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Stephen Gardiner

Stephen Gardiner
Bishop of Winchester
Church Roman Catholic Church / Church of England
Province Canterbury
Diocese Winchester
In office 1531–1551, 1553–1555
Other posts
Consecration 3 December 1531
Personal details
Born c. 1483
Bury St Edmunds
Died 12 November 1555
Buried Winchester Cathedral
Nationality English
Denomination Roman Catholic / Anglican
Previous post
Alma mater Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Stephen Gardiner (c. 1483 [1] – 12 November 1555) was an English bishop and politician during the English Reformation period who served as Lord Chancellor during the reign of Queen Mary I and King Philip.


  • Early life 1
  • Diplomatic career 2
  • Role in the royal divorce 3
  • Bishop of Winchester 4
  • Edward VI's reign 5
  • Mary I's reign 6
  • Legacy 7
  • Fictional portrayals 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Gardiner was born in Bury St Edmunds, but the date of his birth is suspect. His father is known to have been John Gardiner, a substantial cloth merchant of the town where he was born,[2] who took care to give him a good education. His mother was once thought to be Helen Tudor, an illegitimate daughter of Jasper Tudor, 1st Duke of Bedford, but recent research suggests that she was the mother of a different cleric, Thomas Gardiner.[3]

In 1511 Gardiner, 28 years old, met Erasmus in Paris.[4] He had probably already begun his studies at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself in the classics, especially in Greek. He then devoted himself to 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.[5]

Diplomatic career

Before long his abilities attracted the notice of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who made him his secretary, and in this capacity he is said to have been with him at The More in Hertfordshire, when the conclusion of the celebrated Treaty of the More brought King Henry VIII and the French ambassadors there. This was probably the occasion on which he first came to the king's notice, but he does not appear to have been actively engaged in Henry's service till three years later. He undoubtedly acquired a knowledge of foreign politics in the service of Wolsey. 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 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

Role in the royal divorce

That year he accompanied Wolsey on his important diplomatic mission to France, the splendour and magnificence of which have been graphically described by Francis I of France, and gain support for his plans to divorce Catherine of Aragon. In the course of his progress through France, Wolsey received orders from Henry to send back his secretary, Gardiner, for fresh instructions. Wolsey was obliged to reply that he positively could not spare Gardiner as he was the only instrument he had in advancing the king's "Great Matter". The next year, Wolsey sent Gardiner and Edward Foxe, provost of King's College, Cambridge, to Italy to promote the same business with the pope. His dispatched messages have survived, and illustrate the competence with which Gardiner performed his duties. Gardiner's familiarity with canon law gave him a great advantage. He was instructed to procure a decretal commission from the pope, which was intended to construct principles of law by which Wolsey might render a decision on the validity of the king's marriage without appeal. Though supported by plausible pretexts, the demand was received as unusual and inadmissible. Pope Clement VII, who had been recently imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo by mutinous soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, had managed to escape to Orvieto. Now fearful of offending Charles V, nephew of Queen Catherine of Aragon, Clement refused to issue a definitive ruling concerning Henry's annulment.[6] The matter was instead referred to his cardinals, with whom Gardiner held long debates.

Gardiner's pleading was unsuccessful. Though the issue had not been specifically resolved, a general commission was granted, enabling Wolsey, along with Papal Legate, Cardinal Campeggio, to try the case in England. While grateful to the pope for the small concession, Wolsey viewed this as inadequate for the purpose in view. He urged Gardiner to press Clement VII further to deliver the desired decretal, even if it were only to be shown to the king and himself and then destroyed. Otherwise Wolsey feared he would lose his credit with Henry, who might be tempted to discard his allegiance to Rome. However, Clement VII made no further concessions at the time and Gardiner returned home. The two legates held their court under the guidelines of the general commission.

Bishop of Winchester

Gardiner's seat, Winchester Cathedral.

Gardiner's services, however, were fully appreciated. He was appointed the king's secretary. He had already been archdeacon of Taunton for several years, and the archdeaconries of Worcester and of Norfolk were added to it before November 1529 and in March 1530 respectively; in April 1531 he resigned all three 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 with the bishopric of Winchester, vacant since Wolsey's death. The unexpected promotion was accompanied by expressions from the king which made it still more honourable, showing that if he had been subservient, it was not for the sake of his own advancement. Gardiner had, in fact, argued boldly with the king 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 displeased the king by taking part in the preparation of the "Answer of the Ordinaries" to the complaints brought against them in the House of Commons. On this subject he wrote to the king in his own defence.

Thomas Cranmer became an enemy of Gardiner.

Gardiner was not exactly, as is often said, one of Thomas 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 23 May 1533. Immediately afterwards he was sent to Marseille, where an interview between the pope and Francis I took place in September. Henry was deeply suspicious, as Francis, ostensibly his ally, had previously maintained the justice of his cause in the matter of the divorce. It was at this interview that Edmund 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 another on behalf of Cranmer presented with it, were drawn up by Gardiner. 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 of all the vindications of royal supremacy. In the same year he had a 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 took part in various embassies to France and Germany. He was so often abroad that he had little influence on 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 execution of Thomas Cromwell 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 connection with the Act of the Six Articles; and but for the personal intervention of the king he would probably have succeeded. He was, despite having supported the royal supremacy, a thorough opponent of the Reformation from a doctrinal point of view, and is thought to have been a leader of the Prebendaries' Plot against Cranmer. He had not approved of Henry's general treatment of the church, especially during the ascendancy of Cromwell. In 1544 a relation of his, named German Gardiner, whom he employed as his secretary, was executed 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. 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 for heresy, the archbishop could always rely on the king's protection in the end. Protestantism was gaining ground in high places, especially after the king's marriage to Catherine Parr; 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. Just after her marriage, four men of the Court were condemned at Windsor and three of them were burned. The fourth, who was the theologian and composer John Merbecke, was pardoned by Gardiner's procurement, who said he was "but a musitian".

Edward VI's reign

"Bishop Gardiner's Conference With Jane Grey." - From the Victorian "Pictorial Tower of London".

Great as Gardiner's influence had been with Henry VIII, his name was omitted from the king's will, though Henry was believed to have intended making him one of his executors. Under King Edward VI, he completely opposed 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 resulted in his being imprisoned in the Fleet, and the visitation of his diocese was held during his imprisonment. Though soon released, he was soon called before the council, and, refusing to give them satisfaction on some points, was thrown into the Tower of London, where he remained for the rest of the reign, a period of over five years. During this time he unsuccessfully demanded to be called before parliament as a peer of the realm. His bishopric was given to John Ponet, a chaplain of Cranmer's who was previously Bishop of Rochester.

Mary I's reign

Queen Mary, by Hans Eworth

At the accession of Queen Mary I, 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 free. Gardiner was restored to his Bishopric and appointed Lord Chancellor, and he placed 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 also called upon, in old age, to undo not a little of the work in which he had been instrumental in his earlier years — to demonstrate the legitimacy of the Queen's birth and the legality of her mother's marriage, to restore the old religion, and to recant his own words touching the royal supremacy. It is said that he wrote a formal Palinodia or retractation of his book De vera obedientia; but the reference is probably to his sermon at the start of Advent, 1554, after Cardinal (later Archbishop of Canterbury) Reginald Pole had absolved the kingdom from schism. As chancellor he had the onerous task of negotiating the Queen's marriage treaty with Philip II of Spain, for which he shared a general repugnance. In executing it, 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 appointment 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 open to debate. 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. There is no doubt that he sat in judgment on Bishop John Hooper, and on several other preachers whom he condemned to be degraded from the priesthood. The natural consequence of this was that when they declined, even as laymen, to be reconciled to the Roman 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 taking the way in which his own conscience had acquiesced. In his 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 is much to show that his personality was generous and humane. In May 1555 he went 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 until he died.


Gardiner's chantry tomb in Winchester Cathedral.

It is as a statesman and a lawyer, rather than as a theologian, that he was notable. He was the author of various tracts in defence of corporal presence of the Eucharist against Cranmer's idea of spiritual presence, some of which, being written in prison, were published abroad under a false name. Controversial writings also passed between him and Martin 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 that language introduced by Sir John Cheke, and wrote letters to him and Sir Thomas Smith upon the subject, in which, according to Roger Ascham, his opponents showed themselves the better critics, but he the superior talent. In his own household he loved to take in young university men of promise; many of those he thus encouraged became distinguished in later life as bishops, ambassadors and secretaries of state. His house was spoken of by John Leland as the seat of eloquence and the special abode of the muses.

He died, probably, in his early seventies, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral, where his effigy is still to be seen. Some claim that his last words were Erravi cum Petro, sed non flevi cum Petro (Like Peter, I have erred, unlike Peter, I have not wept).[7]

Fictional portrayals

Bishop Gardiner is a character in the Fifth Queen trilogy by Ford Madox Ford.

Gardiner is a prominent character in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, where he appears as an implacable opponent of Thomas Cromwell. In the Wolf Hall television series, Gardiner is portrayed by Mark Gatiss.

Gardiner is played by Terence Rigby in the 1998 film Elizabeth, where he is portrayed as a villainous bishop who took part in the Ridolfi plot and who vehemently opposed Elizabeth I's Act of Uniformity; in reality, Gardiner had died before Elizabeth ascended the throne. A more accurate portrayal of Gardiner can be seen in the BBC dramas The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R (in both of which he is played by Basil Dignam). In The Tudors television series Gardiner is played by Simon Ward.


  1. ^ Karen Lindsey, xvii, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, Perseus Books, 1995
  2. ^ see his will, printed in Proceedings of the Suffolk Archaeological Institute, i. 329
  3. ^ Douglas Richardson, Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study in Colonial And Medieval Families, Genealogical Publishing, 2011, p.370.
  4. ^ Nichols's Epistles of Erasmus, ii. 12, 13
  5. ^ "Stephen Gardiner (GRDR506S)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  6. ^ T.A.Morris, Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century, (Routledge 1998), p166
  7. ^ Latham, Edward. Famous Sayings and their Authors, 2d ed. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1906. P. 240.

External links

  • Gardiner, Stephen Encyclopædia Britannica (1911) 11th ed. 11:460–462
Religious titles
Preceded by
John Monyns
Archdeacon of Taunton
Succeeded by
Thomas Cranmer
Preceded by
Thomas Alcock
Archdeacon of Worcester
bef. 1529–1531
Succeeded by
William Claybrooke
Preceded by
Thomas Wynter
Archdeacon of Norfolk
Succeeded by
William Newton
Preceded by
Richard Maudeley
Archdeacon of Leicester
March–December 1531
Succeeded by
Edward Foxe
Preceded by
Thomas Wolsey
Bishop of Winchester
1st term: 1531–1551
Succeeded by
John Ponet
Preceded by
John Ponet
Bishop of Winchester
2nd term: 1553–1555
Succeeded by
John White
Political offices
Preceded by
William Knight
Secretary of State
Succeeded by
Thomas Cromwell
Preceded by
Thomas Goodrich
as Keeper of the Great Seal
Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by
Nicholas Heath
Academic offices
Preceded by
Thomas Larke
Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
1st term: 1525–1549
Succeeded by
Walter Haddon
Preceded by
William Mowse
Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
2nd term: 1553–1555
Succeeded by
William Mowse

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