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He was born in Bury St Edmunds, but the date of his birth is suspect. His father is known to have been John Gardiner, a substantial cloth merchant of the town where he was born (see his will, printed in Proceedings of the Suffolk Archaeological Institute, i. 329), who took care to give him a good education. His mother Helen was reputed to be an illegitimate daughter of Jasper Tudor, 1st Duke of Bedford.
In 1511 Gardiner, still a boy, met Erasmus in Paris (Nichols's Epistles of Erasmus, ii. 12, 13). He had probably already begun his studies at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself in the classics, especially in Greek. He then devoted himself to the canon and civil law, in which subjects he attained so great a proficiency that no one could dispute his pre-eminence. He received the degree of doctor of civil law in 1520, and of canon law in the following year.
Before long his abilities attracted the notice of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who made him his secretary, and in this capacity he is said to have been with him at More Park in Hertfordshire, when the conclusion of the celebrated treaty of the More brought King Henry VIII and the French ambassadors there. This was probably the occasion on which he first came to the king's notice, but he does not appear to have been actively engaged in Henry's service till three years later. In that of Wolsey be undoubtedly acquired a knowledge of foreign politics, and in 1527 he and Sir Thomas More were named commissioners on the part of England in arranging a treaty with the French ambassadors for the support of an army in Italy against Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
That year he accompanied Wolsey on his important diplomatic mission to France, the splendour and magnificence of which have been graphically described. Among the cardinal's imposing train --including several noblemen and privy councillors--Gardiner alone seems to have understood the importance of this embassy. Henry was particularly anxious to cement his alliance with King Francis I of France, and gain his co-operation in his plans to divorce Catherine of Aragon. In the course of his progress through France he received orders from Henry to send back his secretary, Gardiner, or, as he was called at court, Master Stevens, for fresh instructions; to which he was obliged to reply that he positively could not spare him as he was the only instrument he had in advancing the king's "secret matter." Next year Gardiner, still in the service of Wolsey, was sent by him to Italy along with Edward Fox, provost of King's College, Cambridge, to promote the same business with the pope. His despatches survived, and give a wonderful impression of the zeal and ability with which he discharged his functions. His familiarity with the canon law gave him a great advantage. He was instructed to procure from the pope a decretal commission, laying down principles of law by which Wolsey and Campeggio might hear and determine the cause without appeal. The demand, though supported by plausible pretexts, was not only unusual but clearly inadmissible. Pope Clement VII was then at Orvieto, and had recently escaped from captivity at St Angelo at the hands of the imperialists. Even fear of offending the emperor could not have induced him to refuse a legitimate request from a king like Henry. He referred the question to the cardinals about him; with whom Gardiner held long arguments. What was to be thought, be said, of a spiritual guide, who either could not or would not show the wanderer his way? The king and lords of England would be driven to think that God had taken away from the Holy See the key of knowledge.
This ingenious pleading did not succeed, and he had to be content with a general commission for Campeggio and Wolsey to try the case in England. This, as Wolsey saw, was quite inadequate for the purpose in view; and he instructed Gardiner, while thanking the pope for the commission actually granted, to press him once more to send the desired decretal on, even if it was only to be shown to the king and himself and then destroyed. Otherwise, he wrote, he would lose his credit with the king, who might be tempted to throw off his allegiance to Rome. At last the pope gave in, on the express conditions that Campeggio was to show it to the king and Wolsey and no one else, and then destroy it, the two legates holding their court under the general commission. After obtaining this, Gardiner returned home; but early in the following year, 1529, when proceedings were delayed on information of the brief in Spain, he was sent once more to Rome. This time, however, his efforts were unavailing. The pope would make no further concessions.
Gardiner's services, however, were fully appreciated. He was appointed the king's secretary. He had already been archdeacon of Taunton for several years, and the archdeaconry of Norfolk was added to it in March 1529; two years later he resigned it for that of Leicester. In 1530 he was sent to Cambridge to procure the decision of the university as to the unlawfulness of marriage with a deceased brother's wife, in accordance with the new plan devised for settling the question without the pope's intervention. In this he succeeded, though not without a good deal of artifice, more creditable to his ingenuity than to his virtue. In November 1531 the king rewarded him with the bishopric of Winchester, vacant since Wolsey's death. The unexpected promotion was accompanied by expressions from the king which made it still more honourable, showing that if he had been subservient, it was not for the sake of his own advancement. Gardiner had, in fact, argued boldly with the king on some points, and Henry now reminded him of the fact. "I have often squared with you, Gardiner," he said familiarly, "but I love you never the worse, as the bishopric I give will convince you." In 1532, nevertheless, he dipleased the king by taking part in the preparation of the famous "Answer of the Ordinaries" to the complaints brought against them in the House of Commons. On this subject he wrote to the king in his own defence.
Gardiner was not exactly, as is often said, one of Thomas Cranmer's assessors, but, according to Cranmer's own expression, "assistant" to him as counsel for the king, when the archbishop, in the absence of Queen Catherine, pronounced her marriage with Henry null and void on May 23, 1533. Immediately afterwards he was sent to Marseilles, where an interview between the pope and Francis I took place in September. Henry was deeply suspicious, as Francis, ostensibly his ally, had previously maintained the justice of his cause in the matter of the divorce. It was at this interview that Edmund Bonner intimated the appeal of Henry VIII to a general council in case the pope should venture to proceed to sentence against him. This appeal, and another on behalf of Cranmer presented with it, were drawn up by Gardiner. In 1535 he and other bishops were called upon to vindicate the king's new title of "Supreme Head of the Church of England." The result was his celebrated treatise De vera obedientia, the ablest of all the vindications of royal supremacy. In the same year he had a dispute with Cranmer about the visitation of his diocese. He was also employed to answer the pope's brief threatening to deprive Henry of his kingdom.
During the next few years he took part in various embassies to France and Germany. He was so often abroad that he had little influence on the king's councils; but in 1539 he took part in the enactment of the severe statute of the Six Articles, which led to the resignation of Bishops Latimer and Shaxton and the persecution of the Protestant party. In 1540, on the death of Thomas Cromwell he was elected chancellor of the University of Cambridge. A few years later he attempted, in concert with others, to fasten a charge of heresy upon Archbishop Cranmer in connection with the Act of the Six Articles; and but for the personal intervention of the king he would probably have succeeded. He was, despite having supported the royal supremacy, a thorough opponent of the Reformation from a doctrinal point of view. He had not approved of Henry's general treatment of the church, especially during the ascendancy of Cromwell. In 1544 a relation of his, named German Gardiner, whom he employed as his secretary, was executed for treason in reference to the king's supremacy, and his enemies insinuated to the king that he himself was of his secretary's way of thinking. The king had need of him quite as much as he had of Cranmer; for it was Gardiner, who even under royal supremacy, was anxious to prove that England had not fallen away from the faith, while Cranmer's authority as primate was necessary to upholding that supremacy. Thus Gardiner and the archbishop maintained opposite sides of the king's church policy; and though Gardiner was encouraged by the king to put up articles against the archbishop for heresy, the archbishop could always rely on the king's protection in the end. Heresy was gaining ground in high places, especially after the king's marriage to Catherine Parr; the queen herself was nearly committed for it at one time, when Gardiner, with the king's approbation, censured some of her expressions in conversation. Just after her marriage, four men of the Court were condemned at Windsor and three of them were burned. The fourth, who was the musician Marbeck, was pardoned by Gardiner's procurement.
Great as Gardiner's influence had been with Henry VIII, his name was omitted from the king's will, though Henry was believed to have intended making him one of his executors. Under King Edward VI, he completely opposed the policy of the dominant party both in ecclesiastical and in civil matters. The religious changes he objected to, both on principle and on the ground of their being moved during the king's minority, and he resisted Cranmer's project of a general visitation. His remonstrances resulted in his being imprisoned in the Fleet, and the visitation of his diocese was held during his imprisonment. Though soon released, he was soon called before the council, and, refusing to give them satisfaction on some points, was thrown into the Tower of London, where he remained for the rest of the reign, a period of over five years. During this time he unsuccessfully demanded to be called before parliament as a peer of the realm. His bishopric was given to Dr Poynet, a chaplain of Cranmer's who was previously Bishop of Rochester. At the accession of Queen Mary, the Duke of Norfolk and other state prisoners of high rank were in the Tower along with him; but the queen, on her first entry into London, set them all free. Gardiner was restored to his bishopric and appointed lord chancellor, and he placed the crown on the queen's head at her coronation. He also opened her first parliament and for some time was her leading councillor.
He was now called upon, in old age, to undo not a little of the work in which he had been instrumental in his earlier years--to demonstrate the legitimacy of the queen's birth and the legality of her mother's marriage, to restore the old religion, and to recant his own words touching the royal supremacy. It is said that he wrote a formal Palinodia or retractation of his book De vera obedientia; but the reference is probably to his sermon on Advent Sunday 1554, after Reginald Cardinal Pole had absolved the kingdom from schism. As chancellor he had the onerous task of negotiating the queen's marriage treaty with Philip II of Spain, for which he shared a general repugnance. In executing it, he took care to make the terms as advantageous for England as possible, with express provision that the Spaniards should in nowise be allowed to interfere in the government of the country. After the coming of Cardinal Pole, and the reconciliation of the realm to the see of Rome, he still remained in high favour. How far he was responsible for the persecutions which afterwards arose is open to debate. He no doubt approved of the act, which passed the House of Lords while he presided there as chancellor, for the revival of the heresy laws. There is no doubt that he sat in judgment on Bishop Hooper, and on several other preachers whom he condemned to be degraded from the priesthood. The natural consequence of this was that when they declined, even as laymen, to be reconciled to the Church, they were handed over to the secular power to be burned. Gardiner, however, undoubtedly did his best to persuade them to save themselves by a course which he conscientiously followed himself. In his own diocese no victim of the persecution is known to have suffered till after his death; and, much as he was already maligned by opponents, there is evidence that his character was humane and generous. In May 1553 he went to Calais as one of the English commissioners to promote peace with France; but their efforts were ineffectual. In October 1555 he again opened parliament as lord chancellor, but towards the end of the month he fell ill and grew rapidly worse till he died, aged over sixty.
Gardiner was probably not the morose and narrow-minded bigot he is commonly represented. He was called ambitious, turbulent, crafty, abject, vindictive, bloodthirsty and a good many other things besidea, not quite in keeping with each other; in addition to which it was asserted by Gilbert Burnet that he was despised alike by Henry and by Mary, both of whom made use of him as a tool. Yet he submitted to five years in prison rather than change his principles; and neither Henry nor Mary considered him by any means despicable. He was no friend to the Reformation, but he was a conscientious opponent. In doctrine he adhered to the old faith from first to last, while as a question of church policy, the only matter for consideration with him was whether the new laws and ordinances were constitutionally justifiable.
It is as a statesman and a lawyer, rather than as a theologian, that he was notable. His learning was great. He was the author of various tracts in defence of the Real Presence against Cranmer, some of which, being written in prison, were published abroad under a false name. Controversial writings also passed between him and Bucer, with whom he had several interviews in Germany, when he was there as Henry VIII's ambassador. He was a friend of learning in every form, and took great interest especially in promoting the study of Greek at Cambridge. He was, however, opposed to the new method of pronouncing the language introduced by Sir John Cheke, and wrote letters to him and Sir Thomas Smith upon the subject, in which, according to Roger Ascham, his opponents showed themselves the better critics, but he the superior genius. In his own household he loved to take in young university men of promise; and many whom he thus encouraged became distinguished in after life as bishops, ambassadors and secretaries of state. His house was spoken of by John Leland as the seat of eloquence and the special abode of the muses.
He is buried in Winchester Cathedral, where his effigy is still to be seen.
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- This entry incorporates public domain text originally from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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