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Stephen Gardiner in United Kingdom

Stephen Gardiner (c. 1493-1555), 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 he 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, self-seeking 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 vera 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 narrow-minded 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

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

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.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

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  • Article Name: Stephen Gardiner
  • Author: International
  • Description: Stephen Gardiner (c. 1493-1555), English bishop and lord chancellor, was a native of Bury St Edmunds. The date of his birth [...]

This entry was last updated: October 14, 2016

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