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Piers, Johnlocked

  • Claire Cross

John Piers (1522/33–1594)

by unknown artist

Piers, John (1522/3–1594), archbishop of York, was born of humble parents at South Hinksey, near Oxford. He received his education first at Magdalen College School and then at Magdalen College itself, which he entered as a demy in 1542, graduating BA in 1545, MA in 1549, BTh in 1558, and DTh in 1566. Immediately after taking his BA he was elected to a fellowship at Magdalen which, apart from a year spent as a senior student at Christ Church in 1547, he enjoyed until 1559. After ordination he may possibly from 1545 to 1557 have held the living of St Edmund, King and Martyr, Lombard Street, London, and under Mary that of West Ham, Essex, before becoming rector of Quainton in Buckinghamshire in 1558. Anthony Wood relates the anecdote of how early in his career, while ministering to one of his rural cures, 'twas usual with him to sit tipling in a blind ale-house with some of his neighbours' and how he 'was in great hazard to have lost all those excellent gifts that came after to be well esteemed and rewarded in him' (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 1.713). Rebuked for these excesses by a clerical friend, he renounced his former way of life and was thereafter noted for extreme sobriety. In 1567 he resigned Quainton when collated to the rectory of Laindon in Essex by Edmund Grindal, bishop of London.

While still largely engaged in teaching at Oxford, in the first decades of Elizabeth's reign Piers acquired a series of promotions. In 1567 he secured the deanery of Chester, to which in 1571 he added the deanery of Salisbury, where he took pains to purge the cathedral statutes of popish accretions and make them conformable to the laws of the realm. In 1570 he obtained the mastership of Balliol together with the college rectory of Fillingham in Lincolnshire, and the following year was appointed by the crown to the deanery of Christ Church with licence to hold his other two deaneries and livings in commendam. In practice he retained the deanery of Chester until 1573 (when he also resigned Laindon) and that of Salisbury until 1578. At Balliol the fellows found him, as they subsequently informed Cecil, 'excellently furnished in all arts, and … the great instrument of the progress of good learning in that house' (Strype, Whitgift, 1.549).

Piers left Oxford permanently in 1576 when, having been unsuccessfully nominated by Parker with two others for the bishopric of Norwich, he gained the much less important see of Rochester, being consecrated on 15 April. Although at Rochester for little more than a year he nevertheless issued very detailed articles and injunctions for the eradication of all traces of popery within the cathedral, together with proposals for more efficient capitular administration. In 1576 the queen also made Piers her almoner, which brought him into close contact with the royal court. On the death of Edmund Guest in 1577 he was translated to the much more important bishopric of Salisbury, where he was enthroned on 8 December, but remained almoner and continued to preach regularly at court.

Sharing John Whitgift's churchmanship, Piers worked behind the scenes after Archbishop Grindal's sequestration in 1577 to procure his resignation, Grindal's death in July 1583 putting an end to the undertaking. Two years later, when the Dutch appealed to the crown for aid in their revolt against Spain, Whitgift, the better to satisfy the queen, consulted Piers on a point of divinity: 'Whether a prince may defend the subjects of another prince from being forced to commit idolatry' (Strype, Whitgift, 1.437–8). At Whitgift's request in 1586 he granted a prebend at Salisbury to Samuel Foxe, the son of the martyrologist, also promising an exhibition towards his younger brother's maintenance at the university. In 1587, in an effort to prevent Toby Matthew, then dean of Durham, from succeeding Richard Barnes as bishop there, the earl of Leicester tried to procure Piers's translation from Salisbury to Durham, but nothing came of the scheme. In 1588 he received a signal mark of royal recognition when, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, on 24 November the queen, attended by the privy council, the nobility, the French ambassador, the judges, and the heralds, came in a chariot with the noise of trumpets to a service of thanksgiving at St Paul's and heard a sermon from her almoner, dining afterwards at the bishop's palace.

The reasons behind the elevation of Piers, a southerner with no previous connections with the north, to the archbishopric of York early in 1589 remain mysterious, but the move may well indicate Whitgift's increasing strength. Already sixty-six years old when he came to the see, Piers lost no time in issuing in 1590 articles for his metropolitical visitation, placing special emphasis upon the observance by the beneficed clergy of the orders concerning ceremonies and the administration of the sacraments in the Book of Common Prayer, and upon prompt and effectual action against Catholic recusants, and in particular those among the gentry. Present at the court of high commission on major occasions, he similarly pursued a middle way there between protestant nonconformity and Catholicism, condemning both ministers unwilling to wear the surplice and the recusant wives of gentlemen who obstinately refused to attend church. Harking back to his days as the queen's almoner, in 1593 he and the president of the council in the north intervened to persuade Owen Oglethorpe's heirs to fulfil the proposals to found a school and hospital at Tadcaster which the bishop, who died in 1559, had set down in his will. His ordination sessions suggest that the archbishop at first moved between his manor houses at Bishopthorpe and Cawood, before in 1592 settling permanently at Bishopthorpe.

In his last years Piers used to ask 'where shoulde a preacher die but in the pulpit?' and even when ground down by infirmity insisted upon continuing to preach (King, 681). On his deathbed he confessed to his chaplains:

I have read much, written much, often disputed, preached often, yet never could I finde in the booke of God any ground for Popery: neither have I knowne any point of doctrine received in the church of England, that is not consonant unto the Word of God.

ibid., 682

He died at Bishopthorpe, aged seventy-one, on 28 September 1594. In the funeral sermon he preached before Piers's burial in the minster on 17 November, John King reminded his auditory how:

from the first houre that he came into this province, you know his behaviour amongst you at al seasons, how he kept nothing backe that was profitable, but taught you openly and throughout every church, witnessing both to Jews and Grecians, Protestants and Papists repentance towards God, and faith towards Jesus Christ.

ibid., 680

Piers never married and so, unlike his immediate predecessor and successor at York, felt no pressing need to provide for his family out of the revenues of the see. King, among others, commented approvingly on the fact that when he died he had 'not a shoe-thread more than he brought at his first comming' (King, 680). As a final favour the queen permitted his executors to use certain rents due to the crown to discharge his funeral expenses, legacies, and debts. His nephew William Piers, after proceeding BA from Christ Church, was for a time one of Bishop King's chaplains, and then followed his uncle both as a canon of Christ Church and dean of Chester before, a staunch Laudian, becoming in the 1630s successively bishop of Peterborough and of Bath and Wells. According to Wood, Archbishop Piers left his estate to his nephew John Piers, son of Thomas Piers of South Hinksey and registrar to the archbishop of York, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Bennet and sister of Sir John Bennet, judge of the prerogative court of Canterbury. Out of gratitude for his patronage Dr John Bennet, the York ecclesiastical lawyer, erected a memorial in the minster extolling Piers's learning, evangelical preaching, defence of the church's patrimony, hospitality, and liberality to the poor.


  • Borth. Inst., abp. reg., 31; HC, AB 11, AB 12; visitation 1590–91 CB 1; visitation 1594 CB 1; Inst. AB 3 fols. 215v–267r
  • J. King, Lectures upon Jonas, delivered at Yorke in the yeare of our Lorde 1594 (1597), dedication, 660–83
  • Foster, Alum. Oxon., 1500–1714 [John Peirse]
  • Wood, Ath. Oxon., 2nd edn, 1.713–14; 2.1155–6
  • Correspondence of Matthew Parker, ed. J. Bruce and T. T. Perowne, Parker Society, 42 (1853), 476–7
  • W. Nicholson, ed., The remains of Edmund Grindal, Parker Society, 9 (1843), 342n., 397, 430n., 433
  • J. Strype, Annals of the Reformation and establishment of religion … during Queen Elizabeth's happy reign, new edn, 2/2 (1824), 28, 183–4, 211–13, 682–4
  • J. Strype, The history of the life and acts of the most reverend father in God Edmund Grindal, new edn (1821), 310, 391
  • J. Strype, The life and acts of John Whitgift, new edn, 3 vols. (1822), vol. 1, pp. 437–8, 485, 549
  • B. Willis, A survey of the cathedrals of York, Durham, Carlisle … Bristol, 2 vols. (1727), vol. 1, pp. 50–51
  • F. Drake, Eboracum, or, The history and antiquities of the city of York (1736), 456–7
  • J. Morris, ed., The troubles of our Catholic forefathers related by themselves, 3 (1877), 204–5
  • P. E. McCullough, Sermons at court: politics and religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean preaching (1998), 47, 48, 70 [incl. CD-ROM]
  • P. Collinson, The religion of protestants (1982), 46–7, 73n.
  • P. Collinson, Godly people: essays on English protestantism and puritanism (1983), 385
  • C. Cross, The puritan earl: the life of Henry Hastings, third earl of Huntingdon (1966), 258, 276
  • R. Marchant, The puritans and the church courts in the diocese of York, 1560–1642 (1960), 21–3, 137
  • A. Tindal Hart, Ebor: a history of the archbishops of York (1986), 114


  • Borth. Inst., abp. reg., 31; HC, AB 11, AB 12; visitation 1590–91 CB 1; visitation 1594 CB 1; Inst. AB 3 fols. 215v–267r


J. Foster, ed., , 4 vols. (1887–8), later edn (1891); , 4 vols. (1891–2); 8 vol. repr. (1968) and (2000)
A. Wood, , 2 vols. (1691–2); 2nd edn (1721); new edn, ed. P. Bliss, 4 vols. (1813–20); repr. (1967) and (1969)