Sunday 4 June 2023

Edmund Tanner, Bishop of Cork


On June 4 1579, the sufferings of Edmund Tanner, Bishop of Cork and Cloyne, came to an end. He had entered the Society of Jesus in 1565 but left in 1571 due to health problems. Concerned by the dire state of Catholicism in Ireland as persecution began to bite, he then offered to return from his long exile on the Continent, even though this meant risking arrest, imprisonment, torture or even death. Bishop Tanner, who enjoyed the friendship of Saint Charles Borromeo, appears to have been an extremely able man who realized the importance of mounting a challenge to the Reformation. One particularly interesting detail of Bishop Tanner's imprisonment was his re-conversion to Catholicism of the Protestant Bishop of Waterford, I would be interested also to know more of his escape from custody.  Irish martyrologist, Anthony Bruodin O.F.M. (1625-1680), featured Bishop Tanner in his 1669 work Propugnaculum Catholicæ Veritatis. Friar Bruodin's short account below describes Bishop Tanner as a native of Cork, but other sources describe him as as a native of Dublin, where he was born around the year 1526:

Anno 1578.

" He was a native of Cork, and for many years a member of the Society of Jesus, and noted for his virtues; at length he was obliged, by illness, to leave the society, with the good will of the fathers. He was soon after appointed Bishop of Cork, but had hardly taken on him the burden of the episcopate, when he was arrested for having opposed the queen's supremacy, and carried to Dublin. In prison he was tortured in divers ways, and was more than once hung up for two hours by his hands, tied together behind his back. Broken with these and other sufferings, after an imprisonment of eighteen months, he went to receive his reward, the 4th of June, 1578." — Bruodin, lib. iii. cap. xx. 

M. O'Reilly, Memorials of those who Suffered for the Catholic Faith in Ireland in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, (New York 1869), 54.

Father Myles Ronan provided a more detailed account of Bishop Tanner in his pioneering 1930 work The Reformation in Ireland Under Elizabeth, making it clear that the Bishop's motivation in returning to Ireland was the desire to be actively involved in the work of counter-Reformation:


Edmund Tanner, a native of the diocese of Dublin, and afterwards Bishop of Cork wrote in his Book of Novices: "Edmund Tanner, Irishman, 39 years of age, entered the Society [of Jesus], 14 June, 1565. For many years, said Bruodin, he made singular progress in virtue in the Society, yet constrained by ill health and with with the goodwill of the Fathers, he left the Society. Having left the Jesuit house in Rome,  he wrote from that city a letter, 26 October, 1571, to John, Cardinal Moroni, Protector of Ireland, in which he tells him of his story and his desire.

An exile for religion's sake, he says, for more than twelve years from his native country Ireland, he has lived, the sport of fortune, among Spaniards, Italians, and Germans, during which time Ireland has been sorely afflicted by the tyranny of the heretics, and other calamities. Now, if he might be of any service to his country, he would fain return thither, but submits himself to the direction of the Protector. He is assured by grave men that during all this time not a hundred Irishmen in all Ireland have been infected with heresy, though not a few, for fear of penalties and confiscation of goods, attended the profane rites of the heretics, and the demoralisation of the people is such that a pious Catholic is hardly to be found: and no wonder since the clergy are the most depraved of all. Moreover, there is so little instruction to be had in the Christian faith that few can so much as repeat the Lord's Prayer, the articles of the faith, or the commandments, and still fewer understand them. Sermons are so uncommon that there are many that have never so much as heard one; the sacraments are so rarely administered, so much more rarely understood, that the ignorant people know not whether they were appointed by God or by men. In fine, so gross is the ignorance of the people that there are many who, passing all their lives in the grossest sin, have grown so accustomed thereto that they dare to say that it is just as lawful for them to live by theft or rapine as for him that worthily serves the altar to live by the altar. And nevertheless, so well inclined are they, or rather prompted by the Holy Spirit, to a good life, that it needs but the admonition or reproof of a good man and forthwith they are dissolved in tears, lamenting that they knew not that such things were sins, or contrary to the commandments of God. 

Touched by a sense of their woeful plight, Tanner says, he has come from Louvain to Rome to offer his services, such as they are, in that deserted field.......Tanner's letter did not produce the result he expected, to return to his own country, for, 5 January, 1573, that is, more than a year after his previous letter, he again wrote to Cardinal Moroni from Milan stating that though provided by Cardinal (St. Charles) Borromeo with a Canonry at Milan, he yearned to return to Ireland to minister to the souls that there "sit in darkness and the shadow of death" and encouraged by Moroni's previous kindness, he craved his good offices to that end. Doubtless, he was a sincere lover of Ireland and most anxious to minister to the people, whether as priest or perhaps bishop, undeterred by poverty of persecution.


The next reference to Tanner is in a Brief on 5 November,  1574, nearly two years after his letter to Cardinal Moroni, during most of which time he, presumably, remained as Canon at Milan enjoying the friendship of the saintly Charles Borromeo. The Brief describes him as "Master in Theology", priest,  in the fiftieth year of his age, and as having 'made profession of the Catholic faith in accordance with articles recently drawn up by the Apostolic See." It then describes him as having the usual virtues required in a bishop. The Brief continues with an address to the clergy and faithful to accept him as their pastor and father and to obey his monitions and commands.

It continues with an important clause: "We desire all occasion and reason of wandering outside the cities and dioceses of Cork and Cloyne be taken from you and you do not exercise the pontifical office [outside these dioceses] even with the permission of the Ordinaries of the dioceses, as in those cases we decree such functions to be null and void." This latter clause was subsequently modified.

Tanner, although appointed Bishop of Cork and Cloyne, 5 November, 1574, was not consecrated until 6 February, 1575... On 10 April 1575, special faculties were granted to him, and, notwithstanding the clause in the above Brief of his appointment, he was empowered to exercise them not only in his own united dioceses of Cork and Cloyne but also "throughout the whole province of Dublin, of which he was a native (universae provinciae Dublinensis ex qua exoriundus), as well as throughout the whole province of Munster, so long as the various Archbishops and Bishops were obliged by the fury if the persecution to be absent from their respective Sees."

On 12 May Gregory XIII gave him a letter, as he was on his way to Ireland, recommending him heartily to all Bishops and other Prelates who might be able to render him assistance.

Tanner made his way to Madrid, where evidently he made some delay or was delayed on his voyage from Rome to Spain. At all events he was in Portugal a sick man, 23 November, on which date the Nuncio wrote to the Cardinal Secretary of State:

The Irish Bishop of Cork was earnestly commended to me by the Nuncio of Madrid. I have done him every service in my power that a sick man requires: inter alia, I have procured him safe passage for England on one of the Venetian ships, whence he will readily make his way to Ireland; he has departed with a good wind and a good purpose to do his duty in his church to the honour of God and the weal of those souls, who are in the utmost need thereof. I cannot but bear good testimony to his virtue and zeal for the service of God. All this, I believe, will be gratifying to the Pope. 

..Between November, 1575, and June, 1576, we have no information about Tanner. What precise difficulties he encountered on his landing in England we do not know, but he succeeded in taking another ship to Galway where he landed, 21 June, and evidently remained a few months...

He probably took another ship to some of the Munster ports, but was taken prisoner with his chaplain at Clonmel. In a letter of 11 October, 1577, written at Ross, he tells the General of the Jesuits that in the midst of persecutions from heretics he was taken prisoner, but by the grace of God and the help of a nobleman, he escaped, eluding twelve warders. Every day they diligently seeks his death. "In those straits," he adds, "aided by the grace of God, we have reconciled many of the nobles of the kingdom, many of the citizens of various cities and nobles we have received back from the cesspool of Schism into the bosom of the Church, and receive them from day to day, and many more we should receive if the present persecution, and privation of goods, life and liberty did not prevent us. By that means a very great number, otherwise well disposed, are kept back from us; but I hope in Christ that ultimately the cord shall be cut and that we shall be freed..."

Other particulars of his activities are mentioned in a letter, of 24 November, from the Commissary in Portugal, to the Cardinal Secretary of State:

I have received another letter, to wit, of the the 25th of September, from the Bishop of Cork in Ireland, who likewise writes the enclosed to Cardinal Alciati; and apprises me that he has not been able to avoid the nets of the heretics; they were not, however, treating him harshly, but had committed him to the custody of the heretic Bishop of Waterford pending the Queen of England's answer to their request to know what was to be done with him; and the bishop says that, propagating the Gospel even in prison, he had converted the said bishop, his keeper, and induced him to abjure all heresies with many a tear and token of penitence.

The tears and tokens did not last long. 

Tanner, as Papal Commissary, travelled almost the whole of Ireland, administering the Sacraments,, "but secretly on account of persecution. In spite of ill-health he persevered until at last, worn out, he died 4 June, 1579, in the diocese of Ossory."

Rev. Myles V. Ronan, The Reformation in Ireland Under Elizabeth, (Longman, Green and Co, 1930), 540-547.

The case of Bishop Edmund Tanner was also featured by the original promoter of the cause of the Irish martyrs, Father Denis Murphy S.J., in his 1896 work Our Martyrs, but his name was not included on the 1918 Official List of Irish Martyrs which was submitted to Rome for formal consideration. Bishop Tanner is representative of all those clergy who were prepared to risk their lives and return from the safety of exile in Europe to further the cause of promoting and preserving the faith at home.

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