3. Wily Winchester – the original thinking of Bishop Stephen Gardiner

Part I: Defining terms: Gardiner’s Theology of the Supremacy

A vivid allegory of Gardiner  as the wolf dressed as the lamb beguiling the flock of God

A vivid allegory of Gardiner as the wolf dressed as the lamb beguiling the flock of God

De Vere Obedentia is much more than a clever piece of rhetoric – although there is plenty of rhetorical argument contained therein.  It was written between 1534 and 1535 and was published in September 1535. J.A Muller – Stephen Gardiner and the Tudor Reaction still provides the most lucid précis:

To obey truly is to obey truth. God is truth. Therefore true obedience is obedience to God and to whom God appoints to represent him. The Bible which is the true word of God recognises king’s as God’s representative on earth. Hence the king should be in matters of religion as well as in matters secular. This is also in accord with reason for the people who compose church are the same as those who compose the realm; and to deny the king’s authority over them in one capacity and not in the other is an absurdity. Further, scripture sets no limits whatever on the subject’s obedience to the king. If royal commands are contrary to God’s will it is the king giving them, not the subject obeying them, who will be judged of God. (Muller op cit.p.61)

The argument is cogent; the style combative and the treatise is, as Muller shrewdly observes almost, composed as if it is designed as much to persuade the writer as much as the reader. And indeed so it should have been because it was written in the shadow of the very laws which  erected a jurisdictional novelty into the body of the English church and which any English bishop now had to find good reasons to accept in order to have better reason to obey. This new situation needed some explaining. And Gardiner gives the reader his explanation with some considerable relish.

King's Book - the last word of  in doctrinal apologia for Henry's Supremacy

King’s Book – the last word of in doctrinal apologia for Henry’s Supremacy


Gardiner appeals to history; to common sense; to scripture; to St Paul; to the practice of the early church: he cites the powers of the kings of the Old Testament; the precedents of the Christian Roman emperors – more Justinian than Constantine –  and he also appeals to the example of the early English kings – saints and scholars – which particularly chimes with the official peels established within the royal closet; in the wider court and with the prejudices of the educated Humanist elite beyond.

These are obvious arguments in their way but Bishop Gardiner gives them new employment with the cause of a new, royal, master; and not only to they serve their rhetorical purpose better than before Gardiner cleverly simultaneously makes them serve another purpose entirely. Effectively using Christ’s admonition to render those things unto Caesar that belong to Caesar, Gardiner vehemently argues –

For what is consequency then? Christ would have Peter to be above princes as it appeareth it was never in his mind….(Ibid. p. 84)


Gardiner is at his most persuasive in his attacks on the Petrine doctrine as the basis of a papal Supremacy. He demonstrates that the primacy Peter exercised was never exclusive. He cleverly points out that Christ never claimed any temporal supremacy and therefore would not have bestowed it upon Peter or any of the Apostles. The powers he gave “feed my lambs; feed my sheep” and “what you loose on earth is loosed in heaven” are spiritual. He points out that St Paul was clear about the duty of the servant to the master was as wife to husband. He points out that St Paul too addressed and directed the Romans in his Epistles whilst St Peter was yet Bishop of Rome and that Peter, John and James in many eyes shared co-primacy, continuing:

In Scriptures there is no mention of Peter’s supremacy and Eusebius in Ecclesiastica Historia  reporteth that Clemens in Sexto Li. dispositonium affirmed that Peter, John and James after the ascension of our Saviour, although he had set them above all the apostles yet they took not the glory of supremacy upon them but that James, which is called Justus, was ordained the bishop of the apostles. Notwithstanding for the authority’s sake of them I do not  so much refuse the word self, but I flee the interpretation of the word that it may agree with the right proper meaning of the Gospel expressed in Christ’s deeds. ( De Vere Obedentia, Longmans, (1870) p. 86)

Gardiner as the Grand Old Man of the English traditionalists in the episcopacy..

Gardiner as the Grand Old Man of the English traditionalists in the episcopacy..

Whatever these arguments lacked in doctrinal refinement they still pack a pretty large logical and theological punch. And in his time; in his age; in the courts of these great kings of the early modern monarchies, many agreed with scriptural thrust of Gardiner’s arguments. They carried weight, not least because they ran with the grain of educated opinion, informed, as it was, largely by classical philosophy preserved in the works of Roman authors – another cultural elite with whom these early modern elitists shared so many values and prejudices; a secular philosophy, in so far as it was pre-Christian, that was nevertheless taught as if it was another branch of the gospel truth.

These Humanists scholars thought themselves heirs to Rome; her religion; her law and her rhetoric. They saw nothing odd in this. It was to them as if the intervening thousand years were without significant meaning – save of course they were of profound meaning; and they were full of scholarly meaning which in so many ways the Humanists were intellectually ill-equipped to comprehend. Theirs was political philosophy that predated Descartes reasoning: ‘cogito ergo sum’. It had no other point of reference beyond the world of systematic theology and Plato and Aristotle, which is why Machiavelli’s Prince was seen both to be so shocking and why its triumphant a-morality seemed to be so utterly convincing.

Gardiner did not finish here. He also had something interesting and persuasive to say about the Magisterium of the church and its operation in the context of the Christian state, which, we must needs remember, was for these men the same state in which every Christian soul lived and ultimately died. Gardiner admonishes:

They like as every one of them doing their office seem not to hinder one an other, but to help one an other; even so, in that we find the government of the Church was committed to the Apostles and to those that succeed in their room, that which before hand is committed of god to princes, is in no wise taken away. But forasmuch as government hath need of many things, especially teaching and pre-eminence according to the sundry distribution of gifts, unto some God hath committed the office of teaching, and the ministerie of the sacraments in all one body, and to some pre-eminence, not to be adversaries, but as divers members agree in one body, so in government they should accord together and every one go about his office with charity…. ( De Vere Obedentia  p.63)

Gardiner’s genius was to wed, under Scripture, patristic history and ecclesiology, the secular reality lived by Everyman to the unquestioned, uncontested spiritual reality to which Everyman aspired. To us,  Gardiner’s argument may seem circular. To us this is nothing more than the rhetoric of an intellectual time-server well placed to keep his prince’s time. Yet, none at the time would have viewed his arguments as the bogus chop-logic of the charlatan. Gardiner’s contemporaries would have accepted his principles as the governing principles of daily life. Logically, in the finest minds of the times, the secular and spiritual were already married to one another. Life on earth was bound to life in heaven; bound by a common thread of obedience to God and to the prince.

This doctrine delimited political philosophy. Its certain truth, to which Gardiner’s rhetoric gave coherent expression, was as unremarkable as its reality was unquestioned. The marriage of order to secular authority was ordained in heaven to be lived in practice on earth. Church was wed to the state through the medium of princely authority. In England ecclesiastical jurisdiction was explicitly subordinated by Parliamentary statute to the authority of the Lord’s anointed, the king. Gardiner’s concept of true obedience perfectly expressed this governing reality. Yet in Archbishop Cranmer’s world as much as Bishop Gardiner’s world these arguments served both a lower political purpose as well as a higher altruistic one. The novelty of Gardiner’s argument lay in the fact that no one before him – and this includes Cromwell and Cranmer – had drawn these two dissonants so closely into practical  harmony.

Later, to many, better informed by the events known as the Wars of Religion, these cups of knowledge would be seen as empty vessels. Reason and Science would instead be used to define a new secular philosophy. Tudor historians must resist being wise after the events of the 1530’s. In the 1530’s these philosophical were cups still filled full with possibility. So full, indeed, that the contents overflowed into the language used both by reformers and by traditionalists in England and elsewhere in Christendom;  and, most importantly, from Gardiner’s viewpoint, they came to compass the king’s own view of his Supremacy. Finally they hedged the notions of what would later grow into the conservative political theory of Divine Right of Kings.

The eminent Cardinal Contarini admitted Gardiner’s treatise was written with high art. Cardinal Pole more sourly thought it demonstrated, like luck in dice, that the better the player the worse the man. But one way and another the oration made Gardiner a major European figure. Once the bishop reached the court of Francis I he also impressed in a debate on the nature of Henry’s Supremacy against Friar Pallavicino in December 1535. Once again the king’s bishop won applause and plaudits. And although with hindsight it is easy to see the gaping flaws in Gardiner’s proposition supporting the Supremacy; in its time, in the aftermath of the peasant’s revolt in Germany;  in the kingdoms of northern and south western Europe; the argument that the prince and the bishops possessed complimentary authority and claim over each Christian conscience was not such an empty intellectual conceit. At the time, even in an Italian peninsula riven with ducal and princely rivalry; in the Papal States and in a Curia as riven by personal ambition as by doctrinal debate,  there were any number of the better educated  whose notions of obedience and order were not dissimilar to Gardiner’s; and who from that shared perspective repeatedly sought to find genuine accommodation in words with the reformers.

Artistic license: Stephen Gardiner cruelly interviewing Lady Jane Grey

Artistic license: Stephen Gardiner cruelly interviewing Lady Jane Grey

These comfortable words afterwards resolved into rigid definitions that marked out religious ideas of profound, unbridgeable difference; but, in the 1530’s Cardinals Contarini, Caraffa, Morone, Pole and later even the Cardinal of Lorraine sought to use them in service of genuine dialogue. On both sides of the widening religious divide men and women looked to words to provide some resolution; they employed elisions to nuance argument; they wished a form of words might reunite the Lutherans; the proto-Hussites and proto-Lollards; the Zwinglian memorialists in Zurich; Bucerians in Strasbourg; with the wider Roman traditions perhaps in by means of a new Creed, upon which all Christian men of good-will would agree. Neither side had yet wholly abandoned the old notion of Christendom.

There was everything to play for in this world of  ideas upon which Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Man had not yet burst with such incalculable consequence. The differences which were fierce; sometimes furious; were as yet half-formed on both sides of the emergent divide. Reformers and traditionalists might still cross from one side to the other side and back again over any number of issues: from indulgences; justification; vernacular scripture; liturgical practices; the invocations of the saints; the role of the Virgin Mary; and the notion of purgatory; to auricular confession; Eucharistic theology; and the real presence. Humanist definitions of the old truths were as often uncertain and as prone to intellectual ebb and flow as anything the Reformers certainly defined only to redefine in differing terms. The river of religious division might still be forded; there were still many crossing-points between these two conflicting visions of the true meaning of Calvary. In this tumult, Gardiner’s notions of orthodoxy and obedience offered a way back to unity via a sorts of intellectual bridge – albeit one that was humped-back.

In England this doctrinal uncertainty found itself  expressed in the incoherence of a number of religious formularies put into place one after the other: first, the Ten Articles; the Bishops’ Book; then the Act of Six Articles; and the King’s Book were supposed to define the basis of the faith of the English church. None of them was particularly orthodox or reformed. The doctrinal uncertainties that flowed from the Supremacy itself; through the crown’s brutal suppressions after the Pilgrimage of Grace; into the publication of the vernacular bible; the  use of injunctions to re-order churches; the dissolution first of shrines, then of monasteries; the deliberate licensing of reformed preachers by Cranmer and Cromwell. By 1544 when the English Litany was licensed for use in all churches, the English Church of the previous thousand years was already forever gone.

At the same time the Institutes of Calvin now provided a coherent reformed religious formulation. Its predestinarian notions of an elect; its governing presbyters supplanting the clergy; its scripture driven theology; its sermon driven worship; its notion of personal salvation travelled well beyond anything Luther had envisaged in the 1520’s. The thrust of its intellectual coherence radicalised the next phase of the reformation. It also radicalised reformers who had drifted uncertainly between Lutheran uses and Zwinglian confession. Soon whatever was held in Geneva was held by reformers more widely.

Soon whatever was held in Geneva was held by reformers more widely.

Calvin shifted the Reformation in a new direction, one which no longer looked to find doctrinal accommodations with the corpus on the doctrine of the old medieval church whose theology was informed by a dead past of Scholasticism with its preoccupation with Aristotelian rhetoric. Calvin explicitly looked directly and solely to Scripture for authority. All religious doctrine was to be defined by the Old and New Testaments. Even the uses of the early Church and the writings of the early fathers including Cyprian,  ,   , were valued only if they confirmed what was explicit in scripture. They owned no authority of their own. Their authority held no virtue beyond confirming in practice what was read in fact. It was the end of the notion of ‘traditio’; it was the end of magisterial authority of the church; it ended the notion of teaching authority through Apostolic succession. It was a brave new world: those liberated by its intellectual clarity would not go back to incense, plainchant, piety and priests.

By 1546 few were older; fewer still wiser; and none more unsettled than the king-made-pope, Henry VIII.  Henry, in his last address to Parliament in December 1545, expressed his frustration with the irrational obstinacies of the religious ideologues. His world-weary words of wisdom also hold the vain strains of a bewildered old man;  a man perplexed by attitudes he neither comprehends nor shares. As becomes a Pope, the king cites scripture:

…. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in the 12th chapter: ‘Charity is gentle, Charity is not envious, Charity is not proud,’ and so on in that chapter.  Behold then what love and charity is amongst you when one calls another heretic and anabaptist and he calls him back papist, hypocrite, and pharisee.  Are these tokens of charity amongst you?  No, no, I assure you that this lack of charity amongst yourselves will be the hindrance and assuaging of the fervent love between us, as I said before, unless this is healed and clearly made whole.  I must judge the fault and occasion of this discord to be partly the negligence of you, the fathers and preachers of the spirituality.  For if I know a man who lives in adultery I must judge him to be a lecherous and carnal person; if I see a man boast and brag about himself I cannot but deem him a proud man.  I see and hear daily that you of the clergy preach against each other without charity or discretion.  Some are too stiff in their old ‘Mumpsimus’, others are, are too busy and curious in their new ‘Sumpsimus’.  Thus almost all men are in variety and discord, and few or none truly and sincerely preach the word of God as they ought to do.  Shall I now judge you to be charitable persons who do this?  No, no, I cannot do so.  Alas, how can the poor souls live in concord when you preachers sow amongst them in your sermons debate and discord?  They look to you for light and you bring them darkness.  Amend these crimes, I exhort you, and set forth God’s word truly, both by true preaching and giving a good example, or else, I, whom God has appointed his vicar and high minister here, will see these divisions extinct, and these enormities corrected, according to my true duty, or else I am an unprofitable servant and an untrue officer….

Yet, despite the king’s best endeavours; despite Henry’s call for restraint on both sides; Bishop Gardiner risked all in moving significantly beyond restraint. In 1546 Stephen Gardiner threw down the gauntlet. He  published perhaps his most significant treatise since De Vere Obedentia. It was characteristically as provocative as it was thought provoking. It was a call to arms:

And herein the devil utters his sophistry, and makes us forget that is continually
done before our eyes, and by impossibility of our carnal imaginations, in things
above our capacity, seduces us, and deceives us, in the belief of god’s high
mysteries, and specially in the mystery of the Sacrament of the altar, whereby to
hinder us, and deprive us, of our great comfort and consolation . . .
(Stephen Gardiner: A Detection of the Devils Sophistry wherewith he robbeth the unlearned people of the true belief in the most blessed Sacrament of the altar. ( 1546) 

Perhaps more than anything this independence of attitude caused the bishop to fall from the king’s favour.

The very ‘devil’  who led  many to deny the real presence and whom Gardiner indentified in print also conveniently led the bishop’s political enemies into danger. Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk began a single-minded pursuit of the queen and her coterie of evangelicals. The traditionalists had Anne Askew and former Bishop Nicholas Shaxton arrested for denying one of the six articles. Their imprisonment endangered other evangelicals led by Thomas Smith, John Cheke, Richard Cox, John Hooper and Nicholas Ridley (with Cranmer in the background). These in turn had friends clustered around Queen Catherine Parr’s privy chamber. Gardiner and his allies persuaded the king that the same baleful influence reached into the household of young Edward and permeated those of Edward Seymour and his intemperate brother Thomas.

The English Reformation became deeply personalised and vicious. This allegorical satire of Gardiner & the Mass makes the point well

The English Reformation became deeply personalised and vicious. This allegorical satire of Gardiner & the Mass makes the point well

The king was roused; he agreed to strike; then Henry did  as he had done so often;  he changed his mind.  His change of heart came too late to save Anne Askew.  Shaxton and others recanted (in Shaxton’s case this recantation was sincere). The queen and her coterie narrowly escaped. The politics of faction and religious struggle were now truly enmeshed. Neither side could afford to let the other alone. The rising stars of family Seymour moved into the ascendant in the autumn of 1546; they counter-attacked at the court just before Christmas 1546. Gardiner was kept from court in a dispute over a land-swap between his diocese and the king; Seymour quickly brought down Henry, Earl of Surrey, sometime poet and Norfolk’s son and heir; and then the duke himself. By Christmas Gardiner’s other allies Wriothesley, the lord chancellor; and William Paget the principal secretary had moved to Seymour’s side. Decisively they brought with them Sir Anthony Denny (Henry’s  principal gentleman); William Herbert and a number of others in the king’s privy chamber, many of whom were related by marriage to Catherine Parr’s family.

In his last days all the powers of his earthly kingdom slipped from Henry VIII’s hands into those of his Seymour in-laws. Historians cannot assess the king’s final state of mind. Perhaps he merely wished to strike down Howard ambitions to make his son’s succession secure. Perhaps it was his intention to throw his lot in with the radical reformers. Perhaps, the reformers had hidden their true sympathies sufficiently from Henry’s beady eye. Perhaps the king chose to believe what he wished to believe; perhaps he chose to see only what he wished to see. Perhaps, as with many men, he did not quite believe his own death would come and thought there would always be one more throw of the dice.

The bishop of Winchester led the Dirige; sang the requiem in St Paul’s; committed Henry VIII to his final resting place in St George’s chapel. To the world looking-on in wonder the Bishop of Winchester still appeared in his wonted place at the heart of power. Yet, as W.S. Gilbert observes in the mouth of Little Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore:

Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.

For the first time since the early 1530’s Stephen Gardiner was on the outside of the magic circle of insiders who governed Tudor England…..but strangely the bishop seemed as liberated by his exile as occasionally he was resentful of his lack if influence. A change had come over Stephen Gardiner: henceforth, the man of affairs, who had happened to be a bishop and priest, became a bishop and priest, who happened to be a man of affairs.






2 Responses to 3. Wily Winchester – the original thinking of Bishop Stephen Gardiner

  1. Pingback: Wily Winchester – the original thinking of Bishop Stephen Gardiner | John Murphy

  2. Pingback: Detecting the Devil’s spohistry…..Bishop Gardiner (1546) | John Murphy