Cuthbert Tunstall

Cuthbert Tunstall

Cuthbert Tunstall, the illegitimate son of Thomas Tunstall, was born in Hackworth, Yorkshire, was born in 1474. As a child he worked as a kitchen boy in the household of Sir Thomas Holland.

In 1491 he was admitted to Balliol College. It was while at Oxford University he became a friend of Thomas More. He also spent time at Cambridge University but left both institutions without obtaining a degree. He then studied for six years at the University of Padua and graduated in 1501. According to his biographer, D. G. Newcombe: "He studied under Leonico Tomeo and Pietro Pomponazzi, two of the leading humanists of the day, and established a reputation for outstanding scholarship, excelling in Greek, Latin, and mathematics." (1)

On his return to England in 1505 he was made rector of Stanhope, Durham. His talents were recognized by Archbishop William Warham, who appointed him as his chancellor and auditor of causes in 1508. Ordained as a priest in April 1511, he continued to serve Warham in several capacities, including those of commissary-general of the prerogative court of Canterbury. His work for Warham brought him into contact with Henry VIII. He succeeded Thomas Wolsey as canon of Lincoln and in 1515 he became archdeacon of Chester. During this period he developed a lot of admirers and was well-respected and was later described as "a deeply spiritual man with an instinct for scholarship". (2)

Cuthbert Tunstall - Diplomat

In 1515 Cuthbert Tunstall joined Thomas More on a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands to negotiate about political and commercial matters with Emperor Maximilian and Charles V. As Jasper Ridley has pointed out: "Tunstall and his colleagues had important and tricky matters to negotiate. To the great annoyance of Henry and Wolsey, Charles's Council in the Netherlands insisted on pursuing a pro-French policy." (3) It is claimed that Tunstall had the courage to take independent action where he thought it necessary. "Although in later life he might be accused of timidity, he seems never to have been afraid to speak his mind, and on several occasions he withheld letters from the king and from Wolsey that he considered too intemperate to deliver during his negotiations". (4)

Tunstall also became involved in negotiations concerning the marriage of Mary, the five-year-old daughter of Henry VIII with Charles, who was twenty-one. He would have to wait eight years before Mary was of marriageable age. Henry told Tunstall that the agreement would "not prevent the Emperor from marrying any woman of lawful age before our daughter comes to mature years, as he will only be bound to take her if he is then at liberty". (5)

The following year Cuthbert Tunstall went to Burgundy to renegotiate trade treaties. (6) During this period he met Desiderius Erasmus who was impressed with Tunstall's abilities. He wrote that "besides a knowledge of Latin and Greek second to none among his countrymen, he has also a seasoned judgment and exquisite taste and, more than that, unheard-of modesty and, last but not least, a lively manner which is amusing with no loss of serious worth". (7) Tunstall was also involved in negotiations with Emperor Charles V in January 1521 in Worms. The leader of the delegation was Thomas Wolsey. His main objective was to persuade the Emperor to form an alliance with England. (8)

Bishop of London

In October 1522 Cuthbert Tunstall was made bishop of London. At that time William Tyndale was working on an English translation of the New Testament. This was a very dangerous activity for ever since 1408 to translate anything from the Bible into English was a capital offence. (9) In 1523 Tyndale traveled to London for a meeting with Tunstall. However, he refused to support Tyndale in this venture but did not organize his persecution.

Tyndale later wrote that he now realized that "to translate the New Testament… there was no place in all England" and left for Germany in April 1524. Tyndale argued: "All the prophets wrote in the mother tongue... Why then might they (the scriptures) not be written in the mother tongue... They say, the scripture is so hard, that thou could never understand it... They will say it cannot be translated into our tongue... they are false liars." In Cologne he translated the New Testament into English and it was printed by Protestant supporters in Worms in 1526. (10)

William Tyndale arranged for these Bibles to be smuggled into England. Tyndale declared that he hoped to make every ploughboy as knowledgeable in Scripture as the most learned priest. The Bibles were often hidden in bales of straw. Most English people could not read or write, but some of them could, and they read it out aloud to their friends at secret Protestant meetings. They discovered that Catholic priests had taught them doctrines which were not in the Bible. During the next few years 18,000 copies of this bible were printed and smuggled into England.

Cuthbert Tunstall
Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall by an unknown artist (c. 1520)

Along with Bishop John Fisher, Tunstall played a leading role in censoring the book trade, and he licensed Thomas More to read heretical books in order to refute them. (11) In March 1528, Bishop Tunstall explained to More that heretics were "translating into our mother tongue some of the vilest of their booklets and printing them in great numbers" and by these means they were "striving with all their might to stain and infect this country." (12)

Thomas More wrote that of all the heretical books published in England, Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, was the most dangerous. He began his book, Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, with a striking opening sentence: "Our Lord send us now some years as plenteous of good corn we have had some years of late plenteous of evil books. For they have grown so fast and sprung up so thick, full of pestilent errors and pernicious heresies, that they have infected and killed I fear me more simple souls than the famine of the dear years have destroyed bodies." (13)

Bishop Tunstall's main problem in London was Thomas Bilney, who constantly attacked "the insolence, pomp, and pride of the clergy." Bilney was brought before a group of bishops, priests, and lawyers at Westminster that included Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Tunstall declared that he "was a wicked and detestable heretic". However, he eventually agreed to recant his beliefs.

According to John Foxe: "He was sentenced to prison for some time and forced to do penance by going before the procession at St. Paul's bareheaded and carrying a fagot on his shoulder, then standing before the preacher during the sermon." (14) D. G. Newcombe has claimed that it was largely because of Tunstall's patience that Bilney was persuaded to recant. "This established Tunstall's reputation for being both even-handed and reluctant to execute people for their beliefs." (15) Although hostile to Protestant reformers Tunstall was also a critic of the Roman Catholic Church: "Tunstall... was equally scathing about papal nepotism, particularly the Pope's habit of bestowing benefices on ignorant dependants in Rome, 'such as cooks and grooms', instead of sustaining men of character and learning with them." (16)

Bishop of Durham

On 22nd February 1530, Cuthbert Tunstall succeeded Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as Bishop of Durham. Soon afterwards he became involved in the royal family domestic problems. For several years Henry VIII had been thinking of divorcing Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was in a difficult position. Now aged 44, she found it difficult to compete with Henry's mistress, Anne Boleyn. "Now her once slender figure was thickened with repeated child-bearing, and her lovely hair had darkened to a muddy brown, but visiting ambassadors still remarked on the excellence of her complexion. A dumpy little woman with a soft, sweet voice which had never lost its trace of foreign accent, and the imperturbable dignity which comes from generations of pride of caste, she faced the enemy armoured by an utter inward conviction of right and truth, and her own unbreakable will." (17)

Bishop Tunstall initially supported Catherine and agreed to become one of her defence counsel and was apparently active in that role. (18) He seemed to be on the side of Bishop John Fisher who refused to accept that the royal marriage was invalid. However, as Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) has pointed out, along with Archbishop William Warham, he eventually changed sides because they "were made of more establishment stuff, as their positions indicated." (19)

Thomas Cromwell

In January 1535, Thomas Cromwell was appointed as Vicar-General. This made him the King's deputy as Supreme Head of the Church. On 3rd June he sent a letter to all the bishops ordering them to preach in support of the supremacy, and to ensure that the clergy in their dioceses did so as well. A week later he sent further letters to Justices of Peace ordering them to report any instances of his instructions being disobeyed. In the following month he turned his attention to the monasteries. In September he suspended the authority of every bishop in the country so that the six canon lawyers he had appointed as his agents could complete their surveys of the monasteries. (20)

The survey revealed that the total annual income of all the monasteries was about £165,500. The eleven thousand monks and nuns in this institutions also controlled about a quarter of all the cultivated land in England. The six lawyers provided detailed reports on the monasteries. According to David Starkey: "Their subsequent reports concentrated on two areas: the sexual failings of the monks, on which subject the visitors managed to combine intense disapproval with lip-smacking detail, and the false miracles and relics, of which they gave equally gloating accounts." (21)

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A Parliament was called in February 1536 to discuss these reports. With the encouragement of Thomas Cromwell they agreed to pass the Act for the Dissolution of Monasteries. This stated that all religious houses with an annual income of less than £200 were to be "suppressed". A total of 419 monastic houses were obliged to close but the abbots made petitions for exemptions, and 176 of the monasteries were allowed to stay open. It is believed that Cromwell was bribed in money and goods to reach this agreement. (22) Monastery land was seized and sold off cheaply to nobles and merchants. They in turn sold some of the lands to smaller farmers. This process meant that a large number of people had good reason to support the monasteries being closed. Thomas Fuller, the author of The Church History of Britain: Volume IV (1845) has argued that dissolution of the monasteries was of great personal benefit to Thomas Cromwell, Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley, Solicitor-General Richard Rich and Richard Southwell. (23)

Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, was expected to lead the fight against the Dissolution of the Monasteries. However, as his biographer, D. G. Newcombe, points out that although he was opposed to most of the changes in religion that occurred under Cromwell he was prepared to acquiesce once those changes became law. "His attitude appears to have been to remain obedient to the king, and though he might be vocal in his opposition during the debate, he was prepared to comply with the judgment of the king and parliament." (24)

However, Tunstall did intervene to protect the future of the monastic library at Durham, which contained almost 900 volumes. He issued strict regulations that officials should "guard diligently in the book-cupboard or library the scholars' books... so that none of them be either spoiled or lost". It has been argued that Tunstall was careful not to antagonize Henry VIII "While offering his protection to the monastic community in this limited but important fashion, however, Tunstall had no intention of being mistaken by the Crown for anyone other than a dutiful subject." (25)

Reign of Edward VI

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 Edward 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. Bishop Tunstall did not share Somerset's desire for religious reform and spoke in Parliament against bills abolishing clerical celibacy, and introducing the Act of Uniformity, and he argued strongly from the conservative point of view on the matter of the sacrament of the altar and the Book of Common Prayer. However, once these bills became law, he enforced them. (26)

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After the execution of the Duke of Somerset, on 22nd January, 1552, John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, became Edward's main adviser. (27) Warwick considered Tunstall a threat to his growing power and had him arrested and charged with treason and sent to the Tower of London. Tunstall was convicted by a special commission, not of treason but of felony. He was deprived of his bishopric on 14th October 1552, and remained in prison until the death of Edward in July 1553.

Queen Mary restored Cuthbert Tunstall as Bishop of Durham. During Mary's reign that lasted for forty-five months, 283 Protestants - 227 men and 56 women - were burned alive as heretics. This was twice the number that had been burned in the previous 150 years. (28) Although participated to some degree in the trials of notable protestants, he condemned no one to death and seems to have been on the whole unconvinced by the policy of persecution. (29)

Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall died, aged 85, on 18th November 1559.

Primary Sources

(1) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery (2008)

Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of Durham in 1539, was in his tenth year on Wearside, after succeeding the absentee Wolsey whose own predecessor had been the bellicose Ruthall. Tunstall was as unlike either of these men as it was possible for a Prince Bishop to be. He was not particularly interested in wielding his considerable power and he was certainly less than enthusiastic about his military responsibilities, which may or may not have had something to do with the fact that his eldest brother had been killed at Flodden Field. Though he had been born in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1474, he came from an old Lancashire family whose seat was Thurland Castle, some miles upstream of Lancaster on the River Lune. He was a deeply spiritual man with an instinct for scholarship, which had been nurtured at Oxford before an outbreak of plague there caused him to shift to the other place, and after emerging from Cambridge he furthered his education in Padua. He was a well-respected theologian, also skilled in Greek and Hebrew, mathematics and civil law: he was to publish, in De Arte Supputandi, a mathematical treatise which won golden opinions across the Continent. He made friends with many of Europe's leading intellectuals, including Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, and after returning to England from Italy, priested and at the age of thirty two, he served in a number of parishes (including Stanhope in County Durham) before he came to the notice of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, who made him his chancellor. From that moment, Tunstall's career in high places was assured, which meant that he was destined to prosper at Henry VII I's court, where presently he became Master of the Rolls.

He was entrusted with diplomacy on a mission to the Netherlands, where he lodged with Erasmus, and was subsequently appointed ambassador at the Emperor Charles V's court in Cologne, where he encountered Martin Luther's doctrines and urged Erasmus to write against them. Later still, he deputised for Wolsey - Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York, lately the most powerful figure in the land apart from Henry VIII himself, but now on the verge of banishment by the King - on the diplomatic expedition that secured the Treaty of Cambrai and an uneasy balance in the perennial European power games. Throughout this period, Tunstall was also steadily rising in the English ecclesiastical pecking order, first as Archdeacon of Chester, then as Dean of Salisbury, finally as a very popular Bishop of London in 1522, the year before he was also promoted at court to Keeper of the Privy Seal; that same year, he made the King's speech at the opening of Parliament. And then, in February 1530, he was translated to Durham, commended there by a Bull of Pope Clement VII, the pontiff who was proving to be a massive stumbling block to the English King's domestic ambitions. Tunstall's attitude to the papacy was not uncritical. Though he was devoutly Catholic, and vehemently disapproved of the English Bible on the grounds that William Tyndale's translations of 1526 were sometimes faulty, he was equally scathing about papal nepotism, particularly the Pope's habit of bestowing benefices on ignorant dependants in Rome, "such as cooks and grooms", instead of sustaining men of character and learning with them.

(2) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

There was nothing of the martyr in Tunstall. His survival through four Tudor reigns and into a fifth testifies to the flexibility of his mind and the moderation of his temperament. Although strong in his opinions and not backward in arguing them, once policy was made he was content to carry it out. Uncomfortable persecuting heretics, he managed to avoid condemning them to death and had a reputation for honesty second to none... His desire to avoid persecutions led him to go so far as to buy copies of William Tyndale's New Testament in order to burn them, rather than burn or prosecute those who bought them. A gentle man given to collecting coins and gardening, he was probably the most widely respected bishop and scholar in sixteenth-century England.

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(1) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery (2008) page 45

(3) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 62

(4) Anna Whitelock, Mary Tudor: England's First Queen (2009) page 22

(5) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 62

(7) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Sybil M. Jack, Thomas Wolsey : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) Melvyn Bragg, The Daily Telegraph (6th June, 2013)

(10) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 4

(11) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 379

(13) Thomas More, Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (June, 1533)

(14) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 82 of 2014 edition.

(15) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery (2008) page 46

(17) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 54

(18) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 152

(20) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 529

(22) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 90

(23) Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain: Volume IV (1845) pages 358

(24) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(25) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery (2008) page 190

(26) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(27) Dale Hoak, Edward VI: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(28) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 1

(29) D. G. Newcombe, Cuthbert Tunstall : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)