Between 1534 and 1554, there were two people claiming to be bishop of Worcester and two to be bishop of Salisbury; and between 1559 and 1585, two claiming to be bishop of St Asaph. In all cases one of those two prelates was a royal appointee living in England and the other was appointed by (and living in) Rome.
Let me explain. For decades before the Reformation, Worcester and Salisbury had been held by absentee Italians – all egregious examples of the twin vices of non-residence and pluralism which blighted the late-medieval Church.
In 1534, when Henry VIII repudiated Rome, these two foreigners were deposed and their sees bestowed on royal nominees, one of them Hugh Latimer (a zealous Protestant), who got Worcester, and the other a dutiful “Henrician”, who got Salisbury.
However, Rome took no notice of all this and the two Italians continued to regard themselves as the legitimate bishops of their English sees. Moreover, when the first of them died in 1539, Rome observed the ancient principle that the benefice of any cleric dying while at the Curia was in the pope’s gift – and appointed a successor, a distinguished Italian cardinal.
He in turn died in 1542, the absentee Italian bishop of Salisbury having predeceased him by a few months. Whereupon the then pope, Paul III, daringly appointed two Englishmen to the vacant sees.
The first of these was Richard Pate (or Pates). A nephew of the then bishop of Lincoln, he had arrived suddenly in Rome in early 1541, having done a carefully planned bunk while heading a royal embassy to the emperor Charles V. He quickly made contact with another Englishman who had long before fled his homeland: Reginald Pole, a cardinal and papal confidant.
Thanks to Pole, Pate was appointed bishop of Worcester.
Meanwhile, another English fugitive had arrived in the Eternal City: one William Peto, a zealous Franciscan and secret confidant of the future Queen Mary. He had fled England in the early 1530s and, after many travels, reached Rome. There he was ordained bishop of Salisbury in March 1543.
Both Pate and Peto (like Pole) had been “attainted”, that is, declared traitors by Parliament, and faced being executed if they returned to their homeland. Both, with Pole, attended the first sessions of the momentous Council of Trent, which began in 1545. Then, at last, in 1553 the Catholic Mary Tudor ascended the throne and set about restoring the old order; and the two exiled bishops of Worcester and Salisbury came back to England – together with Pole, who had been appointed to replace the heretical Cranmer as archbishop of Canterbury.
But how were they to take possession of their sees?
First, their attainders had to be “lifted” by Parliament. That was the easy bit.
Since Cranmer had been validly ordained and appointed to Canterbury by Rome long since, Pole could not take his place until Cranmer had been formally deposed.
So Pole was not consecrated archbishop until March 1556.
Salisbury was comparatively straightforward. Its schismatic but validly ordained incumbent had conveniently died, so Peto could take possession of his see at once.
But Worcester was very complicated. For a while in 1554 there were four people with the title of bishop: the long-since-resigned Hugh Latimer; his successor Thomas Heath, future archbishop of York, who was deprived of his see in 1551 by the Protestant regime and replaced by one Thomas Hooper (who was eventually burnt, along with Latimer and Cranmer).
Heath was restored to Worcester by Mary – only to be soon translated to York, thus making way for Pate – and enabling the latter at last to take up residence in the see of which he had been pastor in absentia for 13 years.
Mary, the last-but-one Catholic monarch of England, and Reginald Pole, the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury, died within a few hours of one another on November 17, 1558. At least eight other bishops died at about the same time, several of them apparently victims of the virus which carried off the queen and cardinal (all this clear proof to gleeful Reformers that God was a Protestant).
Shortly afterwards, one of the survivors of this much-depleted hierarchy, Thomas Goldwell, bishop of St Asaph, fled back to Rome.
The remainder of his brother bishops, having refused to take the oath of Supremacy to the new queen (Elizabeth), were imprisoned. So, once again, many dioceses – Bath and Wells, Chester, Lincoln, London and Salisbury among them – had two bishops apiece: one a Protestant replacement appointed by the monarch, the other a Catholic appointed by Rome but now deprived by the supreme governor of the Church of England and in jail.
Some of the imprisoned bishops had very chequered careers. Bonner of London, for instance, appointed by the schismatic Henry VIII but validly ordained in 1540, was deprived of his see in 1549 by the Protestant regime of Henry’s son, restored by Henry’s first daughter (Mary) in 1553 and deprived again by Henry’s second (Elizabeth) in 1559. He died in London’s notorious Marshalsea prison 10 years later.
Two Marian bishops were sent to the Tower: that same Richard Pate (who died in 1565) and Gilbert Scott, deprived bishop of Chester. The latter escaped to the Continent – and died there. Heath, the last Catholic archbishop of York, after wavering, refused to submit to the new regime; he was imprisoned and died in 1579. Thomas Watson, appointed to Lincoln in 1557, deprived and imprisoned in 1559, survived until 1584.
He was the last but one survivor of Mary’s hierarchy (the very last one being Thomas Goldwell of St Asaph’s).
Some of these Marian bishops may not have been made entirely of the stuff of martyrs. But some were surely true confessors. May they one day be “raised to the altars”.
So there remained Thomas Goldwell of St Asaph. He quit his homeland again shortly after Mary’s death and returned to Rome. He might have become one of the most celebrated (or execrated) bishops in our history.
He had become a Theatine when he first fled England, that is, a member of the first of several austere new orders founded in the 16th century. He was very close to Pole. Before returning to England in 1555, he secured Rome’s assent to Pole’s plans for handling the crucial issue of what was to be done about the ex-monastic and chantry properties which had come into lay possession in the previous reigns. He was at Pole’s deathbed and anointed him.
During his short stay in England he had been a vigorous pastor, purging his clergy of defectors and famously restoring St Winifred’s Well, one of the many shrines of pre-Reformation England.
Back in Rome, for a while he was vicar-general of Charles Borromeo, the mighty archbishop of Milan. He confirmed or ordained to the priesthood several future martyrs of the English mission, and was a zealous custos (superior) of the medieval “hospital” (boarding house) for humbler pilgrims to Rome. In 1579 this became a seminary, today’s Venerabile. Goldwell then retired to the splendid Theatine church of San Silvestro, where he died and is buried. He left the English College many bequests, including his library.
Above all, he had been intent on destroying Elizabeth. He attended the last session of Trent and tried to get the council to excommunicate her. He eventually prevailed on the sainted Pius V to do so – having set in train a daring plan to undo her. He had tried once before, in 1564, to do so; but the plot misfired.
Four years later he sent a confidant, one Nicholas Morton (a shadowy figure), to England to encourage a rebellion which would topple Elizabeth and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne. Two powerful northern earls – Northumberland and Westmorland (both eager Catholics) – agreed to it, the understanding being that, when they rose, Elizabeth would be excommunicated and Catholic Mary swept to power.
The plot failed catastrophically. Pope Pius dithered. The excommunication came 12 months too late (when, arguably, it did more harm than good). The two earls thus failed to recruit support and the rising was quickly and ruthlessly put down.
But Bishop Goldwell had not been mad. Elizabeth was, by any law – canon, Roman or common – illegitimate. Her subjects scarcely knew her. Scottish Mary had a much better claim to the throne. England was not yet a Protestant country. And so on. That rising could have been a success.
Goldwell had one more enterprise. In 1580 the first Jesuit mission, led famously by Fr Robert Persons and Fr Edmund Campion, took off for England. It included more than a dozen others – among them Bishop Goldwell and that same Nicholas Morton. Those two went ahead of the rest of the party, who eventually caught them up in Rheims.
Their separate travel was a symptom of a serious conflict of purpose. The Jesuits had strict instructions not to get involved in “politics”. Their mission was to nurture a Catholic population that was dying of spiritual malnutrition. But surely Goldwell saw things differently. He had come once more to overthrow a heretical regime.
He got no further than Rheims – and then returned to Rome. Was this, in part, because he and the Jesuits were at serious cross-purposes – and Goldwell wisely gave way? Or was it cowardice? He had been accused of this when he chose exile rather than prison in 1559. That charge was unfair.
But in 1580?
He was then a good 75 years old. Perhaps he should never have set out on that mission at all. Maybe his courage was great, not heroic. (But suppose he had crossed to England in 1580. He would surely have soon been caught and put to death – and be our third martyr-bishop. Inspired by him, Theatines might have become as conspicuous a part of post-Reformation English Catholic life as Jesuits.)
Meanwhile, back at home, there had been three successive bishops of St Asaph since Goldwell was deprived – all royal nominees, of course. None of them had particularly memorable careers. Certainly none could match that of their papal “duplicate”, the firebrand Goldwell.
There is a final chapter to this story of English episcopal “proliferation” When the English hierarchy was restored at last in 1850, an angry Parliament decreed that no new Romish bishopric should duplicate an existing Anglican one (not that the pope or anyone else intended that it should). There was to be no rival Catholic bishop of Chester, Lincoln, Worcester or wherever.
But that Act conveniently cut one way only. The Established Church soon had its bishops of Southwark, Birmingham, Liverpool and so on: episcopal duplication once more – and still with us.
Professor Jack Scarisbrick is a historian and emeritus national chairman of Life
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