Meet Cuthbert Tunstall

Five pixel art images of Cuthbert Tunstall stand side by side showing his different roles and interests. Tunstall the Scholar holds a scroll and wears a graduate's hat, Tunstall the Collector holds a pile of books, Tunstall the Bishop wears a tall white Bishop's hat, Tunstall the Gardener wears a straw hat and holds a bunch of flowers and Tunstall the Builder wears a yellow hard hat and holds a spade.
Painted portrait of Cuthbert Tunstall from Durham Castle collection. Cuthbert wears a black hat and robe. He looks to his right, with his hands clenched to his chest.
Pixel art image of Tunstall, replicating how he appears in the previous portrait.
Four portraits in a grid layout showing the Tudor monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Each portrait is painted to show the monarchs in rich royal clothing, including large robes and dresses with golden bejewelled features.
Four pixel art images of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I replicating the appearance of the previous 4 portraits.

Cuthbert Tunstall (1474 – 1559) was one of the most important, respected and controversial figures in Tudor England.

You may not recognise his name, but look closely and you will find it in the address book of kings and queens, scholars and diplomats, heroes and traitors.

Cuthbert served as Prince Bishop of Durham from 1530 to 1559 and lived through a period of political scandal and religious chaos that saw huge changes in England.

At times, Cuthbert held power and influence over the Tudor monarchs and important historic events.

At others, he faced imprisonment and came close to death.

Despite these challenges, Cuthbert used compromise, persuasion, a shrewd sense for danger and a little bit of luck to survive and thrive in one of the most turbulent periods of British history.

So, where did it all begin?

Cuthbert was born in Hackforth, North Yorkshire. He was the son of a northern knight called Sir Thomas Tunstall.

The family coat of arms can be seen in the courtyard of Durham Castle.

The three combs on the crest represent a family ancestor who was the barber of William the Conqueror.

Cuthbert was bright and curious from a young age, attending the universities of Oxford and Cambridge before studying law at Padua

He built a reputation for his intellect and entered the Catholic Church when he returned to England.

Tunstall family coat of arms, as seen on the courtyard wall of Durham Castle. The design of the shield includes roosters, lions and combs. The shield is topped with the ceremonial mitre of the Prince Bishops.

The University of Padua in the early 1600s

The University of Padua in the early 1600s

Cuthbert was born in Hackforth, North Yorkshire. He was the son of a northern knight called Sir Thomas Tunstall.

The family coat of arms can be seen in the courtyard of Durham Castle.

The three combs on the crest represent a family ancestor who was the barber of William the Conqueror.

Cuthbert was bright and curious from a young age, attending the universities of Oxford and Cambridge before studying law at Padua

He built a reputation for his intellect and entered the Catholic Church when he returned to England.

Throughout the Tudor period, a succession of strong-willed monarchs and nobles brought vastly different ideas, creating a dangerous environment for high-profile figures.

Many people in similar roles to Cuthbert were killed or forced to flee the country.

Surviving to see the reign of each of the Tudor monarchs is one of Cuthbert’s most impressive achievements, showing how clever, compromising and respected he was.

Henry VIII was King of England from 1509 to 1547.

Cuthbert and Henry had a complicated relationship. At times, Cuthbert felt the benefits of being close to the king, earning favours and rewards.

Silver Groat from 1526 - 29 showing King Henry VIII. Durham University Collections.

In return, he was expected to show loyalty and carry out orders.

Henry sent Cuthbert on several trips to Europe, allowing him to use his intelligence and diplomatic skills to negotiate peace and trade agreements.

The objects in the gallery below explore some of the links between Cuthbert and Henry.

Silver coin with a portrait of King Henry VIII wearing a crown.

Silver Groat from 1526 - 29 showing King Henry VIII. Durham University Collections.

Silver Groat from 1526 - 29 showing King Henry VIII. Durham University Collections.

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Colour illustration showing an overhead view of the parliament of King Henry VIII. The king sits on a throne at the top of image, wearing a crown and holding a sceptre. Men in official robes wearing mitres and carrying crosses stand either side. Further down the image men in red robes sit on benches in rows facing the King.g

The Parliament of Henry VIII, 1523 | This image shows a moment not long after Henry had named Cuthbert as Bishop of London. Cuthbert stands in a prominent position at the king’s right hand, behind the man dressed in red.

The Parliament of Henry VIII, 1523 | This image shows a moment not long after Henry had named Cuthbert as Bishop of London. Cuthbert stands in a prominent position at the king’s right hand, behind the man dressed in red.

Title page of a book with a long title in early modern English framed by a border of columns and plants.

Cuthbert’s Palm Sunday Sermon for Henry VIII, 1539 | This sermon was delivered at a time when Cuthbert was trying to get closer to Henry VIII and influence his religious reforms. Durham University Library, SB 2087.

Cuthbert’s Palm Sunday Sermon for Henry VIII, 1539 | This sermon was delivered at a time when Cuthbert was trying to get closer to Henry VIII and influence his religious reforms. Durham University Library, SB 2087.

A 16th century handwritten document with various signatures on the right hand side.

King’s Council Food Bill, 1540 | This document details the food and drink bill of one of the King's Councils that Cuthbert served. His signature 'Cuthbert Dunelm' is second from the bottom on the right hand side. The £250 spent by the group was more than 20 years of wages for a skilled tradesman at the time. The National Archives.

King’s Council Food Bill, 1540 | This document details the food and drink bill of one of the King's Councils that Cuthbert served. His signature 'Cuthbert Dunelm' is second from the bottom on the right hand side. The £250 spent by the group was more than 20 years of wages for a skilled tradesman at the time. The National Archives.

Cuthbert’s relationship with Henry was tested when the King decided to break from the Roman Catholic Church and establish the Church of England in the 1530s.

One of the main debates was whether or not Henry could divorce his wife and remarry.

Cuthbert eventually chose to support Henry, but only after his homes were searched for suspicious materials and some of his friends were executed.

Click to find out more about Thomas Cromwell and Catherine of Aragon

After calculating his options, Cuthbert decided it was better to stay alive and try to influence Henry, rather than becoming a martyr for his religion.

What would you do in Cuthbert's shoes?

Cuthbert’s relationship with Henry was tested when the King decided to break from the Roman Catholic Church and establish the Church of England in the 1530s.

One of the main debates was whether or not Henry could divorce his wife and remarry.

Cuthbert eventually chose to support Henry, but only after his homes were searched for suspicious materials and some of his friends were executed.

Click to find out more about Thomas Cromwell and Catherine of Aragon

After calculating his options, Cuthbert decided it was better to stay alive and try to influence Henry, rather than becoming a martyr for his religion.

What would you do in Cuthbert's shoes?

Photo of an old wooden chest in Durham Castle. Sections of the wood is broken apart and distorted.
Close up of a large metal padlock closing shut the chest.

This chest was part of the furniture at Durham Castle during Cuthbert's time as prince bishop.

Castle legend has it that the body of Saint Cuthbert was hidden in the chest when Henry VIII’s men came to Durham Cathedral in the 1530s.

We don’t think this is true, but we do know that Cuthbert’s homes were searched for suspicious materials at the same time. Cuthbert was warned about the upcoming inspections and no incriminating evidence was found.

Perhaps the calculating bishop used chests like this as his hiding places.

When Henry died in 1547, Cuthbert was in a strong position as Prince Bishop of Durham.

Scroll down to find out about his relationship with the next two Tudor monarchs.

Click to find out more about Edward VI and Mary I

When Henry died in 1547, Cuthbert was in a strong position as Prince Bishop of Durham.

Scroll down to find out about his relationship with the next two Tudor monarchs.

Click to find out more about Edward VI and Mary I

As a strict Catholic, Mary I set out to punish Protestants, including widespread executions.

This image, produced during Mary’s reign, depicts Cuthbert and other Catholic bishops as bloodthirsty wolves.

The slaughtered lambs represent the Protestants the queen had put to death.

In reality, Cuthbert was unlike most other bishops of his time. He studied all sides of the religious debate and used this knowledge to understand the views of others.

Throughout his time as a bishop in London and then Durham, Cuthbert never sentenced anyone to death for their religious views.

Instead he used debate, reason and compassion to try and persuade people to see his perspective.

Black and white illustration taken from a book, showing a wolf dressed in a robe and mitre taking a bite from a lamb suspended from the ceiling. These central figures are surrounded by dead lambs and other wolves in robes holding out chalice cups to catch the blood.

As a strict Catholic, Mary I set out to punish Protestants, including widespread executions.

This image, produced during Mary’s reign, depicts Cuthbert and other Catholic bishops as bloodthirsty wolves.

The slaughtered lambs represent the Protestants the queen had put to death.

In reality, Cuthbert was unlike most other bishops of his time. He studied all sides of the religious debate and used this knowledge to understand the views of others.

Throughout his time as a bishop in London and then Durham, Cuthbert never sentenced anyone to death for their religious views.

Instead he used debate, reason and compassion to try and persuade people to see his perspective.

Mary’s reign lasted five years before Elizabeth I became Queen in 1558. By this time, Cuthbert was the longest serving and most respected bishop in England.

Although Elizabeth was keen to move the country away from Catholicism once again, the new queen was still eager to have Cuthbert’s support.

Coin showing a portrait of Elizabeth I. The coin is worn around the edges and has a blackened surface with dirt.

Silver Sixpence showing Queen Elizabeth I. Durham University Collections.

Silver Sixpence showing Queen Elizabeth I. Durham University Collections.

Cuthbert travelled to London for a private meeting with Elizabeth.

We don’t know for sure what they discussed, but the outcome saw Cuthbert placed under house arrest at Lambeth Palace after refusing to accept the queen’s reforms.

He spent his last days debating with Elizabeth’s advisors before dying in November 1559, aged 85.

Portrait of Cuthbert as an older man, wearing a hat with small glasses perched on his nose as he looks down to read a book in his hands.

Portrait of Cuthbert from late in his life. © Bernard Terlay / Musée Granet, Ville d'Aix-en-Provence

Portrait of Cuthbert from late in his life. © Bernard Terlay / Musée Granet, Ville d'Aix-en-Provence

Many of the twists and turns in Cuthbert’s career were linked to his Catholic beliefs.

Pixel art image of Cuthbert the Bishop, wearing a tall white Bishop's hat with a golden cross on the front.

When Cuthbert took up his first roles in the Catholic Church in 1505, a religious career offered opportunities to travel, meet interesting people and earn a good living. This was perfect for an ambitious young man like Cuthbert.

Cuthbert’s diplomatic duties took him to Flanders and Germany where he made many new friends and allies.

He was rewarded for his work with the prestigious position of Bishop of London in 1522.

The objects in the gallery below explore some of the challenges that he faced in this new role.

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Large historic book, open to a title page reading 'The New Testament', surrounded by border of biblical imagery.

English Bible | This version of the New Testament, translated into English, was a major source of controversy during Cuthbert’s time as Bishop of London. Cuthbert called the work “naughtily translated” and feared the language used would affect how people understood the word of God. Durham University Library, SB+ 0101.

English Bible | This version of the New Testament, translated into English, was a major source of controversy during Cuthbert’s time as Bishop of London. Cuthbert called the work “naughtily translated” and feared the language used would affect how people understood the word of God. Durham University Library, SB+ 0101.

Black and white illustration showing Cuthbert and other men throwing copies of the New Testament into a fire.

In 1526, Cuthbert ordered all copies of the book to be rounded up and burnt, as shown in this image. The author, William Tyndale, called Cuthbert a “ducking hypocrite” for his response. Today, burning books is seen as an extreme act of censorship. In Cuthbert’s time, he faced the stark choice of either burning the book or burning the people who owned and read it. Cuthbert favoured the more compassionate approach.

In 1526, Cuthbert ordered all copies of the book to be rounded up and burnt, as shown in this image. The author, William Tyndale, called Cuthbert a “ducking hypocrite” for his response. Today, burning books is seen as an extreme act of censorship. In Cuthbert’s time, he faced the stark choice of either burning the book or burning the people who owned and read it. Cuthbert favoured the more compassionate approach.

What would you do in Cuthbert's shoes?

Life in the church was exciting, but also dangerous.

Cuthbert was a high-profile Catholic at a time when Europe was being rocked by radical new religious ideas.

When Henry VIII officially broke with the Catholic Church, and the later Tudor monarchs brutally enforced their own religious views, Cuthbert used his brain, his wits and his powers of persuasion as he calculated the best way to survive.

One technique Cuthbert used to survive was persuading his friends to challenge his religious opponents.

Click to find out more about Martin Luther

Using extracts from letters sent between 1517 and 1530, the video below shows Cuthbert and Erasmus of Rotterdam sharing stories and gossip while hatching a plan to derail Martin Luther’s religious reforms.

What would you do in Cuthbert's shoes?

Life in the church was exciting, but also dangerous.

Cuthbert was a high-profile Catholic at a time when Europe was being rocked by radical new religious ideas.

When Henry VIII officially broke with the Catholic Church, and the later Tudor monarchs brutally enforced their own religious views, Cuthbert used his brain, his wits and his powers of persuasion as he calculated the best way to survive.

One technique Cuthbert used to survive was persuading his friends to challenge his religious opponents.

Click to find out more about Martin Luther

Using extracts from letters sent between 1517 and 1530, the video below shows Cuthbert and Erasmus of Rotterdam sharing stories and gossip while hatching a plan to derail Martin Luther’s religious reforms.

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Click to play

Click to play

Some think Cuthbert survived by hiding from responsibility and abandoning his faith.

Others view him as a master of compromise, clever enough to see the value in refining his views over time.

The two paintings shown here can help us understand Cuthbert’s religious views and how he chose to present them.

The first painting, from the collection at Auckland Castle, shows him holding his rosary beads.

This is a visible symbol of Catholic prayer.

Painting shown courtesy of The Auckland Project and The Church Commissioners

In the second painting, from the collection at Durham Castle, Cuthbert’s pose is the same, but the rosary beads are missing.

It is believed that the painting was altered at some point to remove the rosary beads.

The portrait was analysed using X-ray fluorescence by the team at Durham University’s Department of Archaeology.

close up image focused on x-ray scan of portrait, showing Cuthbert's hands in black and white with details of painting canvas..

The varnish around the hands appears very wavy, suggesting that this area may have been reworked.

Cuthbert survived this unstable period thanks to his ability to compromise in public, but still privately hold his true beliefs.

The highest honour of Cuthbert’s religious career came when Henry made him Prince Bishop of Durham in 1530.

The next section of the exhibition explores Cuthbert’s local links.

Photo of the courtyard of Durham Castle on a bright day with a blue sky. The stone steps leading to the Great Hall are visible and to the right is the exterior of the Tunstall Gallery and Chapel.
Photo of the interior of the Tunstall Gallery, looking down towards the Durham Castle Black Stairs. We can see dark tapestries hanging on the wall alongside large windows.
Photo of the interior of the Tunstall Chapel looking towards a golden altar and a large stained glass window showing various religious figures.

The position of prince bishop was unique to Durham and gave Cuthbert special powers and privileges.

He could mint his own coins, try legal cases and raise taxes. He also gained substantial land and local mines and properties, including