Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harpsfield, Nicholas
HARPSFIELD or HARPESFELD, NICHOLAS (1519?–1575), theologian, was born in the parish of St. Mary Magdalen in the city of London, presumably about 1519. Like his elder brother John [q. v.], he was educated at Winchester College, which he entered at the age of ten in 1529 (Kirby, Winchester Scholars), and proceeded to New College, Oxford, where he was elected fellow on 11 Jan. 1535. He was a student of civil and canon law, and rapidly distinguished himself in the university. He seems also to have mixed in the world, for he tells us that he was present at the reception of Anne of Cleves on her arrival in England in 1540. In 1544 he was principal of the hostel of Whitehall, which stood on the site now occupied by Jesus College, and was chiefly attended by students of the civil law. About 1546 he was appointed the first regius professor of Greek at Oxford, but he can only have held this post for a short time, since George Etherege [q. v.] was appointed to it 25 March 1547. In 1550 he quitted England, because he disapproved of the religious changes made under Edward VI, and during his exile he lived chiefly at Louvain. On Queen Mary's accession he returned to England, took the degree of D.C.L. at Oxford on 11 July 1554, resigned his fellowship, and practised as a proctor in the court of arches. In April 1554 he was installed prebend of Harleston in St. Paul's Cathedral, and was collated to the vicarage of Laindon, Essex, posts which were rendered vacant by the deprivation of Hodgkin. Soon after he was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury in the room of Edmund Cranmer (Thomas Cranmer's brother), who was deprived on the ground of marriage. In this office it was his duty to judge heretics, and Foxe (Acts and Monuments, ed. 1849, viii. 253) says: 'As of all bishops, Bonner, bishop of London, principally excelled in persecuting the poor members and saints of Christ, so of all archdeacons, Nicholas Harpsfield, archdeacon of Canterbury, was the sorest and of least compassion, only Dunning of Norwich excepted.' Foxe even accuses him of hastening from London when Queen Mary lay dying, that he might despatch those whom he had in custody (ib. p. 504). This seems, however, scarcely compatible with Harpsfield's conduct in the examination of heretics, whom he always treated with kindness, and tried to convince by argument. In October 1558 he was made official of the court of arches and dean of the peculiars, and in November judge of the audience. After Elizabeth's accession, Harpsfield was prolocutor of the lower house, and presented to the bishops a remonstrance against the proposed changes in religion. He was also, in April 1559, one of the eight learned catholics who were appointed to hold a disputation with a like number of protestant champions at Westminster in parliament time before a large assembly of the nobility. The conference proved abortive [see Heath, Nicholas]. Owing to his official position and to the unpopularity which he had incurred as an ecclesiastical judge, Harpsfield was a marked man, and does not seem to have behaved with discretion. The magistrates of Canterbury were ordered to keep an eye on him (Strype, Annals, i.65-6). He was pronounced contumacious for absence from the chapter at Parker's election as archbishop (Strype, Parker, i. 103), and on 23 Oct. 1559 was summoned before the royal visitors at St. Paul's, when he refused obedience to the prayer-book and the queen's injunctions (Strype, Annals, i. 250-1). After this he was committed to the Tower, where he remained a prisoner from 1559 till his death in 1575. The date of his death is established by an entry in a psalter belonging to Exeter College, Oxford (C. W. Boase in Academy, ix. 360).
The published works of Harpsfield are: 1. 'Historia Anglicana Ecclesiastica in quindecim centurias distributa,' edited by Richard Gibbons, S. J., Douay, 1662. The same volume also contains 'Historia hæresis Wicliffianæ,' These works are carefully written, but do not contain anything that is new, and Wood, who had seen the manuscript, says that Gibbons has suppressed passages in which Harpsfield had spoken too openly about points in dispute between England and the papacy. 2. 'A Treatise on the pretended Divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Arragon,' edited by the Rev. Nicholas Pocock for the Camden Society, 1878. This work was apparently written at the end of Mary's reign, but the accession of Elizabeth stopped its publication. It circulated in manuscript, and Pocock's edition is mainly based on a transcript of a copy which had been seized by Topcliffe, the hunter of Romanists in Elizabeth's reign (see his Introduction}. The book is to a great extent technical, and proves by canon law that Henry VIII's first marriage was valid, and that his second marriage was irregular. It was directed against the replies of the universities to Henry VIII's questions, also against the arguments of Robert Wakefield, and a pamphlet entitled 'The Glasse of Truth,' published in 1533. Only the last portion of the treatise is historical, and is mainly framed as a defence of More and Fisher. It is, however, the work of a man who was well informed, except that it accuses Wolsey of being the originator of the divorce question. It is worth notice that Harpsfield tells, as from personal knowledge, the story which has been regarded as fabulous, that Mrs. Cranmer was for a time kept hidden in a box. The historical portion of the treatise was edited by Lord Acton for the Philobiblon Society in 1877. 3. 'Dialogi Sex contra Summi Pontificatus, Monasticae Vitae, Sanctorum, sacrarum Imaginum oppugnatores et Pseudo-martyres; in quibus explicantur Centuriarum etiam Magdeburgensium, auctorum Apologiæ Anglicanæ, Pseudomartyrologorum nostri temporis, maxime vero Joannis Foxi mendacia deteguntur,' Antwerp, 1566. This exceedingly rare book was written by Harpsfield in prison, and was sent to his friend, Alan Cope [q. v.], who published it at Antwerp under his own name, but put as a colophon at the -end of the book, A. H. L. N. H. E. V. E. A. C. ('Auctor hujus libri, Nicolaus Harpsfield, eum vero edidit Alanus Copus'). The book is remarkable for a full-size drawing in brown ink of a cross which appeared in the middle of a tree in the parish of St. Donat's, Glamorganshire (English Historical Review, i. 513). The contents of the book are shown by its title: it consists of six dialogues, the first in defence of the papal primacy against the Magdeburg Centuriators; the second in favour of monasticism; the third in favour of invocation of saints, and in defence of the belief in the efficacy of their intercession; the fourth and fifth in defence of images; the sixth against pseudo-martyrs, especially those celebrated by John Foxe. Besides these printed books, there exist in manuscript: 1. 'Impugnatio contra Bullam Honorii Papæ primi ad Cantabrigiam.' 2. A 'Life of Cranmer,' referred to by Le Grand, 'Histoire du Divorce de Henry VIII,' i. 253-5, which seems to be an expansion of what Harpsfield says in his 'History of the Divorce' 3. A 'Life of Sir Thomas More,' founded mainly on Roper, with whom and with others of More's friends Harpsfield was intimate during his residence at Louvain; Harleian MS. 6253; there is also a copy at Lambeth, and another in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, at the end of which are the initials N. H. L. D. (Wordsworth, Ecclesiastical Biography, ii. 45-6). The most noticeable addition to Roper is a description of More's appearance, printed in Wordsworth, p. 182.
[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. i. 491-3; Pits, De illustribus Angliæ Scriptoribus, p. 780; Newcourt's Repertorium Ecclesiasticum, i. 153-4; Mr. Pocock's Introd. to his edit, of Harpsfield's Treatise on the Divorce; Gillow's Dict. of the English Catholics, iii. 134-7; Lord Acton in Academy, ix. 609.]