Matthew Parker, one of six children of Nicholas Parker and Alice Monins Parker, was born in Norwich on 6th August 1504. His father was a well-to-do worsted weaver. His mother was related to Thomas Boleyn. It seems he was taught at home by clerics and in 1520 he was sent to Corpus Christi College. (1)
It has been argued that at Cambridge University he was a regular visitor to the White Horse tavern that had been nicknamed "Little Germany" as the Lutheran creed was discussed within its walls, and the participants were known as "Germans". Those involved in the debates about religious reform included Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Shaxton and Miles Coverdale. (2)
Matthew Parker graduated in 1525 and was ordained subdeacon on 22th December 1526. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey invited him to become a member of Cardinal College. Probably because of his Protestant sympathies he rejected the offer. He was ordained a priest on 15th June 1527. He was elected a fellow of Corpus Christi College and embarked upon the serious study of theology. (3)
Parker gave his support to Thomas Bilney who in the late 1520s became a well-known preacher against idolatry. Twice he was pulled from his pulpit by some members of his congregation. (4) At Ipswich, Bilney denounced pilgrimages to popular shrines like Our Lady of Walsingham and warned of the worthlessness of prayers to the saints, while at Willesden he attacked the custom of leaving offerings before images. Bilney called on Henry VIII to destroy these images. (5) During this period Parker and Bilney seemed to be in close communication. (6)
In early 1531 Bilney announced to his friends that he was "going up to Jerusalem" and set off for Norwich to court martyrdom. He began to preach in the open air, renounced his earlier recantation, and distributed copies of the English Bible that had been translated by William Tyndale. He was arrested in March and as a relapsed heretic he knew he would be burnt at the stake. (7)
David Crankshaw claims that Matthew Parker attended the execution. (8) John Foxe later described his execution in August 1531: "Bilney approached the stake in a layman's gown, his arms hanging out, his hair mangled by the church's ritual divestiture of office. He was given permission to speak to the crowd and told them not to blame the friars present for his death and then said his private prayers. The officers put reeds and wood around him and lit the fire, which flared up rapidly, deforming Bilney's face as he held up his hands." Foxe claimed he called out "Jesus" and "I believe". (9)
Following the example provided by Thomas Bilney, Parker began going on preaching tours of the country. Along with Hugh Latimer he joined these preaching campaigns to promote the royal supremacy and attack "superstitious" practices associated with the cults of saints and the doctrine of purgatory. This pleased Anne Boleyn and in October 1535 he was invited to become one of the queen's chaplains. In 1536 it was recorded that he preached before Henry VIII. In a conversation that occurred only days before her arrest in May 1536, Queen Anne commended Elizabeth to Parker's spiritual care. "Whatever the real significance of Anne's words they were the last she addressed to him, and a powerful sense of obligation, to both mother and daughter, stayed with him for the rest of his life." (10)
In May 1539 the bill of the Six Articles was presented by Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk in Parliament. It was soon clear that it had the support of Henry VIII. Although the word "transubstantiation" was not used, the real presence of Christ's very body and blood in the bread and wine was endorsed. So also was the idea of purgatory. The six articles presented a serious problem for Parker and other religious reformers. Parker had argued against transubstantiation and purgatory for many years. Parker now faced a choice between obeying the king as supreme head of the church and standing by the doctrine he had had a key role in developing and promoting for the past decade. (11)
Bishop Hugh Latimer and Bishop Nicholas Shaxton both spoke against the Six Articles in the House of Lords. Thomas Cromwell was unable to come to their aid and in July they were both forced to resign their bishoprics. For a time it was thought that Henry would order their execution as heretics. He eventually decided against this measure and instead they were ordered to retire from preaching. Matthew Parker shared his friend's views but kept his thoughts to himself. Robert Barnes, who opposed the Six Articles, was burnt at the stake on 30th July, 1540. (12)
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. He was sympathetic to the religious ideas of people like Ridley and he ordered the release from prison of reformers such as Bishop Hugh Latimer. (13)
This gave the opportunity for Matthew Parker and his friends such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer their long-awaited opportunity to implement the doctrinal changes they had desired. Later that year the Six Articles were repealed. Parker remained a royal chaplain and was believed to be fairly close to Queen Catherine Parr, a supporter of reform. Parker, like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, came under the influence of Martin Bucer, who was described as the leader of the moderate Protestants. (14)
Matthew Parker was one of those reformers who believed that priests should marry. In June 1547 Parker married Margaret Harleston. They had been living together since 1544. He was taking a serious risk with the Church authorities as legislation for legalizing clerical marriage was not passed until December 1549. They had four sons, two of whom, John and Matthew, reached adulthood.
Robert Kett, a large landowner in Wymondham, admitted that he had been wrong to enclose the common land. Kett also agreed to help the protesters persuade other landowners from enclosing public land. As Kett was a well-educated man, the crowd asked him to become their leader. Kett suggested that they should march on Norwich. On the way, other villagers in the area joined the march. By the time Kett reached Norwich, he had about 16,000 followers. The mayor of Norwich refused to let Kett's army enter the city. However, Kett and his men, armed with spears, swords and pitchforks, successfully stormed the city walls. The English government were shocked when they heard that Kett and his rebels controlled the second largest city in England.
Kett formed a governing council made up of representatives from the villages that had joined the revolt. It was a remarkable demonstration of self-government. Kett and his followers were convinced that their action was not only morally justified but also lawful, and that they would therefore win the approval of the government. The elected council then sent details of their demands to Edward VI. Somerset responded by calling for the rebels to abandon their protests and to return peacefully to their homes. He offered them a free pardon if they did so but warned them he would use force if they refused. Dale Hoak has described it as the "sixteenth-century England's greatest crisis". (15)
In August 1549 Edward Seymour sent John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and a large army to the area. He seized Norwich after several days of fierce street fighting. Matthew Parker bravely agreed to enter Kett's camp at Mousehold Heath and preached submission to the authorities for the sake of the common good. (16) Dudley then attacked Kett's camp and several hundred of the rebels were killed. According to Roger Lockyer: "Whatever sympathy Seymour (Duke of Somerset) might have felt for the Norfolk peasants, he behaved like any other Tudor ruler when it came to dealing with rebels." (17)
King Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. Queen Mary now ordered the arrests of the leading Protestants in England. This included Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Bishop Hugh Latimer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley and Bishop John Bradford. To their mutual comfort, they "did read over the new testament with great deliberation and painful study", discussing again the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, and reinforcing their opinions on the spiritual presence in the Lord's supper. (18) Eventually all four men were burnt at the stake.
John Bale went into exile where he launched a vigorous attack on the religious policies of Mary. During her forty-five months in power she ordered the burning alive of 227 men and 56 women for their Protestant beliefs. Bale argued that several recent examples of monstrous births, like the Siamese twins in Oxfordshire and the child born without legs or arms in Coventry to prove that God was displeased with the actions of Mary. (19)
Matthew Parker was not arrested but he suffered as a married clergyman from the repeal of the Edwardian religious legislation. He was removed from all his Church posts and was forced to go into retirement. Parker admitted he "lived as a private individual, so happy before God in my conscience, and so far from being either ashamed or dejected, that the delightful literary leisure to which the good providence of God recalled me yielded me much greater and more solid enjoyments, than my former busy and dangerous kind of life had ever afforded me." (20)
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. (21)
Mary died, aged forty-two, on 17th November 1558. The following month Sir William Cecil offered him the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. At first he refused claiming that his abilities were not commensurate with such responsibilities. (22) 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". (23)
Under pressure from Cecil, Matthew Parker eventually agreed to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The appointment was officially announced on 1st August 1559. 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. (24)
Parker was unhappy about certain aspects of the Act, especially the clause which insisted that "such ornaments of the Church and of the ministers thereof shall be retained and be in use as was in the Church of England by authority by Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth". It meant that all clergy were now obliged to wear a surplice for ordinary church services and "a white alb plain, with a vestment or cope" for the administration of the holy communion." (25)
Further differences with the queen arose over images. While Elizabeth was away from London, unknown persons removed the crucifix and other ornaments from the Chapel Royal. Her subsequent insistence on their restoration sparked off a major dispute over images. Parker complained but the crucifix and other ornaments remained in the Chapel Royal. However, Elizabeth did agree that rood screens and their accompanying statuary be replaced in parish churches. (26)
David Starkey, the author of Elizabeth (2000), summed up the changes that Elizabeth had made to the Church: "What had Elizabeth achieved? When the full list of changes made under the ornaments rubric came to be totted up over the course of the following year, they amounted to rather a high figure. Images, relics, pilgrimages, candles (mostly) and the 'telling of beads' (that is, saying the rosary) had all gone. But a surprising amount of Catholic practice survived: the congregation was to kneel for prayers to God and to bow and doff their caps at the name of Jesus; altars or communion tables were ordinarily to stand 'altar-wise' at the east end of churches; the traditional special wafers were to be used for communion, rather than the ordinary bread specified in 1552; the clergy were to wear copes when the celebrated communion and the surplice at other times; endowments for choirs and music were to be retained; and, though most processions were to be abolished, the beating the bounds of the parish was to continue, with an injunction to respect property rights! Finally, the prayer offensive to even the mildest Catholic - to he delivered 'from the tyranny of the Bishop of' Rome and all his detestable enormities', was omitted from the Litany as well." (27)
On 20th March 1565, eighteen religious leaders, including John Foxe, petitioned Parker for the right to follow their consciences. Some religious leaders were keen to compromise but Parker saw it as an attack on his authority. He therefore gave instructions for its leaders to be punished. For example, on 26th May, Thomas Sampson, who had been involved in the translation of the English Bible, was deprived of the deanery of Christ Church. (28)
Matthew Parker continued to purge his former friends in the reform movement. On 6th June 1566, he took steps to remove the offending preachers from London: It has been argued by his biographer, David Crankshaw: "Clandestine separatist conventicles began forming in London. If in 1566 Parker won the battle, in that hardly any true radicals were then left in possession of London livings, his victory was arguably a pyrrhic one... By prosecuting his drive for conformity so rigorously he drove some moderate nonconformists into open revolt. The disaster of 1566 was all the more tragic because Parker's hopes of achieving conformity were bound to be frustrated by the jurisdictional complexities of the early Elizabethan church, by the nonconformist predilections of many who held authority within it, and by the shortage of preachers. Several of the disaffected were still able to achieve promotion surprisingly quickly, while others, drummed out of London benefices, continued to minister in country livings. Hamstrung by a ramshackle administrative structure and by endemic pluralism, Parker emerged from the conflicts of the mid-1560s with his primacy crippled, while his antagonists lived to fight another day." (29)
Parker came under pressure from members of the House of Commons. On 6th April 1571, William Strickland, MP for Scarborough, spoke against ecclesiastical abuses, and specifically dispensations and simony. To remedy them he called for the return the rules enacted during the reign of Edward VI. On 14th April, Strickland introduced his own bill to reform the prayer book – among other measures it proposed to abolish confirmation, prevent priests from wearing vestments and end the practice of kneeling at the Communion. The measure was rejected and he was accused of being a supporter of the leading reformer, John Foxe. (30)
He also came under attack from Peter Wentworth. According to David Dean: "In 1571 Wentworth was a member of a Commons delegation appointed to explain their omission of non-doctrinal articles (such as the reading of homilies and the consecration of bishops) from a bill confirming the articles of religion. Questioned by Archbishop Parker, Wentworth defended the omission on the grounds that the committee had not had the time to compare the articles with the scriptures. Parker insisted that this was a matter best left to the bishops. Wentworth would have none of it.... Wentworth was defending the Commons' right to legislate on religious matters. Indeed, he noted that experienced MPs had informed him that the most important laws governing the protestant religion in England had been initiated in the lower house." (31)
George Carleton was another Puritan who was very dissatisfied with the lack of reform. In parliament most of his activity was directed towards a further reformation of the church along Presbyterian lines. Carleton believed that hardline protestants such as himself were the queen's only reliable subjects, her very "bowels", and that these "servants of God" should be concentrated in the counties nearest London as a militia to protect the regime from Catholic subversion. In 1571 George Carleton, introduced a bill attacking the primate's power to grant dispensations. The bill was easily defeated as Carleton had few supporters in Parliament. (32)
In 1574 a confidence trickster named Humphrey Needham, who had earlier provided the bishops with genuine intelligence about clandestine presses, obtained forged letters purportedly written by Thomas Cartwright and other radical ministers. Their contents, setting out plans for every kind of subversion, religious and political, including the murder of Sir William Cecil. These letters completely deceived Parker and after paying Needham money several ministers were arrested. However, when it was discovered that the letters were forgeries, the ministers were released. Parker's reputation for honesty suffered from this affair and he was described as being guilty of being involved in "a lewd and malicious practice". (33)
Matthew Parker died on 17th May 1575. He died a wealthy man. "His probate inventory records the contents of Lambeth Palace as worth £1,208 15s. He had £1,200 in ready money and was owed a further £200. His possessions at Croydon Palace were valued at £52 1s. 2d., the armour at Lambeth and Canterbury at a total of £168 6s. 10d... John Parker later estimated that his father's annual income at the end of his life had been £3128." (34)
The Norfolk insurgents had assembled first at Wymondham, where they called on Robert Kett, a local landowner, to be their head. They then advanced on Norwich, throwing down fences as they went, and set up their camp to the north of the city, on Mousehold Heath. By the end of July they had made themselves masters of Norwich, but the bulk of the rebel forces remained in the camp, where Kett, with the help of an elected council, kept good order and discipline. It was a remarkable demonstration of self-government, and it showed the quality of the rebels. They were not a motiveless rabble but a company of small farmers, peasant cultivators, gathered together in defence of what they regarded as their traditional rights.
The main grievance of the rebels, as shown in the articles they drew up, was the excessive number of sheep being pastured by the landowners. Much of the country was well suited to sheep-farming, and the peasants, who had little land of their own, were dependent upon their right of common pasture. A few sheep could make a big difference to a man's income, and when a lord increased the number of animals he turned out to graze he threatened the peasants' livelihood - hence the demand `that no lord of no manor shall common [i.e. put his sheep to pasture] upon the commons'. Inflated rents were another grievance, as was shown in the request `that copyhold land that is unreasonably rented may go as it did in the first year of King Henry VII, and that at the death of a tenant or sale the same lands... be charged with an easy fine, [such] as a capon or a reasonable sum of money'.
Significantly absent from the list of grievances was any demand for a return to the old ways in religion. The rebels used the new Prayer Book for public services, and among those who were summoned to preach to the thousands assembled on Mousehold Heath was Matthew Parker, the future Archbishop. Moreover, one of the articles in the Norfolk list pointed in a very radical direction by suggesting that any priest who was "not able to preach and set forth the word of God to his parishioners may be thereby put from his benefice, and the parishioners there to choose another, or else the patron or lord of the town".
What had Elizabeth achieved? When the full list of changes made under the ornaments rubric came to be totted up over the course of the following year, they amounted to rather a high figure. Images, relics, pilgrimages, candles (mostly) and the 'telling of beads' (that is, saying the rosary) had all gone. But a surprising amount of Catholic practice survived: the congregation was to kneel for prayers to God and to bow and doff their caps at the name of Jesus; altars or communion tables were ordinarily to stand 'altar-wise' at the east end of churches; the traditional special wafers were to be used for communion, rather than the ordinary bread specified in 1552; the clergy were to wear copes when the celebrated communion and the surplice at other times; endowments for choirs and music were to be retained; and, though most processions were to be abolished, the beating the bounds of the parish was to continue, with an injunction to respect property rights! Finally, the prayer offensive to even the mildest Catholic - to he delivered 'from the tyranny of the Bishop of' Rome and all his detestable enormities'', was omitted from the Litany as well.