Stephen Gardner was a senior Catholic cleric whose career in the Church spanned the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. Gardner, a Catholic, supported the Reformation under Henry VIII but rejected the move to Protestantism under Edward. Under Mary, Gardner supported the move back to Papal authority within the land.
It is thought that Gardner, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, was born in 1490. He was educated at Cambridge University where he studied law. Between 1525 and 1549, Gardner was Master at Trinity Hall. His academic reputation went before him and he became tutor to the household of the Duke of Norfolk, one of the more powerful Catholic families in England. From 1525 on, Gardner gained a number of prestigious positions in the English political set-up. In 1525, he became Cardinal Wolsey’s secretary. Gardner served as the King’s Secretary between 1529 and 134 and it was in this position that he became involved in the King’s move to get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Between 1531 and 1551, Gardner served as Bishop of Winchester. After the fall of Wolsey, it was only Thomas Cromwell (in government) and Thomas Cranmer (in religion) who stopped Gardner advancing even further than he had already done so.
In the later years of Henry’s reign, Gardner and the Norfolk faction stood up for Catholic conservatism against the likes of Cranmer. However, it is one of the ironies of his career that the conservative Catholic supported Henry’s divorce and royal supremacy over Rome. In 1535, Gardner produced a book titled “De Vera" which presented his support for the Divine Right of Kings. It is possible that Gardner was simply being prudent as he would have been very aware of the consequences of failing to support Henry. It is also more than possible that as a Catholic he could justify to himself what had happened in England even within his Catholic beliefs.
However, in terms of Protestantism, Gardner stood firm – he was against any seeming drift towards it. In 1539, the conservative Act of Six Articles was introduced – an act supported by Gardner. He was also instrumental in helping Norfolk introduce Catherine Howard to the ageing king. Catherine was the niece of the Duke of Norfolk and the king’s marriage to her would have been a huge boost to an already powerful family.
The six and final wife of Henry led to a drop in Gardner’s influence as Catherine Parr had Protestant sympathies. A Bill of Attainder was also issued for the Duke of Norfolk – a further blow to Gardner.
Henry did not put Gardner on the Council of Regency that was to advise the boy king Edward and by the time of Henry’s death in 1547, Gardner had been pushed to one side with Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, and Edward Seymour having far more influence within the land.
In June 1548, Gardner was placed in the Tower of London and he remained in this forbidding fortress/prison for the rest of Edward’s reign. He was stripped of his bishopric in 1551.
Gardner was released when Mary I succeeded to the throne. In August 1553, his bishopric at Winchester was returned to him and he was appointed Mary’s Chancellor. Under the staunchly Catholic queen, Gardner took a leading role in organising the restoration of the religious power of Rome in England and he played his part in the persecution of Protestants. Gardner also played a part in helping to organise the marriage of Mary to Philip II of Spain, though he did so with reluctance.
Stephen Gardner died on November 12th 1555.