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Clerk, Johnlocked

  • Richard Rex

Clerk, John (1481/2?–1541), diplomat and bishop of Bath and Wells, was probably one of several sons of Clement Clerk of Much Livermere, Suffolk, and very likely the John Clerk of Norwich diocese dispensed in 1501 to hold a benefice despite being aged only nineteen.

Early career in diplomacy

Having graduated BA from Cambridge in 1498, and MA in 1502, Clerk went to study law at Bologna, where he became a doctor of canon law in 1510 (he was generally, and probably rightly, credited with the doctorate of both laws). He took service in the household of Cardinal Bainbridge at Rome, and was briefly chamberlain of the English Hospice in Rome, but returned to England after the cardinal's death in 1514. Having transferred to the service of Cardinal Wolsey, he was appointed dean of the Chapel Royal in 1516, and by now had a clutch of parochial benefices as well, though it is not always possible to be certain that a benefice held by one of the many John Clerks was actually held by him. He certainly held the rectories of Rothbury, Northumberland (1512–23); Portishead, Somerset (1513–19); Ditcheat, Somerset (resigned by 1519); Ivychurch, Kent (1514–23); and South Molton, Devon (1519–23). To these he added the archdeaconry of Colchester and the deanery of St George's, Windsor, in 1519.

John Clerk occupied a prominent place in English politics throughout the chancellorship of Cardinal Wolsey, to whose patronage he owed his choicer ecclesiastical preferments, including, as he later remarked with gratitude, his promotion as bishop of Bath and Wells in 1523. At first his role was essentially that of the confidential intermediary between the king and the cardinal. In 1519 he was appointed a judge in Star Chamber, and he would often figure as judge or arbitrator thereafter, for example between the marquess of Dorset and Lord Hastings in 1527. Indeed, for just under a year, from 20 October 1522, he was master of the rolls. But it was as a diplomat that he found his métier. In 1519 he embarked upon the first of many missions, dispatched back to Rome (and en route putting in an appearance at the court of Louise of Savoy). Attendance at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 was perhaps hardly diplomacy of the highest order, but in his second mission, once more to Rome (1521–2), he was entrusted with the prestigious task of presenting to Pope Leo X a fine copy of Henry VIII's refutation of Luther, the Assertio septem sacramentorum, with verses personally inscribed by the king. The ceremony itself, on 2 October 1521, was in secret consistory rather than in the glare of publicity for which he had hoped. But he made the best of it, and marked the occasion with a lengthy oration which was subsequently printed and bound with the Assertio when it was generally released early next year.

Clerk's third mission to Rome followed in 1523–5. At an early stage he was provided to the see of Bath and Wells, succeeding his patron, Wolsey, and took advantage of the opportunity to be consecrated bishop in Rome itself in 1523. Having left Rome in December 1525, he served as ambassador at the French court from July 1526 to September 1527, and again from March to November 1528. John Clerk was manifestly an able and effective diplomat. The frequency with which he served in this capacity is perhaps sufficient testimony, but to this we can add the quality of his dispatches, which were regular and packed with information. Moreover, he got results. Henry VIII was delighted with the papal title Fidei defensor which Clerk wheedled out of Leo X (and preserved through Leo's death and the election of his successor, Adrian VI). And he continued to serve his patron as well as his king. It was Clerk who secured the series of bulls in the early 1520s which conceded to Wolsey unprecedented powers as papal legate in England.

The price of resistance

Clerk's political career was stopped in its tracks by the king's Great Matter. Despite the lead of his patron and the example of most of his colleagues in the cardinal's service, Clerk affiliated himself at an early stage to the camp of Katherine of Aragon. When Henry VIII was trying to win over Sir Thomas More to his cause, the king gave More some papers to guide his thoughts, and then suggested that Clerk and Cuthbert Tunstall should look over them with him. Although this has been interpreted as meaning that Clerk and Tunstall were intended to persuade More, the latter's subsequent excuse to the king, that neither he nor the others were really competent to judge of the issues raised, shows that all three were in the same boat, as men whom Henry wished to have on his side. Both Tunstall and Clerk were to be among the counsel appointed for Queen Katherine in the tribunal which convened at Blackfriars in 1529 to adjudicate on the validity of the marriage. For the tribunal itself Clerk composed a treatise on the queen's behalf, but it is not known to have survived—Clerk himself and More are known to have burnt copies. Clerk's involvement in the divorce proceedings was not limited to his evident contacts with More. His chaplain was in contact with Queen Katherine via the latter's almoner, and he also discussed the case with John Fisher. When the opinions of foreign universities were presented to the House of Lords in 1531, and Henry's advisers spoke in their support, Clerk made a formal protest. And finally, when in April 1533 convocation was asked to deliberate on whether or not the pope had power to dispense for marriages such as Henry's, Clerk was one of the few who dared vote in favour of papal authority. This consistent record of opposition is enough to render entirely incredible earlier suggestions that he assisted Cranmer in producing works on the divorce and the supremacy.

Clerk paid literally as well as metaphorically for his temerity in opposing the king. His obvious loss of favour is reflected in the fact that no further use could be found for his manifest diplomatic talents in the 1530s. When in autumn 1529 Henry VIII pushed three bills through parliament encroaching upon ecclesiastical privilege, Clerk joined Fisher and Nicholas West of Ely in appealing to the pope against these statutes—and was briefly imprisoned with them for his pains. Not only did his diocese contribute substantially to the £100,000 subsidy which convocation had voted to the king in January 1531, but later that year Clerk himself was mulcted of £700 for the escape of seven prisoners from the episcopal gaol—the conventional penalty but one usually remitted.

There were limits to Clerk's resistance. He bowed to pressure in 1533, and not only attended the coronation of Anne Boleyn himself, but joined with Gardiner and Tunstall in urging Thomas More to do likewise (in vain). He and the canons of Wells subscribed to the royal supremacy on 6 July 1534. Having signed a formal renunciation of papal authority on 10 February 1535, he was assiduous thereafter in enforcing the royal supremacy. He even wrote to Cromwell to excuse one of his canons, who through a slip of the tongue had prayed for Katherine of Aragon instead of Anne Boleyn—though this should also be seen as a sign of the fear and anxiety which then prevailed: Clerk was obviously concerned as much to protect his own back as his canon's. He also found it expedient to offer Cromwell a pension on one of his best manors as a Christmas present. Cromwell clearly had a complete ascendancy over Clerk, whose letters to Cromwell are abject and subservient. Cromwell and Henry VIII picked some of Clerk's ecclesiastical plums in the later 1530s. Not only did Henry take away the gift of the archdeaconry of Wells in 1537, but he also forced Cromwell upon him as dean of Wells—the appointment of Cromwell as a lay dean must have stuck in Clerk's throat. Clerk's brother Thomas turned the situation to his advantage. Soon after Cromwell's appointment as dean, Thomas Clerk is found described as a servant of Cromwell, and he acquired a respectable share of former monastic property. John Clerk, though, found himself on the wrong end of redistribution, as Henry took a bite out of the bishop's estates. Like many of his colleagues, Clerk was persuaded to surrender his London residence (Bath Place) into the king's hands, receiving in exchange the former convent of Franciscan nuns in Aldgate.

Conservative bishop

For most of the 1520s Clerk was scarcely a model bishop. Fully occupied with diplomatic or conciliar business, he was not resident in his diocese, which he cannot be shown to have entered prior to September 1530. It was managed in his absence by administrators who had already grown accustomed to doing without their bishop for nearly twenty years. The temporalities of the diocese were from the start largely managed by Thomas Clerk, who accumulated a substantial position in Somerset, resided at an episcopal palace in Wookey, and, having served in Edward VI's first parliament as MP for Wells, died a wealthy esquire in 1555. Wolsey's political eclipse and John Clerk's personal commitment to the cause of Katherine of Aragon combined to cause the bishop to spend far more of his time in his diocese in the 1530s. Curiously, the surviving episcopal register for Clerk's episcopate terminates in June 1534, at just about the time when other sources show Clerk beginning to take a serious interest in his diocese. Rough notes kept by his vicar-general show Clerk conducting a thorough visitation of his diocese in July—perhaps some sort of general stocktaking exercise. It looks as though Clerk was packed off to his diocese in 1534 primarily in order to oversee the enforcement of the oath to the succession, and with a general hint that there was no need for him to hurry back to London. Presumably a fresh register was commenced to mark the new diocesan regime, and it may have been lost because it remained with the bishop rather than at Wells: Clerk died away from his diocese. There is no reason to believe that the absence of a surviving register denotes administrative failings. Clerk's capacity was trusted enough for him to be put in charge of the ecclesiastical valuation of Somerset early in 1535, a task which he completed on time in September. Records survive of his visitation of Glastonbury Abbey in 1538, and the impression derived from the fragmentary documentation of his personal episcopate is that of a diligent pastor.

Clerk's political marginalization in the 1530s was not helped by his well-known religious conservatism. He had made no secret of his contempt for Lutheran teachings in his oration to Leo X, and he was occasionally involved in heresy proceedings in England. Early in 1526 he was one of those bishops deputed by Wolsey to hear the case of Robert Barnes, one of whose answers in court so displeased Clerk that he colourfully told him he would see him fry for it (though he had to wait nearly fifteen years for this dénouement). In April 1529 he took part in proceedings against John Tewkesbury, and he took cognizance of some accusations of heresy during his visitation in 1534. His general religious conservatism remained in evidence throughout the 1530s. He was one of the bishops who signed a statement in favour of pilgrimage, probably early in 1537 in the context of the preliminary discussions which were to lead towards the Bishops' Book (The Institution of a Christian Man), during which he was noted by Alexander Alesius as speaking on the conservative side. However, although his name appears in the Bishops' Book, he had no direct role in its composition (when he wrote to Cromwell in October 1537 to thank him for sending a copy, it was evidently the first he had seen of it). In 1539 Clerk was involved in the passage of the Act of Six Articles, and in the same year he led a commission, with bishops Sampson of Chichester and Rugg of Norwich, to look into reports of heresy in Calais.

The conservative backlash in religion which set in during 1539 marked not only the beginning of the end for Cromwell, but also a new political dawn for Clerk, whom the fiasco of the Cleves marriage in 1540 brought back to the centre of events. He was chosen to take the news of the annulment of that marriage to the duke of Cleves, hardly an easy mission—Clerk himself remarked on the inconsistencies in the case against the marriage, but it was doubtless welcome for what it signified, namely Cromwell's fall. But the dawn proved false. Clerk fell ill at Dunkirk on his way back from Cleves, and made his will there on 27 September. There were the usual rumours of poison, but as one of his servants on the voyage had fallen ill and evidently later died, the less romantic explanation of infectious disease seems more probable. Clerk apparently expected to die soon, as he provided for burial at Calais. He bequeathed £180 for doles, obits, and masses for his soul, besides a 'remembraunce' of £100 for King Henry and gifts for bishops Tunstall and Gardiner. Clerk recovered enough to make the crossing to England, but he died in London on 3 January 1541 at his residence in Aldgate, and was buried in St Botolph's Church there.


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