Letter from the Court of High Commission to the church officials of Canterbury Cathedral (December 16, 1588)


The following is an official copy of a letter from the Court of High Commission directing church officials of Canterbury to take action against the circulation of the Martin Marprelate tracts. The original letter was dated December 16, 1588; this copy is dated January 3, 1589. Similar letters were likely sent to other cathedral chapters as part of the nationwide search for the tracts’ authors, printers, and distributors.

The letter, sent from Lambeth Palace (official residence of the archbishops of Canterbury) is signed by John Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury; Valentine Dale (d. 1589), a well known diplomat, administrator, and civil lawyer; William Fleetwood (1535?-94), recorder of the City of London; Bartholomew Clark, dean of Arches (who presided over the court of Arches, the court of appeal of the archbishops of Canterbury); and Dr Edward Stanhope (1546?-1608), a civil lawyer and later chancellor of the diocese of London. Condemning the tracts as seditious and “dangerous to the present state of this realme,” the letter provides a detailed lesson in how Elizabethan authorities conducted their investigation and how they attempted to prevent books from circulating. The letter authorizes officials to search persons, houses, shops, or cellars for the pamphlets, and to bring in for questioning anyone suspected of involvement in the project. If any copies of the pamphlets were found, they were to be forwarded to Lambeth. Anyone brought in for questioning should be administered the oath ex officio, which required suspects to answer self-incriminating questions without the traditional requirement of two witnesses willing to testify against them. Many contemporaries, including Martin Marprelate and other reformers but also officials such as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, compared the use of this oath in church courts to the practices of the Spanish Inquisition. As the writers of this letter note, however, the ex officio oath was deemed, in a time of danger, “most convenient and effectuall for the openyng and boltinge owte of the truthe.”

Anyone refusing to answer questions was to be imprisoned until the high commissioners sent further instructions. If anyone denied the official searchers (“pursuivants”) access to their house, the searcher was authorized to take a constable along to compel the reluctant. Finally, church officials were given authority, in the Queen’s name, to require cooperation from all civil officials (mayors, bailiffs, sheriffs, constables): if these officials refused to help, the letter notes ominously, they “will answer the contrary at theyr perilles.” This stipulation acknowledges that in many parts of the country, the movement for ecclesiological reform enjoyed the support of local gentry and officials. This letter helps paint the backdrop against which the Marprelate controversy was enacted, a nationwide high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse as the official net slowly closed around the peripatetic Marprelate press.

Source: Canterbury Cathedral Archives MS DCb/PRC/44/3. Not published previously.

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iii° Januarii
anno 1588
After our right hartye commendations to your good Lordship and the rest. Wheareas of late a very seditiose booke and dangerous to the present state of this realme and churche of Ingland intytled by the name of Martyn marprelate wythe other slanderous prohybyted and unlawfull bookes and pamphelettes of lyke nature, have bene made imprinted puplished dispersed and scatered into the handes and custodyes of suche as are favorers of suche ffantasticall seditious and forbydden bookes and pamphelettes, we myndinge as muche as in us lyethe to have discovered and suppressed those kind of bookes and the auctors prynters puplyshers and distractors [i.e., distributors] therof have thought good to pray requyre and aucthoryse [you] or any thre two or one of yow in her Majesties name by vertue of hyr highnes commyssyon for causes ecclesiasticall to us and others directed: That from tyme to tyme heareafter by all due and ordynary meanes yow do instruct and informe yourselves in the premysses and thereupon yow or any thre two or one of yow do gyve order for the spedye apprehension and bringyng beffore yowe all suche and persons whom yow or any thre two or one of yow shall have information suspect or deme to be the aucthors prynters contrivers devisers puplyshers distracters of the afforesaid bookes whersoer they may be ffound aswell in places exempte as not exempte, and then to examyne upon theyr corporall othes by yow or any thre two or one of yowe to be mynystred unto them upon suche artycles or interrogatoryes as unto yow or any thre two or one of yow shalbe thought most convenient and effectuall for the openyng and boltinge owte of the truthe in the premysses. And suche person and persons as yow shall fynd culpable and ffawtye therin or shall obstinatly refuse to take an othe in that behalfe we requyre and aucthoryze yow by aucthoryty afforesaid or any thre two or one of yow accordinge to your good discretion eyther to deliver or cause to be delivered prisoners to the next pryson or gaole there to indure imprisonment at our commandement untyll we shall take order for theyr inlargement or els to take sufficient bondes of them for theyr apparans to be made beffore us personallye at some certen tyme by yow to be prefyxed. And we lykewyse requyre and auctorize yow or any thre two or one of yow by auctorytye afforesaid [verso] ffrom tyme to tyme to gyve orders and cause diligent serche and inquysytion to be made for the foresaid bookes and pamphelettes aswell upon the bodyes of the persons afforesaid as also in any howse shoppe seller [i.e., cellar] or any other place or places where yow shall have information or shall vehemently suspect the said bookes or any of them to be or remaingne and then beinge ffound to take away and send fforthewith unto us to be consydered and disposed accordinglye. And in case suche trustye and faythefull person or persons by yow to be appoyntted for this servyce can not have ffre accesse into any howse shopp seller or any other place for the effectinge and accomplisshement of this our commission. Then we requyre and auctorize hym or them by auctoryty afforesaid that taking a constable and suche other convenient assistance as he or they shall thinke mete, he or they do enter into suche howse shopp seller or other place and there make serche for the persons and bookes afforesaid and afterward to deale wythe them in maner aforesaid. And we requyre yow from tyme to tyme to certyfe us of all your doinges and procedinges hearein. Willinge and commanding in hir Majesties name all Justices of peace mayors sheryffes baylyffes constables and all other hyr Majesties officers and subiectes to be aydinge and assistinge in and abowte the execution heareof as they tender hyr majesties service and will answer the contrary at theyr perilles, and so we commyt yow to god. From lambehythe the xvith of december 1588.

yours in christe
Jo: Cantuar
Valen: Dale
W. Fletewood
Bar: Clerk
Ed. Stanhoppe

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