Parker holds a central place in the political and ecclesiastical history of England and in that of the College. He was born in Norwich on August 6th 1504 and came to Corpus as a student, being ordained in 1527. He became chaplain to Henry VIII in 1538, and was recommended to Corpus as its new Master by Henry in 1544. The original letter of recommendation in the King’s own handwriting still lies in the Parker library at Corpus. Having praised Parker’s virtues, the King’s recommendation was something few people would dissent from and Parker was duly made Head of House. Both Corpus and the University were in great need of a capable administrative and politically sensitive talent at this time, both of which skills Parker had in abundance; Henry had acted wisely. He became Vice-Chancellor of the University in 1545 and again in 1549, but then under Queen Mary retired from public life to Norfolk and was deprived of his livings, retreating for some time to Frankfurt in Germany.
Whilst chaplain for Henry and Anne Boleyn, Parker had taught and counselled the young Elizabeth, and when she ascended the throne. Parker was called back and was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury 13 months later at the age of 55. There were many difficult jobs to be undertaken in the new reformed Church of England, and Parker had the unenviable task of having to mediate between the Catholics and the extreme Protestants ( ‘The Precisians’) to find a middle way for the Church of England. Between 1563-1568 he produced the new official version of the Bible – the ‘Bishop’s Bible’ which was the authorised version until the King James Bible in 1611. He also supervised the revision of Cranmer’s 42 doctrinal articles to produce the definitive 39 Articles of Religion which defined the doctrine of the Church of England.
One of the great objectives of Parker’s life was finding independent evidence of the origins of a Christian Church in England independent of that in Rome. To this end he collected a great many ancient manuscripts, including the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, which remain in the library he founded in the college today. In the chaos following the dissolution of the monasteries the great collections of the Religious Houses had been broken up and scattered. He undertook to recover manuscripts and books many thought to be lost.
He obtained a warrant from the Privy Council enabling him to “…make a general search after all such records and muniments as related to these Realms, and which upon the dissolution of the monasteries had fallen into private hands; whereby he preserved from perishing some of the most valuable remains of our Church and Nation.”
So assiduous was Parker in making his enquiries, his activities gained him the epithet “Nosey Parker” a description still in use today!
Many of the books he consulted are still annotated in his own hand, showing the scholar at work on his source material. The result of this work was the great “De Antiquitate Britannicae Ecclesiae et Privilegiis Ecclesiae Cantuarensis cum Archiepiscopis eiusdem”, said to be the first privately printed book in England and presented to Queen Elizabeth bound in luxurious velvet.
Parker died in 1575 and was interred in his private chapel at Lambeth, but he was not given long to rest and as the political tide turned in the Civil War his remains were dug up in1648 and cast on a dung heap. At the end of the Protectorate and with the Restoration of the Monarchy his bones were found and re-interred at Lambeth.
He was a great benefactor to Corpus, Gonville & Caius, Trinity Hall, the University and the town of Cambridge, leaving funds for scholarships and public works, but his great gift to the College was the incomparable Parker library, which contains all of his books and manuscript sources, and is one of the finest collections of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world.
Parker was the consolidator of the English reformation and inevitably this generated many attempts to discredit him, even after his death. One of the best known is that of the Nag’s head fable, a story passed around in 1604 that Parker was not officially consecrated. A book given to James 1 nearly 30 years after Parker’s death caused consternation:
“In the beginning of King James his reigne there came out a book under the name of Sanders with the story of the Nagg’s head ordination. This book made a great noyse and was wonderfully cry’d up by the Roman Catholics as sapping the whole reformation at once by destroying the Episcopacy. This book was showed to King James and upon his reading of it it stratled (sic) him. Upon this he cald his Privy Council and showed it them and withal told em that he was a stranger among em and knew nothing of the matter, and directing himself to the Archbishop who was present My Lord, (says he) hope you can prove and make good your ordination for by my Sol, marry (sayes he) if this story be true we are no church. The Archbishop replied that he had never heard the story before, but did not question but he could detect the forgery of it, and by examining the Lambeth register could prove Archbishop Parker’s ordination. Att another Privy Council upon the same account the old Earle of Nottinghame was present, and when ’twas debated the old Earle stood up and told the King and Council he could give them full satisfaction as to that matter upon his own personal knowledge, for (says he) Archbishop Parker’s ordination made a great noyse about towne that he was to be ordained on such a day in Lambeth Chappel which drew a great deale of company thither, and out of curiosity I went thither myself and was present at his ordination, and he was ordained by the form in King Edward’s Common Prayer Book. I myself (said he) had the book in my hand all the time and went along with the ordination, and when it was over I dined with em, and there was an instrument drawn up of the form and order of it, which instrument I saw and read over. Some time after (I being acquainted with the Archbishop and being at Lambeth with him) he told me that he had sent that instrument to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge to be laid up in their Library in perpetuam rei memoriam, and sayes the old Earle, I believe it may be in the Library still if your majesty please to have it searched for. By my Sol, man, (says ye King) thou speakest to the purpose; we must see this instrument, and this puts the thing out of dispute. Upon this a messenger was sent, the instrument found and brought to ye King, he showed it, and had it read in Council and desired the old Earle of Nottinghame to look upon it and see if he could remember whether it was the original instrument which was drawn up at the ordination. The Earle perusing of it declared it was ye original he saw and read when Archbishop Parker was ordained. The King upon this addressing himself to several Popish Lords who were there present in Council. My Lords, sayes he, what do ye think of ye matter? they all declared their abhorrence of the forgery of ye Nagg’s Head ordination, and several of em upon it left the Popish Communion and came over to ye Church of England declaring that Church was not fitt to be trusted with their souls who would invent and abett such a notorious falsity.
For truth of this I witness my hand, Win. Hampton, Rector of Worth, 1721.”
Parker clearly benefited posthumously from the organisation of the great library he founded at Corpus, in ways he had probably never imagined!