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Edmund Bonner

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Bishop of London, b. about 1500; d. 1569. He was the son of Edmund Bonner, a sawyer of Potter's Henley in Worcestershire, England, and Elizabeth Frodsham. Doubt was cast on his legitimacy by Bale and other opponents, who asserted that he was the natural son of a priest named Savage, but Strype and other Anglican writers, including the historian S. R. Maitland, have shown the groundless nature of these assertions. He was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford, then Broadgate Hall, where he took his degree as Bachelor both of canon and of civil law in 1519, and was ordained priest about the same time. . In 1525 he became doctor of civil law and soon after entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey, which brought him to the notice of the king and Cromwell, and thus led to a diplomatic career. After the fall of Wolsey he remained faithful to him and was with him at the time of his arrest and death. When the question of the king's divorce was raised, he was employed by the king as his agent at Rome, where he remained a whole year, 1532 33. During the following years he was much employed on important embassies in the king's interests, first to the pope to appeal against the excommunication pronounced in July, 1533, afterwards to the emperor to dissuade him from attending the general council which the pope wished to summon at Vicenza, and again to the French Court to succeed Gardiner there as ambassador. In this capacity he proved capable and successful, though irritation was frequently caused by his overbearing and dictatorial manner. Meanwhile his services were rewarded by successive grants of the livings of Cherry Burton (Yorks), Ripple (Worcester), Blaydon (Durham), and East Dereham (Norfolk), and he was made Archdeacon of Leicester in 1535. Finally, while ambassador in France, he was elected Bishop of Hereford (27th November 1538) but owing to his absence he could neither be consecrated nor take possession of his see, and he was still abroad when he was translated to the Bishopric of London. Elected in November, 1539, he returned, and was consecrated 4th April, 1540. Almost his first duty was to try heretics under Henry's Act of the Six Articles, and though his action seems to have been only official, accusations of excessive cruelty and bias against the accused were spread broadcast by his enemies, and from the first he seems to have been unpopular in London. During the years 1542-43 he was again abroad in Spain and Germany as ambassador to the emperor, at the end of which time he returned to London. The death of the king on 28th January 1547, proved the turning point in his career Hitherto he had shown himself entirely subservient to the sovereign, supporting him in the matter of the divorce, approving of the suppression of the religious houses, taking the oath of Supremacy which Fisher and More refused at the cost of life itself, and accepting schismatical consecration and institution. But while acting in this way, he had always resisted the innovations of the Reformers, and held to the doctrines of the old religion. Therefore from the first he put himself in opposition to the religious changes introduced by Protector Somerset and Archbishop Cranmer.

He opposed the "Visitors" appointed by the Council, and was committed to prison for so doing Though not long a prisoner, after two years of un satisfactory struggle he came again into conflict with the Protector owing to his omission to enforce the use of the new Prayer Book. When ordered to preach at St. Paul's Cross he did so, but with such significant omissions in the matter which had been prescribed touching the king's authority, that he was finally deprived of his see and sent as a prisoner to the Marshalsea. Here he remained till the accession of Mary in 1553. On 5th of August in that year he took possession of his diocese once more. In estimating Bishop Bonner's conduct on his restoration to his see the difficulties of the position must be recalled. There was in London an extremely violent reforming element which opposed in every way the restoration of Catholic worship. For twenty years the authority of the Holy See had been set at naught and ridiculed in unsparing terms, and though the Parliament in 1554 welcomed Pole as Papal Legate and sought absolution and reconciliation from him with apparent unanimity, there was a real hostility to the whole proceeding among a considerable section of the populace. During 1554 Bonner carried out a visitation of his diocese, restoring the Mass and the manifold practices and emblems of Catholic life, but the work was carried out slowly and with difficulty. To help in the work, Bonner published a list of thirty-seven "Articles to be enquired of", but these led to such disturbances that they were temporarily withdrawn. While many rejoiced to have the old worship restored, others exhibited the most implacable hostility. As Bonner sat at St. Paul's Cross to hear Gilbert Bourne preach, when reference was made to the bishop's sufferings under Edward VI a dagger was thrown at the preacher. At St. Margaret's, Westminster, a murderous assault was made on the priest giving Holy Communion, the Blessed Sacrament itself was the object of profane outrages, and street brawls arising out of religious disputes were frequent. Meanwhile many of the Reformers attacked the Queen herself in terms that were clearly treasonable. Had these been proceeded against by the civil power much evil might have been averted, but unfortunately it was thought at the time that as the root of the evil lay in the religious question, the offenders would best be dealt with by the ecclesiastical tribunals, and on Bonner, as Bishop of London, fell the chief burden. Besides his judicial work in his own diocese, Bonner was appointed to carry out the painful task of degrading Cranmer at Oxford in February, 1556. The part he took in these affairs gave rise to intense hatred on the part of the Reformers, and by them he was represented as hounding men and women to death with merciless vindictiveness. Foxe in his "Book of Martyrs" summed up this view in two doggerel lines:

"This cannibal in three years space three hundred martyrs slew They were his food, he loved so blood, he spared none he knew."

That this was an absolutely ungrounded charge is shown by the letter from the king and queen in Council, addressed to Bonner on the express ground that he was not proceeding with sufficient energy As to the number of his "victims" Foxe, whose un trustworthiness now needs no demonstration, has exaggerated according to his wont. The number of persons who were executed under the laws against heresy in his jurisdiction seems to have been about 120. As to these persons Mr. Gairdner writes "Over their ultimate fate it must be remembered he had no control, when once they were declared to be irreclaimable heretics and handed over to the secular power; but he always strove by gentle suasion first to reconcile them to the Church". Throughout the "Book of Martyrs" Foxe is unsparing in his accusations of cruelty against the bishop; but his charges have been impartially examined at great length by Dr. Maitland, who comes to the same decision as the Catholic writers against Foxe, and sums it up by remarking that when anyone "calmly inquires what these tales so full of rage and fury really mean, when they mean anything, he finds the bloody wolf transformed . . . into something much more like a good tempered mastiff, who might safely be played with, and who, though he might be teased into barking and growling, had no disposition to bite and would not do it without orders". (Essays, 422-424.)

Another virulent opponent of Bonner was John Bale, formerly a friar and ex-Bishop of Ossory, who in 1554 published from his place of exile at Basle, an attack on the bishop, in which he speaks of him as "the bloody sheep-bite of London", "bloody Bonner", and still coarser epithets. Concerning this outburst Dr. Maitland quietly remarks, "when Bale wrote this book, little that could be called persecution had taken place. Not one martyr had suffered." These attacks of Foxe and Bale are noteworthy as being the foundation on which the current traditional view of Bonner's work and character has been based, a tradition that has only been broken down by the research of the past century. A man so regarded could expect small consideration when the death of Mary (17th November, 1558) placed Elizabeth on the throne, and the new queen's attitude to the bishop was marked at their first interview, when she refused him her hand to kiss. From 24th June, 1559, the Mass was forbidden as well as all other services not in the Book of Common Prayer, but long before that date the Mass ceased in most London churches, though Bonner took care that in his cathedral at least it should still be celebrated. On 30th May, Il Schifanoya, envoy from the Court of Mantua, wrote: "The Council sent twice or thrice to summon the Bishop of London to give him orders to remove the service of the Mass and of the Divine Office in that Church, but he answered them intrepidly 'I possess three things soul, body, and property. Of the two latter, you can dispose at your pleasure, but as to the soul, God alone can command me.' He remained constant about body and property, and again today he has been called to the Council, but I do not yet know what they said to him." (Phillips, op. cit. infra, 103.) As a matter of fact, they had ordered him to resign the bishopric, which he refused to do, adding that he preferred death. He was then deprived of the office and went for a time to Westminster Abbey. On 20th April, 1560, he was sent as a prisoner to the Marshalsea. During the next two years representatives of the reforming party frequently clamored for the execution of Bonner and the other imprisoned bishops. When the Parliament of 1563 met, a new Act was passed by which the first refusal of the oath of royal supremacy was praemunire, the second, high treason. The bishops had refused the oath once, so that by this Act, which became law on 10th April, their next refusal of the oath might be followed by their death. On 24th April, the Spanish Ambassador writes that Bonner and some others had been already called upon to take the oath. Partly owing to the intervention of the emperor and partly to an outbreak of the plague, no further steps seem to have been taken at the time. A year later, on 29th April, 1564 the oath was again tendered to Bonner by Horne, the Anglican Bishop of Winchester. This he firmly refused but the interference of the Spanish ambassador and his own readiness of resource saved immediate consequences. Being well skilled both in civil and canon law, he raised the point that Home, who offered him the oath, was not qualified to do so, as he had not been validly consecrated bishop. This challenged the new hierarchy as to the validity of their orders, and so strong was Bonner's case that the Government evaded meeting it, and the proceedings commenced against him were adjourned time after time. Four times a year for three years he was forced to in the courts at Westminster only to be further remanded. The last of these appearances took place in the Michaelmas term of 1568, so that the last year of the bishop's life was spent in the peace of his prison. His demeanor during his long imprisonment was remarkable for unfailing cheerfulness, and even Jewel describes him in a letter as "a most courteous man and gentlemanly both in his manners and appearance." (Zurich Letters, I, 34). The end came on 5th September, 1569, when he died in the Marshalsea. The Anglican Bishop of London wrote to Cecil to say that he had been buried in St. George's churchyard, Southwark, but if this was so the coffin was soon secretly removed to Copford, near Colchester, where it was buried under the north side of the altar. Sander, Bridgewater, and other contemporary writers attributed to Bonner and the other bishops who died in prison the honor of martyrdom: in vinculis obierunt martyres. On the walls of the English College, Rome, an inscription recording the death of the eleven bishops, but without naming them, found a place among the paintings of the martyrs. In a work quoted below the Catholic tradition with regard to these bishops has been ably set forth by Rev. George Phillips, avowedly for the purpose of promoting their beatification. Bishop Bonner differs from the others in this respect, that owing to the prominent part circumstances compelled him to play in the persecution, he was attacked during life with a hatred which has followed him even after death, so that in English history few names have been so execrated and vilified as his. Tardy justice is now being done to his memory by historians, Catholic and Protestant alike, yet there remains immense prejudice against his memory in the popular mind. Nor could this be otherwise in face of the calumnies that have been. repeated by tradition. The reckless charges of Bale and Foxe were repeated by Burnet Hume, and others, who join in representing him as an inhuman persecutor, "a man of profligate manners and of a brutal character, who seemed to rejoice in the torments of the unhappy sufferers" (Hume c. xxxvii). The first historian of note to challenge this verdict was the Catholic, Lingard, though even he wrote in a very tentative way and it was by an Anglican historian, S.R. Maitland, that anything like justice was first done to Bonner. This writer's analysis remains the most discriminating summary of the bishop's character. "Setting aside declamation and looking at the details of facts left by those who may be called, if people please, Bonner's victims, and their friends, we find, very consistently maintained, the character of a man, straightforward and hearty, familiar and humorous, sometimes rough, perhaps coarse, naturally hot tempered, but obviously (by the testimony of his enemies) placable and easily intreated, capable of bearing most patiently much intemperate and insolent language, much reviling and low abuse directed against himself personally, against his order, and against those peculiar doctrines and practices of his church for maintaining which he had himself suffered the loss of all things, and borne long imprisonment. At the same time not incapable of being provoked into saying harsh and passionate things, but much more frequently meaning nothing by the threatenings and slaughter which he breathed out, than to intimidate those on whose ignorance and simplicity argument seemed to be thrown away—in short, we can scarcely read with attention any one of the cases detailed by those who were no friends of Bonner, without seeing in him a judge who (even if we grant that he was dispensing bad laws badly) was obviously desirous to save the prisoner's life." This verdict has been generally followed by later historians, and the last word has been added, for the present, in the recently published volume on the Reformation, in the "Cambridge Modern History" planned by Lord Acton (1903) where the statement is expressly made: "It is now generally admitted that the part played by Bonner was not that attributed to him by Foxe, of a cruel bigot who exulted in sending his victims to the stake. The number of those put to death in his diocese of London was undoubtedly disproportionately large, but this would seem to have been more the result of the strength of the reforming element in the capital and in Essex than of the employment of exceptional rigor; while the evidence also shows that he himself patiently dealt with many of the Protestants, and did his best to induce them to renounce what he conscientiously believed to be their errors."

Bonner's writings include "Responsum et Exhortatio in laudem Sacerdotii" (1553); "Articles to be enquired of in the General Visitation of Edmund Bishop of London" (1554); "Homelies sette forth by Eddmune Byshop of London, . . . to be read within his diocese of London of all Parsons, vycars and curates, unto their parishioners upon Sondayes and holy days" (1555). There was also published under his name a catechism, probably written by his chaplains, Harpsfield and Pendleton, entitled "A profitable and necessary doctrine" (1554, 2d ed. 1555). He also wrote the preface to Bishop Gardiner's "Book of Obedience" (1534).


State Papers of Henry VIII; DODD, Church History (London, 1737), Part III, Bk, II, art. 3; MAITLAND, Essays on the Reformation in England (London, 1849), Essays III, XVII, XVIII, XX; GILLOW, Bib. Dict. Eng. Cath. (London, 1885), I, 260-265; GAIRDNER in Dict. Nat. Biog. (London, 1886), V, 356-360; BRIDGETT AND KNOX, Queen Eliz. and the Cath. Hierarchy (London, 1889); STONE, History of Mary I (London, 1901); PHILLIPS, Extinction of the Ancient Hierarchy London, 1905).

About this page

APA citation. Burton, E. (1907). Edmund Bonner. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Burton, Edwin. "Edmund Bonner." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph E. O'Connor.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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