In Defence of the Church Catholic

Diarmaid MacCulloch | Published in

In Defence of the Church Catholic: The Life of Stephen Gardiner
by Glyn Redworth (Basil Blackwell, 1990, xii+354 pp.)

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, died in 1555 a lucky man: bishop of the wealthiest diocese in England and (as Lord Chancellor) the highest legal officer in the land, his years of imprisonment ended, the Catholic faith restored and his enemies humiliated; so far the Marian regime seemed set on course to success in its programme of religious change. There is a poignant contrast here with the deaths, three years later, of his queen and his colleague Cardinal Pole, who knew as they lay dying that with them died all their hopes for the future of England.

In Glyn Redworth's skilled and thoughtful study of Gardiner, however, one does not get the sense of a happy man. He was irascible to the point of self- destructiveness: he quarrelled bitterly with no less a person than the King of France, and at home, with fellow-politicians who should have been his natural allies, the Duke of Norfolk and Edmund Bonner. Twice he infuriated Henry VIII by his obstinacy in defence of the Church's rights and property, in full knowledge of the danger of any defiance of the king, He seems a lonely figure, and like many lonely bachelors, his chief affection remained his Cambridge college, whose Mastership he treasured above all his preferments.

No man is a hero to his valet, and this biographer seems to have adopted the same principle with his subject. Traditionally Gardiner has been seen as the arch-Machiavellian, to the extent that in recent years he has been credited (almost certainly mistakenly) with the authorship of an Italian treatise following Macchiavelli's principles. John Foxe's picture of him as 'wily Winchester' only crystallised contemporary opinion which saw him as the brains behind every reactionary move of Henry VIII and Mary, a Godfather with Bishop Bonner cast as the hit-man.

Redworth has cut Gardiner down to size. Time and again Winchester is sidelined from the action, quickly losing Henry VIII's intimate trust, misjudging situations, passively taking advantage of ready-made plots, rarely getting his own way, and playing little part in the greatest conservative successes of the Henrician years, the passage of the Act of Six Articles and the destruction of Cromwell. Wily Winchester has become Woolly Winchester.

Does this interpretation work? Certainly Dr Redworth's sceptical eye has seen through much wishful thinking and scapegoating: but can Gardiner really have been so innocent? Irony is admittedly the most difficult of flavours to taste when centuries have intervened; yet Gardiner's work is so packed with it that it cannot be ignored – moreover, injured innocence was his stock in trade. Often Redworth seems to take at face value statements which must have stung and infuriated Gardiner's hearers with the depths of their sarcasm, particularly when Gardiner felt that he had his back to the wall in the Edwardian years.

Gardiner was a brilliant writer, one of the best manufacturers of English prose in the Tudor age; his letters sparkle, fascinate and inform far more than those of his rival, and much-acclaimed master of English prose style, Thomas Cranmer. Redworth could have done more to point this out; it would have given added depth and interest to his subject, and he might have penetrated further layers of a complex personality.

Redworth has made some curious decisions in planning this book. Rightly, he admires the work of J.A. Muller who wrote on Gardiner some seven decades ago, and does not want to duplicate what he has done: so the reader is told to refer back to Muller for further detail. Often this is very much more than detail: Redworth does not give even a summary account of Gar- diner's trial of 1551, one of the most dramatic events of the bishop's career. Readers will not be pleased to be told that after forking out £45, they need another life of Gardiner to complete the picture. Redworth gets through the five years of Gardiner’s imprisonment under Edward VI in five pages of his 332-page long story, retrospectively phrased from the day of the bishop's release under Mary.

A further remarkable and explicit omission is any consideration of Gardiner's polemical writings, but these were of great importance. The aggressively Catholic eucharistic tract that he wrote during his imprisonment was sufficiently dangerous to stir Archbishop Cranmer to uncharacteristic bitterness in reply; Winchester's masterly sabotage of Cranmer's 1549 Prayer-Book, when he claimed that it was perfectly acceptable as a statement of Catholic orthodoxy, was at least one factor in making inevitable further Prayer-Book revision in a Protestant direction, besides providing theological fool's gold for High Church Anglicans ever since.

There is some uncertainty about the potential audience for this book: specialist or general reader? Early on, efforts to provide clear explanations of the current theological and political issues suggest the general market, but the accomplished intricacy of argument in the later sections and the massive footnotes, with their extended debates on controverted points of detail, suggest that the informed historian is the prime target. Yet to criticise this book is to recognise its high quality, which demands the most searching criticism. Redworth's command of the sources is impeccable and enviable, his style lucid and fresh; this is a work that is consistently challenging and readable. It will be indispensable for any serious study of Henry VIII's Reformation and its aftermath.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is a Tutor in History at Wesley College, Bristol, and the author of Later Reformation England 1547-1603 (Macmillan, 1990).

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