Nicholas Harpsfield, the son of John Harpsfield, was born at Old Fish Street in 1519. His father was a mercer but he soon came under the influence of his uncle who had been educated at Oxford University and the University of Bologna, before becoming an official of the archdeacon of Winchester Cathedral. Harpsfield was admitted as a scholar of Winchester College in 1529. (1)
During this period he became friendly with Sir Thomas More and William Roper, who was married to his daughter, Margaret Roper. Harpsfield later recalled details of his dispute with Henry VIII over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. (2) Harpsfield also disclosed what the public thought of Anne Boleyn: "Then was there nothing so common and frequent and so tossed in every man's mouth, in all talks and at all tables, in all taverns, alehouses, and barbers' shops, yea, and in pulpits too, as was this matter, some well liking and allowing the divorce, some others highly detesting the same." (3)
Harpsfield became Nicholas proceeded to New College, where he was elected fellow in January 1535. As his biographer, Thomas S. Freeman, pointed out that in 1544 he became "principal of White Hall in Oxford, a hostel chiefly attended by students of civil law, which stood on the site of present-day Jesus College". (4)
Henry VIII died on 28th January, 1547. Edward VI was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist his son in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. Seymour was a Protestant and he soon began to make changes to the Church of England. This included the introduction of an English Prayer Book and the decision to allow members of the clergy to get married. Attempts were made to destroy those aspects of religion that were associated with the Catholic Church, for example, the removal of stained-glass windows in churches and the destruction of religious wall-paintings. Somerset made sure that Edward was educated as a Protestant, as he hoped that when he was old enough to rule he would continue the policy of supporting the Protestant religion. (5)
Nicholas Harpsfield considered himself to be in danger and in 1550 he migrated overseas to study at the University of Louvain. (6) While in France he wrote a biography of Sir Thomas More, who had been executed on 6th July, 1535. (7) The book, The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More has been praised as being the first complete biography of "More as well as for (when allowance is made for bias) its scrupulous accuracy. In the biography Harpsfield adumbrated some of the concerns which motivated his own career and writings: he emphasized and praised More's controversial works and his persecution of heretics, while at the same time venerating More as a martyr for the faith." (8)
King Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. Mary was the first woman to rule England in her own right. She appointed Bishop Stephen Gardiner as her Lord Chancellor. Over the next two years Gardiner attempted to restore Catholicism in England. In the first Parliament held after Mary gained power most of the religious legislation of Edward's reign was repealed. (9)
Nicholas Harpsfield returned to London where he worked closely with Gardiner and Cardinal Reginald Pole, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He was appointed vicar-general of the capital. "Between November 1554 and March 1558, Harpsfield conducted a sweeping visitation of London which tried around four hundred offenders. The targets of the visitation were well chosen, for in addition to some conspicuous disturbers of the peace, many active and zealous protestants were caught in Harpsfield's net." (10) John Foxe described him as one of the most cruel persecutors of Mary's reign. (11)
Harpsfield became Queen Mary's main propagandist. This included the publication of Cranmer's Recantacyons, an account of the imprisonment, trial and execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. However, it was largely seen as a failure. Jasper Ridley has argued that as a propaganda exercise, Cranmer's death was a disaster for Queen Mary. "An event which has been witnessed by hundreds of people cannot be kept secret and the news quickly spread that Cranmer was repudiated his recantations before he died. The government then changed their line; they admitted that Cranmer had retracted his recantations were insincere, that he had recanted only to save his life, and that they had been justified in burning him despite his recantations. The Protestants then circulated the story of Cranmer's statement at the stake in an improved form; they spread the rumour that Cranmer had denied at the stake that he had ever signed any recantations, and that the alleged recantations had all been forged by King Philip's Spanish friars." (12)
Harpsfield also published The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More (1557). (13) The last book Harpsfield wrote during Mary's reign, was Treatise on the Pretended Divorce. This mainly dealt with the case of Henry VIII divorcing Catherine of Aragon. It is also an attack on those political and religious leaders such as Archbishop Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, Bishop Hugh Latimer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, Bishop Nicholas Shaxton and Miles Coverdale,
In the summer of 1558 Queen Mary began to get pains in her stomach and thought she was pregnant. This was important to Mary as she wanted to ensure that a Catholic monarchy would continue after her death. It was not to be. Mary had stomach cancer. Mary now had to consider the possibility of naming Elizabeth as her successor. "Mary postponed the inevitable naming of her half-sister until the last minute. Although their relations were not always overtly hostile, Mary had long disliked and distrusted Elizabeth. She had resented her at first as the child of her own mother's supplanter, more recently as her increasingly likely successor. She took exception both to Elizabeth's religion and to her personal popularity, and the fact that first Wyatt's and then Dudley's risings aimed to install the princess in her place did not make Mary love her any more. But although she was several times pressed to send Elizabeth to the block, Mary held back, perhaps dissuaded by considerations of her half-sister's popularity, compounded by her own childlessness, perhaps by instincts of mercy." On 6th November she acknowledged Elizabeth as her heir. (14)
John Foxe claimed that, as Mary lay dying, Harpsfield hurried back from London in order to execute heretics in Canterbury before they could be reprieved by the new regime. (15) Queen Mary died, aged forty-two, on 17th November 1558. The following month Sir William Cecil offered Matthew Parker the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. At first he refused claiming that his abilities were not commensurate with such responsibilities. (16) Moreover, he did not wish to disappoint his patrons' expectations of his competence. In any case his health was poor. All he wished for was a prebendal income sufficient to enable him to preach God's word "amongst the simple strayed sheep of God's fold in… destitute parishes". (17)
Under pressure from Cecil, Matthew Parker eventually agreed to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The appointment was officially announced on 1st August 1559. Harpsfield led a majority of the members of the Canterbury chapter in their refusal to attend the election of Parker. Harpsfield was stripped of all of his ecclesiastical offices and livings and sent to Fleet Prison. (18) Later that year Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity. The authorised form of worship, prescribed by the Act was based on the 1552 Prayer Book, but included a number of changes designed to make it acceptable to moderates as well as Roman Catholics. (19)
While in prison Harpsfield wrote a massive book, about 1000 pages long, that was a detailed attack on John Foxe and his book, Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563). Foxe took the criticism seriously and this helped him improve the second edition of the book. Thomas S. Freeman has pointed out that "Foxe's second edition also far surpassed any previous English historical work in the range of medieval chronicles and histories on which it was based." (20)
Harpsfield also published anonymously Historia Anglicana Ecclesiastica. "This book is divided into two parts. The first part presents a history of each English diocese, emphasizing the apostolic succession of the bishops, the preservation of true doctrine, and the growth of monasticism. The second part, in contrast to this history of the true church... This is a skilful synthesis of... historical works of Henry Knighton, Thomas Netter, and Thomas Walsingham, which had depicted Lollardy as a continuation of ancient heresies and as a source of anarchy and rebellion". (21)
Nicholas Harpsfield was released on bail, on the grounds of ill health. He died in London on 18th December 1575.
Up until Edward VI's accession, Harpsfield's rise in Oxford had been steady and smooth. The new king's religious policies, however, made Oxford an uncongenial place for Harpsfield and in 1550 he migrated overseas to Louvain; a year later he matriculated at the university there. During his sojourn in Louvain, Harpsfield stayed with Antonio Bonvisi, a wealthy merchant who had been one of More's closest friends; members of More's family were also living in the Bonvisi household at the time.
Then was there nothing so common and frequent and so tossed in every man's mouth, in all talks and at all tables, in all taverns, alehouses, and barbers' shops, yea, and in pulpits too, as was this matter, some well liking and allowing the divorce, some others highly detesting the same.