He was educated at Broadgates Hall, now Pembroke College, Oxford, graduating bachelor of civil and canon law in June 1519. He was ordained about the same time, and admitted DCL in 1525. In 1529 he was Wolsey's chaplain, and he was with the cardinal at Cawood at the time of his arrest. Subsequently he was transferred, perhaps through Cromwell's influence, to the service of the king, and in January 1532 he was sent to Rome to obstruct the judicial proceedings against Henry in the papal curia. In October 1533 he was entrusted with the unmannerly task of intimating to Clement VII, while he was the guest of Francis I at Marseilles, Henry's appeal from the pope to a general council; but there seems to be no good authority for Burnet's story that Clement threatened to have him burnt alive. For these and other services Bonner had been rewarded by the grant of several livings, and in 1535 he was made archdeacon of Leicester.
Towards the end of that year he was sent to further what he called "the cause of the Gospel" (Letters and Papers, 1536, No. 469) in North Germany; and in 1536 he wrote a preface to Gardiner's De vera Obedientia, which asserted the royal, denied the papal, supremacy, and was received with delight by the Lutherans. After a brief embassy to the emperor in the spring of 1538, Bonner superseded Gardiner at Paris, and began his mission by sending Cromwell a long list of accusations against his predecessor. He was almost as bitter against Wyatt and Mason, whom he denounced as a "papist," and the violence of his conduct led Francis I to threaten him with a hundred strokes of the halberd. He seems, however, to have pleased his patron, Cromwell, and perhaps Henry, by his energy in seeing the king's "Great" Bible in English through the press in Paris. He was already king's chaplain; his appointment at Paris had been accompanied by promotion to the see of Hereford, and before he returned to take possession he was translated to the bishopric of London (October 1539).
Hitherto Bonner had been known as a somewhat coarse and unscrupulous tool of Cromwell--a sort of ecclesiastical Wriothesley, He is not known to have protested against any of the changes effected by his masters; he professed to be no theologian, and was wont, when asked theological questions, to refer his interrogators to the divines. He had graduated in law, and not in theology. There was nothing in the Reformation to appeal to him, except the repudiation of papal control; and he was one of those numerous Englishmen whose views were faithfully reflected in the Six Articles. He became a staunch Conservative, and, apart from his embassy to the emperor in 1524-1543, was mainly occupied during the last years of Henry's reign in brandishing the "whip with six strings."
The accession of Edward VI, opened a fresh and more creditable chapter in Bonner's career. Like Gardiner, he could hardly repudiate that royal supremacy, in the establishment of which he had been, so active an agent; but he began to doubt that supremacy when he saw to what uses it could be put by a Protestant council, and either he or Gardiner evolved the theory that the royal supremacy was in abeyance during a royal minority. The ground was skillfully chosen, but it was not legally nor constitutionally tenable. Both he and Gardiner had in fact sought fresh licences to exercise their ecclesiastical jurisdiction from the young king; and, if he was supreme enough to confer jurisdiction, he was supreme enough to issue the injunctions and order the visitation to which Bonner objected. Moreover, if a minority involved an abeyance of the royal supremacy in the ecclesiastical sphere, it must do the same in the temporal sphere, and there could be nothing but anarchy. It was on this question that Bonner came into conflict with Edward's government.
He resisted the visitation of August 1547, and was committed to the Fleet; but he withdrew his opposition, and was released in time to take an active part against the government in the parliament of November 1547. In the next session, November 1548-March 1549, he was a leading opponent of the first Act of Uniformity and Book of Common Prayer. When these became law, he neglected to enforce them, and on September 1 1549 he was required by the council to maintain at St Paul's Cross that the royal authority was as great as if the king were forty years of age. He failed to comply, and after a seven days' trial he was deprived of his bishopric by an ecclesiastical court over which Cranmer presided, and was sent to the Marshalsea. The fall of Somerset in the following month raised Bonner's hopes, and he appealed from Cranmer to the council. After a struggle the Protestant faction gained the upper hand, and on February 7 1550 Bonner's deprivation was confirmed by the council sitting in the Star Chamber, and he was further condemned to perpetual imprisonment.
He was released by Mary's accession, and was at once restored to his see, his deprivation being regarded as invalid and Ridley as an intruder. He vigorously restored Roman Catholicism in his diocese, made no difficulty about submitting to the papal jurisdiction which he had forsworn, and in 1555 began the persecution to which he owes his fame and nick name Bloody Bonner. His apologists explain that his action was merely "official," but Bonner was one of those who brought it to pass that the condemnation of heretics to the fire should be part of his ordinary official duties. The enforcement of the first Book of Common Prayer had also been part of his official duties; and the fact that Bonner made no such protest against the burning of heretics as he had done in the former case shows that he found it the more congenial duty. Tunstal was as good a Catholic as Bonner; he left a different repute behind him, a clear enough indication of a difference in their deeds.
On the other hand, Bonner did not go out of his way to persecute; many of his victims were forced upon him by the council, which sometimes thought that he had not been severe enough. So completely had the state dominated the church that religious persecutions had become state persecutions, and Bonner was acting as an ecclesiastical sheriff in the most refractory district of the realm. Even Foxe records instances in which Bonner failed to persecute. But he had no mercy for a fallen foe; and he is seen at his worst in his brutal jeers at Cranmer, when. he was entrusted with the duty of degrading his former chief. It is a more remarkable fact that, in spite of his prominence, neither Henry VIII nor Mary should ever have admitted him to the privy council. He seems to have been regarded by his own party as a useful instrument, especially in disagreeable work, rather than as a desirable colleague.
On her accession Elizabeth refused to allow him to kiss her hand; but he sat and voted in the parliament and convocation of 1559. In May he refused to take the oath of supremacy, acquiring like his colleagues consistency with old age. He was sent to the Marshalsea, and a few years later was indicted on a charge of praemunire on refusing the oath when tendered him by his diocesan, Bishop Home of Winchester. He challenged the legality of Home's consecration, and a special act of parliament was passed to meet the point, while the charge against Bonner was withdrawn. He died in the Marshalsea on September 5 1569, and was buried in St George's, Southwark, at midnight to avoid the risk of a hostile demonstration.
There is a gate named after him in Victoria Park in the East End of London.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.