Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bonner, Edmund

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BONNER or BONER, EDMUND (1500?–1569), bishop of London, is said to have been the natural son of George Savage, rector of Davenham, Cheshire, by Elizabeth Frodsham, who was afterwards married to Edmund Bonner, a sawyer at Hanley in Worcestershire. This, however, was doubted by Strype, who tells us that his contemporary, Nicholas Lechmore, one of the barons of the exchequer, had found evidences among his family apers that Bonner was born in lawful wedlock. About the year 1512 he studied at Pembroke College, Oxford, then called Broadgate Hall. In 1519 he took on two successive days (12 and 13 June) the degrees of bachelor of canon and of civil law, and was ordained about the same time. On 12 July 1525 he was admitted doctor of civil law. In 1529 we Find him in Cardinal Wolsey’s service as his chaplain, conveying important messages to the king and to the king`s secretary, Gardiner, sometimes with formal instructions drawn up in writing. After the cardinal’s fall he still remained in his service, and was sometimes, it appears, employed to communicate with Cromwell, of whose good offices the once great minister stood then so much in need. In 1530 he went with Wolsey to the north, and was with him at Cawood when he was arrested. Not long before, while with the cardinal at Scrooby, he wrote to Cromwell for some Italian books which Cromwell had promised to lend him to improve his knowledge of the language (Ellis’s Letters. 3rd series, ii. 177).

In January 1532 he was sent to Rome by Henry VIII to protest against the king’s being cited thither by the pope in the question of his divorce from Catherine of Arragon, and he remained at the papal court the whole of that year. The imperial ambassador, Chapuys, says in one of his despatches from London that he had been previously one of Queen Catherine’s counsel (Calendar of Henry VIII, v. No, 762). It is somewhat strange that we have no other evidence of this, but Chapuys is not likely to have been misinformed. At the close of the year Bonner's zeal in the king's service was rewarded with the benefice of Cherry Burton near Beverley (ib. No. 1658). He is also stated to have received, but at what precise date does not appear, the rectories of Ripple in Worcestershire, and Bledon, which is probably Blaydon, in Durham. For a brief period in the beginning of 1533 he was in Enghand, having been sent home by the other English agents at Bologna, where Clement VII then was, who had gone thither to meet the emperor; but he was instructed to return in February, and was at Bologna again by 6 March. Just at that moment a faint hope was entertained of some kind of arrangement between Henry and the pope to avert a breach with Rome, but it was soon found impracticable. Henry VIII, who had already secretly married Anne Boleyn, announced her publicly at Easter as his queen, and crowned her at Whitsuntide. For this he naturally incurred excommunicntion by the pope, who pronounced sentence accordingly on 11 July. Against this sentence Henry determined to appeal to a general council, and Bonner, who followed the pope towards the close of the year into France to his meeting with Francis I at Marseilles, intimated the appeal to Clement in person, The despatch in which he reported to the king how he had done so is printed in Burnet, and gives a very vivid account of the scene, for Bonner was a sharp observer of things. The proceeding was in every way vexatious and irregular, for Henry had no real desire for a council,which, indeed, he all along tried to avert ; and the pope showed his internal irritation by folding and unfolding his pocket-handkerchief-‘which,’ wrote Bonner, ‘he never doth hut when he is tickled to the very heart with great choler' -while the datary was reading the appeal.

A very preposterous statement is made by Burnet, on no apparent authority whatever, that the pope was so enraged at Bonner's intimation of the appeal, that he talked of throwing him into a cauldron of melted lead, or burning him alive. One might just as easily imagine an English prime minister threatening to hang a foreign ambassador after a disagreeable interview. Bonner quietly discharged his commission and returned to England, where, in the spring of 1534, he was rewarded first with the living of East Derehan in Norfolk (Calender, vii. No, 545). In 1535 he was made archdeacon of Leicester, and was installed on 17 Oct. At this time all the dignitaries of the church were required by sermons and writings to enforce the doctrine of the royal supremacy, and Bonner wrote a preface to a second edition, published in 1536, of Gardineids treatise ‘De verâ Obedientiâ.' About the same time he was sent to Hamburg to cultivate a good understanding between the king and the protestants of Denmark and northern Germany. In the spring of 1538 he was sent, along with Dr. Haynes, to the emperor to dissuade him from attending the enemy council summoned by the pope at Vicenza; but they were not admitted to his presence. Later in the year he was sent to supersede Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, as ambassador at the French court, who was not overwell pleased with his treatment or with the manners of his successor; for Bonner certainly was not the man to make a disagreeable message more palatable to a rival of even to a superior. His language even to Francis I, on this embassy, was on one occasion singularly overbearing, and provoked that most courteous of kings to tell him in reply that, if it were not for the love of his master, he would have had a hundred strokes of a halberd.

At the beginning of this embassy he was appointed bishop of Hereford. He seems to have had a rornise of the hishopric before he went out, but his election took place on 27 Nov. 1538, while he was in France. He could not, however, return to be consecrated, and next year, without having obtained possession of his see, he was translated to London. Meanwhile he showed himself very zealous in promoting the printing of the great English Bible for the king at Paris, He was still in France when, on 20 Oct. 1539, he was elected bishop of London. He was confirmed on ll Nov., and took out a commission from the king for the exercise of his episcopal functions on the l2th. On 4 April 1510 he was consecrated at St. Paul’s, and on the 16th of the same month he was enthroned.

His name was naturally placed on the commission to treat of doctrine in 1540 after those of the two archbishops. Next year, under a commission to try heretics, he opened a session at the Guildhall. The cruel act of the Six Articles was to he put in force, and the prisons of London could not contain all the accused, so that in the end, apparently of sheer necessity, they were discharged. But one Richard Mekins, a poor lad of fifteen, who had spoken against the sacrament, and expressed his opinion that Dr. Barnes had died holy, was condemned to death and burned in Smithfield. His fate excited naturally much compassion, and hard things were spoken of the bishop in consequence; but it 'may be doubted, notwithstanding' Foxe’s coloured narrative, whether Bonner’s action in the matter was more than official. The unhappy boy died repenting his heresies, and expressed at the stake—or, according to the puritan version, ‘was taught to speak-much good of the bishop of London, and of the great charity that he showed him’ (Hall's Chronicle, 841). As the poor lad gained nothing by the declaration, it is not clear how he could have been ‘taught ’ to say anything but the truth.

So with other persecutions of which Bonner is accrued, of which two occurred during the reign of Henry VIII. John Porter was committed to prison by him for reading aloud from one of the six bibles that Bonner had caused to be put up in St. Paul‘s Cathedral, and making comments of his own in direct violation of the episcopal injunctions. Foxe tells us that he was laced in irons and fastened with a collar of iron to the wall of his dungeon, of which cruel treatment he died within six or eight days. But it is clear that Bonner was only answerable for the sentence, not for the severity with which it was carried out. And ns to the more memorable case of Anne Askew [q. v.], it is still more apparent that Bonner, so far from being cruelly inclined towards her, really tried his best to save her.

During the years 1542 and 15-13, Bonner was ambassador to the emperor, whom he followed in the latter year from Spain into Germany. He returned from this embassy, and was in England during the last three years of Henry’s reign, and it was during this period that Anne Askew was brought before him. The theory of his conduct first put forward by Foxe, and accepted with very little uestion even to this day, is that he was all along at heart what Foxe called an enemy of the Gospel-that is to say, of the Reformation-though he had favoured it in the first instance from motives of self-interest, and that immediately after the death of Henry VIII he showed himself in his true colours. It is not explained on this theory why a man whose principles were so very plastic under Henry became so very resolute under Edward, and sufered deprivation and imprisonment rather than submit to the new state of things. A more critical examination of the principles at issue in the different stages of the Reformation would make Bonncr's conduct suiliciently intelligible. The main point established in the reign of Henry VIII was simply the principle of royal supremacy-that the church of England, like the state, was under the constitutional government of the king. To this principle minds like those of Bonner and Gardiner saw -at the time, at least-no reasonable objection. But the point which Somerset and others sought to establish under Edward VI was that church and state alike were under the uncontrolled authority of the privy council during a minority, and that it was in vain to plead constitutional principles against the pleasure of the ruling powers.

To this neither Bonner nor Gardiner could submit without protest, One of the first things instituted in the new reign was a general visitation, by which the power of the bishops was superseded for the time. The king’s injunctions and the Book of Homilies were everywhere imposed. Bonner desired to see the commission of the visitors, which they declined to show, and accepted the injunctions and homilies with the qualification ‘if they be not contrary to God’s law and the statutes and ordinances of the church.' Unfortunately he repented his rashness, applied to the king for pardon, and renounced his protestntion. Yet, in spite of this submission, he was sent to the Fleet, where he remained, indeed, only a short time, while the commissioners introduced a new order of things in his diocese. Two years later, in 1649, he incurred a reprimand from the council for neglecting to enforce the use of the new prayer-book, and was ordered to preach at Paul's Cross on Sunday, 1 Sept., with express instructions as to the substance of what he was to say. He obeyed on all points but one. He was instructed to set forth among other things that the king's authority was as great during the minority as if he were thirty or forty years old; but this topic he passed over in silence. An information was laid against him on this account by Hooper and Latimer, and he was examined at great length on seven different days before Cranmer. In the end he was deprived of his bishopric on 1 Oct. and committed to the Marshalsea prison. This sentence was confirmed by the council 'which sat in the Starchamber at Westminster' on 7 Feb. following, when he was fetched out of prison merely to have his disobedience more fully proved against him, and he was further adjudged ' to remain in perpetual prison at the king's pleasure, and to lose all his spiritual promotions and dignities for ever' (Wriothesley's Chronicle, ii. 34).

He accordingly remained in the Marshalsea prison till the accession of Queen Mary in 1553, when most of the acts doneby the council during Edward VI's minority once reversed as being, in fact, unconstitutional. He was liberated on 5 Aug. in that year, and took possession of his see again, Ridley, who had been made bishop of London in his place, being regarded as an intruder, Ridley, indeed, who was implicated in a charge of treason by his advocacy of the pretensions of Lady Jane Grey, had already been taken prisoner before Bonner's liberation. Foxe, in his extreme desire to make out charges of cruelty against Bonner, says that, although Ridley had been kind to Bonner's mother, and allowed her to remain at Fulham during his imprisonment, Bonner declined to allow Ridley's sister and some other persons the benefit of certain leases granted to them by Ridley as bishop of London. Of course he could not recognise the validity of such leases without admitting that Ridley had been the lawful bishop of London; but whether he was ungrateful to Ridley or not we have no means of judging. That he was unpopular in London — at least with a considerable part of the population — even before the great persecution, is very probable. London was the great centre of what was afterwards called Puritanism, and disrespect towards bishops was the cardinal principle of the new religion. In 1654, on a Sunday morning in April, a dead cat with a shaven crown, and with a piece of paper, ' like a singing-cake ' or sacramental wafer, tied between its fore-paws, was found at daybreak hanging on the post of the gallows in Cheap. It was taken down and carried to Bonner, who caused it to be exhibited that day during the sermon at Paul's Cross. The lord mayor and corporation offered a reward for the discovery of the author of the outrage, and various persons were imprisoned on suspicion, but the true offender could not be detected.

In September 1554 Bonner visited his diocese, revived processions, restored crucifixes, images, and the like, and caused the texts of scripture painted on church walls during the preceding reign to be erased. He also drew up a book of 'profitable and necessary doctrine,' and a set of homilies, on which Bale, after the accession of Queen Elizabeth, published a weak and spiteful comment. Next year, after the reconciliation of the kingdom to Rome, began the great persecution, in which Bonner's agency, together with the highly coloured statements of Foxe, have brought his name into peculiar obloquy. And so strongly has the character clung to him of a fierce, inhuman persecutor, that even biographers who tell us, almost in one breath, from Foxe, that he undertook the burning of heretics cheerfully, and, from the surer testimony of documents, that he was admonished by letter from the king and queen not to dismiss the heretics brought before him so lightly as he and his brother bishops had done, seem unconscious that the two statements require to be brought into harmony. The truth is, that Mary's ill-starred marriage, against which her best friends in England remonstrated, and others broke out into rebellion, really handed over the government of England to Philip of Spain, and a severity towards heretics like that of the Spanish inquisition was the natural result.

The first of these martyrs, John Rogers, a priest, was examined and sentenced by the council. Bonner only degraded him from the priesthood before his execution. Nor does he appear to have meddled much with heretics, even when sent up to him by the sheriffs and justices, till he received the admonition above referred to from the king and queen, which was dated 24 May. Next day he and the lord mayor sat together in consistory in St. Paul's, and pronounced sentence on some men for their opinions on the sacrament. During the remainder of that year and nearly the whole of the three years following, condemnations and burnings of heretics were of appalling frequency all over England, and most frequent, as might have been expected, in the diocese of London. In February 1556 Bonner was sent to Oxford with Thirlby, bishop of Ely, to degrade Archbishop Cranmer; but this is the only instance in which we read of his being so employed out of his diocese. The catalogue of burnings there is horrible enough. At Smithfield as many as seven were sometimes burned together; at Colchester, one day, five men and five women suffered; while at Chelmsford, Braintree, Maldon, and other towns in Essex, individual cases occurred from time to time.

That Bonner condemned these men is certain; that he took a pleasure in it, as Foxe insinuates, is by no means so clear. It may be that he did not protest as he might have done against the severity of an inhuman law. A victim himself to the injustice of puritanism in the days of King Edward, he saw tendencies destructive of the commonwealth in the opinions which he condemned, and rough remedies were but the fashion of the times. Still, though his functions were merely judicial, the revulsion of feeling created by these repeated severities extended to their agents, and there is no doubt at all that Bonner was unpopular. Even Queen Elizabeth, it is said, looked coldly on him, and refused him her hand to kiss when he, with the other bishops, went out to meet her at Highgate; but for some months he retained his bishopric, and in 1559 he sat both in parliament and in convocation. He was compelled, however, to make some arrangement with Bishop Ridleys executor's, and was for some time confined to his house, In the course of the summer he and the whole of the bishops then in England, except Kitchin of Llandaff, refused to take the oath of supremacy, and were accordingly deprived of their bishoprics and committed to prison. Bonner refused the oath on 30 May, and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea. There a few years later the oath of supremacy was again tendered to him by Dr. Horne, the new bishop of Winchester, as his diocesan, under the statute 5 Eliz. c. 1. On his refusal to take it he was indicted of a præmunire; but by his legal astuteness he raised the question whether Horne had been rightly consecrated as bishop even by statute law, and the objection was found so important that an act of parliament had to be passed to free the titles of the Elizabethan bishops from ambiguity. The charge was then withdrawn, and the oath was not again tendered to him. He died in the Marshalsea prison on 5 Sept. 1569, and was buried three days later at midnight in St. George's churchyard, Southwark, the hour being selected in order to avoid disturbances.

Sir John Harington, who was quite a boy when Bonner died, says that he was so hated that men would say of any ill-favoured fat fellow in the street, that was Bonner. This, however, tells us little of the real character of the man. The special merit by which he rose was that of being an able canonist, quick-witted and ready in argument. From some recorded anecdotes, it would appear that he had a quick temper also, and was given to language that nowadays would certainly be called unclerical. A number of his sharp repartees are preserved by Harington, which show that he was a man of lively and caustic humour, rather than the cold-blooded monster he is commonly supposed to have been.

[State Papers of Henry VIII; Calendar of Henry VIII; Foxe's Acts and Monuments; Burnet's Reformation; Strype; Wood's Athenæ (Bliss); Wriothesley's Chronicle (Camden Soc.); Machyn’s Diary (Camden Soc.); Chronicle of Queen Jane and Queen Mary (Camden Soc.); Sir John Harington's Brief View of the State of the Church of England, p. 16. The Life and Defence of the Conduct and Principles of the venerable and calumniated Edmund Bonner, by a Tractarian British Critic, Lond. 1842 (this book is a very bad sarcasm, its aim not being biographical so much as polemical. It is attributed to the late prebendary Townsend of Durham, who had previously edited Foxe's Book of Martyrs).]

J. G.