Thursday, May 17, 2012

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Death of Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker

A detail of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I's Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
 On this Day in Elizabethan History, Matthew Parker, Queen Elizabeth's first Archbishop of Canterbury died. Reformer Matthew Parker (1504-1575) had been entrusted by Queen Anne Boleyn to look out for the spiritual education of her young daughter Elizabeth, before she was executed on trumped-up charges on May 19th, 1536. And Parker would keep his pledge to the late Queen to guide Elizabeth in the ways of the Protestant faith. Elizabeth rewarded Parker for his loyalty to her mother's request by making him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1559. He would serve in this prestigious post until his death, when he was succeeded by Edmund Grindal.

Parker would be responsible for devising the 39 Articles of Faith, one of the three principles all bishops in the Elizabethan Church were expected to subscribe to and uphold (Please see my article Religious Policy under Elizabeth I for more information.)

The path to religious life for Matthew Parker began in 1522, when Parker attended Corpus Christi College, part of Cambridge University; he graduated in 1525. In April of 1527 he was ordained a deacon, and then subsequently a priest in June. In September of the same year he was elected a fellow of Corpus Christi College and began his Master's degree. Parker, an early Anglican reformer, spurned the then-powerful Cardinal Wolsey's support in favor of Anne Boleyn, the intellectual and increasingly influential love-interest of King Henry VIII. 
A 16th century portrait of King Henry VIII's "new man", Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Anne had long been a supporter of Cambridge intellectuals, and when she became Queen of England, she made Parker her personal chaplain. Anne, who was an active supporter of the reform of the English Church herself, had great faith in Parker's abilities, and it was through her influence that he was made Dean of the College of Secular Canons in 1535.

A Tudor-era miniature of Anne Boleyn wearing her famous "B" necklace. Attributed to Hoskins. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Parker's royal patroness was executed in 1536; while many in the Boleyn faction were shunned after the Queen's death, Parker was not, which speaks to his level of religious talent, which the King found indispensable. In 1537, Parker was promoted Chaplain to King Henry VIII. Parker would enjoy a steady rise up the ecclesiastical ladder, accepting various prestigious positions. Then, in 1544 he was elected Master of his alma-mater, Corpus Christi College, and in 1545 he became the Vice-Chancellor.

A modern sign placed in memorial of some of the more famous individuals who lost their lives on the scaffold on Tower Green. Queen Anne Boleyn is the first listed. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
 That same year, King Henry VIII's parliament passed an act that enabled an investigation of colleges and chantries. Parker was appointed as one of the commissioners for Cambridge, and it is his report that has been credited in saving the institution from being dissolved.

When Edward VI took the throne after his father, many members of the Church of England's clergy chose to take advantage of the institution of marriage. Though it had not yet been legalized by Parliament, it was no longer a felony and the future looked promising. In June of 1547, Parker married Margaret Harlestone, the daughter of a Norfolk squire. Margaret and Matthew had planned to wed since around 1540 (Strype's Life of Parker, 1711). During Kett's Rebellion, an Edwardian uprising over land based in his wife's home county, Parker preached in the rebel camp at Mousehold Hill, begging the rebels to disperse. His appeal was to no avail, but Parker's secretary Alexander Neville wrote one of the two eye-witness accounts of the failed rebellion per his master's instruction, published in Latin in 1575.

Detail from the allegorical painting Edward VI and the Pope. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
 Parker would enjoy much favor in the brief reign of King Edward VI. The young King's uncle Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and John Dudley, the Earl of Northumberland (Robert Dudley's father) saw that he was promoted to various offices. But as was the case of so many who rose to prestige in Edward VI's time on the throne, the ascension of Mary Tudor changed everything.

A portrait of Queen Mary I of England, who earned the nickname "Bloody Mary" for her relentless persecution of English Protestants and the Marian burnings. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
 Because Parker had been so closely associated with Northumberland, who attempted to usurp the English throne from Mary I and place his son Guilford and daughter-in-law Jane Grey on the throne (per Edward's change in the Succession), and because he was a married member of the clergy, he suffered under Mary's hand. 

A portrait of Jane Grey from the 1590's, after a lost original from the 1550's. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Queen Mary took away Parker's lucrative deanery of Lincoln, which he had received in 1552, and his mastership of Corpus Christi College. While most who experienced the wrath of Mary I fled England for the Continent, establishing exiled English-Protestant communities abroad, Parker remained in England. He remarkably escaped the fate of his esteemed colleagues Archbishop Cranmer and Bishop Ridley and Bishop Latimer, who were burned at the stake.

An illustration of Bishop's Latimer and Ridley being burned at the stake, from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Upon Elizabeth's ascension to the throne in 1558, she immediately identified Parker as her candidate for Archbishopric of Canterbury, though at first he modestly refused. On August 1, 1559 he was elected, and on December 19th, 1559 he was made Archbishop at Lambeth. Elizabeth's selection of Parker for Archbishop of Canterbury was political as well as personal. While Elizabeth rarely spoke of her mother, she did many things in plain sight to honor Queen Anne's memory; her promotion of Parker was to be the first of many. In the crucial months ahead, where Elizabeth would establish her policy on religion, she needed a temperate, hardworking man to help lay down her doctrine; Parker was that man. 

Still, there were points of religion on which Queen Elizabeth and Parker clashed. Parker was a family man, and Elizabeth was skeptical of the clergy's involvement in the institution of marriage. Once, when taking leave of Lambeth Palace, Elizabeth, in her typical wit, mused on how to bid Mrs. Margaret Parker adieu, saying, "Madam, I may not call you; mistress I am ashamed to call you, so I know not what to call you; but I thank you." (Palmer, 29)

Parker leaves behind a legacy as an honest and faithful servant God, and one of forefather's of the Protestant faith in England. He was also a steadfast, hardworking servant of the queen, undertaking considerable religious responsibilities which Elizabeth preferred to distance herself from. Parker's collection of 55 volumes of religious works, housed in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, are a priceless resource to those who study Reformation and 16th century history.


Palmer, Michael. Reputations: Elizabeth I. The Bath Press, 1988. Print.

Denny, Joanna. Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England's Tragic Queen. Portrait, 2005. Print.

Life of Parker by John Strype, published 1711 and re-edited for Claredon Press in 1821. All three volumes are now available online HERE.