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Heath, Nicholaslocked

  • David Loades

Nicholas Heath (1501?–1578)

by Hans Eworth, 1566

Heath, Nicholas (1501?–1578), administrator and archbishop of York, is of uncertain origins. His family is supposed to have come from Tamworth in Staffordshire, but a later tradition has him born in London, soon after the beginning of the sixteenth century. The names and status of his parents are unknown. He had a brother, William, but no other siblings are recorded. He is supposed to have been educated at the school attached to St Anthony's Hospital, which Stow describes as having been founded by the citizens of London as 'a free schoole for poore mens children' (Stow, 2.143). Stow also refers to the excellence of the teaching which had been provided earlier in the century. The tradition that attaches him to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, soon after its foundation in 1516 is unsubstantiated, as is his supposed nomination to Cardinal Wolsey's new foundation. He certainly attended Christ's College, Cambridge, and there graduated BA before the end of 1520. He was elected to a fellowship in 1521, and obtained his master's degree in 1522. In 1524 he was elected to a fellowship at Clare College, and was probably ordained priest at about that time on the college's title. When Cardinal Wolsey visited the university, Heath is supposed to have made such a good impression on him that he became one of his chaplains, but he did not leave Cambridge, where he was a university chaplain from 1529 to 1532.

Heath seems to have been personally known to Cranmer, and it may have been the future archbishop who introduced him to the clerical circle being patronized by the Boleyn family. In February 1532 he was provided to the vicarage of Hever in the deanery of Shoreham, and probably left the university at about that time. He has been tentatively identified as the chaplain who accompanied Cranmer on his German embassy later in 1532. He is noted to have preached 'wittily and learnedly' during the proceedings against Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, and her associates in 1533, and was at this time clearly a member of the evangelical circle around the archbishop. In 1534 he was appointed archdeacon of Stafford, and was commended by Cranmer to Cromwell, as a result of which in May of that year he accompanied Thomas Eliot on a mission to Germany. In 1535 he went with Edward Fox on his embassy to the Lutheran princes, and is said to have made a favourable impression both on Philip Melanchthon and on Martin Bucer. His conduct on that mission clearly pleased the king, who appointed him an almoner to the royal household, and in 1537 he was instituted to the rectory of Bishopbourne and the deanery of South Malling, which he seems to have held in plurality with his existing benefices.

Heath acted closely with Cranmer over the biblical translations which resulted in the Great Bible of 1539, and it was probably with a view to strengthening the evangelical presence on the bench of bishops that he was nominated to the see of Rochester on 25 March 1540, no doubt with Cromwell's blessing. He was consecrated on 4 April. He was sworn of the king's council on 3 October 1540, specifically so that he could try cases in Star Chamber, and appointed a master of requests. Along with Cuthbert Tunstall of Durham he was then appointed by the king to 'oversee and peruse' the second edition of the Great Bible in 1541. In 1542 he supported Cranmer in the latter's attempts to modify the rigour of the Act of Six Articles, and in 1545 he was named to a commission for the suppression of 'superstitious practices'.

However, by this time Heath seems to have been having second thoughts about the extent of his evangelical commitment, and was one of those who benefited from the conservative reaction of the early 1540s. On 22 December 1543 he was elected bishop of Worcester, the see being vacant by the resignation of John Bell; the temporalities were restored on 22 March 1544, and he was enthroned by proxy on 10 April. Little is known of Heath as diocesan during his relatively brief incumbency at Rochester, but he seems to have been both resident and conscientious. At Worcester, not being much in favour with the government for most of his episcopate, he was again able to spend time in his diocese. In 1548 he was pressed into an exchange of lands with the earl of Warwick, for which Warwick sought the duke of Somerset's support. Unusually, however, this was a reasonably fair exchange, and the temporalities suffered little, if at all. He carried out the usual local responsibilities of a diocesan, and was assessed to provide five great horses for military purposes, also in 1548. Heath's relations with his cathedral city were not always amicable, but there is little sign of overt hostility towards him. He was a good steward of his resources, although perhaps a little generous to his family when it came to leases, and it was only after he was deprived in 1551 that the diocese began to suffer financially.

Later in 1544 Heath was involved in preparing new statutes for those cathedrals which had been secularized after the dissolution of the monasteries, but he was not close enough to the court to be involved in the political struggles at the end of Henry's reign. Following the accession of Edward VI, Heath, unlike Gardiner, made no protest against either the royal injunctions or the homilies of the summer of 1547, but his position in respect of the changes seems to have been very similar. In December he responded in a conservative manner to Cranmer's questionnaire on the sacraments, and voted against the government in the House of Lords. By 1549 he was clearly identified as an opponent of change, but had committed no act of overt disobedience. In April 1549 he was included in a commission to investigate heresy, because the targets on that occasion were radical protestant dissenters, and he accepted the prayer book later that year with no recorded objection. There were, however, limits to his flexibility, and in 1550 he refused to sign the new ordinal, in spite of being one of those who had been appointed to devise it. He did not refuse to use it, but he had now overstepped the shadowy line which separated discontent from opposition. So far he had been protected, partly because of his long friendship with Cranmer, and partly because of his eirenic disposition. However, the earl of Warwick, the new president of the council, was less accommodating than Protector Somerset had been, and Cranmer's influence was being challenged by those more radical than himself. Early in 1551 Heath was brought before the council for his obstinacy over the ordinal, and when he refused to give way, on 4 March he was committed to the Fleet.

During the summer Heath came under pressure not only to sign the ordinal but also to accept the government's policy on the removal of altars and images. The latter course he found particularly obnoxious, and when he refused to yield, he was deprived of his see by royal commission on 10 October. Unlike the more abrasive dissidents such as Gardiner and Bonner, he did not remain in prison, but was released into the custody of Nicholas Ridley, bishop of London, in June 1552. At no time did Heath commit any clear statement of his position to paper, and it has to be reconstructed from his actions. He appears to have accepted the royal supremacy, the English Bible, and the English liturgy (with reservations); but to have defended the traditional sacraments, particularly the mass, and traditional ceremonies. By 1553 he had probably decided, like Gardiner, that the royal supremacy had been a mistake because of the manner in which it could be exploited by heretics, and was ready for a return to papal obedience.

Whatever the source of her information, Queen Mary had no doubts about Heath's reliability. Immediately after her accession he was recognized (6 August 1553) as bishop of Worcester, well in advance of any judicial review or decision; and at the same time appointed president of the council in the marches of Wales. He returned to the privy council on 4 September. When the papal jurisdiction was restored at the beginning of 1555 he was absolved and dispensed by Cardinal Pole, because neither his orders nor his appointment were recognized by Rome. As a councillor he was actively involved in the persecution of heresy, when that began in February 1555, and Foxe records his participation in a number of interrogations. Inevitably the martyrologist makes him appear bigoted and foolish, but not even Foxe claims that he was an enthusiastic persecutor. He was, however, one of Mary's more senior and experienced bishops, and when Robert Holgate was deprived of the archbishopric of York, Heath was translated there by papal provision on 21 June 1555. As legatus natus it was his responsibility to consecrate Pole to Canterbury after Cranmer's execution, on 22 March 1556.

Following his restoration to Worcester, Heath had applied himself to recovering losses suffered by his see during Hooper's episcopate, with at least a degree of success, although his duties as a member of Mary's privy council increasingly kept him away from his diocese after 1553. At York he was still more distracted by secular business, especially once he had become chancellor. As he attended over half the recorded council meetings of Mary's reign, he can have been only an occasional visitor to his province. However, he was now in an excellent position to defend the interests of his see, and he recovered many manors and advowsons which had been alienated by his predecessor, thereby restoring York to its position as one of England's wealthiest sees. These successes may have owed more to Mary's own policy of episcopal restoration than to any particular effort on the part of the archbishop, but the latter seems none the less to have conducted a competent management policy, albeit one very largely guided from a distance and carried out by agents. As at Worcester, Heath appears to have followed a leasing policy which favoured his own family, but with terms limited to twenty-one years.

When Stephen Gardiner died on 12 November 1555 the great seal was put into commission, and there seems to have been some disagreement between the king and queen over the appointment of his successor. Whether Heath was Philip's choice or Mary's is a matter of some controversy; perhaps he was a compromise. As chancellor, he had nothing like the panache or political influence of his predecessor, and his incumbency, from 1 January 1556 to 17 November 1558, has never been particularly studied. When Mary died the great seal returned to the new queen, but Heath's political position was clearly revealed at once. His last act as chancellor was to proclaim Elizabeth in the House of Lords, and he was quite unequivocal (although not at all logical) in accepting her legitimacy. Briefly he remained a member of the council, and the new queen seems to have entertained hopes of his conformity to the religious settlement she was intending. Early in 1559 he collaborated with Sir Nicholas Bacon in setting up the Westminster disputation, and refused to support the Catholic participants when they objected to the procedure. However, these hopeful signs were deceptive. He voted against the settlement in the House of Lords, and refused the oath of supremacy, instead urging Elizabeth to continue her sister's policies. His integrity and outspokenness earned the queen's respect, but his deprivation inevitably followed, on 5 July 1559. For a time he was imprisoned with other deprived bishops in the Tower of London, but he clearly presented no political threat, and unlike Bonner had attracted no particular opprobrium. Consequently in February 1561 he was allowed to retire to a small estate which he held at Chobham in Surrey, on the condition that he abandon all public life.

Although he retained the queen's personal favour, Heath's retirement was not entirely tranquil. Mass continued to be celebrated in his houses, both at Chobham and at a property of which he had the use in Southwark. In 1574 he was twice questioned by the council about this clandestine activity, although no action seems to have been taken against him. The tradition that he was reimprisoned and died in the Tower is unsubstantiated. He died in December 1578, probably at Chobham, and the administration of his estate was granted to Thomas Heath, described as his 'next of kin' and probably his nephew, on 5 May 1579. He was buried in Chobham parish church, neither his Catholic friends nor the protestant authorities making any objection to this arrangement. In spite of his distinguished career, and undoubted recusancy, Heath was treated in his retirement as a minor country gentleman. A William Heath, gentleman, who may have been his brother and was also described as 'of Chobham', had predeceased him in 1569. Being a man of strict life, the former archbishop left no direct descendants.


  • F. Heal, Of prelates and princes: a study of the economic and social position of the Tudor episcopate (1980)
  • L. B. Smith, Tudor prelates and politics, 1536–1558 (1953)
  • G. E. Phillips, The extinction of the ancient hierarchy (1905)


  • TNA: PRO, chancery, star chamber, and domestic state papers


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