Matthew Parker

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Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker (August 6, 1504 – May 17, 1575) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 until his death in 1575 and was the major architect of the Elizabethan religious settlement, in which the Church of England maintained a distinct identity apart from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

Parker studied at Cambridge, where he was influenced by the writings of Martin Luther and other reformers. In 1535 he was appointed chaplain to Anne Boleyn and in 1537 to Henry VIII. In 1544, Parker became master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to which he later left his fine collection of ancient manuscripts, and in 1545 he was made vice chancellor of Cambridge. After the accession of Mary I, who deprived him of his positions because he was a married priest, he lived in obscurity until he was called by Elizabeth I to the see of Canterbury. A diffident, scholarly man, he agreed with reluctance to the primacy, at Elizabeth's request. He courageously undertook the primate's responsibilities in a time of change and peculiar difficulty, sustaining a distinctly Anglican position between extreme Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In 1562 he revised the Thirty-nine Articles, the defining statements of Anglican doctrine. He supervised (1563–68) the preparation of the Bishops' Bible, published anonymously De antiquitate Britannicae ecclesiae (1572), and is also noted for his editions of the works of Matthew of Paris and other chroniclers.


Matthew Parker was born August 6, 1504, the eldest son of William Parker, in St. Saviour's parish, Norwich. His family was well-to-do, but little is known about his early life. His mother's maiden name was Alice Monins, and she may have been related by marriage to Thomas Cranmer. When William Parker died, in about 1516, his widow married John Baker. Matthew was educated at St. Mary's Hostel and sent in 1522 to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He is said to have been contemporary with William Cecil at Cambridge, but this is debatable as Cecil was only two years old at the time. Parker graduated with a B.A. in 1525, or 1524. He was ordained a deacon in April and a priest in June of 1527, though he had already become sympathetic to Lutheranism; and was elected a fellow of Corpus Christi College in the following September. He commenced his Master of Arts in 1528, and was one of the Cambridge scholars whom Thomas Wolsey wished to transplant to his newly founded "Cardinal College" at Oxford. Parker, like Cranmer, declined the invitation.

During the next seven years Parker studied the early history of the Church. He associated with the group of reformers who met at the White Horse Inn, but was never a controversialist, being more interested in discovering the facts than in learning others’ opinions. He became a popular and influential preacher in and around Cambridge, though he was once (in about 1539) accused of heresy before Lord Chancellor Audley, who dismissed the charge and urged Parker to 'go on and fear no such enemies'.

After Anne Boleyn's recognition as queen he was reluctantly persuaded to become her chaplain. Through her, he was appointed dean of Sr. John the Baptist College of secular canons at Stoke-by-Clare, Suffolk, in 1535, and spent several years there pursing his scholarly interests, improving the college and saving it from dissolution when Henry VIII attacked the monasteries. Hugh Latimer wrote to him in 1535, urging him not to fall short of the expectations which had been formed of his ability. Before her execution in 1536, Anne Boleyn commended her daughter Elizabeth to his care.

In 1537 Parker was appointed chaplain to King Henry VIII. In 1538 he was threatened with prosecution, but the Bishop of Dover, reported to Thomas Cromwell that Parker "hath ever been of a good judgment and set forth the Word of God after a good manner. For this he suffers some grudge." He graduated as a Doctor of Divinity in that year, and in 1541 was appointed to the second prebend in the reconstituted cathedral church of Ely.

In 1544, at the recommendation of Henry VIII, he was elected master of Corpus Christi College, and in 1545, Vice-Chancellor of the university and also Dean of Lincoln. He got into some trouble with the chancellor, Stephen Gardiner, over a ribald play, Pammachius, performed by the students at Christ’s College, which derided the old ecclesiastical system. He also skillfully warded off an attempt by the Crown to acquire some of the revenues of the Cambridge colleges. On the passing of the act of parliament in 1545 enabling the king to dissolve chantries and colleges, Parker was appointed one of the commissioners for Cambridge, and their report may have saved its colleges from destruction.

The college of secular canons at Stoke, however, was dissolved in the following reign, and Parker received a generous pension. He took advantage of the new reign to marry Margaret, daughter of Robert Harlestone, a Norfolk squire, in June, 1547, before clerical marriages had been legalized by parliament and convocation. They had been betrothed for seven years, but had been unable to marry because of laws forbidding the marriage of clergy. Anticipating that this law would be amended by the Lower House of Convocarían, the couple proceeded with their marriage. The marriage caused difficulties for both of them when Mary Tudor came to the throne, and again when Elizabeth became Queen and made outspoken objections to married clergy. Elizabeth I was compelled in later years to acknowledge the worth of Margaret Parker, whose support and confidence assured much of her husband’s success.

Parker happened to be in Norwich when Ket's rebellion broke out (1549) in Norfolk. Since the rebels used the English Prayer Book and allowed licensed preachers to address them, Parker went to the camp on Mousehold Hill and preached a sermon from the 'Oak of Reformation'. He urged the rebels not to destroy the crops, not to shed human blood, and not to distrust the King. Later on he encouraged his chaplain, Alexander Neville, to write his history of the rising.

Parker received higher promotion under John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, than under the moderate Edward Seymour, First Duke of Somerset. At Cambridge, he was a friend of Martin Bucer and preached Bucer's funeral sermon in 1551. In 1552, he was promoted to the rich deanery of Lincoln, and in July 1553 he dined with Northumberland at Cambridge, when the duke marched north on his hopeless campaign against the accession of Mary Tudor.

When Mary came to the throne in 1553, as a supporter of Northumberland and a married priest, Parker was deprived of his deanery, his mastership of Corpus Christi, and his other preferments. He disappeared into retirement from public life, living with a friend and enjoying freedom from administrative duties. During this time, however, he fell from a horse and for the rest of his life, suffered from a strangulated hernia which eventually caused his death. He survived Mary's reign without leaving England, unlike more ardent Protestants who went into exile, or were martyred by "Bloody Mary."

Archbishop of Canterbury

Parker respected authority, and when his time came he was able to consistently impose authority on others. When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, she was faced with the difficulty of balancing the old Roman Catholics, who still accepted the Pope as head of the Church; the Henrician Catholics, who accepted the Catholic religion but repudiated the Papal supremacy; and the extreme Protestants, who were now returning from exile on the Continent. Matthew Parker possessed all the qualifications Elizabeth expected from an archbishop except celibacy. He distrusted popular enthusiasm, and he wrote in horror of the idea that "the people" should be the reformers of the Church. He was not an inspiring leader, and no dogma, no prayer-book, not even a tract or a hymn was associated with his name. He was a disciplinarian, an erudite scholar, a modest and moderate man of genuine piety and irreproachable morals, with a conciliatory yet courageous character. Parker was not eager to assume the task, and would have preferred to return to Cambridge and restore the University, which had fallen into decay. Elizabeth and William Cecil compelled him to accept the appointment. Years later Parker declared that 'if he had not been so much bound to the mother (Anne Boleyn), he would not so soon have granted to serve the daughter'.

He was elected on August 1, 1559, but, after the turbulence and executions that had preceded Elizabeth's accession, it was difficult to find the requisite four bishops willing and qualified to consecrate Parker. He was consecrated on December 19 at Lambeth Chapel by William Barlow, formerly Bishop of Bath and Wells, John Scory, formerly Bishop of Chichester, Miles Coverdale, formerly Bishop of Exeter, and John Hodgkins, Bishop of Bedford. The allegation of an indecent consecration at the Nag's Head tavern in Fleet Street seems first to have been made by the Jesuit, Christopher Holywood, in 1604, and has since been discredited. Parker's consecration was, however, legally valid only by the plentitude of the royal supremacy; the Edwardine Ordinal, which was used, had been repealed by Mary Tudor and not re-enacted by the parliament of 1559. The Roman Catholic Church asserted that the form of consecration used was insufficient to make a bishop, and therefore represented a break in the Apostolic Succession, but the Church of England has rejected this, arguing that the form of words used made no difference to the substance or validity of the act. This consecration by four bishops surviving in England is the connecting link between the old and the new succession of Orders in the Church of England.

Although Parker was a modest man who disliked ostentation, he had a proper regard for the office of Archbishop and for his duty as a hospitable host. Though he himself ate frugally, he entertained liberally and was given special leave by the Queen to maintain a body of forty retainers in addition to his regular servants.

Parker avoided involvement in secular politics and was never admitted to Elizabeth's privy council. Ecclesiastical politics gave him considerable trouble. The most difficult aspect of Parker's primacy involved increasing conflict with extremist reformers in the Church of England, known from about 1565 as Precisians, or Puritans. Some of the evangelical reformers wanted liturgical changes, and the option not to wear certain clerical vestments, if not their complete prohibition. Early Presbyterians wanted no bishops, and the conservatives opposed all these changes, often preferring to move in the opposite direction toward the practices of the Henrician church. The queen herself grudged Episcopal privilege, until she eventually recognized it as one of the chief bulwarks of the royal supremacy. To Parker's consternation, the queen refused to add her imprimatur to his attempts to secure conformity, though she insisted that he achieve this goal. Parker was left to stem the rising tide of Puritan feeling with little support from parliament, convocation or the Crown. The bishops' Interpretations and Further Considerations, issued in 1560, tolerated a lower standard of vestments than was prescribed by the rubric of 1559, but it fell short of the desires of the anti-vestiarian clergy like Coverdale (one of the bishops who had consecrated Parker), who made a public display of their nonconformity in London.

The Book of Advertisements, which Parker published in 1566, to check the anti-vestiarian faction, had to appear without specific royal sanction; and the Reformatio legum ecclesiasticarum, which John Foxe published with Parker's approval, received neither royal, parliamentary nor synodical authorization. Parliament even contested the claim of the bishops to determine matters of faith. "Surely," said Parker to Peter Wentworth, "you will refer yourselves wholly to us therein." "No, by the faith I bear to God," retorted Wentworth, "we will pass nothing before we understand what it is; for that were but to make you popes. Make you popes who list, for we will make you none." Disputes about vestments had expanded into a controversy over the whole field of Church government and authority, and Parker died on May 17, 1575, lamenting that Puritan ideas of "governance" would "in conclusion undo the queen and all others that depended upon her." By his personal conduct he had set an ideal example for Anglican priests, and it was not his fault that national authority failed to crush the individualistic tendencies of the Protestant Reformation.

He was buried in Lambeth Church, and his tomb was desecrated by the Puritans in 1648. When Sancroft became Archbishop, Parker's bones were recovered and reburied, with the epitaph, 'Corpus Matthaei Archiepiscopi hic tandem quiescit'.


The Anglican Church owes a great deal to the wisdom of Matthew Parker’s guidance during a period when it was threatened both by Roman Catholicism and Puritan extremism. One of his first efforts as Archbishop was the Metropolitan Visitation of the southern province in 1560-61 to investigate how well the Act of Uniformity and the Injunctions of 1559 (a series of orders intended to protect the new Church from certain Catholic traditions which were considered “superstitious” such as the cult of saints and reverence for relics and to ensure that only sound Protestant doctrine was being taught) were being implemented and to correct moral offences among clergy and laity. When Parliament and the Convocation became suspicious of Roman Catholicism and began to feel threatened by it, Parker acted to prevent the persecution or Roman Catholics in England. Faced with a plethora of religious propaganda and a confusion of new ideas, Parker set out to provide a uniform doctrine for the Elizabethan Church by reducing Cranmer's Articles of Religion (1563) from forty-two to thirty-eight, and issuing various Homilies and Catechisms to lay down the fundamental points of belief. He dealt patiently with the difficulties presented by Puritan dissensions within the Church, the Queen’s indecision and lack of official support, and the hostility of courtiers such as the Earl of Leicester.

Parker organized a new translation of the Bible, translating Genesis, Matthew, and some Pauline letters himself; this Bishops' Bible (1568) was official until the King James Version (1611).

Parker’s historical research was exemplified in his De antiquilate ecclesiae, and his editions of Asser, Matthew Paris, Walsingham, and the compiler known as Matthew of Westminster; his liturgical skill was shown in his version of the psalter and in the occasional prayers and thanksgivings which he was called upon to compose. He left a priceless collection of ancient manuscripts, largely collected from former monastic libraries, to his college at Cambridge. The Parker Library at Corpus Christi bears his name and houses his collection. The Parker collection of early English manuscripts, including the book of St. Augustine Gospels and Version A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was created as part of his effort to demonstrate that the English Church had been historically independent from Rome, creating one of the world's most important collections of ancient manuscripts.

In 1566 Parker paid out of his own pocket for John Day to cut the first Saxon type in brass for the anonymous publications of A Testimonie of Antiquitie (De antiquitate Britannicae ecclesiae, 1572), showing, 'the ancient faith of the Church of England touching the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord... above 600 years ago'. The book proved that it was a medieval innovation which had forbidden marriage of the clergy, and which restricted the receiving at the Communion to one kind.

Matthew Parker's manuscript collection is mainly housed in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge with some volumes in the Cambridge University Library. The Parker on the Web project will make images of all of these manuscripts available online.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Aelfric, John Joscelyn, Matthew Parker, and William Lisle. A testimonie of antiquity shewing the auncient faith in the Church of England, touching the Sacrament of the body and bloude of the Lord here publickly preached, and also receaved in the Saxons time, above 600 years agoe. London: Printed for J.W.
  • Cross, Claire. 1992. The Elizabethan religious settlement. Bangor: Headstart History. ISBN 1873041608
  • Froude, James Anthony. History of England, from the fall of Wolsey to the death of Elizabeth. New York: AMS Press, 1969.
  • Hudson, Winthrop Still. The Cambridge connection and the Elizabethan settlement of 1559. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1980. ISBN 0822304406
  • Perry, Edith (Weir). Under four Tudors, being the story of Matthew Parker, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964.
  • Ramsey, Michael. Anglicanism: Matthew Parker and to-day: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Quatercentenary celebrations of Archbishop Matthew Parker, l504-l575. Boutwood lectures. 1975.


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