aspiring statesmen. The separate verse ‘tragedies’ are contained within a single prose narrative frame: a sequence of ghostly visitations.
Baldwin’s verse elegy, The Funerals of King Edward the Sixth, was printed in 1560, seven years after the boy-king's death, and two years after Mary's death and Elizabeth’s accession. It was also reprinted in 1610 under the title A Royall Elegie, at which time it was mistakenly attributed to John Cheke, among whose papers the poem was discovered (Mirrour, Campbell 23). As Budra remarks, its suppression during Mary’s reign probably ensured that it was well known among contemporaries (8). The poem reflects the same Protestant teleology evident in the Mirror for Magistrates. It is stridently anti-Catholic, nationalist, and providential in tone, representing Edward's death and Mary's reign as divine judgments on the sins of the nation. Mary is said to be the punishment for the sins of England. “Only royal martyrdom can preserve the covenant between God and his chosen people” (King 412). It consists of 380 lines of iambic pentameter couplets, with a twelve-line prayer in fourteener couplets inserted near the conclusion. Appended to The Funerals is a 96 line verse "exhortation" to moral reformation and an "Epitaph" to Edward in four rhyme royal stanzas.
Censorship was a constant issue for Baldwin due both to the time in which he wrote, and to the political and religious nature of many of his works. His writing shows “both a linguistic and narrative complexity and a sophisticated acumen about the political power of writing” (Gutierrez 19). After writing the first English sonnet to be published, he spent the next twelve years in his literary endeavors. Most of his works had to balance the pressures of censorship and his ideologies regarding the Protestant Revolution. He was involved with court entertainment from 1550 to approximately 1555. It is likely that the Protestant Baldwin bowed (at least publicly) to the beliefs of the Catholic Queen Mary. This would account for not only his survival, but also his ability to stay in the monarchy’s favour throughout Mary’s reign (Gutierrez 25).
In his old age Baldwin left the print shop to become a clergyman. It is likely that he was ordained deacon in 1559, became the vicar of Tortington Sussex a year or two later, and then went on to become rector of Saint Michael le Quern in Cheapside in 1561, a post he held until his death two years later.