Chantry chapel of Bishop Stephen Gardiner
The chantry chapel of Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester (c.1495/8-1555) and leading royal minister, in Winchester cathedral.
Stephen Gardiner is one of the most controversial figures of the Tudor age. The son of a cloth-maker, Gardiner was a skilled scholar and entered Cambridge in 1511. In the early 1520s he came to the attention of Cardinal Wolsey and quickly prospered, gaining the archdeaconries of Taunton (1526), Worcester (1528), Norfolk (1530), and Leicester (1531). By 1527 he was involved in the King’s ‘Great Matter’ (Henry VIII’s attempts to annul his first marriage), and even travelled to Italy for a meeting with the pope. By 1532, Gardiner had developed certain doubts. He objected to the clergy’s complete submission to the King and was promptly out of favour. He was replaced as royal secretary by Thomas Cromwell, whilst Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, presided over the annulment proceedings that dissolved Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and declared the Boleyn marriage valid. During Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, Gardiner attempted to win back favour. Remarkably (given his later role in England’s return to the Catholic Church under Mary I), he wrote a defence of the execution of John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, casting Fisher as a traitor. His support for the Royal Supremacy, forcefully presented in his propaganda works, proved embarrassing when Mary came to the throne in 1553.
Following this, Gardiner was sent as a representative to the French court and engaged in several diplomatic missions. In 1540, Cromwell was executed, and Gardiner’s star was on the rise. Gardiner has often been regarded as a conservative at Henry’s court, opposing the reformist ‘circle’, including those in the household of Katherine Parr. He was instrumental in the arrests and executions of Lutherans including Robert Barnes and Anne Askew. He was even involved in a conspiracy against Katherine Parr which was thwarted when news of her imminent arrest was revealed to her and she sought her husband’s clemency. In the end, Gardiner failed to remove both the evangelical queen and archbishop of Canterbury. Worse still, Henry VIII removed his name from the list of councillors who were to form a regency council to govern in his young son’s name.
Henry died in January 1547, and Gardiner’s prospects continued to worsen during the rule of the Protestant Edward VI. As a leading traditionalist, he objected to the attacks on conventional worship, namely on the mass. His protests against the changes lead to his imprisonment in the Tower where he would remain until 1553. By that date, Edward died and was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary I. Mary, a Catholic, released from the Tower a number of high profile prisoners, including Gardiner. She also gave him a seat on her Privy Council and made him Lord Chancellor.
During his time in the Tower, Gardiner became close to fellow detainee, Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon. He advanced Courtenay as a husband for Mary, a plan which she did not countenance. Gardiner’s opposition to a Spanish marriage, which eventually occurred in 1554, did not mark his downfall. He remained a leading Marian councillor and churchman and was instrumental in overseeing England’s return to the Catholic Church. He participated in the famous persecutions against the Protestants –he was one of the main figures behind the revival of the heresy laws. He also appears to have favoured Mary removing Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) from the succession, believing she was a Protestant at heart and harboured rebellious aspirations.
Gardiner died in the middle of the night of 12 November 1555 (possibly the early hours of the 13th). Gardiner must have assumed his prospects were bleak for he took the necessary precaution of writing a will on the 8th. He was buried in a chantry chapel in Winchester Cathedral on 28 February 1556, less than two years after he had married Queen Mary to Philip of Spain in the same establishment. During the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s troops beheaded his effigy, a fate which he eluded in life unlike so many of his associates and enemies at the Tudor court.