A Bury St Edmunds martyr? German Gardiner

after Unknown artist, line engraving, possibly late 18th century
Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester: German Gardiner’s uncle and employer.

In 1886 Pope Leo XIII beatified, along with other martyrs of the English Reformation, a man named German Gardiner, who was the secretary and nephew of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. As for many of these martyrs, very little was actually known about Gardiner’s life – and he remains a most shadowy figure. However, there is a case to be made that German Gardiner was a native of Bury St Edmunds on two main grounds: firstly, he was a relative of Stephen Gardiner, whose family originated in Bury and who was certainly born in the town; and secondly, his rather unusual name suggests a Bury connection.

German Gardiner was executed at Tyburn on 7 March 1544 for denying the Royal Supremacy. Gardiner acted as an intermediary between his uncle, who was in many ways the leader of the conservative faction in the English church, and a group of prebendaries and other clergy of Canterbury Cathedral who in 1543 drew up a lengthy list of articles designed to prove that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was a heretic (an event known as the Prebendaries’ Plot). The investigation into the affair was conducted by Richard Cox, later Bishop of Ely, and German Gardiner was something of a scapegoat – as well as, perhaps, a warning to his powerful uncle.

Stephen Gardiner was the son of John Gardiner (d. 1507), clothier of Bury St Edmunds and his wife Agnes, and was born in around 1495. The Gardiner family were prominent in the town; in 1471 the then alderman, Robert Gardiner, who was probably Stephen’s grandfather, drew up a protest against the Abbot on behalf of the townsman. This was part of a centuries-old dispute between the Abbey and the town about rights and liberties. After the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539, Gardiner remained close to the families who carried on administering the patrimony of St Edmund, such as Sir Clement Heigham, Steward of the Liberty of Bury St Edmunds. As Stephen’s nephew, it is likely in any case that German Gardiner was also a native of Bury, but the case is strengthened by his unusual name. In the sources he is sometimes referred to as German, Germaine or Jermyn – all of them abbreviations of the name Germanus. It seems unlikely that German Gardiner was named after St Germanus of Auxerre – a saint venerated at this time primarily in Cornwall – and light is shed on this matter by M. R. James, who noted in 1930 that the obscure East Anglian St Jurmin was also known as Firminus, Hiurminus or Germanus. Jurmin may have been obscure – he was the semi-legendary son of the East Anglian King Anna, who was killed fighting pagans in the seventh century near Blythburgh – but his cult was very prominent in the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. After Abbot Leofstan succeeded in translating the relics of St Jurmin from Blythborough to Bury in the eleventh century, the cult of St Jurmin took its place as a secondary but important one within the Abbey Church – Jurmin’s shrine, a silver-plated altar, faced the splendid feretory of St Edmund himself. It is highly likely that the medieval cult of St Jurmin is the origin of the Norfolk and Suffolk family names Jermyn, Jermy and Jarmyn.

If German Gardiner was named after St Jurmin – a saint peculiar to Bury St Edmunds – it could be an indication that he was born on St Jurmin’s feast day of 23 February. Alternatively – and perhaps more probably – Gardiner was named after the Jermyn family of Rushbrooke Hall, with whom his branch of the Gardiner family might well have had family or patronage connections. Either way, Gardiner’s unusual baptismal name places him securely in the local context of Bury St Edmunds. In the absence of any direct evidence concerning the place of his birth, the suggestion that he was born in Bury must remain speculation, but it is strongly supported by the limited evidence available. If Bd German Gardiner is a Bury St Edmunds martyr, he would take his place alongside the two Benedictine martyrs St Alban Roe (1583-1642) and Bd George Gervase (1571-1608), the latter of whom spent some of his boyhood in the town.

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