Bonner's Cathedral of Saint Paul's
London--this cathedral was
destroyed in the Great Fire of
London in 1666 and replaced by
Christopher Wren's masterpiece.
Cromwell scavenged the remnants of Wolsey’s service for what talent could go for the King’s work and Bonner found himself in the royal employ. He was sent to Rome in 1532 to try to forestall action against Henry in the Roman Curia and in a 1533 meeting with Clement VII at Marseilles (where the Pope was conferring with Henry’s current foe, Francis I of France) Bonner threated the Pope with appealing over the Pope to a General Council for an annulment for Henry. Clement was furious and Henry never got around to the appeal, choosing schism instead. Bonner served Henry on embassies both to Charles V and to the French court and he made contact with the German Lutherans with whom he showed some doctrinal sympathy. As an ambassador, Bonner could be quite abrasive and his tendency to get in altercations with his hosts did not help him achieve his diplomatic goals. Yet this didn’t displease Henry who had a particular antipathy for the French. Bonner also went out of his way to alienate Stephen Gardiner who had preceded him as ambassador in Paris and about whom he, Bonner, filed a highly critical report.
Bonner oversaw the printing of “The King’s Great Bible” at Paris while ambassador to the French Court. Myles Coverdale, later Bishop of Exeter and strong proponent of Protestant doctrine and worship in the reign of Edward VI, had provided this English translation under the sponsorship of Henry for use in the services of the Church of England. (Henry had retained the Latin Mass throughout his reign, but much like the first introduction of the vernacular in the Catholic Church at the time of the Second Vatican Council, the custom of reading the Epistle and Gospel in English—after they had been read in Latin—was to pave the way for greater changes yet to come.) Henry (and his Protestant-leaning minion, Thomas Cromwell) were quite impressed at Bonner’s performance with getting the Bible printed and rewarded him with the Bishopric of Hereford. As he was still in France, however, he could neither be consecrated or take possession of his see and Henry moved him to London in 1540 where he was consecrated according to the old rites which would remain unaltered in the time of King Henry.
Bonner had been trained in law, not theology, and he had never shown much interested in the finer points of doctrine. Indeed, if anything he seemed to lean towards a version of Lutheranism. Yet once in his diocese he became an implacable religious conservative. When the wind blew in a more traditionalist direction after the execution of Thomas Cromwell, and Parliament passed the Six Articles, Bonner began an earnest persecution of all those in his diocese who did not adhere strictly to Catholic Doctrine on Transubstantiation, on purgatory, and on the cult of the saints.
The death of Henry and the accession of King Edward changed everything. Within a few months of the new King’s accession a set of injunctions had been drawn up for reform in the Church and the bishops were entrusted with the task of seeing that they were carried out in their cathedrals as well as in the parishes of their diocese. The injunctions required
1. all images were to be taken down
2. stained glass, statutes, and shrines were to be dismantled
3. rood screens, their lofts, and the rood beam with its cross and figures of John the Apostle and the Virgin Mary were to be destroyed
4. vestments were abolished and were to be burned or sold
5. sacred vessels were to be melted down and replaced by pewter or silver cups and tankards
6. processions were banned
7. the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday, Palms on Palm Sunday, and candles on Candlemas was done away with
8. chantries (mortuary chapels) with endowed masses for those buried there were abolished
9. masses for the dead were abolished.
The bishops were responsible to see that these directives were carried out in their respective dioceses, but the Council appointed visitators to go around the kingdom to make sure the changes had been carried out. Bonner refused to implement the changes and resisted the idea of visitors coming to his diocese. As London was the national capital, the Council could not afford dissent there. He was arrested and imprisoned in the notorious Fleet Prison. There he changed his strategy and gave in to the visitation so as to be released and take his seat in Parliament where he could fight the new laws. His resistance to the Prayer Book of 1549, however, led to his being deprived of his see and imprisoned for the remained of King Edward’s reign.
Mary, on her accession, freed him and restored him to this See. Bonner vigorously sought to restore Catholic doctrine and practice but had a rough time of it. During his imprisonment, Edward’s Bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley, had pretty thoroughly destroyed what elements of Catholicism were left. Not only had the stone altars been smashed in the London churches, the crosses and crucifixes torn down, the images of the saints ripped from their niches, but more important, Londoners had been well catechized in the Reformed Religion.
Protestantism appealed to the merchant class and London was a merchant citu. Protestantism was a religion that showed an appreciation for critical thinking and intellectual pursuits. It was not a matter of blind authority and ancient traditions that no longer made sense. Protestantism was rational, a thinking man’s religion. There was no room for superstition. Moreover it was economically rational. One didn’t put good money into silk vestments or silver crosses or gold chalices. One gave to the poor. One endowed schools. And one re-invested one’s money for greater profit. This was a religion for Londoners. And when Bonner came back to his diocese after an absence of six years, the damage had been done. Bonner did what he could do to repair the churches for Catholic worship again but he never won the confidence of the Londoners. Even worse, he undertook a fierce persecution of Protestants, searching them out, trying them in ecclesiastical courts, and subjecting them to torture and being burned at the stake. He was responsible for some of the worst excesses of “Bloody Mary’s” reign.
Unlike Gardiner who predeceased Mary, Bonner lived well into Elizabeth’s reign. He refused to swear to her supremacy over the Church. Although he sat in her first Parliament where he spoke against her policy of reintroducing Protestantism, he was deprived of his See and imprisoned by the end of her first year on the throne. Although many called for his death in retaliation for those martyred under his authority for their Protestant faith, he was never executed. He remained imprisoned under somewhat genteel terms and every four months was given a new opportunity—which he always refused—to swear to the royal supremacy. He died eleven years into Elizabeth reign.
I notice that I have quite often used the term “Protestant” here and I need to clarify that term as I am not using it in the somewhat generic sense that we use to cover everything from a Swedish Lutheran to a Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite. The problem is that the other-than-Catholic movement in the Church of England was not stable through this period. Phase I which might be thought to be 1520-1540 leaned towards Lutheran thought. Phase II, which we shall mark as 1540 to the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 leaned more to the Swiss model but I wouldn’t say “Calvinist.” It was sort of a generic Swiss/Strasbourg variety influenced heavily by Martin Bucer, the Strasbourg reformer who had taken refuge in England between 1549 and 1551, but also drawing on Bucer’s friends among the Swiss, especially Zwingli. Phase III which will be the reign of Elizabeth will see a real struggle between the Puritan party who are definitely Calvinist and the more moderate party which would have favored the more middle of the road sort of theology typified in the reign of Edward VI. The Puritan party was to win out, though Elizabeth herself was definitely a theological moderate. But all that is still away off in our entries.