April 3 – Last survivor of the ancient hierarchy of England

April 2, 2018

Thomas Goldwell

Bishop of St. Asaph, the last survivor of the ancient hierarchy of England; b. probably at the family manor of Goldwell, in the parish of Great Chart, near Ashford, Kent, between 1501 and 1515; d. in Rome, 3 April, 1585. He was a member of a Kentish family of ancient lineage, long seated at Goldwell; and was educated at All Souls College, Oxford, where he graduated M. A. in 1531, and B. D. in 1534. While at Oxford he attained more eminence in mathematics, astronomy, and kindred sciences, than in divinity or the humanities, a point worth remembering in view of his future career. He stood out firmly against the innovations in religion brought about by Henry VIII. At an early date he became intimate with Reginald, afterwards Cardinal, Pole, a friendship which proved to be a long lasting one, and which had considerable influence on Goldwell’s subsequent career. Soon after 1535, when the king had begun his drastic measures of ecclesiastical spoliation, Goldwell became Pole’s chaplain and joined him in exile, being included in the same Act of Attainder “for casting off his duty to the King, and submitting to the Bishop of Rome”. He reached Rome in 1538, and shortly afterwards he was appointed camerarius of the English Hospital of the Holy Trinity. In 1547 he became a novice in the Theatine House of St. Paul, at Naples. On the death of Paul III, Pole, now a cardinal, asked and obtained permission for Goldwell to accompany him to Rome, and thus he was present at the long conclave of 1549-50 in the capacity of Pole’s personal attendant. After the election of Julius III, Goldwell returned to Naples, and made his profession as a Theatine. In 1553, while Edward VI was still reigning an Act of General Pardon was passed, from which Goldwel had the signal honour of being specially excepted by name, along with Pole and some others. On the accession of Mary I there came an all too brief spell of prosperity for English Catholics. Pole, now papal legate, returned to England with Goldwell in his train, and the latter was soon nominated to the See of St. Asaph in North Wales (1555). While still only bishop-designate, he was sent to Rome (2 July, 1555) to make a report on the state of religion in England to Paul IV.

Cardinal Reginald Pole, son of Bl. Margaret Pole. Painted by Willem van de Passe

While at Rome, on this occasion, he was probably consecrated bishop; and he returned to England at the end of the year. In 1556 he assisted at the consecration of Pole to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. He was then for some time actively engaged in the affairs of his Diocese of St. Asaph. He issued numerous injunctions to his clergy, prohibiting married priests from saying Mass, and forbade the use of churches as poor-schools. He revived the pilgrimages to the miraculous well of St. Winefride, at Holywell, and obtained from the pope a renewal of the indulgences for pilgrims to that shrine. He also examined the heretic John Philpot, which fact is chronicled ion no friendly way by Foxe (“Acts and Monuments”, ed. Townsend, VII, 620). It was about this time proposed, though without his knowledge or consent, to make him ambassador to the court of Rome, and to translate him to the See of Oxford; letters of credence to Paul IV had been actually made out; and on 5 Nov., 1558, he received the custody of the temporalities of the See of Oxford, Thomas Wood having received that of St. Asaph four days previously. But the death of Queen Mary on 17 November terminated all these arrangements. Just at this juncture Goldwell was at the deathbed of Cardinal Pole, to whom he gave the last sacraments.

A genuine and realistic c.1595 portrait of queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

The accession of Elizabeth was, of course, the signal for the final attack of Protestantism upon the ancient Faith. Goldwell strenuously resisted as far as in him lay. It is interesting to note by what dishonourable and underhand methods the queen’s party put it out of his power to make his protest in a constitutional manner. It was alleged that, by his nomination to Oxford, he was no longer Bishop of St. Asaph; but that, as he had not done homage to the queen for Oxford, he was not yet bishop of that see. Accordingly, he did not receive the summons to Parliament which was undoubtedly his legal due. In May, 1559, however, he was summoned before the queen with the other bishops, and all of them were expelled from their sees for their refusal to take the oath of supremacy. He then resolved to leave the country, for, as he afterwards stated, he was not allowed to perform a bishop’s office, say Mass, or administer the sacraments, as long as he remained in England.

Thomas Goldwell became superior of the Theatines at San Silvestro al Quirinale

Although the ports were being watched for him, he succeeded in making his escape. It was obviously impossible for him to have carried off the register and records of his see under such circumstances. This charge, however, has been maliciously made against him. He then became an active Catholic exile. He started at once for Rome, but was detained at Louvain by sickness. He refused the offer of an Italian bishopric, preferring to devote himself to his order (the Theatines) and to the conversion of England. In 1561 he was made superior of his old convent at Naples, and also warden of the English Hospital at Rome. He was the only English bishop at the Council of Trent, where he was treated with marked respect. He was there engaged in the revision of the Breviary and the Missal; and also urged the council to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth. His mere presence at Trent was a cause of such excessive annoyance to Elizabeth that she wrote the following extraordinary farrago of falsehood to her German envoy Mundt: “We think it may be that one Goldwell, a very simple and fond man, having in our late sister’s time been named to a small bishopric in Wales called St. Asaph, though never thereto admitted, flying out of the realm upon our sister’s death, is gone to Rome as a renegade, and there using the name of a bishop, without order or title, is perhaps gone in the train of some Cardinal to Trent, and so it is likely the speech hath arisen of a bishop of England being there.” In 1563 Goldwell was vicar-general to the Archbishop of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo. In 1567 he was made vicar of the cardinal archpriest in the Lateran, and in 1574 the Cardinal Vicar Savelli made him his vicegerent; he thus became, so to speak, the “working” bishop of Rome. Hall, an English traveller in 1568, said that Goldwell was the only English Catholic in Rome who was courteous to him. In 1580, in spite of his advanced age, he set out for England at the head of the mission which included Campion and Persons, but he was taken ill at Reims and obliged to return to Rome. One of the last acts of his long and strenuous career was to serve on the Congregation for the Revision of the Roman Martyrology, in 1582. On the death of the Bishop of Lincoln, in 1584, Goldwell became the sole survivor of the ancient English hierarchy. He died the next year, and was buried at St. Sylvester’s. A portrait of him exists at the English College, Rome.

Knox, The last survivor of the ancient English Hierarchy, Thomas Goldwell, Bishop of St. Asaph (London, 1876); Tout in Dict. Nat. Biog., s. v.; Gillow, Bibl. Dict. Eng. Cath., s. v.; Thomas, sHistory of the Diocese of St. Asaph (1874), 84, 201; Bliss, Wood’s Athen. Oxon., II; Brady, Episcopal Succession, I, II, III; Boccatelli, Life of Pole.

C. F. Wemyss Brown (Catholic Encyclopedia)


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