Joseph Hall came of a large family, being one of twelve children born to John Hall, agent in the Leicestershire town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch for Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon. Hall's mother, Winifred Bambridge, was a pious lady, whom her son compared to St Monica: "What day did she pass without a large task of private devotion? whence she would still come forth, with a countenance of undissembled mortification. Never any lips have read to me such feeling lectures of piety; neither have I known any soul that more accurately practised them than her own."
Joseph Hall received his early education at the local Ashby Grammar School, founded by his father's patron the Earl, and was later sent (1589) to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The college was Puritan in tone, and Hall was undoubtedly under Calvinist influence in his youth. After some early setbacks (his father found it difficult to pay for a university education and nearly recalled him after the first two years) Hall's academic career was a great success. He was chosen for two years in succession to read the public lecture on rhetoric in the schools, and in 1595 became fellow of his college. During his residence at Cambridge he wrote his Virgidemiarum (1597), satires in English written after Latin models. The claim he put forward in the prologue to be the earliest English satirist: "I first adventure, follow me who list And be the second English satirist" gave bitter offence to John Marston, who attacks him in the satires published in 1598.
In the declining years of the reign of Elizabeth I there was an outburst of satirical literature which was felt was to be an attack on established institutions. John Whitgift the archbishop of Canterbury therefore gave an order that Hall's satires,along with works of Thomas Nashe, John Marston, Christopher Marlowe, Sir John Davies and others should be burnt, on the ground of licentiousness; but shortly afterwards Hall's book, certainly unjustly condemned, was ordered to be "staied at the press," which may be interpreted as reprieved (see Notes and Queries, 3rd series, xii. 436). Hall turned his back on verse satires and all lighter forms of literature when he was ordained a minister in the Church of England.
Having taken holy orders Hall was offered the mastership of Blundell's school, Tiverton, but he refused it in favour of the living of Hawstead, Suffolk, to which he was presented (1601) by Sir Robert Drury. The appointment was not wholly satisfactory: in his parish Hall had an opponent in a Mr Lilly, whom he describes as a "witty and bold atheist", he had to find money to make his house habitable and he felt that his patron Sir Robert underpaid him. Nevertheless in 1603 he married Elizabeth Wynniff of Brettenham, Suffolk; their marriage was to last until her death in 1652 and produced a daughter and five sons.
In 1605 Hall travelled abroad for the first time when he accompanied Sir Edmund Bacon on an embassy to Spa, with the special aim, he says, of acquainting himself with the state and practice of the Romish Church. At Brussels he disputed at the Jesuit College on the authentic character of modern miracles, and his inquiring and argumentative disposition more than once threatened to produce serious results, so that his patron at length requested him to abstain from further discussion. His devotional writings had attracted the notice of Henry, prince of Wales, who made him one of his chaplains (1608).
In 1612 Lord Denny, afterwards Edward Denny, 1st Baron Rose, 1st Earl of Norwich, gave him the curacy of Waltham-Holy-Cross, Essex, and in the same year he received the degree of D.D. Later he received the prebend of Willenhall in the collegiate church of Wolverhampton, and in 1616 he accompanied James Hay, Lord Doncaster, afterwards Earl of Carlisle, to France, where he was sent to congratulate Louis XIII on his marriage, but Hall was compelled by illness to return. In his absence the king nominated him dean of Worcester, and in 1617 he accompanied James to Scotland, where he defended the five points of ceremonial which the king desired to impose upon the Scots. In the next year he was one of the English deputies at the Synod of Dordrecht. In 1624 he refused the see of Gloucester, but in 1627 became bishop of Exeter.
He took an active part in the Arminian and Calvinist controversy in the English church. He did his best in his Via media, The Way of Peace, to persuade the two parties to accept a compromise. In spite of his Calvinistic opinions he maintained that to acknowledge the errors which had arisen in the Catholic Church did not necessarily imply disbelief in her catholicity, and that the Church of England having repudiated these errors should not deny the claims of the Roman Catholic Church on that account. This view commended itself to Charles I and his episcopal advisers, but at the same time Archbishop Laud sent spies into Hall's diocese to report on the Calvinistic tendencies of the bishop and his lenience to the Puritan and lowchurch clergy. He was, however, amenable to criticism, and his defence of the English Church, entitled Episcopacy by Divine Right (1640), was twice revised at Laud's dictation. This was followed by An Humble Remonstrance to the High Court of Parliament (1640 and 1641), an eloquent and forceful defence of his order, which produced a retort from the syndicate of Puritan divines, who wrote under the name of "smectymnuus," and was followed by a long controversy to which Milton contributed five pamphlets, virulently attacking Hall and his early satires.
In 1641 Hall was translated to the see of Norwich, and in the same year sat on the Lords' Committee on religion. On December 30 he was, with other bishops, brought before the bar of the House of Lords to answer a charge of high treason of which the Commons had voted them guilty. They were finally convicted of an offence against the Statute of Praemunire, and condemned to forfeit their estates, receiving a small maintenance from the parliament. They were immured in the Tower from New Year to Whitsuntide, when they were released on finding bail. On his release Hall proceeded to his new diocese at Norwich, the revenues of which he seems for a time to have received, but in 1643, when the property of the "malignants" was sequestrated, Hall was mentioned by name. Mrs Hall had difficulty in securing a fifth of the maintenance (£4oo) assigned to the bishop by the parliament; they were eventually ejected from the palace, and the cathedral was dismantled. Hall describes its desecration in Hard Measure: "Lord, what work was here! what clattering of glasses and beating down of walls! what tearing up of monuments! what pulling down of seats! what wrestling down of irons and brass from the windows and walls..." He goes on to describe vividly the triumphal procession of the puritan iconoclasts as they carried vestments, service books and singing books to be burned in the nearby market place, while soldiers lounged in the despoiled cathedral drinking and smoking their pipes.
Hall retired to the village of Heigham, near Norwich, where he spent his last thirteen years preaching and writing until he was first forbidden by man, and at last disabled by God. He bore his many troubles and the additional burden of much bodily suffering with sweetness and patience, dying on the 8th of September 1656. In his old age Hall was attended upon by doctor Thomas Browne who wrote of him-
My honoured friend Bishop Joseph Hall, Dean of Worcester, and Bishop of Exeter, was buried at Heigham, where he hath his monument, who in the Rebellious times, when the Revenues of the church were alienated, retired unto that suburban parish, and there ended his days: being above fourscore years of age. A person of singular humility, patience and piety: his own works are the best monument, and character of himself, which was also very lively drawn in his excellent funeral sermon preached by my learned and faithful friend Mr. John Whitefoot, Rector of Heigham. (Extract from Browne's miscellaneous tract Repertorium)
Thomas Fuller says: "He was commonly called our English Seneca, for the purenesse, plainnesse, and fulnesse of his style. Not unhappy at Controversies, more happy at Comments, very good in his Characters, better in his Sermons, best of all in his Meditations."
Bishop Hall's polemical writings, although vigorous and effective, were chiefly of ephemeral interest, but many of his devotional writings have been often reprinted. It is by his early work as the censor of morals and the unsparing critic of contemporary literary extravagance and affectations that he is best known. Virgidemiarum. Sixe Bookes. First three Bookes. Of Toothlesse Satyrs. (1) Poeticall, (2) Academicall, (3) Morall (1597) was followed by an amended edition in 1598, and in the same year by Virgidemiarum. The three last bookes. Of byting Satyres (reprinted 1599).
His claim to be reckoned the earliest English satirist, even in the formal sense, cannot be justified. Thomas Lodge, in his Fig for Momus (1593), had written four satires in the manner of Horace, and John Marston and John Donne both wrote satires about the same time, although the publication was in both cases later than that of Virgidemiae. But if he was not the earliest, Hall was certainly one of the best. He writes in the heroic couplet, which he manoeuvres with great ease and smoothness. In the first book of his satires (Poeticall) he attacks the writers whose verses were devoted to licentious subjects, the bombast of Tamburlaine and tragedies built on similar lines, the laments of the ghosts of the Mirror for Magistrates, the metrical eccentricities of Gabriel Harvey and Richard Stanyhurst, the extravagances of the sonneteers, and the sacred poets (Southwell is aimed at in "Now good St Peter weeps pure Helicon, And both the Mary's make a music moan"). In Book II Satire 6 occurs the well-known description of the trencher-chaplain, who is tutor and hanger. on in a country manor. Among his other satirical portraits is that of the famished gallant, the guest of "Duke Humfray." Book VI consists of one long satire on the various vices and follies dealt with in the earlier books. If his prose is sometimes antithetical and obscure, his verse is remarkably free from the quips and conceits which mar so much contemporary poetry.
He also wrote:
Mundus alter is an excuse for a satirical description of London, with some criticism of the Romish church, its manners and customs, and is said to have furnished Swift with hints for Gulliver's Travels. It was not ascribed to him by name until 1674, when Thomas Hyde, the librarian of the Bodleian, identified "Mercurius Britannicus" with Joseph Hall. For the question of the authorship of this pamphlet, and the arguments that may be advanced in favour of the suggestion that it was written by Alberico Gentili, see Edward Augustus Petherick, Mundus alter et idem, reprinted from the Gentleman's Magazine (July 1896).
His controversial writings, not already mentioned, include:
His devotional works include:
The chief authority for Hall's biography is to be found in his autobiographical tracts: Observations of some Specialities of Divine Providence in the Life of Joseph Hall, Bishop of Norwich, Written with his own hand; and his Hard Measure, a reprint of which may be consulted in Dr Christopher Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography. The best criticism of his satires is to be found in Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry, vol. iv. pp. 363-409 (ed. Hazlitt, 1871), where a comparison is instituted between Marston and Hall. In 1615 Hall published A Recollection of such treatises as have been published (1615, 1617, 1621); in 1625 appeared his Works (reprinted 1627, 1628, 1634, 1662).
The first complete Works appeared in 1808, edited by Josiah Pratt. Other editions are by Peter Hall (1837) and by Philip Wynter (1863). See also Bishop Hall, his Life and Times (1826), by Rev. John Jones; Life of Joseph Hall, by Rev. George Lewis (1886); AB Grosart, The Complete Poems of Joseph Hall with introductions, etc. (1879); Satires, etc. (Early English Poets, ed. S. W. Singer, 1824). Many of Hall's works were translated into French, and some into Dutch, and there have been numerous selections from his devotional works.
A more recent biography of Joseph Hall is Bishop Joseph Hall: 1574-1656: A biographical and critical study by Frank Livingstone Huntley, D.S.Brewer Ltd, Cambridge, 1979.