Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aylmer, John
AYLMER, JOHN (1521–1594), bishop of London, whose name, contracted from the Saxon Æthelmaer, appears also as Ælmer or Elmer, was born of an ancient family long resident at their ancestral seat of Aylmer Hall, in the parish of Tivetshall St. Mary, Norfolk. When a schoolboy he attracted the notice of Henry Grey, marquis of Dorset, and afterwards duke of Suffolk, by whose liberality he was sent to be educated at Cambridge. He is said to have been a fellow of Queens' College, at that time a noted resort of the more advanced reformers, but this is a matter of some uncertainty. He proceeded B.A. in 1541, and, shortly after taking orders, was installed by his patron as his private chaplain and also as tutor to his children at Bradgate in Leicestershire. In this latter capacity he became the instructor of Lady Jane Grey, whose testimony to his merits as one who taught 'gently,' 'pleasantly,' and 'with such fair allurements to learning,' is preserved in the well-known story told by Ascham (Scholemaster, ed. Mayor, pp. 33-34). He appears to have turned his advantages at Cambridge to good account, for Thomas Becon, in his 'Jewel of Joy' (Works, ed. Ayre, ii. 424), speaks of him as being at this time 'excellently well learned' in both Latin and Greek.
On 15 June, 1553, Aylmer was installed archdeacon of Stow, in the diocese of Lincoln, but having ventured in convocation to oppose the doctrine of transubstantiation, he was deprived of all his preferments, and soon afterwards fled for safety to the Continent. He resided first at Strassburg, and afterwards at Zürich, both chief centres of reunion for the Marian exiles, until the accession of Elizabeth. During these years he occupied himself with the instruction of sundry young English gentlemen who had also temporarily quitted their country, and also in assisting John Fox, the martyrologist, in a Latin translation of the 'Acts and Monuments.' The fact that Aylmer was solicited by Fox to render him this assistance is evidence of his reputation as an accurate Latin scholar, while Aylmer's testimony (that of no lenient critic) to the correctness and merits of Fox's great work is still on record (Strype, life of Aylmer, pp. 8–10.
On the accession of Elizabeth he returned to England, and was appointed one of eight divines to hold a disputation at Westminster with a corresponding number of the Roman Catholic persuasion. In 1562, through the influence of one of his pupils abroad (Thomas Dannet) with Cecil, he was promoted to the valuable archdeaconry of Lincoln. For the next fourteen years he resided in that city, attending to the affairs of the diocese, and occasionally assisting Archbishop Parker in his efforts on behalf of learning by researches in the cathedral library. He sat in convocation in 1562, and subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles. In 1573 he received by accumulation the degrees of B.D. and D.D. at Oxford.
On 24 March, 1576–7, Aylmer was consecrated bishop of London in succession to Sandys, and from this time his arbitrary and unconciliatory disposition comes frequently into unpleasing prominence. He quarrelled with his predecessor (a man like himself of hot temper) respecting their relative claims to the revenues of the bishopric, and again on the question of dilapidations. His rule of his diocese was characterised by exceptional severity, fines and sentences of imprisonment being frequently imposed on those who differed from him on doctrinal questions, whether puritans or catholics. A young bookseller who had sold a copy of the celebrated 'Admonition to Parliament,' a work attributed to Cartwright, in which the episcopal office in the abstract and the actual holders of it in the English church were alike unsparingly criticised, was also committed by him to prison. He used his best endeavours to crush the recently revived university press at Cambridge (State Papers, Domestic, Eliz. clxi. l). The unpopularity which he evoked by these and similar measures is indicated by an information which was laid against him about this time for having felled all the elms at Fulham, a charge which Strype denounces as a 'shameful untruth.' Aylmer appears, however, to have become conscious that his opportunities for usefulness in his diocese were to a great degree lost, and made more than one unsuccessful attempt to obtain his removal to a less laborious see, to Ely or Winchester. Whitgift, who appears to have approved his policy in general, appointed him to preach before the queen on her birthday in 1583; but Aylmer having shortly after ventured to obtain the royal warrant for committing Cartwright, the great puritan leader, to prison, Elizabeth, with her habitual disingenuousness, deeming it prudent to disavow the proceedings, manifested signs of her displeasure. His enemies, who were not few, endeavoured to avail themselves of this circumstance by bringing forward charges against him of misappropriation of the episcopal revenues, an accusation which he appears to have successfully repelled by furnishing Burghley with a detailed account of his financial position and that of the see. In the same year, when on a visitation in Essex, he only escaped a public insult in Maldon Church through having been apprised of the design beforehand. Having learned the names of the instigators, he showed his usual resentful temper by sending them to prison. It is not surprising to find that when, in 1588, the Martin Marprelate tracts appeared, Aylmer was singled out for their fiercest satire. The closing years of his life showed, however, no softening in his policy. He took a leading part in the deprivation of Robert Cawdrey, a clergyman at Luffenham, for some injudicious remarks respecting the prayer-book — a measure that resulted in four years of irritating litigation. He also suspended, on like grounds, 'silver-tongued Smith,' a young and able divine, and the most popular preacher of the day; and again (much against the wish and advice of Burghley) Robert Dyke, of St. Albans.
Elizabeth appears to have been desirous of seconding Aylmer's wish to be removed to another see, and suggested that of Worcester, and Bancroft as his successor in London. Negotiations with this view were accordingly commenced, but Aylmer's impracticability of temper led him to insist on conditions which Bancroft would not accede to, and after three ineftectual endeavours to arrive at an understanding the latter abstained from all further discussion on the subject. Shortly before his death, however (3 June, 1594), Aylmer expressly intimated his hope that Bancroft might succeed him (MSS. Baker, xxxvi. 335).
He was interred in St. Paul's Cathedral, but the 'fair stone of grey marble' which marked the place of his interment no longer appears. The inscription, which was altogether free from fulsome eulogy, sententiously recorded that he
Ter senos annos Præsul; semel Exul, et idem
Bis Pugil in causa religionis erat.
He married Judith Bures, a lady of Suffolk, by whom he had seven sons and three daughters. Of the former, one (Samuel) was sheriff for the county of Suffolk; another (John) was knighted, and resided at Rigby in Lincolnshire. Later descendants of Aylmer are Colonel Whitgift Aylmer, who died 1701 (Le Neve, Monum. Angl, 1650–1718, pp. 190, 197), and Brabazon Aylmer, Esq., of the Middle Temple, who married Miss Bragge 81 July 1735 (Gent. Mag., 1735, p. 500 a). Aylmer was succeeded in his see after some interval by Richard Vaughan, whom he had befriended in his lifetime, and who appears to have been related to him either by marriage or descent (Baker, Hist. of St. John's College, ed. Mayor, p. 255).
Aylmer is supposed to be designated by Spenser in his 'Shepheard's Calendar' (July) under the name of Morrell, the 'proude and ambitious pastour'—the name being formed by syllabic transposition from Elmer, just as Algrind, in the same eclogue, is formed from Grindal. The puritans in like manner nick-named him Marelme (Hay any Worke for Cooper, ed. Petheram, pp. 24, 26).
It can hardly be questioned that, both from his views and his temperament, Aylmer was ill qualified to fill the episcopal office in the trying times in which he lived. He gave especial offence to the puritans by his endeavour to introduce that conception of Sunday observance which the Anglican party at large subsequently sanctioned, and his practice of playing at bowls on the sacred day was a source of much scandal (Marprelate's Epistle, pp. 6, 52, 54). Like Laud, whom in some respects he much resembles, he deserves to be commended for his attachment to learning and for his discerning patronage of scholars. He was an accomplished logician, was well acquainted with Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, had studied history, and had the reputation of being a good civilian. His reputation as a scholar and a writer is indicated by the fact that, like Dr. Still and Alexander Nowell, he was requested to compose a confutation of the 'Disciplina' of Walter Travers, the recognised text-book of both the earlier and the later puritanism (Churton's Nowell, p. 223); Burghley also urged upon him the task of replying to the 'Ten Reasons' of Campian, the Jesuit. With neither of these requests did he think fit, however, to reply.
The only one of his works that here calls for notice is his reply to the 'Monstrous Regiment of Women' of John Knox, entitled 'An Harborowe for faithfull and trewe Subjects, against the late blowne Blaste, concerning the Government of Women. Strasburgh, 1559'—a composition the merits of which are admitted by Knox's own biographer, Dr. M'Crie. Of his other writings (chiefly sermons and devotional works) full particulars will be found in Cooper's 'Athenæ Cantabrigienses,' ii. 171–2.
[Life by Strype; see also a copy with MS. notes by Baker in St. John's Coll. Library, Cam.; Cooper, Athenæ Cantabrigienses; the Marprelate Tracts, passim; Maskell's History of the Martin Marprelate Controversy; Clarke's Ipswich, 447; Ashmolean MSS.; Nicolas's Life of Sir Chr. Hatton, index; Marshall's Genealogist's Guide; Marsden's Early Puritans; Haweis' Sketches of the Reformation; Hunt's History of Religious Thought, i. 73–76; Zürich Letters; Maitland's Essays on the Reformation, 200–225; M'Crie's Life of Knox, 162–167.]