English Reformation bishop and legist; b. probably 1500; d. Marshalsea prison, London, Sept. 5, 1569. Although it is still debated, Bonner is believed to have been the illegitimate son of George Savage, rector of Daneham, Cheshire, and Elizabeth Frodsham, who later married Edmund Bonner, a long-sawyer of Hanley, Worcestershire. At Pembroke College, Oxford, Bonner obtained a baccalaureate in Civil and Canon Law (1519) and a doctorate in Civil Law (1525). He was ordained around 1519.
In 1529 he became a chaplain to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and took part in negotiations between the cardinal and Thomas Cromwell, remaining with Wolsey after his fall from power. Enjoying the favor of Cromwell, Bonner was employed by Henry VIII from 1532 to 1540 on several diplomatic missions on the Continent to Clement VII, Charles V, Francis I, and the Lutheran princes. At Marseilles he argued Henry's case for annulment so truculently before Clement VII that it infuriated him; on another occasion Bonner's overbearing manner gave offense to Francis I.
Although appointed by Henry to the See of Hereford (1538), he was not yet consecrated when he was translated to London (1539). He was consecrated there in April of 1540. A vigorous defender of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, he accepted the royal supremacy. He showed his zeal by writing a very antipapal preface to the Hamburg (1536) edition of the De Vera Obedientia, Stephen gardiner's defense of Henry's claim to be head of the English Church.
Bonner also facilitated the printing of Tyndale's Bible that was intended for distribution in England. Nevertheless, he was just as strongly opposed to Protestant doctrines as were Cuthbert tunstall and Stephen Gardiner. In later years, he openly attributed his acceptance of the royal supremacy to his fear of retaliation by the king.
After Edward VI's accession (1547), Bonner was imprisoned on several charges, such as refusing to recognize the right of the King's Council to make innovations in religion during the royal minority, but essentially for refusing to accept the introduction of Protestantism. As a result of charges brought by John Hooper and Hugh Latimer, and after examination by Archbishop Cranmer, Bonner was deprived of his bishopric in October of 1549.
Restored by Mary, he took a leading part in the return to the papal allegiance and orthodox doctrine. As bishop of London he presided over the trials of a great many heretics, since his see was the chief center of Protestantism. His position in this connection laid him open to the taunt of having been formerly a belligerent foe of the papacy. He took a more positive attitude to Protestantism by writing and distributing in his diocese A Profitable and Necessary Doctrine for Every Christian Man, a simple statement of Catholic doctrines that Philip Hughes has described as "a singularly warmhearted guide to a better life."
For opposing Elizabeth's changes in the Mass and refusing to recognize her claim to supremacy, he was deprived of his see and committed to the Marshalsea in May of 1559. His legal acumen enabled him to rebut charges of a more obviously criminal nature, such as the violation of Praemunire, thereby discouraging the government from executing other bishops. He died while still in prison.
Bonner was accused by Protestant contemporaries, notably John Bale and John Foxe, of being a bloodthirsty persecutor of Protestants, so that his name was reviled in English histories until late in the 19th century. As a result of more objective writings on the Reformation, particularly the works of such (Protestant) scholars as S. R. Maitland and James Gairdner, Bonner's reputation has been freed from this charge. It is now generally agreed that in the light of royal policy and the standards of the time, he was neither cruel nor overzealous in the punishment of heresy.
Bibliography: p. hughes, The Reformation of England. 3 v. in 1 (New York, 1968). l. b. smith, Tudor Prelates and Politics (Princeton 1953). g. l. m. j. constant, The Reformation in England, tr. r. e. scantlebury and e. i. watkin, 2 v. (New York 1934–42). g. e. phillips, The Truth about Bishop Bonner (London 1910). j. gairdner, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900 (London 1885–1900) 2:818–822. h. o. evennett, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 2:600–601. j. gillow, A Literary and Biographical History or Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics from 1534 to the Present Time, 5 v. (London–New York, 1885–1902) 1:260–266.
[m. r. o'connell]