That Romish Fable Framer: Nicholas Sander’s Schismatis Anglicani

By Chelsea Reutcke |

In an historical parallel to Game of Thrones, a book printed in 1585 claimed that Elizabeth I of England was the child of an ‘incestuous marriage’ as her mother, Anne Boleyn, was in fact the daughter of Henry VIII (and the king knew it). The book in question, Nicholas Sander’s De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani, was the first printed Catholic history of the English Reformation. In the 1580s, a growing group of militant English Catholics and foreign allies took up the Schismatis Anglicani as propaganda on the evils and invalidity of the Elizabethan regime, with the aim of igniting a foreign invasion.

Sander’s work traced the schism between England and Rome from its inception under Henry VIII down to the current reign of Elizabeth and offered a Catholic counter-narrative to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (USTC 506152). The Schismatis Anglicani retold the story of Henry VIII’s rupture with the Church of Rome as a lurid tale of lust, pride, and incest. Anne and Henry’s union had birthed ‘that evil thing’ [aka, Elizabeth], which ‘opened a door to every heresy’. The final section on Elizabeth’s reign chronicled her cruelty against Catholics and pled for an invasion by foreign powers. The resulting narrative transformed the queen into a tyrant and an abomination.

Although Sander, an English Catholic priest, was the principal author responsible for the most outlandish claims, he died before finishing his history. An early advocate for a military coup against the queen, he passed away from poor health in Ireland whilst trying to foment such an uprising. The incomplete manuscript was handed to another English priest, Edward Rishton, to complete and ready for print. This version emerged in 1585 from the press of Jean Foigny in Rheims (USTC 640960).

The Schismatis Anglicani became a bestseller. By 1592, Robert Persons, head of the English Jesuit Mission, wrote, ‘I find it printed againe in Latin almost in euery state’ and the translations ‘I am tolde are many’. This was no exaggeration. In the first three decades after it was first printed, it underwent at least three new octavo Latin editions (USTC 854487, USTC 678008, USTC 2002616) and was translated into French (USTC 9681) and German (USTC 704959). An adaptation of Sander’s history by Pedro de Ribadeneira, SJ, was printed in Antwerp  (USTC 440419), Madrid (USTC 348815), Zaragoza (USTC 337769), Barcelona (USTC 337766), Valencia (USTC 337768), and Lisbon (USTC 343225). Numerous other histories and political pamphlets quickly reiterated claims that first appeared in the Schismatis Anglicani. However, although copies were smuggled into England and could be found in most recusant libraries, no English version emerged until 1877. The target audience remained the influential Catholics of continental Europe, those with the power to intervene against the Protestant Elizabeth.

While the Schismatis Anglicani is memorable for its salacious claims, its print history reveals a network of Catholic collaborators. A snapshot of this cooperation is seen in the second edition, printed in Rome in 1586 (USTC 854487). The Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies in Toronto holds one of seventy-four extant copies of this edition currently listed in the USTC. It was this edition that cemented the book’s popularity, and its high survival rate likely attests to a high print run.

Cardinal William Allen and Robert Persons have both been credited with presenting Sander’s unfinished manuscript to Edward Rishton, and scholars also name these two as the editors of the second edition. They were Sander’s contemporaries and shared his militant vision. For the second edition, they inserted contemporary European events to link Henry VIII and Elizabeth to continental suffering. The book presented a Tudor conspiracy to keep continental Catholics so occupied that they could not interfere in England. However, the greatest addition to the Roman edition came from the inclusion of an up-to-date martyrology and the Tower Diary. Persons acquired the diary from John Hart upon the latter’s arrival in Rome and incorporated it into his edition. The diary described Hart’s imprisonment and torture, proving the cruelty of the queen. Anne Dillon refers to the inclusion of this text by Persons as ‘a masterstroke’ from a man who ‘understood the book-buying market on the continent’.

CRRS BR375.S26 1586
John Hart’s Tower Diary, CRRS BR375.S26 1586.

With these changes, the Allen-Persons edition became the standard for almost every edition going forward, and both men continued to have a hand in promoting Sander’s history. They continued to circulate manuscript copies to Counter-Reformation presses. It was Persons who had requested Ribadeneira’s Spanish adaptation, in preparation for the Spanish Armada. Allen’s own Armada pamphlet (USTC 441441), to be distributed upon landing, included Sander’s charge of Elizabeth’s incestuous origins.

The Allen-Persons edition was printed in Rome by Bartomoleo Bonfadino, a Brescian typographer active from 1583 to 1607 on the Pellegrino, the street with the highest concentration of booksellers in the city. A successful printer, the USTC attributes 169 editions to his press, many of which dealt with ecclesiastical issues. The colophon shows Bonfadino’s printer’s device of a porcupine emblem, an animal that knows how to defend itself against attacks. This was a fitting symbol to accompany Sander’s text.

CRRS BR375.S26 1586
Bonfadino’s printer’s device, CRRS BR375.S26 1586.

Protestant scholars took turns attacking and denigrating the Schismatis Anglicani. Opponents called the author ‘that lewd Scholar’, Dr Slanders’, and (my personal favourite) a ‘Romish Fable framer’. Continental Catholics leapt to its defence, and the debates kept his legacy alive. Even today, some of Sander’s ideas can still be found floating around the public imagination. The Schismatis Anglicani was the first printed work to describe Anne Boleyn as possessing ‘a large wen under her chin’ and ‘on her right hand six fingers’. It was this Anne who appeared in a 2016 episode of the show Drunk History, sixth finger and all.

Drunk History, Comedy Central UK
Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger and wen: ‘Geordie Shore Special’, Drunk History, Comedy Central UK (original air date 23 February 2016).


Chelsea Reutcke is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. Her thesis explores the print culture of Catholics in late seventeenth-century England during the reigns of Charles II and James VII & II. She examines the patrons and bookmen producing Catholic print and the methods they used to navigate regulations of the press, as well as how the laity accessed and engaged with print. She is currently a bibliographic project worker on BBIH (Bibliography of British and Irish History) and research assistant on the Smart History project, ‘St Andrews 1559‘. You can follow her on twitter at @CReutcke.

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