Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester

On this day in history, 12th November 1555, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Mary I’s Lord Chancellor, died. He was buried at his seat of Winchester Cathedral where his tomb can still be seen today in the Bishop Gardiner Chantry Chapel.

Stephen Gardiner’s date of birth is not known, with some saying 1483 and others saying 1493 or 1497, but he was born in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. His father was William Gardiner (some say John Gardiner), a cloth merchant and a mercenary hired during the War of the Roses. According to Welsh accounts of the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, it was “Wyllyam Gardynyr” who killed King Richard III with a poleaxe. Sir William Gardiner later married Helen Tudor, a woman said to have been the illegitimate daughter of Jasper Tudor, uncle of King Henry VII.

As a young man, Gardiner met the famous Humanist and scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, in Paris and he studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He received the degree of doctor of civil law in 1520 and of canon law in 1521 and went on to work for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as secretary, meeting Henry VIII for the first time in 1525 at The More in Hertfordshire for the signing of the Treaty of the More between the King and Francis I of France. Two years later, in 1527, Gardiner and Sir Thomas More worked as commissioners in arranging, with the French ambassadors, a treaty to obtain support for an army against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in Italy.

In 1527, Gardiner accompanied his master, Wolsey, on a diplomatic mission to France to gain the French King’s support for the King’s Great Matter or “secret matter”, his wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon. A year later, Gardiner was sent to Italy with Edward Foxe, the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, to secure a decretal commission from the Pope which would allow Cardinal Wolsey to rule on the validity of the King’s marriage without appeal to Rome. Although Gardiner was an expert on canon law, and so was at a great advantage, Pope Clement VII had recently been imprisoned by Charles V’s troops and was wary of offending the Emperor who was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew and so refused to grant the decretal commission and, instead, granted a general commission to allow Cardinal Wolsey to try the case in England with the Papal Legate, Cardinal Campeggio. You can read more about the Legatine Court in Cardinal Campeggio and the Legatine Court.

In 1526 Gardiner was appointed Archdeacon of Taunton and then in 1529 Archdeacon of Norfolk, a post which he resigned from in 1531 when he became Archdeacon of Leicester. In November 1531 he was appointed Bishop of Winchester after successfully procuring a decision from the University of Cambridge on the unlawfulness of a man marrying his dead brother’s wife. However, he did offend the King a year later when he was involved in preparing the Answer of the Ordinaries, a reply to the Supplication Against the Ordinaries.

In May 1533, Gardiner assisted the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, in pronouncing the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon null and void and in 1535 he was one of the bishop asked to vindicate Henry VIII’s new title “Supreme Head of the Church of England, something which he did by writing his treatise “De vera obedientia”, in which he argued that rulers were entitled to supremacy in their own country’s churches and that the pope had no legitimate power over other churches.

Between 1535 and 1539, Gardiner was mostly abroad on diplomatic missions, but in 1539 he helped to prepare The Six Articles which reaffirmed the traditional Catholic doctrine on transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, the vow of chastity, the withholding of the cup from the laity at communion, private masses and auricular confession. In 1543, Gardiner was involved in the Prebendaries’ Plot against Cranmer, along with his nephew, Germain Gardiner. The plot failed when the King supported Cranmer but Gardiner survived, although his nephew, the scapegoat, was executed for treason. In 1546, Gardiner,a long with Lord Chancellor Wriothesley, attempted to turn the King against his sixth wife, the Reformist Catherine Parr. The plot failed when Catherine managed to reconcile with the King.

On the 28th January 1547, King Henry VIII died and although Gardiner had been one of his trusted advisers he was not named as an executor in the King’s will. During the Protestant reign of Edward VI, Gardiner was imprisoned, first in Fleet and then in the Tower of London, for his opposition to the religious changes being made. However, he was released at the accession of Mary I in 15553, restored to his bishopric and made the Queen’s Lord Chancellor. He crowned Mary I Queen of England at her coronation at Westminster Abbey on the 1st October 1553 and helped Mary to restore Catholicism and, ironically, overturn the annulment of her parents’ marriage, making her legitimate. He was also instrumental in the marriage negotiations between Mary and Philip II of Spain and married the couple at Winchester Cathedral on the 25th July 1554.

It is not clear what Gardiner’s role was in the Marian persecutions, but it appears that he preferred to try and persuade people to save themselves by recanting and reconciling themselves to the church. It has been pointed out that in his own diocese nobody was persecuted until after Gardiner’s death.

Bishop Gardiner's Tomb

In May 1555, Gardiner carried out his last diplomatic mission to France, to promote peace, a mission that was not successful, and in October 1555 he opened Parliament. On the 12th November 1555, after being taken ill at the end of October, the famous Tudor statesman and lawyer, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England, died. It is thought that he was in his sixties and that he had been suffering from jaundice and dropsy. It is said that as he lay dying the story of the Passion was read to him and that his dying words, after hearing of the denial of Peter, were “Erravi cum Petro, sed non flevi cum Petro”, “Like Peter I have erred, unlike Peter I have not wept”, an allusion to his weakness during the reign of Henry VIII.

Notes and Sources

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12 thoughts on “Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester”
  1. Very interesting article! I always thought Gardiner was a villian, and that he sought to see people burned at the stake. The Showtime series did a good job at making him look evil. This article brings new light to this man, and helps me to see another side of this man. Maybe he isn’t the villian that popular culture has made him out to be. Thanks!

  2. He has never been one of my favorites–I always thought he hated Anne and wanted her to fail, though he did work for the Great Matter. I felt he used that to get ahead with Henry but then, had no love for Anne. Really interesting to get a fuller view of him.

  3. Really interesting article. I’m trying to find out about the role of the Bishop of Winchester in the Liberty of the Clink (at any point whilst it existed).

    I know that the Bishop sort of ruled over it, but on a day-to-day basis what did he do?

    Did he spend much in the Liberty? Did he personally make the rulings in the courts?

    I’d be really grateful if anybody could help me.

  4. Gardiner was an ambitious courtier. He was a prelate with a point of view who tried to have the Queen arrested, which would have meant her death. He sought the same for Cranmer. He threw the dice and lost. He was luckier than most, as he survived to fight and win, on another day. These were not nice people. They did what was necessary to get and keep power.

  5. I have never liked Stephen Gardiner, even though his letters paint a different picture to the anti Katherine Parr, fanatical heretic hunter of the Tudors and other drama. Like everyone there is always more to a person than the one negative aspect that is sensationalized in legend.

  6. Who also acted in arranging the marriage of Mary to King Phillip and co-writing the Act for the Marriage of Queen Mary to Philip of Spain or Queen Mary’s Marriage bill and travelled to Spain to arrange everything,I have no idea how many were burned by the Bishop but Ann Askew was one,Gardiner selected Askew to be arrested with twenty-two others,That poor soul was horribly tortured in the tower and later tried and found guilty and burned all because of the conservative Gardiner,He was head arch-conservative at the court of King Harri and on the council and in the house of lords and had much power and supporters such as Duke of Norfolk and from the old families.

  7. This article is frankly a whitewash. Gardener was perhaps not as blood thirsty as his fellow ‘conservatives’, read murderous religious fanatics, but he was one of the men guiltily of being party to the persecution, torture and murder of Anne Askew. Moreover he was a key player in the plots against Catherine Parry, for no other reason than her religion and Protestantism. Yet the man’s ambitions out weighed his religion. Gardiner supported his King’s divorce but when he fell out of favour over writing something that did not fully support Henry’s role as head of the church he quickly forgot his scruples to regain that favour. How? He wrote in support of the execution of John Fisher a fellow cleric guilty only of refusing to turn his back on his faith and accept his monarch as the head of his church. Fisher was later made a martyr by the Catholic Church, a church Gardiner slunk back to openly only when Mary Tudor, a Catholic monarch ruled.
    So many people like him are guilty of mixing religion with politics for their own ends yet claim to follow a man who when offered all the Kingdoms of the world turned them down. The Wikipedia article about him is almost word for word the same as this and like this has little to say about his intrigues and ambition. He was frankly an extremely unpleasant man
    perhaps particularly vicious, but cruel when it suited his purpose. In fact far more like Pilate than Peter.

  8. Sometimes those that rant the loudest against something are trying to make amends in their own eyes for their own behavior. I’m a genealogist and I’ve come across an indication that Stephen Gardiner may have had a wife or mistress, Margaret Anne Grey, by whom he may have had as many as six children. There may even be a marriage record between them in about 1501. He would not have wanted the church to know about this side of his life so he kept everybody looking the other direction.

  9. As I have said on a previous occasion Stephen Gardiner is the sort of historical person you warm to or have a gut reaction to. His letters reveal a man of long service and who supported the divorce, although he was a traditional Catholic. He was a Bishop who also liked his comforts, and we know this not from unreliable sources like Wikipedia, but from the fact Henry was fond of visiting him because he kept a fine table. He was a man who simply did his duty. He could be over zealous, it is very true in trying to keep heresy out of the court because he saw it as damaging the country and the King, but he was far from the total zealot depicted in the Tudors. His role in the attack on Katherine Parr is a difficult one and very controversial, but his more famous or infamous role is his involvement in the affair of Anne Askew and the Windsor heretical plots. For one thing this started not as a personal attack on anyone but as a denouement of some of the Kings musicians by those with an axe to grind. Six people were actually wrongly accused and a lengthy investigation followed. As with accusations of witchcraft, investigations into heresy could get out of hand with denunciations just for the opportunity to hurt someone. Gardiner was actually someone who preferred to get to the truth rather than to use force. This is one reason why so many people were questioned. Some of the Queens Ladies were questioned, but because of the fact KP had them remove any incriminating books, they were let go. The case against Anne Askew was as a result of earlier charges, of which she had agreed to recant and which now came to light again. She was caught up with the Windsor Six and she was illegally handed over for torture, which was actually unusual in heresy cases in England. The poor woman was racked to the point that she couldn’t stand and her arms and legs broke. It was terrible. Gardiner was not involved in her torture, despite the claim in Wikipedia. He was involved in her arrest and initial questioning. However, her case was very extreme and terrible and he must ultimately bear some responsibility. It is a very difficult case not to get upset about and it makes for uncomfortable reading and we should be rightly horrified. The case against the others is also odd because the three who died were later proved to be innocent. It had all come about because of gossip and lies. The accusers were found guilty of perjury and were very lucky as they were let off with a fine and with a flogging. The Queen, Katherine Parr almost suffered the same fate when she became too loud in her opinion and insisted that people have the right to think and believe for themselves. Katherine liked to preach somewhat and Henry was drawn into one of her open arguments in front of others one evening. He was not himself being unwell and his ministers persuaded him to allow Katherine to be arrested. She saw the warrant and wisely battered her eye lashes and said her opinions were meaningless, those of a mere woman and Henry should pay them no heed. She only spoke in the hope of learning from the King, a wise Solomon. She was certainly quick thinking.

    During the reign of Edward vi Gardiner had to tread carefully, but he was a survivor and conformed. His cousin had been executed for denying the royal Supremacy under Henry Viii, but Gardiner remained a true Catholic under Mary. He is painted as the baddie of the Marian persecution of heretics, but his involvement was mild. He was not a fanatic and he carried out the more official Government policy of persuasion and preaching as well as giving more time for recanting and return to the fold than others. How heresy was dealt with was laid down by law but it was left to each parish and diocese to administer within their own jurisdiction. Most cases were not the big state cases as Cranmer became but small local issues. The trial and punishment, not always burning, took place in local communities, although at certain times, some groups of condemned ‘heretics ‘ were moved to more central districts together as a deterrent. This is why some punishments appear to be concentrated in certain areas, not necessarily because they were prosecuted most keenly in those areas. Both Bonner and Gardiner are associated with Marian persecution, but in the case of the former he is now known that he was involved in far fewer than his legend suggests and most took place after his death anyway. I for one find persecution of any nature abhorrent and condemn it roundly, but it was not the case that one person was responsible for every case as is often the impression given from the literature of the successive reigns. Both Catholic and Protestant persecuted the other to the same degree and both persecuted ‘,heresy’ which apparently was almost anything unorthodox. Henry Viii persecution of heretics took many forms and there is not one single group who can fully define the various reformed ideas flooding in from the Continent and opening up due to the reading and understanding of Scripture on a regular basis. Even Thomas Cranmer ordered the burning of a few ‘heretics ” including a woman, whose views were a bit odd, but we would probably think she was more of a crank. There can be no doubt that Stephen Gardiner is controversial because of his opposition to new ideas, but he was no more controversial than others of his time from either point of view. New and reformed ideas were dangerous, traditional Catholic teachings under Henry and Elizabeth were dangerous, everything different to the official belief of the King or Queen was dangerous. It would be another two or even three centuries before different religious or political ideas or faith ceased to be dangerous in the eyes of someone else. Even protesting was still seen as dangerous and still is to a certain extent. When you lived in an era that taught you not to tolerate any challenges or even to to your authority and that authority came from the highest power of all, the Lord God, then you were expected to root out any trouble or potential trouble, as part of your job. I know that sounds cold, but it was literally how things were. Even the mildest of people took things very seriously and knew they had a duty laid down by Church and State in law to deal with threats to the peace and stability of the crown, no matter where it came from under the supervision of the King or Queen. Those in authority may use different methods, limit the severity of the proscribed sentences as much as possible, but More, Wolsey, Gardiner, Bonner, Cranmer, Cromwell, Audley, Walsingham, the Seymour brothers under Edward vi, Northumberland, also under Edward vi, and Sir William and Sir Robert Cecil were at the end of the day, arms of the State, regardless of if they dealt mildly or with a mere handful of those of religious diversity and dissent or if you took things to great extremes. It is a very difficult and sad subject to discuss today, but we can try to do so with respect and understanding and without exaggerating and we can only be grateful that at some point in the past people had the fortitude to stand up and say enough, this is wrong, we are all the same and we can believe different things or say different things and we don’t need to be afraid of difference, we can accept that we are different and we can find common ground. If not, this discussion would not be possible.

  10. I am descended from Stephen Gardiner, I was delighted to find! My maiden name was Gardner and I was able to track my family tree from even before Stephen Gardiner to present day.

  11. There is so much controversy and contradiction of the name of the Father of Stephen Gardiner. Some historians say William Gardiner and Helen Tudor were his parents. And then some say it was John Gardiner. William, the King slayer had a middle name. It was John. As a descendant of the Gardiners it would be very enlightening to know for sure who Stephen’s father was. Can someone help?

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