Sanders was born at Chariwood (or Charlwood Place, probably Charlwood), Surrey, the son of William Sanders, once sheriff of Surrey, who was descended from the Sanders of Sanderstead. Sanders was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, where he was elected fellow in 1548 and graduated B.C.L. in 1551. The family had strong Roman Catholic leanings, and two of his elder sisters became nuns of Sion convent before its dissolution. Sanders was selected to deliver the oration at the reception of Cardinal Pole's visitors by the university in 1557.
Sanders was ordained a priest in Rome, and even before the end of 1550 had been mentioned as a likely cardinal. In the following years he was employed by Cardinal Hosius, the learned Polish prelate, in his efforts to check the spread of heresy in Poland, Lithuania and Prussia.
In 1565, like many other English exiles, he made his headquarters at Louvain, and after a visit to the Imperial Diet at Augsburg in 1566 (in attendance upon Commendone, who had been largely instrumental in the reconciliation of England with Rome during the reign of Queen Mary I), he threw himself into the literary controversy between Bishops John Jewel and Thomas Harding.
Sanders' De visibili Monarchia Ecclesiae, provided the first narrative of the sufferings of the English Catholics. It was published in 1571. The rest of his life was spent in the struggle to procure the deposition of Elizabeth and the restoration of Roman Catholicism.
Sanders' expectations of the cardinalate were disappointed by the death of Pope Pius V in 1572, and he passed the following years at Madrid, where he was granted a pension of 300 ducats. Attempting to involve King Philip II in returning England to Catholicism, he wrote that the state of Christendom depended upon the stout assailing of England, but the king remained cautious.
Sanders worked with James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald to launch a "papal invasion" of Ireland. The first of attempt, Sir Thomas Stukley's projected 1578 Irish expedition, which Sanders was to have accompanied with the blessings and assistance of the Pope, was diverted to Morocco during a campaign by King Sebastian of Portugal. Stukley was killed there, at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in 1578.
Sanders and Fitzmaurice landed a force of some 600 Spanish and Italian troops under papal authority at Smerwick harbour in Ireland, launching the Second Desmond Rebellion. Sanders paraded the papal banner at Dingle before meeting with Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond and others seeking their backing.
The invasion fleet was immediately captured by Sir William Winter, and in 1580 the troops at Smerwick were slaughtered without quarter by the English forces under Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton in the Siege of Smerwick and Sanders' assistance was cut off.
After spending almost two years as a fugitive in the south-west of Ireland, he is believed to have died of cold and starvation in the spring of 1581, when Munster was starving due to the English scorched earth warfare method of killing all animals and any visible humans, and razing all crops.
De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani
The writings of Sanders formed the basis of later Catholic histories of the English Reformation, and its martyrology. His major work in this direction was his unfinished De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani (Of the Origin and Progression of the English Schism). This had many editions, and was used as a basis for other works, starting with its continuation after 1558 by Edward Rishton, supposedly printed at Cologne in 1585, actually by Jean Foigny at Reims.
The sources and production of De origine are complex. The "Jodochus Skarnhert" of Cologne involved in it has been tentatively identified with Robert Persons, who worked on the second edition of 1586. William Allen is now assumed to have had a large editorial role from the start. Rishton acted as an editor, and moved De origine towards martyrology. The materials for the second edition included the prison journal of the Jesuit John Hart, which has been attributed incorrectly to Rishton; from the third edition it was not used, and the suggestion is that Persons by then knew that Hart had become an agent of Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster Francis Walsingham. Other sources included: the writings of Reginald Pole on the English Reformation; a life of John Fisher; Cochlaeus writing against Richard Morison; and Richard Hilliard.
Catholic writers who took up the content of De origine included Girolamo Pollini, Andrea Sciacca, Bernardo Davanzati, Pedro de Ribadeneira, and François Maucroix. British Protestant reactions included that of Peter Heylin, who called Sanders "Dr Slanders", and Gilbert Burnet who was prompted into his History of the Reformation at the end of the 17th century.
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- Mayer, T. F. "Sander, Nicholas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24621. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Murphy, G. Martin. "Hart, John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/12483. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Thomas McNevin Veech D Sc Hist (Leuven), Dr Nicholas Sanders and the English Reformation 1530 - 1581. Louvain, Bureaux Du Recueil 1935. xxiv+310 pp. 8vo. First edition. A copy of this extremely scarce book is held by the Veech Library of the Catholic Institute of Sydney at Strathfield, NSW, Australia. Copies also at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
- Richard Bagwell, Ireland under the Tudors (3 vols., London, 1885–1890); Calendar of State Papers: Carew MSS. i, ii, (6 vols., 1867–1873).