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Warham, Williamlocked

  • J. J. Scarisbrick

William Warham (1450?–1532)

after Hans Holbein the younger, early 17th cent. [after a portrait of 1527]

Warham, William (1450?–1532), administrator and archbishop of Canterbury, was born in Church Oakley, Hampshire. A later archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker (d. 1575), said that this predecessor was of gentle birth, but Warham's origins were not distinguished. An uncle, Thomas, was a carpenter (but also a citizen of London) at one time professionally employed in the archiepiscopal residence in Croydon, which his nephew would later occupy; another relation was a ‘taloughchaundeler’ of London; William's parents, Robert and Elizabeth, are commemorated by a brass in their parish church of Church Oakley (presumably set up at their son's expense) which carries none of the emblems of social distinction. The Warhams eventually held considerable estates in north-west Hampshire thanks to William's promotion to the primacy of all England and subsequent purchases by his nephew and heir, Sir William Warham. By then the Warhams had arrived among the local élite.

Education and early career

The future archbishop was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, where he became a fellow in 1475 and acquired a doctorate in canon law. Eventually, in 1488, Warham went to London to a post in the court of arches, the first sign that he might fly high in public life. Two years later he probably went to Rome as a proctor of John Alcock (d. 1500), bishop of Ely, and was soon acquiring a variety of profitable sinecures, including (in 1496) the archdeaconry of Huntingdon, one of a number of archdeaconries that were regular stepping-stones to bishoprics, and the precentorship of Wells. In April 1491 he performed his first secular duty when he was appointed to the English party sent to Antwerp to settle disputes with Hanseatic merchants. Two years later he joined Sir Edward Poynings (d. 1521) on an embassy to Margaret, duchess of Burgundy, to halt Burgundian support for the pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck, and is reported to have made a powerful, though fruitless, speech on behalf of Henry VII. On 13 February 1494 he received his first royal preferment—to the mastership of the rolls. This in turn produced numerous assignments: in 1496 to negotiate with the Spanish ambassador details of the marriage of Prince Arthur to Katherine of Aragon, for instance; between 1496 and 1499 to deal with commercial disputes with the Netherlands and even the city of Riga; in September 1501 to conclude a deal with the emperor Maximilian I (r. 1493–1519) for the handing over to Henry of the chief surviving ‘white rose’ threat to his throne, Edmund de la Pole.

Warham had still not achieved major office in either church or state, despite all this activity. Quite suddenly, however, preferment was showered on him. On 20 October 1501 he was papally provided to the vacant see of London, though not consecrated until 25 September 1502. On the previous 11 August he was appointed keeper of the great seal and gained the full dignity of the lord chancellorship on 21 January 1504. At royal request Pope Julius II (r. 1503–13) had translated him on 29 November 1503 from London to Canterbury, where he was enthroned as archbishop on 9 March 1504, having sworn fealty to the pope and, on 2 February, received at Lambeth the symbol of his primatial authority, the pallium from Rome. After a distinctly slow start, therefore, he had suddenly soared to the highest office in the royal government and the supreme ecclesiastical dignity of archbishop of Canterbury, legatus natus, and primate of all England. Since he was by then well over fifty, neither he nor others could have expected that he would have a further claim to fame, that of almost being Canterbury's longest-serving archbishop. His primacy lasted 28 years and 7 months, second only to Thomas Bourchier's 31 years and 7 months (1454–86).

Affairs of state

As chancellor Warham was presumably concerned with the day-to-day legal and formal administration business of his court, but there is no evidence that he had much impact on chancery's evolution. Initially, however, he was conspicuous on major state occasions. Thus he crowned the new king, Henry VIII, and his wife, Katherine of Aragon, at Westminster on 24 June 1509, and presented the golden rose sent to Henry in the following year by Pope Julius. He delivered the customary—but well received—speeches at the opening of four parliaments (those of 1504, 1510, 1512, and 1515), and on two occasions led a formidable delegation to the lower house to demand assent to heavy taxation. As well as being prominent in parliament, he presided ex officio over the upper house of southern convocation, which regularly met at the same time as the secular assembly. Indeed, the church's affairs brought him as much into the limelight as did those of the prince.

Warham's first convocation, that of 1504, had spoken firmly in defence of the ‘liberties’ of the church in England, by which was meant essentially the legal privileges of churchmen against a crown and its lawyers who were intent on clipping them. In 1512, despite strong opposition from convocation and in the Lords, and in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt two years before to secure a bill confirming the church's liberties, an act was passed that denied clergy in minor orders their ‘benefit’, that is, immunity from the king's courts when accused of serious crimes. As a compromise the act was to run for an initial trial period of three years. When it fell due for renewal in 1515, however, there quickly developed a dangerously heated confrontation between church and state—a conflict exacerbated by the famous case of Richard Hunne, allegedly murdered in 1514 by the bishop of London's officers, following a dispute over mortuaries—which split the episcopate and brought Warham into open opposition to the king. The climax to this crisis was a conference at Baynard's Castle, presided over by Henry, at which the archbishop dared to remind the assembly that a predecessor had died a martyr in defence of clerical liberties, whereupon Henry replied with a trumpet blast about kings of England never having had any superior 'but God only'. Warham's final attempt to stave off defeat by suggesting that the whole issue be referred to Rome for adjudication was brushed aside. His courage and loyalty to the church cost him a bruising.

Three years before there had been a sharp dispute between Warham and his suffragans concerning Canterbury's right to prove wills (and received fees therefrom) of persons who had had possessions in more than one diocese. Wrangles of this kind are the stuff of much medieval ecclesiastical history; but thanks particularly to the fact that the archbishop's opponents were led by Richard Fox (d. 1528), bishop of Winchester and keeper of the privy seal, this clash was especially sharp. A compromise eventually emerged, but the whole episode was decidedly discomfiting.

Relations with Wolsey

Shortly after that tense encounter at Baynard's Castle Warham was solemnly handing over a red hat to Thomas Wolsey, archbishop of York (d. 1530). On 22 December of that year (1515) he resigned the lord chancellorship, which passed to the same Thomas Wolsey. Some have supposed he was dismissed by the king. Edward Hall and Polydore Vergil believed he was thrust aside by the ambitious new cardinal. Thomas More (d. 1535), however, writing soon after the event, assured Erasmus that Warham was glad to quit. After eleven years as chancellor the archbishop may have resolved to devote himself entirely to his spiritual duties. Possibly the whole truth contains all these views. Warham had probably never been cordial with the young king, who had inherited him from his father, and could never have competed with the dashing, self-confident, and much younger Wolsey. The recent contretemps probably settled the matter for Henry. As for Warham himself, he could reasonably have supposed that he was nearing his end and that the time had come to escape the hurly-burly of public life. More was surely right when he reported that Warham had been wanting to go for some years in order to enjoy quietude and his books.

Wolsey probably always hoped thereafter that Warham would die and thus allow him to exchange York for Canterbury, the ultimate prize. But it was Wolsey who died. Warham probably disliked Wolsey, initially at least, as the latter bullied Rome into granting him both a red hat and a legateship a latere, eventually for life, which in theory brought the whole English church under his sway. So, when Wolsey summoned all the bishops of England and Wales to a legatine council in March 1519, Warham counter-attacked by calling his own southern convocation to meet the month before. An indignant Wolsey (called a 'great tyrant' by one of Warham's chaplains) summoned the archbishop to his presence. The same chaplain reported that a praemunire charge against Warham was being threatened. In the event Warham retreated. Whether Wolsey succeeded in holding a national legatine council in 1523 is uncertain; what is known is that in the meantime he and Warham had had a collision over testamentary jurisdiction that mirrored the earlier conflict between Warham and the bishops of his province, with Wolsey claiming that, as legate, he was entitled to override Canterbury's prerogative court and receive all the fees. Once again good sense prevailed. A remarkable compromise allowed Canterbury a half share of both testamentary administration and income.

Much of all this may have been formal ecclesiastical manoeuvring rather than genuine conflict. Certainly relations between cardinal and archbishop eventually became respectful, even warm. In 1522 Wolsey sent Warham a jewel for Becket's shrine, and the following year, when the archbishop fell ill, invited him to convalesce at Hampton Court. When, two years later, a dispute over the will of John Roper, father of More's son-in-law, apparently bypassed the recently established joint court, which dealt with business arising from both the legate's and the archbishop's jurisdictions, Wolsey handled a ruffled archbishop so tactfully that Warham could gratefully explain how it was only his 'very singular trust and confidence' in the cardinal's 'undoubted favour and benignity' towards him that had allowed him to undertake such 'plain writing' to him (LP Henry VIII, 4, no. 1157). Shortly after this episode the so-called ‘amicable grant’ (1525), an emergency war levy, caused much consternation and brought protesters to Warham's gate. But the latter could write to Wolsey that, while some called him an 'old fool' for co-operating with the government, much worse awaited the cardinal, for anyone 'in most favour and most in counsel with a great prince shall be maligned and ill-spoken of do he never so well' (ibid., 4, appendix no. 39).

Primate and patron

An archbishop of Canterbury who can record that he is being called an old fool and write perceptively about a statesman's lot is endearing. It is no less noteworthy that Warham, trained in canon and civil law, and given to what many contemporary reformers would have regarded as a typical preoccupation with clerical rights and privileges, should nevertheless have also been an ally of John Colet and patron of Erasmus—both of them critics of the very system that Warham seemingly personified. In his famous address to convocation, traditionally assigned to 1512 but now thought to have been made in 1510, Colet had proclaimed the special dignity of the clerical estate, as well as denouncing war and clerical sins. He could not have been the leading speaker without the archbishop's approval. And then he was appointed to a committee to discuss clerical reform. It is not clear what, if anything, this body achieved, not least because Wolsey was soon on the scene, charged to use his legatine authority to carry forward a wide-ranging renewal of the church. After Wolsey's departure Warham returned to the cause of reform, so that what emerged from convocation in his last months represented a continuation rather than a new initiative.

In the meantime Warham had been one of Erasmus's most generous patrons. He showered him with gifts of cash and even a horse, and was eager to secure his return to England. 'No brother, or father even, could be more loving', declared Erasmus (Correspondence, no. 286), and gratefully dedicated to him his Latin translation of two plays of Euripides (1506–7) and Lucian's Dialogi (1514), and his multi-volumed edition of St Jerome's works. Warham also shared the dedication of Erasmus's celebrated New Testament of 1516.

Thanks to Hans Holbein the younger Warham's likeness has been preserved. He is the first archbishop of Canterbury of whom that can be said with complete confidence. His watery, melancholic eyes, thick nose, and heavy jowl are memorably depicted. He comes alive also, as do many of his contemporaries, in his correspondence with Erasmus, for whom he clearly had affection. Thus when Erasmus complained, as he often did, of 'stones', the archbishop could ask what was to be built 'super hanc petram', and continued, 'You are not, I imagine, building fancy houses … instead spend money to have those stones taken away; unlike me, who am spending money every day to have stones brought to my buildings' (Correspondence, no. 1504)—a reference in particular to the massive reconstruction of his palace at Otford.

In 1511, like other bishops in the southern province, Warham launched a sudden and fierce campaign against Lollardy in his diocese—the first major assault for over seventy years on a sect that was well rooted and organized in several towns, notably Maidstone, Staplehurst, and Tenterden. Of thirty-nine accused, thirty-four abjured, but five suffered death for obstinate heresy. The victims included William Carder of Tenterden, zealous leader of Kentish Lollardy, and one woman. Only Coventry produced a higher total of burnings. By the early 1520s Warham, like others, was beginning to be alarmed by the first signs of protestantism, and was eventually much concerned with the activities of Hugh Latimer (d. 1555). By 1527, however, a different crisis had broken, namely, the king's Great Matter. As primate of all England Warham was inevitably involved; and since he had allegedly had doubts about the validity of the papal dispensation that had enabled Henry to marry his dead brother's wife in 1509, he was someone from whom the king could expect support in his quest, nearly two decades later, to have his marriage declared null.

The king's divorce

In May 1527 Warham agreed to examine the case secretly with Wolsey. However, it was soon apparent that this collusive action could not provide the definitive verdict that Henry required, and that it was therefore necessary to invoke the aid of Rome. After intense diplomatic activity Henry eventually persuaded Pope Clement VII (r. 1523–34) to send to England Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggi to preside with Wolsey over a legatine court at Blackfriars, London, and to try the case. In the meantime Warham had been appointed one of Katherine's counsel. Perhaps the appointment was a formality: Warham was scarcely a suitable nominee and does not seem to have exerted himself on her behalf. Indeed, Katherine reported that he had merely remarked unhelpfully 'ira principis mors est' ('the anger of the prince is death').

Katherine outwitted her husband. By late July 1529 she had appealed to the pope against her judges and the case had been ‘advoked’ to Rome. This humiliating setback for Henry was a crucial moment of his reign. Arguably, much that was done and said on the national stage during the next two or even three years, including the dismissal of Wolsey and the summoning of the Reformation Parliament, was intended to force the pope to hand the case back to England, where Henry was confident he would get his way. Even the episode known as the ‘pardon of the clergy’ in early 1531, which began with a praemunire charge against the whole clergy of the land, may similarly have been designed to intimidate Rome. And so also (probably) was the next royal move, which resulted in Warham's delivering to convocation the king's demand to be recognized as head of the church and possessed of the spiritual cure of his subjects. John Fisher of Rochester (d. 1535), Warham's episcopal neighbour, rallied his colleagues, including Warham, to reject the latter claim and accept the former only after the words 'as far as the law of Christ allows' had been added.

During the long and unsuccessful struggle to recover the case from Rome Henry frequently named Warham as the person most fit to be appointed judge, praising him for his integrity and independence. In fact he was confident that the archbishop could be trusted to deliver the right verdict. Further proof of this was that, as its chancellor (since 1506), he had encouraged Oxford to come down on the king's side when the well-known consultation of the universities was set in train, and in December 1530 even called Fisher to his house to urge him to retract what he had written on the queen's behalf. Fisher refused.

Manoeuvring between Westminster and Rome

However, in the months that followed Warham shifted his ground, less perhaps because he had changed his mind about the intrinsic merits of the case, than because of the aggressive tactics of the king. Moreover, Rome had forbidden public discussion of the case while it was sub judice, and explicitly prohibited the archbishop of Canterbury from taking cognizance of it. On 13 January 1531 Clement VII's nuncio in England visited Warham to show him the latest papal brief and to bid him 'have regard to God, his conscience and the pope' (LP Henry VIII, 5, no. 45). Warham was reported to have replied that he would never disobey Rome.

It was later suggested that two other people helped to make the archbishop 'harder and less to favour the king's cause': one was John Fisher, who allegedly did all he could to 'embolden' him; the other was Elizabeth Barton, reputed ‘the Holy Maid of Kent’, whom Warham had treated with circumspection when she first claimed to have visions, but who may have impressed him when she later denounced the royal divorce and warned him, and Wolsey, not to 'meddle' further in the matter, else they would be 'utterly destroyed' (Whatmore, 467). That, at any rate, is what was claimed at her execution in November 1533.

Whatever the truth of this, on 24 February 1532, in an upper room in Lambeth Palace, Warham swore to a public instrument repudiating anything done or henceforth done since November 1529 that violated the rights of Rome, ecclesiastical authority, or the privileges of his metropolitical see. All were publicly condemned. That was provocative enough, but, according to the Venetian ambassador in London, on the following 15 March Warham went further. He stood up in the Lords and openly upbraided the king for his conduct.

It can reasonably be assumed that it was now, in response to such defiance, that the archbishop was charged with a praemunire offence. The charge was manifestly trumped up. Warham was accused of misprision of treason on the ground that fourteen years previously he had consecrated the new bishop of St Asaph before full royal assent had been given. The only record of this extraordinary episode is a draft of a heroic speech to be made in self-defence which has survived. There is no record of any formal proceedings, and no evidence that the speech was ever delivered, presumably because on 22 August 1532, in Hackington, Kent, a natural death carried off the archbishop.

Yet that same apparently courageous and defiant Warham had on the previous 15 May presided over the convocation which surrendered its legislative independence to the crown, and was one of only three bishops who gave apparently unqualified assent to what is known as the ‘submission of the clergy’, after weeks of wrangling and cajoling. It is not easy to explain his conduct. Was he intimidated? Did he believe that his protest of 24 February had exonerated him of responsibility for betrayal seven weeks later of a fundamental liberty of the Ecclesia Anglicana? Was he acting merely ex officio when he delivered convocation's surrender document to the crown?

There is another possibility. Although modern historians have insisted that the events culminating in the humiliating submission of May 1532 had nothing to do with the royal divorce, it could be that this sudden assault on the clerical estate, like that of early 1531 and like so much else said and done after the débâcle at Blackfriars in July 1529, was another—the last—desperate attempt to bully Rome into handing back the case to England. If Warham had believed that much that was happening was not to be taken at its face value, but was sabre-rattling aimed at frightening a pope into compliance, his conduct becomes less unworthy and inconsistent. Fisher took royal words and deeds seriously. Some who were close to the king probably had exactly the agenda that Fisher perceived. But Warham (and maybe other bishops), while protesting at the extravagances, could have believed that the root problem was the king's Great Matter. This would surely be resolved. It was not something to die for. Once the crisis had blown over, all would be well again. The ‘pardon’, the ‘submission’, all the wild talk about the king's imperial status, and so on, would be forgotten. If this is a correct interpretation, Warham was guilty of naïvety and wishful thinking rather than anything more serious.

The archbishop and the man

Warham was a respected, conscientious prelate but not a pastoral one. There is little evidence of preaching or concern for the instruction of his flock. But his large register survives in two volumes, containing 638 folios, to suggest that he attended carefully to the administration of his diocese. He was seriously dedicated to his books—which he bequeathed to Winchester, and to New College and All Souls at Oxford—and, as has been said, was a steadfast supporter of Erasmus. But since he could embarrass the latter by offering him the rectory of Aldington, Kent, and then, to avoid a flagrant example of non-residence, commute the gift to an annual pension, it is questionable how well he understood his client. In his will Warham recalls that he spent a prodigious £30,000 on buildings, especially his palace at Otford, which boasted a courtyard bigger than Hampton Court's. This was a distinctly un-Erasmian activity. On the other hand Erasmus tells us that, though he entertained sumptuously, Warham himself ate frugally and drank little wine. He neither hunted nor played dice. He died, More said, a poor man. There is no firm evidence that his ‘nephew’ William, upon whom he conferred the archdeaconry of Canterbury and other benefices, was really an illegitimate son, the offspring of some youthful liaison, and no source hints at sexual impropriety in later life. Warham seriously promoted clerical reform at the beginning and end of his episcopate, as well as defending clerical liberties and privileges throughout his career. But it must be added that ‘reform’ for him did not cut deeper than concern for clerical dress and conduct, and minor improvements in ecclesiastical procedures. But perhaps this was not so much because he was unperceptive, as because the English church was not in need of radical new legislation.

Although no believer in ostentation for its own sake, Warham remained mindful to the end of his days of the need to maintain the dignity of his primatial office. An account of his exequies written by a herald tells how the archbishop's coffin, with his effigy upon it, was placed in the sanctuary of the cathedral, on a hearse surmounted by huge candelabra bearing 1000 lights, before being interred in a small chantry chapel, which Warham had had built for himself as long ago as 1507. The chantry was situated in the Martyrdom, in the cathedral's north transept, and Warham was clearly devoted to Canterbury and St Thomas. He referred regularly to Becket in his correspondence, and seems always to have tried to be in the diocese for the saint's major feasts. He had fought hard for a bull to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Becket's death in 1520, and carefully chose to be buried as close as possible to the spot where Becket fell. He quoted Becket at Henry in 1515. When he faced the king again in 1532 the identification with his predecessor was complete.

The speech in which Warham had prepared to defend himself against the praemunire charge is, by any standards, magnificent. 'The case that I am put to trouble for is one of the articles that Saint Thomas of Canterbury died for', he declared, quoting from a contemporary life and the martyr's letters. He, Warham, had done no wrong. Rather, he had acted in obedience to Rome, and in accordance with his duty as primate. He had acted as all his predecessors had done. Let his assailants 'hew me to small pieces', he continued, but remember that whoever lays a violent hand on an archbishop shall be accursed and can be 'assoiled but by the pope', and the place where he is taken, together with the two neighbouring dioceses, put under an interdict; and so on (TNA: PRO, SP 1/70, fol. 236).

It was a long time since an archbishop had been ready to speak thus. Apparently the octogenarian Warham was seriously bracing himself for martyrdom. Had he lived a little longer and indeed chosen the path that John Fisher took, it would be much easier to pass a final verdict on him. Furthermore, the religious history of sixteenth-century England might be markedly different from the one we know.


  • LP Henry VIII, vols. 1–5
  • J. Gairdner, ed., Letters and papers illustrative of the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 24 (1861–3)
  • The correspondence of Sir Thomas More, ed. E. F. Rogers (1947)
  • D. Wilkins, ed., Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, 4 vols. (1737)
  • The Anglica historia of Polydore Vergil, ad 1485–1537, ed. and trans. D. Hay, CS, 3rd ser., 74 (1950)
  • P. Gwyn, The king's cardinal: the rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey (1990)
  • M. J. Kelly, ‘The submission of the clergy’, TRHS, 5th ser., 15 (1965), 97–119
  • M. J. Kelly, ‘Canterbury jurisdiction and influence during the episcopate of William Warham, 1503–1532’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1965
  • G. W. Bernard, War, taxation, and rebellion in early Tudor England (1986)
  • J. A. F. Thomson, The later Lollards, 1414–1520 (1965)
  • L. E. Whatmore, ed., ‘The sermon against the Holy Maid of Kent and her adherents … 1533’, EngHR, 58 (1943), 463–75
  • C. Wilson, ‘The medieval monuments’, A history of Canterbury Cathedral, 598–1982, ed. P. Collinson and others (1995), 451–510, esp. 487–8
  • Reg. William Warham, LPL [2 vols.]
  • TNA: PRO, SP 1/70


  • BL, letters
  • LPL, papers
  • LPL, register
  • TNA: PRO, letters
  • TNA: PRO, SP 1/70


  • portrait, 1512 (Parliament Roll), Trinity Cam.
  • H. Holbein the younger, chalk drawing, 1527, Royal Collection
  • H. Holbein the younger, oils, 1527, Louvre, Paris
  • oils, 17th (after 1527 portrait by H. Holbein the younger), NPG [see illus.]
  • H. Holbein the younger, portrait
  • tomb effigy, Canterbury Cathedral; repro. in P. Collinson and others, eds., History of Canterbury Cathedral (1995), pl. 116
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, & R. H. Brodie, eds., , 23 vols. in 38 (1862–1932); repr. (1965)
A. B. Emden, , 3 vols. (1957–9); also (1974)
Lambeth Palace London
English Historical Review
Camden Society
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society