Cuthbert Tunstall

The Right Reverend
Cuthbert Tunstall
Prince-Bishop of Durham
Church Catholic Church
Diocese Diocese of Durham
Elected 1530 & 1556
Term ended 1552 & 1559 (twice deprived)
Predecessor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Successor James Pilkington
Other posts Bishop of London
Consecration 1522
Personal details
Born 1474
Hackforth, Yorkshire
Died 18 November 1559(1559-11-18)
Nationality English
Denomination Roman Catholic
Parents Thomas Tunstall
Alma mater University of Oxford

Cuthbert Tunstall (otherwise spelt Tunstal or Tonstall; 1474 – 18 November 1559) was an English Scholastic, church leader, diplomat, administrator and royal adviser. He served as Prince-Bishop of Durham during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

Childhood and early career

Cuthbert Tunstall was born at Hackforth in Yorkshire in 1474, an illegitimate son of Thomas Tunstall of Thurland Castle in Lancashire. His legitimate half-brother, Brian Tunstall, was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Cuthbert studied mathematics, theology, and law at Oxford (Balliol College), Cambridge (Trinity College), and Padua, where he graduated Doctor of Laws. He was proficient in Greek and Hebrew.

William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, made Tunstall his chancellor on 25 August 1511, and shortly afterward appointed him rector of Harrow on the Hill. He eventually became a canon of Lincoln (1514) and archdeacon of Chester (1515). Soon thereafter he was employed on diplomatic business by King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey. In 1515, Tunstall was sent to Flanders with Sir Thomas More.[1] It was at Brussels that he would meet Erasmus as well, becoming the intimate friend of both scholars. In 1519 he was sent to Cologne; a visit to Worms (1520–21) gave him a sense of the significance held by the Lutheran movement and its literature.

Tunstall was made Master of the Rolls in 1516, and Dean of Salisbury in 1521. In 1522 he became Bishop of London by papal provision, and on 25 May 1523 he was made Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. In 1525 he negotiated with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V after the Battle of Pavia, and helped to arrange the Peace of Cambrai in 1529.[2]

Bishop of Durham under Henry VIII and Edward VI

On 22 February 1530 — again by papal provision — Tunstall succeeded Cardinal Wolsey as Bishop of Durham. This role involved the assumption of quasi-regal power and authority within the territory of the diocese. In 1537 he was also made President of the new Council of the North. Although he was often engaged in time-consuming negotiations with the Scots, he took part in other public business, and attended parliament, where in 1539 he participated in the discussion on the Bill of Six Articles.[2]

In the question of Henry's divorce, Tunstall acted as one of Queen Catherine's counselors. Unlike Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, during the troubled years that followed Tunstall adopted a policy of passive obedience and acquiescence in many matters regarding which he likely had little support. While Tunstall adhered firmly to Roman Catholic doctrine and practices, after some hesitation he accepted Henry as head of the Church of England, and publicly defended this position[2] – thus accepting a schism with Rome.

Tunstall disliked the religious policy pursued by the advisers of King Edward VI, and voted against the first Act of Uniformity in 1549. However, he continued to discharge his public duties without interruption, and hoped that the Earl of Warwick might be induced to reverse the anti-Catholic policy of the Duke of Somerset. This hope failed, and after Somerset's fall, Tunstall was summoned to London in May 1551, and confined to his house there. During this captivity he composed a treatise on the Eucharist, which was published at Paris in 1554. At the end of 1551 he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and a bill for his deprivation was introduced into the House of Commons. When this failed, he was tried by a commission on 4–5 October 1552, and deprived of his bishopric.[2]

Bishop of Durham under Mary I and Elizabeth I

On the ascension of Mary I to the throne in 1553, Tunstall was granted liberty. His bishopric, which had been dissolved by Act of Parliament in March 1553, was re-established by a further Act in April 1554. Tunstall, now an octogenarian, again assumed his office as Bishop of Durham. He maintained his earlier conciliatory approach, indulging in no systematic persecution of Protestants.[2] Through Mary's reign he ruled his diocese in peace.

When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, Tunstall refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, and would not participate in the consecration of the Protestant Matthew Parker as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was arrested, deprived of his diocese in September 1559, and held prisoner at Lambeth Palace,[2] where he died within a few weeks, aged 85. He was one of eleven Catholic bishops to die in custody during Elizabeth's reign.

The Anglican historian Albert F. Pollard wrote:

"Tunstall's long career of eighty-five years, for thirty-seven of which he was a bishop, is one of the most consistent and honourable in the sixteenth century. The extent of the religious revolution under Edward VI caused him to reverse his views on the royal supremacy and he refused to change them again under Elizabeth."


  1. De arte supputandi libri quattuor (1522)
Based on the Summa of Luca Pacioli, this was the first printed work published in England that was devoted exclusively to mathematics.
  1. Confutatio cavillationum quibus SS. Eucharistiae Sacramentum ab impiis Caphernaitis impeti solet (Paris, 1552)
  2. De veritate corporis et sanguinis domini nostri Jesu Christi in eucharistia (Paris, 1554)
  3. Compendium in decem libros ethicorum Aristotelis (Paris, 1554)
  4. Certaine godly and devout prayers made in Latin by C. Tunstall and translated into Englishe by Thomas Paynelle, Clerke (London, 1558).
  5. Tunstall's correspondence as president of the Council of the North is in the British Library.


  1. More, Thomas (1991). Robert Adams, ed. Utopia: A Revised Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism (2 ed.). New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 3. ISBN 0-393-96145-1.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Chisholm 1911.


External links

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Richard Fitz-James
Bishop of London
Succeeded by
John Stokesley
Church of England titles
Preceded by
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Prince-Bishop of Durham
Succeeded by
James Pilkington
Political offices
Preceded by
The Lord Marney
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by
The Earl of Wiltshire
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