The country here about Durham is substantially established in the abolition of the bishop of Rome and his usurped power. Would to God ye would send for the bishop of Durham and hear his advice for the utter extirpation of the said power, and how it might be extinguished for ever. I thought myself to have known a great deal and all that could be said in the matter; but when I heard his learning, and how deeply he had searched into this usurped power, I thought myself the veriest fool in England. If he would write a book upon it all the kings of Christendom would shortly follow our master’s steps, so great is his learning and reputation. In all other things concerning high judgment, Parliament matters, &c., he is not living that would advertise you more for your honor and prosperity. Expertus loquor. Your injunctions can have no effect in Durham Abbey in some things; for there was never yet woman was in the abbey further than the church, nor they (the monks) never come within the town. Newcastle, 26 Jan. – Layton
It’s been a while but I thought I’d have a look to see what Cromwell had on his mind at the end of January 1536. His monastic visitors, the comedy double act, Layton and Legh had reached the county of Durham and as we can see from this letter the Bishop of Durham made quite an impression on Layton unlike the clergy of Bangor who wrote to Cromwell on the 30th January to complain about the injunctions for incontinence that had been placed upon them that would prevent them from offering hospitality to travellers – i.e. having women around the place. The good brethren of Bangor complain that they will be forced to seek their living in “ale houses and taverns” if they cannot keep female servants and such women. Nice try gentlemen!
So, who was the Bishop of Durham who compares so favourably to virtually every other cleric in the country and who managed to extract a good account from Layton? The gentleman in question was Cuthbert Tunstall and he replaced Cardinal Wolsey who had been Bishop of Durham from 1523 until 1529. He might not have agreed with Thomas Cromwell but he was a law abiding citizen and obedient to the will of his king.
Tunstall was a Yorkshireman from Hackforth born on the wrong side of the blanket and educated in Oxford before moving to Cambridge where he became friends with Sir Thomas More. Tunstall’s career was initially that of diplomat. He worked on the engagement of the young Princess Mary to Charles V. His reward for his work was to become Bishop of London in 1522. Interestingly, although Tunstall learned towards humanism and reform from within as did Sir Thomas More his future would take a very different course even though they both held a number of identical posts.
During the 1520s Tunstall worked to flush out heretics, to burn proscribed books and the men and women who adhered to new dangerous beliefs. It was Tunstall who was Bishop of London in 1527 when Thomas Bilney, a radical preacher from East Anglia, was tried by Wolsey and found guilty of heresy. In the church court was Sir Thomas More – a layman. He joined with the clerics in their questioning of Bilney. Having been found guilty he was handed over to Tunstall who persuaded him to recant after some time in prison. he was forced to walk barefoot to St Paul’s amongst other things. It has been said that it was Tunstall who persuaded him to recant but ultimately it did not save Bilney’s life. After a stint in prison he set out to demonstrate that he had been in error in going back on his beliefs and was finally executed in 1531 in Norwich.
Tunstall’s life was not about to get any easier. Henry VIII wanted a divorce. Cuthbert sloe up for Catherine of Aragon but ultimately switched sides. It was he and Bishop Lee of York who were sent to Kimbolton in 1534 to try and persuade Catherine to take the Oath of Supremacy and to accept that her daughter was no longer heir to the throne. Tunstall decided to opt for obedience to the King in all things and it perhaps for this reason that a man who would continue in post during the reigns of Edward VI and Queen Mary received a remarkably clean bill of health when Cromwell’s visitors arrived in the County of Durham.
Recognising, perhaps, that the monasteries were to be purged he did not put up a fight to save them. He did, however, insist that Durham’s library be kept in tact.
In 1536 he managed to keep a low profile during the Pilgrimage of Grace by holing up in one of his castles and refusing to come out until it was all over.
Henry VIII recognised Tunstall as a loyal servant of the crown and made him an executor of his will or perhaps Henry’s wife Katherine Parr offered a good reference. Tunstall had been the executor of Sir Thomas Parr ‘s will- Katherine’s father. He and Thomas Parr were cousins and it was perhaps for this reason that Cuthbert assisted Maude Parr with the education of her children- somewhat ironic given Katherine Parr’s leaning to the new learning. Maude left Tunstall a ring in her will…once again proving that everybody of note was related to some degree or other.
As an aside, Cuthbert’s legitimate half-brother Brian managed to get himself killed at Flodden in 1513 and was immortalised in Marmion by Sir Walter Scott. The 1827 memoirs of Marmaduke Tunstall identify Cuthbert’s mother as a daughter of the Conyers family – a notable Yorkshire name. His father was Thomas who provided for the boy and saw to his education.
He officiated at Edward VI’s coronation.
Tunstall had the courage to speak out against the changes that ran counter to his belief. He spoke against the Act of Uniformity in 1549 for example. He didn’t like the idea of married clergy or the changes in offering both bread and wine to communicants. But as with his initial support of Catherine of Aragon once laws were enshrined he acquiesced to their rule. When the Duke of Somerset fell from power and was replaced by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (who swiftly got an upgrade to Duke of Northumberland) he hoped that the religious policies would be reversed. They weren’t. Even worse, Dudley didn’t buy this lawful bishop’s promises of good behaviour so Tunstall found himself in the Tower on charges of felony and only got out of jail when Queen Mary ascended the throne.
In 1558, having weathered three Tudor monarchs Cuthbert, now in his eighties, found himself faced with a fourth. After all those years he finally refused to backtrack from his Catholic position. He refused the Oath of Supremacy, refused to consecrate Parker as Archbishop of Canterbury and was, as a consequence, deprived of his office and committed into house arrest at Lambeth. He died there a few weeks later at the age of eighty-five of natural causes.
The image of Cuthbert is one of three held by the National Portrait Gallery.
‘Henry VIII: January 1536, 26-31’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, January-June 1536, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1887), pp. 64-81. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol10/pp64-81 [accessed 20 January 2017].
Porter, Linda. (2010). Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr. London:MacMillan
Townsend Fox, George (1827) Memoirs of Marmaduke Tunstall, esq., and George Allan, esq