1902 Encyclopedia > Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker
Archbishop of Canterbury
(1504-75)




MATTHEW PARKER (1504-1575), archbishop of Canterbury, the eldest surviving son of William Parker and Alice Monins, his wife, was born at Norwich 6th August 1504. His father was an artisan, a calenderer of woollen stuffs, but through his mother he could afterwards trace his descent from the earls of Nottingham. He was instructed in reading by Thomas Benis, rector of St Clement's, Norwich, and in the elements of Latin by one William Neve; in the latter he found (a somewhat excep-tional experience in those days) a kind and sympathizing teacher. When Matthew was twelve years of age he lost his father; but his mother was, notwithstanding, able to send him at the commencement of the Michaelmas term, 1521, to Cambridge, and to maintain him there until his merits secured some recognition. He was educated partly in St Mary's Hostel and partly in Corpus Christi College. In March 1523 he was elected to a bible-clerkship in the college, an office which involved reading the Bible aloud on prescribed occasions, and waiting at the fellows' table at dinner. In the March of the following year he was admitted B.A.; he was subsequently made a deacon and a priest, in 1527 was elected to a fellowship, and in 1528 commenced M.A.

His industry as a student and his general ability marked him out for early notice; and when, in 1521, Wolsey was founding Cardinal College (afterwards Christ Church), Oxford, Parker was one among a number of rising Cambridge students who were invited to become fellows of the new society. Fortunately, however, for himself and for Cambridge he elected to stay at Corpus. The university was at this time becoming a great centre of the Reformation movement, and he found himself attracted to the meetings held at the White Horse (an inn in the town), which the Catholic party derisively styled " Germany," from the fact that it was the known rendezvous of the supporters of Lutheran tenets. Among those with whom he was thus brought into contact was Bilney, the martyr; and when, in 1531, the latter was burned at Norwich, Parker attended him in his last hours, and afterwards bore testimony to his constancy. On Cranmer's election to the archbishopric of Canterbury, Parker received a licence to preach, and soon became known in Cambridge and its neighbourhood as a divine of considerable oratorical power. He was summoned to preach at court; and in 1535 the queen, Ann Boleyn, appointed him her chaplain. He shortly after received a further mark of her favour by being made dean of the college of St John the Baptist, at Stoke, near Clare, Suffolk—an institution for the training of the secular clergy. Here he gave the earliest indication of his skill as an administrator; and the new statutes which he drew up for the college were deemed so judicious that the duke of Norfolk, in 1540, adopted them as a model for the code which he gave to a similar foundation at Thetford. Parker's retired life at Stoke did not altogether secure him from attack on account of his courageously avowed sympathies with the Reformation, and in the year 1539 he was accused by the townsmen of Clare of mani-festing undue contempt for the Catholic ritual.

At Stoke Parker continued to reside more or less until the year 1545. His disposition throughout life was naturally retiring. • In one of his letters to Cecil, written about 1543, he confesses to a " natural viciosity of over-much shamefacedness"; and this constitutional defect would seem, at this time, to have been aggravated by a state of health which made it necessary for him to obtain the permission of the university, when preaching in St Mary's, Cambridge, to do so with his head covered. In the year 1538 he was created D.D. Although his in-different health and love of study alike inclined him to a retired life, his seclusion was frequently broken in upon by honours and preferment which came unsought. He was selected by Thomas Cromwell to preach at Paul's Cross, on account of " his learning in holy letters and uncorrupt judgment in the same." He was appointed one of the king's chaplains, and in the year 1541 was made a canon of Ely. In 1542 his own college of Stoke presented him to an Essex living. About this time it began to be rumoured that the dissolution of Stoke College could not be averted, and the arguments for Parker's return to his university, in whose welfare his interest had continued undiminished, were such as he could no longer resist. The mastership of Corpus having fallen vacant, he consented to be elected to the post, at that time scarcely of the annual value of £10 ; to this, however, the society shortly after added the rectory of Landbeach. In January 1545 he was elected to the vice-chancellorship of the university by a large majority. The colleges of both universities were at this period in continual fear of being, sooner or later, handed over, as the monasteries had been, to the greed of the despoiler. It was accordingly resolved, in order to anticipate a commission consisting of unscrupulous courtiers and lawyers, that the university should obtain the royal authority for a commission composed of those who were intimately acquainted with the real state of affairs, and, through the good offices of Catherine Parr, Parker, along with two other heads of colleges, was selected for the task. When their survey had been completed, they repaired to Hampton Court, and laid their statement before the king. Henry, on reading the report, expressed his emphatic admiration at the economical management of the colleges, and dismissed the commission with assurances which completely baffled the expectations of the courtiers. The fate which was averted from Cambridge fell, however, upon Stoke College. Its estate was confiscated, but subject to a charge of £40 per annum as compensation. The purchaser was Sir John Cheke, Parker's personal friend, by whom the money was regularly paid to the former dean. Parker now entered upon the married state, and espoused a Norfolk lady named Margaret Harleston. His choice appears to have been singularly fortunate. His wife proved a true helpmate, and was distinguished for the graceful hospi-tality she extended to the poor clergy whom Parker was in the habit of inviting to the college lodge at Cambridge.





In the measures which marked the further progress of the Reformation during Edward's reign Parker seems to have cordially co-operated. But he had no sympathy with the bigotry which now began to characterize the contend-ing sects of Protestantism abroad; and when Martin Bucer was fain to quit Strasburg, after the failure of his efforts to mediate between the Lutherans and the Zwinglians, the master of Corpus extended to that eminent theologian a cordial welcome to England. During the short time that the latter filled the post of regius professor of divinity at Cambridge, he found in Parker a firm friend, and it was by Parker that his funeral sermon was preached. Parker's services to his party were not unrecognized. He was occasionally appointed to preach before the young king, and was promoted to the deanery of Lincoln and to the prebend of Corringham in that cathedral. On the occasion of Kett's rebellion in Norfolk, happening to be in Norwich, he visited the rebels' camp and ventured to preach submission to the constituted authorities.

When Queen Mary ascended the throne, most of the college heads at Cambridge were deprived of office, and Parker only forestalled a like fate by resignation. The fact of his being a married man alone sufficed to entail the loss of all his ecclesiastical preferments. He did not, however, like many of the leaders of his party, fly from the country, but lived in strict retirement, his place of resid-ence being a secret which appears to have died with him. This feature in his career is deserving of note, as offering an important point of contrast to the experiences of those other eminent churchmen who, known as the Marian exiles, returned to England after a long sojourn at the chief centres of the Reformed party on the Continent, strongly prejudiced in favour of Calvinistic doctrine, and bigotedly intolerant of everything approaching to the Roman discipline and ritual. Parker, like Whitgift, stayed in England, and was thus probably better able afterwards to maintain a fairly impartial position in relation to contend-ing religious parties. He himself speaks of these years of his life, passed as they were in solitude among his books and in meditation, but cheered by the possession of a clear conscience, as productive of far more solid enjoyment than he afterwards found in the varied duties and anxieties of the episcopal office.

A fall from horseback, when he was on one occasion compelled to flee by night from Mary's emissaries, resulted in a permanent injury (his language appears to imply a rupture) which still further disinclined him to active and laborious public duties; and upon Elizabeth's accession he evinced little readiness to avail himself of prospects of preferment held out by Sir Nicholas Bacon, the lord keeper. He believed himself to be summoned by duty to return to his former sphere of labour at Cambridge, at that time, like Oxford, in a singularly depressed and unsatis-factory condition. " Of all places in England," he writes to Bacon, " I would wish to bestow most of my time in the university, the state whereof is miserable at this present." His services were needed, however, for a wider sphere of action; and in December 1558 he was summoned by royal command to London, where it was intimated to him that he was to be appointed to the primacy. His election to the office took place on the first of the following August, and his consecration on the 17th December, in the chapel at Lambeth Palace. He was consecrated by Bishop Barlow, formerly bishop of Bath and Wells, bishop-elect of Chichester; John Scory, formerly bishop of Chichester, bishop-elect of Hereford ; Miles Coverdale, late bishop of Exeter; and John Hodgkin, suffragan bishop of Bedford. The delay which took place in his consecration arose from the fact that the three bishops named in the original warrant (Tonstal, Bourne, and Poole) refused to act, and a second warrant was consequently found necessary. In the following century the Romanist party sought, by circulating the " Nag's Head fable," to throw discredit on Parker's consecration by representing that he, together with certain other bishops, was simply ordained, and that too in an irreverent and uncanonical fashion, at a tavern in Fleet Street. The evidence which contravenes this story (see Pocock's edition of Burnet's History of the Reformation, vol. v.) is, however, singularly full and satisfactory.





During the fifteen years of his primacy, Parker's best energies were devoted to defining more accurately the discipline and belief of the newly constituted Church of England, and to bringing about a general conformity. The Thirty-Nine Articles were passed by convocation under his presidency in 1562. In the year 1566 he issued his celebrated "Advertisements," "for the due order in the public administration of common prayers and using the holy sacraments, and for the apparel of all persons eccle-siastical." Notwithstanding that they related mainly to questions of detail and ceremonial, these new regulations excited strenuous opposition from the Puritan party, owing to the fact that, although they enjoined the discontinuance of " gorgeous vestments " and the cope, they prescribed the use of the surplice. It is asserted that they were promul-gated by the command of Elizabeth, who subsequently with-held her formal sanction, and permitted the obloquy they evoked to fall on Parker. It is certain that they added materially to the embarrassment of his position. The revised translation of the Scriptures known as the Bishops' Bible (1568 and 1572) owed its origin to Parker, and is regarded by English Churchmen as a valuable service to their communion, from the fact that it served to prevent the adoption of the Geneva Bible until superseded by the authorized version.

The determination which Parker showed to withstand, and if possible repress, the growing boldness of the Puritan party, involved him during the latter years of his primacy in a struggle which was detrimental to his health, his temper, and his reputation. In August 1570 his wife died, and the blow was severely felt. He was still able, however, to discharge with efficiency the duties of his office; and in 1573 he entertained Elizabeth with great splendour and sumptuousness in the grand hall of his palace at Canterbury. Among his last measures of reform are to be noted his personal visitation of the church and chapter at Canterbury, and the drawing up of a series of injunctions for their more efficient regulation, the issuing of a commission for the visitation of his diocese, and the publication of new constitutions for the Court of Arches. In 1575 his health began rapidly to give way, and he died on the 17th May in that year, giving evidence almost to the last of that vigorous intellect and strong will by which he was distinguished throughout life.

As an author, Parker cannot be held entitled to any high place. He compiled a Latin treatise, De Antiquitate Britannicts Ecclesiss et Privilegiis Ecclesiee Gantuariensis, printed by John Day in 1572, which shows considerable research in connexion with the circum-stances under which Christianity was introduced into Britain. In this, however, as in most of his more learned works, he was probably largely assisted by his secretary, Josselin. His letters, which have been published under the title of the Parker Correspondence. (Parker Society, 1853), are marked throughout by his usual natural good sense and sobriety of judgment, but are characterized neither by originality nor brilliancy of thought. His other writings are chiefly statutes for various ecclesiastical or collegiate foundations, sermons, forms of prayer, and ordinances for the church.

As an editor, while his industry must be admitted by all, he had but an imperfect sense of the responsibilities attaching to such a function and of the limits to be observed in its exercise. He edited iElfric's Anglo-Saxon Homily, a treatise much valued by religious controversialists as exhibiting the theory of the early English Church in relation to the doctrine of transubstantiation. The treatise of Gildas, De Excidio Britannix, next appeared ; but this was mainly, if not entirely, the work of Josselin. The Flares Historiarum (probably the work of Roger of Wendover) was edited by Parker under the belief that it was the work of an unknown " Matthew of Westminster." The other chronicles which he pub-lished were the Historia Major of Matthew Paris, the Historia Anglicana of Walsingham, the life of Alfred [Gesta Aelfrcdi) of Asser, and the Itinerarium of Giraldus Cambrensis. The extreme licence in which he indulged in altering the texts of these writers, and especially that of Matthew Paris, renders his editions, how-ever, almost worthless, and has met with the severest censures from succeeding historical scholars.

But, notwithstanding these errors and defects, Parker's memory must ever be venerated by Englishmen and by scholars ; and his country, his university, and his college were alike laid by him under no ordinary debt of gratitude. He revived the study of Saxon literature and of the origines of our national history; and the scriptorium which he maintained at Lambeth (after the fashion of the mediaeval monasteries) was a busy scene where the transcriber, the illuminator, the engraver, and the bookbinder each plied his craft, to the no small after advantage of letters and of art. Among the printers whom he patronized were Richard Jugge, John Day, and Richard Grafton. As a collector of books and manuscripts ho was indefatigable; and one of his numerous agents, named Batman, is stated to have collected in four years no less than 6700 volumes, chiefly works which had been scattered on the dissolution of the monasteries. The greater part of this splendid collection, styled by Fuller "the sun of English antiquity," Parker bequeathed to Corpus Christi College. His interest in his university at large did not diminish after his elevation to the archbishopric, and the Regent Walk (an improved approach to the public schools) and the university library were long-standing memorials of his munificence. He also founded a grammar school at Rochdale, and numerous scholarships and annual charities elsewhere. That he died rich cannot be denied ; and his enemies have asserted that ho was far from scrupulous in the means which he employed in acquiring wealth, especially in "admitting children to cures." On the other hand, it must be allowed that he made a good and generous use of his wealth, and his contemporary biographer claims for him the rare merit of combining strict economy with liberality. Parker had five children. Of these the eldest, John, who was knighted by King James in 1603, alone survived him ; he died at Cambridge hi 1620, in great want, the cost of his funeral being defrayed by Corpus Christi College.

The best source of information in ail that relates to Parker is his Life and Acts, by Strype (3 vols., Oxford, 1824), a performance on which that distinguished antiquary bestowed even more than his usual amount of painstaking research. A copy of the folio edition (1711), preserved in the library of St John's College, Cambridge, is enriched with numerous and valuable MS. notes by the donor, the eminent Thomas Baker. The titles of the books which he presented to his own college will be found in Nasmith's Cat. of the C. C. MSS. (1777). (J. B. M.)



The above article was written by: J. Bass Mullinger, M.A, author of the History of the University of Cambridge.



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