Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester

Born: c. 1497

Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England

Died: November 12, 1555 (Age c. 58)

Gardiner in History

Stephen Gardiner is a prime example of a man who was highly divided between his loyalties to the church and the king during the reign of Henry VIII and who was shunned and championed for his orthodox Catholic beliefs during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, respectively. While still a teenager, Gardiner had actually briefly served the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus, while staying in the continent, an ironic employment when one looks at his future semi-anti-humanist way of thought. It is also no secret that Gardiner was a very well-educated man, receiving his doctorate in civil law (1521) and canon law (1522) from Trinity Hall. Gardiner first came to royal favor in around 1523 when he began his service to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the top adviser to King Henry VIII. Because of his close proximity to Wolsey, Gardiner also began to become acquainted with the king himself and was rewarded for his services through a number of ecclesiastical appointments foreign diplomatic appointments. The most significant of these diplomatic missions was a visit to Pope Clement VII, whom the king was attempting to persuade to grant an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Gardiner was unsuccessful in his attempt but seemed to remain loyal to the king and his quest to attain his divorce. However, Gardiner was opposed, quietly, to a complete separation between England and Rome and this most certainly hurt his reputation in future endeavors.

As Cardinal Wolsey's political career (and soon after, life) was coming to an end, Gardiner's was just beginning. After the cardinal was dismissed from court (through a combination of his inability to attain the divorce and the accusations of his enemies) in 1529, Gardiner took his place as the king's secretary. Furthermore, Gardiner was appointed Bishop of Winchester (1531), quite arguably England's wealthiest diocese. Unfortunately, Gardiner's increasingly vocal opposition to the break from Rome and support for Queen Catherine, combined with the rise of one Thomas Cromwell, a staunch reformist, made it clear that he was not to attain the king's absolute favor for long. When Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury died in 1533, Gardiner was passed over for the position (in favor of another reformist, Thomas Cranmer), which he, most likely, would have been granted two years previously. With the help of men such as Cromwell and Cranmer, Henry VIII was able to complete the break with Rome and was secretly married to Anne Boleyn, a woman he had been practically betrothed to for many years before, in early 1533. Though Gardiner was undoubtedly unhappy with the marriage and the continued influence of the new queen's reformist relatives at court, he did attend the coronation ceremony and was still used as a foreign diplomat, though his influence at court was waning and his position as king's secretary was lost, by 1534, to Cromwell.

By 1535, Henry VIII was seeking a way to to force the people of England to accept his marriage to Anne, and the fact that all children born by her would be the rightful heirs to the throne, and his new position as head of the church of England. He did this through the Act of Succession, a document drawn up, primarily through Cromwell, that stated the supremacy of the marriage over his previous one and of Henry's position as head of the church. Later amendments were added that made it treasonable not to sign the act when prompted. Surprisingly, Gardiner supported the act and drew up an essay called De Vera Obedienta to prove it. This document also showed the support of the executions of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, both of whom refused to sign the act. The move was an obvious ploy by Gardiner to win back royal favor, supported by the fact that he was obviously opposed to the king's break with Rome and hated Queen Anne and her reformist supporters Cromwell and Cranmer. Gardiner was not fully returned to the place of influence he was possessed, but he was still used as an ambassador for diplomatic missions to the continent.

The last ten years of Henry VIII's reign were a a turbulent time for Gardiner as he attempted to balance his commitment to the church and the Catholic faith, with that of his loyalties to the king, who, though considered to be a religious conservative, was still very much under the influence of Cromwell and Cranmer and had no interest in reconciling himself with Rome. Gardiner was no doubt happy about Queen Anne's downfall and execution (1536) but angered the king when he said that the participants of the subsequent Pilgrimage of Grace (a rebellion of northern Englishmen against the suppression of the monasteries) should be treated leniently. In 1539-40, Gardiner achieved two major victories over his reformist opponents: First, the act of the Six Articles was passed, which affirmed the supremacy of certain rights within the church of England, such as the Eucharist and celibacy amongst the clergy, that supported the beliefs of orthodox Catholics. Secondly, and much more significantly, Gardiner was rid of one of his biggest enemies when Cromwell was executed (primarily for the disastrous marriage he had planned between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves). These moves returned Gardiner to royal favor and he began acting as ambassador to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was looking to form an alliance with England, against Francis I of France, despite the fact that Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine, was his aunt. A treaty was agreed upon between the two leaders (1542) and a joint invasion of France took place with a moderate amount of success, though ultimately it would lead to practically nothing.

For the remainder of the reign, Gardiner, who by no means fully retained the royal favor he had won back after Cromwell's execution, spent his time in various activities, such as writing essays and defending Catholicism against the increasingly influential reformist movement. In 1543, he attempted to bring down Cranmer with charges of heresy, but accomplished nothing accept making Gardiner appear foolish in the king's eyes. With the influence of men such as Cranmer and fellow reformists Edward of Thomas Seymour (maternal uncles to Prince Edward, the heir to the throne), Gardiner remained very much in political limbo. When the bishop's close allies, the Howards (the Duke of Norfolk and his son, the Earl of Surrey), were arrested in late 1546, it is believed that Gardiner himself was next to fall. Surrey was executed but, the day before Norfolk was to suffer the same fate, Henry VIII died (January 1547). Norfolk, however, would spend the entire six years of Edward VI's reign in prison. With the ascension of the new king, who was only nine, a minority council was essential. Gardiner was specifically deprived of any position of influence and the council was, in turn, dominated by by reformists led by Edward Seymour, now Duke of Somerset, who acted as regent. Though Gardiner attempted to make peace with the reformists, while maintaining his strict Catholic beliefs, he efforts proved futile and, by 1449, he was arrested and thrown in prison, where he would remain for the rest of the reign. Gardiner continued to publish essays from the tower and was asked on several occasions to conform to the new form of government, which he outright refused. For this reason, he was deprived of all his possessions, including the see of Winchester, and left to rot in prison.

However, Gardiner, and all other Catholic prisoners were released upon the ascension of the Catholic Mary I in 1553 (Edward VI had suddenly become sick and died at the age of fifteen). He was swiftly returned to all his possessions and became a major figure in the government of the new regime. For the remainder of his life, Gardiner made it his goal to, once again, make England a Catholic nation, under the control of the pope. The bishop felt that, to carry on the regime, Mary should marry an Englishman, but it was finally agreed that she would marry Philip of Spain, son to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. By 1555, though, Gardiner was in bad health, severely worn out from years of political and ecclesiastic bickering, and passed away in November of that year, as one of the most influential figures the Tudor era had seen. Though he was not without his ups and downs, one cannot debate that Gardiner found a way to stay loyal to his monarchs, without completely destroying his own system of beliefs, a trait that had brought many others to the chopping block.

Gardiner in Shakespeare

Appears in: Henry VIII

Stephen Gardiner first appears in Henry VIII as a sort of protege to Cardinal Wolsey and is made the king's secretary and later bishop of Winchester. It is no secret that Gardiner holds conservative views and hates reformists such as Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer and Queen Anne Boleyn, the latter of which he, at one point, wishes would die during child birth. It is Gardiner who orchestrates the arrest, upon charges of heresy, of Archbishop Cranmer and is his biggest opponents at Cranmer's trial. However, the king intervenes in part of the Archbishop and chides Gardiner for his flattering and hateful ways, forcing him to reconcile himself with Cranmer, which he does. In reality, the trial took place in 1543, ten years after the birth of Princess Elizabeth that ends the play and there was, most certainly, no reconciliation between Gardiner and Cranmer.


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