Edmund Bonner was probably born in Hanley, Worcestershire, in about 1500. It is believed his father was George Savage, the rector of Davenham, Cheshire. Bonner was admitted to Broadgates Hall in Oxford about 1512. For seven years he studied civil and canon law, and was admitted to the degrees of bachelor of civil law and canon law on consecutive days in July 1519. (1)
Bonner was appointed chaplain to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and in August 1529 was sent on an embassy to the king of France. Wolsey lost power in 1530 but Bonner transferred his loyalty to Thomas Cromwell and carried out diplomatic missions for Henry VIII. In 1537 he became a chaplain to the king, receiving a licence to be non-resident and to hold benefices to the value of £500. According to John Foxe: "All through Henry's rein, Bonner appeared to be very earnest in his opposition to the pope and strongly in favour of the Reformation". (2)
Bonner was Henry VIII's ambassador to the court of King François I and in October 1538 he was recalled to England where he became the Bishop of Hereford. The following year he became Bishop of London. Bonner soon showed he would be active in the fight against heresy. Bonner began an investigation of Anne Askew who had been in close contact with Joan Bocher, a leading figure in the Anabaptists and other reformers such as John Lascelles. (3)
In March 1546 Askew was arrested on suspicion of heresy. She was questioned about a book she was carrying that had been written by John Frith, a Protestant priest who had been burnt for heresy in 1533, for claiming that neither purgatory nor transubstantiation could be proven by Holy Scriptures. She was interviewed by Edmund Bonner. After a great deal of debate Anne Askew was persuaded to sign a confession which amounted to an only slightly qualified statement of orthodox belief. (4)
Henry VIII died on 28th January, 1547. After the accession of Edward VI, Bonner soon found himself in difficulties for his opinions. Bishop Bonner refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and he was sent to Fleet Prison. (5) With the support of Bishop Stephen Gardiner he was released. However, he was sent to Marshalsea Prison in 1550. "The author of the grey friars' chronicle relates how on 8 January 1550 Bonner had his bed removed by the keeper of the prison, and for eight days had only straw and a coverlet to lie on, for refusing to pay his gaoler the sum of £10. Bonner's appeal against his sentence was heard on 6 February 1550, when he was taken from the Marshalsea to the council, sitting in Star Chamber at Westminster. He was informed that his appeal had been considered and dismissed by eight privy councillors. His deprivation by the archbishop and other commissioners stood, and his sentence was confirmed." (6) One of those who gave evidence against him was William Latymer. (7)
Edmund Bonner remained in prison until 5th August 1553, when a pardon was sent by Queen Mary. It is claimed by John Foxe that "Mary saw just what she needed in Bonner, who threw himself into the work of persecuting the Protestants with all his energy. It's said that two hundred of the martyrs of this time were personally tried and sentenced by him. Bonner was a harsh, persistent man, with no pity or compassion for the people brought before him. Nothing short of complete surrender would satisfy Bonner. So far did his rage against heresy carry him that he is said to have called for rods and beaten stubborn witnesses himself on several occasions." (8) John Story was appointed as his main investigator. (9)
Before heretics were burned they had to endure a degradation ceremony. "The hands were scraped with a knife to remove the holy oil with which they had been anointed. The scraping could be done either gently or roughly. The Protestants alleged that Bonner did it roughly whenever he took part in a degradation ceremony; but this may have been Protestant propaganda, for Bonner's attitude varied between boisterous and aggressive gloating and a patient attempt to persuade heretics to recant so that their lives could be spared." (10)
Bishop John Rogers was the first Protestant to be condemned to die by the courts. Rogers told Bonner that he had only one request to make, and asked that before he was burned he should be permitted to receive one farewell visit from his wife. His request was refused and he was burnt at Smithfield on 4th February 1555. He was followed five days later by Bishop John Hooper, Rowland Taylor and Laurence Saunders.
John Foxe wrote about the death of Hooper in his Book of Martyrs (1563): "Hooper was brought to the stake. He had been given packages of gunpowder by the guard to hasten his death and lessen his suffering. These he put under his arms and between his legs... When the fire was lit... the gunpowder on Hooper went off, but even that didn't do much good because of the wind. Even when Hooper's mouth was black and his tongue swollen, his lips continued to move until they shrank to the gums. He knocked on his breast with his hands until one of his arms fell off. Then he knocked with the other - fat, water, and blood dropping off the ends of his fingers... Hopper was in the fire for over forty-five minutes, suffering patiently even when the lower part of his body burned off and his intestines spilled out." (11)
Bishop Edmund Bonner ordered the arrests of Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and John Bradford. (12) On 14th February, 1555, Cranmer was stripped of his church offices, and turned over to the secular authorities. John Foxe pointed out: "The doctors and divines of Oxford all tried to make him recant, even allowing him to stay in the dean's house while they argued with him, and eventually Cranmer gave in to their requests and signed a recantation accepting the pope's authority in all things." (13)
Cranmer was put on trial for heresy on 12th September 1555. Pope Paul IV appointed James Brooks, Bishop of Gloucester, to act as judge, which was held in St Mary's Church in Oxford. Thomas Martin, counsel for the prosecution, subjected Cranmer to what has been described as a "brilliant and merciless cross-examination", asking him about his relationship to "Black Joan of the Dolphin" in Cambridge, and his marriage to Margaret in Germany in 1532. Martin also spent time on the oath he gave on 30th March 1533 during the consecration ceremony when he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was also cross-examined by John Story, according to R.W. Heinze, a "brilliant inquisitor". (14)
According to Jasper Ridley, the author of Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002): "Cranmer gave a piteous exhibition; he was utterly broken by his imprisonment, by the humiliations heaped upon him, and by the defeat of all his hopes; and the fundamental weakness in his character, his hesitations and his doubts were clearly displayed. But he steadfastly refused to recant and to acknowledge Papal Supremacy. He was condemned as a heretic." (15)
On 16th October, Cranmer was forced to watch his friends, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, burnt at the stake for heresy. "It is reported that he fell to his knees in tears. Some of the tears may have been for himself. He had always given his allegiance to the established state; for him it represented the divine rule. Should he not now obey the monarch and the supreme head of the Church even if she wished to bring back the jurisdiction of Rome? In his conscience he denied papal supremacy. In his conscience, too, he was obliged to obey his sovereign." (16)
On 21st March, 1556, Thomas Cranmer was brought to St Mary's Church in Oxford, where he stood on a platform as a sermon was directed against him. He was then expected to deliver a short address in which he would repeat his acceptance of the truths of the Catholic Church. Instead he proceeded to recant his recantations and deny the six statements he had previously made and described the Pope as "Christ's enemy, and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine." The officials pulled him down from the platform and dragged him towards the scaffold.
Cranmer had said in the Church that he regretted the signing of the recantations and claimed that "since my hand offended, it will be punished... when I come to the fire, it first will be burned." According to John Foxe: "When he came to the place where Hugh Latimer and Ridley had been burned before him, Cranmer knelt down briefly to pray then undressed to his shirt, which hung down to his bare feet. His head, once he took off his caps, was so bare there wasn't a hair on it. His beard was long and thick, covering his face, which was so grave it moved both his friends and enemies. As the fire approached him, Cranmer put his right hand into the flames, keeping it there until everyone could see it burned before his body was touched." Cranmer was heard to cry: "this unworthy right hand!" (17)
After the death of Queen Mary she was replaced by Queen Elizabeth, who brought an end to the burning of heretics. Christopher Morris, the author of The Tudors (1955) has argued: "The punishment of death by burning was an appallingly cruel one, but it was not this that shocked contemporaries - after all, in an age that knew nothing of anaesthetics, a great deal of pain had to be endured by everybody at one time or another, and the taste for public executions, bear-baiting and cock-fighting suggests a callousness that blunted susceptibilities." (18) During a five year period around 280 people were burnt at the stake. John Foxe claimed that about 200 were personally tried and sentenced by him. (19)
On 20th April 1560 he was sent to Marshalsea Prison. He remained there until his death on 5th September 1569. (20) "Although no one had seen Bonner for over ten years, his memory was so fresh and he was so hated by the people that he was buried at midnight to avoid a riot." (21)
Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, who took so prominent a part in the persecution of the Protestants during Queen Mary's reign, was born at Hanley in Worcestershire about the year 1500. He was educated at Oxford and, having been admitted to the priesthood, entered the household of Cardinal Wolsey.
All through Henry's reign, Bonner appeared to be very earnest in his opposition to the pope and strongly in favor of the Reformation. Upon Henry's death, however, he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy for Edward and was sent to prison until he agreed to be obedient to the new king, was released, and later imprisoned once again until Queen Mary took the throne.
Mary saw just what she needed in Bonner, who threw himself into the work of persecuting the Protestants with all his energy. It's said that two hundred of the martyrs of this time were personally tried and sentenced by him. Bonner was a harsh, persistent man, with no pity or compassion for the people brought before him. Nothing short of complete surrender would satisfy Bonner. So far did his rage against heresy carry him that he is said to have caled for rods and beaten stubborn witnesses himself on several occasions.