Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London
Edmund Bonner was born in or about 1500—possibly illegitimately—in circumstances of relative poverty in Worcestershire. Despite his lower-class background he was admitted to Broadgates Hall, a hostel for law students, at Oxford. (Broadgates Hall was re-constituted as Pembroke College in the 17th century and is still a constituent college of the University.) Actually, before the gentrification of England—one of the fruits of the English Reformation—it was not at all unusual for even the poorest of young men to be able to find a place at Oxford or Cambridge and use that as a propellant into political, ecclesiastical, and economic advancement. It was Calvinism, with its tying of material prosperity to the idea of God’s predestination, which contributed to the rigid stratification of English society, but that topic is for another day. Bonner earned his doctorate in Canon Law and became a chaplain to Cardinal Wolsey. To Bonner’s credit, he remained loyal to Wolsey when the Cardinal fell in disgrace and was with him when Wolsey died at Leicester Abbey in the late autumn of 1530. Taken into the King’s service as a protégé of Thomas Cromwell, Bonner went to Rome in 1532 to try to win Henry’s case for annulment, or at least to prevent the Pope and Curia from taking any action against Henry for his divorcing Katherine. He suggested to Pope Clement that the Pope should allow Henry to appeal to a General Council for an annulment—a route that would let the Pope off the hook with the Emperor, Queen Katherine’s nephew, who opposed the annulment.
Of course, what Bonner—and back in England, Henry and Cromwell—did not understand was Clement’s policy of allying himself to the Emperor to further Medici policy in central Italy. That policy opposed any annulment be it from the Pope or a Council. But it was all in vain anyway as events were moving faster than Bonner’s diplomacy and Anne Boleyn’s 1533 pregnancy made it imperative that Henry marry her in time for the expected child—a hoped for son—to be a legitimate heir to the throne. Of course the child was a daughter, but Henry was married and excommunicate and Bonner summoned home as Henry was losing interest in the papacy anyway. Bonner was rewarded by Henry for his efforts with a number of well-salaried Church positions and entrusted with further diplomatic duties in embassies to the Emperor and to the King of France. His rabid anti-papal tirades annoyed the French King but delighted Henry who in 1540 named him bishop of Hereford. (By this time, of course, Henry had broken completely with the papacy and thus was naming bishops himself.) Before he could be consecrated, however, Henry decided to name him to the far more prestigious see of London. He was consecrated bishop in April 1540.
Now Henry had broken with Rome but he was not inclined to introduce Protestant ideas into his Church. The Church was Catholic—it just wasn’t papal anymore. (It had never been “Roman,” from antiquity having its own Rites and peculiarities as outlined in previous postings.) Mass remained unchanged (except that the prayer for the Pope was dropped) and in Latin, clergy remained unmarried, prayers to the saints continued to be said, holy water and incense to be used. As Bishop of London, Bonner was always vigilant against any Protestant ideas seeping into his diocese. He was not a theologian—as he himself admitted—but a canon lawyer and he was very distrustful of any theological novelties. London and Norwich, because of their being the primary ports, were always the first point where new ideas would come in and take root. Londoners had long been disgusted with the Church and its clergy (as we saw in the entries about Richard Hunne) and consequently very open to the new Protestant ideas coming from Germany. When Henry died and the new King, Edward VI—acting under the tutelage of his guardians, Thomas Cranmer and the Duke of Somerset—began to introduce Protestant practices, Bonner ardently resisted, but by then it was too late. He was deprived of his see and thrown into the Marshalsea prison. Upon the accession of Mary and the restoration of Catholicism, he was returned to his see where he was vigorous in searching out Protestants and handing them over for prosecution and execution. His most famous prisoner was Thomas Cranmer, the deposed Archbishop of Canterbury, who was executed at Oxford in March 1556.
With the Accession of Elizabeth, Catholicism was out and Protestantism back in. Bonner was again deprived of his see and imprisoned. Despite calls for his execution by the radical Protestant party, he remained in prison until his death in 1569. Four times each year he was called out and given the opportunity to adjure his Catholic faith in favor of the Reformed Church of England with a promise of release, and each time he refused.
Bonner, like Tunstall, and like Stephen Gardiner (with whom we have yet to deal) was very typical of the Churchmen of Henry’s time. Only one bishop in England went to his death rather than give in to Henry’s demands to be recognized as head of the Church of England. Most priests likewise acquiesced. They were naïve in failing to see where the Church would go once it got mixed into the political machinations of rabid nationalists. Thomas More and John Fisher, on the other hand, stood firm not so much because they believed in the papacy per se but because they knew that the Church by its very nature needs to transcend the political, cultural, and geographic limits that would otherwise divide it. Catholics must always have an international outlook that sees the good of the entire human family as trumping the interests of any particular nation or society.