The Prebendaries Plot – A Crisis in the Life of Thomas Cranmer, by Derek Wilson

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Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (Photo Credit: Jesus College, Cambridge)
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury
(Photo Credit: Jesus College, Cambridge)

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The Prebendaries Plot – A Crisis in the Life of Thomas Cranmer

Derek Wilson

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There are some events which, because they lack high drama or obvious significance, tend to receive scant attention in history books but which, on closer examination, prove to have been of great consequence. The failure of Archbishop Cranmer’s enemies to encompass his destruction in the autumn of 1543 is one such. The story ends in anticlimax. The conspiracy against him had been well-planned, involved several agents and seemed to be on the verge of success. Then, at the eleventh hour King Henry intervened and it was all over. What has been called the ‘Prebendaries Plot’ was a flop and, therefore, has merely been accorded a wry footnote in some accounts of Henry VIII’s final years. It is only if we pause to ask ourselves ‘What if’ that we truly grasp the monumental significance of Cranmer’s escape. The failure of the conspiracy bought Cranmer another dozen years of life – years that saw the Archbishop set up the theology and liturgy of the reformed English church. If the forces of Catholic reaction had triumphed in 1543 the politics of Henry’s last years and the brief reign of young Edward VI would have been very different. It is unlikely that England would have become a Protestant state. Mary Tudor, coming to the throne in 1553, would have had little difficulty in returning her realm to papal obedience. And Elizabeth I? Lacking the zeal of her half-brother and his evangelical councillors, it is unlikely that she would have rekindled the fires of religious revolution. So, there is ample reason to take a closer look at the Prebendaries Plot.

In the 1530s the reform movement had been led by Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, the former giving the forces of change legislative teeth; the latter providing the theological meat for it to chew on. They had seemed unstoppable. Then the fiasco of the Cleves marriage gave the Catholic clique the opportunity for a counter-attack. Cromwell’s fall in July 1540 was sudden and complete. One charge against him was that he was an extremist religious radical and a supporter of known heretics. Over the ensuing months the Catholic group on the Council, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, made the most of their advantage. They took every opportunity to block moves by Cranmer and his supporters to press on with the work of reform. The gloves were definitely off as both sides used any and every weapon that came to hand.

The initiative swung Cranmer’s way in the autumn of 1541 when it was revealed that Queen Catherine Howard (Norfolk’s niece) had been foolishly cuckolding her husband. Cranmer played a leading role in unmasking her adulteries and for this Norfolk never forgave him. The hatreds between the rival camps was intense. Gardiner was denounced from several pulpits as a supporter of the pope and the bishop, for his part, was rumoured to have said that he would give six thousand pounds to pluck down the Archbishop of Canterbury. His spies were busy everywhere sniffing out heretics, while evangelical agents were just as assiduously unmasking suspected papists. By 1543 feather and furs were flying in all directions.

The campaign against Cranmer was pursued on several levels. Throughout the country and particularly in his Kent diocese preachers acting with Cranmer’s licence were watched carefully and any suspected of unorthodox views were hauled before the magistrates. At the royal court Cranmer’s friends and supporters were under close observation. The number of evangelicals in the king’s household was growing. They included his physician, Dr. Butts, and his head of the privy chamber, Sir Anthony Denny. The king’s illness and pain were making him more and more reclusive and the companions he trusted (like Cranmer) were in positions of increasing influence.

The spearhead of the campaign against Cranmer was in Canterbury. The cathedral prebendaries (senior clergy) were bitterly divided into pro and anti-Cranmer camps. An incident in late May indicates the depth of feeling stirred by religious controversy. Prebendary Richard Champion, one of Cranmer’s supporters, died and was buried in the cathedral. At the end of the ceremony another official jumped down into the grave and emptied hot coals from a censer onto the coffin – a symbolic burning of the heretic. One of the prebendaries was Germain Gardiner, Stephen Gardiner’s nephew. He acted as messenger and information-gatherer for his uncle and, in the spring and summer of 1543, was compiling a list of the archbishop’s ‘heresies’ with the names of his evangelical protégés. At Easter he preached an incendiary sermon in the cathedral, in which ‘he did inveigh against preachers … and … made such exclamations, crying out “Heretics! Faggots! Fire!”’ [Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of Henry VIII, 18, ii, 546] Around the end of April Germain Gardiner’s ‘little black book’ was given to the king and Cranmer’s enemies noted with satisfaction that Henry was distancing himself from his archbishop.

Emboldened by their progress, the conservative faction embarked on a major inquisition of evangelical sympathisers. Several suspects were thrown into prison and most recanted under pressure. Now the Catholic strategists were ready to focus their attention on members of the king’s entourage. They carried out a purge of evangelicals in the town of Windsor and the staff of the royal castle. Five men were arrested and taken to the Marshalsea prison, close to Bishop Gardiner’s Southwark palace. There they were interrogated and every effort was made to make them implicate their superiors in the king’s household. Three of the prisoners were burned at the end of July.

At the same time, Richard Turner was brought in for questioning. Turner was a member of the Chapel Royal at Windsor, rector of Chartham, Kent, where he attracted crowds to his evangelical sermons, and a personal favourite of Archbishop Cranmer. He, too, was taken to London for an interrogation carried out, in person, by Stephen Gardiner. The noose around Cranmer was tightening.

However, accusations were one thing; getting the king to act on them was quite another. Henry watched and listened and kept his cards close to his chest. He must have been weighing up in his mind whether or not to sacrifice his archbishop. He will have remembered how he had been persuaded to throw Cromwell to the hounds, only to regret later losing ‘the best servant I ever had’. He resolved not to make the same mistake again. The exact chronology of events in the autumn of 1543 is not clear but John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments of the Christian Religion recorded two incidents reported to him by Cranmer’s secretary, Ralph Morice. The first took place aboard the royal barge moored off Lambeth. Henry, out for a pleasant trip on the river, summoned Cranmer to join him. He produced the evidence gathered against the archbishop. ‘Now I know who is the biggest heretic in Kent,’ he said. It must have been a heart-stopping moment for his passenger. But Henry went on to point out that if erroneous doctrines were being preached in Cranmer’s dioceses then a full investigation must be carried out. And who better to head that investigation than the Archbishop himself! [Foxe, VIII, pp 28] By this one act (the sort of dramatic gesture Henry loved) the judicial initiative changed hands. The prisoner in the dock became the judge on the bench. Now all suspect preaching could be brought under review – papist as well as evangelical. One result was the examination of the anti-Cranmer conspiracy. Prebendary Gardiner’s lodgings were ransacked and incriminating evidence discovered. His uncle hastened to disassociate himself from his relative’s actions and, the following March, Germain Gardiner suffered a traitor’s death at Tyburn on dubious charges of denying the king’s supremacy over the English church.

Desperate situations call for desperate measures and the conservative leaders made one more determined attempt to destroy Cranmer. It was intended to be a re-run of the events which had brought Cromwell down. They obtained the king’s permission to confront the archbishop at the Council board and detain him for examination. Henry allowed them to go ahead but, once again, intervened by having a private audience with Cranmer. The archbishop responded that he was prepared to have his opinions placed under the microscope. At this, Henry upbraided his naivety. Once his enemies had him in confinement, the king pointed out, they would produce false witnesses to ensure his conviction (an indictment of the Tudor justice system from the horse’s mouth!). He gave Cranmer his ring, with instructions to produce it when his enemies tried to proceed with his arrest. That is precisely what happened at the next day’s Council meeting [Foxe, VIII, pp 256]. Gardiner, Norfolk and Co. were completely outmanoeuvred and hurried to the royal apartments to beg forgiveness of Henry and his archbishop. ‘Nevermore after, no man durst spurn [Cranmer] during the King Henry’s life.’ [Narratives of the Days of the Reformation, p 258]

These dramatic and often violent events form the background to my recently published novel, The Traitor’s Mark (under my pseudonym, D.K. Wilson). It is fiction but I do not believe I have done violence to the known facts. Rather, I have tried to look beyond them in order to create an impression of the incredibly tense atmosphere affecting people at all levels of society in 1543 – an atmosphere seldom evident from a straight reading of the records. ‘Whose readeth, let him understand.’

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Derek Wilson
Derek Wilson

Derek Wilson is a self-described highly prolific historian of  “fact, faith, fiction and fantasy”. A graduate from Cambridge in 1961, Derek spent several years travelling and teaching in Africa before becoming a full-time writer and broadcaster in 1971.Derek’s body of work of both fiction and non-fiction work is exhaustive, and we strongly urge you to visit his website of an amazing chronology of biographies, general history books, and historical fiction novels at Derek Wilson: Historian of Fact, Faith, Fiction and Fantasy. Under the pen name D.K. Wilson, Derek  authored The First Horseman and the recently released The Traitor’s Mark, both featuring lead protagonist Thomas Treviot, young goldsmith drawn into a religious conspiracy.

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The Traitor’s Mark (Content from the author’s website):

FACT

In the autumn of 1543, Hans Holbein, the leading European portrait painter, disappeared in London. What happened to him remains a mystery. At the same time a plot was afoot to bring down Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Were these events linked?

STORY

Thomas Treviot is again plunged into the murky world of Tudor politics and religion when his friend, Hans Holbein, disappears and his assistant, Bart Miller, is charged with murder. Thomas and friends who will be familiar to readers of The First Horseman are drawn into the political world of a sick and unstable Henry VIII and a nation torn apart by ruthless, rival factions determined to shape England’s identity. Publication 14 March 2015. Available as ebook now.

Derek Wilson is a self-described highly prolific historian of  “fact, faith, fiction and fantasy”. A graduate from Cambridge in 1961, Derek spent several years travelling and teaching in Africa before becoming a full-time writer and broadcaster in 1971.Derek’s body of work of both fiction and non-fiction work is exhaustive, and we strongly urge you to visit his website of an amazing chronology of biographies, general history books, and historical fiction novels at Derek Wilson: Historian of Fact, Faith, Fiction and Fantasy. Under the pen name D.K. Wilson, Derek has authored The First Horseman and the recently released The Traitor’s Mark, both featuring lead protagonist Thomas Treviot, young goldsmith drawn into a religious conspiracy.

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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