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Portrait of Stephen Gardinerat Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester (c.1493-1555)

STEPHEN GARDINER, English bishop and Lord Chancellor, was a native of Bury St Edmunds. The date of his birth as commonly given, 1483, seems to be about ten years too early, and surmises which have passed current that he was some one's illegitimate child are of no authority. His father is now known to have been John Gardiner, a substantial cloth merchant of the town where he was born (see his will, printed in Proceedings of the Suffolk Archaeological Institute, i. 329), who took care to give him a good education. In 1511 he, being then a lad, met Erasmus at Paris (Nichols's Epistles of Erasmus, ii. 12, 13). But he had probably already been to Cambridge, where he studied at Trinity Hall and greatly distinguished himself in the classics, especially in Greek. He afterwards devoted himself to the canon and civil law, in which subjects he attained so great a proficiency that no one could dispute his pre-eminence. He received the degree of doctor of civil law in 1520, and of canon law in the following year.

Ere long his abilities attracted the notice of Cardinal Wolsey, who made him his secretary, and in this capacity he is said to have been with him at More Park in Hertfordshire, when the conclusion of the celebrated treaty of the More brought Henry VIII and the French ambassadors thither. It is stated, and with great probability, that this was the occasion on which he was first introduced to the king's notice, but he does not appear to have been actively engaged in Henry's service till three years later. In that of Wolsey be undoubtedly acquired a very intimate knowledge of foreign politics, and in 1527 he and Sir Thomas More were named commissioners on the part of England in arranging a treaty with the French ambassadors for the support of an army in Italy against the emperor.

That year he accompanied Wolsey on his important diplomatic mission to France, the splendour and magnificence of which are so graphically described by Cavendish. Among the imposing train who went with the cardinal — including, as it did, several noblemen and privy councillors — Gardiner alone seems to have been acquainted with the real heart of the matter which made this embassy a thing of such peculiar moment. Henry was then particularly anxious to cement his alliance with Francis I, and gain his co-operation as far as possible in the object on which he had secretly set his heart — a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In the course of his progress through France he received orders from Henry to send back his secretary Gardiner, or, as he was called at court, Master Stevens, for fresh instructions; to which he was obliged to reply that he positively could not spare him as he was the only instrument he had in advancing the king's "secret matter."

Next year Gardiner, still in the service of Wolsey, was sent by him to Italy along with Edward Fox, provost of King's College, Cambridge, to promote the same business with the pope. His despatches on this occasion are still extant, and whatever we may think of the cause on which he was engaged, they certainly give a wonderful impression of the zeal and ability with which he discharged his functions. Here his perfect familiarity with the canon law gave him a great advantage. He was instructed to procure from the pope a decretal commission, laying down principles of law by which Wolsey and Campeggio might hear and determine the cause without appeal. The demand, though supported by plausible pretexts, was not only unusual but clearly inadmissible. Clement VII was then at Orvieto, and had just recently escaped from captivity at St Angelo at the hands of the imperialists. But fear of offending the emperor could not have induced him to refuse a really legitimate request from a king like Henry. He naturally referred the question to the cardinals about him; with whom Gardiner held long arguments, enforced, it would seem, by not a little browbeating of the College. What was to be thought, he said, of a spiritual guide, who either could not or would not show the wanderer his way? The king and lords of England would be driven to think that God had taken away from the Holy See the key of knowledge, and that pontifical laws which were not clear to the pope himself might as well be committed to the flames.

This ingenious pleading, however, did not serve, and he was obliged to be content with a general commission for Campeggio and Wolsey to try the cause in England. This, as Wolsey saw, was quite inadequate for the purpose in view; and he again instructed Gardiner, while thanking the pope for the commission actually granted, to press him once more by very urgent pleas, to send the desired decretal on, even if the latter was only to be shown to the king and himself and then destroyed. Otherwise, he wrote, he would lose his credit with the king, who might even be tempted to throw off his allegiance to Rome altogether. At last the pope - to his own bitter regret afterwards - gave what was desired on the express conditions named, that Campeggio was to show it to the king and Wolsey and no one else, and then destroy it, the two legates holding their court under the general commission. After obtaining this Gardiner returned home; but early in the following year, 1529, when proceedings were delayed on information of the brief in Spain, he was sent once more to Rome. This time, however, his efforts were unavailing. The pope would make no further concessions, and would not even promise not to revoke the cause to Rome, as he did very shortly after.

Gardiner's services, however, were fully appreciated. He was appointed the king's secretary. He had been already some years archdeacon of Taunton, and the archdeaconry of Norfolk was added to it in March 1529, which two years later he resigned for that of Leicester. In 1530 he was sent to Cambridge to procure the decision of the university as to the unlawfulness of marriage with a deceased brother's wife, in accordance with the new plan devised for settling the question without the pope's intervention. In this he succeeded, though not without a good deal of artifice, more creditable to his ingenuity than to his virtue. In November 1531 the king rewarded him for his services with the bishopric of Winchester, vacant by Wolsey's death. The promotion was unexpected, and was accompanied by expressions from the king which made it still more honourable, as showing that if he had been in some things too subservient, it was from no abject, selfseeking policy of his own. Gardiner had, in fact, ere this remonstrated boldly with his sovereign on some points, and Henry now reminded him of the fact. "I have often squared with you, Gardiner," he said familiarly, "but I love you never the worse, as the bishopric I give will convince you." In 1532, nevertheless, he excited some displeasure in the king by the part he took in the preparation of the famous "Answer of the Ordinaries" to the complaints brought against them in the House of Commons. On this subject he wrote a very manly letter to the king in his own defence.

His next important action was not so creditable; for he was, not exactly, as is often said, one of Cranmer's assessors, but, according to Cranmer's own expression, "assistant" to him as counsel for the king, when the archbishop, in the absence of Queen Catherine, pronounced her marriage with Henry null and void on the 23rd of May 1533. Immediately afterwards he was sent over to Marseilles, where an interview between the pope and Francis I took place in September, of which event Henry stood in great suspicion, as Francis was ostensibly his most cordial ally, and had hitherto maintained the justice of his cause in the matter of the divorce. It was at this interview that Bonner intimated the appeal of Henry VIII to a general council in case the pope should venture to proceed to sentence against him. This appeal, and also one on behalf of Cranmer presented with it, were of Gardiner's drawing up. In 1535 he and other bishops were called upon to vindicate the king's new title of "Supreme Head of the Church of England." The result was his celebrated treatise De ver y obedientia, the ablest, certainly, of all the vindications of royal supremacy. In the same year he had an unpleasant dispute with Cranmer about the visitation of his diocese. He was also employed to answer the pope's brief threatening to deprive Henry of his kingdom.

During the next few years he was engaged in various embassies in France and Germany. He was indeed so much abroad that he had little influence upon the king's councils. But in 1539 he took part in the enactment of the severe statute of the Six Articles, which led to the resignation of Bishops Latimer and Shaxton and the persecution of the Protestant party. In 1540, on the death of Cromwell, earl of Essex, he was elected chancellor of the university of Cambridge. A few years later he attempted, in concert with others, to fasten a charge of heresy upon Archbishop Cranmer in connexion with the Act of the Six Articles; and but for the personal intervention of the king he would probably have succeeded.

He was, in fact, though he had supported the royal supremacy, a thorough opponent of the Reformation in a doctrinal point of view, and it was suspected that he even repented his advocacy of the royal supremacy. He certainly had not approved of Henry's general treatment of the church, especially during the ascendancy of Cromwell, and he was frequently visited with storms of royal indignation, which he schooled himself to bear with patience. In 1544 a relation of his own, named German Gardiner, whom he employed as his secretary, was put to death for treason in reference to the king's supremacy, and his enemies insinuated to the king that he himself was of his secretary's way of thinking. But in truth the king had need of him quite as much as he had of Cranmer; for it was Gardiner, who even under royal supremacy, was anxious to prove that England had not fallen away from the faith, while Cranmer's authority as primate was necessary to upholding that supremacy.

Thus Gardiner and the archbishop maintained opposite sides of the king's church policy; and though Gardiner was encouraged by the king to put up articles against the archbishop himself for heresy, the archbishop could always rely on the king's protection in the end. Heresy was gaining ground in high places, especially after the king's marriage with Catherine Parr; and there seems to be some truth in the story that the queen herself was nearly committed for it at one time, when Gardiner, with the king's approbation, censured some of her expressions in conversation. In fact, just after her marriage, four men of the Court were condemned at Windsor and three of them were burned. The fourth, who was the musician Marbeck, was pardoned by Gardiner's procurement.

Great as Gardiner's influence had been with Henry VIII, his name was omitted at the last in the king's will, though Henry was believed to have intended making him one of his executors. Under Edward VI he was completely opposed to the policy of the dominant party both in ecclesiastical and in civil matters. The religious changes he objected to both on principle and on the ground of their being moved during the king's minority, and he resisted Cranmer's project of a general visitation. His remonstrances, however, were met by his own committal to the Fleet, and the visitation of his diocese was held during his imprisonment. Though soon afterwards released, it was not long before he was called before the council, and, refusing to give them satisfaction on some points, was thrown into the Tower, where he continued during the whole remainder of the reign, a period slightly over five years. During this time he in vain demanded his liberty, and to be called before parliament as a peer of the realm. His bishopric was taken from him and given to Dr Poynet, a chaplain of Cranmer's who had not long before been made Bishop of Rochester. At the accession of Queen Mary, the Duke of Norfolk and other state prisoners of high rank were in the Tower along with him; but the Queen, on her first entry into London, set them all at liberty. Gardiner was restored to his bishopric and appointed lord chancellor, and he set the crown on the Queen's head at her coronation. He also opened her first parliament and for some time was her leading councillor.

He was now called upon, in advanced life, to undo not a little of the work in which he had been instrumental in his earlier years — to vindicate the legitimacy of the queen's birth and the lawfulness of her mother's marriage, to restore the old religion, and to recant what he himself had written touching the royal supremacy. It is said that he wrote a formal Palinodia or retractation of his book De vera obedientia, but it does not seem to be now extant; and the reference is probably to his sermon on Advent Sunday 1554, after Cardinal Pole had absolved the kingdom from schism. As chancellor he had the onerous task of negotiating the Queen's marriage treaty with Philip, to which he shared the general repugnance, though he could not oppose her will. In executing it, however, he took care to make the terms as advantageous for England as possible, with express provision that the Spaniards should in nowise be allowed to interfere in the government of the country.

After the coming of Cardinal Pole, and the reconciliation of the realm to the see of Rome, he still remained in high favour. How far he was responsible for the persecutions which afterwards arose is a debated question. He no doubt approved of the act, which passed the House of Lords while he presided there as chancellor, for the revival of the heresy laws. Neither is there any doubt that he sat in judgment on Bishop Hooper, and on several other preachers whom he condemned, not exactly to the flames, but to be degraded from the priesthood. The natural consequence of this, indeed, was that when they declined, even as laymen, to be reconciled to the Church, they were handed over to the secular power to be burned. Gardiner, however, undoubtedly did his best to persuade them to save themselves by a course which he conscientiously followed himself; nor does it appear that, when placed on a commission along with a number of other bishops to administer a severe law, he could very well have acted otherwise than he did. In his own diocese no victim of the persecution is known to have suffered till after his death; and, much as he was already maligned by opponents, there are strong evidences that his natural disposition was humane and generous. In May 1553 he went over to Calais as one of the English commissioners to promote peace with France; but their efforts were ineffectual. In October 1555 he again opened parliament as lord chancellor, but towards the end of the month he fell ill and grew rapidly worse till the 12th of November, when he died over sixty years of age.

Perhaps no celebrated character of that age has been the subject of so much ill-merited abuse at the hands of popular historians. That his virtue was not equal to every trial must be admitted, but that he was anything like the morose and narrowminded bigot he is commonly represented there is nothing whatever to show. He has been called ambitious, turbulent, crafty, abject, vindictive, bloodthirsty and a good many other things besides, not quite in keeping with each other; in addition to which it is roundly asserted by Bishop Burnet that he was despised alike by Henry and by Mary, both of whom made use of him as a tool. How such a mean and abject character submitted to remain five years in prison rather than change his principles is not very clearly explained; and as to his being despised, we have seen already that neither Henry nor Mary considered him by any means despicable. The truth is, there is not a single divine or statesman of that day whose course throughout was so thoroughly consistent. He was no friend to the Reformation, it is true, but he was at least a conscientious opponent. In doctrine he adhered to the old faith from first to last, while as a question of church policy, the only matter for consideration with him was whether the new laws and ordinances were constitutionally justifiable.

His merits as a theologian it is unnecessary to discuss; it is as a statesman and a lawyer that he stands conspicuous. But his learning even in divinity was far from commonplace. The part that he was allowed to take in the drawing up of doctrinal formularies in Henry VIII's time is not clear; but at a later date he was the author of various tracts in defence of the Real Presence against Cranmer, some of which, being written in prison, were published abroad under a feigned name. Controversial writings also passed between him and Bucer, with whom he had several interviews in Germany, when he was there as Henry VIII's ambassador.

He was a friend of learning in every form, and took great interest especially in promoting the study of Greek at Cambridge. He was, however, opposed to the new method of pronouncing the language introduced by Sir John Cheke, and wrote letters to him and Sir Thomas Smith upon the subject, in which, according to Ascham, his opponents showed themselves the better critics, but he the superior genius. In his own household he loved to take in young university men of promise; and many whom he thus encouraged became distinguished in after life as bishops, ambassadors and secretaries of state. His house, indeed, was spoken of by Leland as the seat of eloquence and the special abode of the muses.

He lies buried in his own cathedral at Winchester, where his effigy is still to be seen.






      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol XI
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 462.




Other Local Resources:




Books for further study:

Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors.
           London: Routledge, 1991.

Gardiner, Stephen. The Letters of Stephen Gardiner.
           Greenwood Press, 1990.

Haigh, C. English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors.
           Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Redworth, Glyn. In Defence of the Church Catholic: The Life of Stephen Gardiner.
           London: Blackwell Publishers, 1990.






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Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's Panoramic View of London, 1616. COLOR
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London




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