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‘Wily Winchester’: Stephen Gardiner

Will Saunders asks whether one of the ‘villains’ of the English Reformation deserves his reputation.

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester from 1531 to 1555, was not only a central figure in the English Reformation but also a man surrounded by contradictions. He led the early resistance to Henry VIII’s break with Rome and was involved in Mary’s burnings of Protestants, and yet he also wrote the most eloquent defence of Henry’s position as Supreme Head of the Church and tried hard to work with Edward VI’s Protestant regime.  

These contradictions in Gardiner’s career have been seen as evidence of his slippery and duplicitous character. Even during his own lifetime he was denounced by Protestants as ‘wily Winchester’, a man still loyal to the papacy but able to deceive Henry and Edward. This article aims to explore the career of Stephen Gardiner and, through his life, discover how the pressures of the religious changes imposed on England could cause individuals to adopt such apparently contradictory positions as the Reformation progressed.  

The Loyal Servant? 

The son of a cloth merchant, Stephen Gardiner went to Cambridge where he excelled at Greek and then Law. He was made tutor to the Duke of Norfolk’s son, rose to prominence as a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey in the 1520s, and between 1529 and 1531 served Henry VIII as secretary. It was widely believed at Court that Gardiner was a firm supporter of the King’s campaign for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon, and in recognition of this Henry appointed him Bishop of Winchester in 1531.  

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