Christopher Bainbridge (1464–1514), cardinal archbishop of York and Henry VIII's ambassador to the pope

The present-day Venerable English College Church building, despite dating only from the 1880s, contains many reminders that the site has a long and rich history as a place of worship. One of its most remarkable though often neglected monuments is the magnificent marble tomb of Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge (1464–1514), Archbishop of York and, for several years, the ambassador in Rome of Henry VIII (1491–1547).  

At first glance, Bainbridge appears to be the quintessential Renaissance cardinal. Equally at home on the battlefield as in the curia, he is said to have succumbed to a poisoner employed by one of his rivals. Such intrigues were far-removed from his birthplace: Hilton, near Appleby, in what is now Cumbria, where he was born around 1464. His education and early ecclesiastical career were largely made possible by his maternal uncle, Thomas Langton (c.1430–1501), bishop of Winchester. Educated at Oxford, Ferrara and Bologna, Bainbridge acquired several important posts, including Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford (1496), Dean of York (1503), Dean of St George’s Chapel, Windsor (1505), Bishop of Durham (1507) and Archbishop of York (1508).

Bainbridge was not to remain in England for long. In September 1509, he was sent to the Palazzo Torlonia in Rome as ambassador. He had been in Rome once before in the early 1490s, when he was named a chamberlain of the English Hospice and rented one of its houses. With his new role, however, he was quickly plunged into the complexities of papal diplomacy.

Henry’s main aim was to reduce the power of France and convince the pope to leave the League of Cambrai, which had been formed against the growing power of Venice, and join an anti-French coalition. Julius II (1443–1513; r. 1503–13) eventually changed his policy accordingly and Henry hoped that, with Bainbridge’s negotiating skills, he would be granted the title ‘Most Christian King’, which the French King had now forfeited.

Henry was to be disappointed in this but, on 10 March 1511, Julius presented Bainbridge with a red hat. He was further entrusted with command of papal troops at the siege of Ferrara and appointed legate after the city fell.

Bainbridge never set foot in See of York and became the first English curial cardinal since Adam Easton (c.1330–97), whose tomb can still be seen near the main entrance of S Cecilia in Trastevere. He continued to represent English interests and promote a stubbornly anti-French policy. Bainbridge attended the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512, sitting on a committee concerned with the reform of the curia, and served under Julius’s successor, Leo X (1475–1521; r. 1513–21) – indeed, he became the first English Cardinal to take part in a conclave since Simon Langham (c.1315–76) in 1370 and seems to have received a handful of votes himself. However, his star began to wane, especially as Leo sought an alliance with France. There were those, too, who tried to undermine him in Rome, including Silvestro Gigli (1463–1521), bishop of Worcester, who replaced him as King’s Ambassador in 1512, and Thomas Wolsey (c.1473–1530), the King’s right-hand man and briefly Bainbridge’s Dean at York.

Bainbridge had other responsibilities. Most notably, for our purposes, he acted as Warden of the English Hospice from 1510, though his trusty secretaries William Burbanke and Richard Pace (c.1483–1536) did much of the day-to-day work. He served in the Roman Rota, the papal court of appeal, and in 1513 became Cardinal Protector of the Cistercian Order. Although, unlike some of his contemporaries, he showed little penchant for humanist scholarship, Pace dedicated a volume of Petrarch’s essays to him. A more unusual contribution to contemporary culture was his sponsorship from 1512 of the festa of Pasquino, an ancient sculpture that stood near his main residence (on the site of the current Palazzo Braschi) on which topical and often satirical verses were placed each year on 25 April.   

Cardinal Bainbridge was struck down in his prime in July 1514. The cause of his death is unclear but may have been poison. The culprit is often identified as a member of his household, Rinaldo de Modena, who acted as the Cardinal’s bursar or steward and confessed to the crime under torture; he later committed suicide. Accounts differ as to the motivation of this crime: some say that Rinaldo was seeking revenge after the cardinal had struck him during an argument, others that he was hired by Gigli. Such rivals had much to gain from the cardinal’s demise: Gigli replaced him as Warden of the Hospice and Wolsey as Cardinal Archbishop of York.

Bainbridge’s Requiem was celebrated in the Hospice chapel, where he was buried; initially his splendid tomb was placed before the High Altar before being moved to the side. It has experienced the ravages of time – when Nicholas Wiseman first saw the chapel in 1818, he described the richly effigied tomb as ‘shattered and defaced’. Its presence takes us back to the days of the Hospice, when the Catholic King of England sent a prelate as his Ambassador to Rome.  

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