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Tunstal [Tunstall], Cuthbertlocked

  • D. G. Newcombe

Cuthbert Tunstal (1474–1559)

by unknown artist

private collection. Photograph: Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Tunstal [Tunstall], Cuthbert (1474–1559), bishop of Durham and diplomat, was born near Hornby Castle in Hackforth, Yorkshire, the son of Thomas Tunstal, later a squire of the body to Richard III, and of his future second wife, a daughter of Sir John Conyers of Hornby Castle [see under Conyers family]. The circumstances of his birth were never held against him as his parents' subsequent marriage legitimated him under canon and civil law, if not under common law. He had three brothers and three sisters, some of whom may have been the children of his father's first wife, Alice Neville. One brother was Brian Tunstal, the so-called ‘stainless knight’, killed at the battle of Flodden in 1513; Cuthbert became supervisor of his will and guardian of his son Marmaduke.

Education and early career

Nothing is known of Tunstal's childhood except that (apparently on his own relation) he spent two years as a kitchen boy in the household of Sir Thomas Holland, possibly at Lynn, Norfolk, before 'being knowne, he was sent home to Sir Richard [sic] Tunstall his father' (Blomefield, 1.232). Perhaps he returned to his father's household on his parents' marriage. In any case his father appears to have provided for his education, though the suggestion that he was at St Anthony's School in Threadneedle Street, London, and first met Thomas More there, is entirely speculative.

About 1491 Tunstal was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford. While there he became a friend of Thomas More, John Colet, Thomas Linacre, and William Grocyn. Some years later he left the university, according to Anthony Wood because of an outbreak of plague; if so, this must have been in 1493, but that would leave about three years unaccounted for. In 1496 he became a scholar of the King's Hall, Cambridge, for which he seems to have retained greater long-term affection, but again he left without a degree.

From 1499 Tunstal spent six years at the University of Padua, where before his departure he received the degrees of DCnL and DCL. He studied under Leonico Tomeo and Pietro Pomponazzi, two of the leading humanists of the day, and established a reputation for outstanding scholarship, excelling in Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Among his friends were his fellow English students William Latimer and Richard Pace, and Jerome Busleiden (later the Flemish diplomat), Antonio Surian (later the Venetian diplomat), and Aldus Manutius (the printer). At or near the end of his studies, in 1505 Tunstal visited Rome. In a Palm Sunday sermon in 1539 he claimed that it was at this time that he lost respect for the papacy when he witnessed the arrogant behaviour of Pope Julius II forcing a nobleman to kiss his foot. However in the intervening years much had changed in the Church of England and Tunstal had discarded his natural orthodoxy and buckled under the pressure applied by the king on the royal supremacy, so this 'memory' is difficult to evaluate.

After his return to England later in 1505, Tunstal began a long and distinguished career in the church. Although not yet ordained, he was admitted on 25 September 1506 to the rectory of Barmston, Yorkshire, on the presentation of his brother Brian's mother-in-law, Margaret, Lady Boynton, but he held it for less than six months. He was made rector of Stanhope, Durham, in 1508 and rector of Aldridge, Staffordshire (vacated by July 1509). His talents were recognized by Archbishop William Warham, who appointed him as his chancellor and auditor of causes about 1508. Finally ordained subdeacon on 25 March 1509 and deacon on 7 April, he was rector of Sutton Veny, Wiltshire, from November 1509 to February 1510, of Steeple Langford, Wiltshire, from February 1510 to early 1511, and of East Peckham, Kent (vacated December 1511); it is unlikely that he resided in any of these benefices. Ordained priest in April 1511, he continued to serve Warham in several capacities, including those of commissary-general of the prerogative court of Canterbury (he was appointed on 25 August 1511) and visitor for the archbishop during that year's visitation of the Canterbury diocese. Collated to the rectory of Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, on 16 December, he retained it until 1522 and seems to have resided in this conveniently placed cure. His association with Warham had brought him to the attention of the court early in the reign of Henry VIII, and in 1514 he gave an oration at the ceremonial presentation of papal gifts to the king. It also brought promotion: that year Tunstal succeeded Thomas Wolsey as canon of Lincoln and prebendary of Stow Longa, and in 1515 he became archdeacon of Chester following the elevation of John Veysey to the bishopric of Exeter.

Diplomacy, 1515–1522

In 1515 Wolsey called upon Tunstal to serve as a diplomat. Sent as an envoy to the young Charles, duke of Burgundy, Tunstal joined Thomas More and several others in the negotiations to maintain the trade treaties that had been agreed during the reign of Henry VII in 1495 and 1506. The negotiations were long and difficult but Tunstal's conduct established him as an invaluable representative of the government. He proved a keen observer, with valuable insights into the diplomatic situation, and an astute judge of Flemish and imperial strategy. He was also shrewd enough to recognize both the skill of Charles's main adviser, Chièvres, and the duplicity of the ageing Emperor Maximilian when the latter suggested that he might be inclined to resign the empire in favour of Henry VIII. Tunstal's comment to Henry that such an election would not happen, and that the offer was made to squeeze yet more money out of the English, was directly to the point. What is more, Tunstal had the courage to take independent action where he thought it necessary, even if the consequences might be dire. Although in later life he might be accused of timidity, he seems never to have been afraid to speak his mind, and on several occasions he withheld letters from the king and from Wolsey that he considered too intemperate to deliver during his negotiations.

Tunstal's stay in Burgundy was extended after the renegotiation of the trade treaties. His new instructions were to conclude an alliance with Charles and the emperor against the French. The French victory at Marignano (13–14 September 1515) and the succession of Charles to the crown of Spain after the death of Ferdinand of Aragon (1 February 1516) made aggressive action against the French in Italy desirable in English policy but unlikely from an imperial standpoint. Tunstal's stubborn expression of doubt about this policy earned him a mild rebuke from the king, but he followed his instructions. In May 1516 he was rewarded for his efforts by being appointed master of the rolls and vice-chancellor. Although he was in no position to take up the duties of his appointment, he found the supplement to his income useful as he was always short of money. Aware of the impending treaty of Noyon before it was signed in August 1516, he did not seem too concerned about it once it occurred. Always more friendly to the empire than to France, and fearing an alliance against England between them, Tunstal was sanguine about the agreement and recognized that the impending fall of Verona would not alter the English position in the slightest—he certainly did not feel that the English crown should pour more money into Maximilian's pocket. The negotiations with Maximilian and Charles continued in spite of the treaty of Noyon. When, in September 1517, Charles finally set sail for Spain to assume his crown, the English had managed to maintain friendly relations in large part because of Tunstal's patience and wisdom. Tunstal returned to England in October 1517.

While in the Netherlands in 1516 Tunstal had the opportunity to establish a close and lasting friendship with Erasmus. Although they had known each other at least from 1507, it was not until 1516 that they became intimate friends. Throughout 1516 they were almost constant companions, and Erasmus had rooms near Tunstal while in Brussels. From this point onwards Tunstal figured in much of Erasmus's correspondence. It is clear that he held Tunstal in high esteem:

besides a knowledge of Latin and Greek second to none among his countrymen, he has also a seasoned judgment and exquisite taste and, more than that, unheard-of modesty and, last but not least, a lively manner which is amusing with no loss of serious worth.

Correspondence, 4.103

Certainly Tunstal's judgement and scholarship were trusted by Erasmus and by Thomas More. While in Brussels, Tunstal assisted Erasmus in the production of the second edition of his Greek New Testament and also cast a critical eye over More's Utopia. He was also one of Erasmus's greatest patrons.

Neither the failure to prevent a Franco-imperial treaty nor the replacement of Warham with Wolsey as chancellor affected Tunstal's career. He was, in fact, becoming known as a safe pair of hands in diplomatic circles. Little is known of him after his return to England until 5 October 1518, when he delivered the benign but banal oration 'In praise of matrimony' at the betrothal of the two-year-old Princess Mary to the infant dauphin of France at Greenwich. However, this event was entirely for show as Wolsey was already planning to arrange the marriage of Mary to Charles V.

Whether Tunstal was present at the meeting of Henry VIII and Charles V on Whitsunday 1520, or had anything to do with the discussions that took place at that time, is unknown. He does appear to have been present as one of the king's chaplains at the meeting between the king and François I at the Field of Cloth of Gold. He took a more active role in the discussions with Charles that took place immediately afterwards at Calais and Gravelines, and was subsequently commissioned as ambassador to Charles's court. From the middle of September 1520 until April 1521 Tunstal was with the emperor, accompanying him to Aachen, where Charles was to be crowned king of the Romans, although he was prevented from attending the coronation by a dispute over ambassadorial precedence. Tunstal then travelled to Worms, where the imperial diet was scheduled to begin in January 1521. His purposes were to persuade the emperor to commit himself to an alliance with England, to prevent the amity with France that was being urged on the emperor by Chièvres, and to finalize the plan to marry Charles to Princess Mary, but he encountered delay on all of these points. Recalled by a frustrated king, he was present at the diet until 11 April but missed the appearance of Martin Luther on 17 and 18 April, although he sent to the king the copy of Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church, which Henry subsequently refuted. However, Tunstal played a large part in subsequent negotiations until August 1521, serving as Wolsey's deputy both at Calais and, later, at Bruges.

Bishop of London

Promotion continued to come Tunstal's way. In 1519 he succeeded John Colet as canon of York and prebendary of Botevant. Two years later he became dean of Salisbury and prebendary of Combe and Hornham. After the death of Richard Fitzjames in January 1522, Tunstal was made bishop of London; he was consecrated by Warham, Thomas Ruthall, and John Fisher on 19 October 1522. At the same time, Tunstal published his most famous work, De arte supputandi, on arithmetic. The book was received exceptionally well, and Tunstal began to acquire the reputation among his friends of being a polymath and an example to other bishops. He continued to be vigilant about heretical books, bringing to Fisher's attention Ulrich Velenus's Libellus against the papacy and lending him a Greek text of the liturgy of Basil and Chrysostom for reference in a refutation of Oecolampadius. Fisher acknowledged Tunstal's assistance with his Assertionis Lutheranae confutatio (1523) and dedicated to him his Sacro sacerdotii defensio (1525). With Fisher, Tunstal was chiefly responsible for censoring the book trade, and he licensed More to read heretical books in order to refute them.

Tunstal's position as bishop of London threw him into the middle of the preparations for war begun in June 1522. He opened, with a long speech, the parliament of April of 1523, in which the government's efforts to raise funds by a forced loan failed. On 25 May 1523 he was appointed keeper of the privy seal, an office he held until January 1530, but after the battle of Pavia in February 1525 Tunstal was again called upon to serve as ambassador to Charles V. Both the king and Wolsey saw this as an excellent opportunity to make gains at the expense of the defeated French. Tunstal and Richard Wingfield bore the English plan to Spain, arriving at Toledo in May. The embassy was never likely to succeed and was only made more difficult by the fact that both Wingfield and Tunstal fell ill with dysentery, Wingfield dying of it very soon, on 22 July. It soon became clear that Henry VIII was negotiating a separate peace with the French. Tunstal, aware of this only at second hand, urged the king and Wolsey to be more transparent with the emperor, but he himself heard of the treaty of the More only after the event. He returned to England in January 1526, travelling overland through France. In 1527 Tunstal again accompanied Wolsey, this time on an embassy to France, and was involved in the negotiations that led to the treaty of Cambrai in 1529.

Despite his various diplomatic commitments, Tunstal attempted to be an active presence within the diocese of London, where he determinedly preferred his relatives, including Robert Ridley (who became his secretary) and Walter Preston. According to Polydore Vergil, 'Cuthbert Tunstal was elevated to the great joy and pleasure of the citizens, for the city was anxious to have him on account of his splendid reputation for virtue' (Anglica historia, 305). He was no friend of heresy and had written against the doctrine of Luther despite his sympathy with many of the criticisms of the abuses within the church. In his own diocese he prohibited Tyndale's New Testament and Simon Fish's 'Supplication for the beggars'. Yet he took no lethal action against those accused of heresy, and his leniency and willingness to encourage recantation became renowned. Tunstal presided at the trial of Thomas Bilney, and it was largely because of his patience that Bilney was persuaded to recant. This established Tunstal's reputation for being both even-handed and reluctant to execute people for their beliefs. John Foxe, writing of Tunstal's conduct during the Marian persecutions, referred to him as 'no great bloody persecutor' (Foxe, 2.2102).

The divorce and the bishopric of Durham

The advent of Henry's scruples about his marriage in 1527 proved awkward for Tunstal. Initially, he seems to have adopted a position close to that of More and Fisher and was convinced of the injustice of the king's desires. He was chosen by Queen Katherine as one of her defence counsel and was apparently active in that role. However, he was not present at Cambrai during the summer of 1529 when Cardinal Campeggi presided over the court of inquiry at Blackfriars. It may be that Tunstal and More were both commissioned to go to Calais in order to remove them from the proceedings. Soon after his return, he was translated to the see of Durham on 25 March 1530 and appointed president of the council of the north in June. It is possible that this too was a move designed not only to strengthen government there but also to keep him out of the way.

Tunstal was never inclined to protestant doctrine, and he opposed most of the changes in religion that occurred during the next few years. However, he was prepared to acquiesce once those changes became law. His attitude appears to have been to remain obedient to the king, and though he might be vocal in his opposition during the debate, he was prepared to comply with the judgment of the king and parliament. On the royal supremacy, Tunstal was prepared to argue strongly against it from the beginning, but once it had become law he became an equally strong advocate. He was even prepared to go so far as to preach before the Carthusian monks who had been condemned for refusing to swear the oath of supremacy, an action that must surely have surprised and upset More as much as Tunstal's volte-face disillusioned Reginald Pole. Even so, the thought that Tunstal might oppose the crown's plans to dissolve the lesser monasteries in 1536 led the king and Cromwell to order him not to attend parliament.

Tunstal's position on the matter of the annulment of the king's first marriage was slightly more complex. Although he was prepared to defend Katherine to the best of his ability, it was clear to him by 1533 that the matter had been decided. He argued energetically in her favour during the northern convocation in January 1533, but he still attended the coronation of the new queen in June. By May 1534 Tunstal openly accepted that Katherine's marriage to Henry was invalid and was prepared to visit her and ask her to renounce her title. There is some evidence to suggest that Tunstal's position altered under some duress: he was aware that Fisher and More were in prison and that his houses in Durham, Auckland, and Stockton had been searched; his secretary Ridley was imprisoned after compromising material was found in his possession. Whatever the reasons he gave for his defection away from Katherine and her supporters, Tunstal appears to have succumbed to the king's pressure.

At Durham, Tunstal oversaw the sharp restriction of the traditional privileges of the bishop palatine undertaken by Thomas Cromwell, including the closing of the ecclesiastical mint. He took up the presidency of the council of the north in June 1530. Limited as its jurisdiction was to the county and city of York and the city of Hull, he seems to have been occupied with mainly judicial matters, especially after the 1533 appointment of the earl of Northumberland as the king's lieutenant. There is some question as to how competently Tunstal was able to conduct his business in the north, and Northumberland's appointment has sometimes been seen as indicative of his inability to maintain his authority. The position was fraught with difficulty, but Tunstal apparently continued in the post until it collapsed during the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Tunstal's own behaviour during the pilgrimage has always been suspect. When he became aware that the pilgrims were advancing on Auckland, he fled to his castle in Norham-on-Tweed. He remained there until the troubles were ended, refusing to leave even when summoned by the king. At the very least, keeping such a low profile prevented him from having to declare his position; and, unlike some other members of the council of the north who threw in their lot with the rebels, Tunstal sat on the council again when it was reconstituted in 1537. Although it was clear that the duke of Norfolk was in charge, Tunstal still retained the title of president, even though he himself was not convinced that he was the right man for the job. He remained in the post until June 1538, when he was replaced by Bishop Robert Holgate of Llandaff (later archbishop of York). Tunstal's experience remained invaluable to the crown in the north as he was subsequently and often used in negotiations with the Scots.

For the remainder of Henry's reign Tunstal was employed in a number of different capacities. He had a small hand in the production of the ten articles in 1536 and a more significant role in producing the Institution of a Christian Man. During the debates on the Act of Six Articles, Tunstal championed auricular confession and was seen as a more dangerous opponent to religious reform than Gardiner; it has been argued that he played an important part at this point in slowing its tide. In 1538 he was in Henry's entourage during his summer progress, and that year he was involved in the heresy trial of John Lambert. Yet in a letter to Reginald Pole, co-written with John Stokesley probably in 1537, Tunstal deployed arguments against papal authority akin to those used in his Palm Sunday sermon of 1539. After 1542 most of Tunstal's time was spent in the north, where he was involved in diplomatic business arising as a result of the war with the Scots. However, in 1545 he was sent to Calais to negotiate peace with the French, and he was present at Fontainebleau in August 1546 for the ratification of the treaty of Camp. In 1546 he participated in the examination of Hugh Latimer's involvement with the preacher Edward Crome.

Under Edward VI and Mary

The accession of Edward VI in January 1547 ushered in a period of religious change. With characteristic moderation and a good relationship with the duke of Somerset, Tunstal managed to navigate a safe course through the first half of the reign despite his obvious theological misgivings. His experience and expertise in the north were still much valued, and he was employed usefully there making preparations for defence and invasion. He was one of sixteen executors of Henry's will and served as an active member of the council during the transition to a new government. He officiated at the coronation of Edward VI in February and was an important figure in parliament. His participation in council affairs was patchy through this period because he was either in the north or ill. Despite his reluctance to break openly with the government in matters of religion, Tunstal's position became increasingly difficult. He opposed bills abolishing the chantries and clerical celibacy, and introducing the Act of Uniformity, and he argued strongly from the conservative point of view on the matter of the sacrament of the altar and the Book of Common Prayer, despite having been a member of the Windsor commission, which helped to prepare it. However, once these bills became law, he enforced them.

Tunstal was able to maintain his position until 1550. Somerset's fall and the rise of the duke of Northumberland, while initially providing some hope among conservatives for a reversal of religious policy, led to disappointment. Tunstal stood in the way of Northumberland's strategy to acquire power in the north, and their relationship deteriorated. Accused of misprision of treason for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to rebel in the north, he was arrested, confined to his house in London, and finally imprisoned in the Tower. Proceedings against him in parliament failed when the Commons resolved that Tunstal should have an opportunity to defend himself in public—an eventuality that Northumberland was hoping to avoid. Instead, Tunstal was convicted by a special commission, not of treason but of felony. He was deprived of his bishopric on 14 October 1552, and the see itself was dismembered. He remained in prison, first in the Tower and then in the king's bench, until the end of the reign and used the time to write his treatise on the eucharist, De veritate corporis et sanguinis domini nostri Jesu Christi in eucharistia. He also produced an edition of his cousin John Redman's De justificatione.

After the accession of Mary, Tunstal was released from prison on 6 August 1553. The see was restored in April 1554 and Tunstal was restored as its bishop. He subsequently participated to some degree in the trials of notable protestants, including John Hooper, Robert Ferrar, and Rowland Taylor. He condemned no one to death and seems to have been on the whole unconvinced by the policy of persecution.

Last months and reputation

On the accession of Elizabeth, Tunstal, now eighty-four, was not required to attend either parliament or the coronation of the new queen. His refusal to change once again and take the oath of supremacy under Elizabeth led to his deprivation. He remained in London in the kind custody of Archbishop Matthew Parker until his death on 18 November 1559. He was buried in Lambeth parish church on the 29th.

There was nothing of the martyr in Tunstal. His survival through four Tudor reigns and into a fifth testifies to the flexibility of his mind and the moderation of his temperament. Although strong in his opinions and not backward in arguing them, once policy was made he was content to carry it out. Uncomfortable persecuting heretics, he managed to avoid condemning them to death and had a reputation for honesty second to none: as Thomas Bilney noted, 'how can I think in Tonstal any craft or doublenes to dwell' (Foxe, 2.1006). His desire to avoid persecutions led him to go so far as to buy copies of William Tyndale's New Testament in order to burn them, rather than burn or prosecute those who bought them (Hall's chron., 762). A gentle man given to collecting coins and gardening, he was probably the most widely respected bishop and scholar in sixteenth-century England.

Tunstal was never a prolific writer: his most important works were De arte supputandi (1522) and De veritate corporis et sanguinis domini. While bishop of Durham, he made many important improvements to Durham Castle, reshaping the gatehouse and providing a new chapel and gallery. He also improved the episcopal residence at Auckland.


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  • BL, Cotton MSS, misc. corresp.
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  • group portrait, oils, 1570 (Edward VI and the pope), NPG
  • oils, Burton Constable, Yorkshire [see illus.]
, new ser., 46 vols. (1890–1964)
Camden Society
A. B. Emden, (1963)
J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, & R. H. Brodie, eds., , 23 vols. in 38 (1862–1932); repr. (1965)