This article is about the life and legacy of Edmund Grindal.

Source: Faith in Focus, 1998. 3 pages.

Edmund Grindal

The years 1517 and 1521 are of great significance in the progress of the Reformation. They mark its official beginning with Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, and his trial for heresy before the Emperor, in Worms. In one of these momentous years, or at some time in between, was born a significant English reformer, whose life touched the great issues and characters of the Reformation at several points. Edmund Grindal was born in the little Cumbrian town of St Bees, before the days when births were officially registered, sometime between 1517 and 1521.


The Lutheran Reformation soon reached England, and was discussed, fostered and nurtured in the centres of learning, and especially in Cambridge, where a group of University men met regularly in the White Horse Inn to speak and hear of the new teaching. Among them were future leaders of the English church, Cranmer, Latimer, and others. Soon the University was on the way to accepting the Reformation, and the teachings of Martin Luther.

Cranmer was eventually made Archbishop by Henry the Eighth. And with a sympathetic Thomas CromwellΒ 1 , great strides could be made in advancing Protestant beliefs in the realm. One way in which Cranmer could do this was to invite visiting scholars from the Continent to teach in Cambridge University, where Cromwell had been made Chancellor in 1535, and in this way Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strasbourg, came to England to teach in Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1549.


It was to Pembroke College that Grindal had gone, sometime in the late 1530's. It was a close-knit community of students and teachers, about 50 men in total, and with a reputation for high academic performance. Grindal was ordained in the early 1540's, and was still there when Bucer arrived. He lived only two years longer, and never learned English (Latin was the language widely understood in the Colleges) but his influence was very great. Grindal became a personal friend and disciple, and was a pall bearer at his funeral. "As master Bucer used to say..." was a characteristic saying of his, and he became a conscious model for Grindal.


The Reformation in England was slow, initially dictated from the top down, at times suffering reverse, though in the end, thorough-going. The one great reverse which seemed to destroy all the work which had gone previously was the untimely death of Edward the Sixth, and the ascent to the throne of his half-sister Mary Tudor. She was a daughter of Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She had been reared as a devout Catholic, and had remained aggrieved at Henry's treatment of her mother, and determined to undo all the work of reformation in the realm. She made peace with Rome, brought back the Catholic clergy, outlawed Protestantism, and instituted the trials of the leaders of the reformed English church. There were hundreds of Martyrs in her reign, not all of them well known men like Latimer, Ridley, Hooper, Cranmer or Rogers, but men and women who would die rather than recant of the true faith and return to the heresies of Roman Catholicism. In the end, the burnings worked against Mary, when the common people saw respected and godly men burned in public for their faith.

The persecutions were not so intense though that none could escape. About 800 made their way to Continental Europe, among them the future leaders of the reformed English church, and among them was Edmund Grindal. The exiles went where they could, but usually to the centres of reformation, such as Basle, Geneva, Zurich – and Strasbourg. And it comes as no surprise to learn that Grindal found his way there. He had managed to escape with much of Bucer's English writings, and presented them to Bucer's secretary in Strasbourg, Conrad Hubert, for publication.

Grindal could keep his contacts in England throughout the time of the Marian persecutions. He received eyewitness reports of the deaths of the martyrs soon after their happening, and was in a position to pass these reports on to his fellow exiles. Living in Basle, and working as a printer's reader, was John Foxe, of the Book of Martyrs fame. He had published a short book of Martyrs, but was producing new and enlarged editions all the time, and it was to him that Grindal sent his up-to-the-minute accounts, for inclusion in his book.

The exiles had had chance to see the Reformed faith at work on the Continent, and they had chance to meet and learn from the great Reformers still alive (Calvin died in 1564). John Knox had spent his time in Geneva, and from there learned the Presbyterian system of church government, which he eventually took back to Scotland. Most of the exiles adopted distinctly Calvinistic or Zwinglian theology, and on their return, England could not remain Lutheran.


When Mary died in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne. She was enigmatic concerning her own beliefs, probably having learned in the days of her father and half-siblings to conceal them for safety's sake. But she was very definitely Protestant, and returned the country again to the reformed faith. The Continental exiles began to return, to their dismay finding the vineyard of the Lord turned into a wasteland – the description by John Jewel (1522-1571), who was soon to become Bishop of Salisbury, and write his famous defence of the reformed Church of England.

Elizabeth wanted peace in the land, after the bloodshed of Mary, and the despotism of her father. Her political genius was put to work to find a way of achieving the workable government of a land that still had a sizeable Catholic minority, that the throne of Spain still had some legitimate interest in, and whose potential religious leadership had returned from exile full of Calvinistic and Presbyterian ideas. The term "Puritan" had not been coined yet, but it soon would be to characterise these returned exiles.

Bishop of Londonβ†β€’πŸ”—

Grindal had been the Bishop of London elect before Mary's reign, and it was to this office that he was now placed. London was a city of about 100,000 in Elizabethan times, but growing very rapidly, cosmopolitan, unruly, subject to periodic plagues and fires, and generally a health hazard to all who lived there. Grindal had to find suitable incumbents for the churches, many of whom had been removed, since as Catholics they could not remain in office. He had all the duties of the Bishop in administering the diocese, but some added ones because it was the London diocese.

One of these was to act as the supervisor of the so-called "Stranger Churches". These arose as congregations of foreign nationals in London. They were mainly French, Dutch or Spanish in origin, and drawn from their communities in London, and also having churches in other towns. Their origin had been in Edward's days, when persecution raged on the Continent, and some managed to escape to England. These congregations were licensed by Edward, and John Γ‘ Lasco given supervision of them. Lasco left England at the time of Mary, and returned to Poland, where he died. Elizabeth wanted tighter control of these Stranger Churches when they re-gathered, and made it part of the office of the Bishop of London to supervise them. He would regulate their disciple, and be their go-between to the crown, an essential in the days when religion and politics were never even dreamed of as being separable, and when pluralism and tolerance of the kind we know today were intolerable ideas.

They found in Grindal a co-religionist, a man in deep sympathy with their faith, and willing to go to great lengths to help them. Grindal looked upon the Stranger Churches as models which could serve for the further reformation of the English church. He corresponded with Calvin and Beza for pastors for the French Churches; he obtained buildings for them to worship in, and spent much time mediating in internal disputes in the Dutch Churches, in the 1560's.

Archbishop of Canterburyβ†β€’πŸ”—

Grindal was made Archbishop of York first, and then later of Canterbury, in 1576. He now was the leading churchman in the country, and answerable, on a human level directly to the Queen; but he was very aware that he was answerable to God first and foremost. His major test came soon on the heels of his appointment.

A practice known as the "exercises", or by the more old fashioned term for the time, "prophesyings" had originated in Zwingli's Zurich, but by Grindal's time this practice of the Continental Reformed Churches had become common in England. In it, two or three ministers of a particular area would each preach on the same text, then they would critique each other's sermons, as to doctrine and presentation, then discuss other matters of interest to the church. Intended as a way of helping newer or inadequately trained ministers to improve their preaching, the exercises were nevertheless viewed with suspicion by Elizabeth and her Council.

The meetings were open to the public, and did attract gatherings in the churches in town. They were not officially licensed, and the suspicion was that they might be used to spread and propagate teachings against the crown. It was easy for a few malicious people to give a false or bad report to the authorities on what they had witnessed. The conveners of the exercises were undoubtedly Puritan, and probably Presbyterian, yet there is no evidence that they were seditious in their intent. Elizabeth had given commands to some of the Bishops to put a stop to the exercises in their dioceses, but they had not been concerned about them, and had been able to put her off.

Grindal would probably have been able to do the same, but he was not prepared to do so. He wrote a spirited reply to Elizabeth, in which he stressed the need and virtues of preaching. He told her that she, as ruler of the civil realm, should not pronounce on affairs of the church. "Remember, Madam, that you are a mortal creature", he wrote to the Queen at the height of her powers, and went on to warn her not to turn from God. He refused to suppress the exercises.

He had no reason to expect that Elizabeth would agree with him; he might well have lost his head if it were her father, he faced deposition from office from her. Yet it did not come. He was "sequestrated" β€” taken from public life, but not worse, and died an honourable death in 1583.

In assessing the work of Edmund Grindal, there could be so many "what if's". Had he persevered in office, he might have been able to reconcile the Puritans within the English Church and state, and prevented the eruptions of the seventeenth century. But maybe that would have been impossible for any man, humanly speaking. Perhaps his commendation is the one of the worker in the background, preserving the works of Bucer, passing on eyewitness accounts of the martyrs, assisting the Stranger Churches, above all persisting in the steady faithful work of a man of God in his ministry to the church, above all desiring the full reformation of the English Church.

The standard biography of Edmund Grindal is Archbishop Grindal, 1519-1583, The Struggle for a Reformed Church, by Patrick Collinson, published by Jonathan Cape, 1979.


  1. ^ He is not to be mistaken for Oliver Cromwell, a distant relative of his, who lived about a hundred years later.​

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