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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker (1504-1575)

Matthew Parker was Archbishop of Canterbury (1559-1575) during the reign of Elizabeth 1. He was an influential theologian who had a great deal to do with Protestant doctrine and the policy of the Elizabethan religious settlement.

Early life

Matthew Parker was born on 6th August 1504, in the St Saviour's parish of Norwich. This parish is to the north of the city and based around Magdalen Street. Through his mother he may have been related to another great Protestant reformer, Thomas Cranmer.  In 1522 he went to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge and graduated three years later with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He was ordained in 1527 and began a Masters of Arts degree the following year. In his time at Cambridge he came under the influence of various Protestant reforming ideas.

Parker became private chaplain to Queen Anne Boleyn in 1535. Her choice was driven by their shared faith and belief in making education available to the poor through the creation of grammar schools. It may also have been because they were both born in Norfolk. Parker was made dean of Stoke-by-Clare in Suffolk, founding one of the first grammar schools. At the time of her fall, the Queen obtained Parker's promise that he would care for the spiritual well-being of her daughter Elizabeth, a task he fulfilled throughout the dangerous years that followed. In 1537 Parker was appointed chaplain to Henry VIII. Other appointments followed, until in 1544 he was elected master of his old college, and in 1545 Vice- Chancellor of Cambridge University.

At the start of the reign of Edward VI, Matthew Parker married Margaret Harlestone, the daughter of a Norfolk squire. It was a happy marriage. At the time of Robert Kett's rebellion in 1549, he preached at the rebel camp on Mousehold Heath, and later asked his secretary, Alexander Neville, to write an account of the uprising. However, he was a supporter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and was appointed to the rich deanery at Lincoln. On the accession of Mary 1 he was deprived of this deanery and his position at Corpus Christi, but survived the persecutions of this reign.  Parker respected authority and remained inconspicuous until the dawn of the new reign in 1558.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Following the religious turbulence of the previous two reigns, Queen Elizabeth was looking for a moderate man as Archbishop of Canterbury. Given his existing relationship with the Queen, Parker possessed all the qualities Elizabeth was looking for, except celibacy. After some initial hesitation Matthew Parker was elected Archbishop on 1st August 1559. He was a devout and passionately loyal man, and in her satisfaction with him Elizabeth could overlook his one perceived drawback-his marriage.

Matthew Parker was never admitted to Elizabeth's Privy Council but his influence was felt in other ways. The Protestantism of Edward's reign was restored.  He was the principal force in drawing up the amended Book of Common Prayer, and it was under his influence that the Thirty Nine Articles were reviewed and accepted (1562). In supporting the Queen's insistence on hierarchical order and discipline in the Church, the maintenance of bishops under her prerogative, and the prevention of interference from the House of Commons in matters of Church doctrine, Parker must be regarded as being very influential in building the Church of England that we know today. He also produced the "Bishop's Bible" which was prepared under his supervision and published at his own expense in 1572.

Matthew Parker was known in his own lifetime as a great scholar, particularly in the study of historical documents. He founded the Society of Antiquaries and was its first President. He amassed a great collection of manuscripts, many rescued from monastic libraries. Parker is also known to have been linked to printers, engravers and illuminators in Lambeth.

Matthew Parker died on 17 May 1575, at a time when disputes over religion were once again coming to the fore. He may or may not have been the origin of the phrase "nosy Parker", due to his habit of sending out detailed enquiries and instructions when reforms were implemented. Although we cannot be sure of this association, it is nevertheless clear that he was a highly influential character. Matthew Parker has been called the ecclesiastical equivalent of that other great Elizabethan servant, William Cecil, and many aspects of today's Anglican Church can trace their origins back to this moderate Archbishop of Canterbury.

Sandra Fishwick 2014

Sources and further reading

·         J E Neale Queen Elizabeth 1 1934

·         Eric Ives Anne Boleyn 1986