Skip to main content Accessibility help

Polemic as Piety: Thomas Stapleton's Tres Thomae and Catholic Controversy in the 1580s



This article examines the triple biography of Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Becket and Thomas More, published by Thomas Stapleton in 1588 and generally regarded as a work of pious hagiography. By focusing on the circumstances in which the book was written and published, the article demonstrates its polemical significance at a time of rapid political change in Catholic/Protestant relations in both England and Europe. Conceived as a Catholic alternative to the history of the Christian past produced by Foxe, Stapleton's book also addressed contested issues within Catholicism: how to deal with the Elizabethan regime, and the status to be accorded to recent martyrs. In answering these questions, Stapleton's views reflect the complexity of Catholic thought at this time, and its fluidity in response to the shifting political circumstances of the late 1580s.



Hide All

1 Anthony à Wood, Athenae oxonienses, London 1820, i. 669; Thomas Stapleton, Opera quae extant omnia, Paris 1620. There is a short biography written by Henry Holland in volume i of the Opera. Holland had been a student of Stapleton's at Douai and was probably the editor of the Opera where the Tres Thomae was placed in volume iv (p. 931 to the end) together with Stapleton's other devotional works. The only substantial modern treatment of Stapleton is M. R. O'Connell, Thomas Stapleton and the Counter Reformation, New Haven–London 1964, at p. 23 for the story about Pope Clement. O'Connell is also the author of the entry on Stapleton in the ODNB. Some indication of Stapleton's contemporary reputation in England can be discerned from the fact that his collected works were purchased by the leading Puritan layman Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax (York Minster Library, B XIII. 1–4), and in Europe by the comment of a Franciscan visiting the Abbey of St Victoire in Paris in 1585: ‘nul a mieux escrit contres les modernes heresies que Stapleton anglois en un livre gros’ (Bibliotheque national, Paris, ms fonds francais 20309, fo. 356). I am grateful to my colleague Dr Katy Gibbons for this latter reference.

2 Peter Milward, Religious controversies of the Elizabethan age, London 1977, 9. Grindal's sermon is in The remains of Edmund Grindal, ed. W. Nicholson (Parker Society ix, 1843), 1–33.

3 O'Connell, Stapleton, 142–210; Milward, Controversies, 8–11.

4 Stapleton did not move to Rheims with the English College in 1576, pace O'Connell, Stapleton, 40, but he did dedicate his tract against William Whitaker's Authoritatis ecclesiasticae … defensio, Antwerp 1592, to Allen: Opera omnia, i. 839.

5 O'Connell, Stapleton, 82–93. These works are printed in Opera omnia, i. 1–505; ii. 1475.

6 Holland, ‘Life’, Opera omnia, i, sig e iij. The adjective is O'Connell's: ODNB. Milward, Controversies, 152, notes that the book had ‘an essentially controversial aim’ but does not develop the point.

7 See Penry Williams, The Later Tudors: England, 1547–1603, Oxford 1995, 299–324 (plots), 474–6 (divisions among Catholics), and J. Bossy, The English Catholic community, 1570–1850, London 1975, 36–8, 42–4.

8 Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Anti-Christ's lewd hat: Protestants, papists and players in post-Reformation England, New Haven–London 2002, 231–9, 244–80, 285–6; B. Gregory, Salvation at stake: Christian martyrdom in early modern Europe, Cambridge, Ma 1999, 295–6; A Dillon, The construction of martyrdom in the English Catholic community, 1535–1603, Aldershot 2002, 38–46; Simon Ditchfield, Liturgy, sanctity, and history in Tridentine Italy, Cambridge 1995, 86–91.

9 Simon Ditchfield, ‘Tridentine worship and the cult of saints’, in R. Po-chia Hsia (ed.), Cambridge history of Christianity, VI: Reform and expansion, 1500–1660, Cambridge 2007, 207–10. I am grateful to Dr Ditchfield for allowing me to see this prior to publication.

10 ‘Nunc ergo signa Apostolatus eius videamur’: Tres Thomae, 11–24. The example of Thomas was of particular importance to Counter-Reformation theologians as the account of his confrontation with the risen Christ was used to defend the doctrine of transubstantiation. In his Promptuarium Catholicum for the mass readings on the saint's feast day Stapleton likened the Protestants who denied the Real Presence to those who refused to believe unless they could see: Opera omnia, iv. 821.

11 Thomas Stapleton, A fortresse of the faith, Antwerp 1565 (RSTC 23232), fos 72v–79r.

12 Anne Duggan, Thomas Becket, London 2004, 318–19. For the shrine at Hesdin see pp. 79–80 below. See also C. M. Gibbons, ‘English Catholic exiles in Paris in the 1580s’, unpubl. PhD diss. York 2006, 138–9.

13 Tres Thomae, 94–9. The text of the original is printed in PL ccvii.77B–82A. See J Foxe, Actes and monuments, London 1570, and the entry for Foxe in ODNB.

14 Tres Thomae, 27. The title of the section on Becket begins ‘de vera causa martyrium’. See Helen Parish, Monks, miracles and magic: Reformation representations of the medieval Church, London 2005, 92–105; Dillon, Construction of martyrdom, 197–9; Duggan, Becket, 236–42; and Harpsfield's Life of More, ed. E. V. Hitchcock and R. W. Chambers (Early English Text Society, 1932), 215–17.

15 Tres Thomae, 69–93.

16 Michael Questier, ‘Elizabeth and the Catholics’, and Peter Lake, ‘From Leicester his commonwealth to Sejanus his fall: Ben Johnson and the politics of Roman (Catholic) virtue’, in Ethan Shagan (ed.), Catholics and the Protestant nation: religious politics and identity in early modern England, Manchester 2005, 80–7, 138–43.

17 Duggan, Becket, 220–1, 254; Tres Thomae, 108–12.

18 Tres Thomae, 114–15.

19 Stapleton, Fortresse, fo. 99v, and The history of the Church of Englande compiled by Venerable Bede, Englishman, Antwerp 1565 (RSTC 1778), sig. 3v. Stapleton lists miracles as the first sign of authenticity in a list of forty-four differences between Catholics and Protestants. See also Thomas More, A dialogue concerning heresies, ed. T. M. C. Lawler, G. Marc'hadour and R. C. Marius, New Haven 1981, 288–91, 346, 421–2.

20 Stapleton, Fortresse, fos 76v–78.

21 For Bale and Foxe see Thomas Betteridge, Tudor histories of the English Reformation, 1530–1583, Aldershot 1999, 40–79, 161–207. It is worth noting that Stapleton is not mentioned in John Vidmar, English Catholic historians and the English Reformation, 1585–1954, Brighton 2005, but see A. C. Southern, Elizabethan recusant prose, 1559–1582, London [c. 1950], 132–5.

22 Thomas Freeman, entry on Harpsfield in ODNB; Harpsfield's Life, 214–17.

23 Tres Thomae, (M), 6–8 [R, pp. xvi–xviii]. The Life of More starts a fresh pagination in the volume. Whether this indicates that Stapleton intended it to be published separately is not clear, but it subsequently was and became the standard printed Life of More. However, the text remained untranslated until 1928 when it was translated by Philip Hallett and published as Thomas Stapleton, The life and illustrious martyrdom of Sir Thomas More, London 1928. A later edition, with an introduction by E. E. Reynolds, was published in 1966. Hereinafter page references to the Reynolds [R] edition are given in brackets after the references to the original (M). A Spanish Life was published by the poet and historian Fernando de Herrera: Tomas Moro, Seville 1592. This focused almost exclusively on his loyalty to Katherine of Aragon and on his trial and execution.

24 See Michael Questier, ‘Catholicism, kinship and the public memory of Sir Thomas More’, this Journal liii (2002), 476–509, esp. pp. 487–9, and James McConica, ‘The recusant reputation of Sir Thomas More’, in Germain Marc'hadour (ed.), Essential articles for the study of St Thomas More, Hamden, Ct 1977, 134–60.

25 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe's house divided, 1490–1700, London 2003, 384–7, 417–27, 442–73.

26 Questier, ‘Elizabeth and the Catholics’, 81–4; Peter Holmes, Resistance and compromise: the political thought of Elizabethan Catholics, Cambridge 1982, 136–75.

27 Stanley Morison, The likeness of Thomas More: an iconographical survey of three centuries, London 1963, discusses this and other likenesses. See especially pp. 42–3, 51, and fig. 31. See also Tres Thomae, (M), 1–2, not printed in [R].

28 Tres Thomae, (M), 4 [R, p. xv]. See Gregory, Salvation, 301–3, on the ready acceptance of the sanctity of recent martyrs among Catholics at this time. See also Ditchfield, ‘Tridentine worship’, 209. In More's case his canonisation did not take place until 1935, the four- hundredth anniversary of his death.

29 The structure of Stapleton's Life owes much to the manuscript Life of Nicholas Harpsfield, although Harpsfield spends more time discussing More's writings: Harpsfield's Life, 100–35.

30 Ditchfield, ‘Tridentine worship’, 217–18. For another English example of this genre of hagiography at this time, and in an entirely different social milieu, see the manuscript on Margaret Clitherow written by John Mush, a version of which was printed as ‘A true report of the life and martyrdom of Mrs Margaret Clitherow’, in John Morris (ed.), The troubles of our Catholic forefathers related by themselves, London 1877, iii. 360–440. Stapleton made much of the fact that More was a layman, a point which may also have had significance within Catholic polemical circles where numerous accounts of specifically priestly martyrdoms were being produced by the Jesuits in these and following years: Dillon, Construction of martyrdom, 106–10.

31 Tres Thomae, (M), 23, 32–5 [R, 16, 19–21].

32 Ibid. (M), 42–57, quote at p. 53 [R, 27–38 at p. 35]. McConica, ‘Recusant reputation’, 139, argues that focus on the English works reflects More the defender of the faith rather than More the humanist. Certainly this was the main thrust of Stapleton's text but, according to McConica, this was not inconsistent with More the humanist, and Stapleton, as indicated at pp. 85–6, 91 below, was at pains to record More's humanist reputation, and across confessional lines. He did not, however, refer to More's later correspondence with Erasmus in the 1530s.

33 Tres Thomae, (M), 51–2 [R, 35]. For the revival of the scholastic tradition in English Catholicism from the 1570s see Lucy Wooding, Rethinking Catholicism in Reformation England, Oxford 2000, 235–68, though as I suggest below, I find Stapleton more sympathetic to humanism than Wooding allows in her account (p. 257).

34 Harpsfield's Life, 109; Tres Thomae, (M), 51, 53–4 [R, 36–7].

35 Tres Thomae, (M), 54 [R, 37]. This is printed in D. Kinney, In defense of humanism (Complete Works of Sir Thomas More, xv, 1986), 129–50; for its date see pp. xviii–xxi. For Pace see J. Wegg, Richard Pace, a Tudor diplomatist, London 1932, and on More, A. E. Surtz, ‘Richard Pace's sketch of Thomas More’, Journal of English and German Philology lvii (1958), 36–50.

36 Tres Thomae, (M), 58–9 [R, 40].

37 Ibid. (M), 67–80 [R, 39–56]. For the problematic treatment of More's relationship with Erasmus among English Catholics see McConica, ‘Recusant reputation’, 141–6.

38 Tres Thomae, (M), 80–3 [R, 57–60]. G. Brixius, Antimorus, Basle 1519, sig Eiii, has a list of More's ‘inexcusable’ lapses in his Latin epigrams. See S. Grynaeus, Platonis opera, Basle 1534, preface, printed in St Thomas More: selected letters, ed. E. F. Rogers, New Haven 1981, 470–80.

39 Tres Thomae, (M), 82–3 [R, 59–60]. For Hutten see Hajo Holborn, Ulrich von Hutten and the German Reformation, New Haven 1937, esp. pp. 120–1.

40 Ditchfield, ‘Tridentine worship’, 209–13.

41 Tres Thomae, (M), 83 [R, 61].

42 Ibid. (M), 89–91 [R, 63–6].

43 Ibid. (M), 93–4 [R, 68], printed in Thomas More, Treatise on the passion, ed. G. E. Haupt (Complete Works of Sir Thomas More, xiii, 1976), 207–11.

44 Tres Thomae, (M), 95–216 [sic] [R, 71–86]. The pagination of M jumps from p. 99 to p. 200. This has been corrected in subsequent footnotes.

45 Ibid. (M), 105–6 [R, 77–8]. This is printed in translation in Selected letters, 88–90. For the circumstances of Warham's resignation see J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, London 1968, 41–2.

46 Tres Thomae, (M), 115–16 [R, 85–6]; Selected letters, 170–1.

47 Tres Thomae, (M), 124–8, 131–5 [R, 94–101]; Selected letters, 103–7, 145–7, 149–51. For Gunnell see ODNB.

48 Tres Thomae, (M), 137–46 [R, 103–9]; Selected letters, 109, 151–2, 154–5.

49 For liturgy and household religion among recusants see Bossy, English Catholic community, 110–21, 127–32. Bossy identifies the years up to 1625 as the ‘matriarchal period’ of English recusancy. For women more directly see Marie Rowlands, ‘Recusant women, 1558–1640’, in Mary Prior (ed.), Women in English society, 1500–1800, London 1985, 149–80.

50 Tres Thomae, (M), 149–56 [R, 110–20]. Stapleton's own language was equally fierce: see, for example, Fortresse, fos 66v–70.

51 Tres Thomae, (M), 171 [R, 130–1].

52 Ibid. (M), 172 [R, 132].

53 Milward, Controversies, 70–2.

54 Tres Thomae, (M), 191–2 [R, 151]. For the missing phrase see More to Cromwell in Selected letters, 499.

55 For discussion of the Expositio see Harpsfield's Life, appendix 2 at pp. 254–66.

56 Tres Thomae, (M), 118–30 [R, 180–92]. Henry Holland, Stapleton's pupil and editor, had assisted Gregory Martin in the translation of the New Testament.

57 Ibid. (M), 131–2 [R, 194]; Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 331, 481.

58 Tres Thomae, (M), 149–50.

59 Ibid. (M), 150–1 [R, 195–6]. In fact Stapleton is the only source quoting this solitary letter from More to Pole: The correspondence of Reginald Pole, I: 1517–46, ed. Thomas Mayer, Aldershot 2002, 39. Pole was instrumental in securing the publication of the English works in 1557.

60 Tres Thomae, (M), 63–7, 107 [R, 43–7, 78–9]. See C. Sturge, Cuthbert Tunstal: churchman, scholar, statesman, administrator, London 1938, where the interviews with Elizabeth are noted at pp. 321–3.

61 See Lake, ‘From Leicester his commonwealth’, 198–9.

62 See n. 23 above.

63 Tres Thomae, (M), 257 [R, 200]; ‘Thomus Morus, Britannus, henrice VIII Anglie Rex, cancellarius, homo utriusque lingue doctissimus, ac R D Episcoporum Roffensis, Theologus concionatur egregius, post longam carceris molestam ob novi matrimonii contradictionem, una cum aliquot primaries innocentibus monachis, capite truncatur’: J. Carion, Chronicorum libellus, Venice 1548, 452–3. Sleidan repeated this extract without reference to the monks.

64 Tres Thomae, (M), 257–9 [R, 200–1]; J. Rivius, De conscientia bonae mentis, Leipzig 1541, bk ii, sigs D5iiijv–E. In the latter More is placed after a long list of classical examples of men who made a stand against despots.

65 Tres Thomae, (M), 262 [R, 204]. Excluded from the modern translation are a series of epigrams on More by a number of European scholars and four Englishmen. The Englishmen were John White, the Marian bishop of Winchester, and three others associated with Louvain: the priest Alan Cope, John Fowler, the printer of Stapleton's works and other Catholic controversial writings, and Henry Holland, whose text is by far the longest and finishes as follows: ‘Qui minor est Moro, non novit pingere Morum:/Hoc si quis poterit, tu Stapletone facis’: (M), 262–73. See entries for the authors named above in ODNB.

66 Holmes, Resistance and compromise, 136–65; Lake and Questier, Anti-Christ's lewd hat, 285–6.

67 Tres Thomae, (M), 31, 161–3, 229 [R, 18, 135, 178–9].

68 This is quoted in Holmes, Resistance and compromise, 146.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Polemic as Piety: Thomas Stapleton's Tres Thomae and Catholic Controversy in the 1580s



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.